The Best NES RPGs that will keep you occupied for hours!
The NES was home to many RPGs and for most of us gamers, are first experiences with the genre. For earlier PCs and consoles weren't able to handle the graphics and large amounts of sprites on screen at once. The RPG genre has expanded greatly on the NES and really pushed the limits to what role playing games have to offer.
Considering NES RPGs might be a blip of what is being offered today. With less enemies on the screen, the lack of animated cutscenes and massive amounts of playable characters. The storylines were also not as complex and the gameplay mechanics weren't as in depth as they are today. Usually games were action or turned based.
The NES was home to tons of great options of RPGs to choose from. We did our best to make sure we're only selecting the best true RPGs that we could find. This even includes English translations that would have not made it in North America otherwise. Here are our choices for the 20 best NES RPGs of all time.
Table of Contents
- Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1990)
- Ultima III: Exodus (1983)
- Dragon Warrior II (1990)
- Dragon Warrior (1989)
- The Magic of Scheherazade (1990)
- The Legend of Zelda II (1988)
- Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (1987) (JP)
- Fire Emblem Gaiden (1992) (JP)
- Pool of Radiance (1992)
- Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (1990) (JP)
- Final Fantasy II (1988) (JP)
- Mother (1989) (JP)
- Final Fantasy III (1990) (JP)
- Faxanadu (1987)
- Destiny of an Emperor (1990)
- Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
- Dragon Warrior IV (1990)
- Crystalis (1990)
- Final Fantasy (1990)
- Dragon Warrior III (1992)
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1990)
What an incredible game Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is. Allow it an opportunity and you'll be snared. The fact that this is the eight installment in the series tells you a lot about the quality of the franchise.
We have to admit that it's ease of use of the Wizidry series as a whole makes for a wonderful experience. This NES game is simply fantastic. It's one of our all time favorites.
Ultima III: Exodus (1983)
While Ultima III is one of the earlier role playing games that would indicate an immediate impact on the RPG genre as a whole as well as the Ultima series. This is simply one of the best of the entire series. You'll begin to understand that the graphics and music are top flight for the timeframe they were produced in and still hold up well today.
It's hard to believe that we're speaking so highly today about a game that was released all the way back in 1983. Being able to talk to NPCs, fight an array of monsters and save people in the game is a huge improvement in the series. Ultima III may not be as good as the later releases in the franchise but definitely holds up as one of the best NES RPGs.
Dragon Warrior II (1990)
If only we didn't live in a world where you can open up your favorite internet browser and look up where to go next in your favorite RPG game, we would consider Dragon Warrior II to be a bit tedious in the department of finding out where to go to next.
We loved the random battles and the overall quality of life improvements to the first release. The world map is massive and some of the towns don't actually have a beloved save spot. Dragon Warrior II was also not featured in a Nintendo Power Giveaway, so you might want to choose the first revision over this one.
Dragon Warrior (1989)
An extremely grind heavy RPG that will keep you entertained for hours. Considering we're old enough to remember when this game came out, Dragon Warrior was actually a game that was given out to Nintendo Power subscribers way back in 1990.
A timeless, charming but slightly flawed role playing game that suffers from some quality of life features that should have never been designed the way they were. For example having to click on take every time you want to take an item is incredibly wasteful.
Overall Dragon Warrior is a good RPG on the NES. It just falls short of the other, more modern games in the franchise.
The Magic of Scheherazade (1990)
Culture Brain may have not given us many releases on the NES, but they brought a good one in The magic of Scheherazade. If you're looking for something enchanting and bold with an immersive difficulty level, you'll want to check out this NES RPG.
Not many people may have explored the hidden gem that is The Magic of Scheherazade. It offers a mix of Dragon Warrior and The Legend of Zelda. The Magic of Scheherazade is one of the best RPGs on the NES and you owe it to yourself to check it out if your a fan of the genre.
The Legend of Zelda II (1988)
Before we get flamed for having a Zelda game in an RPG list, remember that Zelda 2 does have RPG elements where you can level up your magic system by taking out enemies. Sure it's not a true turn based RPG in that aspect, but you do have to carry out powering up Link's abilities throughout your journey.
There's a lot of good things about Zelda II. It's got a fantastic adventure that holds up decades later. For fans of the Zelda series, you should check out Zelda II if you haven't already. If you're looking to start off with a Zelda experience, you may find your time spent elsewhere.
Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (1987) (JP)
What do you get when you take a bit of Phantasy Star, mix it along with characters from a well known manga series? You get a fantastic RPG by the name of Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei.
We liked the dungeon crawling aspects and the character designs best. We still think there are better RPGs that the NES has to offer like Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior IV.
If you liked this release, we recommend trying the SNES port by the name of Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei. It offers the most polished version of the gameplay. For those looking to take this on from a western audience in North America, you can find the patch here.
Fire Emblem Gaiden (1992) (JP)
A spin off of the original Fire Emblem game brought to you on the Famicom. It offers a fantastic amount of characters that have different classes and combinations that give you different group classes.
Fire Emblem Gaiden is a fantastic addition to the series and is a true spinoff with mechanics never seen before. Unlimited weapon durability leaves us without having to manage the items like in other Fire Emblem games. The game's soundtrack is also one of the best in the series. If you're a fan of Fire Emblem, you'll like Fire Emblem Gaiden. It even has an English translation patch that can be found here!
Pool of Radiance (1992)
We covered Pool of Radiance in our list of the best Commodore 64 games, it's no wonder it's featured on a similar list for the NES console. It's a wonderful RPG made for the western audiences and one of the better ones on this classic console.
It'll take some time to get used to the Dungeons and Dragons mechanics like having the stats being lower that are actually better in most cases. Still, where English only releases aren't very common for RPGs on the NES, Pool of Radiance is an excellent choice.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (1990) (JP)
The Fire Emblem series spanned two Japanese only Famicom releases. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is clearly the better release of the two. It's best to keep your expectations in check. It's still an 8-bit tactical RPG that will lack in the mechanics department that was clearly refined in later releases.
It's difficult to recommend Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light for the numerous quality of life improvements that were presented in the later series of the franchise, even as early as the Super Nintendo releases. If you're a purist looking for a tactical RPG on the NES, you'll want to check this out.
Final Fantasy II (1988) (JP)
The NES version of the Japanese only Final Fantasy II is incredibly confusing. On the SNES, we ended up getting Final Fantasy 2 which is really part four in the series.
The game offers an amazing story line, some outstanding graphics for the time frame and great sounding details. Sure, the skill system will take some getting used to. Once you master it, you'll be having a blast.
Even though you can find Final Fantasy II with full English text on later console releases such as the PS1, you can still find an English translation for those looking to play it on the NES console here.
Mother (1989) (JP)
Earthbound on the SNES was a fantastic role playing experience that left us all wondering how the story line evolved. Little did we know that there was a RPG on the Famicom by the name of Mother that accomplishes just this.
Better prepare yourself as Mother is a very difficult RPG to accomplish during your first pass. The level of difficulty in some of the enemies will leave you feeling the need to grind away at your party.
The story line and nostalgia will make you feel right at home for fans of the Earthbound series. Even though the SNES latter is clearly the better release. We remember the days when an English patch was finally released, which you can find here.
Final Fantasy III (1990) (JP)
If you're looking for a hardcore RPG, look no further than Final Fantasy III on the NES. It's easily one of the most difficult games in the franchise. You'll be tested repetitively on multiple occasions which will force you to take on grind heavy sessions just to advance.
The use of the plot offers some excellent character developments. There's also some superb quality of life improvements that we really enjoyed for an NES RPG. It's great that we got a chance to see it released on the NES Classic Edition.
The level design, battle mechanics and amazing sound gives Final Fantasy III an edge over many role playing games on the NES. If you can get over the difficulty curve, this is the choice for you.
If you're looking for one of the best action RPGs from any 8 bit console, you'll want to check out Faxanadu. It's a little rough around the edges in the graphics department. Having a rather bland palette with the use of greens and browns.
The gameplay is where Faxanadu shines, the side scrolling action can be taken out by either attacking by melee or by the use of magic. In an area where the genre can feel incredibly saturated with these style of games.
Faxanadu takes the formula and perfects it. There's only one other action RPG that we recommend over it.
Destiny of an Emperor (1990)
Capcom may not strike you as a powerhouse in the RPG genre as it would the platformers that exist on the NES. The strategy RPG elements make you choose your best series of members to tackle the next challenge.
We did think the battle sequences can be somewhat repetitive, it's still one of the best RPGs on the NES. it definitely feels like something you would see by Koei in future releases of games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
For anyone who enjoys games that are incredibly challenging, you owe it to yourself to check out Destiny of an Emperor. It's a shame we haven't seen many North American strategy RPGs on the beloved NES.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
Ultima IV is easily the best console variation of an Ultima game. The graphics are downright fantastic. You would easily be able to compare them to the Final Fantasy level of sprite detail in the characters and enemies.
For fans of the fantasy RPG genre, Ultima IV is a blast to play through. It's a shame that a game this good isn't as well known among the retro gaming community.
Dragon Warrior IV (1990)
Dragon Warrior 4 holds up extremely well today. Other than the graphics that could have been improved slightly in the detail department, we didn't believe there were many other improvements that could have been made. It's almost like having a 16-bit RPG trapped in an 8-bit shell.
The attention to detail in the character department and storytelling aspect pushed this RPG to the limits. In a genre that talking to NPCs and getting vague details about what to do next was really what you had at the time.
If you're looking for an old-school JRPG, you've done well if you've chosen Dragon Warrior IV as a starting point as it won't disappoint.
If you're looking for a game like Zelda than look no further than Crystalis. It feels and plays like a hybrid of Zelda and Secret of Mana in 8 bit format. That's right, being able to level up your character in the form of hit points and magic.
It's easily the go to for best action RPG for the NES. Crystalis took the format that Zelda offered and expanded on it greatly. The immensely memorable chiptune soundtrack that shines bright from cities to each of the dungeons that give you the moody feeling of gloom.
Final Fantasy (1990)
For many retro gamers, Final Fantasy on the NES was their first experience to the JRPG genre as a whole. At a time where we had to rely on text on the screen to tell a story, rather than massive, larger than life video sequences told it for us. The days where your imagination was necessary, almost like reading a book.
We hold Final Fantasy on the NES in high regard for nostalgic purposes alone. Sure, there are better variations of the game that were available on later consoles but we chose the original as the best on this 8-bit machine.
Dragon Warrior III (1992)
Finally, the best NES RPG is Dragon Warrior III. The storyline and gameplay mechanics are simply top notch. Going through this game from beginning to end will give you a lash of nostalgia that will bring you back to a simpler time. Couple that with the fact that the developers at Enix got it right on the third attempt at an NES RPG and you have a clear winner.
With one of the most unique takes on the job system that is brought to life on an 8-bit console, it's executed to perfection. If you could only pick on RPG of this era, you can't go wrong with Dragon Warrior III.