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I got my first video game when I was 6 years old. A Super Nintendo with Super Metroid. It’s a visceral, unforgettable experience because years later, I’m still playing games with an almost-unhealthy frequency and working in the field.
Although Super Metroid is a wonderful game, it wasn’t the one that captivated my eternal appreciation for video games. I don’t remember exactly when, but my older brother rented Final Fantasy III from the video store (which was Final Fantasy VI).
At first, we understood naught. Lots of text, battles with lots of text where you had to choose text to do an action, to then have more text. What a mess.
Luckily, my brother didn’t give in. He rented the game once more and then another, and before I knew it, we were completely hooked. To this day, the RPG genre is my favorite, especially the JRPG, which has found in the Super Nintendo a place to call home.
This is why many players consider the Super Nintendo the golden age of RPGs. Not because of its catalog, which is not vast compared to other consoles, but because it was the ideal gateway to the genre.
It was a time to innovate, create new features, explore uncharted lands, and tell stories in the entertainment world that we had yet to see.
But amid so many games, there are always those that stand out. So this list of the Best SNES RPGs of All Time tries to narrow down just the cream of the crop – based on my personal opinion, mind you.
I used three criteria to create the list
- Gameplay: how fun, seamless, and innovative the gameplay was;
- Story: RPG is primarily a storytelling adventure where we follow the journey of our hero and the development of the world;
- Novelty: SNES boasted 16-bit technology; thus, every new game had the potential to reveal some fantastic innovation that still inspires us today.
Bottom Line Up Front
The SNES launched at a time when games started to get their space in the sun due to the 16-bit technology allowing for several innovations and graphical improvements.
The games listed here show those that stood out in the genre and serve as the basis for releases until today. However, ultimately, it is still my personal list, and the selection may differ from your opinion.
Breath of Fire II
Breath of Fire is my favorite series of all time, but even I accept that the first game was incredibly bloated and dragged. Fortunately, Breath of Fire II has made several improvements on the quality of life of the first, starting with the story and dialogs.
Set 500 years after the first game’s events, Breath of Fire II focuses on religion. It shows how, on the surface, not everything is what it appears to be. Ryu, the protagonist, is more inherently involved with the plot and his party motivations, while still shallow introduces some backstory.
Although the random encounters are annoying at times, the turn-based battle system is fast and fun. Each character has their own specialty, either as support, offensive mage, or a mix of the two. They also have personal action out of battle: removing traps, reaching distant areas, or rolling around the map on Rand’s croup.
The game also has a township minigame where you can recruit villagers for your village, each with their own forte, cooking items, or selling the best armor in the game.
This township management has become a staple in the franchise. And, of course, the staple fishing minigame, which, though tedious after the fifth attempt, contains some interesting items.
Final Fantasy IV
There is no way to leave out Final Fantasy when talking about RPGs. Final Fantasy IV is known to many as the gateway to the franchise.
Unlike its predecessors, the fourth game presented a robust character plot, narrative arcs more depicted, and the introduction of the Active Time Based (ATB) battle system, which to this day graces the players with its innovations.
The plot of Final Fantasy IV was the first to venture into a denser script, with an uneasy protagonist, betrayals, and deaths. The game starts with Cecil, a dark knight and captain of the Red Wings, stealing the Water Crystal.
He begins to question his orders and is stripped of his ranks and enlisted to minor missions. That is when he begins to witness the true intentions of the Red Wings and repentantly goes on a quest for redemption.
Final Fantasy IV was the first in the mainline to deliver ready-made characters, each with their own job. The magic system changed, and you no longer buy spells, but each learns their specialty by leveling up or acquiring it in side-quests.
During the adventure, different party members join and leave the group. Unfortunately, in the SNES version, you can’t swap them, but they complement into an efficient party.
Tales of Phantasia
The Tales of series holds its own till today. Based on a novel of the same name, Tales of Phantasia was published by Namco (Bandai Namco nowadays). The game was developed by Wolf Team, which became Namco Tales Studio before the merger.
The world of Tales of Phantasia brings elements and references to Norse mythology and time travel. In the game, we play as the swordsman Cress Albane, who journeys to take revenge on the villains that destroyed his hometown searching for his family’s pendant. In the journey, Cress discovers that his destiny is more convoluted than he imagined.
Tales has innovated its battle system with the Linear Motion Battle System (LMBS), a battle in 2D format, like fighting games. Melee units must get close to the enemy to attack, delivering Artes (skills), while ranged and magician stays in the back.
At any time, you can pause the battle and enter the menu to use items or manually pick which spell to cast. It’s a deft combat system that evolves to this day and shall not be mistaken for a mindlessly hack’s slash.
Curiously, Star Ocean was created by former employees from Wolf Team, developers behind Tales of Phantasia. Due to creative disagreements, said employees formed tri-Ace, and Star Ocean was born there.
Star Ocean has a mixed setting between sci-fi and fantasy. The game begins in a medieval fantasy world, with three friends searching for a cure for a disease.
Then our protagonist, Roddick, crosses paths with intra-stellar members of the Earth Federation. They tell him that the disease has been spread by a race the Federation is at war. It’s at this point that the path between fantasy and sci-fi converges and the appeal of the world (or universe) of Star Ocean emerges.
The battle system is reminiscent of Tales of Phantasia, but the battlefield is 3D with an isometric view. It is real-time, but you do not freely control your character’s actions.
In auto mode, pressing the attack button makes your character runs to the focused enemy and strike him. The same is true if you use a Special Art that varies according to the distance.
But the most significant differential in Star Ocean is the private actions and skills. Private actions are personal dialogs with each party member that can be activated in cities.
This helps to cherish the relationship between you and provides different endings. In total, the game has 10 characters, but you can only have 8 at the party. This means you need two playthroughs if you want to try them all.
Besides increasing stats and learning Special Arts, you earn skill points at level up. Skills can give you more stats, lower exp requirements for the next level, or combat bonuses. But even better, skills unlock specialties and item creation.
Specialties can help you get fewer random encounters, discounts at stores, and even steal from NPCs, while item creation does precisely what the name suggests. Star Ocean has many features for a SNES game that greatly expand your playtime without becoming boring – despite the usual running back and forth to complete quests.
Super Mario RPG
SquareSoft’s then-strong partnership with Nintendo led to the former creating Super Mario RPG, a turn-based RPG along the lines of Final Fantasy, but featuring our favorite jumping hero.
Super Mario RPG broke many tropes of the franchise. The game introduces us to Bowser kidnapping Peach and Mario rescuing her. Soon after, raises a twist that changes the entire narrative.
The antagonist for once is Smithy, a being who fell into the protagonist’s world and steals seven Star pieces from the Star Road, preventing people from having their wishes come true.
It was the last Mario for SNES and the first to have a 3D environment for exploration. Platforms and puzzles are also part of the gameplay and reward curious players with items and coins.
The turn-based combat has timed inputs for every attack, defense, special, or item that expanded or enhanced the command. This made the battles more dynamic and skill-based, not relying on luck for the enemy to miss or our characters to get a critical hit.
Super Mario RPG only reinforced the power of the partnership between Square and Nintendo. It’s worthwhile for anyone who wants to experience a distinct side of the Mario universe.
Final Fantasy VI
Suppose Final Fantasy IV is the gateway to the franchise’s universe. In that case, Final Fantasy VI is the lock on the exit door because after you play it, it will be too late to escape the crystal claws of Final Fantasy.
For many, Final Fantasy VI is considered the best of the franchise. And I am not including the nostalgia factor. Anyone who plays it today can feel the appeal, get emotional, have fun, and be mesmerized by the plot. It has everything. Charismatic characters, sprawling world-building, and an epic soundtrack worthy of a wedding.
The plot of Final Fantasy VI shows the Gestahlian empire on a hostile hunt to garner the magic of the world for themselves. Mind-controlled Terra, a mysterious girl who can use unaided magic, scours the world for the mysterious espers.
A fateful encounter causes Terra to free herself from the empire’s mind-control, and she joins the Returners, a resistance opposing the iron hand of Gestahlian.
The game presents an ensemble cast, in which some characters have their protagonism and a narrative arc to be told. Terra, Locke, and Celes all play a vital role in the plot, which eventually intertwines with the world’s fate.
The gameplay persists with the glorious ATB and specialized party members. The espers system allows us to customize our characters. Each equipped esper increases a specific attribute when leveling up and enables members to use magic. After acquiring a set of magic points, characters can conjure the magic without the esper.
Secret of Mana
The Mana series was born as a spinoff of Final Fantasy but soon gained its own branding. Secret of Mana is a high fantasy action RPG played with a top-down view. The game follows our hero Randi, the girl Primm, and the sprite Popoi. Officially these are their names, but the characters came unnamed in the SNES version.
Secret of Mana begins with our hero, Randi, unexpectedly finding a sword implanted in a rock. As he removes it to cut through the tall grass that prevents his return home, monsters inadvertently begin to appear around the village.
The villagers blame Randi, claiming he has brought misfortune and cast him out. Soon, Randi meets a knight who says that his sword is the Mana Sword, and he must visit eight temples to restore it.
We eventually meet the other two party members in the adventure, who are controlled by competent AI (finally!) or other players. The battle is real-time, but you can open a Ring Command that pauses the game and allows you to use items and spells.
Each character has a gauge, and when attacking with one of eight weapons – each with its own strength – this gauge resets to zero before recharging to 100%. If you attack before it restores, the damage is reduced.
Saving elementals unlock spells for Primm and Popoi. The first focuses on healing and support, and the second focuses on devastating enemies. Upgrading weapons unlock new skills with them.
Secret of Mana may not have one of the densest and most elaborate narratives. Still, its colorful scenarios, the eclectic environments, and the real-action combat were a delight for the time, even more so if you get a friend to pair with you.
You saw this one coming from a mile away, hey.
Chrono Trigger is not only one of the best SNES RPGs but also one of the best RPGs on all platforms.
Games that involve time travel are delicate as jewelry engraving, but the result is marvelous when done right. As expected, Chrono Trigger hits the nail.
From the start, our protagonist Crono gets involved in a contraption that sends Marle into the past. He follows her, given his heroic demeanor. While going back and forth through time, the group discovers that the future is doomed, and it is up to them, time travelers, to prevent this.
And it’s in this time-traveling we discover more about the world of Chrono Trigger and shape it, altering something in the past to see its results in the future. Exploring the different eras also helps uncover the backstory of the supporting characters. And so much more.
The first time I played Chrono Trigger, I gave them a standing ovation for removing the random encounters. Although you can’t avoid every battle, knowing that I was about to enter one gave me a certain relief. But even when I did get into a battle, no complaints.
The animations, the vivid enemies, and the ATB system harmonized to make a sublime battle system. The addition of double and triple tech was the holy grail of the game. Using all the characters to unlock the combined techniques is a delight.
Not to mention the timeless soundtrack of the game that often serves as an aid when I want to focus and write. In this case, now. Chrono Trigger is undoubtedly the most praised SNES RPG and raised the bar for the genre standards.
There is a world of RPGs outside of fantasy. Front Mission is a mecha-filled sci-fi series in strategy-RPG gameplay. Our characters move through grids in battle and must use cunning tactics to achieve victory.
The game is set in 2090, and the plot takes place in our supposedly real world in the future. The United States of the New Continent, a joint between North and South America, enters a struggle against the Oceania Cooperative Union (OCU) to take control of Huffman Island, where the plot unfolds.
The protagonist is Royd Clive, an OCU captain involved in the Huffman Conflict war. Like any good contemporary war game, expect a lot of politicking and betrayal.
The game’s highlight is its strategic mecha gameplay, called wanzers in the Front Mission franchise. Each wanzer has four parts that can be crushed separately. Body, legs, left arm, and right arm. Destroying the body eliminates the pilot, while destroying the other parts reduces the wanzer’s functionality by stealing its movement or attacks.
The game was a success and spawned several more within the series. If you want to change the fantasy feel a bit or prefer a more realistic setting, Front Mission is a stellar choice.
Dragon Quest V
And just as we link Final Fantasy to RPGs, many said that about Dragon Quest, a direct competitor to SquareSoft’s franchise in the SNES era.
Dragon Quest V is a franchise that may be synonymous with a bread and butter RPG but changes the seasoning to give it a distinctive taste. Since the first game’s release, the franchise has kept the turn-based gameplay and the mute protagonist, the hero, predestined to face the world’s darkness.
However, Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride stands out. The game has a robust time passage. We follow the protagonist’s birth through to his marriage and the creation of a family. Dragon Quest V was the first in the franchise to introduce monsters in the player party. The level system remained the same.
The story begins with the protagonist traveling the world with his father, Pankraz. The latter is in search of the legendary hero. However, his father is murdered, and the protagonist is destined to a life of slavery.
Until, ten years later, he manages to escape. Carrying on his father’s journey, the protagonist eventually marries and has a son – who becomes a playable character and a pivotal point in the story.
This extensive narrative is a delight. I freak out at RPGs that have a time skip like Breath of Fire III. Accompanying our protagonist through his journey as an ordinary person all the way to saving the world is satisfying. It makes for a much more charming and relatable experience than many RPGs.
Question: How Can I Play SNES RPGs?
Answer: Some games have versions for current platforms, like Chrono Trigger on Steam or the Pixel Remaster of Final Fantasy. Others, however, do not have an official form, and you would have to resort to unofficial resources, which I do not recommend.
What remains is to pray to the gods that the companies bring remasters or remakes of these consecrated games.
Question: Why no Remaster or Remake of Chrono Trigger?
Answer: The million-dollar question. There are so many videos discussing this, but nobody has a concrete answer. I don’t know if it is because of bureaucratic issues involving the notorious dream team or for fear of spoiling the breathtaking experience everyone had with the classic version.
But bringing in a modernized version with a current engine, like Secret of Mana did, would surely curdle and stir the hearts of Chrono Trigger fans.
Question: Which SNES RPG Should I Play?
Answer: If you like turn-based RPG and want something simple, I suggest Final Fantasy IV. If you like strategy-RPG and sci-fi, go with Front Mission. For real-time and action-RPG, Secret of Mana or Terranigma.
Craving something a theme more contemporary and irreverent, play Earthbound/Mother. But if you don’t want to go wrong and be impressed, Chrono Trigger is your best choice.
The SNES RPG catalog is not that extensive compared to the PlayStation 1. Still, it was undoubtedly a kind of beta lab to show how technology accepted new forms of gameplay and storytelling.
Luckily for us, the SNES did this majestically, delivering timeless titles that serve as a benchmark for releases to this day, either as a basis for comparison or inspiration. For retro-RPG lovers, it’s worth trying any of the games above, mainly since most of them can be found on current platforms in their digital store.
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