Gamer Koala

The Best 8-Bit RPGs for the NES

The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is a classic console that single-handedly revitalized the video game industry and still shines to this day. While it’s best known for platformers like Super Mario Bros. and action games like Metroid, the NES also holds some hidden RPG gems that are must-plays for any genre fan.

I mean, after all, this is the console that launched some of the most important RPG franchises ever. But we’ll get into that later in the article. So gear up, grab that HP potion, and let’s explore the best 8-bit RPGs for the original NES.

10. Swords and Serpents

Swords and Serpents for NES

Swords and Serpents is a classic dungeon-crawling RPG with a strong emphasis on cooperative multiplayer.

Players will descend into a massive, monster-infested labyrinth on a quest to rescue a king. The gameplay involves turn-based combat, character management, and exploration. Swords and Serpents allowed up to 4 players (using the NES Satellite) to control party members during battle sequences, with one player acting as party leader.

Swords and Serpents is loved for its cooperative play, challenging dungeon layouts, and the camaraderie it fostered among friends as they ventured deeper into the labyrinth.

9. Ultima: Quest of the Avatar

Ultima 4 for the NES

Ultima: Quest of the Avatar is port of one of the most influential computer RPGs ever created, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

The NES version provides a very different experience than the original game, though. Presumably to appeal to Nintendo RPG fans, Ultima: Quest of the Avatar was recreated almost from scratch as a JRPG-style game.

Players took on the role of the Avatar, an Earthling (you) who finds themselves in the land of Britannia. The goal of Ultima is to achieve Avatarhood by mastering the eight virtues and becoming a hero to the people who inhabit the open world in which you play.

While the NES version of Ultima IV is a fantastic game, those seeking a more faithful port of the original game should check out the Sega Master System version of the game.

8. Legacy of the Wizard

Legacy of the Wizard for NES
Nihon Falcom

Legacy of the Wizard offers a unique blend of action-adventure and RPG. 

Players control a family of adventurers on a quest to retrieve the Dragon Slayer, the only weapon that can defeat an ancient dragon. The game features real-time action combat, platforming elements, and character-switching between family members who each have their own unique abilities. 

The game’s intricate level design and vast five-part labyrinth drew in RPG fans. Its non-linear approach, and open-world design is one of the earliest examples for the NES. And the action combat system could be called proto-Metroidvania. Overall, this gem flew under the radar for many, but it deserves a playthrough.

7. Shadowgate

Shadowgate for NES

Shadowgate is a first-person point-and-click adventure game with RPG elements.

You play as the last of a line of heroes, tasked with stopping the evil Warlock Lord. The play is all about exploration, puzzle-solving, and inventory management. It began as a black and white Apple Macintosh game that has since been ported to just about every video game console and handheld you can name. And for good reason! It’s a fantastic game.

What players like about this game is its atmospheric storytelling and trial-and-error approach to avoiding the many deaths that can be encountered. Equally loved are the challenging and often unforgiving puzzles. Last but not least, is the immersive experience of diving deep into the mysterious Castle Shadowgate.

While the NES port is certainly not the definitive port these days, Shadowgate still deserves a mention on this ranking.

6. Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Wizardry Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord for NES

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is a classic dungeon crawler game based on a 1981 Sir-Tech computer game of the same name. Its old-school mentality set it apart from the standard JRPG or action RPG fare for the NES.

The game takes heavy inspiration from pen-and-paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. As a result, the game does not hold players’ hands and can be very difficult. The NES version of the game featured different dungeon layouts than other ports.

You control a party of six adventurers tasked with descending a 10-level dungeon to defeat the evil Werdna, a wizard, and the titular Mad Overlord. Wizardry became a legendary franchise… and it’s easy to see why.

5. Crystalis

Crystalis for NES

Crystalis is a hidden gem on the NES, offering a blend of action and RPG elements. You play as a hero who awakens from cryogenic sleep in a post-apocalyptic world. 

Your goal is to stop an evil sorcerer from unleashing a destructive force upon the world. The play involves real-time combat and puzzles, and it allows you to combine elemental swords for different effects. 

What makes this game stand out is its dynamic combat and intricate world. It is equally memorable for the way it combines traditional RPG storytelling with fast-paced action.

4. Mother (EarthBound Beginnings)

EarthBound Beginnings for NES

Mother, known in the West as EarthBound Beginnings, is a quirky RPG that serves as the precursor to the beloved EarthBound series. 

You play as Ninten (ha ha), a young boy with psychic abilities on a quest to save the world from an alien invasion. The gameplay is comprised of turn-based combat, humorous dialogue, and a unique setting that blends the mundane with the bizarre. 

Gamers appreciate the game’s offbeat humor and emotional depth. It scores bonus points for charming and relatable characters. The game was a flop when released in North America, but has since gained a cult following and has been recognized on many other Top 10 lists.

3. Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy 1 for NES

The original Final Fantasy on the NES is where the epic franchise began. 

You create a party of four heroes and journey to restore light to the four elemental crystals. In this game, you’ll participate in turn-based battles and explore a vast world with plenty of random monster encounters.

What players love about this game is the rich storytelling and memorable music. Equally noteworthy is the innovative class system that allows for diverse party configurations.

This game has been ported to many consoles and handhelds over the years. If you don’t want to play the NES original, we suggest the new Pixel Remasters available on… well, pretty much everything.

2. Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest)

Dragon Warrior for NES

Dragon Warrior (or Dragon Quest as it’s known in Japan) is a quintessential example of the traditional turn-based RPG. 

You play as the descendant of the legendary hero, embarking on a quest to defeat the evil Dragonlord and rescue Princess Gwaelin. The play involves turn-based combat, character leveling, and a vast, open world to explore. 

What makes this game a hit is its straightforward yet engaging gameplay and charming characters. It will never be forgotten for the foundation it laid for the massive Dragon Quest series.

Like Final Fantasy, you can find this series on almost every platform. We prefer the Switch port for ease of play. We highly recommend checking out the first game to see just how far this franchise has grown! But unlike Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest has stayed much more consistent with its roots.

1. The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda for NES

Before it was a massive franchise, The Legend of Zelda began on the NES. In this action RPG, you take on the role of Link (or whatever you name him), the hero of Hyrule. 

Your objective is to rescue Princess Zelda and thwart the evil plans of Ganon (for the first of many times… Like Bowser, Ganon never seems to learn!) The gameplay entails exploring a vast, interconnected world, solving puzzles, and battling monsters. 

What gamers adore about this game is its non-linear gameplay, which encourages exploration and experimentation. This game will always be remembered for starting a legendary series.