Most RPGs from the '80s were heavily inspired by the likes of Dungeons and Dragons, but whether due to technological limitations or just a mass case of carbon-copying what was selling well (or both), they usually just focused on the dungeon crawling and combat and exhumed most, if not all, of the actual role-playing part. Wasteland was an early attempt to reintroduce that by not just giving you combat skills to master, but a bunch of other creative ways to interact with your environment - lock picking, safecracking, alarm and trap disarming, sleight of hand, metallurgy, and even some very niche ones like Cryptography and Toaster Repair (which is more useful than you'd think). It wasn't the most fleshed out of worlds, though, so not every skill was very worthwhile to have, and it still put heavy focus on combat so you couldn't do a purely diplomatic or stealthy approach to most problems. But, it was a solid attempt at expanding beyond the tropes of the day, and it told quite a fun story with a quirky sense of humor, even if you did have to have the manual handy for much of it (and it included quite a few fake passages with bogus passwords, so just reading straight through it wasn't an easy cheat). A fine precursor to games like Fallout.
12. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Konami, 1988)
Castlevania II was actually not the first game in the series to adopt the open-ended exploration format; the original MSX version of the first game in the series (localized in Europe as "Vampire Killer") featured larger, open-ended stages where you had to hunt for keys and purchase powerups in shops, though it was still broken up into distinct stages. Castlevania II took that idea and expanded on it, turning the game into a large, open-ended experience reminiscent of Zelda and adding in experience levels, shops and puzzles to solve. Fans who only played the NES version were more than a little confused by it, particularly owing to its famously lackluster translation that made deciphering clues difficult and contained several (often inadvertent) red herrings. Still, despite its faults, the game has plenty of atmosphere, platforming action and enemies to battle, as well as a fantastic soundtrack that still made it much worth playing. Several elements here would also be revisited to much greater success nearly a decade later in Symphony of the Night, which is still widely regarded as one of the greatest games of all time.
11. Dragon Quest (Warrior) III (Chunsoft, 1988)
Probably the premier JRPG series, the first game was hugely popular in its time and the franchise has continued to be an unstoppable force in Japan, with most stores even refusing to sell the games on weekdays so kids don't skip class to go buy them. Among them, Dragon Quest III continues to be regarded as the best of the NES era, and for good reason - it keeps the defining charm and simplicity of the series while working in a Final Fantasy style customization element, letting you pick from several classes to tweak the game's difficulty to your liking. About halfway through the game you can even change their class, letting them carry over some stats from their original jobs while branching out into an other discipline to become even more powerful. Story wise it also serves as a clever prequel to the first two games, with a lot of events that are only told in legend there becoming reality as you venture across the land and conquer the evils in it.
10. Mother (Earthbound Beginnings) (Nintendo, 1989)
The first game in the Mother trilogy, which was notoriously planned for a western release and even had a fully completed translation/retooling, but which would get shelved for twenty-five years
before finally making its way there in an official capacity. It's a bit of a shame, too, as like its more famous cousin Earthbound, it flips a lot of early RPG tropes on their heads and is quite a fun and charming experience. Taking place in modern day, with characters wielding bats, boomerangs, frying pans and psionic powers rather than magic, and battling enemies like runaway trucks, mad scientists and aliens (with designs inspired by '50s science fiction films), it's also relatively open and nonlinear, allowing you to explore the world and uncover its secrets at a relatively relaxed pace. It's not flawless, though - the difficulty in the game is pretty uneven and requires a lot of grinding, especially near the end when you get to Mt. Itoi and the monsters become downright vicious and cheap, even getting in attacks AFTER you kill them that can still take you out. Even with its rough spots, though, it's a wonderful and charming game that shows a lot of ideas that would be further refined in Earthbound and Mother 3. So take the good with the bad and enjoy this long-lost, slightly rough gem.
9. Rogue (A.I. Design, 1980)
A game that defined an entire genre, Rogue also has a long history itself, being created for old Unix mainframes in 1980 before getting ported to just about every commercial computer platform of the time, and it of course continues to get ports, remakes and copycats to this day owing to how popular and influential it is. Rogue's procedurally generated dungeon floors, randomized enemies and loot (wands and potions have different effects each time you play, and equipment can randomly be cursed or enchanted, but you never know which in advance) keep it fresh and challenging, and even with its lack of graphics (everything being portrayed through ASCII symbols), it captures your imagination and keeps you hooked. Lots of games have been built on its model - short but punishing dungeon dives with a heavy focus on random factors - but Rogue remains a highly regarded staple for good reason.
8. Ys Book 1 and 2 (Nihon Falcom, 1989)
Ys is another example of an early action-RPG, and once again, it was handled by Falcom. Drawing inspiration from the Hydlide series, you would 'attack' enemies by running into them, dealing more damage (and taking less yourself) when you collided from the side or behind; however, they worked out nearly all of Hydlide's jank and grind and made a fun, fast paced and workable RPG experience. Book 1 and 2 (a remake of the first two games) was also one of the earliest RPGs to be released on a CD-based system (the PC Engine CD), and for the '80s, it was nothing short of mind-blowing - the incredible music, the animated cutscenes, and gameplay that didn' t miss a single beat from its cartridge-based counterparts made it a premium experience.
7. Sweet Home (Capcom, 1989)
Another influential title by Capcom and the second game on this list to be a tie-in to a film, Sweet Home was equal parts turn-based RPG, Puzzle and survival game. As a team of five investigators exploring a haunted mansion, you had to work together in a lot of ways using each character's unique abilities - vacuuming up dust to get clues from paintings, using planks and ropes to cross gaps, unlock doors and occasionally burn your way through various hazards. Enemies come in many forms, from hallways full of worms to ghosts to possessed suits of armor, and though you do need to level up to progress, keeping damage to a minimum is necessary owing to your limited resources (and the fact that you cannot revive dead characters). It got surprisingly gruesome at times too, with some shockingly gory death scenes and disturbing themes throughout. A really cool game for its time, and even Capcom thought so too as it was one of the direct inspirations for Resident Evil.
6. The Guardian Legend (Compile, 1988)
We've seen plenty of action-RPG hybrids on this list already, but Guardian Legend manages to put yet another unique twist on the format by melding elements of Zelda together with a top-down shoot-em-up. Between shmup stages you venture around large mazes, battling enemies, collecting "chips" (which power your subweapons) and finding power ups for your character, which come not just in the form of new subweapons, but upgrades to health, attack power, fire rate and defense. Shmup stages, per Compile's standards, are fast-paced and intense, though more forgiving than most in that you can sustain a few hits before dying (and there are health drops throughout, letting you get back on your feet). Boss fights prove very challenging, though, and the final battle is definitely a challenge to overcome even if you're fully prepared for it. It's a mix of Zelda with the brilliant fast-paced shmup action that made Compile famous, and that's a winning combination in my book.
5. River City Ransom (Technos, 1989)
A definite NES cult classic, River City Ransom was a side--scrolling beat-em-up (part of the legendary Kunio franchise) that expertly blended in RPG elements to create a memorable experience. Rather open-world too, as you could freely wander around between objectives to seek out enemies to battle for cash, which in turn could be spent in shops. Buying food items would generally bolster your stats (and some could also be taken 'to go' and used in the field when you needed a quick health boost), while buying skill books would let you unlock new moves, from triple-punches and kicks to turning thrown enemies into deadly projectiles that travel all the way across the screen. Innovative, hilarious and fun, as well as one of the best NES co-op titles there is.
4. Phantasy Star (Sega, 1988)
The Sega Master System may not have caught on nearly as well as the NES did in most territories, but it had some surprisingly solid games if you knew where to look. Phantasy Star was definitely one of those; its imaginative setting, crisp graphics and the large amount of animation it sported definitely put it a leg up above most of its competition of the time. It had a definite science fiction sensibility in addition to its fantasy element, with a lot of visuals heavily inspired by Star Wars and even having you travel between three different planets throughout the adventure - the lush green planet of Palma, the icy Dezolis and the desert planet of Motavia. Vehicles came in a variety of forms too, letting you pilot a landrover, a hovercraft and an ice digger to get through hazardous terrain. Dungeons, unlike the overworld map (and the rest of the series) were portrayed in a first-person perspective, though the smooth scrolling helped set them apart from others in the genre. Enemies were also huge, detailed and all sported unique animation well before it came standard in other JRPGs (with Dragon Quest in particular not getting them until the Playstation 2
era). Phantasy Star's core gameplay wasn't starkly different from others in the genre, but the presentation and polish set it a cut above most.
3. Starflight (Binary Systems, 1986)
Star Trek is of course another heavily influential franchise, inspiring countless video games since they started to flicker into existence. For my money, though, they never really got much better than good old Starflight. The game was nothing short of incredible for its time period, putting you in a stretch of the galaxy with hundreds of star systems and procedurally-generated planets to explore, and even letting you contact and interact with various alien races along the way; the plantlike Elowan, the insectoid Veloxi, and a strange, hostile race called the Uhlek who want you wiped out of existence for no clear reason (and yes, there are ship-to-ship battles, too) . Throughout it all you were tasked with recovering resources, discovering habitable planets and unraveling the mystery of a series of devastating solar flares that have left numerous star systems barren of life. An all-time classic that remains influential today for good reason.
2. The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986)
While not the first action-oriented adventure RPG out there, Legend of Zelda made an enormous impact in the NES's early days, and it's brilliant blend of combat, exploration and puzzle solving continues to be widely influential even today. It was definitely intimidating at just a glance, putting you in a vast open world armed with only a cruddy wooden sword and basically leaving you to figure everything out yourself, but that was part of the fun. Finding a new item in a dungeon always opened up plenty of new possibilities, letting you do things like use a magic candle to burn down trees or bushes to find secrets on the overworld, blow holes in walls with bombs, or defeat otherwise-invincible enemies with a well placed arrow. Decoding all the game's secrets, discovering passages, and eventually collecting all the eight triforce pieces and defeating Ganon was a gargantuan but thoroughly enthralling task, but you weren't even done yet once that happened - there was a second quest waiting for you after, with a whole new set of dungeons, remixed secrets and even some dangerous new enemies to face. The fact that it continues to get new mods, fangames and speedrun even today also speak to its enormous popularity. One of the NES's defining games whose influence cannot be understated.
1. Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988)