Ranking The Best NES RPG Games For Adventure & Strategic Battling

Best NES RPG games displayed on the Retro Dodo background

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Grab the most trustworthy warrior, mage, and demon you can find as we delve into the world of the best NES RPG games!

It’s safe to say that the NES had some cracking titles, and it paved the way for some of the best magical adventures of our generation. It played host to epic titles that would go on to spawn magnificent series’ and canons that have since dominated the RPG genre. RPGs aren’t just about wizards and magic swords though.

These games embody all the item collecting, turn-based action that we know and love, as well as playing multiple roles and upping the skills of carefully put-together parties capable of moving mountains… or big trolls, at the very least. Still, the question remains; which are the best NES RPG games of the year?

Which are the titles that made this console such a behemoth in the fantasy gaming world, and which titles are so sorcerous that you have to play them to truly believe they exist?

Guess what? You’re about to find out!

1. Earthbound Beginnings (1989)

Earthbound Beginnings game box for the NES
image credit: nintendo

Earthbound Beginnings is the best NES RPG game of all time!

Some of you might know this game as Mother, while others will have only just come across Ness in the Super Smash Bros series. Well, Earthbound Beginnings is a classic title that is the epitome of RPG goodness, and it’s one of my favourite titles on the NES!

The game begins in the early 1900s. After mysterious disappearances and unknown happenings, a boy learns psychic powers from his grandfather in order to sort everything out. The very thought that it could be so simple to learn psychic powers makes me super excited too. If only it was that easy!

earthbound gameplay - two characters conversing in front of a building by a river
image credit: nintendo

One of the things that I love the most about this game is that the party isn’t made up of the standard wizard, dwarf, barbarian setup.

Gamers take a young genius outcast, a sheepish girl, and a young gang member with a lust for vengeance on the road with them as they try to sort things out, 1980s style.

This JRPG boasts tonnes of random encounters and big bosses, but it also feels a bit like an old gaming version of Stranger Things. Plus, the gameplay and graphics really remind me of the early Pokemon games. In short, Earthbound Beginnings feels familiar, even if you’ve never played it before.

Use PSI to call upon amazing psychic powers and beat enemies into submission with your mind, not your fists. Yep, Earthbound Beginnings is the ultimate winner of the best NES RPG games ever made. Though if you’re Psychic like Ness, then I guess you already knew that before you logged onto this article, right?

2. Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1987)

Wizardry: Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord game NES
image credit: nintendo

Wizardry: Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord is one of those games where the title sounds like a prog rock song. And to be honest, there’s probably been hundreds of tracks written about it over the years too!

The story follows a dude called Trebor who has seriously lost the plot. After losing an amulet that then creates a massive labyrinthine dungeon underneath his castle, he charges fighters to try and get it back for him, proving their mettle (and their idiocy) in the process.

Hence the ‘proving grounds of the mad overlord’…

… are we starting to connect the dots?

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord gameplay - picking items from a text menu selection screen
image credit: nintendo

This game is one of the very first RPG dungeon crawlers in existence. And you know what; it looks pretty damn good too!

Players take charge of pretty much every class of being from the Lord of the Rings books, including Hobbits. Don’t ask me why Hobbits are included, they just are.

Oh, and Gnomes too, though they don’t get that much attention these days…

If you’re into Magic the Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons, then all of the stats, classes, and skill point upgrading should be second nature to you. Characters can up their abilities and change their appearance ala the Gauntlet series, and equipping new armour is also part of the fun.

The 3D (ish) levels draw you in and help to push the narrative along, making killing monsters and finding treasure anything but a chore.

That’s the career we all want, after all!

3. The Magic of Scheherazade (1987)

The Magic of Scheherazade NES game box
image credit: nintendo

The Magic Of Scheherazade not only takes the 3rd spot in this list of the best NES RPGs of all time, but it also wins the accolade of ‘hardest word to pronounce ever’ too.

Seriously, how many vowels can there even be in one word? It sounds like I’m spelling out a sneeze!

Less hard to pronounce is Sabaron, the evil dude who’s caused so much trouble throughout Arabia. After fighting him, you become trapped within time and must travel through the ages while trying to thwart his every move.

And, there’s obviously a princess involved too.

The Magic of Scheherazade gameplay - one character in blue is moving between red characters in a sandy area outside of a cave
image credit: nintendo

It might be hard to spell and say out loud, but this game is an absolute belter. Marrying action and RPG gameplay ala Castlevania (although with less gothic ghouls), players move through ancient Arabia fighting demons and pulling off strategic combat manoeuvres.

All of the fighting is in real time, which is a little different compared to the RPG games above. Still., there’s plenty of two-party battles and the option to increase character stats and skills.

Using different classes to your advantage and pulling off insane special moves is what the Magic of Scheherazade (why do I keep wanting to write ‘Lucozade’?) is all about. Explore to your hearts content, and remember; you can’t ever be on time when you’re lost in time… got it?

4. Ultima III: Exodus (1987)

Ultima III game Nintendo Entertainment System game box
image credit: nintendo

Next up is Ultima III: Exodus, a thrilling tale of sorcery and monsters overrunning a once peaceful kingdom. There’s vengeance, magic, a mistress, and towns crammed with interesting NPCs to interact with.

If you’re looking for the recipe of a good RPG, then you just found it! Like a lot of the games in this list, this was the one that brought party-play into the mix as opposed to fighting with a single character.

Putting together a team is one of the most exciting parts, picking the best character attributed and assigning classes to create the ultimate force!

Ultima III gameplay - looking down a long corridor with blue bricked walls. A door can be seen in the left wall.
image credit: nintendo

In terms of graphics, it looks like it took inspiration from The Hobbit on the ZX Spectrum. All of the dungeons are viewed from a 3D perspective, where as overworld exploration is viewed from a top-down perspective.

To add even more excitement, combat sequences have their own screens too. The battles are turn based (no surprises there) and also revolve around a tile-based fighting system.

Players use commands on the screen to control their characters. Dungeons can feel pretty tense viewed through first-person mode; I constantly think something is going to jump out at me, and it usually does!

5. Dragon Warrior III (1988)

Dragon Warrior 3 game box for the Nintendo Entertainment System
image credit: nintendo

We’re down to the final 5 of the best NES RPG games of all time, which means it’s time for Dragon Warrior III!

One thing that makes DW3 stand out amongst other RPGs of the time, and especially for the late 80s, is the inclusion of a night and day system. This means that certain actions can only be completed at certain times, which makes exploring fun and keeps gamers on their toes.

Once again, it’s top-down action all the way with some vibrant colours and exciting underground caverns. Delve into castles and work your way through mysterious caves in search of items, treasure, and enemies.

Dragon Warrior 3 gameplay - characters moving along a red-brick road in a town
image credit: nintendo

As the player, you start off with just one character in your party. This increases to four after a short while and include classes such as merchants and goof-offs.

I’m not sure I’d like the fate of the world to rest in the hands of a goof-off, but that’s just me. Gimme a wizard any day of the week!

If you’re the type of person that can’t get enough of work, then you’re also in luck. There’s a job system that revolves around swapping classes and abilities, but it’s a little complicated for me to explain in this short paragraph…

I guess you’ll just have to grab copy by clicking the button above and take a look at it for yourself (and that’s the power of marketing, guys!)

6. Fire Emblem Gaiden (1992)

Fire Emblem Gaiden game box for the NES
image credit: nintendo

If you’ve ever played Fire Emblem before, then you’ll know how epically tactical and hair-pullingly difficult it is to figure out. These turn-based battles require the patience of 1,000 saints all working together across a gridded field. Imagine a killer game of chess crossed with Risk, and you’re almost halfway there.

Take part in epic fights between humans and monsters, scaling up against humongous bosses as you fight to restore order in Valentia. Promote fighters as they move through the ranks, and build the best army ever seen.

Fire Emblem Gaiden gameplay - characters standing outside of a castle wall in a green field
image credit: nintendo

Players control Alm, a young lad who has been given the task of fighting a wicked general after the King is assassinated. That kind of puts all of my problems into perspective, to be honest!

Listen, if you’re after an RPG that requires skill and brain power, then make sure you grab a copy of Fire Emblem Gaiden. We can’t guarantee that you won’t break your NES in half in the process, but it’s a brilliant game that deserves your attention.

7. Faxanadu (1987)

Faxanadu game box NES
image credit: nintendo

Next up is Faxandu, more proof that Hudson Soft are absolute wizards and make legendary games in their sleep.

If you’ve ever enjoyed Final Fantasy titles or the next game in the list below, then this is gonna be right up your castle courtyard. It’s side-scrolling RPG brilliance that looks and plays a little like a Castlevania title. And, more importantly, the story is exquisite. That’s not a word that gets thrown around on this website a lot, is it!

Faxanadu gameplay - a character with a sword is standing on a ledge with an enemy below.
image credit: nintendo

Here’s the score. The elven home of the World Tree has been defiled, dwarves are on the rampage, and everything is pretty chaotic. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to sort out all this mess and get things back to normal.

Don’t worry, there’s daggers and wing boots for you to use along the way. Liaising with NPCs is the key to success, as is trading weapons and killing everything that looks remotely evil. Slay everything from zombies to snakes and beat back bosses gnarlier than your grandma after her favourite series gets cancelled.

We all know that there’s the need to up character skills aswell, so I’m not going to go too much into detail about that… we get the picture.

What I will say is that the word ‘Mantra’ in the title actually refers to a neat little password system that players can use to get back onto their current level instead of losing all their progress. You don’t need to keep the console on all night and rack up a mammoth electricity bill anymore!

8. Destiny Of An Emperor (1989)

NES game box for Destiny of an Emperor
image credit: nintendo

Now, out of all the games so far, DOAE is the most strategic title we’ve come across. Players need to pick characters from a vast catalogue to make their own party capable of tackling the many challenges thrown upon them.

The main problem is that getting people to join you isn’t as easy as you might think! Some must be defeated and others must be bribed, but some are just happy to have something to do!

Destiny Of An Emperor gameplay for the NES
image credit: nintendo

Like some of the best RPGs around, DOAE finds it original in a manga series. If you really want to get into the how and why of this game, then there’s some references to 14-century novel ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’… that’s one to tell people at the next party you go to!

Critics went mental for it, and for good reason. The story was immersive and the narrative speech boxes are like living in a visual fantasy novel. The dropdown menu is easy to use, and it all just simply works. I guess you could say it does exactly what it says on the tin… if it came in a tin, that is.

9. Pool Of Radiance (1991)

Pool of radiance game case cover
image credit: nintendo

Thankfully, Pool of Radiance isn’t an RPG game about pool, billiards, or any other ball games. In actual fact, it’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the first ever digital computer game format. Take characters from the worlds of men, dwarves, elf, and more, guiding them down an undetermined moral path.

Ok, now we know its a Dungeons & Dragons style game, it’s safe to say that dungeon exploring is going to play a key element to your characters progression. Play everything from a first-person perspective through mostly top-down gameplay. Battles are in 2.5D, and upping specific character traits is all part of the fun.

Pool of radiance gameplay - text  screen giving the user information, with a small picture of a golden character above
image credit: nintendo

And, the good thing for you is that the NES version boasted some pretty exciting differences to all the other ports of this game.

It was less complicated to play, it came with cool music, and the whole game was adapted to be played with the classic NES controller. What I’m basically saying is that it’s the quintessential version.

10. Final Fantasy (1987)

Final Fantasy NES box
image credit: nintendo

Final Fantasy slices its way into number 10 on our list of the best NES RPG games with a blood-curdling battle cry. I know that Final Fantasy is now the main title that most people think of when they hear the phrase RPG, but it wasn’t the first of its kind by any stretch of the imagination.

No, in all honesty, Final Fantasy owes a lot to other text based games that came before it. Still, just like if you love Royal Blood despite the fact they ripped off Death From Above 1979, I guess the end result doesn’t really matter.

Final Fantasy gameplay - a party of four battling two enemies on a black field.
image credit: nintendo

The world has gone to… well, it’s not very nice at the moment, put it that way. Everyone is waiting for four heroes to arrive and fulfil a prophecy, and it just so happens that they’re on their way!

True to the Final Fantasy games that we know and love, players take a party on an adventure rather than just a single fighter. Pick from mages, fighters, thieves, and martial arts experts as you take on epic monsters in brutal turn based battles.

And of course (you guessed it), players must improve character skills by completing quests. That can take hours in itself, so there’s plenty of gameplay hours to be put in if you’re willing to get the best results! Listen, if you love all things Final Fantasy, then this needs to be in your collection. We wouldn’t have any of the other FF games without it!

11. Crystalis (1990)

Crystalis game NES case
image credit: snk

Crystalis isn’t a game about caterpillars becoming butterflies. That would get pretty dull after a while… When the game released, it brought about the notion that 1997 would mark the end of the world as we knew it. I would have been 7 when that happened, and I’m now 31, so I guess they didn’t really know what they were talking about…

But what, pray tell, causes the end of civilisation? Well, an intense wr wipes everyone out. The survivors build a big tower to watch over evil forces, and then the player wakes up from a cryogenic sleep.

Am I being stupid, or does that sound incredibly like the entire premise of Breath of the Wild…?That’s too much to take on board in one go!

Crystalis gameplay - a purple-haired character is standing on a path while two enemies move towards her, all viewed from top-down perspective
image credit: snk

One of the best bits about Crystalis is the different armour players can equip while playing through the game. Magical spells and other skills can be picked up from the people that you meet along the way, and some of the moves that you can pull off are spectacular…1990 spectacular, at least.

I’m gonna say this a lot through this list, but players need to improve key stats as they progress in order to tackle bigger challenges and tougher enemies.

It’s certainly a learning curve when you try to tackle a boss without being fully prepared. And, although that green dude with the googly eyes on the cover doesn’t look like he could cause much damage, he’s one cruel customer… he’d also need a big Crystalis… Chrysalis… you know what I mean!

12. Dragon Warrior IV (1990)

Dragon Warrior IV game case NES
image credit: nintendo

If you’re a fan of the Dragon Quest series of games, then Dragon Warrior IV should already be on your radar. As the title suggest, it’s the 4th title in the canon (just helping anyone out who is afraid of Roman numerals). In true RPG fashion, players work through four different stories, playing a different character in ever game chapter.

Play as Ragnar the soldier, Alena the princess, Cristo the priest, Brei the magician, and many more memorable characters. There are so many names to remember that you’ll need to keep a notepad handy!

Dragon Warrior IV gameplay NES - characters walking through a field by a stream
image credit: nintendo

As with pretty much all other RPGs in the early 90s, Dragon Warrior IV is played from a top-down perspective. The gameplay is also pretty similar to the previous Dragon Quest games, looking for all the world like an early Zelda title.

Enemies appear randomly, Viridian Forest style, so there’s no chance of getting from A to B without any interruptions. Unless, of course, you take the hot air balloon – everyones go-to mode of transport!

Expect spells, tactical character placement, and dealing out maximum damage in epic turn-based battles. It’s an engaging game from start to finish and one that looks super swish when using a NES HDMI cable!

13. Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar (1989)

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar game box
image credit: nintendo

Take a trip into the world of Sosaria. It might look like pixelated white oval shapes with green monsters, but it’s actually an incredible world that we now know as Britannia… sound familiar?

Ultima IV boasted so many improvements over the other three games. We’re talking better graphics, better interaction with NPCs, slicker typing interface, and player objectives.

Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar gameplay - a party preparing to enter a dungeon
image credit: nintendo

If you’re new to the world of gaming, then this title is gonna’ look pretty pants. But believe me when I say that this was cutting edge back in 1989, and in more ways than one.

While other RPGs championed becoming a stronger warrior, Ultima IV has the player working to uphold eight core values and belief, becoming a better person rather than a more savage fighter. You’re rewarded for doing the right thing and chastised for doing bad stuff, so play nice!

14. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (1987)

Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei game box for the Nintendo Entertainment System
image credit: namco

We’re carrying on the RPG magic with Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, a cracking game based on the fantastically scary books by Aya Nishitani.

If demons and devils are your bag, then this game will be right up your street. After a clever kid created a computer program to summon devils (maybe not so clever after all), Loki appears and tries to destroy the earth.

Cue a story where said student has to defeat all the demons and bring the world back to order, all while figuring out who they were before they were reincarnated. Sounds like a bona fide RPG to me!

Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei gameplay - a player preparing to battle an enemy from a first-person view
image credit: namco

RPG fans will probably already know how epic the Megami Tensei series is. It’s a huge canon jam packed with turn based action and labyrinthine dungeons.

Plus, it was the first game to bring about the notion of summoning demons, a key element of the games that followed. Up character skills, communicate with demons via the summoning program, and use them to fight your battles as you progress through the game.

Plus, in an added RPG twist, the moon plays a big part in which demons arrive and who they are aligned to. It’s a game where players must keep their wits about them and their eye on the ball… the big white one in the sky, at any rate

15. Legacy Of The Wizard (1987)

NES box art for Legacy of the Wizard
image credit: nintendo

So, what are we dealing with here? Evil dragons? Magical dungeons? An epic quest for justice?Yeah, all three, actually!

Players join a brave family on a fantastical mission to destroy a mystical Dragon. It’s been imprisoned for centuries, but now the seal that keeping it locked away is waning. No time like the present then, eh?

Legacy Of The Wizard gameplay - characters on two floors of a castle setting
image credit: nintendo

This side-scrolling RPG is an absolute mind-melter of an adventure. Ok, so the RPG elements aren’t as prominent as some of the other titles in this list, but it’s still an RPG in my book!

Gamers take control of their chosen member of the Drasle family. Who are they? They’re the bad-ass mofo’s brave enough to take on the dragon! There’s even chance to play as a tame monster too; how epic is that!

Complete dungeons, beat back monsters, and use magic to get to the end showdown with the Dragon. It’s got everything a fantasy tale could ever wish for, including magical crowns that unveil the devilish Dragon Slayer weapon!

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