The RPGs of Nintendo Consoles

Cataloging some of the best of the spiky-haired protagonists.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 04/08/2015 07:00 8 Comments     ShareThis

The rise and fall (and rise, and fall) of role-playing games on Nintendo consoles is itself a saga worthy of a role-playing game. We’ve seen consoles packed full of RPG greatness and consoles where we were practically beggars. Through it all fans of the genre have reveled in the feasts and agonized over the famines, looking for the gems or just hoping for a good diamond in the rough.

For this piece I’ve sought to create a completely subjective list of the best RPGs on each of the Nintendo consoles. For each, I tried to pick out five that were among the best on the system, along with a discussion outlining the state of RPGs on the system as well as a rationale for the list I created. I also tried to hand out a few honorable mentions. If you think I made a mistake, have a better methodology, or think I left out something truly important, sound off in the comments!

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

My best five:

  1. Final Fantasy
  2. Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest)
  3. Dragon Warrior IV
  4. StarTropics
  5. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Discussion: First off, a disclaimer… I intentionally left Metroid and The Legend of Zelda off this list. While they have some mechanics which are vaguely RPG-like, I view them as adventure games, not role-playing games. If you see them as RPGs they surely deserve consideration on this list, if not at the top.

Beyond that, a few things stand out here. One, RPGs were still an emerging genre on consoles, with computers still the best place to get role playing. In addition, early RPGs could be clunky and unforgiving; I recently tried playing the original Final Fantasy and finally gave up after enduring endless random battles and some inexplicably impossible monsters. In that respect I have found the SNES RPGs to have aged much, much better than their NES counterparts. Despite the rough nature of many of them, though, they were groundbreaking games that have set the tone for the galaxy of console role-playing games. Flawed as it is, few console games of its time felt as sprawling or deep as Final Fantasy did… although I think I had more fun with Simon’s Quest.

Others worth mentioning: Crystalis, the rest of the Dragon Warrior series

Super Nintendo (SNES)

My best five:

  1. Chrono Trigger
  2. Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI)
  3. Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV)
  4. EarthBound
  5. Secret of Evermore

Discussion: You can’t fully appreciate just what a golden age of role-playing SNES is until you parse back through its library. There is an absolute overflow of great RPGs on this system. I know someone is going to excoriate me on who did and did not make this list (to say nothing of my own rankings), and I don’t blame them. I almost need a top ten list just for SNES.

Four of my top five are all Square (now Square Enix) titles– EarthBound excepted– and all of them have one penultimate quality: they all tell unforgettable stories. Secret of Evermore is a poignant tale of a young boy trying to find his way home; EarthBound is a quirky classic about a boy making his way in the world. Final Fantasy II is a story of personal redemption; Final Fantasy III is a story of unbreakable friendship. Atop the list, of course, is Chrono Trigger, whose time-traveling saga is so legendary it defies any superlatives I could attach to it.

Others worth mentioning: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, Illusion of Gaia, and about a dozen other quality titles.

Nintendo 64

My best five:

  1. Paper Mario
  2. Ogre Battle 64
  3. Gauntlet Legends
  4. Hybrid Heaven
  5. Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage

Discussion: This is the anti-SNES list. The limited space of the N64 cartridge effected a mass exodus of RPG developers to PlayStation. For the most part, this list would basically be spare parts on any other console. The one exception is Paper Mario, which is a pretty clever game. The rest have their moments of fun– Ogre Battle 64 is decent and Gauntlet Legends is good, mindless multiplayer fun– but none of them would even crack the top 10 on PlayStation or even any of the other consoles on this list.

Also, because I don’t consider Zelda to be an RPG in the formal sense, it’s not here. (If you do, simply place Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask atop this list and call it a day.)

Others worth mentioning: Ha! Be glad I could scrape up five on N64 at all.


My best five:

  1. Baten Kaitos Origins
  2. Tales of Symphonia
  3. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
  4. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean
  5. Skies of Arcadia Legends

Discussion: As maligned as GameCube’s library was, it was an RPG renaissance compared to its predecessor. There were a pretty good crop of “good” RPGs, including a few honorable mentions listed below. I feel pretty good about the top five, though. Skies of Arcadia Legends, while a Dreamcast port, is a game with tremendous heart and was a much-needed RPG injection for the early Cube. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a beautiful game from Xenoblade creator Monolith Soft; its prequel, Baten Kaitos Origins, remedied its predecessor’s faults and is my pick atop the Cube RPG library. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door took everything right about Paper Mario and made it even better (and funnier), and Tales of Symphonia shines with glorious combat and other great Tales mechanics despite a head-scratching story.

Others worth mentioning: Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Gladius, X-Men Legends


My best five:

  1. Xenoblade Chronicles
  2. Monster Hunter Tri
  3. The Last Story
  4. Arc Rise Fantasia
  5. Opoona

Discussion: A survey of the RPG landscape on Wii leads– for me– to one, inescapable conclusion: Wii was one Operation Rainfall away from a pretty middling top five. Monster Hunter Tri, with its (now-gone) online element is certainly worthy, and its reincarnation on Wii U is among the best on Nintendo’s latest system. But the others are less stellar. Arc Rise Fantasia gets credit for filling a need, but it’s a color-by-numbers RPG. Opoona is a charmer but is also strange… and its English translation is sloppy.

In that context, the contributions of The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles— which only landed in North America because the fans demanded it– cannot be overstated. The Last Story is a fine game, with a cool combat system and some great worlds to explore. Xenoblade Chronicles, with its breathtaking scope and brilliant premise, is arguably the best game on the system and one of the best RPGs ever to grace a Nintendo console.

Others worth mentioning: Rune Factory Frontier, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World

8 Responses to “The RPGs of Nintendo Consoles”

  • 784 points
    Marc Deschamps says...

    This is a great list. Very happy with the GameCube section in particular (it was my favorite console). You even gave X-Men Legends some love!

    My only problem is that you didn’t include handhelds! :)

    • 258 points
      Joshua A. Johnston says...

      I thought about it. Ultimately there were a couple of reasons why I didn’t go down the handheld route. Part of it was simple space constraints. The other was the fact that so much of the handheld RPG market consists of ports or quirky spinoffs from other systems. DS is my favorite, though: The World Ends With You, Radiant Historia, and Infinite Space all come to mind as great original RPGs.

  • 6 points
    Quinnocent says...

    This list was a huge nostalgia trip for me.

    I wouldn’t call myself a Nintendo diehard (I’m not unwilling to buy or play other consoles), but I’ve purchased and loved almost all of Nintendo’s consoles. I’m also a huge RPG fan.

    The very first RPG I played was the original Final Fantasy on the NES. You’re right. By today’s standards, it’s clunky and occasionally painful with a barely passable story. Back then, though, it blew my mind. And even as a six year-old, I was able to muddle through it (slowly, with a lot of persistence). Somewhere in a closet somewhere, I still have the (held together by scotch tape) fold-out full color world map and monster list. My FF stuff are the very few bits of gaming nostalgia I keep with me.

    You missed one really noteworthy title, though! Phantasy Star Online Episode 1 & 2, even with the clunkiness of its subscription-based service and the need for extra network peripherals, was really amazing. I /loved/ it. Even as an Action RPG, it had very strong RPG elements, and I would argue that was the best RPG for the Gamecube.

    And like the man above me said, now it’s time for the handheld list. :D

    I’d love to revisit the gems of the GBA and the DS. There are so many gems (lots of them available on the VC now) that people need to be exposed to. Mother 3, Golden Sun, The World Ends with You.

  • 1567 points
    penduin says...

    Nice work! My personal highlights are all represented well here: Dragon Warrior, Chrono Trigger, Xenoblade Chronicles.

    Quest 64 got the complete snub, which it probably deserves. My memory of that game is pretty hazy – I’d just had my wisdom teeth yanked out, so I was doped up on painkillers and tasting blood the entire time I played through it. I seem to remember some interesting areas and a unique (if not terribly inspired) level-up and spell-growth system. But yeah, all the listed N64 RPGs were better. :^)

  • 18 points
    Marty1982 says...

    This is a very good list. Although, in the Wii section, I would’ve personally mentioned Super Paper Mario. I know it’s not technically an RPG, but it probably should’ve at least gotten a nod in your Wii RPG’s Discussion.

  • 459 points
    Drew Ciccotelli says...

    Great honest list, keep up the good work.

  • 849 points
    ejamer says...

    Did others enjoy the rogue-like RPGs on Wii? Between Baroque (a port), Chocobo’s Dungeon, and Shiren the Wanderer I felt like Wii was ahead of the curve when it comes to rogue-like mechanics being popular – in fact for a long time being the only console with these type of games was a huge selling point for me…

    Maybe some people consider rogue-like games to be a separate genre, but I figure that if Monster Hunter can count as an RPG game then rogue-likes should too! :)

    Also want to give a shout-out to Dragon Quest Swords on Wii. This on-rails Dragon Quest game didn’t work for everyone, but I found it absolutely charming (even if I’m not sure it really belongs in a discussion about RPGs).

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