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 its 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 40 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 40 is a top 40 so let’s get to it. Here are the best NES games of all time!
Table of Contents
I’m not the biggest fan of the sport in real life, but I do find Golf games incredibly relaxing to play. Plus when it’s raining outside, it’s much more exciting playing golf on your sofa than trudging around a course.
The settings were all pretty advanced too, changing swing speed and angle, getting to look at the course from above – it was the real deal alright!
Of all the sports series games on the NES, Golf was definitely the most popular. You’ll need to concentrate a little bit, but you definitely won’t put an arm out trying to beat your best score.
39. Pool Of Radiance (1991)
Pool of Radiance isn’t a hot tub or natural spring that you can jump in to look more youthful. It is, however, an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game!
And, as such, there are multiple morality paths for you take a whole host of humans, elves, dwarves, and many more exciting characters down.
Even if you’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons before, you should know that exploration, battles, item collecting, and delving into dungeons are a given.
The battles in this game allow players to see the world from a 2.5D perspective, while the majority of the exploration is done through top-down camera angles.
If you’ve played Pool of Radiance on any other console, then you’ll know how insanely complicated it is. The good thing about the NES port is that it’s actually simplified and much more enjoyable to play.
If anything, it’s the best of the bunch and worked a treat with the NES game pad!
Destiny of an Emperor is a well-thought out, in depth RPG title that really makes you think while playing.
It’s also got one of the biggest back catalogue of characters on any NES game I’ve ever played too, rivalling many modern RPGs too.
It’s all about making sure everyone in your party has a skillset that matches up with everyone else in the group, each person bringing something to the table that will make thwarting the upcoming challenges a breeze.
Getting people to join your group isn’t as easy as just asking them, however. You’ve got to beat them in battle, bribe them with cold hard cash, and convince team to join your cause.
DOAE comes from a manga series, so its roots are already deep, so deep that there are references from a novel by Luo Guanzhong from the 14th century called Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Because of the heavy manga influence, the whole thing feels like living in a digital graphic novel. Plus the storyline is so finely crafted that you’ll thoroughly enjoy every second!
If you’re excited by the idea of a game that mixes Streets of Rage with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action, then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Tournament Fighters will feel like Christmas has come early.
These days it’s one of the rare NES games we won’t ever be getting rid of. With a cost of $220 just for the cartridge alone, we’re happy to keep watching the price increasing over the next couple of years!
Many of you have probably played this game on the SNES or the Genesis rather than the NES; those two consoles were ruling the roost towards the ned of the NES’ lifespan, but as many people still had NES consoles, I can see why it came out on the old machine too.
Anyone that has played Shredder’s Revenge will love the feel of this game. It’s a brawler with the turtles, what’s not to love.
Well, the film that came out around the same time, for one thing. You can find out more by checking out our best TMNT movies of all time article.
In at Number 36 on our list of the best NES games is Galaga, a game that all Atari fans and readers of our Atari games lists will know all too well.
I can’t go any further without saying that this game looks so much like Space Invaders. Shoot aliens coming down to earth in waves.
The main difference between Galaga and Space Invaders is that the aliens can do more to fight back. They’ll pull your ship up using a beam, and then you have to pull a reserve ship in, effectively losing a life.
If players can manage to get the ship back from the aliens, it means dual firepower for the player, so all hope is not lost.
I’m going to say something that might divide opinions now, but I actually prefer it to Space Invaders. I know that’s probably sacrilegious, but it’s true.
I think because the aliens change patterns and mix things up and the fact that game evolves while you play that it just feels like a more challenging title for fans who loved S.I back in the day.
And when that Galaxian Flagship comes roaring into town, you know that things are about to get tough real quick!
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest will forever have my love because it’s a Castlevania game. That being said, it’s definitely the poorest of the three games.
The thing that annoys me the most about this game is that it tried to do too much. Castlevania games are great because they follow a certain style. This iteration tired to bring loads of extras in such as gameplay that was non-linear and over complicated RPG elements that felt a little jarring.
Then there was the poor translation from Japanese to English – if anything the whole thing felt a little disorganised.
It also feels a little more like Metroid too when it comes to the exploration elements. Perhaps this is the first moment devs started thinking about coining MetroidVania as a gameplay style.
Cool elements like the enemies doing more damage at night and real-time day night cycles is a nice touch, it’s just a case of too many undead cooks spoiling the bat broth with this one I’m afraid!
Godzilla: Monster of Monsters takes the 34th spot in this list of the best NES games of all time!
The first kaiju-licious title featuring Godzilla on the NES packed a punch.
I mean, Godzilla always packs a punch; look at the size of his fists!
In this game Mothra and Godzilla have been sent to Planet X by the people of Earth in order to make sure that they wipe out a tonne of alien cretins.
The levels are side-scrolling and, while not the most intricately designed levels, they do definitely have an other-wordly vibe about them and prove challenging at times.
Stomp, roar, and obliterate everything in your path. Mothra and Godzilla have their differences that players can utilise as they move through the game, and Mothra can fly too!
Donkey Kong Jr. is an easy entry in this list. Mario capturing Donkey Kong in a role reversal and having a little gorilla taking the starring role; what’s not to love!
Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto worked wonders on this one. So the idea isn’t that different from the original, but like Galaga adding extra elements into the Space Invaders formula, this sequel brings new features such as better graphics and exciting new gameplay mechanics.
As one of the highest selling arcade cabinets of all time, its popularity speaks for itself. And this game has featured on some other epic consoles from the golden age of gaming such as the Atari 2600 too!
It’s weird seeing Mario as a bad guy, but it’s this game and the original title that would eventually go on to spark the Mario Vs Donkey Kong series, and they’re some of my favourite games ever!
Real players and top down NFL action. Welcome to Tecmo Bowl!
Yes, all the players in this game were real names in the sport back at the time, but with no full NFL licensing, the in-game ends up being a little lacklustre.
Still, I am talking about a game from 1987, and while the cut-scenes haver a very ‘Super Tennis’ feel about them, it’s a well put together game that should serve any sports fans nicely.
This is without a doubt the best American Football game to grace the console. It’s a simplified version of the real game with players taking control of different characters for varying segments of play, and there are fewer players on the pitch.
And get this for old-school: you have to put in a password to carry on with the single player tournament when you turn the game off.
But despite its simplistic nature, playing this game with a friend can provide hours and hours of fun, especially when you add a few beers into the mix!
Balloon Fight use a concept that many of us will have come across in some shape or form over the years. Whether playing the battle segment of Mario Kart or getting stuck into Mario Party minigames, we’re all used to popping opponents balloons.
And bursting their bubbles at the same time!
It’s all-out-aerial warfare as you take out your balloon gliding opponents in the skies. Land on top of them to burst a balloon and finish them off before they have chance to get back into the fray.
It has a very strong Mario Bros-style arcade feel to it and, while easy to grasp, it can be tricky at times.
If you fancy a different challenge, there’s aways the Balloon Trip mode where players have to avoid obstacles while gathering balloons. It’s like Flappy Bird, just not as infuriating.
Next up on our list of the best NES games is Mighty Bomb Jack!
How many of you have played the original Bomb Jack, one of our best ZX Spectrum games that featured on multiple consoles.
Well, this mighty sequel changes things up a little while still keeping the original formula that we know and love intact.
Avoid bad guys and snag bombs as you move through each of the levels. Instead of having that early computer game one-screen feel, The Mighty Bomb Jack utilises a side scrolling format.
It might seem like a really small change, but it’s a change that adds so much more depth to the game, putting in line with the same kind of gameplay style (if not calibre) as the early Mario games.
Racking up points and searching for bombs is fun, if a little repetitive at times, but it’s still worth a play if you’re looking to bolster your NES collection.
Fire Emblem Gaiden is one of those old-school RPGS that, despite looking simple, still packs a punch today.
In a world of next-gen open world titles, it can still hold its own. As a sequel to the epic Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, it provides a chance for fans of the series to get even closer to the battles and RPG goodness that makes this series so popular
Despite my high praise above, a lot of people think that this is actually one of the weakest Fire Emblem titles of the series, which I think is a little harsh.
Ok, it’s never going to score highly for people that have joined the series at Three Houses, but for fans of Link’s adventures on the NES and Final Fantasy, one of the best NES RPG games of all time, this will prove a lovely treat to play!
King Arthur is usually known for his role around the round table and telling the Saxons to ‘do one’. But in Ghosts & Goblins, his skills are really put to the test.
Peach takes up all of the limelight as the main damsel in distress in the video gaming world, so we’re a big fan of Guinevere giving the role a bash in this game.
In search of his beloved, Arthur must fight Gorgons, Trolls, and tonnes of other ferocious beasties.
It sounds like a lot to deal with, but it’s probably a walk in the park for him!
If you enjoy the relentless difficulty of old games like the Alex Kidd series, then you’ll be all over Ghosts ‘n Goblins. It’s by no means easy, mainly due to the fact that there’s no gradual health bar depletion.
Two hits and it’s game over! This thing makes Returnal look like a Spyro title!
Anyone old enough to have played this game in the arcades will no doubt be able to tell you how much of a hit it was back in the day. If you’re looking to add a game worthy of Camelot to your shelf, then look no further!
I’ve never been a huge fan of toad, but the Battletoads are a whole-different-thing entirely.
I’m not overly fond of mice either, but that still doesn’t stop me from wishing I was one of the Biker Mice From Mars!
Most toads who have had a loved one and a friend stolen from them would probably just hide in a well or a drain feeling pretty nonplussed. But the Battletoads aren’t normal toads, and they love a good fight.
I mean, the clue is kind of in the name!
This NES game comprises of 13 action packed levels in which you, the Battletoad in question, must move through side-scrolling levels while beating up bad guys.
You know how Super Metroid has the vertical levels where Samus drops down from ledge to ledge? Well, Battletoads also utilises a similar style too, while some levels see players controlling surfing toads.
Thwart bosses, ride rockets, and generally be the hardest toad around as you try to defeat the Dark Queen!
Maniac Mansion is up next in this list of the best NES games of all time. Lucasfilm’s first self-published title often surprises people who only think of Jedis and Gungans whenever they see the company name.
It might not be dripping with the force or high in midichlorians, but it’s one crazy game that’s definitely worth a look at.
For starters, the plot is so bonkers that it’s impossible not to get sucked into it straight away. Follow the story of a mad scientist that has lost his mind after becoming the slave of a meteor…
… told you it was weird!
Players control Dave Miller, a cool cat that has to save a lovely lady named Sandy Pantz. I’m not sure whether she frequents nudist beaches or just likes funny names, but that’s probably a story for another time.
Like many of the RPGs we cover here at Retro Dodo, Dave’s path will depend fully on which choices you make as the game goes on. There are so many point and click options to choose from at each stage that you can play multiple ways and experience a different game every time!
Out of a possible six friends, players can take Dave and two other characters into the mad scientist’s mansion to save Miss Pantz. Dangerous traps and nasty surprises lie in wait around every turn, so you better keep your wits about you if you want to grab the girl and leave with your head still attached!
Faxanadu joins this list of the best NES games at Number 25, more proof that Hudson Soft has never made a bad computer game.
Fans of RPGS such as Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and pretty much anything with an elf in it will love this game. It’s classic 2D RPG action with hints of platformer thrown in for good measure.
Let’s get into the story. Eolis, beautiful Elven town and home to the World Tree, is destroyed by an evil force. Dwarves are causing a ruckus, and it’s your job to put an end to all of it before the world implodes.
Daggers and wing boots, mantras and monsters; it all sounds very much like Dungeons and Dragons to me. Chat with villagers to learn secrets, trade gold for weapons, slay all manner of beasts from mammoth snakes to zombies, and use magic spells to beat back one-legged Cyclops.
Pretty much every mythological or fantasy element appears in this game. It’s basically a nerd’s favourite cocktail.
It wouldn’t be an RPG without the chance to upgrade a character’s skills and rank them up after achieving a certain number of kills.
The higher the rank, the more goodies you’ll find. And the good news is that the ‘mantra’ part of the title refers to a restore password players use to keep their stats once the game shuts down! Result!
I think it’s safe to say that most of the people reading this article have wanted to be Rygar at some point in their lives. Any barbarian type that comes back to life to solve stuff other people can’t has to be hard as nails.
The game case calls him a legendary warrior, for crying out loud!
Rygar lives in Argool, and the game is set billions of years from now when dead dudes can be called back into service time and time again. Wielding a chain on a shield and some muscles that Arnie would be proud of, Rygar jumps into action!
As I’ve said in previous articles about Rygar, I’ve never played the arcade version of this game. Still, as one of the best Atari Lynx games and now one of the best NES games of all time, I feel like I’ve had my fair share of beatdown action.
Enemies jump out from pretty much everywhere on the screen. Rygar can supercharge Captain Planet-style by collecting different power-ups from the various levels. Turn invisible to mess with a foe’s mind or give the chain shield extra oomph when playing against killer bosses.
This game has nice graphics and great gameplay, but it’s the storyline that I love the most. This is the kind of stuff the word ‘nerd’ was made for, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ll be a life-long Rygar fan forevermore.
Boasting strong 40 Winks vibes and a cast of characters that could have jumped straight from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Little Nemo: The Dream Master provides a cutesy storyline with epic gameplay for all ages.
To be fair, Little Nemo predates both 40 Winks and the 1970s classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It’s set around a comic book from the early 1900s and takes place in the mysterious and dreamy realm of Slumberland.
Players control Nemo, a boy from good ‘ol London Town who is summoned to Slumberland to sort someone else’s mess out. He’s licensed from the original comic too, so he’s the real deal!
The Prince of Nightmares has taken the King of Slumberland hostage, and the Princess of Slumberland needs your help.
What weapons does Nemo have tucked away in his pyjamas to help save the day? A sword? A gun?
Nope; just a bag of sweets. Use it to knock-out enemies and convince animals to help you on your quest as you fight to save the king!
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 20th 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 18th 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.
Dracula’s Curse III: Simon’s Revenge is a stone cold classic NES title.
Though to be fair though, after the previous game, the bar was left pretty low!
In a move back to the original formula that worked so well for the first Castlevania game, Dracula’s Curse feels and plays exactly like a Castlevania game should do. Join Trevor Belmont as he ‘whip’s Dracula’s minions into shape.
It’s not just the action of these games that is seriously impressive and addictive though. Players can experience multiple endings depending on paths that they take through the game.
To say this game came out in 1989, it’s a seriously impressive bit of work!
Though this is the last game for the series on the NES, it’s actually a prequel for the first game. Trust the Belmont’s to make things hard for us to understand, right?
Kid Icarus takes the 15th 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 favour, sit back, relax and enjoy a little adventure with the lovable flying puffball Kirby.
Crystalis threw around the idea that the 1st October, 1997 was going to be the end of civilisation. At the time, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to die at the age of 7, although computer games were awesome and I’d played a lot of them, so I’d had a good life…
How does humanity fall? Well, a great war culls most of the human race, and the remaining forces build a big watchtower to keep an eye on evil, They think they’ve sorted everything out, but then a cryogenic chamber opens up in a mountain and you, the player, jump out to start uncovering dirty secrets.
Wait… tall towers, a cryogenic chamber… that’s the WHOLE premise of BOTW. Nintendo, did you take the idea of my favourite Zelda game from Crystalis?!
Crystalis provides NES users with even more RPG goodness. Use weapons and equip different armour as you prepare to uncover the mysterious of the mysterious watchtower. Learn magical skills from wise people and gather magical swords to pull off extraordinary attacks.
Like every other RPG ever made, the player must improve their stats through points garnered from battles. Go up against a boss without upgrading your skills to the right level, and it’ll be game over before you have time to work out how many ‘L’s are in Crystalis…
… it’s one, but I’ve written it with two so many times now and corrected it that the struggle is very much real.
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.
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Retro gaming is in Seth’s blood and has been since the day his parents brought home an NES in 1980-something. He loves the narrative, artistry, and technology as much as the people and stories behind the games themselves. When he’s not thinking about a new angle to look at gaming, he can be found attempting a creative culinary twist in the kitchen or playing with his dogs.