Discover the 7 Best RPGs on the Legendary Nintendo Entertainment System

Do you remember the first time you booted up that shiny gray NES console? Popping in Super Mario Bros, desperate to save the princess and thrilling as the iconic music filled the room. Or equipping that wooden sword in The Legend of Zelda, ready to uncover secrets across the land of Hyrule.

These nostalgic Nintendo moments shaped gaming for generations of kids in the late 80s. And while platforms like the Sega Genesis rivaled for attention, the NES saw several revolutionary RPGs that influenced fantasy titles we play today.

Join me as we revisit the 7 most impactful NES roleplaying games every gamer should experience!

Why the NES was an RPG Gamechanger

The year was 1985. Video games remained a novelty, confined to noisy arcades or lacking the storage for immersive worlds on early consoles. The newly launched Nintendo Entertainment System changed everything. Using swappable cartridges with dedicated processors and memory, suddenly home games could tell deeper stories with more advanced gameplay.

Several launch titles like Duck Hunt already demonstrated the increased depth over previous consoles. But it took the runaway success of Super Mario Bros for publishers to seriously consider more ambitious genres like roleplaying adventures.Players took easily to guiding Mario through colorful levels, incrementally gaining abilities that unlocked new areas to explore. This formula of character progression and discovering new environments would prove perfectly suited for RPGs.

By 1987, iconic titles like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy crystallized core tenants of the genre by blending action gameplay with statistical elements like hit points and magic meters. Interacting with villagers in Dragon Warrior fleshed out twisty narratives across dungeon-filled kingdoms. Strategically using items and special attacks to fell creatures in Dragon Quest adventures influenced combat systems for decades to come.

While Nintendo didn‘t expect RPGs to find a western audience, their steady stream of landmark releases convinced publishers to localize titles for American gamers. This built an RPG market that turned upcoming consoles like the Super Nintendo into a golden age for engrossing adventures with emotional storylines and dynamic battle systems.

But it all started with the NES showing console technology could produce deep game mechanics beyond platformers and arcade ports. These 7 epics cemented principles guiding both Japanese and western RPG hits fans obsess over today.

Rating Criteria for the Best NES RPGs

Let‘s establish what qualities constitute an incredible RPG before diving into the games. Some base factors I prioritized:

  • Story: Transporting narratives with colorful characters, mysterious lore and memorable twists. Surprisingly common even with simple NES graphics!

  • Gameplay: Exploring a world should feel exciting years later through rewarding progression, fun battle systems and replayable challenges awaiting advanced players. Modern conveniences shouldn‘t feel lacking either.

  • Innovation: Pushing boundaries matters more than refinements. Bring novel settings, characters or combat to the genre. Easier designs risk aging poorly as nostalgia fades.

  • Scope: Lengthy quests with extensive maps or content keep adventures feeling fresh with secrets left undiscovered across playthroughs. Repeat tropes dragged mediocre NES titles down.

  • Influence: Modern gamers should trace mechanics they enjoy back to these retro revolutionaries. Establishing first principles of great RPG gameplay ensures lasting fun.

With these qualifications in mind, I ranked each game on a 1-5 scale across the categories. No title hits perfectly, but combining world-class strengths while minimizing weaknesses characterizes enduring NES classics that new RPG fans can dive into decades later!

#7 Dragon Warrior – The Hero‘s First Steps

Dragon Warrior

While games like Ultima introduced PC gamers to roleplaying game concepts, Dragon Warrior produced the first console RPG experience truly resembling modern titles. Known as Dragon Quest in Japan, the game simplified dungeon crawling inventory management to a single hero out to save a princess from an evil dragonlord.

Primitive graphics forced imaginative young players to fill in blanks around the medieval kingdom. Battling slimes and acquiring gold to purchase better weapons crafted an ultimately familiar but initially novel activity loop on the NES. While light on storytelling, developer Chunsoft focused on tight turn-based battles requiring equal parts good gear and tactical thinking to progress.

This grinding gameplay may frustrate players seeking swift narratives promised by today‘s productions. Yet without Dragon Quest proving financially viable on Nintendo‘s hardware, publishers might not have backed more ambitious SNES adventures down the road. Its success ensured RPG gamers could enjoy deep quests on their living room televisions in following generations.

While certainly dated, check out Dragon Warrior to better appreciate conveniences in modern RPGs taken for granted!

Our Score: 3/5 | Innovation: 2/5 | Scope: 2/5 | Influence: 5/5

#6 Final Fantasy – Consoles Go Epic

Final Fantasy

While Dragon Quest pioneered the RPG genre on consoles, Final Fantasy showed just how ambitious the scope could become. Four nameless heroes band together to rescue the world from elemental chaos by restoring balance to corrupted orbs. An expansive overworld spanning forests, deserts and volcanic peaks felt astonishingly massive by 1987 limitations.

Unique mode of transportation via ship and airship opened up story progression, a convention followed in virtually every major JRPG since. Noble heroism imbued the protagonists with motives transcending simple treasure hunting. Coupled with Nobuo Uematsu‘s memorable melodies, the adventure evoked emotion previously absent on rudimentary platforms.

Players also discovered additional depth from experimenting with character classes and their innate abilities. Dynamic spells and inventory strategies added nuance to encounters. While much was simplified from computer RPG contemporaries, the streamlining benefitted accessibility especially newcomers on a gamepad.

Unfortunately the increased scale came at the cost of meaningful character interactions outside combat. Villains also lacked developed motivations compared to later entries. Yet these first ambitious steps paved a critical path for the entire Final Fantasy franchise and JRPG appreciation overseas.

Don‘t miss experiencing a quintessential RPG anchoring Square Enix’s 30+ year legacy!

Our Score: 4/5 | Innovation: 3/5 | Scope: 4/5 | Influence: 5/5

#5 Earthbound Beginnings – Quirky Beginnings


Known as Mother in Japan, Earthbound Beginnings told a decidedly more offbeat tale. Instead of swords and castles, protagonist Ninten wields baseball bats and yo-yos against odd paranormal manifestations across 1980s America. Aliens and psychic powers replace spells and magic in turn-based battles. Peaceful hillside walks contrast bizarre encounters with living guitars and mobile statues.

This modern setting with comedic attacks ridiculing RPG norms also brought heartfelt moments conveying themes of isolation and regret rare on 8-bit hardware. A distinctly emotive soundtrack punctuated the nontraditional premise.

Unfortunately English audiences missed experiencing the game‘s innovations until emulated ports surfaced online. And gameplay otherwise adhered closely to genre character building tropes. Yet Earthbound Beginnings set precedents for injection levity between traditional RPG story beats still employed in franchises like Pokemon and indie hits such as Undertale.

Don‘t overlook this forward-thinking title handling narrative elements in unexpected ways!

Our Score: 3/5 | Innovation: 4/5 | Scope: 3/5 | Influence: 4/5

#4 Crystalis – Post-Apocalyptic Warrior


With cutscenes and storytelling constrained on NES cartridges, establishing evocative ambiance took on heightened importance for RPGs. Crystalis opens with scientists cryogenically freezing a hero to awaken and rebuild civilization after the devastation of nuclear war. Tribes wearing animal skins populate sparse villages around terrain littered with metallic wreckage.

A stirring soundtrack accentuates lonely traversal across once populated locations. Scavenging armor and magic imbues a sense ofincremental empowerment to dispel hazardous creatures. Discovering mutated aquatic life and sentient robots reveals more on the old world’s fate.

Crystalis distilled action RPG exploration down to ISOL satisfying elements. Tight controls keep players engaged through combat and traversal. Collectible spells open new paths across the world map. Choices between armor upgrades allow tuning strengths and weaknesses. That a lone warrior could defeat enemies through skill alone brought hope of restoring humanity’s future.

Don’t overlook this forgotten gem exemplifying details separating good 80s RPGs from derivative designs!

Our Score: 4/5 | Innovation: 3/5 | Scope: 4/5 | Influence: 3/5

#3 Dragon Warrior III – Class of the Original Series

Dragon Warrior III

While the initial Dragon Warrior introduced the mass market to RPG breadcrumbs, Dragon Warrior III demonstrated how much depth the original Nintendo could truly support. An expanded class system let players customize a party beyond the nameless hero. Thieves pinched extra gold after battles. Merchants appraised items. Wizards immobilized difficult foes.

Advanced AI opened combat options by allowing tactical management focused on bosses instead of babysitting individual actions. Additional story vignettes and side quests brought welcome worldbuilding and gear upgrades for invested players. Travel doors conveniently shortened backtracking across the now broader map.

Modern quality of life perks clearly owe Dragon Quest III‘s innovations a debt spanning auto-battle options to crafting systems. It achieved the rare feat of streamlining complexity for novices while retaining substance satisfying veterans. This masterful balance cemented the title as one of the eras most playable RPGs that still entertains decades later.

Don‘t pass up this refined genre entry demonstrating how even primitive graphics shouldn‘t constrain engrossing gameplay!

Our Score: 5/5 | Innovation: 4/5 | Scope: 4/5 | Influence: 5/5

#2 Dragon Warrior IV – First RPG Soap Opera

Dragon Warrior IV

While Dragon Warrior III demonstrated volume through gameplay variety, part 4 upped emotional impact by structuring distinct narrative arcs focused on different protagonists. These unique chapters wove together a larger tapestry detailing allies eventually uniting against cosmic evil.

Shifting viewpoints kept player attachments fresh as personalities emerged beyond simple combat roles. Romantic subplots and moral dilemmas brought rare complexity to 8-bit storytelling. A sprawling concluding act delivered payoffs on seeds planted through earlier cameos and referenced events.

The inclusive cast and chapter format would inspire similar structuring in seminal RPGs like Live-A-Live and Octopath Traveler decades later. Coupled with addicting turn-based battles, part 4 showed resonant writing could encourage grinding level caps exceeding fifty hours! This soap opera approach made spending that much time viable through powerful moments along the journey.

RPG fans owe checking out Dragon Quest IV‘s pioneering narrative format raising the genre‘s emotional ceiling!

Our Score: 4/5 | Innovation: 5/5 | Scope: 5/5 | Influence: 4/5

#1 The Legend of Zelda – Start of an Unending Legend

The Legend of Zelda

Blending combat with exploration years before "action RPG" entered gamer vocabulary, The Legend of Zelda eschewed narrow genre definitions to push hardware possibilities. As the elvish hero Link, players battled shapeshifting pigs and giant spiders across forests, deserts and graveyards. Wandering off obvious critical paths revealed hidden caves with incremental tools enabling access to additional areas on the map.

While instructions came free of prose beyond an initial scroll, discovering bombed walls and burnt shrubs organically conveyed environmental interactivity. Tile-based movement turned avoiding projectiles into engrossing spatial puzzles. Dungeons housed harder enemies and magic boomerangs needed for progress.

This emphasis on player-driven discovery created open-world appeal independent of narrative. Encountering unexpected lake spirits emerging from the Misty Lake provoked as much intrigue as besting the final palace dungeon bosses. Environmental storytelling trusted gamers of all ages to use their imagination.

Over three decades later Zelda‘s design philosophy still influences ambitious titles stretching hardware to support rewarding exploration above all else. Its NES debut remains the best RPG for creatively playing by its own rules.

Our Score: 5/5 | Innovation: 5/5 | Scope: 4/5 | Influence: 5/5

Reliving NES Classics

I hope this guide brought back fond gaming memories while showcasing innovative RPGs the Nintendo Entertainment System delivered. It‘s incredible how boundary pushing design overcame hardware limitations across these seven must-play titles.

While names like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest pushed technological limits for later generations, I believe The Legend of Zelda‘s inventive formula represents the pinnacle for pure unadulterated gameplay. Even today few titles capture such compelling freedom to adventure at your own pace however you see fit!

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