The success of NES Classic Edition and has shown that the love for Nintendo’s classic console is still alive and well. The official emulator prepacked with 30 games (or more if you’re willing to wade into the legal gray area and download some ROMs) is a neat device. A Nintendo Switch Online subscription also grants you access to a growing library of great NES games. Still, nothing beats the real thing. Whether you have one stashed away in a closet somewhere or you’ve just picked one up from eBay, there are a lot of great games on the console that are worth playing again, even after all these years. These are our picks for the best NES games.
Vice: Project Doom
Vice: Project Doom was a sleeper hit when it first debuted in ’91, but there was truly for no reason at all for its slow start. 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 a multi-genre game, showcasing platforming 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 a limited number of lives, while boasting 11 levels of futuristic weaponry and cinema-style cutscenes.
There’s no denying the ’80s was a decade of super-muscular action flicks (think Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger in anything). The action heroes used massive machine guns and biceps to blow stuff up, and like the aforementioned blockbusters, Konami’s beefy title basked in a sea of high testosterone and ammunition.
There wasn’t really any real strategy to Contra, other than holding down the “fire” button and running like hell, and its brutal difficulty pretty much made cooperative play a necessity for amateurs and professional gamers alike. Moreover, the game popularized the now-famous Konami code, one giving players 30 lives to squander in their mad dash for victory.
Released in the United States three years after Rambo: First Blood Part II, Jackal was also about the rescue and retrieval of POWs. However, whereas Stallone relied on a barrage of explosive arrows and a mean six pack, Jackal relied on a Jeep outfitted with an upgradeable rocket launcher and a heavy-set machine gun.
As with most run-and-gun games, players lost lives when taking damage, gained lives when they garnered points, and were faced with a myriad off boss battles once they dropped off their rescued comrades at their respective rescue locations for helicopter pickup. Yet, unlike Rambo, players were far more productive with a teammate who could lend a helping, trigger-happy hand than alone.
Often overshadowed by similar games such as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, Rygar was an action/platformer game known for its unfortunate combination of high difficulty and lack of a save function. The player must seek out five magic items, all guarded by bosses, in order to ascend to the floating castle of the evil King Ligar for a final confrontation. Some areas can only be accessed with certain items, a la Metroid, encouraging exploration and backtracking.
Given that the “Metroidvania” genre has so long been dominated by the two titular franchises (Metroid and Castlevania) Rygar is a fun little curio, taking the standard elements of the genre and setting them in a Mesopotamian-inspired world. As mentioned, the game is known for its draconian difficulty, but thanks to modern conveniences like emulators, it is possible to alleviate some of its problems through save states.
Adventure games, like the moon, have waxed and waned over the course of video game history. One of the high points for the genre was in the late 80s/early 90s when companies like LucasArts (then known as LucasFilm Games) began to improve on the genre’s text-based origins by adding richly detailed environments the player could interact with.
The torchbearer for this new wave of adventure games was LucasFilm’s Maniac Mansion, the brainchild of renowned developer Ron Gilbert. Mansion is an homage to the teen horror movies of the 80s (think Friday the 13th). Players control a group of teenagers trying to rescue one of their own from the mansion of a mad scientist and his depraved family.
The game is notably dark in spite of its humor. The player has the ability to control five distinct characters, and they can easily fall victim to the perils of the mansion. Characters can die, in which case the player must choose from one of the remaining characters to continue. There are multiple endings depending on which characters survive, and it is possible for all of them to die.
Maniac Mansion was originally released for the PC, and that first version contained a great deal of suggestive humor that Nintendo did not consider acceptable. As such, the NES version removed many of the more adult jokes in the game, though the overall sense of humor remains. Nowadays, you can play Maniac Mansion for free thanks to The Internet Archive browser-based emulator.
Fans of Castlevania games made post-Symphony of the Night may find the series’ original outing a bit barebones. Unlike in later games, Castlevania does not feature large, interconnected areas to explore, nor an expansive variety of abilities and items to customize your style of play. What Castlevania classic does offer is one of the best platforming experiences on the NES. Players control Simon Belmont and explore Dracula’s Castle in hopes of vanquishing the dark lord. Along the way, Simon must fight through a number of enemies such as mummies and Frankenstein’s monster; unlike later Castlevania games which adopted a more baroque style, the original draws on old Universal monster movies for influence. Simon can find some items such as throwing knives and holy water to help him, but his primary weapon is his trusty whip, a series mainstay. It’s a simple game by the franchise’s standards, but so much of the core gameplay is present that it barely matters. Castlevania is on the NES Classic.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
After experimenting with RPG elements and exploration with Simon’s Quest, Konami reined in the gameplay for the third installment in the Castlevania series, Dracula’s Curse. Set before the first two games, the game follows Simon Belmont’s ancestor, Trevor, as he seeks to vanquish Dracula. As usual for the series, the vanquishing doesn’t quite take.
Despite going back to platforming basics, Dracula’s Curse did introduce some changes of its own to the Castlevania formula. Main character Trevor Belmont is joined by three new characters who can accompany him: Sypha Belnades, a sorceress with powerful spells; Grant Danasty, an oddly named pirate who can climb on walls; and Alucard, Dracula’s son who can shoot fireballs and fly around like a bat.
Although the game is divided into straightforward levels like the original Castlevania, there are a few points in Dracula’s Curse where the player can allow two different paths. This sort of branching gameplay adds variance to playthroughs, and there are different endings depending on which companion Trevor travels with.
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 otherwise 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. Castlevania II is on NES Classic.
“Metal Gear!?” Long before David Hayter’s gravelly baritone, before Hideo Kojima’s increasingly cinematic aspirations (see: Death Stranding), 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 A.I. 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.
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 Hayabusa’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 a 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.
The Ninja Gaiden series is infamous for delivering some of the most controller-breakingly difficult games in existence, and as expected, it began from the onset. However, Ryu Hayabusa is fully prepared to tackle the evil Nostradamus and his cult of henchmen no matter the difficulty, carrying throwing stars and the family Dragon Sword in tow throughout the game’s urban environments. Additionally, players could hone in on all the cliche ninja abilities, namely the flying neck throw and wall-jumping, and utilize environmental objects as props. Ninja Gaiden wasn’t just hard though, it was cinematic, offering arguably the first, cutscene-driven narrative of any console title in existence. And who could forget that saw-blazoned, continue screen? Ninja Gaiden is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
One of the most influential titles to appear on the NES, Metroid drops the player into the dark depths of a strange planet and leaves them to their own devices. There are no waypoints to follow, no objective other than a general goal to defeat the space pirate leader, Mother Brain. It’s a dark, tense game of exploration, one in which the player must find their own way through the alien vistas and organisms in their path.
The game pioneered the “Metroidvania” genre which Castlevania would later help to build upon, giving players a large world to explore. There is an assortment of items and weapons scattered around the world, all of which aid not only in combat but in reaching new areas as well. The original Metroid is a little rough around the edges, with less precise controls and duller environments than the far superior sequel, Super Metroid. Some primitive design aspects aside, it’s a game that launched a thousand imitators and is still a thrilling and challenging adventure. Given its influence and the enduring popularity of leading lady Samus Aran, it’s a little strange that Nintendo has been so reluctant to release new entries in the franchise; even better, then, that the ones they have made are so good. It seems like Nintendo finally listened to fans with Metroid: Samus Returns for 3DS and Metroid Prime 4 for Nintendo Switch. Metroid is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
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.
Gradius was a game about choices. Do you focus on defense so your ship, the trans-dimensional Vic Viper, can handle the beatings from enemy craft and meteorites, or do you rely on superior firepower and thrusters to aid you through the game’s varied environments and impending waves of alien attackers? The power-up system gave Gradius a thrilling charm, as the Vic Viper evolves from a sluggish pipsqueak to a sleek beast, one power-up at a time. The game became more than synonymous with the phrase, “Destroy the core!”, given most boss battles relied on the player attacking a sole sphere located somewhere within the enemy craft’s structure. There isn’t much of a plot, but the same can be said for nearly any arcade-to-console ports in existence. Gradius is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
Hardly anyone went out and bought Duck Hunt (just like hardly anyone watched Duck Hunt: The Movie). 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 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 on screen 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 repetitiv, but nevertheless, that didn’t make shooting all 10 targets in a single round any easier.
Beat ’em up
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.
Double Dragon II: The Revenge
When the original Double Dragon was adapted from arcade to NES, the developers dropped the one thing that made the game so compelling in the arcades: Cooperative fighting. For the sequel, they finally brought the coin-op co-op gameplay to the console and brought friends closer together through brawling, 8-bit bad guys. Awww. Moreover, the developers fleshed out the storyline with narrative sequences between stages, created three difficulty settings, and gave the combative kin a swath new moves such as the Hyper Uppercut and the Cyclone Spin Kick. Plus, they added new enemies, a final boss, and most importantly, a fairytale ending to boot. The Double Dragon series looks and plays the same even today, thanks to the recently released Double Dragon IV.
Super Mario Bros. 3
There is probably no video game character more iconic than Mario; the plucky plumber has been the face of Nintendo for more than 30 years. Mario games are the best-selling video game franchise of all time. Platformers, RPGs, sports games, board games: There is seemingly no genre Nintendo won’t plug Mario into. The sun never sets on the Mario empire, and it all goes back to those early platformers, of which Super Mario Bros. 3 is arguably the greatest.
The first Super Mario Bros. is a great game in itself, but after 3 it almost seems skeletal. SMB3 adds a number of small features that transform its predecessors’ formula into something truly spectacular. Rather than a linear progression through levels, SMB3 introduced an overworld map where players can move around and select levels, as well as mini-games and obstacles to overcome.
While the first Super Mario Bros. had a few power-ups, they were fairly limited in terms of effects. SMB3 added a plethora of new items for Mario to use, including the iconic Tanooki suit, which allowed Mario to fly and find secrets hidden off the beaten path and sometimes even off-screen. Moreover, the game introduced the ability to hold on to items and use them whenever the player felt like it.
The Super Mario trilogy on the NES is one of the foundational pillars of the video game industry. It ushered in a new wave of interest in games after the market crash of 1983 and solidified Nintendo’s place as a power player in the industry, a role they’ve maintained to this very day. Of that trilogy, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the pinnacle, showing off some of the most clever design and pleasant graphics on the system. Super Mario Bros. 3 is available on the NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
Super Mario Bros. 2
When the sequel to Super Mario Bros. came out in Japan, people within Nintendo felt that its huge increase in difficulty over the original might turn off American audiences. As a result, Nintendo of America chose not to release the game in the U.S. (it would later be included in the compilation Super Mario All-Stars for the Super Nintendo, and later Nintendo Wii). This presented a problem, as they still wanted to present Americans with a sequel to the very profitable Super Mario Bros.
The solution was to take another Nintendo platformer, Doki Doki Panic, and replace the characters with figures from the Mario franchise. The result is one of the most bizarre and memorable entries in the Mario canon.
Perhaps the biggest change from the original SMB is that players no longer dispatch enemies by jumping on their heads; rather, players now have the ability to pick up enemies and objects and throw them to inflict damage. Also notable is that there are now four playable characters: Mario and Luigi are joined by Princess Peach and Toad. Each character has their own unique ability (for example, Peach can hover for a short time, allowing her to cross great horizontal distances) giving players different ways to attempt the various stages. Super Mario Bros. is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
Although cursed with, and somewhat defined by, atrocious cover art, the original Mega Man managed to rise above such challenges and established itself as one of the most beloved franchises in video game history despite poor sales. Capcom’s trademark title featured nonlinear gameplay, allowing players to select its six levels in any order they wished, with each level culminating in a boss battle against a Robot Master. Each boss would relinquish its weapon upon defeat — whether it be the hyper beam, fire bomb, super arm, or any one of the game’s various upgrades — and Mega Man could then proceed through other levels or replay the same level. However, you may not ever want to replay the game given its absurdly hard difficulty, and again, that cover art. But if you want to get punished again, check out the Mega Man Legacy Collection.
Ghosts ‘N Goblins
When a game is as chock full of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins as Ghosts N’ Goblins, it’s not surprising players were scared to even begin. It was an incredibly difficult title, with one hit from any of the game’s horror-show baddies stripping the playable Arthur of his armor and reducing him to his underwear. If hit again, the players were even sent back at the start of the level, or merely the halfway point if they were lucky. Oh, and did we mention players had to play the entire game twice before they truly beat it? Now that’s scary. Ghosts N’ Goblins is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
Blaster Master is like a messed up version of Alice in Wonderland, sans the smoking caterpillar and an enormous, Cheshire cat. The run-and-gun title focuses on a boy who follows his pet frog Fred down a hole in his backyard, which leads to an underground labyrinth of radioactive mutants and hazardous objects. Of course, the kid also finds an enormous armored tank, dubbed SOPHIA, which he then uses to navigate side-scroller chasms and gun down enemies en route to eight top-down levels of mayhem. What ensued was an NES classic combining side-scrolling, top-down gameplay, and one hell of a glitch for defeating four of the game’s underbosses. Nothing should be that easy. Blaster Master is on Nintendo Switch Online.
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. The latest entry in the series, and, sadly, possibly the last, Kid Icarus Uprising modernized the mechanics introduced in the original for 3DS. Kid Icarus is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
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.
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.
Batman: The Video Game
As Kevin Smith would later recount, the Bat-Signal was everywhere in the late ’80s given the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in June of ’89. Batman: The Video Game was a loose tie-in to said film, and similar to the like-minded DuckTales title, it wasn’t merely a cash-in game. Batman could sprint and wall jump a la Ryu in Ninja Gaiden throughout the game’s five stages and even toggle between a slew of unique, projectile weaponry including the bat spear gun, dirk, and the fabled Batarang. It pit players against the likes of Killer Moth, the Joker, and other Gotham villains, and though it exhibits notable story arc changes from the film it was based upon, it remains critically praised to this day. Can you say license to thrill, anyone?
Those dreaming to replace baby-blue Mega Man with Scrooge McDuck had their wish granted with DuckTales, a 1989 Capcom game based on the animated TV series of the same name. Developed on Mega Man scaffolding, the hit title followed Scrooge on his never-ending quest for treasure around the world. The nonlinear gameplay, tight controls, and vibrant animations made the platformer rollicking good fun, and though rather quirky, there were few finer moments on the NES than those found while using Scrooge’s cane as a pogo stick. DuckTales received a delightful remaster a few years back as well.
Little Nemo: The Dream Master
Back in the days of the NES, hardware limitations and the general youth of the industry meant a lot more parity in the quality of releases. Whereas today the gulf between AAA games and smaller releases is astronomical, in those halcyon days of the 80s, even a weird game based on a comic strip nobody remembers could stand alongside the heavyweights of the Nintendo lineup.
Such was the case with Little Nemo: The Dream Master, a late release from Capcom that played like Mega Man and looked like Alice in Wonderland. Players control protagonist Nemo, exploring a series of 2D levels in search of keys necessary for progression. Nemo can find a variety of animals to ride in each level, each of which has its own special abilities: the mole, for example, allows Nemo to dig through the ground to access hidden areas. It’s the sort of bizarre project you aren’t likely to see from a major publisher on current consoles.
A venerable cross between a platformer and a puzzle title, Bubble Bobble followed the adventures of Bub and Bob — the two dragons first featured in the iconic arcade title, Bust-a-Move — as they navigated the 100-stage Cave of Monsters. Bub and Bob essentially trap enemies in bubbles and then burst said bubbles to score points, while dodging foes and collecting fruit along the way. Though the title features single-player gameplay, the game was best played with a pal, encouraging cooperation with secret levels and an alternate ending that could exclusively be accessed via Bub and Bob. Bubble Bobble is on NES Classic.
Kirby’s Adventure may have been very much a swan song for the NES given the console would be discontinued a mere two years after the title’s release, but it was beautiful one nonetheless. With Kirby’s Adventure, the iconic pink puff moved beyond his roots on the Nintendo Game Boy, while running, jumping, sliding, vacuuming, and absorbing enemy abilities through Dreamland’s seven worlds in an effort to reclaim stolen Star Rod fragments. The title basked in gorgeous animation, use of parallax scrolling, and a phenomenal score, quickly becoming a classic despite being a late-generation title. It was also the first colored titled in the Kirby series, and more importantly, the first to offer save functionality. Thank god. The original Kirby formula is still kicking today, as represented by the recent Switch entry in the series. Kirby’s Adventure is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
Mega Man 2
Would it surprise you to know that Mega Man, the character who would for many years be Capcom’s de facto mascot, was nearly a one-hit wonder? The first game in the franchise sold poorly, and Capcom only greenlit a sequel on the condition that the development team do it on the side while focusing on other projects. Series creator Keiji Inafune claims the team spent 20 hours a day, sacrificing their personal lives to ensure the game got made. It’s a good thing they did, as Mega Man 2 put the franchise in the big leagues, and to this day remains one of the peaks of the series.
Like the original, Mega Man 2 gives the player the option to choose between a group of different stages, each capped off by a boss battle. Every time the player defeats a boss, they gain access to that boss’ signature weapon, which they can use to defeat other bosses more easily. Mega Man 2 improved on its predecessor by giving players new items to use such as energy capsules, expanding the number of levels to complete, and just looking better aesthetically. It’s much more colorful than the original, with a more eccentric group of bosses to take down. Just be sure to have a swear jar ready when you attempt Quick Man’s stage. If you want a modernized take on the franchise, check out the surprisingly adept fan-made Mega-Man 2.5D. Mega Man 2 is on NES Classic.
Super Mario Bros.
No best-of list would be complete without the title that single-handedly revitalized the gaming industry and solidified Nintendo as its flagship titan. Super Mario Bros. was superbly entertaining, epitomizing the dictum that a game should be “easy to learn but difficult to master.” Players donned the role of the affable Mario, accompanying the plumber on his journey through the Mushroom Kingdom and his quest to save Princess Peach from the maniacal Bowser. It was littered with mushroom power-ups, gold coins, and goombas, and essentially pioneered the side-scroller as we know it while setting the template for countless games that followed. To this day, its impact should go without saying. Out of curiosity, have you seen Super Mario Bros.‘ first level in augmented reality? Super Mario Bros. is on NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
“The Soviet mind game,” the cover declared. A case of the Commies flexing their muscles at the West, trying to confuse and intimidate us with their mind games? An example of international geopolitics trumped by cooperation in the gaming industry? Who cares! Tetris was and still is a ludicrously simple and an instantly addictive game.
Aside from being a sterling port of a popular PC puzzle game, Lode Runner is also one of the rare NES games to feature a level editor, allowing players to find endless enjoyment through designing new and more difficult levels. The gameplay tasks the player with collecting gold in various levels of increasing difficulty, trying to avoid guards along the way. Players can dig holes to trap guards, and observing the patrol patterns of guards is critical to success in the harder levels.
In many ways, Lode Runner is a forerunner to puzzle-platformers of today such as Spelunky, with the focus on avoiding enemies and using ambushes or trickery to deal with them. Along with the ability to create your own levels, Lode Runner is a surprisingly forward-thinking platformer for the era. Historical relevance aside, it’s also one of the most addictive puzzle games on the NES.
Rare’s isometric R.C. Pro-Am is the granddaddy of racing games, especially Mario Kart. Those turbo strips on the track that give your car a speed boost? Started with R.C. Pro-Am. The ability to attack your opponents with missiles, bombs, and oil slicks? Started with R.C. Pro-Am. That infuriating feeling that goes hand-in-hand when you were wedged into fourth place, and subsequently lose because you didn’t manage to cut the corner close enough in the final stretch of the third lap? R.C. Pro-Am solidified that feeling. It was a quality title, one boasting excellent controls, addictive gameplay, and terrific music courtesy of the man who’d go on to score both Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie (aka David Wise).
As one of merely 18 launch titles available for the NES, the aptly titled Excitebike was nothing short of exciting. Somewhere between speeding through track after track of dirt and careening past competitors, players also had to keep an eye on their temperature gauge — lest they are forced to endure a lengthy cool-down process — and properly angle their bike before launching off any one of the game’s breakneck jumps. Furthermore, the game allowed players to create their own racetrack, which was damn near revolutionary for the time. Excitebike is on NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo has been in the games business longer than most, and some of their most beloved franchises span decades. Some series (most notably Metroid) are only occasionally brought out of the Nintendo vault, while others (particularly Mario and The Legend of Zelda) are the horses that pull Nintendo’s golden chariot through the ages. While Mario may be the face of the company, The Legend of Zelda is in many ways the flagship Nintendo franchise: The announcement of a new Mario game is routine, a new Zelda game an event.
Looking back on the original Legend of Zelda for the NES, it’s easy to see why the franchise has thrived from game to game, generation to generation. It’s all there in that simple gold box: The huge world to explore, the NPCs to interact with the dungeons with their unique puzzles and monsters, the arsenal of interesting weapons. It’s a deep game from an era known for simplicity, and it has proven to be the blueprint not only for all future Zelda games but many action-adventure games and RPGs throughout history. And the best part of all? It still holds up. The Legend of Zelda is on NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
While some NES franchises are alive and well today, many others are not. The pages of history and shelves of used-game stores are lined with franchises that didn’t quite make it. Such is the case with StarTropics, a top-down adventure/RPG in the style of much more famous The Legend of Zelda. StarTropics took the core elements of Zelda’s gameplay and relocated it from Hyrule to a tropical island, where the protagonist uses his trusty yo-yo to battle through dangerous wildlife. Modern players might need an FAQ to complete: The solution to one of the game’s puzzles was hidden in a piece of paper that came with physical copies of the game. StarTropics is on Nintendo Switch Online.
Final Fantasy might be the granddaddy of RPGs, but Dragon Warrior (also known as Dragon Quest) laid some crucial groundwork. No one was really into role-playing games when it was released in the States in the late ’80s, and that being the case, nobody was really into Dragon Warrior upon the title’s debut. The gameplay involved careful planning and studious maintenance of upgrades and equipment, focusing on a character charged with saving the kingdom of Alefgard from the antagonistic Dragonlord. Featuring turn-based combat and a robust leveling system, the elongated gameplay required a good deal more patience than most players could muster, albeit even if it was offered as a free gift to Nintendo Power subscribers. Regardless, the sheer amount of narrative depth set a precedent for all future RPGs to follow.
River City Ransom
River City Ransom was a bit like Super Mario Bros. meets West Side Story, featuring two high school protagonists that were much like Mario and Luigi had they been born on the wrong side of Mushroom Kingdom. Dubbed Alex and Ryan, the characters set forth on a quest to rescue Ryan’s girlfriend Cyndi from their nemesis Slick, while bashing nine gangs a la Double Dragon in the game’s non-linear, open world. Players gained new fighting techniques along the way, such as Grand Slam and Stone Hands, and a password system ensured characters’ stats, skills, possessions, and money always remained intact. Seeped with humor and iconic animation, it became an instant cult classic. A sequel to River City Ransom, River City: Tokyo Rumble, launched ins 2016. River City Ransom is on Nintendo Switch Online.
Faxanadu didn’t exactly get a whole lot of love when it first came out, but cult classics rarely do. The title was essentially a side-story branching from the second installment of Dragon Slayer, a Falcom-developed RPG series. It wasn’t particularly creative or innovative, but Nintendo made up for it with interesting design sensibilities and a vast “World tree” that hosted all of the games fortresses and villages. Also, whereas most games during the late ’80s sported bright, cartoonish flair, Faxanadu‘s color palette consisted of more subdued, earthy tones. It’s slightly Gothic in a sense, placing it more in the vein of Castlevania than DuckTales.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
You’re not supposed to mess with perfection, right? Well, after the phenomenal success of The Legend of Zelda, the developers decided to do exactly that for the sequel. Scrapping the top-down gameplay almost entirely, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is an amalgam of RPG and side-scroller, one in which players must traverse Hyrule in an effort to awaken Princess Zelda from a sleeping spell. It remains the only true sequel in the Zelda saga and introduced hallmark elements that would later be incorporated into others games in the series (i.e. Dark Link, pivotal NPCs, the magic meter). However, though many gameplay elements were still shed with the game’s successor, it offered a welcoming clash of game genres and innovative ideas. Zelda II is on both NES Classic and Nintendo Switch Online.
Final Fantasy II
No, not that Final Fantasy II. American audiences in the 90s missed out on the actual second and third installments in the long-running franchise, which is a shame. Although not as fondly remembered as the original or IV (which represented a gigantic technological leap for the series) Final Fantasy II embodied the spirit of innovation that Square was known for back in the late 80s.
The first notable change from the first Final Fantasy is the increased prominence of plot and character development. Gone are the mute ciphers of the first game; the party members in II all have distinct personalities and character arcs. The story’s premise of a small kingdom bravely standing against an aggressive empire may be a bit rote today, but at the time it was a huge improvement on the first game’s story of “collect these four crystals and … something happens.”
Final Fantasy II’s gameplay also marked a radical shift from its predecessor. While the player still navigates combat through a series of menus, II jettisoned the experience-based leveling system of Final Fantasy, replacing it with a system in which characters improve based on what they do in battle. A character hits an enemy with a sword, and their strength increases. If a character takes a lot of hits, their maximum health will increase. And so on. The system proved to be very exploitable, and Square did away with it for future installments. However, it was a singular concept in those days, and an ancestor to the types of skill-based leveling that games such as the Elder Scrolls franchise would come to experiment with.
Today, Final Fantasy II may be more valuable as an intellectual curiosity than as a game one would actually want to play. Still, given how much of the NES’s library is marred by primitive mechanics and sloppy design, a flawed gem shines all the brighter.
Crystalis is what you’d get if Hyrule plunged into an apocalyptic war and Link was forced to aimlessly wander the resulting nuclear wasteland in search of swords and other artifacts. That said, it’s a good deal like The Legend of Zelda in terms of gameplay, with the same winning recipe to match. What really set Crystalis apart from better-known RPGs was its elaborate, compelling storyline, and the title’s compelling fusion of sci-fi and fantasy. So compelling, in fact, Nintendo secured the game’s rights from the original publisher SNK and adapted it for Game Boy Color 10 years later.
Dragon Quest III
There have been many great rivalries in video game history. Nintendo versus Sega, Playstation versus Xbox, Metal Gear versus Syphon Filter (OK, maybe that last one is a stretch), but one of the earliest and longest running is between the two colossi of Japanese RPGs: Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. American audiences may be far more familiar with the former, but Dragon Quest is an industry unto itself in Japan: Demand for the third installment was so high that nearly 300 school kids were arrested for truancy as they cut class to wait in line for its release. It’s hard to imagine anything less than a great game inspiring that kind of zeal.
And what a game it is! Old-school Japanese RPGs are famed for their massive worlds and lengthy quests, and Dragon Quest III is a perfect example of this: the hero’s journey spans two worlds and easily more than 50 hours of gameplay. Aside from the main quest, there are hundreds of secrets to find and side plots to explore. Players with a lot of time on their hands will find plenty to sink their teeth into.
Dragon Quest III improved on its predecessors by increasing the player’s party size from one to four. Early in the game, the player can choose characters from a variety of classes such as fighters and mages. These classes have distinct roles and abilities in combat, giving the player a great deal of flexibility in how they play the game.
The Dragon Quest franchise remains a juggernaut, with new titles coming out every few years. Although the developers make tweaks to the series, the core elements remain the same, and many of these elements were codified with Dragon Quest III, easily one of the best RPGs on the NES.
The Mother series remains one of Nintendo’s most confusing accomplishments. Created by a famous Japanese copywriter, the series broke with many of the RPG traditions of the time, eschewing a fantasy setting for the 20th Century United States, and magic for psychic powers and aliens. It has become one of Nintendo’s most beloved second-tier franchises. Despite this, only the second game, EarthBound, has ever been officially released outside of Japan. We’re looking at you, Mother 3.
It all began with Mother. Released in 1989, the gameplay was inspired by the Dragon Quest series, which had become one of the most successful video game franchises in Japan. Like in the latter, players explore an overworld map as they progress through the story, encountering random battles as they walk around. Combat takes place in its own screen, where the player views the action in the first person, selecting spells and abilities from a menu.
Despite the similarities in gameplay, Mother is radically different in setting and tone. Instead of the traditional heroic narrative of the Dragon Quest games, Mother tells a somewhat humorous fantasy parody in which school children travel between dimension, honing their psychic powers and thwarting an alien invasion. The psychedelic visuals and soundtrack push the Nintendo’s hardware to its limits, and though they may seem dated today, they retain a certain charm that many games of the era do not. Mother remains one of the most creative RPGs ever made, and any fan of the genre should at least give it a glance.
Final Fantasy did for RPGs what GoldenEye 007 would later do for first-person shooters: It redefined what a genre was capable of. The original Final Fantasy improved and expanded upon mechanics first featured in games like the aforementioned Dragon Warrior — such as random battles and the overworld map — while developing a girth of new genre staples such as character classes and multi-character parties. The flagship title spurred an enormous media franchise, one encompassing more than a dozen video games, a swath of anime tie-ins, and a CGI movie in 2001. Final Fantasy is on NES Classic.
Tecmo Super Bowl
Tecmo Super Bowl was the 1991 sequel to the non-super Tecmo Bowl, released in 1989. Similar to R.B.I. Baseball, the NFL players association licensed the title while the league itself did not, allow the game to utilize player names sans team affiliation. However, the NFL came around in time for Tecmo Super Bowl, making it the first NES game to feature both licensed NFL teams and players. Players could utilize the then-complete league of 28 teams and work their way through the full ’91 regular season schedule. It incorporated player statistics and complex plays as well, making it a forefather of today’s hyper-realistic EA sports games. Those features, combined with the ability to play as Joe Montana and Bo Jackson, make it the NES sports game to beat.
There were baseball games before this one, but R.B.I. Baseball was the first console game the MLB Players Association officially licensed, meaning developers were able to use the names of real players and thus adding a level of realism previously untouched. Players’ stats and skills accurately corresponded to their stats and skills in real life — for the most part — which lent an air of authenticity to the virtual innings and the title’s reliance on player stamina. However, the MLB didn’t license the game, so though depictions of real players could be used, real team names and logos could not. Thankfully, the MLB jumped on the bandwagon and a beautiful friendship was born upon the breakthrough commercial success of R.B.I. Baseball. In recent years, the retro franchise has tried to make a comeback, but it hasn’t gone so well. The original, however, brings back fond memories.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
Before biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear during the WBA Heavyweight Championship and appearing in the Hangover movies alongside Zach Galifianakis, Mike Tyson was boxing’s undisputed world champion and one of the toughest men on the planet. In 1987, Tyson lent his name to and appeared in the NES adaptation of the Punch-Out!! arcade game. It follows a fictional boxer known as Little Mac as he works his way up through professional boxing circuits, one left and right jab (and uppercut) at a time. By the transitive property, it is the undisputed world champion of Nintendo boxing games, featuring such colorful foes as Glass Joe, Soda Popinski and, of course, Tyson himself as the game’s final boss — whose namesake was removed and appearance in the game replaced by “Mr. Dream” in future versions courtesy of his multiple legal stumbles). Punch Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream is on NES Classic.
- The best Nintendo Switch games
- Everything you need to know about Nintendo Switch Online
- The best Nintendo Switch exclusives
- No more regular schedule in release of Nintendo Switch Online NES, SNES games
- The best texting games