The NES brings back a lot of fond memories for me. I was 5 when my parents bought the system for my brother and I along with Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. At that age I was perfectly happy playing playing those games, but later when I was 7 I went to visit my older uncle in New York and he had a game called Dragon warrior. I was immediately entralled. At the time I could barely read but I had to power through it with the help of my older brother who was only 8. When we got home I begged my parents to buy it for me, they said that they did, but in reality my uncle just mailed me his copy. I was so happy and it changed me as a person and I’ve been hooked to the genre ever since. So, without further ado here is my top 10 list of the best RPGs the NES has to offer.
#10 - EarthBound Zero
When I first saw ads for Earthbound in the Nintendo Power I thought it was strange, but that’s what they wanted you to think, It’s slogan was “this game stinks” for god’s sake and they had these awful scratch and sniff cards that smelled like mustard and pepper. But being an RPG fan I bought the game upon release. I admit that I wasn’t a fan of its art style and I thought it was weird when I first played it, having played Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6 in the years prior. But I feel in love with it’s quirky style. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about emulation and then the rom hacking and translating community. I was thrilled when I learned there was actually an NES Earthbound game, and I had to play it. It is a true Mother game, but unfortunately it has all the trappings of NES games made in that time, namely, it’s ungodly hard. You only have one party member for about half the game and you pretty much have no direction on where to go, but it’s still a good, solid fun game with a unique art direction that isn’t found in any other game on the NES.
#9 - Dragon Warrior II
My favorite series, I actually got this game after I got Dragon Warrior III because it was so rare. I remember it came with a little insert in the back of the instruction manual with a number that you could call to get a world map and poster, but by the time I got the game the number no longer worked. But whatever, I got the game! Many people call this entry the black sheep of the series, but I don’t agree, maybe I’m blinded by fanboyism or something, but i don’t think there is a bad entry in the Dragon Quest series. The game is very hard, the leveling is bugged and the cave to rhone is unforgiving but it’s still a very fun game. Released in Japan just a year after Dragon Warrior it introduced alot of series staples such as party members, in fact i think this is the first JRPG with party members, magic keys to open doors, ships to travel the world, travel gates, and magic crests to find. after you get the boat the game opens up to a non-linear adventure of finding the crests in any order you want! The game was made in 1987, about 20 years before non linear RPGs became a craze! Judge it on its merits and you will find a great game!
#8- Final Fantasy III
Another game that I didn’t get the chance to play during my youth. When I was 11 and first played Final Fantasy VI, it was Final Fantasy III to me and I didn’t learn otherwise until about 10 years later. Hell, it seems that some people are still learning that now. Anyway, this is a really great game and while it didn’t introduce the job system on the NES, that honor goes to dragon warrior III, it did introduce a free class changing system. Well, not free because you had to spend CP to change jobs, but it’s not like you had to be level 20 to change jobs or anything. I think of this game as a prototype of Final Fantasy V. Final Fantasy V has a few throwbacks to Final Fantasy III, such as traveling around the world on a Chocobo. Speaking of Chocobos, they were introduced here! it’s a shame that in order to pass many dungeons you have to fight while minied or you must change jobs into mages or Dark Knights. I hate being forced to change jobs because of the dungeon that I’m traversing. As far as I’m aware Final Fantasy III also introduced the concept of optional super bosses and one last thing, I’ve got to say that it’s pretty cool to start off on what you think is the world, only to find out that it’s just a small floating continent above the real world map.
#7 - Glory of Heracles II
It seems that a lot of games on this list weren’t officially released in America and they wonder why RPGs never took off here - none of the good ones were released here! Anwyay, this is the second part in the long running, in Japan, Glory of Heracles series and it’s pretty much a DW2 knockoff, but I really like it. Set in Ancient Greec, you get a centaur, think Prince of Cannock, and a living statue, the Princess of Moonbrooke, who join you on your journey to save the world. There is a surprising amount of dialogue and character development for an NES game and the graphics are quite decent. There’s also alot of exploration and secrets to be found as well. it’s just a shame that most people in America have never heard of this series, and if they have, it’s because of that horrible DS game released a few years back.
#6 - Just Breed
Speaking of games that no one in America has heard of, Just Breed a strategy RPG by Enix! If you thought RPGs were rare in America in the 80s and 90s, finding SRPGs was like trying to locate Shangri-La. Again, not released in America, this is a real gem, the graphics are nice considering it was released late in the NES life cycle but what sets this apart from other strategy RPGs released at the time, like Fire Emblem, is that you don’t control single characters, you control entire squads of 6 characters each for a total of 36 characters and you also get to actually explore towns and talk to characters in between battles! You can buy full equipment sets for you characters rather than just weapons and the main character looks mysteriously like the hero in Dragon Warrior IV.
#5 - Crystalis
Ok, I’m done with Japan only games now, from here on we are dealing only with games released in the states. I have a funny story to go along with this one. I kept reading article after article in Nintendo Power about Crystalis and every time I saw it I loved it, I loved the different swords you collect and armor and key items you needed. Looking back I’m sure there were so many articles because the game is ridiculous with having to have the exact right item or talk to the exact right person or cast the exact right spell at the exact right time, but I digress. To me the game was a merging of genres, like Zelda meets Final Fantasy and I HAD to play it. But I couldn’t find it in any stores, so my mother finally found it and rented it from video wonderland, a competitor of blockbuster for those not in their 30s or 40s. I was so happy I played it all weekend and asked my mother if we could just keep it and not return it. I was 8 years old, sue me. She said no, but when she went to return it she asked if she could just buy it - they told her no, so she just rented it again. I kept it and continued to play it so she went back when I was at school and told them that I lost the game, paid the $40 for the game and the rest is history! This is a fantastic game, but hard as balls. not hard in a gameplay way though, hard in a “you need a guide with you at all times” kind of way.
#4 - The Guardian Legend
I love this game and before you scream at me and say, “it’s not an RPG!” hear me out. Yes, I agree, it starts out as a space shooter, but the real meat and core of the gameplay is not the shooting, but the exploration scenes. You get currency, buy weapons and items, gain experience and levels, explore and talk to alien beings, all the things that you would do in a normal RPG! If you’re unfamiliar with this game, basically it’s almost like 2 games in one, you alternate between space shooter stages where you are flying from one planet to another and when you land you get to explore the planet in a Crystalis or Zelda like fashion. It’s kind of like Blaster Master in that you explore in your tank with a sideview perspective then you get out and fight alone in an overhead view. I can’t believe that this game has never been remade or expanded upon. I don’t even think there’s a spiritual successor, this is a true hidden gem on the NES!
#3 -Dragon Warrior IV
This is the last Dragon Warrior game released on the NES and really the last one released in a long time in America, It wouldn’t be until 2000 on the PS that Dragon Warrior VII was released. the 90s was nothing but a huge dearth of Dragon Quest and I’ll never get that time back. I’ve got to say this though, while Dragon Warrior IV is a good game, it’s not as good as it’s predecessor. It introduced some series staples such as small medals, but other than that, they didn’t really use any of the ideas in this game in future games, besides some locations for the Zeniathan trilogy. the game starts off slow, excruciatingly slow. You have to go though about 15 hours of 4 boring chapters until you finally get to the meat of the game in chapter 5 and when you finally get there, you are disappointed because you suddenly cant even control your party members that you were able to control just moments before! When I was a kid I played with a game genie in order to control my party members. Some members, Cristo and Brey, were absolutely useless because you couldn’t control them! When half the game is looking at a black screen with enemies you want to have some sort of control over the outcome! But no, you can only control the hero and watch Cristo cast Beat over and over and over again. It’s infuriating. But other than that, it’s a great game and it may have beaten out it’s little brother if it didn’t have that one quirk.
#2 - Final Fantasy
I really like Final Fantasy 1, more so than 2, 3, 8 or 10 even. It’s kind of funny, if you look at the NES Final Fantasy’s they all have the exact same graphics, something like that would never fly nowadays, they would have to change something up. Shortly after the game was released Nintendo Power released a strategy guide for it, which I still have, they were really pushing this game and I like alot of design choices they made, such as allowing you to choose from between 3 of 4 spells per spell level, that would make each playthrough and party a bit different also you could choose a party of 4 party members from among 6 classes, too bad the thief sucked and the fighter and red mage were ridiculously overpowered. In fact the first time I beat the game I used 2 fighters and 2 red mages and it was a joke. I believe that this is the first game that really made use of elemental weaknesses and resistances and they even had swords imbued with elements or that were stronger against different creature types. Square deserved a winner with this game and they certainly got it, too bad they screwed up royally with the sequel.
#1 - Dragon Warrior III
Undoubtedly my favorite game on the NES and quite possibly my favorite Dragon Quest game, but I believe it might be inched out a tad by Dragon Quest V. I got this game when I was in 4th grade after I broke my arm and had to stay home for a week. I spent all week playing the game and if I ever got stuck the manual included a 60 page guide! This game is the end all, be all of RPGs on the NES as far as I’m concerned. Balanced classes, a reasonable length, rewarding sidequests, great treasures to find and an unexpected twist at the end! It introduced many more series staples such as Ramia, job classes and class changes, the Shrine of Dharma and setting up the magic system by introducing Blaze, fireball, Icebolt and Infernos magic. The game is not unreasonably hard, nor too easy and as a fun little nod, the in game world map and place names are actually based on Earth with such punny names as Edinbourgh being England, Romaly being Rome, Aliahan being Australia and Isis being Egypt. You still have to discover orbs around the world, but they are found in much better ways than just defeating one of the “four fiends” for example, you find the yellow orb by building up a town and you find the Green Orb by visiting a prisoner in a ghost town at night after receiving a clue about it’s location during the day. The game rewards thorough exploration and is an absolute gem, few games surpass it even to this day!
Let me know what you think about all these games I’ve mentioned, agree or disagree, how would you rank the NES RPGs? Thanks for reading! And be sure to follow me on Youtube as well!