The Super Nintendo era was the 'Golden Age' for role-playing games. Indeed, in those years there was a huge mass of unforgettable titles released that drew in a whole generation of gamers. Western audiences were skeptical as to whether RPGs were too complicated and lengthy to be popular. But it turned out enough gamers actually wanted these intricate RPG elements, which persist to this day.
It's a shame, but a great many hidden gems for the SNES weren't released in North America and don't qualify for this list (like Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei). In addition to this, a lot of games from that era blurred the line between RPG and action-adventure, making it difficult to decide whether or not to include them. Yet, even without all of its best games being included, the SNES still meets its reputation of carrying must-play games for any die-hard fan.
On the other hand, there's a large mass of failed role-playing games for the SNES that aren't even worth mentioning. As such, this list will be prioritizing titles that people actually recognize. In no particular order, read on for some of my top picks for the best and worst retro RPGs for the Super Nintendo.
15 Best: Chrono Trigger
Any list of celebrated Super Nintendo games or famous RPGs isn't complete without mentioning Chrono Trigger, so let's just get this one out of the way. Players took on the role of the silent protagonist Crono, as he traveled through time to save the world from Lavos. The game boasted great music and a fun battle system with combination techniques. To this day, the characters are beloved, and the story is lauded as excellent.
An ingenious facet of the game was how you could make changes in the past and see them manifest in the future. That, and the sidequests near the end of the game left me speechless. In addition to this, Chrono Trigger was one of the first games to include multiple endings, as well as the New Game+ feature. Two decades ago, Chrono Trigger on the SNES was my first video game, and it's shaped my judgment of all RPGs ever since.
14 Worst: Secret Of The Stars
At first, one might think Secret of the Stars is just like any other generic, fantasy RPG. Ray and his party defends the world from the dastardly Homncruse and his demon horde. But the enemies are out-of-place while the quests (if you can deign to even call them that) required the bulk of your patience as you scoured maps for whatever junk was necessary to move forward.
Secret of the Stars' only good points were its average graphics and soundtrack. A child could have written the plot, the characters were barely developed, and the script was poorly translated. If that wasn't enough, the game is horribly slow in its walking speed, frequent battles, and low experience. Think of Secret of the Stars as a punishment rather than entertainment.
13 Best: Earthbound
Admittedly, when I first played Earthbound, I didn't understand its acclaim. The game was goofy, and just not as cool as other the other available RPGs of the time. But its flat visuals and silly dialogue are an intentional part of its charm, and once you open you mind to it, you can see what sparked its cult following.
Join Ness and his friends as they save the world from alien mutations. Rather than follow conventional fantasy elements, the game seemed to satirize and subvert these facets by placing the setting in the modern era; requiring things like pay phones for savepoints, ATMs for claiming spoils, and hospitals as inns. For its challenging adventure and bizarre (yet clever) humor, Earthbound is a classic among retro RPGs.
12 Worst: The 7th Saga
Admittedly, The 7th Saga is the best of the bottom feeders on this 'Worst' list. The protagonist is recruited to collect seven runes and become the benevolent king's heir. There is one aspect of the game that's quite creative — at the beginning of the game, the player picks between seven different characters. These characters run into each other on their separate journeys, sometimes as allies and other times as opponents.
When you look at its visuals, plot, and soundtrack, you don't expect it to be bad. But as far as the gameplay is concerned, The 7th Saga is repetitive and mind-numbing. It's difficult to appreciate the music if all you hear are random battles over and over again. Any innovation could have improved the ceaseless cycle of grating encounters and convoluted puzzles.
11 Best: Eye Of The Beholder
Eye of the Beholder was one of the last games made to be a loyal (albeit simple) Dungeons & Dragons-style title gracing that era, and was lauded by fans of the niche. Some claim it's merely a clone of Dungeon Master, but it's important to note that this was an improvement from that beloved prototype. And fans really enjoyed the tricky gameplay.
Players created a party of characters to investigate horrors below the city by venturing through the sewers into the lair of Xanathar. The graphics and sounds were great, giving a deep, and realistic dungeon experience. While it received praise for its atmosphere and user interface, the combat was a little lacking, and the ending seemed fairly rushed. Ultimately, the game just didn't age well, but it was still a gem in its time.
10 Worst: Obitus
On the other side of the fence, not every D&D-style knock-off could get its feet off the ground. As these games were first intended for the PC, not everything could transfer well. But Obitus is the perfect example of there being nothing of substance to transfer. The game was visibly atrocious, and the soundtrack was usually either uninspired or nonexistent.
Players take on the role of Wil Mason, the history teacher, as he's thrown into a fantasy world to save the kingdom. Unlike Eye of the Beholder, whose difficulty lie in its puzzling dungeon-crawling, Obitus' struggle stemmed from its confusing controls, aggravating enemies, and irritating starvation mechanic. Maybe playing this monstrosity will raise your opinion of all the other RPGs by comparison.
9 Best: Shadowrun
Meet Jake, who is riddled with bullets at the beginning of the game. He awakens in the morgue with amnesia, and journeys to understand why he is in danger, and how he was saved. Shadowrun has morose music and visual design. Combat is quick and decisive. The story is deep, and succeeds in portraying the introspective nature of the character.
It might not be fair to include Shadowrun on this list, as it didn't sell well. It had a lot of innovative qualities to it, but it was too ahead of its time. Given a few years and a better platform to perform on, it would certainly have been a commercial success. At the very least, it's retroactively considered one of the greatest sci-fi games of the era.
8 Worst: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
Many RPG fans ignore this forgettable relic, but almost two decades ago this under-performing spin-off was my introduction to the Final Fantasy series. The developers intended Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for entry-level role-playing gamers and also to garner interest in the other Final Fantasy games. But instead, it was just a cheap knockoff of other elements in the series that didn't appeal to either the masses nor fans.
Benjamin is supposed to fulfill a prophecy to collect the crystals and vanquish monsters, but really, there was little to no character development or plot. The battle system was repetitive and poorly designed. And there was little to gain from exploring (not that the overworld really allowed for that) this completely linear game. It's only good aspect was its music.
7 Best: Secret Of Evermore
Secret of Evermore is proof that cheap knock-offs can be great games too. The game was developed by Square in North America. The protagonist and his dog get warped to a fantasy world, where his dog shape-shifts to match the realm he's in. The player can switch between four different kinds of weapons, which increase in skill by use.
The soundtrack is amazing, the visuals are dark and tantalizing, and the game's unique alchemy system allows for awesome combined magic. Its combat and ring-style menu call back to Secret of Mana, which also could have been on this list because it was an amazing game as well. Another similarity it shares is the option to switch characters. This success of this gameplay is an example of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
6 Worst: Drakkhen
I wasn't going to include this entry in my list, but it's so abhorrent that I couldn't help myself. Begin the game with character creation of the four adventurers. Proceed to complete tasks for ungrateful nobles. Then proceed to bang your forehead against your desk as this game tries your patience.
Dying is extremely frustrating in this game, as it's easy to die, but it isn't easy to revive your party members. The controls for moving and battle tactics are abysmal, and the monsters are unforgiving (and ill-placed). Worst of all, it's not even an exaggeration to say that Drakkhen doesn't really have a plot for most of the game. It's rarely clear what you should be doing, and the massive amounts of text likely use poor translations from its original French release.
5 Best: Super Mario RPG
Gamers haven't forgotten about Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Players controlled Mario and tried to save the Mushroom Kingdom from the evil blacksmith Smithy. There are no random encounters, as Mario can choose to avoid most enemies. And though battles are turn-based, the player is able to enter in action commands to increase the effectiveness of their attacks.
Mario journeys the land recruiting party members and collecting the star fragments so wishes can be granted once more. Along the way, the player gets to revel in the hilarious dialogue and joyful minigames. And this Final Fantasy-inspired Mario game is beloved to this day, having set the groundwork for all other RPGs that Mario has appeared in.
4 Worst: Inindo: Way Of The Ninja
Turn back time and enter the world of Inindo: Way of the Ninja. The protagonist is an apprentice ninja attempting to avenge his clan that was crushed by Nobunaga. Before challenging him and reaching the (unsatisfying) ending, he must complete ten (repetitive) training dungeons. I was excited by the process of recruiting of other characters, but was disappointed that most of them were pretty useless.
Visually, Inindo is pretty poor, especially outside of battle. The music is alright, albeit repetitive, but it's the sound effects that get really annoying. It's cool that combat requires you to move around the battlefield, but it's quite slow, and notably difficult without grinding some levels. All in all, this is another game that can only be beaten by testing the limits of your patience.
3 Best: Ogre Battle: The March Of The Black Queen
The protagonist begins by completing a personality quiz which determines your starting units. You then go on to lead a resistance against Empress Endora the conquerer. There are a myriad of different classes, as well as side characters to recruit. Different decisions in and out of battle will affect the player's alignment, which in turn determines which of thirteen endings you reach.
Players have complained that you don't directly control your units in battle, instead you auto-battle depending on the tactics you choose. But otherwise, venturing across the tactical map is a fun experience, as you liberate towns and capture enemy bases. It's a damn shame that most of the other games in the Ogre franchise do away with this system.
2 Worst: Paladin's Quest
Meet Chezni, a mage-in-training. On a dare, he accidentally unleashes a powerful evil that destroys the magic academy. So, his headmaster orders him to undo his mistake and protect the world. Paladin's Quest has awfully-ugly characters and color schemes. But this doesn't compare to the atrocious translations, making me want to play something else just from seeing the dialogue and item/spell names (I wasn't happy with using a 'Sph cd' and casting 'Dft P').
One of the worst things about the game is its first-person battles. It's notably difficult to restore your health, which is aggravating since health is also used to cast spells. And you can only save at inns, so expect to reload a lot. Its saving grace? Nothing else is too complicated, and the soundtrack is okay.
1 Best: Final Fantasy III (VI)
Join the Returners as they attempt to overthrow the diabolical Gestahlian Empire, which is conquering territories across the world and also harvesting magic from magical beings called Espers. Terra is a mysterious woman without a past, but on her quest she discovers she is half-Esper. When the world comes to ruin, it's up to the unique ensemble cast to return the world to balance.
For those of you who haven't had this hammered into your trivia box, although the game was released as Final Fantasy III, it's actually supposed to be the sixth installment in the series (corrected in all other releases). Is anyone surprised by this entry? Of course not. Many consider this to the peak of greatness when it comes to Final Fantasy games (or RPGs overall), and the ensuing plateau of popular games afterward lasted for almost a decade.