The 50 best NES games of all time

Believe it or not, Fusajiro Yamauchi founded Nintendo long before the invention of video games (circa 1889). Even then, the company was in the gaming biz, quickly mass producing handmade Hanafuda playing cards outside of Kyoto, Japan. After 80 or so years as a popular card company — and a slew of brief stints involving a taxi service, a brand of instant rice, a chain of love hotels, and a TV network — Nintendo forayed into the realm of video games in the mid 1970s with its space-age arcade title, EVR Race. However, national recognition didn’t come until 1983 when the company launched its first home gaming console (aka the Family Computer), which debuted two years later in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System.The NES changed the gaming industry forever, and subsequently, the games developed for the console left an indelible mark on pop culture and the memories of those who played them.

Related: Our picks for best emulators | Best classic Game Boy games

Here’s our selection of the best NES games of all time, whether it’s Duck Hunt, Castlevania, or Jackal striking your fancy.  And by the way, Nintendo still makes those playing cards.

Updated 6-8-2015 by Will Nicol: This article has been updated to include rankings, as well as removing some entries (sorry, Battletoads) and adding in others.

50. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Sometimes greatness is less about actually being good than about being bold. That’s certainly the case for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, which built upon the platforming adventure gameplay of the first Castlevania and added RPG elements, such as a world map and experience system. The game adopted the nonlinear exploration of Metroid, which made for much more open gameplay, however many of the items needed to finish the game are hidden in extremely esoteric locations, requiring the player to decipher cryptic clues given by NPCs or else simply stumble upon the items in question. As such, Simon’s Quest has developed a reputation for notoriously fiendish difficulty, being nigh impossible to complete without a guide.

While Simon’s Quest may not be the most fun or well-designed game on the NES, it did introduce a number of mechanics to the series and video games in general; starting with Symphony of the Night, RPG elements would become a staple part of the franchise, and Simon’s Quest was also one of the first video games to include a day/night cycle, in which the game would become significantly harder during the night time. People may not enjoy playing Castlevania II, but being great isn’t always about being liked.

49. Metal Gear

“Metal Gear!?” Long before David Hayter’s gravelly baritone, before Hideo Kojima’s increasingly cinematic aspirations, before Raiden, there was only Metal Gear. Solid Snake’s first adventure, although very primitive compared to the more extravagant sequels of recent years, still shows some of the franchise’s hallmark gameplay. It’s a sneaking mission. Snake must infiltrate an enemy facility, using cover to avoid enemies as best he can. Of course, weapons and equipment are OSP (on-site procurement.) If Snake is seen by a guard, all the guards in the area will swarm him. However, the AI is not very complex, so it’s easy to throw them off your trail. For fans of the Metal Gear Solid series, playing the original Metal Gear is like studying the bones of an ancient animal; it’s fascinating to see which parts have endured through the ages, and which parts evolved into cyborg ninjas.

48. Life Force

After the runaway success of Gradius, a follow-up was naturally in order. That follow-up was a spin-off called Salamander, and like its predecessor, it first made its debut as an arcade game before becoming inevitably adapted for the NES. Renamed Life Force on consoles, the shooter placed players back in the cockpit of the Vic Viper, this time allowing friends to tag along in a spacecraft called the Lord British. It’s not a far flung departure from the original, but it did introduce a simplified leveling system and levels that shuffle between horizontal and vertical scrolling perspectives. Still, actually blasting away giant, floating brains on six stages is far better than watching five minutes of the 1988 anime adaptation of the title.

47. Kung Fu

Repetitive and simplistic fun, Kung Fu is much like Duck Hunt. The title started out as Kung-Fu Master, an old arcade game, and was then ported to various consoles such as the NES after the 8-bit revolution, dropping the “Master” portion of the title in the process. Featuring only five side-scrolling stages, a dedicated player could punch and kick through the game in a matter of minutes, and once beaten, it would start over at a higher difficulty setting. It contains elements of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, represents one of the earliest beat-’em-up games for the console, and is often brutally summarized as, “rescue girlfriend – hit people” — which is more than an apt description.

46. Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword Of Chaos

Unfurling one year after the events of Ninja Gaiden, the second installment in the series was centered on Ryu’s quest to thwart the evil emperor Ashtar and his plans for world domination. It was essentially the same song and dance, with improved 8-bit visuals and tighter control scheme, and the ability to scale walls in addition to merely jumping on them. Moreover, Ryu could utilize a slew of power-boosting items such as shurikens and fireballs, and clone he could clone himself — making boss battles slightly easier. The new abilities, along with the developer’s continued focus on music and cinematic cutscenes, make this sequel just as captivating as the original.

45. Kid Icarus

Kid Icarus was developed and released alongside Metroid, and while the latter became a megawatt hit spurring a plethora of great sequels, Kid Icarus quietly fell into the cult classic category. The platformer was ridiculously difficult thanks to the perpetually-scrolling screen that moved up as you ascended, rendering any poorly-timed jumps or precarious footing a catastrophe waiting to happen. Also, it didn’t help that most of the floating platforms were incredibly narrow and difficult to navigate even without the whole, scrolling facet. Icarus might have flown too close to the sun and tumbled in the sea, but that was a cakewalk compared to this game.

44. Duck Hunt

Hardly anyone went out and bought Duck Hunt. Nonetheless, it managed to find its way into people’s homes thanks to it being packaged with Super Mario Bros. The game was a mindless and repetitive time-killer in the Angry Birds kind of way, requiring players to shoot a set number of ducks in a single round in order to advance. Aside from the dog that would appear onscreen and laugh at your face if you failed to shoot any ducks, the title was most famous for being one of the first — and only — games to utilize the bundled NES Zapper light gun. Frankly it was quite repetitive and mindless, but nonetheless, that didn’t make shooting all 10 targets in a single round any easier.

43. Vice: Project Doom

Vice: Project Doom was a sleeper hit when it first debuted in ’91, but truly for no reason at all. The storyline was original and intriguing, focusing on a detective and his investigation of a secret alien corporation and a food substance moonlighting as a highly addictive drug on the black market. It was multi-genre game, showcasing platformer elements akin to Ninja Gaiden and driving segments reminiscent of Spy Hunter, with first-person shooting elements trickling through via a .44 Magnum and M-24 sticky grenades. Moreover, it’s embellished with all the standard facets players came to expect, such as a health gauge and limited number of lives, while boasting 11 levels of futuristic weaponry and cinema-style cutscenes.

42. A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia

This 1989 classic is the heartwarming and exciting story about, well, a boy and his blob. Combining elements of platformers and puzzlers, A Boy and His Blob follows the pair on their quest to save the blob’s home planet, Blobolonia, from an evil dictator. On their way, the boy collects jelly beans he then feeds to the blob to change its respective shape into something better suited for the environment. For example, licorice-flavored jelly beans turn the blob into a ladder, vanilla jelly beans will turn it into an umbrella, and if you’re in need of a bridge, simply feed your blob a strawberry-flavored jelly bean. A Boy and His Blob is like E.T. — if E.T. preferred jelly beans over Reese’s Pieces and could turn into an umbrella.

41. Adventure Island II

The original Adventure Island didn’t just seem like a blatant ripoff of Sega’s Wonder Boy, that’s exactly what it was. However, the sequel switched things up a bit with some good ol’ fashioned dinosaur-wrangling and skateboarding. The title is a classic “guy saves girlfriend from bad guy” games, one in which you play as white-capped yachtsman Master Higgins.

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