The Nintendo Entertainment System holds a special place in gaming history. When it released in 1985, the video game industry was struggling to recover after the catastrophic crash of 1983. But the NES helped turn things around with now-classic games like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid.
For RPG fans, the NES marked a pivotal turning point. RPGs were still a niche genre in the mid-1980s, but the NES helped popularize the format in North America. Series like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda got their start on the system, laying the groundwork for decades of RPGs to come.
In this article, I want to walk you through the 7 best RPGs on the Nintendo Entertainment System. From established favorites to underappreciated gems, experiencing these 7 games gives you a great overview of the NES RPG library. Each one left a unique mark on the genre.
So let‘s dive in! Here are my picks for the 7 must-play NES RPGs.
7. The Legend of Zelda (1987)
Even if it wasn‘t a full-fledged RPG, the original Legend of Zelda kickstarted one of Nintendo‘s biggest franchises and inspired countless action RPGs since its release in 1987.
In Zelda, you take on the role of Link in a fantasy version of medieval Hyrule. Your quest? Recover the 8 fragments of Triforce of Wisdom that Princess Zelda split apart to keep them safe from the evil Ganon. It‘s up to you to assemble the Triforce, defeat Ganon, and save Hyrule.
With an overhead perspective of Link, you battle enemies, uncover secrets, and explore dungeons spread across the kingdom. Link gains experience points to increase his health, collects rupees (in-game currency), and wields items like the bow, boomerang, bombs and a magical sword.
While light on stats and character building compared to other RPGs, Zelda established conventions that action RPGs follow to this day. It also proved enormously influential on later Zelda titles. Despite some obtuse elements, The Legend of Zelda impresses with its vast world, dangerous labyrinths, and unforgettable soundtrack that builds a real sense of adventure.
The game sold over 6 million copies worldwide and cemented Nintendo as a leader in video games. For defining the action RPG genre, The Legend of Zelda deserves a spot on this list even if it‘s not the deepest RPG experience on NES.
6. Dragon Warrior (1989)
The original Dragon Quest game, released in America as Dragon Warrior, introduced many NES owners to console RPGs. Created by the "father of JRPGs" Yuji Horii, Dragon Warrior employs familiar fantasy role-playing tropes we now consider cliches: knights, castles, dragons, and princess rescue plots.
You play as an unnamed hero, the descendant of a legendary warrior named Erdrick. The Dragonlord has stolen the mystical Ball of Light and brought monsters across the land. Now it‘s up to you to defeat the Dragonlord, restore the Ball of Light, and rescue Princess Gwaelin.
With medieval villages, castles, and dungeons to explore, gameplay relies on classic RPG systems. You‘ll chat with villagers for clues, battle monsters in turn-based fights as you gain XP and gold, and acquire new weapons, armor and spells.
While minimal in presentation and gameplay compared to later entries, Dragon Warrior cemented foundations that the influential franchise still follows today. With rewarding stat growth, enemy encounters, and an emotional ending, Dragon Warrior makes up for repetitive dungeon design with an overall engrossing experience.
In Japan, Dragon Warrior sold over 1.5 million copies on the Famicom after its 1986 release. While it wasn‘t a huge North American smash, it spent over 70 weeks on Nintendo Power‘s top thirty games list. For many Western console gamers, Dragon Warrior served as their first proper RPG.
5. Mother / EarthBound Beginnings (1989)
Released only in Japan as Mother in 1989, this unusual RPG came to North America in 2015 as EarthBound Beginnings. Rather than swords and sorcery, Mother offers quirky parody of 20th century life.
You play as 12-year-old Ninten who uses psychic powers, baseball bats, and household items to battle aliens and strange forces. When a pink-haired girl asks you to find her great-grandfather and stop an alien invasion, you journey through suburbia fighting living lamps, mobile phones, and killer robots along with more conventional enemies.
With its modern setting and oddball premise, Mother subverts RPG norms in entertaining ways. Battles transition seamlessly without separate screens. You directly interact with NPCs and environments using context-sensitive actions. The story and dialogue overflow with humor parodying pop culture.
While grindy and primitive by today‘s standards, Mother enchants you with its charming personality. The game ended up selling around 150,000 copies in Japan. For any fan of offbeat Japanese RPGs, experiencing Mother‘s creativity makes it a must-play NES title.
4. Crystalis (1990)
An overlooked action RPG developed by SNK, Crystalis impresses both graphically and narratively. With areas ranging from villages and temples to dystopian bases, Crystalis employs a varied post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy setting that really pops on NES.
You play as a scientist from 1997 who was cryogenically frozen after a devastating war. Awakened in the future, you take up mythical elemental swords to defeat the evil Emperor Draygon whose armies now control the planet.
With Zelda-inspired gameplay, you guide your hero across the overworld and into towns and dungeons while battling enemies. Fighting relies on timing strikes to pull off combos, or spamming the attack button. There‘s also magic spells to acquire and use wisely against bosses.
While lighter on storytelling and quests compared to some RPGs, Crystalis shines with its action-focused gameplay and exploration. With excellent music and graphics that push the NES‘s capabilities, Crystalis is an underappreciated gem in the NES library.
3. Final Fantasy (1990)
While not the first console RPG, Final Fantasy helped popularize and define the genre for years to come. The game starts simple: four youths are chosen to bring light back to their world by defeating four elemental fiends that plague the land. From this template springs one of gaming‘s most legendary franchises.
You assemble a party of four characters, choosing classes ranging from Fighters and Thieves to White and Black Mages, each with unique abilities. Your team travels by ship and airship to gather XP and equipment across dungeons and towns. While the turn-based battles look simple, there‘s real strategy in choosing your attacks and spells. The story builds emotion through the journey to defeat the Four Fiends.
Despite technical constraints, Final Fantasy achieved unprecedented scope and narrative depth on NES. It established core mechanics the series still iterates on today like airships, job classes, magic spells, and side quests.
While not a smash in Japan, Final Fantasy surpassed 1 million copies sold in North America by 1994. For introducing millions of gamers to console RPGs, Final Fantasy‘s influence can‘t be understated. It represents the quintessential 80s RPG experience.
2. Dragon Warrior III (1988)
Dragon Warrior III expands and refines the RPG foundations its predecessors built while introducing impactful new elements. Set long before the earlier games, DWIII puts you in control of the hero fated to become the legendary Ortega.
After an intro quest, you‘re tasked with building a party of companions at a local tavern. With control over their classes and abilities, you‘re given deeper customization options. The sprawling world maps and vehicles like ships and balloons make DWIII incredibly open-ended for its era.
With nine diverse classes ranging from Warriors and Wizards to unusual options like Jesters and Sages, Dragon Warrior III gives players immense freedom. Combined with the series‘ refined turn-based battles and progression systems, DWIII offers incredible depth on NES.
Dragon Warrior III became the best selling game of 1988 in Japan, selling over 3.8 million copies. For establishing signature RPG mechanics like class systems and open exploration, DWIII represents the pinnacle of NES‘ RPG library.
1. Dragon Quest IV / Dragon Warrior IV (1992)
Dragon Quest IV employs an ambitious anthology format, with 5 unique chapters each following a different protagonist. Your chosen hero changes in each chapter, letting you experience different play styles and narratives that converge in the 5th and final quest.
With nine playable characters total, you journey across overworlds packed with secrets: talking with townspeople, battling DQ‘s iconic slimes and beasts, and exploring diverse areas. Hallmarks like problem-solving quests, casino mini-games, and monster collecting add charm. The vignette storytelling builds an engrossing narrative.
While turn-based combat is simple, the ability to customize your party introduces tons of strategic depth. Post-game content expands an already massive quest even further. Released in 1992 near the end of NES‘s life, DQIV demonstrated the technical heights possible on the hardware.
Selling over 3 million copies in Japan and 1 million in North America, DQIV was praised for its emotional storytelling and scope. It represents the pinnacle of classic turn-based RPGs, making it my pick for the best RPG on the NES.
More NES RPGs Worth Playing
I hope walking through these 7 games gave you a good overview of the NES RPG library. Here are 5 more excellent NES RPGs to check out:
Faxanadu (1989) – A side-scrolling action RPG set in a sprawling dwarven city. Mix platforming with RPG progression as you climb, run, and jump across the metropolis.
Legacy of the Wizard (1987) – A unique dungeon crawler that lets you play as different family members, using each one‘s distinct abilities to progress.
The Battle of Olympus (1988) – Hack and slash your way through ancient Greece as Orpheus tries to rescue his love from the underworld.
Destiny of an Emperor (1989) – A strategy RPG based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Build an army and conquer China through turn-based tactics and warfare.
Willow (1989) – An action RPG adapted from the fantasy film.Journey through varied environments, battling mythic beasts while improving your skills and spells.
That covers my deep dive on the best RPGs the NES has to offer. I hope you discovered some classic games to hunt down and enjoy first-hand! There‘s so many groundbreaking and just plain fun RPG experiences in the NES library. For fans of retro gaming, playing these foundational titles offers great insight into how the RPG genre evolved into what it is today.
Let me know if you have any other favorite NES RPGs I should check out! I‘m always down to try out forgotten gems from the 8-bit era.