The 50 best NES games of all time

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Best NES games: 10-1

10. Tetris

“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.

9. Dragon Quest III

There have been many great rivalries in video game history. Nintendo vs. Sega, Playstation vs. Xbox, Metal Gear vs. Syphon Filter (okay, 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 over fifty 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.

8. 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 as 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.

7. Final Fantasy

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 borderline-horrendous CGI movie in 2001.

6. 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, Mike 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).

5. 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.

4. 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 by announced Metroid: Samus Returns for 3DS and Metroid Prime 4 for Nintendo Switch.

3. 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 a 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.

2. 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.

1. 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 over thirty 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 seem 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.

Now that you’ve read about the best NES games, check out our list of the best games for today’s consoles, such as the PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Switch.

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