The expansive software library of Nintendo’s 16-bit powerhouse wasn’t short of any of the most popular genres of the '90s, and perhaps least of all RPGs. Intense strategy, whimsical adventure, tear-jerking goodbyes to characters you’ve spent months with… the SNES has it all.
And that makes compiling a list of ten of the console’s very best a piece of cake, right? Well… The problem with having this embarrassment of riches to choose from is realising you’ve got twenty or even thirty games all equally deserving of a spot on a list of ten, and that means so many games, no matter how good they may be, have just got to go.
Even so, we feel that we've picked out some of the best examples of the genre for the list; you can be confident that any of these titles will give you many hours of enjoyment.
So here goes – and remember, this is in no particular order...
If you're a fan of RPGs in general, don't forget to check out our other lists:
- Best Nintendo Switch RPGs
- Best Nintendo Switch Action RPGs
- Best Nintendo 3DS RPGs
- Best Nintendo DS RPGs
- Best Game Boy Advance RPGs
- Best Game Boy / Game Boy Color RPGs
Famously headed by three of the biggest names in the industry at the time (Final Fantasy’s Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest’s Yuji Horii, and Akira Toriyama, the man behind a little comic you may have heard of called Dragon Ball), there was no chance this time-travelling saga was ever going to end up as anything less than the stuff of legend. Blurring the expected boundaries between battle scenes and standard exploration allowed players to feel closer to the action than ever before, and the strong cast drawn from the past, present, and futures that you hope will never come to pass, help to hold together what could in lesser hands have easily ended up a fractured and incomprehensible tangle of plot threads.
Nintendo choosing to publish this Quintet-developed action RPG marks one of those occasions European SNES owners could hold their heads high and just for once feel slightly superior to their RPG-enjoying counterparts in the US – even if Terranigma was released in such small numbers many of those who would have happily dedicated their evenings to it were completely unaware of its existence at the time. Ark’s journey to restore the world and the trials he’s subjected to along the way are a rare example of genuinely epic RPG storytelling; encompassing as it does nothing less than god, the devil, and a world with strong similarities to our own.
Nintendo let Squaresoft run riot in their most precious setting, and gamers everywhere rejoiced. Although it’s to be expected from a developer of their pedigree part of what makes this colourful adventure so special is how much fun it is even after the novelty of seeing Mario and friends standing in an orderly line while waiting their turn to bop a menagerie of familiar faces and brand new enemies has worn off. It’s Nintendo’s famous plumber as you’ve never seen him before yet somehow exactly as you’d imagined, placed right in the middle of the sort of story you always wanted to see him in.
Who doesn’t still feel a shiver up their spine after turning this game on and hearing that whale song sample coming out of their TV’s speakers? Randi, Primm, and Popoi’s world-saving tale was an instant classic – and for once, a tale you could play through with a friend as naturally as any other multiplayer game on the system. The incredible pixel art (stunning even when compared to the console’s best) and the charming fairytale-like qualities of this heroic trio’s story come together to create a truly unforgettable experience. The sequel's not half bad, either.
Need a break from the sunshine and happy gnomes with a great work ethic found in more colourful RPGs, chummer? Then look no further than Beam Software’s cyberpunk classic. Putting you in control of an amnesiac mercenary may not sound like the most inventive way to kick off a story but this 16-bit interpretation of Shadowrun’s grimy corporate world soon becomes an irresistible web of intrigue. In many ways, this is the game Cyberpunk 2077 should have been (don't @ me). Check out our "making of" the game here.
SaGa games may not be to everyone’s tastes, but love them or loathe them, it’s hard to deny the raw ambition of a Super Famicom game that allows multiple protagonists to cut their own path through the game’s dense web of freeform storylines, the world-changing in ways you might not even be aware of as you go. As with many of Akitoshi Kawazu’s other titles traditional RPG growth systems are put aside in favour of something more unpredictable, asking players to deal with the attributes they’ve been rather than mindlessly grinding for hours or artificially min/maxing their way to victory. Never released outside of Japan back in the day, a fan translation allows you to play this today.
What needs to be said about legendary title? The opera scene. The World of Ruin. Watching Magitek armour slowly trudge through the endless snow. Sabin meme-ily suplexing an entire train. Kefka’s laugh (we know you heard that text). Squaresoft’s beloved RPG often feels like a non-stop parade of effortless excellence, churning out memorable scenes one after the other as if the team had an excess of creativity that just had to come out.
It’s the vague baseline of almost-normality that makes Shigesato Itoi’s off-kilter RPG feel more bizarre than most games that try to make a conscious effort to create a weird and wacky setting. Story heavy games are filled with triple-headed monsters and sentient globs of goo but how many have you square up to armoured frogs and aggressive cups of coffee? EarthBound may have been criminally overlooked on its release but there’s no doubt fans – old and new – have more than made up for that in the years since (and even Nintendo remembered to include it on the SNES Mini).
Combining the thrill of real-time tactical battlefield management with Yasumi Matsuno’s now trademark penchant for weaving tales of political turmoil over straightforward clashes of swords and sorcery, Ogre Battle and all the games that were created from it, whether part of this series or set in the wonderfully similar world of Ivalice, remain a high point for the entire genre. This is one of the best instalments and is well worth a look, despite the passage of time.
At the time of release, Arcana (or Card Master: Rimsalia no Fuuin as it is known in Japan) was marked down by reviewers thanks to its similarity to Sega's Shining in the Darkness. It's a fair comment – both are first-person dungeon-crawlers with random, turn-based battles and town 'hubs' you can visit between battles – but Arcana is arguably the more polished of the pair thanks to its superior visuals, gorgeous soundtrack and engaging gameplay. Sure, the random encounters are a little on the high side, but this is something you could say about many '90s JRPGs. Arcana is also notable for marking the debut of Kirby in a video game; HAL's pink puffball appears during the introduction sequence.