The best NES games of all time

From Mario to Mega Man, these classic NES titles helped define gaming

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Action-adventure

Castlevania

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

“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.

Ninja Gaiden

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.

Metroid

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.

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