RPGs are a genre that has more than withstood the test of time over the decades. There are plenty of RPGs on the NES, but not all stack up the same. Some are stalwart franchises that still exist, like Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.
Others frustrated gamers to no end and had several mediocre sequels, like Hydlide. The NES RPGs are better known for their crushing difficulty and how far they extended what was possible on the platform.
Which of these titles are the best of all time, though? Which are worth a revisit in 2022?
This list is the product of one person; of course, these views will vary from player to player. The games below are just one writer’s opinion on the most formative RPGs from the first Nintendo console.
What are the best NES RPGs of all time?
The very first NES RPG was Dragon Warrior, released by Enix in Japan as Dragon Quest. The earliest known RPG on a console was the Atari 2600’s Dragonstomper, but in 1985, several RPGs hit the Japanese Famicom, like The Tower of Druaga, and Bokosuka Wars.
The future of RPGs would change forever when Dragon Quest was developed by Chunsoft and published by Enix. It would influence a wealth of RPG franchises in the future that would release in the West, including Wizardry and Ultima.
While this list focuses on the best RPGs of the NES, an honorable mention has to go to Dragon Warrior 1 and Willow. Both are beloved titles, but Dragon Warrior does not compare to some of its sequels.
Best NES RPGs to play in 2022
- Might & Magic
- Star Tropics
- Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
- Magic of Scheherezade
- River City Ransom
- The Legend of Zelda
- Dragon Warrior 4
- Final Fantasy
- Dragon Warrior 3
When judging these games, several criteria were used, including the story, gameplay, and importance to the overall genre.
10) Might & Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum
Might & Magic is one of the early RPGs on the NES and was a worthy challenge. The NES version features Canon in D for the opening and ending.
What makes it such a fascinating game is that it allows gamers to make their own party, pick character classes, and explore first-person dungeons.
Known for being notoriously difficult, it’s an influential title, without a doubt. It’s set in the world of VARN, as six adventurers try to discover the secrets of the Inner Sanctum.
It was a clever blend of fantasy and science-fiction, perhaps better than Ultima used the two genres. As far as NES RPGs go, it was hard to navigate at times, but the flexibility in creating a party and exploring made it a true classic.
StarTropics is one of the rare titles on the NES RPG catalog in that it was designed in North America, and there was no intention of bringing it to Japan. The top-down, 2D perspective was reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda but with a more Western feel to the characters and story.
Mike Jones was a high school baseball player and traveled with his uncle, archaeologist Dr. Steven Jones. It was a cool action RPG where users wielded a yoyo, among other weapons, as they navigated dungeons and defeated various powerful enemies.
While some found it to be derivative of Zelda, it expanded on the concept by adding the ability to jump around the dungeons. StarTropics on the NES had a gorgeous soundtrack, challenging gameplay, and was developed just for Western gamers.
8) Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Though it was different from the PC release, it was just a part of video games back in that era. Several puzzles were removed, and the party only had four members, compared to the PC’s 7, but that didn’t stop the game from being a blast.
It has an intense, story-driven game, unique for the time in that the final goal isn’t overcoming a powerful boss. Lord British worried about his people’s spiritual strength and resolve, so he created the Quest of the Avatar. That way, someone would step up and be a shining ideal of what it meant to be a person.
Focused on the Virtues, players would aspire to explore the world and live up to Lord British’s ideals. It was a different RPG for the time, and while it involved combat and exploration, it was handled in a new, groundbreaking way.
7) Magic of Scherezade
It will not be a shock to see titles that feel and look like The Legend of Zelda on this list. It’s a game that revolutionized the RPG experience on the NES.
Many titles took the design and made it their own, like Magic of Scherezade. Even for the NES, it was a gorgeous game that offered a new setting.
Instead of being a European or Japanese fantasy offering, it was set during the Middle East’s One Thousand and One Nights. This top-down RPG had users traveling numerous worlds to defeat Sabaron, who freed the powerful demon Goragora.
This game had turn-based encounters and real-time action RPG attacks, making it an interesting hybrid. Gamers could also bribe foes into leaving, which was also a cool decision. While not a well-known RPG, it’s one of the best on the NES.
6) River City Ransom
RPGs come in all flavors and styles, and River City Ransom once again shook the genre to its core on the NES. The franchise exists to this day, but it all started here.
River City Ransom is a side-scrolling action RPG starring Kunio and his gang as they pummel rival gangs to pieces. Players could increase their stats and buy weapons with the spoils of punching out opponents that would appear on each screen.
It was a deeper version of Double Dragon in some senses. The title was an open-world beat ‘em up that was also an RPG, with depth and entertaining moments.
It’s a fantastic game, with characters that would appear in a variety of other games over the years.
5) The Legend of Zelda
What is there to say about the NES’ The Legend of Zelda that hasn’t already been said? It revolutionized RPGs and has been cloned and copied over decades.
It’s a style of top-down action RPG that is still around. It was the first adventure of Link, armed with just his trusty wooden sword, as he had to improve his power, collect the pieces of the Triforce, and best Ganon.
It was a colossal world for its time, with secrets, upgraded weapons to unlock, and an unforgettable soundtrack. While The Legend Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link would change to a different action RPG style, it is not the lousy game some think it is.
Many people have fond memories of playing Zelda 1 on the Nintendo, learning about its many secrets and the second story it featured. It may seem simple now, but it was mind-blowing in the 80s.
4) Dragon Warrior 4
Dragon Warrior was the final NES iteration of the RPG franchise, but it was arguably the biggest for the time too. A five-chapter story that has since been adapted to later consoles, it offered something new for the series as well.
Each chapter was a different main protagonist, with their own friends, goals, and purpose. From the twin sisters to the merchant Taloon, it’s a brilliant title. It didn’t do as well in the West, but that doesn’t stop it from being a treasure.
What made this one so great is the first four chapters introduced the party, and the final chapter introduced the actual hero, who is now on a quest to defeat Psaro the Manslayer. It’s an epic tale that deserves to be experienced for a franchise that continues to live on.
Crystalis is a title in the entire NES library that is often overlooked. At first, it may seem to be a generic fantasy game, but it turns out that it’s a post-apocalyptic tale, with a world rebuilding after nuclear war ravages the planet. It’s a story that’s far more mature than the looks would dictate.
While this is another title that imitates Zelda, it innovates as well. The main protagonist can use powerful elemental swords, and unlike in Zelda, users can feel themselves getting more potent as the game goes on.
Sadly, this title didn’t wind up with an amazing franchise, but it certainly could have. Crystalis would be referenced later in other SNK games, though, so it’s not entirely forgotten.
2) Final Fantasy
The game that started it all for Squaresoft’s ultimate success in the West, Final Fantasy, had to be on this list. While it’s frustrating, challenging, and a little on the generic side, it has revolutionized the RPG franchise forever, kickstarting a love of the genre for many worldwide.
The character designs are still used in Final Fantasy games, and the notion of a world being trapped in a time loop is fascinating. It has hints of futuristic technology, common for the time, and unlike Dragon Warrior, it allowed for more customization.
Players could build a party of four from six character classes, upgrade them, and decide what gear to equip and what spells to learn. It had more potential for growth than the first Dragon Warrior, but it doesn’t stack up to one of Enix’s greatest creations.
1) Dragon Warrior 3
The greatest RPG on the NES and on the list of its many users’ favorite games of all time is Dragon Warrior 3. While Final Fantasy had Dragon Warrior 1 beat regarding party customization, Dragon Warrior 3 blew Final Fantasy completely out of the water. It had a party of 4: a hero + 3 others, but the other three could be swapped out in the main town, at the pub.
Gamers created their own characters, picking their name, gender, and character class. Even silly classes like the Goof-off and Merchant had a use in the game!
A secret class was also in the game, the powerful combo of Priest/Wizard, the Sage. Only one can join the party normally by finding a mighty tome, but Goof-offs can become a Sage with enough effort.
A massive story with two worlds, one being the land of Dragon Warrior 1, it’s a vast, complex, challenging game. It even had a day-to-night cycle, with particular events and items only attained at certain times of the day.
It is, without a doubt, the most fantastic RPG on the platform. It has one of the greatest stories told on the Nintendo, one of the best soundtracks, and such a vast world.
Again, this is just one writer’s opinion, and like all lists, these opinions will vary from person to person. There are so many RPGs to pick from, and not all of them could make it.
From turn-based masterpieces to action RPGs, there are so many to choose from. However, this is a selection of the absolute best on the Nintendo Entertainment System.