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Originally released as the Family Computer PC and known as the Famicom in Japan, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came to the U.S. in 1985.

Helping to reinvigorate the video game industry and being one of the best-selling of the third generation of video game consoles, the NES was even named by IGN as the best video game console ever in 2011. The NES had many groundbreaking releases to its name, and the best NES RPGs are among these.

Originally, Nintendo wanted to release a 16-bit system with a floppy disk drive and keyboard, but the president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, wanted to go with a relatively cheap, cartridge-based console instead to appeal to a wider gaming audience. Before the NES, third-party developers producing games for consoles was practically unheard of.

Thanks to the NES, we have many game franchises we still love to this day, such as Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. We would eventually be graced with Nintendo’s 16-bit contribution, the Super NES, 5 years later in 1990.

While the NES mostly focused on video games based on those found at the arcade, many RPGs were also released for the console. If you’re a fan of the genre, join us as we explore the best RPGs the NES had to offer.

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02/03/2023 12:31 am GMT

Bridging the gap between action-adventure and RPG, emThe Legend of Zelda/em is one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises ever, spawning 19 major games and multiple spin-offs as well as TV series and manga adaptations.

The series predominantly centers around various incarnations of the adventurer Link and Princess Zelda, and their quest to prevent the evil Ganon (also known as Ganondorf) from obtaining the Triforce (a mystical relic) and taking over the world.

The first installment in the series came out in 1987 and introduces the fantasy world known as Hyrule, the setting for many of the Zelda games. Link, a member of the Hylian race, is tasked by Impa, Zelda‘s maid, to recover the shattered fragments of the Triforce and defeat Ganon.

The map is viewed overhead, and dungeons are hidden in various locations. Items common to many games of the series were first found here, such as Heart Containers (which increase the life meter), Rupees (the in-game currency), and special items like the boomerang, used for retrieving items and stunning enemies. More powerful swords can also be found that boost damage, as well as magic rings that decrease damage taken.

While not strictly of the RPG genre, emThe Legend of Zelda/em set many precedents and provided a template for the action RPG genre. emThe Legend of Zelda/em became the first NES game to sell over 1 million units in the U.S. and is hailed for its gameplay, musical score, and setting.

Check out emThe Legend of Zelda/em for NES on Amazon here.

The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda is a classic for a reason!
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02/03/2023 12:11 pm GMT

Dragon Quest, known as emDragon Warrior/em in the U.S., was also the start of a long-running video game series.

Released in 1989, emDragon Warrior/em‘s premise is largely similar to the damsel in distress trope; the unnamed hero sets out to rescue Princess Gwaelin from the Dragonlord, a man wielding magic and the power to control dragons. The land is filled with monsters after the Dragonlord stole the Ball of Light from Tantegel castle, and the hero must follow in the warrior Erdrick‘s footsteps to restore peace to the kingdom.

Like many RPGs of the time, an overhead view is used, and the story is progressed by talking with townspeople and defeating certain enemies. The hero’s strength is increased by upgrading armor and weapons as well as gaining experience, which increases attributes and teaches magic spells. Interestingly, the name chosen for the main hero determines his initial ability as well as stat growth during the game.

While emDragon Warrior/em won many awards in Famitsu‘s first Best Hit Game Awards, the game wasn’t as much of a commercial success in the U.S. as it was in Japan. Either way, the game is known for its exciting music, depth of story, and dialogue, and for contributing to the early stages of the RPG genre.

If you’re looking for a game with substantial difficulty which helped kick off the genre as we know it, you can find it on Amazon here.

Dragon Warrior
Save the kingdom in Dragon Warrior!
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02/03/2023 06:37 pm GMT

The eponymous first installment in the Mother series, emMother/em (eventually known as emEarthBound Beginnings/em outside of Japan) set many firsts for the RPG genre.

Set in a deliberately quirky rendition of the late 20th-century U.S., the game uses many non-traditional RPG elements, such as baseball bats and toy guns for weapons, and psychic abilities as opposed to the magical. The story follows Ninten, a boy around 12 years old, as he battles strange enemies and everyday objects with the aid of his great-grandfather’s studies on psychic abilities.

Eventually, the narrative involves fighting off an invading alien race that is responsible for the anomalies. emMother/em was released only in Japan in 1989 and is responsible for much of the initial interest in video game emulation.

Gameplay-wise, emMother/em uses traditional RPG elements like a turn-based battle system and random encounters. A top-down perspective is used for exploration, while a first-person perspective is used for battles. Like its sequel, there is no separation between towns and the world map, and people, animals, and objects can be interacted with by pressing a button.

While criticized by some for being inspired by the Dragon Quest series and considered inferior to its sequel, EarthBound, its satirical, parody-like take on the genre helped emMother/em to stand out from the rest and be rather complex for its time.

Check out emMother / EarthBound Beginnings/em on Amazon here.

EarthBound Beginnings Mother
Mother / EarthBound Beginnings set a lot of firsts for the RPG genre.
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02/03/2023 10:36 am GMT

emCrystalis/em came out in 1990 and is set in a post-apocalyptic world, which is rather unusual for the genre.

The unnamed protagonist is a scientist from the past, who was cryogenically frozen only to be awoken when the world comes under threat from a man called Draygon. Using the power of four elemental swords, the hero journeys to defeat Draygon and prevent humanity from enduring another Great War.

The all-too-common top-down perspective is utilized for gameplay, with one button being used for sword attacks and the other for magical spells or using items. Experience levels and equipment are gained to increase the hero’s strength. Elemental projectiles can be released from the swords, which can also be used to traverse certain obstacles; the Sword of Water, for example, can create a bridge of ice that can be used to travel across some rivers.

Although gameplay could be called repetitive, emCrystalis/em was noted for its impressive graphics, soundtrack, and well-thought-out storyline, making it one of the better games to be influenced by the Zelda series. As an action RPG making bold moves for the genre, emCrystalis/em is up there with the best NES RPGs.

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Crystalis
Defeat Draygon in Crystalis!
Final Fantasy
$34.99
  • Classic fantasy RPG
  • Save the world from darkness
  • Direct a party of four characters in the fight against evil
  • Simple, compelling gameplay
  • For one player
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02/03/2023 01:16 pm GMT

Another first for one of the best-known video game franchises of all time, emFinal Fantasy I/em was released for the NES in 1990.

The storyline is engaging albeit relatively simple; the player controls the four Warriors of Light, who were prophesied by the sage Lukahn to restore light to the four elemental crystals. To do this, they must battle the four elemental fiends and the archdemon Chaos. While largely taking place in a fantasy world with typical races such as elves, dwarves, and dragons, there are also sci-fi elements to the narrative; airships and robots are present, and even a space station and time travel.

Introducing many themes common to future Final Fantasy games, emFinal Fantasy I/em allowed the player to choose four party members from six classes, each with their own strengths and some with the ability to use magic (known as White and Black magic).

Equipment can be bought or found, and levels are advanced through random encounters and boss battles. The precursor to the Active Time Battle (ATB) system is used, relying on a menu to input battle commands which temporarily pauses the pace of combat. The exploration largely involves traveling by foot initially, but access to a ship, canoe, and even an airship is granted over the course of the game.

emFinal Fantasy I/em was commercially successful as well as being critically acclaimed, and actually better received in the U.S. than in Japan. While Dragon Quest technically introduced gamers to the RPG genre, emFinal Fantasy/em arguably popularized it even more, with the first entry standing the test of time and even considered to be the best in the series by many gamers. Along with Dragon Quest, it set standards for many RPGs to come.

emFinal Fantasy I/em offers much entertainment for modern-day fans and a substantial amount of difficulty compared to future entries. As far as the best NES RPGs go, emFinal Fantasy I/em is a great addition to your collection if only to see where it all began.

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Final Fantasy
Find out why Final Fantasy is such a classic.
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02/03/2023 12:12 pm GMT

The third in the Dragon Quest series was released in America in 1992. Set in the same medieval time period as its two predecessors, emDragon Warrior III/em is actually the first in the series chronologically and follows the male or female protagonist (child of the legendary hero Ortega) on their quest to destroy the evil archfiend, Baramos.

The gameplay uses many basic RPG conventions like older Dragon Warrior games, but includes an expanded open-world gaming experience and a new, plentiful class system. The protagonist is always of the Hero class, but obtained characters can be played in a variety of classes, such as Soldier, Fighter, Pilgrim, Wizard, Merchant, Goof-Off, Sage, and Thief.

The classes come with their own unique stat growths and spells they can learn, but can also be reassigned upon reaching level 20 and a certain point in the story. The gameplay also added another mechanic known as the Arena, where the player can bet on monsters battling each other in order to obtain gold.

emDragon Warrior III/em became the best-selling game of the year of its release in Japan and was Famitsu’s highest-rated game to date. It was considered to be an improvement on the previous two games, mostly due to its innovations in gameplay, particularly in the development of the job system.

Check out emDragon Warrior III/em on Amazon here.

Dragon Warrior III
Dragon Warrior III combines the RPG genre with some open-world elements.
Dragon Quest IV (Japanese Import Video Game)
$17.94
  • Japanese Famicom Release
  • Region Locked
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02/03/2023 12:06 pm GMT

Yet another Dragon Warrior title makes its way onto the list of the best NES RPGs, which only goes to show the success of this entertaining series. Released in the U.S. in 1992, the same year as Dragon Warrior III, emDragon Warrior IV/em directs the narrative within five chapters, each with different protagonists, a departure from the storytelling of the previous games.

The first four chapters follow the Hero’s future companions, while the fifth and final chapter centers around their union and quest to save the world from the Ruler of Evil.

While retaining many Dragon Warrior features, the fourth game introduces new mechanics, such as automatically controlled party members (through a system called Tactics) and travel doors, which allow the player to traverse great distances on the world map quickly. A wagon was also introduced in this game, which allows the gamer to choose which characters to use in battle.

While emDragon Warrior IV/em didn’t implement the customizable class system from Dragon Warrior III, the plethora of playable characters all have their own classes which leads to a very similar gaming experience overall.

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Dragon Warrior iV
Dragon Warrior IV is our pick for best NES RPG!

The 7 Absolute Best NES RPGs of All Time FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

When did the NES come out?

The NES was released to the U.S. market in October 1985.

What was the first RPG released for the NES?

The first RPG for the NES was The Legend of Zelda, released in August 1987.

What was the last RPG released for the NES?

The last RPG released for the NES was Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics II, which came out in March 1994.

Which NES RPG was the best?

The first 3 entries of the Dragon Warrior series feature heavily on lists of the best NES RPGs, along with the original Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Crystalis is another standout title, along with Mother, if you’re looking for a quirky, off-beat addition to your collection.

Which NES RPG sold the most units?

The best-selling NES RPG would be The Legend of Zelda, selling 6.51 million units.

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