SNES games might not be much to look at now, but in many ways, they were a massive improvement over any console games that came before. SNES developers could create massive worlds with detailed sprites that actually looked like what they were intended to represent. New advances in technology also meant that games could take their first real steps toward becoming the kinds of cinematic experiences we arguably take for granted today. And while 4 MB wasn’t even a ton of storage even space back then, it was still more than enough to fit an impressive script for a 40-hour story.
In short, the SNES was almost perfectly set up to be the home for RPGs. While the console RPG scene was still finding its footing at the time of the Super Nintendo’s release, many developers were more than willing to dip their toes into the genre to see what kind of experiences they could craft. That combination of experimentation and all-time great creative voices eventually resulted in some of the most beloved role-playing games ever made.
As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the SNES in North America, now feels like a great time to look back at 15 of the best RPGs on the SNES.
In the early 1990s, console RPGs were synonymous with turn-based combat and medieval settings full of knights, sorcerers, and dragons. So, no one really knew what to make of a cyberpunk game with real-time combat set in a dystopian Seattle. However, those who stuck with Shadowrun found one of the best and grittiest stories of the 16-bit era, as well as some surprisingly innovative conversation and hacking systems.
Shadowrun was truly ahead of its time in almost every way. While it didn’t get that much attention when it was released, games like Cyberpunk 2077 and The Ascent proudly carry on its legacy to this day. Even the Shadowrun franchise itself finally got its due with a trilogy of successful PC RPGs released over the last decade.
14. Soul Blazer
Even today, Soul Blazer is a title that not many gamers have heard of. Admittedly, it’s a little rough around the edges. Arriving early in the lifecycle of the SNES, the graphics and music aren’t quite up to par with the best games of its era, but the gameplay makes it a worthy addition to this list. Taking some inspiration from Actraiser, another beloved Quintet game, your goal in this action RPG is to clear out various lairs, rescue various souls (that could take the form of plants, animals, or other humans), and free the land from the evil Deathtoll.
Quintet would go on to hone Soul Blazer‘s best ideas in several other games (including Terranigma, another fantastic action RPG that sadly never made its way to North America). Unfortunately, Quintet shut down in the mid-2000s, and it’s unclear who exactly owns the rights to these games at this point. That sadly makes any official re-releases of these often-overlooked gems unlikely.
13. The 7th Saga
The 7th Saga is an excellent example of a game that had a lot of great ideas that never quite came together. Probably the best thing about the game is the playable characters. You have seven to choose from at the start (including a robot and an alien), and you eventually meet six other characters that you can either fight or recruit. It was also one of the first RPGs that didn’t include completely random combat. Enemies could actually be avoided through an innovative “radar” system.
Unfortunately, The 7th Saga is also unforgivingly difficult, with some enemies always surpassing your stats no matter how much you level up. So, while it may not have aged as gracefully as other games on this list, it’s an utterly fascinating project with incredible ideas that have since been incorporated into numerous genre classics.
12. Breath of Fire II
To be honest, Breath of Fire II doesn’t have a particularly memorable stand-out feature. Sure, there’s a town-building feature that lets you fill a town with various NPCs you meet throughout the game, but it’s easily ignored. Having a giant talking armadillo in your party is also pretty cool, but it’s obviously hard to recommend the game based on that alone.
So why should you play Breath of Fire II? Well, it’s just a very solidly told fantasy story with a lengthy quest and strong turn-based combat. It’s nothing flashy, but it’s a strong overall entry into the Super Nintendo’s RPG library.
11. Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals
The release of Lufia II was overshadowed by the release of the next-gen systems and a SNES library already bursting with classic RPGs. It took a while for a lot of gamers to dig up this hidden gem, and some gamers simply never found it at all. To be fair, the story (which features a typical fantasy hero who has to save the world from the four evil Sinistrals) is a little mechanical, but Lufia II features some of the best graphics and music of any game on the console. Plus, there are tons of puzzles to solve and a 99-level randomized dungeon to eventually tackle. Honestly, Lufia II might feature more “gameplay” than any other Super Nintendo RPG.
While it’s billed as a sequel, Rise of the Sinistrals is actually a prequel to the first game, so you can feel free to dive right into it without playing through the first (though Lufia and the Fortress of Doom is well worth checking out as well).
10. Harvest Moon
Arriving at the tail end of the SNES’ lifespan, Harvest Moon made a lot of gamers re-examine what an RPG could actually be. There’s no combat and no great quest to save the world. You’re just a simple farmer growing crops and raising livestock on the land you inherited from your grandfather. It sounds boring, but the gameplay loop is remarkably addictive. There’s a reason why the Harvest Moon series continues to this day and has inspired dozens of imitators, spin-offs, and sequels (most notably Stardew Valley).
Admittedly, some of the recent Harvest Moon games haven’t lived up to the series’ standards, but thanks to charming characters, witty writing, and its simple yet deep gameplay, there’s a very good argument that this first Harvest Moon game remains the best in the franchise.
9. Illusion of Gaia
The spiritual sequel to Soul Blazer exchanged the town-building mechanics of its predecessor for more involved combat, which honestly made it a better game overall. Illusion of Gaia also forgoes the traditional leveling of most RPGs for a roguelike system where protagonist Will can choose to increase his attack, defense, or health stats after clearing each room of enemies. As such, how you choose to proceed can make the final bosses of each dungeon significantly easier or much more difficult.
While it’s not technically set in the real world, Illusion of Gaia does incorporate several real-life locations, such as Egyptian pyramids, Incan ruins, and the Great Wall of China, leading to some of the most unique locales in any SNES RPG. It’s also a much better-looking game than Soul Blazer, fixing one of its predecessor’s biggest flaws.
8. Secret of Evermore
Square Enix (then Squaresoft) is primarily a Japanese developer, but after the massive success of multiple titles in the ‘90s, they decided to give an American studio a crack at the Square formula. While the basic gameplay of Secret of Evermore is obviously inspired by the superior Secret of Mana, Evermore mixes things up by restricting combat to just you and your trusty dog. There’s also a new alchemy mechanic that allows you to create potions when battling the game’s many tough bosses.
For better or worse, Evermore is also graphically a much darker game than other Square titles of the era. It all mostly works here, but Square was ultimately not interested in pursuing Americanized versions of its games and Evermore is now more of a curiosity than anything else.
7. Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen
More of a military strategy sim than a typical RPG, The March of the Black Queen might be the most demanding game on the SNES. You will spend a lot of time managing units, some of which include ninjas, griffins, and witches. But when you pick just the right strategy, it’s oh so rewarding to watch them take back the continent of Zetegenia from the evil Empress Endora. It also features one of the denser stories of any 16-bit game. Many of the best plot beats may even remind you more of Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings.
This is actually considered the fifth episode of the Ogre Battle saga, and while several sequels were produced over the years, the first four games that would have presumably featured the rise of Endora were never made. Sadly, though, Square Enix now owns the property, it doesn’t look like the Ogre Battle saga will ever be completed either.
6. Final Fantasy IV
Plenty of RPGs were released before Final Fantasy IV (also known as Final Fantasy II in North America at the time of its release), but this was the true turning point for the JRPG genre. Of course, the graphics and sound were better with the move to more powerful hardware, but what really set it apart was the distinction of being one of the first RPGs to actually feature a fully fleshed-out plot complete with a complicated love triangle and a sympathetic villain in Golbez. It was also the first Square game to include the Active Time Battle system, which showed that JRPGs didn’t have to just be plodding turn-based affairs.
Honestly, the only downside of playing Final Fantasy IV on the SNES is that the original English translation is a little iffy. That’s been fixed in later ports and remakes, so while it might not be worth checking out on the SNES anymore over other options, it’s still worth playing in some form.
5. Super Mario RPG
Both Nintendo and Square were arguably at the height of their abilities in the mid-90s, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when they finally teamed up, the result was an absolute masterpiece. Super Mario RPG expertly combined the beloved Mushroom Kingdom setting and Mario platforming with Square’s top-tier storytelling abilities and advanced RPG combat systems for a truly epic game.
Those who have played through Super Mario RPG still yearn for a true sequel developed by Square or, at the very least, the addition of Geno to Super Smash Bros. Given how beloved the game is, it’s surprising that Square and Nintendo still haven’t teamed up for another RPG. The Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi games are good, but none have surpassed this classic.
4. Secret of Mana
Closer to The Legend of Zelda than Final Fantasy in gameplay, Secret of Mana was perhaps the most innovative RPG of the ‘90s. It introduced many gamers to faster, varied combat, three-player multiplayer, and an absolutely massive game world. Even better, it’s all wrapped up with some of the best music and graphics of the generation. While still confined to the 2D limitations of the SNES, Secret of Mana’s systems are closer to what we see today in modern RPGs and action games than anything that came before.
While this game has been ported and remade perhaps more than any other game on this list, none of those versions quite match the first release. The original version of Secret of Mana still looks and feels timeless.
RPGs were generally considered more niche games in the ‘90s. They rarely sold well, but at least did well critically. Earthbound is even more unusual because the initial reviews were rather tepid, yet it’s now considered one of the greatest games of all time. Most gamers just weren’t ready for an RPG set in the modern world that alternated between the cheery enthusiasm of childhood and the ominous alienation of growing up. In that way, Earthbound could be considered a PG-rated South Park that debuted two years before South Park even premiered.
Surreal, satirical, and sometimes just plain weird, Earthbound remains one of the more unique and innovative RPGs ever made. It’s a triumph of the genre that dozens of other games have attempted to emulate, but none have yet surpassed. Now, if Nintendo would just get around to finally putting out an official English localization of the sequel…
2. Final Fantasy VI
Two decades and nine sequels later, there are still some RPG fans who consider Final Fantasy VI to be the pinnacle of the series. That’s debatable, but it’s easily the best of the 2D entries as well as a kind of swan song to the gameplay that introduced many gamers to RPGs for the first time, with its pitch-perfect ATB battles, a huge, varied world to explore, and an epic, apocalyptic story.
But it’s the cinematic aspects that make Final Fantasy VI stand out. The rousing soundtrack pushes the SNES to its absolute limits, making moments like the famous opera scene and the final battle against Kefka feel especially epic. Square arguably came to rely on CG movies a little too much in later games, but Final Fantasy VI is proof that the developers were master storytellers long before that.
1. Chrono Trigger
Is there really anything to dislike about Chrono Trigger? The time-traveling story that sees our heroes journey across millennia to save the world is simply outstanding. The characters, from Frog to Magus, are among the most memorable in any RPG. While the combat system might be a little simpler than some of the games on this list, letting party members team up to use their “Tech” abilities in different ways is endlessly customizable and entertaining. Of course, all of that occurs before you even dig into the new game plus and dozen different endings.
It’s difficult to label any video game as truly perfect, but Chrono Trigger may be the closest thing to perfection that gaming has ever seen. More than two decades on, it remains a high point in the RPG genre that all gamers need to experience at least once, and it’s easily the very best RPG on the SNES.