When Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in its U.S. release) was released on the NES in 1989, no one expected to journey around the world to save the princess from the clutches of an evil Dragonlord. Two years later, Final Fantasy reached North American shores and another princess in need of saving was involved, except the stakes were higher- this time the world was endangered. In 2006, fifteen years later, the stakes have not changed that much, except for a few games that decided to throw the known galaxy or existence-as-we-know-it into the mix.
Back then, saving the world had a lot of flexibility. Nowadays, saving the world from imminent destruction by an evil mastermind for the hundredth time unfortunately is not just another chore. World saving instead became the defining trait in a genre filled with random battles, turn-based combat, and heroes with the "Cloud syndrome" involving the trademark spiky hair and angst-background. Except, those problems are for another writer to shamelessly beat to death at another time. This is about how saving the world can be fun and a different experience. There are two criteria to be discussed: little to no pretension and an opportunity to fail.
If the world needs to be saved, a game should not be hiding that fact. After witnessing a spiky-hair mercenary handing a long-haired sociopath (will not be naming any names) the key to world destruction, trying to pretend the game to be anything else is like attempting to hide a Chocobo in a closet. Chances are, many are bound to notice the beak poking out. If the game needs to hide the world saving agenda for story purposes, such as a hero from another world/dimension/plane of existence finding his way home, when its time comes the narrative should make it clear. The original Final Fantasy is a prime example of meeting this criterion. Players knew right off the bat they were off to the save the world, it helps that the game's synopsis and prologue includes the fact! World saving is fun when there is little to no pretension involved, since not only does the game avoid embarrassing itself for being anything else, but because the game lets the players know what they are in for. Additionally, if players are going to save the world in an era where it is the norm, they should have the option of sending every non-playable character and winged monkey down the tunnel of non-existence.
Crazy as it sounds, yes, gamers should have the option to let the world go down like a flaming ball of dirt or have the inhabitants of Middle Earth v.2.0 under the thumb of an evil nuclear dictator. Wait, wrong Earth, but that being beside the point, there are few games that exemplify this "nuclear option." Chrono Trigger is another classical example, as a few endings involve players either ending the world or it being changed for the worse. There are few other games that have world ending available, however, these games limit the choice to the final boss battle and deliberately dying. Chrono Trigger on the other hand, gives several choices but requires beating the last boss to do it (except for one ending that requires losing). Knights of the Old Republic illustrates this very well, as a player's actions either rewards or condemns. Allowing for players to ignite Armageddon not only adds replay value to RPGs rife with sidequests and mini-games, but provides a different experience in knowing they brought the world's ruin. However, again, it should be emphasized that it should not be done by losing the battle to the final boss. Rather, the option should be available throughout the game whether through the player's actions or lack thereof.
When players are out to save yet another world/universe in dire need of it, players should not have the fact thrown at them or let it be the only option. Instead, RPG players today should know what they are (or are going to be) in for while leaving an opening to be unsuccessful. Not only does this provide flexibility to a stagnant genre, it lets the game be fun for its own sake instead of being anything else.