The turn-based RPG is a tried-and-true genre that has been around for nearly as long as there have been video games. Initially, the turn-based structure of early RPGs was a concession to the limited technology available in the 1970s and 1980s. For some games, this was also a bit of an homage to the classic tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons, the massively influential game system that essentially invented the modern role-playing game.
Whatever the system’s origins, many players came to associate thoughtful, turn-based combat with the RPG genre. In the modern era, there are plenty of different types of RPGs, ranging from tactical combat simulators to action games that use light role-playing mechanics to power the math that goes into character creation and combat. However, despite these modern takes on the classic genre, many players still prefer the old-school turn-based structure of classic RPGs.
Today, we’re going to look at the best turn-based RPGs ever made. These are presented in no particular order, and only one entry from each franchise was considered for the list. Let’s check out the greatest turn-based RPGs you can play right now!
Final Fantasy IV
The Final Fantasy series is likely the biggest reason that people in the West came to love the classic Japanese RPG. This is ironic because the game was a Japanese developer’s take on Dungeons and Dragons, itself an American fantasy game. It just goes to show that turn-based games involving swords and sorcery are inherently universal, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from if you want to crush monsters using math!
The second Final Fantasy game to see release in the West was Final Fantasy VI, marketed in the US as Final Fantasy 2–a confusing naming convention when Square Enix re-released the real Final Fantasy II in the US years later. FFIV quickly became a classic entry in the series and in the RPG genre as a whole, as it was one of the first games to feature a truly gripping narrative and use its gameplay mechanics to help tell its story.
The protagonist, Cecil, starts the journey as a reluctant villain and uses the evil Dark Knight class to defeat his opponents. As the narrative unfolds, he renounces his former path and eventually becomes a Paladin, the first example of an in-game class change in a Final Fantasy title. The game is still considered one of the best Super Nintendo titles ever made, and it’s still well worth playing through even thirty years after its initial release.
The Persona series is a spin-off of the excellent Shin Megami Tensei franchise, and it’s gone on to become more popular than its progenitor. The Persona titles focus on high schoolers who discover a hidden world, comprised of humans’ collective unconscious, that flows behind the scenes of everyday life.
The fifth Persona is widely considered the best entry in the series so far and the finest game to come out of the SMT franchise. Players control a self-named protagonist who goes by the codename “Joker” and leads the Phantom Thieves, a group of students who can navigate the “Metaverse” behind reality. Together, the Phantom Thieves change people’s hearts to get them to stop committing crimes or being evil.
The game is equal parts time management simulator and dungeon crawler. Players have to manage their resources carefully to make the most of their limited time in the “real world” before diving into the Metaverse to navigate the “Palaces” of their enemies. It’s all thought-provoking and heady stuff, and the game is one of the most stylish RPGs you’ll ever play.
Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver
There are countless awesome titles in the Pokemon series. Fans largely agree that the series hit its high point with the excellent remakes of the second generation of titles: HeartGold and SoulSilver. These DS games were technically part of the franchise’s fourth generation, but they stand apart due to their incomparable presentation.
HG and SS are faithful recreations of the second-generation titles Gold and Silver, but they introduced a slew of quality-of-life changes that make them the definitive versions of these classics. Many fans adored the game for allowing your lead Pokemon to follow behind you in the overworld, giving the player a stronger sense of attachment to their favorite monsters.
Battling and collecting Pokemon is fun and addictive in any game, but these entries managed to bring everything to a higher level with their fantastic presentation. The graphics are smooth and the Pokemon are rendered in an adorable pixel art style that straddles the classic look of the second-generation games while still offering more details for the more outlandish monsters.
Dragon Quest 11
Final Fantasy isn’t the only long-running JRPG series that still puts out incredible titles. Square Enix’s other beloved franchise, Dragon Quest, just keeps getting better. Case in point: Dragon Quest 11, the fantastic turn-based RPG released on the PS4 and Switch. The latest DQ title features art by legendary mangaka Akira Toriyama, as is tradition, giving it the classic “storybook” look that fans have come to expect from the series.
DQ11 is a classic romp through a fantasy world, featuring all the fun number-crunching and equipment-swapping you’ve come to expect from old-school RPGs. It’s a love letter to RPGs of the 1980s, complete with the option to play through the entire game in a de-make mode that reimagines it as a Super Nintendo game. Yes, the game’s developers were so generous that they essentially included two versions of the same game on release. Yes, Square Enix is awesome sometimes.
Video game storytelling doesn’t get much better than Chrono Trigger. Like Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger’s art direction was all done by Akira Toriyama. This gives the game a distinctive, anime-like look that is impossible to dislike. Seriously, if you look at promotional art for Chono Trigger and think “meh, not for me,” you might just hate video games and fun in general.
Chrono Trigger sees the player controlling Chrono, a young swordsman from the quiet kingdom of Guardia who visits the Millennial Fair one day alongside his friend Marle. While investigating the party, he happens upon an experimental time machine created by Lucca and her father, and they all discover to their surprise that it works surprisingly well. When Marle volunteers to use the machine, her pendant reacts strangely and creates a portal that sucks her in.
Lucca and Chrono follow to help her, discovering that she’s been mistaken for her own ancestor and the people of Guardia 400 years in the past claim that she’s Queen Leene. The plot takes all manner of twists and turns after this, eventually culminating in some of the best storytelling in any RPG, turn-based or otherwise!
Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga
When you think of “beloved turn-based RPGs,” Mario might not be the first name that pops into your mind. However, the cult classic GameBoy Advance title Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga cemented the red-clad plumber as an RPG protagonist for the ages. Along with his always-overlooked brother, Luigi, the Mario Brothers go on a riotously funny adventure through the Bean Kingdom, a neighboring country to the Mushroom Kingdom.
While in the Bean Kingdom, Mario and Luigi run afoul of a pair of villains named Cackletta and Fawful, who steal Princess Peach’s voice and retreat to their homeland. This leads to a hilarious, over-the-top adventure that sees the duo overcoming numerous enemies in turn-based, action-heavy combat.
The game includes similar “reaction commands” to those seen in the Paper Mario series. When certain enemies attack, the brothers can either jump or swing their hammers to mitigate the damage. Likewise, while attacking, the player can press buttons with precise timing to increase their damage output. This makes Superstar Saga more involved than some old-school RPGs, and it’s considered one of the best games ever made.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
The Fire Emblem series isn’t quite like most turn-based RPGs. It’s a tactical game that sees players managing a large cast of warriors who each have their own distinct classes. The gameplay involves turn-based strategy as players maneuver their troops into positions to give them the best chance to repel enemies. Importantly, each character in the game who falls during battle is permanently dead, removed from the storyline, and impossible to revive.
This perma-death feature makes each engagement in a Fire Emblem game rife with tension and it makes you celebrate each character’s victory that much more. It’s one thing when a nameless soldier wins a duel in a tactical wargame, but when your friend Lorenz manages to avoid a deadly attack before landing a critical hit to finish off his attacker, you’ll get out of your seat and cheer.
Three Houses, the newest entry in the long-running series, has players take the role of Byleth, a professor at the Officer’s Academy in the fictional continent of Fodlan. You’re tasked with training a class of aspiring students and molding them into hardened warriors, and you can choose from three different classes of pupils–each of which follows a different storyline throughout the 80+ hour narrative. It’s a phenomenal game, and easily one of the best in the Fire Emblem series.