Long before the PS1 popularized RPGs with Final Fantasy VII, they were mostly a niche genre on the Super Nintendo. They represent a time before cutscenes, voice acting, awkward translations, etc. Back then, you could name your party members as opposed to using their default names, and pretend it was you and your friends on a quest to save the world.
A lot of RPGs, old school and new alike, gave Western players a taste of anime before it became big towards the end of the 1990’s since many of them use the same art style, with some designs provided by very famous manga artists. In the end, you still got a soundtrack that still captured the spirit of the game, a compelling story, distinct battle and quest systems, and relatable characters. So what are some of the top 10 SNES RPG classics? Read our list to find out!
Since the name of this list is Top 10 RPGs for the SNES, we are emphasizing on games released under the Super Nintendo, the North American name, as opposed to the Super Famicom, its Japanese name. So if you’re expecting Dragon Quest V or Final Fantasy V, we would like to apologize in advance but there is a possibility to have a list exclusive to and/or include Japanese only releases in the future if you were anticipating such titles.
10. Illusion of Gaia (Gaia Gensouki)
- Publisher: Nintendo (US), Enix (Japan)
- Developer: Quintet
- Release Date: Nov 27, 1993 (Japan), Sept 1994 (US)
Kicking off this list is a major cult classic, Illusion of Gaia. Despite having a vast cast, only three characters are playable - Will, Freedan and Shadow. Compared to most RPGs of the time which were turn-based oriented and leveling up, Illusion of Gaia has a more active presentation like Zelda where you can gain items or meet certain characters to boost your health or magic meter. While this game is fantasy oriented, it uses real-world inspired locations such as Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, and the Tower of Babel all play a significant role in the story.
Upon its American release, it was subjected to some changes due to religious references. In the original Japanese version, Will attended a Christian Sunday school. In the US release, it was changed to a regular school. It was a considerable success in Japan and some can thank the character designs of Moto Hagi, famous for the Shoujo classic, They Were Eleven.
9. Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals (Estpolis Denki II)
- Publisher: Taito (Japan), Natsume (US)
- Developer: Neverland
- Release Date: Feb 24, 1995 (Japan), Aug 1996 (US)
Despite being labeled as the second game, like Dragon Quest III and A Link to the Past, this game serves as a prequel. As Maxim, the ancestor of the main character from the original game, you and some friends go on a quest to stop some Demigods, or the Sinistrals, from taking over the world. Though the game has your typical random encounters on the world map, enemies are visible in the dungeons.
The game allows you to have up to 4 party characters plus an AI controlled capsule monster, which you can say was Pokemon before there ever was Pokemon. Like Pokemon, they also evolve and are separated into different elements, neutral, light, wind, water, dark, fire, and soil. Last, you can rebuild towns and have people live there like in Actraiser.
8. Breath of Fire II (Breath of Fire II: Shimei no Ko)
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Date: Dec 2, 1994 (Japan), Dec 1995 (US)
While Capcom is mostly famous for Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and Mega Man, they actually had an RPG series during the days of the Super Nintendo, Breath of Fire, and many consider its second installment to be the best. Though it is the second game, you are by no means required to play the first in order to enjoy this one. The story follows Ryu Bateson, a 16-year-old from the Dragon Clan whose village has no memory of him. It turns out that a church has been corrupted by an ancient demon, and Ryu and his new friends have to stop him.
Even though Illusion of Gaia had to change its religious references, Breath of Fire II wasn’t subjected to the same standards. What makes this game a distinction on this list is that it is very user-friendly to rookies and veterans alike to old-school RPGs. While it has your typical random encounters, the game has a special meter to indicate the possibility of one. Your party members all come from different clans and have unique abilities that will be useful in a certain battle or puzzle.
Its biggest distinction is its shaman system where if you combine certain abilities, you can make powerful spells or spells that are about as useful as a fish out of the water. It’s very strategy oriented so if you want something a bit different and yet engaging, this is the game for you.
7. Earthbound (Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushu)
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Ape Studios
- Release Date: Aug 27, 1994 (Japan), June 5, 1995 (US)
While most of you know of Ness from the Smash Brothers series, he initially debuted in Earthbound, which is unarguably the Super Nintendo’s biggest cult classic. Upon its release, it was met with mixed reception and looking back on it, a lot of it was understandable. First off, its self-deprecating ad campaign just made little to no sense and some of us always wondered why Nintendo promoted the game that way. Back in the heydays of Nintendo Power, they just said the game stinks and had these weird smelly scratch and sniff cards to promote it.
By the time the game came out, the Western gaming world wasn’t that strongly familiar with RPGs, or if they were, some criticized it for being a non-conventional RPG. Since this game came with a strategy guide, it sold around $75-$95, rather expensive back in the mid-1990s, or heck, even today.
As time went on, gamers appreciated it for being different and shared their love from the beginning of the Internet. As opposed to taking place in a fantasy world, Earthbound takes place in a modern American city or Eagle Land. Many fans compare it to the classic 1980’s film, The Goonies. Due to its setting, the translations felt more appropriate as opposed to using Shakespearian or Victorian English with fantasy oriented RPGs, which came across as awkward in a good number of them. Its battle system has a presentation that is similar to Dragon Quest where you have a first-person view of the enemies as you combat them. As opposed to getting swords and knives, the kids use bats and yo-you as weapons, giving players a comparatively realistic presentation with using kids as the main characters.
It became a cult classic not because of its humor, but for some of its darker qualities as well, which you have to play to believe. Though it will make you laugh, there are moments that will make you think it’s royally screwed up. It’s a game that is both in-tune with RPGs of the time and breaks traditional conventions, which is ultimately why it’s still loved to this day.
6. Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2)
- Publisher: SquareSoft
- Developer: SquareSoft
- Release Date: Aug 6, 1993 (Japan), Oct 1993 (US)
In case some of you didn’t know, Secret of Mana is officially a sequel to a Final Fantasy game for the Game Boy, Seiken Adventure: Final Fantasy Gaiden, or Final Fantasy Adventure in North America. Both this game and its predecessor distinguish itself from the typical Final Fantasy game by resembling the presentation of the original Zelda game by having an overhead view and active battles. The game’s party consists of Randy, Primm, and Popoi, and if you can get two other people to play with you, you can have a simultaneous 3-player play! Each character has their use and function. Randy is the close ranger fighter with his weapons, Primm is the healer, and Popoi is the long-range magic user.
Like some of the other Square games listed here, Ted Woolsey, the company’s translator at the time, translated and localized the game. It has been subjected to some criticism but he has shared in interviews that he had to rush it, and a large portion of its script had to be cut due to space limitations.
In addition, the memory size of the fonts they had to use at the time couldn’t accommodate an authentic translation, and Woolsey had a difficult time translating the game because he received the original scripts out of order. As strange as it does sound, technology at the time (in addition to the time constraints) made translation difficult, which is why a good number of these games come across as awkward.
5. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: SquareSoft
- Release Date: Mar 9, 1996 (Japan), May 13, 1996 (US)
For the longest time, Miyamoto wanted to do an RPG with Mario and with collaboration from Square, they managed to release Legend of the Seven Stars. Square saw it as a good opportunity to expand their exposure outside of Japan since their previous releases were just cult hits. While it is presentably faithful to what we have always seen in Mario, it introduces new elements and characters to spice things up, and still gives a true RPG experience.
For starters, Bowser, Mario’s sworn nemesis, actually becomes a key ally in his quest to stop Smithy, a living sword that has taken over his castle. Adding more to its unique humor is the inclusion of Mallow, a cloud child who believes he’s a frog due to being raised by them. In addition, you do get sleeping cameos of Link and Samus.
So if Western gamers wanted a gateway to RPGs before Final Fantasy VII debuted, Mario RPG was it. The game had excellent 3D rendered graphics (that made you wonder if it was a 16-bit game or a 32-bit one), an easy story to follow, an easy combat system, an addicting soundtrack, and never-ending humor. Some critics at the time praised the graphics since some didn’t like the anime style graphics, which was the standard for RPGs at the time.
While there have been spiritual successors such as Paper Mario, due to Square having the rights to original characters like Mallow and Geno, we still have yet to get an authentic follow up to the original Mario RPG. While a sequel was considered to include Luigi, Square partnering with Sony afterward didn’t allow that to happen. Hopefully one day, Square and Nintendo will work together and give us a new quest with these fun characters.
4. The 7th Saga (Elnard)
- Publisher: Enix (US), Gameplan21 (Japan)
- Developer: Produce
- Release Date: Apr 23, 1993 (Japan), Sept 1993 (US)
While Enix never released any Dragon Quest games for the Super Nintendo in the West, it didn’t mean the publisher didn’t release any games for the console altogether outside of Japan. In addition to Actraiser, one notable game they released was The 7th Saga. What makes this game a distinction on this list is that you have the option of choosing seven characters of different races as you go on a quest to find seven magical runes for a king.
The seven selectable characters are two regular humans, an ancient robot, an alien, a dwarf, a demon, and an elf. Whoever you choose will have a different path so you’re getting seven different stories. If you choose one character, you will encounter the other selectable characters in your quest to collect the seven runes. There will be instances you can team up with them, and there are others where you will have to combat them.
The game is also notorious for its challenging difficulty that even veteran RPG players find it frustrating, but still enjoy it for its unique story, characters, and its excellently composed soundtrack. A lot of enthusiasts and reviewers compare it to Sega’s original Phantasy Star series for its presentation so fans of that saga should be able to enjoy 7th Saga. While its combat system is typical for the genre of the time by having random encounters, you have a crystal ball that indicates where enemies are located so depending on where your character is situated, you can avoid combat. So if you’re looking for the ultimate challenge, you’re getting that with The 7th Saga.
3. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Zelda no Densetsu: Kamigami no Triforce)
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Date: Nov 21, 1991 (Japan), April 13, 1993 (US)
As the third installment of the Zelda franchise, this release goes back to the overhead perspective of its debut on the NES, which is more in tune with mainstream RPGs of the time. While its story follows the same formula of having to save Princess Zelda and Hyrule from Ganon, A Link to the Past introduces a lot of key elements that are still in use in the Zelda franchise to this very day such as the obtaining the Master Sword and exploring alternate worlds.
This game is more or less the link (no pun intended) between the old Zelda games and the present ones. In addition to introducing the common elements we now see, it was the first to suggest that the world of Zelda operates on a very convoluted timeline (which can qualify as its own article). While its story isn’t to the out of control level of Kingdom Hearts, the great thing about Link to the Past along with other Zelda games is that you really don’t need any prior exposure to any of them.
For those that also played the N64 game, Ocarina of Time, you’ll be able to recognize a good majority of the soundtrack that is also heavily present in this game such as the theme song to Kakariko Village. So if you want that balance between the present games and the original NES release, then play Link to the Past now!
2. Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI)
- Publisher: SquareSoft
- Developer: SquareSoft
- Release Date: Apr 2, 1994 (Japan), Oct 20, 1994 (US)
Like how Final Fantasy IV initially debuted as Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy VI in the US was retitled as Final Fantasy III, and many long-time Final Fantasy fans still call it the best in the franchise. Using a steampunk theme, this edition of Final Fantasy tells the story of how a rebel group known as The Returners are fighting to overthrow an evil empire. What makes this installment distinguishing is that it has sixteen characters you can recruit into your party, who all have different skills. Locke has the ability to steal from enemies, Sabin plays like a fighting game character with his Blitz techniques, and the outcome of Setzer’s slot machine-like option mode can either heal you or cause major damage to an enemy.
Just like other Final Fantasy games, you can learn magic, use summons, ride on chocobos, ride an airship, and encounter a character named Cid. Despite how big the cast gets, players get to learn about them and each character gets their own distinctive arc and development through certain parts of the game. But if there is any reason why this game is largely loved to this day, it has to be its villain, Kefka. While Final Fantasy VIIs Sephiroth gets more love in the mainstream, fans love Kefka because (SPOILER) he’s one of the very few villains to succeed in destroying the world! But the game shows that as long as there is life, there will always be hope.
Last, we promise you’ll get a great kick out of its soundtrack, especially during the opera scene. Even though it may sound silly with how sound effects have evolved since the Super Nintendo, the game still does a great job of capturing on what an opera should sound like and the emotion to Celes’ song. And you’ll also love Kefka’s laugh.
1. Chrono Trigger
- Publisher: SquareSoft
- Developer: SquareSoft
- Release Date: Mar 11, 1995 (Japan), Aug 22, 1995 (US)
When you combine the genius of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Horii, Akira Toriyama, Kazuhiko Aoki, Masato Kato, Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu, then you get not just the best RPG made on the Super Nintendo, but the best RPG of all time! Correction, the best game of all time! Its main gimmick is that you can travel through time and recruit someone from a certain time period to your party. It has a compelling story of how a trio of kids from the present is out to save the future from a prehistoric parasitic beast, but they get help from a frog, a cavewoman, and a robot. If you choose to do so, recruit a certain enemy, which can affect the outcome of one of your party members.
This was one of the first RPGs to have double and triple team moves for certain party members. You can have Crono use a fire sword strike and/or ice sword strike when paired with Merle and Lucca, who respectively use ice and fire magic, or combine the magical elements of Crono, Frog, and Lucca for the ultimate spell. It also has an amazing and iconic soundtrack that knows how to set the mood. It knows how to capture intensity, romance, happiness, and every emotion you can think of. And did we mention that Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama was the chief character designer? If not, it’s no wonder why Crono resembles Gokuu.
What makes Chrono Trigger still hold up to this very day is that it has multiple endings based on what point in the game you are in. If you choose to face the final boss by using either a time gate or time machine, how you get to him can affect the outcome of the ending. After beating the game, you are offered the option of New Game+, meaning you can start a new game based on the levels, equipment, and spells your party members had at the end of your previous game. If you choose to face the final boss from the beginning of the game from New Game+, you are treated to a unique ending where you get to meet the staff. Even after 20 years, the game offers replay value, which is why it is number one.
While some of these titles have been re-released on newer consoles, handhelds, mobile devices, and PC, they still have a unique charm when you play their original SNES releases. While younger gamers can enjoy the newer releases with upgraded graphics, fixed translations, newer content, and cutscenes, older gamers can re-live their childhoods by playing the game in its original form.
So what are some Western released Super Nintendo RPGs we may have missed? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.