As I confessed on the last podcast, I have been skimping ever so slightly on our site play-through of Final Fantasy VII in favour of Final Fantasy IX. In most respects I find that the later game is simply superior. The graphics, side content, pace and music are simply better in my opinion. Yet there is one area in which VII excels and stands head and shoulders (and spiky hair) above the others, and that is the battle system. I am specifically thinking about the Materia system.
I would have to consider myself to be something of an RPG traditionalist. While I do not shy away from new concepts, I really enjoy the traditional menu-based, turn-based combat, with tried and true abilities such as elemental attacks, cure spells, revive, steal, etc. More often than not, though, games that feature this classic form of combat also pigeonhole characters into very specific roles, with a very linear leveling path. In many other games, Character X always is Class Y and at certain intervals will learn abilities A, B and C. Final Fantasy IV is a good example of this. You simply cannot let Rosa whoop some ass with some black magic, you cannot let Rydia steal items from enemies, etc. Their roles and abilities are pre-set and firm.
I love the Materia system because I can use my beloved abilities, and I can embrace the RPG stereotypes (such as making my female characters heal) but I have the freedom to customize their skills to the nth degree. I can slap a Steal materia on Aerith so she can do something useful when she does not have to heal, I can load Cloud up with HP Plus, Cover and Counter materias so that he can tank, and then easily transfer those to Barret instead when he is in my party, foo’. I can give characters the elemental materia that seems to suit their personality best a la Chrono Trigger.
To me, the Materia system strikes a pleasant balance between classic JRPG abilities and classes, and the modern gamer’s desire to control and customize their characters. Also, the system is not so complicated or omnipresent that it distracts from the rest of the game.
Honorable mentions must go to the Grandia, Disgaea, and Shadow Hearts games.