The Nintendo Entertainment System was the most popular console in Japan and did very well in the rest of the world. It dominated the 1980s, with competition from Sega, though more so later with the Genesis. RPGs thrived on the console, so the following 15 best NES RPGs should be more than enough to introduce you to the platform.
I’ve spent my entire childhood playing RPGs on the NES. While they’re a huge time-hog, they do end up making up for it with their cute soundtracks and fun graphics. In this article, I’m going to go over my favorite NES RPGS of all time.
Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy III was a very popular game in Japan that sold many copies on the NES. It wasn’t released anywhere else until a 2006 remake. However, fan translations exist and are available. Like most Final Fantasy games, it is a turn-based RPG with lots of overworld exploration.
The story revolves around four orphans who have to gain power and stop a huge evil from taking over the world. Final Fantasy III is one of the best NES games of all time, and certainly a great RPG, one worth playing in any form you can find.
Final Fantasy II
Like most early Final Fantasy games, the second game allows you to control four distinct characters. The story is complex and should be explored thoroughly.
It is a game where exploration is important, but some scenes are necessary to advance the story. Combat is turn-based and very similar to most RPGs of the time.
Faria: A World of Mystery and Danger!
Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: Hi-Score/Nexsoft Corporation
Overworlds, towns, dungeons, an adventure map, all of this should sound familiar as it is a common concept for early RPGs, both on the NES, Super Nintendo, as well as the Sega Genesis. Faria delivers in this regard but adds an action aspect to the game.
The story revolves around a princess kidnapped by an evil person called the Wizard. It’s vague, but it works, given that the plot develops as you progress through the game. You start at an inn and move your way to stopping evil and saving a lot of people.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Developer: Origin Systems
Publisher: Origin Systems
The Ultima series is a well-known series of RPGs on the NES. This game departs from the typical RPG plots and gameplay elements by giving you ethical choices rather than statistics like strength, stamina, charisma, and so on.
Notably, the plot also does not revolve around stopping a great evil or a threat to a kingdom. That alone makes the game interesting, and the player’s goal is to develop their character, in whichever direction they choose to.
River City Ransom
Developer: Technos Japan
Publisher: Technos Japan
River City Ransom takes the general RPG idea but crosses it with a different genre, namely beat ‘em up. As a side scroller, you get both fighting and RPG elements. Fighting your way through town to a high school, you have a single goal, to rescue Ryan’s girlfriend.
Cindi was kidnapped by Slick, a villain from one of the gangs you will encounter on the road to River City High. The gang members have iconic attacking patterns. You can unlock new moves and specials as you level up, in this rather interesting NES RPG.
Pool of Radiance
Developer: Strategic Simulations/Marionette
Publisher: FCI, Inc
Pool of Radiance is also known as one of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons titles. It follows the eponymous ruleset and is set in the Forgotten Realms. Its rules and engine would later be reused by popular titles such as Neverwinter Nights.
As with most D&D campaigns, you can build a party of six, with various classes, traits, and skills. Exploration is based in a 3D first-person environment, not uncommon for RPGs of the time. For combat, trading, and talking, new menus become available, and the camera changes.
Fire Emblem Gaiden
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Tactical RPGs were popular on the NES and Fire Emblem Gaiden is a good one. The gameplay puts your units on the field, each taking their turn while moving on a grid-like surface. Exploring is done on a different map, as is also common for RPGs of the time.
The story revolves around two friends, Alm and Celica, who end up having to save kingdoms from wars after their gods made the citizens a bit more zealous. It has some twists and turns, but for the most part, the story is not revolutionary enough, but still entertaining.
The Magic of Scheherazade
Developer: Culture Brain
Publisher: Culture Brain
While the story boils down to saving a princess, it is told in a much better way than most. Using One Thousand and One Nights as inspiration, our hero must save the princess Scheherezade from Sabaron, the evil wizard.
As far as gameplay is concerned, you have action elements, with a base of an RPG. Three classes are available, each with their specialties. Most of the gameplay is viewed through an overhead camera, whether in towns, or when exploring, and even battling.
Ultima III: Exodus
Developer: Origin Systems
Publisher: Origin Systems
Exodus is a great title, one of the best NES RPGs. It had a couple of innovations compared to its previous title and other NES RPGs in general. There were many animated characters, whether NPCs or player characters. Likewise, battling allows command of all characters.
There are eleven classes in the game, more than in most RPGs, including modern ones. Story-wise, you have to battle Exodus, a demon-like creature that is not a demon, terrorizing Sosaria, the world from the first Ultima title.
Post-apocalyptic games are fun and this one uses that concept to build a medieval world with a focus on magic rather than science. Likewise, mutants are present, which is to be expected in a post-nuclear war world.
As far as gameplay is concerned, a top-down perspective allows you to explore the world and fight, in an action RPG fashion. Notably, you have to obtain four elemental swords to beat various enemies, depending on their resistance.
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
Developer: Sir-Tech/Game Studio
The title, released in 1981, was one of the first full-party D&D titles, and also one of the first RPGs to have color graphics. It is one of the most interesting NES RPG games but is also considered one of the best RPGs of all time, particularly for its innovation.
It is a typical RPG dungeon crawler, where you have to explore a dungeon underneath a castle. Your party can have up to six members, but there are multiple races, alignments, and classes to choose from. The game is available on Steam as part of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection.
Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum
Developer: New World Computing
Publisher: New World Computing/Gakken and Sammy USA
This is the first title in the Might and Magic series, where fantasy and sci-fi are bonded to create a completely new experience. The second title is a great Genesis RPG, as well as a great game in its own right.
The gameplay is from the first-person, and you can explore moving forward, backward, and by turning left or right, 90 degrees, of course. Combat is turn-based and uses a text interface in most versions of the game. Combat is optional in some cases.
Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation
Dragon Quest games are also known as Dragon Warrior in North America. Any game from the series is a great RPG.
Story-wise, the game is set many years before the first game. In a medieval setting, our hero has to battle an evil fiend, Baramos.
Developer: T&E Soft
Publisher: T&E Soft
Released in 1984, Hydlide was one of the first action-adventure RPGs at the time. Hydlide allowed open-world exploration and rewarded it, even.
It took elements from already existing games and improved upon them. It proved to be one of the best NES RPGs and an overall innovative and inspiring game.
Developer: Ape/Pax Softnica
EarthBound Beginnings is also known as Mother outside of Japan. It is a very non-traditional RPG set in the late 20th century United States.
The story revolves around a 12-year-old boy, Ninten, who gets attacked by everyday items in his own home. Its sequel is a great Super Nintendo game.
The NES was a very dominant console in Japan and it did great in the rest of the world. RPGs thrived on the Famicom and set the stage for other games in the same genre which would redefine it later in the 1990s.
There are some of the best NES RPGs, though not all of them, and certainly not all that everyone would consider before another title. Whether through packs or with an NES emulator, these 15 games are a great introduction to the beginnings of RPGs.