Roleplaying as a genre descriptor covers a broad spectrum of ideas and gameplay mechanics. Technically, every game lets you play a certain role so does that mean every game is an RPG? Going back to the 80s and 90s, we can get an idea of what RPGs are defined by.
The ability to customize attributes and stats is just one aspect of it. You also want a certain degree of player freedom and open-ended level design. So heavily scripted linear games are out of the equation.
Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout- all these legendary RPGs started out in the era of DOS. Today, I am going to explore the top 30 DOS RPG games of all time that you must play. So without further ado, let’s get started.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall
Easily my favorite roleplaying game from the DOS era, The Elder Scrolls II is a monumental achievement. It has an in-game world the size of Great Britain, with 15000 towns and a gigantic total population exceeding 700,000 people. Granted, a lot of this stuff is procedurally generated.
But a lot of the towns and people are predesigned, and even the procedurally generated stuff doesn’t feel repetitive. Within the gigantic map, you’ll find dots. Each one represents a city, town, or some other visitable location.
Quests can be approached in any order you want, and your decisions will have ripple effects down the line as you advance this game’s plot. You can join factions, practice various religions, and craft your own spells. If you want, you even have the option of transforming into a vampire or werewolf.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Certainly, the graphics and UI are lacking compared to modern roleplaying games. But upon playing it, you can see that Ultima VII was ahead of its time in terms of gameplay. This is the first Ultima title to remove the grid and tile-based movement, allowing your player character to interact more freely with the world.
From baking bread to forging weapons, the entire world is filled with activities (plus you can inspect containers/ drawers in each location to get loot). The Avatar (your character) needs to eat and rest. Otherwise, he will eventually die.
If you still don’t know how to play DOS games, check out my other article How To Play Old DOS Games On Windows 10, Mac Or Linux?
Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon
The first Beholder game was a refreshing change of pace from conventional RPGs, mainly due to its dark fantasy setting. You controlled a group of mercenaries/ adventurers investigating a series of weird events caused by supernatural forces. Turns out, there is an evil lord called the Beholder, living underneath a city in its sewers.
In the sequel, you have a similar plot and our heroes from the first game make a return. But this time, the game world is much larger and you have more ways of interacting with it. The game is fun, with tons of areas to explore and interesting enemy types to fight.
The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight
Set within a high-fantasy world featuring powerful wizards and elves, the second Bard’s Tale game is a lot bigger than its predecessor. It has jungles that can be explored, dungeons filled with powerful monsters, and treasures scattered across the game world. Due to its design, The Destiny Knight plays very differently from other RPGs of that era.
Think of it as a dungeon crawler, but with very open-ended levels and a significant number of side activities. You can go into banks, gamble in casinos, and travel between cities. Much like the first game, this one has a story that’s basic but fun to play through.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
The first roleplaying game to feature 3D levels, and the ability to look along the vertical axis (things we take for granted today). Ultima Underworld is a dungeon-crawling RPG in which you can select your character’s race, class, and gender. Ultima Underworld was an instant hit, selling half a million copies.
Alongside System Shock and Thief, it formed the basis for Deus Ex. Deus Ex took the shooting from System Shock, the stealth from Thief, and the roleplaying from Ultima Underworld. Like many open-world games, you can do the puzzles and quests of Ultima in any order you want.
If you are interested in Adventure DOS games, you need to check my other article 30 Best DOS Adventure Games Of All Time That You Must Play
The Four Crystals of Trazere
Also known as “Legend” outside the United States. The Four Crystals of Trazere is a fantasy tale about 4 heroes on a magical quest to save their land from a rising evil. Featuring real-time combat and gameplay inspired by tabletop RPGs (primarily D&D), this game is still fun to play today.
Enemies are controlled by AI and have pathfinding so you don’t need to micromanage their movements. Using runes, you can craft your own custom spells which is a feature missing from many modern fantasy RPGs. There are 16 basic rules, which can be combined to create hundreds of unique spells.
Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen
Back in 1993 when this game was released, it introduced several features that would become the standard for future games. Like animated cutscenes with high levels of detail, and integration with the previous game. If you had Clouds of Xeen (Might and Magic IV), you could combine both game worlds for a rather unique experience.
If you combine IV and V into a single game, it becomes World of Xeen. With quests and characters from both games, with some additional content that’s unlocked on top of the base games. The puzzles and fights are simple enough to not be a hindrance, yet just challenging enough to be enjoyable.
Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant
Wizardry VII takes place in a sci-fi setting, with all kinds of cool little references to famous sci-fi movies. It has cybernetic androids, faster than light travel, laser weapons, etc. But the really cool part about this game is its merging of futuristic weaponry and technology with medieval era fantasy and magic.
And unlike many other RPGs of its time, Wizardry portrays the game from a first-person perspective. However, you can only turn your vision 90° at a time, and movement is tile-based. Party members need to be controlled by you, since they can’t act on their own.
If you are interested in Strategy DOS games, you need to check my other article 30 Best DOS Strategy Games Of All Time That You Must Play
Betrayal at Krondor
This game is mostly based on characters and plotlines introduced by the Riftwar series of novels. Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Raymond E. Feist made his own fantasy alternative. He named the two worlds Midkemia and Kelewan, Betrayal at Krondor takes place in the former.
If you play the game, you’ll notice that it feels like a book. Divided into chapters, with bookmarks that function as save points to record your progress. While exploring the various shops, caves, dungeons, etc., you are in 3rd person mode but entering combat switches you to a first-person view.
Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday
Countdown to Doomsday takes place in a retro-futuristic 1980s sci-fi world where Earth and Mars are at war with each other. The NEO (New-Earth Organization) and RAM (Russo-American Mercantile) are throwing genetically engineered super soldiers and weapons of mass destruction at each other. You operate a special forces unit for the NEO, tasked with secret missions that involve recon/ infiltration.
At the start, you are given a character creator where you can assign classes and races for yourself, as well as your party members. Depending on what activity you’re engaged in, the screen will switch between various view modes. You can look at an overhead map, move between planets, and get into land/ ship combat.
Curse of the Azure Bonds
If you check out my article on the top 50 DOS games of the 80s, you’ll find Pool of Radiance in there. It’s a roleplaying game based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, where you can control a party of 6. Well, Curse of the Azure Bonds is sort of a successor to that game and continues the story.
You can even transfer the player characters that you created in Pool of Radiance over to this game. Curse of the Azure Bonds features the Paladin and Ranger classes, which are absent from Pool of Radiance. You can select race, specialization, gender, and alignment (alignment is basically a morality setting).
That’s right, this is the very first Fallout game. Unlike modern Fallout titles, the camera gives you an isometric view of the world and there is no dialogue wheel. Instead, you have turn-based gameplay with an “action-point” system. You can keep executing commands until your character runs out of action points.
The amount of dialogue and roleplaying in this ancient Fallout game outstrips even modern RPGs like Outer Worlds. It can sometimes be unforgivingly hard, which is an issue many new players complain about. Since this game is more like a tabletop RPG than a shooter, it features chance-based events with randomized outcomes.
Knights of Xentar
In Japan, this game was released as Dragon Knight III (created by a Japanese developer too). The English localization changes certain character names and lines of dialogue, but it doesn’t detract from the overall tone of the game. And this is a fantasy game with some adult elements, unlike many kid-friendly titles of the time.
The gameplay is similar to early Final Fantasy titles, and the levels are much larger compared to previous Dragon Knight games. You get an overhead view while traveling around town, but getting into combat will switch you to first-person. Even though combat is turn-based, you can pause the action to conjure spells or switch between attack styles.
Ys: The Vanished Omens
Released in 1987, this is the very first Ys game and started a trend of JRPGs that placed a greater emphasis on storytelling and characters. Granted, the first Final Fantasy also came out in the same year and featured a very prominent story with interesting characters. However, Ys and Final Fantasy play very differently.
Unlike standard turn-based combat, Ys uses a direction-focused real-time auto attack system. If your character walks into an enemy, they will attack each other without your input. Depending on whether you’re attacking head-on, from the side, or from behind, your character will deal more or less damage.
The predecessor to Fallout, Wasteland is a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game from 1988. A couple of sequels were planned for this excellent game, but EA decided not to proceed with the development. Eventually, the ideas for these sequels would be realized in the first Fallout game (1997).
Wasteland is essentially a tabletop RPG brought to life on a computer screen. It uses rulesets from tabletops like Tunnels and Trolls, Mercenaries, etc. Your character in Wasteland has various attributes such as charisma, agility, strength, etc., that can be leveled up by engaging in various activities around the world.
Amulets & Armor
One of those underrated roleplaying games lost to the pages of gaming history, despite being revolutionary for its time. Fortunately, Amulets & Armor has been gathering a small cult of extremely dedicated fans over the past couple of decades. And it’s actually been free since 2013, so I suggest you give it a try.
Amulets & Armor is what you would get if someone took Doom and tossed in a bunch of RPG elements. Like character classes, dungeon levels, quests, magic, and an inventory. You even have rudimentary survival game mechanics such as hunger, thirst, etc.
It’s a combination of the roguelike and dungeon crawler genres, with RPG-style character creation and quests. This game combines so many genres into one seamless package while bringing out the best qualities of each one. Dungeon Hack came out in 1993, yet its gameplay feels refreshing and unique even today.
And by 1993 standards, the graphics aren’t too shabby either. After all, this game has 3D levels with a first-person camera. Much like Daggerfall, although the levels aren’t nearly as large or detailed (Dungeon Hack also uses procedural generation).
An interesting futuristic sci-fi RPG in which you play on an alien planet filled with all sorts of exotic wildlife and special resources. Albion combines science and magic in a truly unique fashion, you can cast spells while also equipping your crew with modern guns and armor. Each member of your 6-person crew has unique abilities so they are all useful in their own ways.
Like every other RPG, engaging in activities around the world will increase experience and level up your party. Whether you’re solving puzzles or defeating enemies, you will gain XP and learn new abilities. While exploring the outside world you have an overhead 2D view of the map, but entering closed spaces takes you into a 3D first-person mode.
Recently, the new God of War was praised for switching up its gameplay and story from the old titles. Moving away from Greek mythology to a plot featuring characters from Norse mythology. But it turns out that the Viking/ Norse craze in video games has been around since way before 2018.
Ragnarok (also called Valhalla outside the US) is one such game, and it features plenty of Norse characters such as Thor, Baldr, Nidhogg, etc. While this game does have character classes, its unique mechanic is the polymorphing system that lets you switch between various forms. Each form has a powerful ability attached to it.
Anvil of Dawn
Released in October of 1995 towards the tail-end of the DOS roleplaying games era. Anvil of Dawn has all the classic features we’ve come to expect. Tile-based movement, pseudo-3D graphics, varying camera perspectives depending on what you’re doing, etc.
Unlike Daggerfall or Ultima Underworld, Anvil of Dawn sacrifices level size and detail for action. XP points aren’t a thing, but you do get better spells and abilities as you progress through the game. This is also one of the few DOS RPGs to feature animated cutscenes, it even has multiple endings.
If you’ve ever wondered where the term “roguelike” came from, here is your answer. Rogue is the first game to feature all of the game systems we’ve come to expect from a true “roguelike”. Including procedurally generated dungeons, permadeath, turn-based combat, etc.
And you only move a fixed distance with each turn since everything is grid-based. Even though the game itself is shown via ASCII text rather than actual graphics. Every treasure location, monster type, and the level layout is different in each playthrough (thanks to procedural generation).
Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos
Lands of Lore is a bog-standard fantasy RPG with a generic story. It involves a hero who goes around collecting treasures and fighting monsters to save his kingdom from an evil witch. The visuals and magic system are clearly inspired by Eye of The Beholder.
You even have a camera system that works like what you get in Eye of the Beholder. It switches between overhead and first-person view depending on whether you’re moving around between locations or engaged in combat.
You can’t create your own character and choose a class. Instead, you’re provided with a choice between 4 pre-fabricated characters with their own unique attributes that can be upgraded.
Pool of Radiance
Earlier in my list, I reviewed Curse of the Azure Bonds which is a successor to this game. If you want, you can even take the player characters that you created in Pool of Radiance and transfer them to Azure Bonds. This game is a party-based fantasy RPG in which you can create and customize a team of up to 6 characters.
Apart from race, sex, profession, etc. you also have a morality alignment. You can choose between evil, neutral, and good- depending on your choice, you’ll get different interaction options with NPCs.
During combat, you can decide what your characters do in each individual turn. As opposed to issuing all commands beforehand, and passively watching the action play out (standard procedure in RPGs of that time).
Death Knights of Krynn
The sequel to Champions of Krynn, this game is based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It has some pretty dark characters, featuring everything from evil demons to necromancers. And you end up having to stop an undead army because their leader wants to take over your hero’s body.
On DOS, you’re limited to 16 colors while Amiga gets 64. Death Knights of Krynn reintroduces the Paladin class, along with a bunch of hotkeys that make character control quite easy.
Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny
Following up on the success of Ultima IV was a massive challenge, but Origin Systems passed their test with flying colors. Ultima V is bigger than its predecessor in every conceivable way, from levels to enemy types. And it manages to expand on the game world without sacrificing gameplay depth because combat feels even better than Ultima IV.
The player has more ways to interact with this new world. Conversations with NPCs feature more dialogue options and you can choose from a greater variety of choices that shape how your story unfolds. This is also the first Ultima title to have a time of day system, so NPCs have different routines for sunrise and sunset.
Realms of Arkania III: Shadows over Riva
Orcs, elves, dwarves- this game ticks all the fantasy character boxes. And it delivers an incredibly captivating story with relatable characters to keep you hooked throughout your playthrough. The game world is filled with weird events and side quests that switch between key characters, showcasing the plot from different viewpoints.
The gameplay is inspired by Dark Eye, a pen & paper RPG. It’s easy enough to learn without spending weeks of game time but hard to master. Becoming more experience with the game’s combat system feels rewarding.
There are several little tricks and quirks hidden away from plain sight. Once you start exploiting these mechanics, you feel like you’re playing an entirely different game.
Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager
A successor to Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, which itself is based on the world of Dungeons & Dragons. In this game, you can start with a selection of pre-fabricated characters within your party of 4. You can also create your own characters, and there is an option to import your existing characters from Shattered Lands.
Combat is turn-based and everything is presented from a top-down camera perspective. This game has all the standard fantasy races, but it also introduces some really unique ones. Like an insectoid race, as well as several other races that can harness psionic powers.
Originally designed for the Atari ST personal computer, Dungeon Master would later be ported to DOS and Amiga systems. It is a game with pseudo-3D graphics and provided the template for all future 3D RPGs of the early 90s. In fact, Eye of the Beholder is one of those Dungeon Master copies that went on to create its own successful franchise.
In contrast to most contemporary CRPGs of its time, Dungeon Master went with a real-time combat system. It also used sound effects to immerse you in the 3D environment, along with dynamic lighting and several other cutting-edge features. Instead of experience points, you level up your skills depending on how often you used them.
A futuristic sci-fi shooter set in space; System Shock is a game that has influenced countless other titles over the past 2 decades. Games like Dead Space and Prey directly copy several mechanics first introduced by System Shock. You’re stuck on an abandoned space station filled with monsters and traps, with a rogue AI attempting to hinder every single move you make.
Since there is nobody to talk with (or cutscenes to watch), you get all your information about what happened through audio logs and emails. People who used to work and live on this space station have documented the last few weeks of their existence in extensive detail.
Almost every object in the station can be interacted with. And the interior space feels like a metal maze which adds to the horror aspect of this game.
If you’ve read the Silmarillion, you’ll remember that Morgoth had a fortress called Angband. This game is a roguelike that takes place within that fortress, each level filled with increasingly dangerous enemies and puzzles. In Rogue, your objective is to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor by reaching the lowest level of the dungeon.
In Angband, you need to defeat Morgoth by passing through all 100 levels of his fortress. There are puzzles to solve, traps to evade, monsters to kill, and treasures to collect. Don’t expect this game to be a cakewalk, because it has been described by many as “incredibly difficult”.
So, what do you think of my list? Keep in mind, that these are my personal choices and your list of top DOS RPG games might be different. I probably missed out on a few good RPGs from the DOS days.
But including every decent retro RPG would result in a gigantic list. Besides, you’ll find that my opinion more or less conforms to that held by top-rated critics and games journalists. Games like Ultima and Elder Scrolls aren’t exactly hidden gems- every RPG fan has heard of these names.
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