The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was an incredibly important system for role-playing games. Although the Atari 2600 was critical to bringing games into our homes, the NES was better equipped to handle RPGs.
The NES had the hardware to allow ports of RPGs that were previously limited to PCs and also introduced several famous game series that were native to the system.
So, which NES RPGs are the best? I gathered a list of the best 25 NES RPGs and ranked them. The criteria I used to include items on the list are:
- The game has to be on the NES (ports included)
- North American Releases Only
- The game needs to have definitive role-playing elements
I ranked the games based on:
- The quality of typical game elements (story, graphics, music, gameplay and interface)
- The impact the title made on the genre
- How well the game made use of the NES capabilities
Sounds simple, right? Take a look at what I came up with for this list.
25. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a rather interesting game based on the film with the same name. The story differs a great deal, but it’s not like they were going to pack that whole thing in the game.
Instead, we have a new set of villains and a semi-good RPG. The game is primarily action-adventure, and you wander around Sherwood Forest and many other memorable locations.
You can acquire gear, improve your stats, and take part in several different forms of combat including a duelist screen along with the familiar top-down perspective that was all the rage at the time.
The more I look back on it, the more I think this game belongs a little higher on the list, but it is a good way to start off the countdown nonetheless.
24. Willow (1989)
Hey, look! It’s another video game based on a movie. As you might imagine, you take on the role of Willow Ufgood and do battle against the nefarious Bavmorda along with skeletons and other evildoers.
The game is basically a Zelda clone with an experience bar and real-time combat. The game is fun and has decent graphics for its time, but it was held back by the lack of content. You could stroll through this game in under three hours and pick up where you left off with a password.
Nevertheless, Willow was a decent RPG that neither innovated nor failed the genre.
23. Magic of Scheherezade (1990)
The name sounds like something Michael Jackson would have included in a verse, right? Anyway, Magic of Scheherezade was made in the style of a Secret of Mana action RPG, except it was set in Arabia. You can engage in combat in real-time on the overhead map or you can meet enemies in turn-based combat when you delve into dungeons and labyrinths.
This title has been branded “another Zelda clone” but some of the mechanics set it apart. For one thing, you get to pick your class at the outset of the game rather than just being a guy with a sword. Also, you have standard RPG elements like experience points and attributes to bolster your strength along the way.
The biggest standout in this game for me was the music. It’s impressive for the NES and it will get stuck in your head. All in all, this was a good title that NES RPG aficionados will probably love.
22. Faria: A World of Mystery and Danger! (1991)
Faria: A World of Mystery and Danger! often flies under the radar when looking at the best available RPGs on the system, and that lack of recognition is somewhat rightfully earned.
The graphics look like they were boosted out of the first Dragon Warrior, the RPG elements are somewhat barebones with increased health and strength being the only real benefits of leveling, and the story is so forgettable that I’ve re-read and forgotten it three times.
Still, the game did some things right by giving the player a non-linear way to explore the world. It’s easiest to compare the combat and exploration to Zelda titles, but I’m already tired of that comparison.
The game didn’t do anything spectacular to stand out, but it proved that more companies were recognizing a good formula for RPGs by the time this one came out.
21. The Bard’s Tale (1991)
A major strength of the NES is that it was able to bring games from computers to a home console, and for that effort, we got games like The Bard’s Tale.
The story is nothing to write home about, but I can forgive that because of the times in which the game was made, long before its NES debut. There’s an evil wizard named Mangar, an eternal winter coming, and an unlikely group of people.
That’s all you need for a good tale, and so that’s what we got for this dungeon-crawling RPG. You create a party of characters and start out killing rats in a wine cellar until you’re strong enough to face some real evil.
The combat is turn-based and occurs with barebones animations. Still, the game has high points in terms of freedom, enemy design, and music that help make up for the painful interface. Overall, this NES RPG was a sign of good things to come.
20. Battle of Olympus (1988)
Way before the Percy Jackson series and God of War came along, we had The Battle of Olympus. This semi-non-linear RPG puts you in the shoes of a Greek warrior during a time of trials and tribulations caused by none other than Hades.
This is another side-scrolling action-adventure RPG that integrated platforming, finding upgrades by completing quests for figures from Greek mythology, and just chatting with the gods.
The game pits you against all the familiar faces from the myths like sirens, lamia, centaurs, and cyclops. You’ll use a club, sword, and various powers to wipe them out and eventually fight Hades to get back your girl.
The biggest drawback of this game was the short length. The game is fun, but you can get through it in a few hours, especially if you have a guide in hand. Overall, this game is solid, but not anything too special in my book.
19. Legacy of the Wizard (1987)
Originally, Legacy of the Wizard was released in Japan as Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family, which is a much more apt name.
The story is interesting in that you are part of a family of dragon slayers that have to work together to take down another beast. You can play as each member of the family, all of whom have unique skills that help them overcome some element of the dungeons you explore to get the four crowns to move the story along.
The gameplay is a strong point as you must determine which character you need for each section and then make do with your skills to help you overcome each person’s weakness. The game would be called a “Metrodvania” game these days, and I suppose that is an accurate description.
I know that I like to make a fuss about good music in games, but the soundtrack in Legacy of the Wizard is definitely a high point. The game is also pretty short, so you can knock it out in an afternoon and see what you’ve been missing.
18. Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II (1994)
I put this on and took it off the list about five times already, so it’s staying now. My problem with Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II is that everyone considers it an RPG, but I put it in with most Zelda games. You need to have some character progression and development beyond health and weapons upgrades to be an RPG in my book. Call me old-fashioned.
Anyway, this game vastly improved upon the combat, music, and graphics of the original. Furthermore, it has a fleshed-out story that takes place over nine chapters that each occur in a different period of time. Your job as Mike (best hero name ever) is to collect tetrads and defeat Zoda.
The game looked pretty enough, the combat was solid since it was at the end of the console’s run, and the game was fun. I just don’t know if it’s an RPG through and through.
17. Destiny of an Emperor (1990)
Alright, time for a break from the action RPGs. Destiny of an Emperor is a tremendous NES RPG because it was a strategy game in the vein of Fire Emblem.
Your group of characters recruits people to fend off the Yellow Turban Rebels and their sorcerer leader, Zhiang Jiao.
The combat was a ton of fun because it allowed the player to use so many different tactics to approach a fight. If you were fighting an enemy general, then you had a small chance to recruit them after the fight ended in exchange for goods.
The storyline had multiple paths that you could choose, but the impact those decisions made was about as much as you got in Mass Effect 3. Zing.
Seriously, though, this game is very fun and was significant to the RPG genre as a whole.
16. Dragon Warrior / Dragon Quest (1989)
I might catch some flak for having this game so high on the list, but I think everyone should remember two things about this game.
- The game was not as good as the sequels it spawned
- We should remember this game for getting the JRPG genre going rather than holding it up as an exemplar of the series.
I don’t want it to sound like I am hating on this game because it was really good, and it was one of the first NES RPGs I actually played. I think the high points of this game include the catchy music, the combat, and the actual attempt at a good story.
The downsides are the brutal UI (yeah, open a menu to go down the stairs) and the graphics. However, you have to remember that this game came to the U.S. on the NES years after it was introduced in Japan.
Like I said before, Dragon Warrior was great for what it did for JRPGs, but it’s far from the best one in the series or on the system.
15. The Guardian Legend (1988)
The Guardian Legend is known for being a hidden gem on the NES, and I enjoy the game because I grew up with it. Granted, I was very bad at the game due to being young at the time.
I know that this game is arguably an RPG because of the weapon and health upgrades, but it’s also a scrolling shooter game. You are a lone robotic guardian trying to destroy aliens before they reach Earth, and it’s a hell of a time.
The high points of the game include the music, graphics, and controls. The game’s saving system to continue was a little sparse as were the RPG elements. The Guardian Legend received mixed reviews on release, but the game is a cult classic these days.
14. River City Ransom (1990)
River City Ransom is an action RPG that has a somewhat open world and a very weird story. Forget about the swords and spells, this game puts you in the shoes of some street toughs named Alex and Ryan.
You see, Ryan’s girlfriend was kidnapped and taken to another high school, and you have to help him rescue her from “Slick”, the villain.
The active combat, stats distribution, and loot system (you run the pockets of your defeated enemies) all make this game fun to play. The game’s style makes it very endearing, too.
It almost has a 1950s theme going on as well as some good tunes. All in all, this game might not have been too popular, but it deserves this spot on the list.
13. Swords and Serpents (1990)
I’ll be honest: I don’t remember the story for this game at all. I remember that it was a standard dungeon crawler with four characters that can be one of three classes: thief, warrior, and magician.
The game was important to the genre because it was a dungeon crawler RPG that had a good interface. You had your map on one side of the screen, a first-person view of the dungeon, and then your health and spells portion.
The random stats issued for character creation was a cool element of the party development, allowing players to work toward getting a great party. The biggest downside of this game was that you had to use several passwords to continue your game and the short amount of time it took to beat.
Still, this was a good foray into the dungeon-crawling RPG, but it could have been better.
12. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Pool of Radiance (1992)
Also known as Pool of Radiance, this was the first home console D&D campaign available to fans of the series. This game gets major points in my book simply for the length of the campaign. Some of that comes because the game can be slow and a bit grindy, but there is also a fair amount of content.
This is a standard dungeon crawler RPG with experience points, weapon upgrades, and several party members, but the thing that sets it apart is the graphics. The game kept the first-person dungeon maps but also introduced a ¾ top-down combat screen that was rather interesting.
I felt like it was good for animating the battles but bad for showing off the enemy models, so that siphoned away some of the immersion. Still, this was a solid entry into NES RPGs and helped move the genre forward.
11. Ultima III: Exodus (1988)
Before Ultima made the swap to the action-RPG model, the series originally utilized a turn-based fighting system, overworld map, and many hallmarks of the D&D style with regard to character types.
I think this game had two high points. First, it took the player back to the original world of Ultima, Sosaria. Upon returning to Sosaria, we find out that Exodus is running wild (Spoiler, it’s basically an Ultron situation) and we have to crush it.
The game brought back the familiar world and characters, like Lord British, and let the player explore quite a bit using overworld and first-person dungeon views.
The other high point in this game was the amount of freedom you had as a player. You got tons of class choices, you could explore the overworld map as you wanted, and talk to or ignore many of the NPCs. Overall, this was a solid addition to the series and a good RPG.
10. Might and Magic: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum (1992)
This Might and Magic game is the first one in the series that was originally on the Apple II and later ported to the NES.
It made a huge splash because the game had very good graphics, the dialogue was well-written, and there was a ton of exploring to do. You could spend a lot of time in this game and still not see everything.
Like other games at the time, it was presented as a first-person dungeon crawling adventure. Combat begins as random battles and you fight without changing screens, so you could see all the details on the enemies you faced.
Personally, I enjoyed the music in this game, too. The game starts off with its 8-bit rendition of Canon in D by Pachelbel and continues to impress throughout. Might and Magic might not have been the best NES RPG, but it was one of my favorites.
9. Dragon Warrior II / Dragon Quest II (1990)
With the powerhouse trio Yuji Horii, Koichi Sugiyama, and Akira Toriyama behind Dragon Quest II, it seemed that the stars aligned to provide a very good game.
As it turned out, Dragon Warrior II was a fun sequel that picked up 100 years after the original tale. The music and story were better than the original and the game sold a ton of copies. The only problem was that the game was too difficult and grindy compared to similar JRPGs.
Still, this was a very good game if you had the patience to play through it. Unlike the Japanese counterpart, the North American release of this game included a save battery, so you could actually record your progress and pick up where you left off.
The game is great for people that like to explore, grind, and bask in a good story.
8. Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1990)
Part of the reason that I’m including this title so high on the list is that it did so much for the RPG genre. Fans of the Apple II version begged for this title to be ported to the NES. That helped stoke the passion for RPGs in the U.S. where they had not caught on as well as in Japan.
If I had to say the NES version of this game was anything, it would be vast. You could get six characters in your party, choose from several classes, and even throw in alignment changes such as Good, Evil, and Neutral.
In some ways, this game was truer to D&D than Pools of Radiance, but certainly not in every way. The graphics were sort of poor for the game, but the game made up for it with plenty of content; even speed runners take several hours to crush this game.
So, if you were playing it for the first time and had good luck, it would take a couple of solid sessions.
If you were to play this game today, I would totally recommend using an emulator for better save positions and such.
7. Faxanadu (1989)
Faxanadu is a game that many people didn’t play when it was released on NES, myself included. Looking at the name, I would have probably avoided it on that alone, and that’s why we don’t judge books by their cover.
Faxanadu is an action RPG where you play the role of a hero that is trying to save his hometown from drought and death.
The high points of the game are graphics, the platformer-style combat, and the leveling system. When I did play Faxanadu, leveling up didn’t feel like a grind. In fact, I enjoyed leveling because of the fun combat system.
This game was put together well and doesn’t take more than a solid day or two to complete. The only drawback is you have to use passwords to continue your game rather than rely on a save battery. Again, this game is better on modern devices.
6. Dragon Warrior IV/ Dragon Quest IV (1992)
We’re at the part of the list where rankings are starting to get tough. Personally, this game should probably be in the top five, but there is only so much room to talk about the great games that came out.
Dragon Warrior IV was a very innovative game that brought concepts like rudimentary AI that you could set to make your characters follow certain commands in battle under specific conditions.
The game improved upon the combat, music, and dialogue from past games, but the graphics were still not great even for the time. Still, I can always look past some blocky graphics because of what this game brought to the table.
The story was downright incredible by early RPG, unfolding over five chapters and giving the player multiple perspectives on the occurrences. I could go on about this game forever. It’s a quintessential NES JRPG.
5. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1988)
Yeah, I put Zelda II on this list but not the original. Why? Because this one actually has RPG elements in the game that make it suitable for this list. You need stats or some other kind of progression to make a game an official RPG, and Zelda II brought that.
Even then, what the heck is this game doing on the list? Let me tell you. I admire the courage of the developers to go in a very different direction with a sequel to the very successful first entry. It’s hard to sign off on something like that.
At a time when everyone was making Zelda clones, it would have been easy to make the second game just like the first. Instead, they imbued the game with RPG elements such as the ability to directly improve Links’ attack, magic, or life ratings based on levels gained through experience.
The side-scrolling element of the game turned many people off from the game as did the difficulty, but since when is a hard game a bad one?
This take on the action-adventure RPG was a good step forward even if it has since become a lightning rod in the Zelda community.
If you want a heartfelt review of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, look no further. Learn yourself something, heathen.
4. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1990)
Ultima IV should get on this list just for the sheer gall the game had not to include some kind of big bad. Rather than having to hunt down a villain, your job is to become an Avatar and inspire the people from Britannia.
You’ll see familiar faces like Lord British and see new-takes on Sosaria, but the combat is still turn-based.
The player was able to wander the map and take on quests in different orders as they sought to become an Avatar. The amount of freedom you had in the game was definitely a high point, but the philosophy the creators tried to instill in the title might have been lost on most players.
It’s not often you get a game where you’re trying to improve a world that is coming out of catastrophe rather than spiraling towards it.
The graphics were nothing to write home about, but the gameplay was wonderful. I think people who enjoy the Ultima series should still check out this game because it holds up well within the context of the entire story.
3. Final Fantasy (1990)
The original Final Fantasy featured a simple quest with four warriors seeking to restore the elemental crystals of the world and save it from calamity. The story wasn’t special, the graphics are best described as “meh”, and Square had no business in the RPG game.
Yet, the gameplay was something special. By the time the developers at Square started working on this game, they had already seen some incredible games come out. Dragon Quest games were dominating the JRPG market.
Final Fantasy came along and improved many elements of the first-gen of NES RPGs. The game gave the players choices in terms of characters and class, improved the cumbersome UI system from the first two Dragon Quest games, provided plenty of NPCs to interact with, and gave the player a frickin’ airship.
The music was another thing that made this title stand out. From the iconic opening music to the ending, this game pushed the capabilities of the cartridge’s music capacity.
The biggest thing holding back this game was that it was really grindy because of battles’ difficulty and the amount of time they took to complete. In fact, the easiest way to beat this game was probably to kill off all but one of your party members and let that one get strong enough to carry the rest through the game.
2. Crystalis (1990)
Many people call this a Zelda clone, but I like to think of it as a pre-Mana or pre-Seiken Densetsu game because of the built-in RPG aspects. The combat features a power bar for your attacks that builds up and is then released on every attack.
You gain experience by killing monsters and then gain stat increases upon getting a level-up. That system is simple enough but it’s implemented very well. The combat is smooth and simple to learn, and the top-down perspective allows you to move in a total of eight directions. In short, the combat was a high point.
The story rocks, too. Your character was placed in cryo sleep and woke up in a post-apocalyptic magic world in 2097; the world has regressed into medieval society. Your job is to get the titular sword and be the savior.
Sure, we have a lot of the same RPG hallmarks of a warrior using four elements to save the world using a magic sword, but the whole post-apocalyptic twist is nice.
Also, I liked the art style and the number of NPCs available to interact with throughout the story. The world felt fuller than an NES RPG had any right to with the technological limits.
1. Dragon Warrior III/ Dragon Quest III (1992)
Alright, we’ve arrived at the best NES RPG, and it has to be Dragon Warrior III in my book. Mostly, I think this game deserves top honors because it improved upon the previous entries and implemented elements of RPGs that would go on to exist in the JRPG subgenre for decades.
To be certain, this game borrowed from Final Fantasy which was released the previous year in Japan (1988 and 1987, respectively), but the developers made sure to change them up enough so it did not feel like a ripoff.
For example, we got a rather extensive class system in the game that was similar to FF, but it allowed high-level characters to split their class so you could get characters with various skill sets.
Another thing this game did right was take risks. The game departed from the original world and went to one that is largely analogous to the real world in a medieval time period. That idea, along with many others, paid off in making this game highly desirable when it was first released in Japan.
The story was more straightforward than Dragon Warrior IV, and that shows me that the developers took calculated risks to introduce new elements without creating a game too far outside of their wheelhouse.
The only downside was that this game and its sequel were released after the SNES came out, so it didn’t have such a large audience ready to consume it. In fact, that might be responsible for the series slipping behind Final Fantasy in the U.S.
The story lasted a while, the gameplay was vastly improved from the first two, and the whole real-world-ish schtick was interesting. This game reinforced some of the mainstay RPG elements, brought back familiar monsters, and established itself for the future.
While I enjoyed the music, the graphics left a lot to be desired, but this game reached the U.S. so late that I give it some leeway.
Ultimately, Dragon Warrior III firmly established the RPG genre on a home console, showed it was possible to make novel improvements every generation, and tried its best to demonstrate the capabilities of the console at the time. What more could you want from the top RPG?
Final Thoughts on the Best NES RPGs
Deciding on the best NES RPG was a little difficult because they started to blend together toward the end of the console’s lifespan. Once developers hit the technological limits of a system, it’s hard to keep pushing the envelope.
A few managed to stand head and shoulders above the rest, though.
As always, thank you for reading, and feel free to let me know your opinions on the topic.
If you enjoy reading about lists of retro RPGs, then feel free to check out my other work.
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