For many older gamers, the NES was their first exposure to digital RPGs. Earlier consoles just weren’t powerful enough for the larger worlds and more complex systems the genre demanded even at that time, and while RPGs have a long history on PCs, home computers were still somewhat uncommon in the ‘80s.
Of course, NES RPGs were a far cry from the titles we see nowadays. There were no real cutscenes, combat was either turn-based or featured very simple real-time systems, and storylines were nowhere near as complex as what we see now in modern BioWare or Square Enix games. Still, many of the games released for Nintendo’s first home console hold up remarkably well.
While what constitutes an RPG is certainly open to debate, for this list, we tried to narrow it down to games that emphasize character growth through experience or equipment customization. Keeping that in mind, these are the 15 best NES RPGs ever made.
15. River City Ransom
Largely ignored in the West at release, River City Ransom has garnered immense praise in the intervening decades to the point where it might actually be one of the most influential games in the NES library. At first glance, River City Ransom looks like Double Dragon or any other of the dozens of forgettable beat ‘em ups released on the console, but just a few minutes of gameplay reveals an action RPG that was far ahead of its time.
Though presented as a side scroller, River City Ransom offers something closer to an 8-bit version of an open-world. You can even use the money you make defeating enemies to purchase new moves or upgrades for your stats. It’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about NES RPGs, but the surprising depth gives River City Ransom all the RPG credentials it needs.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was practically federal law that any halfway popular movie or TV show needed a video game tie-in. Most were god-awful abominations never worth speaking of again, but a select few early adaptations showed that there was a better way. Willow has been saved by obscurity largely thanks to its pedigree. After all, it was developed by Capcom in the midst of the company’s golden age.
It may not be Mega Man or Bionic Commando, but Capcom had the good sense to base much of Willow on the original Legend of Zelda while adding things like an experience system and powerful magic spells. It’s not a revolutionary title, but it holds up pretty well now. Honestly, it might be better than the movie it’s based on.
13. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
You might notice the original Legend of Zelda isn’t on this list while its sequel is. That’s not a knock against the original; it just didn’t really check all of the RPG requirements we were looking for on this list. In fact, I’d argue that The Adventure of Link is the only more “traditional” RPG in the entire series due to the inclusion of experience points that let you upgrade Link’s attack, magic, or life. Of course, such changes ultimately made this the divisive black sheep in that storied franchise.
It’s totally understandable why Zelda II gets a lot of flak. The sidescrolling combat can be finicky, and the overall difficulty is pretty brutal, but if you can clear some of those hurdles, you’ll find one of the more unique and enjoyable RPGs on the NES.
12. Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior 2
With the additions of multiple playable characters and a much larger world to explore, Dragon Warrior 2 managed to be significantly bigger than its predecessor in every way. Is it really better though? Well…we’ll get to that. For now, it’s enough to know that Dragon Warrior 2 was a massive RPG for its time that really opened a lot of people’s eyes to the rapid growth of the JRPG scene. It was also quite difficult.
Dragon Warrior 2 is a forgotten middle sibling if there ever was one. It lacks a little bit of the first game’s charm, and it just isn’t as refined as the later titles, but it’s still a fondly remembered game that is worth going back to even now.
11. Magic of Scheherezade
Like other NES action RPGs, Magic of Scheherezade drew heavy inspiration from The Legend of Zelda. While it never quite matches Zelda’s heights, it has carved out a reputation as an underrated gem thanks to a solid soundtrack, some of the best graphics on the console, and a unique Middle Eastern setting based on the folktales of One Thousand and One Nights.
While a sequel was repeatedly announced throughout the ‘90s for both the NES and SNES, it never materialized, and there’s not even much information about it online. Unfortunately, there’s never been an official re-release of Magic of Scheherezade either, so it’s not an easily accessible title now. Anyone who finds a way to play it will be surprised by what they find, though.
10. Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior
Originally developed largely around the limitations of the NES hardware, some of Dragon Warrior’s design choices, like turn-based combat and random encounters, soon helped influence the popular direction of the console RPG scene.
To be fair, the original Dragon Warrior feels downright simplistic at times. It’s a fairly short adventure that only features one playable character, but it’s still an extremely charming and addicting game that’s worth checking out whether you’re new to the genre or an RPG vet.
9. Fire Emblem Gaiden
While international audiences didn’t get their first official taste of the Fire Emblem franchise until 2003, the series has a lengthy history dating back to 1990 in Japan. Western gamers were able to finally enjoy an official release of the first Fire Emblem title, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light thanks to a brief period of availability on the Switch, but the best NES Fire Emblem game still hasn’t been released in its original form outside of Japan.
Fire Emblem Gaiden features the tactical combat and army building that fans of the series love, plus a class evolution system that would be retained in later titles. It even features a massive world that’s still one of the more impressive technical accomplishments on the NES. It finally received a proper western remake for the 3DS in 2017 as Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, but playing the original NES version is either going to require familiarity with Japanese or a fan translation.
8. Ultima III: Exodus
Porting one of the more complex CRPGs of the ‘80s to the NES was no easy task, and Ultima III: Exodus is still a little rough around the edges as a result. Depending on how you play, it can be a walk in the park, or excruciatingly difficult.
But for all of its blemishes, Exodus makes up for it with an excellent (and dark) plot and incredible depth for the time. It even featured a whopping 11 classes and five races that can be mixed and matched when forming your party. While most RPGs of the era still dabbled in roleplaying, Ultima III embraced that concept wholeheartedly.
7. Mother/Earthbound Beginnings
RPGs of the ‘80s and ‘90s almost always explored fantasy tropes established by the likes of Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons, making Mother’s modern American setting a welcome change of pace. Like its better-known SNES sequel Earthbound, Mother plays more like a parody of typical RPGs often seen through the skewed lens of how the Japanese view American culture.
Nintendo famously bailed on a western release of the game in the ‘90s, but fortunately, an official release is now available on the Wii U and Switch online. It actually holds up pretty well for a 30-year-old NES game.
6. Dragon Quest IV/Dragon Warrior IV
The final Dragon Warrior game released for the NES is easily the most ambitious. Its epic five-chapter story starring five characters trying to save the world was truly impressive in its day. While this sequel’s basic gameplay remained fundamentally the same as the previous entries in the series, that chapter format was groundbreaking for the time and has influenced numerous RPGs to this day.
Unfortunately, the Dragon Warrior franchise never really clicked with western audiences during the NES era, and poor sales led to the series taking a years-long hiatus from being released in North America. Thankfully, gamers are much more receptive to the series now, and Dragon Warrior IV is finally receiving its due.
5. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
While the gap between PC and consoles still exists today, it’s now more like a small pothole than the giant chasm that existed during the heyday of the NES. That meant that console ports of PC games could end up being significantly different from their inspirations. That’s why Ultima IV is practically a complete remake of the PC version with brand new graphics and music.
The developers of Ultima IV‘s NES port had to cut a few puzzles and limit the game to only four party members simultaneously (as opposed to seven in the PC version). Many will say that makes the NES version of Ultima IV inferior, but that’s not entirely fair. It’s more like the Ultima you know and love with a strong JRPG influence. It’s actually quite an interesting experiment so far as that goes, and it’s easily making it one of the best RPGs on the console.
4. Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
Most NES RPGs experimented with the conventions of action RPGs or the burgeoning JRPG genre, but Wizardy is more of an old-school dungeon crawler that takes heavy inspiration from pen and paper RPGs as opposed to video games. And just like those old-school RPGs, it can be soul-crushingly difficult.
After picking your six-character party, you descend into a ten-floor dungeon to defeat the evil wizard Werdna at the bottom. Expect to die a lot at first, and spend a lot of time mapping out the floors of the dungeon. This is not a game where victory comes fast or easy. Once everything clicks, though, Wizardy proves to be a vintage RPG experience unlike anything else on the NES.
Crystalis is one of the most underrated games in the entire NES library. While its medieval world might seem a little generic at first, learning that the game is actually set in a society that’s trying to rebuild in the aftermath of a nuclear war proves to be one of the more compelling adult storytelling twists of the NES era.
While this is another game that clearly takes design inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, this was a truly innovative RPG in the ways that mattered most. The multiple environmentally imbued swords at your disposal (as well as a collection of impressive spells) actually make you feel like you’re getting stronger as you progress in a way that similar titles can’t really match. Ultimately, it just plays better than so many console RPGs of this era. In another world, Crystalis would have spawned a whole successful franchise, but for now we’ll just have to settle for this one near-perfect gem.
2. Final Fantasy
Dragon Warrior might have laid the foundation for much of the JRPG genre, but for most North American gamers, the original Final Fantasy will always be synonymous with NES RPGs. The turn-based combat and random encounters differ little from Dragon Warrior, but what made a huge impression was the ability to choose any combination of the six starting classes when forming your party of four. From the beginning, Final Fantasy emphasized actual role-playing.
Add in one of the most memorable soundtracks of the era and iconic character designs for everything from the mages to Chaos itself, and you’ve easily got one of the very best RPGs of the 8-bit era, though it still comes up just short compared to one other game…
1. Dragon Quest III/Dragon Warrior III
While excellent games in their own right, the first two Dragon Warrior games were sort of rough drafts for what the series would eventually become. Dragon Warrior III took all of the good ideas from those games, like turn-based combat and party building, but added important new additions like a job system and a day and night cycle.
It also included a huge open world and one of the best stories of any NES RPG. Yes, the whole Dark World/real villain revelation is somewhat overplayed now, but it was still really cool during the 8-bit era, and it gave the game way more staying power than other titles on this list. Add in some solid graphics and another excellent soundtrack from series composer Koichi Sugiyama, and Dragon Warrior III easily stands tall as the very best RPG on the NES.