Whether you are new to gaming or rarely look away from a screen, there is virtually no chance you are unfamiliar with some of the best NES games and most iconic characters in gaming.
From it’s humble roots as a card/toy company Nintendo developed itself into a gold mine of warm, approachable, and fun characters. Their games are full of depth, creativity and most of all they nail the mechanics, making them fun to play again and again.
From its inception, in 1983 the importance of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES or Famicom, in its native Japan) was undeniable, rocking the gaming industry to its core and changing it forever.
The combination of quality developers and Nintendo’s in-house team created an absolute beast pumping out incredible titles and some of earth’s most recognizable characters.
Just like the best Gameboy Advance games of all time, the characters will always be remembered.
Without the NES our beloved Nintendo likely would not have survived and with it likely the larger video game world, making a top twenty of this cornerstone of gaming all the more important.
Each of these titles could stand on its own but together they are nothing short of a tour de force that reshaped and refocused the art of gaming.
Whittling it down was a challenge as many of these titles are legends in their own right. But a top twenty is a top twenty so let’s get to it. Here are the best NES games of all time.
The cover for Mega Man 2 might look as though Keith Courage has hijacked this list of the best NES games with a new getup, but it’s still the same blue wonder that we know and love.
Sporting a pistol instead of an arm cannon, Mega Man returns in this classic NES title to continue his dangerous battle against Dr Wily and his army of renegade robotic soldiers.
Despite the more realistic human approach to Mega Man on the front cover, this remains the most popular Mega Man game to date, successfully pushing over 1.5 million copies into the hands of gamers all over the globe.
Gameplay is relatively similar to the first Mega Man title. Our intrepid space fighter must travel through eight stages before tackling a boss fortress at the very end.
Robot sub-bosses appear at the end of each stage, with bad guys such as Wood Man (who I believe is a carpenter) and Flash Man (who has been arrested for indecent exposure on a number of occasions) trying to stop Mega Man.
Critics went ape for this game with many pronouncing it as one of the greatest games ever made. It’s the perfect way to start off this list of the best NES games, don’t you think?
Next up on our list of the best NES games of all time is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link!
Regular readers will know how much Retro Dodo loves The Legend of Zelda series in its entirety, but this game just didn’t do it as much for me as another Zelda title that we all know is coming somewhere below.
Zelda II is interesting for fans of the canon, however, as it’s the only sequel to a Zelda game. I’m not talking about games that came out after each other here; Zelda has titles that appear in different timelines and alternate versions of Hyrule, with many never really following on from each other.
Guess who bought Hyrule Historia after checking out our list of the best gaming books?
Zelda II is also a side-scrolling title which just didn’t feel very ‘Zelda’. Save the scroll-along action for Mazza; we want top-down battles when Link is concerned!
Despite my reasons for not liking this game as much as others, it was a rip-roaring success, and many features that appear in this game would go on to be used in other Zelda titles.
Remember battling against Dark Link in the Water Temple on Ocarina of Time? He first made an appearance in Zelda II, as did the magic meter that allows players to pull off awesome sword manoeuvres.
And, most importantly of all, it would have been downright sacrilegious to leave this game out of the best NES games of all time. It would have probably released Ganondorf from the Sacred Realm or something.
Dr Mario takes the 18th spot on this list of the best NES games of all time! I used to spend hours and hours playing on this game, trying to kill the little virus guys while clearing the level.
If only Dr Mario could have had a crack at covid; maybe we’d all be out and about in nature again if he had tried to combat the problem with little multicoloured pills!
The gameplay of Dr Mario is insanely similar to titles like Tetris, Columns, Bubble Bobble, and any other mobile variant that people play on the train or toilet.
Match up coloured capsules to make them vanish. Link them up in line with a virus of the same colour, and WHAM, it disappears and you cure some poor Toad in Peach’s Castle from ring worm or something.
Don’t quote me on that last bit…
If you like Tetris but wish it had a more ‘Mario’ feel about it, then this is the game for you.
Next up on our list of the best NES games is Batman: The Video Game, a cracking title featuring everyone’s favourite caped crusader.
Sorry, Superman, but it’s true.
The gameplay in Batman: The Video Game bears close resemblance to Ninja Gaiden with a heavy Gotham/DC vibe. It’s loosely set on the movies and features a final showdown with the Joker.
After Ganondorf and Darth Vader, he’s arguably the best villain of all time!
Like Ninja Gaiden, Batman pulls off Prince of Persia-style wall climbing action. He has some ace weapons including the the batarang and the bat speargun. Don’t forget the batdisk too, which isn’t an external hard drive.
The NES version of Batman’s outing is heralded as the best of the bunch by gamers and critics across the globe. It’s one of my favourite adventure titles for the NES and had some great cutscenes in it too.
DC fans won’t need any persuading to buy this game, but all retro gaming fans should give it a try.
Wonder why I kept talking about Ninja Gaiden so much? It’s because Ryu Hayabusa takes the 16th spot in this best NES games list!
Ninja Gaiden is side-scrolling, beat-em-up action at it’s best. A mission to avenge a slain father while battling an evil villain in the midst of unleashing demonic forces on the world.
What more do I need to say?
The graphics and textures on Ninja Gaiden were pretty amazing for 1988. It boasted an epic storyline that wouldn’t have felt out of place on a Hollywood set. Plus, it’s still super-hard to put down once gamers get into their stride.
And the difficulty of this thing is still legendary to this day. Ninja Gaiden wasn’t a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. This game is tough!
With cinematic cutscenes. vibrant levels, and a soundtrack to rival all others, Ninja Gaiden rightfully takes a place in the best NES games list as one of the most influential titles of all time!
Duck Hunt might not be the world’s most elaborate game, but it was one of the most exciting to play as a kid.
It also has some personal significance to me too. I used to play this game with my uncle using the NES SuperScope, one of our best NES accessories, before he died. He introduced me to the NES, which pretty much sparked my love of gaming.
Duck Hunt is also synonymous with the epic NES Zapper and a time when CRT TVs were the best things since sliced bread.
For those readers unfamiliar with Duck Hunt, it’s a simple game where players point a gun peripheral at a screen and blast ducks out of the sky. A little dog appears from time to time, and the game is set in a generic looking field.
Duck hunt is legendary, despite its simple set-up. It’s one of those titles that everyone can have a go on, as long as there is a CRT TV kicking around in the attic that works with a light gun, that is.
Wii fans may well have had a go at racking up duck points on the Wii via the Virtual Console in recent years, though the original remains the best in my humble opinion. The Wiimote is cool, but the NES Zapper will always reign supreme.
Kid Icarus takes the 14th spot on this list of the best NES games ever made.
Ever wondered who Pit is, the dude with the wings from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate? Well, he’s the star of Kid Icarus, a classic NES title with a loyal cult following.
Kid Icarus incorporates all of the collecting and battling action that makes Nintendo games so irresistible. It might not look that exciting, but boy is it a winner when it comes to gameplay.
Kid Icarus is another tough cookie to crack, though it’s a rewarding game to play. Gamers control Pit as he searches for sacred treasures in a world inspired by Greek Mythology.
Stephen Fry never wrote about him in his book, Mythos, but I reckon Pit might make the next edition!
He’s on a mission to rescue Palutena (Pit, not Stephen), battling monsters with an upgradable bow and an infinite amount of arrows. Gods always have it easy!
If readers enjoyed the remake for the GBA, then we suggest going back to where it all began. Dust off the NES, and get your Greek-geek on.
I could spend all day talking about Excitebike. What a title! It’s seen ports and different releases on pretty much every Nintendo console since, as well as acting as a launch title for the NES.
Not only do players have to concentrate on winning, but also not hitting each other or overheating. It’s a no-holds-bared gnarly affair where winning is harder than you might think.
The courses are simple and the riders small, but this game packs a serious punch!
Excitebike has five courses for players to conquer. The goal is to rank highly enough to enter the Excitebike Championship, and each course has a different time to beat.
Overheating, crashing, and landing jumps poorly all eat away at your time. Running back to a bike costs precious seconds, so land those jumps correctly and do everything it takes not to come last.
Rank third or higher to proceed. It’s a simple title, but it’s one of the most exciting games of all time. I guess the clue is in the title, really!
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is still an incredible game. some people might know it as just Punch-Out!!, but it started life with Mike Tyson’s name on it before the license ran out.
And, with talk of a new punch out game on the cards from Tyson himself, now is a great time to go back and check out the original.
Ever wondered why they call Little Mac ‘Little Mac’? It’s probably because he looks tiny compared to the humongous Mike Tyson in the picture above.
Players take Little Mac through different bouts against various opponents, ending in a showdown with Tyson. In the non-licensed version, Tyson is renamed ‘Mr Dream’, which he probably loves.
Ask anyone who’s played this game, and they’ll say how impossible it is to beat Tyson in the ring. He remains one of the hardest-to-beat bosses in any game, ever.
Still, I guess Mike wouldn’t have had it any other way!
Not only was DuckTales one of my favourite-ever cartoons, but it was also one of the best NES games in my collection too.
Scrooge McDuck swimming in golden coins while Huey, Luey, and Duey get up to no good; that’s the stuff my childhood was made of!
Forget Castle of Illusion; DuckTales is the best Disney side-scroller on any retro console. Any game that sees a duck wearing a top hat travelling around the globe and even into outer space to increase his wealth is a winner with me!
Gamers control Scrooge as he moves through different worlds in search of treasure. Explore the Amazon, skulk through Transylvania, and even navigate craters on the moon!
Like Mario’s hat in Mario Odyssey, Scrooge uses his cane to aid his adventures. It acts as a weapon for close-combat and for breaking open chests, and it’s also a way of jumping greater distances.
Health also comes in the form of ice cream. No wonder this title sold over 1 million copies on both the NES and the Game Boy! Scrooge knows how to bring in the money!
The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on NES was insidiously hard and felt downright serious. You were forced to go on aggravatingly hard solo missions when all you wanted to do was party, kick some foot, and eat pizza with the fearsome foursome.
Thankfully Turtles II: The Arcade Game came along to change all that. Bringing with it the welcome levity from the beloved original cartoon show.
Originally designed as an adaptation of the full size arcade game the NES version was significantly scaled back due to the limitations of the console.
Despite this, it was easily one of the most playable and engaging beat ‘em ups on the NES. While the importance of Double Dragon, River City Ransom, Battle Toads and others is real I come back to Turtles II (and the oft forgotten but arguably better Turtles III) time and time again.
The introduction of the gothic horror game Castlevania opened a new world of monster hunting, suspense and epic adventure. Other games had done things like it before but none quite like Castlvania.
This game packaged all of the pieces together to create a quest, with good art, great gameplay, and haunting sound.
It set a new standard, which was ultimately superseded by other Castlevania games, yet clearly provided a framework for all other titles in the genre to model themselves after.
If you have never played Castlevania before you owe it to yourself to try it. It’s in our best NES games list, so you have to try it! It’s also a great game to play on some of the best retro handhelds around. Contra on the go, perfecto.
What a punishingly hard shoot ‘em up! Contra is not for the faint of heart. I probably dented the wood on my family’s TV cabinet more times than I can count throwing the brick-like NES controller at it.
Contra practically invented addictively frustrating, no matter how much punishment you took it was hard not to go back for more, which is the genius of the game.
It did not do a whole lot revolutionary as there had been other entrants into the genre prior, but it was hard to put down, hard to play and tense as hell.
With projectiles and enemies coming from everywhere constantly trying to kill you, if you looked away for even a second you were a goner.
Contra leaves it all on the table or the deck if you’re prone. Classic games were notoriously more difficult than today’s eye candy and Contra was no exception.
So always remember ↑↑↓↓←→←→B, A, Start
Technically the second Kirby game after the fantastic Kirby’s Dream Land for Gameboy. It took nearly every loveable fantastic element of Dream Land and amplified it.
Now I’m not going to argue that Kirby’s Adventure is better than Dream Land, as that’s a nearly perfect game to me.
But after playing Dream Land until I chewed up my parents’ entire stock of AA batteries, I was still looking for more when Kirby’s Adventure was released. ‘Adventure’ was just that, an adventure into a familiar land but with new abilities, levels and oh yeah glorious 8 bit color!
Developed by Nintendo’s close friends at HAL Laboratories, Kirby’s Adventure cemented Kirby as a cornerstone character in the Nintendo universe.
It was creative, fresh, joyful, fun, and whimsical and nearly anyone who picked up a controller smiled while playing it. In many ways it made computer generated characters beloved by all ages before Pixar and Toy Story nailed a couple of years later. Never played it?
Do yourself a favor, sit back, relax and enjoy a little adventure with the lovable flying puffball Kirby.
Final Fantasy was ever so closely, software developer Square’s, literal final fantasy, luckily they absolutely crushed it.
While I was never much of a huge RPG gamer myself the roots of this storied series started with this title and for good reason.
Final Fantasy was not the first RPG and owes a lot to MUD style games and text based RPG’s before it, but the devil is in the details and Final Fantasy got those right on.
You could spend hours and hours developing your character and going on quest after quest.
If you love RPG’s there is a lot to learn about the history of the genre and a lot to love by sinking some hours into the original epic that launched the franchise.
Metroid cements itself on this list because it was able to so harmoniously dovetail multiple styles of games into something fresh and new.
As a platformer alone it would have been fun. As an adventure game where you gain new powers as you go along it would have been great.
But as a non-linear, suspenseful, sci-fi, platformer, adventure game, that executes on all aspects, that etches its place in history.
Metroid and Castlevania are historically always tied to one another for their many similarities, in structure and gameplay but Metroid lands higher on this list for me because of how smoothly it plays.
It also stands out for it’s sci-fi subject matter and frankly Samus is just a more interesting hero to me than Simon.
Crawling through caves and noticing details only to discover you were on to something but need to gain an ability later, will pique your curiosity and sense of exploration. This game is worth your time.
It’s hard to believe Super Mario Bros. 3 came out in 1988. It was such a breath of fresh air because it foreshadowed games to come from the Super Nintendo in the mid life cycle of the best NES games.
Super Mario Bros 3 laid the foundation for Super Mario World and you can see clear lines between it and the modern iteration of Mario today across all of Nintendo’s systems.
This title really solidified the look of Mario which he carries to this day.
Many say this is the strongest Mario title on the system but I would argue, because you cannot have Super Mario Bros. 3 without Super Mario Bros. it has to yield the floor to its elder.
THE puzzle game (period). Tetris remains one of the purest puzzle games of all time and is undoubtedly aone of the best NES games of all time.
It reached a legendary status matched only by game giants that transcend the video game world and have lasted for hundreds of years.
The game is so ubiquitous it can be found in some form on nearly any type of computing device and is recognized worldwide.
It’s approachable, engaging, challenging and oh so replayable, to the point where it’s not uncommon to have Tetris dreams after long play sessions.
The story of how Tetris got where it is and with Nintendo is utter madness and yet still it pales in comparison to the game itself.
Its many offshoots and sequels should give you an idea of it’s breadth and are a testament to its staying power.
Tetris tournaments like the Classic Tetris World Championships are still going strong and new riffs on the game are alive and relevant to this day.
I would be shocked if you have never played Tetris because of the ubiquity of the Gameboy version, but many have never played it on the NES, do yourself a favor and check it out.
What can be said of The Legend of Zelda that has not been said before. You must have expected this one in our best NES games list1
The Legend of Zelda, a close second to my number one pick, set a level of excellence for an emerging genre and launched a storied franchise.
With The Legend of Zelda, again Nintendo took something that had been done before and polished it to a mirror sheen.
While titles like Final Fantasy were exceptional, many see The Legend of Zelda as a formative title bringing adventure RPGs from the computer world and into the living room for the masses.
Another title among several on this list touched by the brilliant mind of Shigeru Miyamoto, it introduced new ideas to the genre, was challenging, looked great and sounded unforgettable.
If you are looking to get into adventure style RPG games, this top down style game is where you should start. We are currently waiting for a new Zelda game to play too!
Super Mario Bros. is the game that launched 1,000 ships, literally, from Japan, filled with millions of NES consoles. It didn’t hurt that it had incredibly memorable characters and played like a dream.
It was as crisp and pure as the corners of the pixels it pushed. Super Mario Bros. was approachable to all ages and drew parents and kids alike around the TV to try their hand with the little plumber.
The game was tough but not punishing and you could play it at your own pace, albeit blistering, snail or anywhere in between as long as you nailed the jump.
Super Mario Bros. is not only the most important game on the NES it is one of the most important video games of all time.
In this iteration Mario grew into the Mickey Mouse of video games and there has been no going back. Almost everyone is familiar with him and likely played or seen someone play Super Mario Bros. at one time in their life but if you aren’t one of those people go give it a run already.