The original Nintendo Entertainment System will forever hold a special place in many gamers' hearts.
For many of us, it was our first gaming console, and it will never be replaced. Hours upon hours were spent playing some of our favorite games. With so many classic titles out there, it's virtually impossible to deem any game with the title of “The Best NES Game.”
Still, it's certainly fun to go back and remember what some of the best NES games were and why we love video games. Ranking these games in any order would be like splitting hairs from top to bottom, so in no particular order, here are my best NES games.
Double Dragon Series
The Double Dragon games were all fantastic to play. Many people will gravitate towards Double Dragon II: The Revenge, the best game since the co-op fighting many of us loved in the arcade version was brought back, but Double Dragon I and Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones were no slouches. In any case, each title gave us hours of beating up bad guys with our friends.
Mega Man Series
It's impossible to pick just one of the Mega Man games to put as one of the best NES games. Each game in the series followed the same basic formula, but it didn't really matter. With each advancing title came more unique weapons for Mega Man to use. Each title contained new robots to destroy and weaknesses to exploit.
Figuring out the order in which to beat each boss was half the fun and most unique to this series. Classic bad guys like Dr. Willy and Protoman carried on with the series as it made its way to the SNES as well. Challenging enough where you couldn't waltz through the game but definitely beatable, Mega Man was hours of robot-destroying fun.
Ninja Gaiden Series
Now, these were cool games. Running and jumping around like a ninja is every little boy's dream. Not to mention you got to chop down bad guys with your katana. Throw it special weapons and nonstop action with bad guys, and you had a recipe for success. Probably one of the more challenging games to beat, the Ninja Gaiden games lived up to the “Nintendo Hard” standard.
Dragon Warrior Series
Dragon Warrior is one of the earliest RPGs I can remember playing, and it's still a great title to this day. Later releases like Dragon Warrior II, Dragon Warrior III, and Dragon Warrior IV just added to its greatness. Whether fighting solo or eventually with a party of characters, they were all challenging and laid the foundation for future RPGs. What could be considered an “open-world” at the time, these games allowed you to explore your surroundings, level grind, upgrade weapons and armor the way we still love today. With mysteries to solve and great storylines, each of these titles can be put in the best NES games category.
The Legend of Zelda
Okay, if there is one title that can maybe be the lead horse in the best NES game conversation, it's this one. EVERYONE had this game. It was that awesome.
Traveling all around Hyrule looking for not only the next challenging dungeon but finding heart pieces, items, walls to blow up, or bushes to burn was hours of fun. Don't forget about finally getting the master sword and finally getting to what would be your first of now countless battles with the evil Gannon. The original Zelda game that would spawn so many incredible titles is still one of the best games to this day.
Zelda Ii: The Adventures of Link
Not to be left out is the sequel to the original Zelda. This one took a bit of a different approach, but the result was just the same. A fun and challenging classic. Now with more of a sidescrolling feel and different battling style, you traveled around Hyrule once again. Still in the game were dungeons to beat, puzzles to solve, and unique items to find. Leveling up and the use of magic were also introduced into the series giving it a distinct upgrade from the original.
A relatively underrated title in my mind, Star Tropics was another great game on the NES. Playing as a boy using a yo-yo as a weapon to fight aliens has a certain charm to it. The game came with a secret code in the instruction booklet that you needed to beat the game from what I can remember. Without it, you were stuck with guessing a code that had a thousand possibilities. Maybe not the best quality in a game, but I remember a unique spin to this day.
The Earthbound series is a series like no other. The storylines, graphics, sound effects always seemed different in this game. Playing as kids traveling between different dimensions, using psychic power to stop an alien invasion is quite unique. Another classic RPG that spawned more on the SNES, Earthbound Beginnings, had its own particular style that still plays well today.
Another arcade game turned NES was another classic addition to the console gaming world. Flying around like a spaceship shooting all sorts of weird bad guys was a ton of fun. On top of that, the game allowed players to choose from an array of different upgrades. Starting with a basic ship, you could upgrade weapons, defense, or even your ship's speed. Depending on the level and your style of play dictated which path you might take. You could also add in “options,” which basically followed you around shooting the baddies for you.
Do you want to know how challenging this game is? I've gone back and played it on emulators and still can't beat it. Honestly, it's one of the few games I don't know the ending to. However, that didn't mean it was fun as anything to play. Battling aliens as giant toads, you made your way through a seemingly endless number of challenging levels and bosses. Add in a few levels riding on floating jetski's avoiding walls with little to no warning, clearing huge jumps, or riding on a single-wheeled vehicle around incredibly long tracks. This game was practically impossible to beat but very unique and fun to play.
At times packaged with the original Super Mario Bros, other as a stand-alone cartridge, Duck Hunt made shooting down our little flying friends a family-friendly event. With what seemed like magic, you could point your gun at the TV and take down our feathered friends. Be careful not miss as you'd get laughed at by the hunting dog you brought along with you. Levels started easy but could quickly become challenging. Trying to beat a personal high score or just beat your friends that day lead to hours of duck shooting fun.
Another game with a strange storyline, Blaster Master, takes us through the journey of a boy trying to save his pet frog. He does this by hopping in a giant tank and going to town on the monsters he comes across in a massive underground maze. Strange storyline aside, this was a fun game to play. Blaster Master had a good mix of sidescrolling and overhead levels. Different stages took place inside and outside the massive tank, giving players plenty of variety and fun.
Life Force was very similar to Gradius, only easier. Being able to beat the game is what made it pretty fun, as that was typically difficult with most games on the NES. Like Gradius, you fly around in a ship that you can continue to upgrade until you can blow away the bad guys with ease. You could pop in the ever-popular code to instantly have the top-of-the-line ship from level one being a Konami game.
Excitebike had it all going on. As if racing on motorcycles wasn't fun enough, the game lets you pop wheelies, go over all sorts of ramps, catch some major air and even create your own racetrack. While racing against the game, you had to avoid traps and angle yourself just right with the ramps on the way up and down. With just the right difficulty level and the endless possibilities for creating your own track, spending hours playing this game was easy.
Donkey Kong shouldn't need any reasoning besides “its' Donkey Kong” to be considered one of the best. Another port over from the arcade, players could spend hours jumping over barrels, avoid obstacles, getting power-up, and clear other pitfalls on their way to saving the princess with an at-the-time unnamed plumber. Donkey Kong spawned dozens of different titles and should easily hold a place in the pantheon of best NES games.
Not to be outdone by Donkey Kong, Pac Man is yet another arcade classic brought to the NES. Virtually no changes were made to the game, as simplicity is what made it great in the first place. Don’t get caught by inky, blinky, pinky, or Clyde. With high scores being the bragging rights, there was no shortage of dot eating and power pac-ing in my house.
What can you say about Tetris? It was easy to learn, challenging to master. It was another game where the high score gave you bragging rights over everyone else in the house. Sometimes waiting on the purely straight piece for too long could get you into trouble early, but man, it was worth those four lines at once as it was a huge score boost. The first few levels were typically easy, but after level 4 or 5, one false move and your perfect setup could go down in flames pretty quick.
Dr. Mario is one of the first puzzle games I can remember playing besides Tetris. Similar in premise, you needed to line up pills of the same color thrown at you by “Dr. Mario” to eliminate the viruses filling up your screen. Like Tetris, the first few levels were typically layups and then, later on, could get out of hand rather quickly. Topping Tetris in one aspect was allowing for a two-player mode in which you would promptly curse your best friend out for beating you.
Blades of Steel
As far as sports games go on the NES, this is one of the best. With a reasonably simple gameplay design, anyone could pick up this game and be an all-star player. Players could skate around, control the goalie and even get in fights! Not only were there fights, but they were winner take all with the loser going to the penalty box, giving the other team an advantage. Want a break from hockey? No problem, there was a built-in Gradius-like mini-game during one of the intermissions; everybody wins!
Super Mario Series
Clearly, you can't talk about the best NES games without talking about the main man himself, Mario. Starting with the original Super Mario Bros., players were hooked on the mushroom kingdom for good. There was an addicting soundtrack, goombas and Koopa Troopa's to stomp on, mushrooms and stars to collect, and multiple princesses to save. These ingredients made this game the perfect launching point for what would become the start of a video game empire.
Although not quite the classic of its predecessor, Super Mario 2 took an odd turn and should be remembered simply for that. After having such a smash hit on its hand, it's hard to understand why Nintendo went so different for the Mario sequel. Playing as one of four characters (but we all played as the princess), players navigated through odd levels with even more bizarre bad guys. With Bowser being absent from this installment, Mario eventually takes down Wart by throwing some turnips at him ending this weird installment to the series.
Super Mario 3 returned to the classic Mario vs. Bowser standoff plus some of Bowser's apparent offspring. With fun levels, power-ups, and the ability to skip from level 1 to 8 in a matter of minutes, Super Mario 3 had a little bit of everything. Mario 3 set the stage for later titles coming for the SNES.
Metroid was a game ahead of its time. Instead of the typically linear fashion of NES games, Metroid lets players explore and explore and explore. Like the Legend of Zelda, the game was played on a giant map that players could discover in any way they wanted. You needed to collect and upgrade your suit to continue in this classic, a feature that's been copied time and time again. The game was insanely hard, but its totally new and unique gameplay kept you coming back for more every time.
Another trio of titles that can each rightfully be considered some of the best NES games, but together form a formidable series that can challenge any other for the top spot. Bringing some of the most beloved cartoon characters at the time to the NES was an easy move for an instant classic. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had a mix of overhead and sidescrolling stages, a trip in the turtle van, and even the technodrome. Definitely the hardest of the three; it was easily one of the most classic games on the NES.
TMNT The Arcade Game and TMNT The Manhattan Project took different approaches but were both great in their own regard. With improved graphics and gameplay more geared towards fighting, these two titles put your ninja moves to the test while taking down the ever-popular Shredder.
Contra and Super C
A title easily on the top of everyone's best NES games list. Contra was a classic run and shot some aliens game. The game had several different types of levels with the classic side scroll, forward-facing view, and vertical scrolling stages (just don't jump too high without your partner). Awesome gun power-ups that gave you machine guns, laser beams, fire shooting, and the ever-popular “spreader” shot gave players various options and fun. Impossible to beat with the regular three lives given to you, this game put the Konami Code on the map giving you 30 lives to blow away aliens with, making it far more enjoyable.
Building on the original was the sequel Super C. Basically the same exact game in every way (again, why fix what ain't broke), Super C gave players better graphics with the same co-op experience. Still relatively difficult to beat with the standard three lives, the code here only gave you ten lives. Not as great as the 30 in the original, but still enough to make the game beatable.
With a classic soundtrack and a pair of bubble-blowing dragons, how could you go wrong? With over a hundred levels to beat, this was a classic must-play with a friendly game. Going solo was okay, but going at it with a friend made the game 20 times better. Like other NES titles, the first couple of levels were a relatively good warm-up to what quickly escalates into pure madness in difficulty. With enough practice with a buddy, you could figure out how to beat each level and eventually get to the game's alternate ending.
Bionic Commando was an interesting game. One of the few games where the main character can't jump, you mostly rely on your bionic arm to swing around each stage. Like Metroid, you needed to collect certain items and weapons to keep moving forward. Sometimes this meant going back to a previous area with a new weapon to keep the collecting going. Once you get into the swing (get it?) of the gameplay, this game quickly becomes one of your favorites.
Another trio of awesome games is the Castlevania trilogy. All great in their own right, each had something to love. The first Castlevania puts you into Dracula's castle as main character Simon Belmont. The controls were a bit quirky, but you were whipping ghouls left and right once you got the hang of it. Although a relatively short game, it wasn't short on difficulty. It took months of practice to beat this one finally.
Similar to the Mario Series, Castlevania II: Simons Quest took a different approach. It was more of an action-RPG-type game style. Instead of being in Dracula's castle, you were venturing across eastern Europe. Different doesn't mean bad, though. With a unique spin, the ability to level up, equip various gems, whips, and other weapons, like Mario 2, Castlevania II won over the NES fans everywhere.
Again similar to Mario, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse returns to more of the series's roots. Not only was the game much longer and seemingly harder, but it allowed you to play as multiple characters. However, this was no guarantee. The game also allowed for different choices throughout the game, which would lead you down different paths leading to different stages and events altogether.
Kirby was a bit late to the NES stage, starting on Gameboy and not having the NES game released until after SNES had appeared. This is a classic NES game nonetheless. Like hooking Mega Man up to a vacuum cleaner, Kirby would suck up his opponents and take on their unique abilities. Floating through the air and sucking up everything in his path, Kirby quickly became an NES favorite, still doing his thing to this day.
Adventure Island Series
Each of these games was incredibly addicting. Running around as a character in a grass skirt and baseball cap, each game had its own unique levels and power up. Starting with just throwing a simple arrowhead strapped to a stick, you could upgrade your weapons, ride a skateboard and even get some help from some dinosaur friends. As with most NES titles, these games were long and challenging and were never a disappointment.
Wrecking Crew, a lesser-known puzzle-type title, was still as fun as the more popular games on the NES. Playing as another Mario-looking character, you need to go around destroying walls while avoiding monsters and fireballs. You had a few tricks up your sleeves with bombs and other power-ups to make challenging stages a little easier. Still, again, the game would lull you into a false sense of confidence with easy starting stages that quickly ramped up in difficulty.
Depending on when you bought this game, you may or may not have Mike Tyson as the final fighter as Mr. Dream later replaced him. No matter which version you had, the game was exactly the same as Mike Tyson, and Mr. Dream fought the same way; they just looked different. Playing as little Mac, you take on a variety of lovable characters, and working your way up through the boxing ranks was never so fun. Most of the time, you could breeze through the first ten fights or so until you got to the final weight class. That's when it got hard. With the ability to put in a code to start you at the highest weight class, it wasn't long until little mac took home the heavyweight championship.
Another classic cartoon to NES adaptation, Duck Tales, did not disappoint. Playing as Scrooge McDuck and using your pogo stick to attack bad guys, similar to Mega Man, you could choose which order to play your stages. Of course, the game's object is to collect money and treasure (to get even more money). After beating the 6th and final stage, with enough wealth and the secret treasures, you could reveal a secret ending as well.
Spy vs. Spy
Spy vs. Spy was a truly unique game. Born as a spin-off of the popular Mad magazine comic strip about two spies trying to kill each other in the most ridiculous ways possible. The game's object was to collect secret items while simultaneously preventing the other spy from doing the same. This was done by setting traps in the aforementioned ridiculous ways of trying to kill each other. The game was split-screen, so while setting your own traps, you had to keep one eye on your opponent's side of the screen as well. Once you completed your mission, you could head out to the airport and take off, but with its unique split-screen and ridiculous traps, this was a classic game for me.
Another classic game where you got to pretend to have ninja-like skills. Kung Fu was a simple rinse and repeat type game with only five basic levels, but it was still a ton of fun. It started relatively easy, and each time you passed the five levels, they would add a new twist for you to deal with. The game itself was never-ending, and neither was the fun. Punching and kicking bad guys, dodging, throwing knives, and saving the girl, didn't get better than that.
The Batman game was nothing new gameplay-wise as it was a lot like many other titles on the NES except for one thing. You were freaking Batman! With the movie fresh in our mind and bat-mania going on, this could be nothing but a hit. It was an overall good game with fun fighting stages plus a bunch of cool weapons to use. The developers nailed the overall dark feel that should be a batman game as well.
Just an awesome racing game all around. With multiple types of cars, fun tracks, and a multitude of power-ups and obstacles to avoid, this game had it all. Nothing blew your mind more than having the ability to be in a race and then shoot a missile at your friend, stealing a win in the process. It seems standard now, but that was a totally new concept at the time. The controls could be a little tricky at first, but you could quickly get used to them with a bit of practice.
Final Fantasy is where my love for RPG really came to fruition. After already being in love with the Dragon Warrior games, Final Fantasy was the icing on the cake. You got to choose different classes for your party, giving the game a different spin each time you played. All the classic RPG elements are there, great story, level grinding galore, and open-world exploration, to name a few. This game is also the first time we saw what would become a classic Final Fantasy staple, the airship! This game laid the groundwork for an entire genre of RPGs.
Compared to other baseball games on the NES, RBI Baseball was relatively basic. Still, it had enough you could do to mess with your opponent. With two types of pitching motions and the ability to throw at three different speeds, you could keep the batter guessing. The game even worked in pitching stamina, which would require you to go to your bullpen eventually. Batters and pitchers could move around to work the angles, and you could bring in a pinch hitter for a clutch spot. Overall simply a fun game to play.
As fun as RBI Baseball was, Baseball Stars was even better. Similar gameplay, but with better graphics, the game was the next step in baseball games. For one, you could play a season with tracked stat. On top of that, you could manage your roster, including player salaries. However, the most prominent aspect that set it apart from other games was huge, though; you could create your own players! Inevitably you would fight with your best friend as to who got to play the premium positions, but after the dust settled, it was a ton of fun to have a team made up of everyone you knew.
Not a groundbreaking sports game, but it had a certain charm to it. What helped Ice Hockey was the ability to customize your team again. You had the slow fat guy, balanced middle player, and the skinny but speedy player. Each had their own skills on the ice, and you could figure out what kind of team you wanted before each game.
Tecmo Super Bowl
As far as sports games go, this might be the top dog. Building on the original Tecmo Bowl, this game took the same basic design but allowed you to run more plays. With the option of 4 different run plays and four different pass plays, there was enough variety to keep the opponent guessing. Granted, I played as the super bowl champion giants, and I could wreck opposing offenses by not only playing at Lawrence Taylor. Not only that but also owning the turbo controller allowed me to win any tussles I got into. A few other players like Bo Jackson were just so fast you could run around the field forever and never get caught. You could play a season and try to lead the league in every category for an additional challenge.
Skate or Die Series
Both of the Skate or Die's were fun to play. The original brought fun aspects of skateboarding onto the NES, similar to what you'd see on the x-games. The sequel included these skateboarding events and a few more. Skate or Die 2 also added in an adventure mode for players to make their way through. There wasn't much on the skateboarding front back in the day, but these two games brought it to the forefront.
Another title that doesn't do anything groundbreaking but was just a ton of fun to play. For one, you got to play as Mickey, with Minnie coming along for the ride. While you went around solving surprisingly challenging puzzles for a Mickey game, you ran across several other classic characters adding to the game's charm.
Legendary Wings was a lot of fun, from what I remember, and a lot of weird all rolled into one. You flew around as two guys with wings shooting up enemies and gaining power-ups to up your firepower. I mostly remember the strange enemies (and that's saying something for NES games) and settings. If you powered up enough, you turn into a sort of demi-god with flames, totally annihilating anything in your path. This was another game that was only fun with a friend but certainly killed some time in solo mode as well.
Probably a lesser-known game, in Marble Madness, you played, as you guessed it, marbles. As marbles, you needed to navigate your way through 3D levels rolling uphill, downhill, around corners while avoiding different enemies and obstacles. Oh yeah, there was a time limit, too, so you basically had to do a speed run to get through the final level or two. Even though there were only six levels, they lived up to the Nintendo hard level of difficulty. Even after beating the game, each level continued to be challenging to beat consistently.
A relatively standard racing game, what game Micro Machines its charm was that it was well…Micro Machines. Nintendo once again capitalized on a craze at the time of the popular Micro Machine toys (remember the super fast talking spokes guy?). The racing itself was like many other games, but the emphasis on racing as tiny toys was fun. Racing on a pool table and other places “full-sized” racing couldn't go, Micro Machines raced its way into our hearts.
I doubt you'll find Burger Time on any other list of best NES games, but I loved this game. Another arcade game brought to the NES, you played as Peter Pepper. With a similar view as Donkey Kong, you needed to walk over different parts of a hamburger to get them to drop to the bottom of the screen. That typically included top and bottom buns, a patty, lettuce, and even tomato slices. All this while avoiding monsters and other obstacles. As with many other games, there were only a few levels, but they got pretty hard pretty fast, and staring at all the food made you hungry!
Only Nintendo could take such a basic concept like being a paperboy and turn it into what can only be considered a classic NES game. With somewhat of an angled view of a street and houses, you navigated through each day of the week as a paperboy on his bike. As you might have guessed, the object was to deliver new papers by throwing them from the street to the front door. Sound boring? It was anything but. For one, if you didn't deliver the paper just right (like smashing it through a window), you lost customers if you ran out of customers, game over.
On top of that, there were all sorts of obstacles, including but not limited to cars, open maintenance holes, a tornado, and, if I'm not mistaken, the grim reaper. Even after you completed your daily deliveries, you needed to make it through an obstacle course at the end of the street, just like real life: an insanely hard game to beat, but just as much fun as it was hard.
Now, this was a classic game. Ported over from the arcade version, you played as either a giant gorilla or lizard terrorizing cities. As the title may suggest, the object was to rampage through the 8-bit cities breaking down buildings, destroying cars, and eating the locals; It doesn't get much more fun than that. As always, playing with a friend led to twice the destruction but immensely more fun. Rampage was a fun game to take out your frustrations with the world as a kid.
Krusty's Fun House
Another capitalization on popular 90's characters, Krusty's Funhouse was one of many Simpsons-related games on the NES. Playing as Krusty, you work your way through several puzzles attempting to lead some rats out of your funhouse and to an exterminator. With some fun gameplay, creative design, and getting to play as Krusty's, this was easily a classic game.
Super Dodge Ball
Super Dodge Ball brought a playground classic to the NES. Controlling a team of players, you got to launch a ball at your opponents, trying to knock them out. Although I can't remember the exact stats for this game, they were definitely tracked, which was always fun. Taking out the computer or a friend in any of the available modes was always fun.
Yet another puzzle game for the NES, Boulderdash, has you play as Rockford throughout several games where you needed to collect enough gems to finish the level. Sounds easy, but the game was anything but. Plenty of obstacles in your way, and they were only half the battle. Figuring out just the right way to move about the levels to avoid rocks falling on your head and different enemies made for hours of challenging fun.
Super Spike Volleyball
As if playing as super jacked beach dudes wasn't enough, Super Spike Volleyball gameplay was no slouch either. With multiple game modes, there was something for everyone. With tournament mode, you could put your skills to test with a few leisurely rounds and then, of course, some super difficult ones. Of course, you can't forget about the title move where a player could charge up and literally blast their opponent away with a super spike.
For as much as I loved RBI Baseball and Baseball Allstars, Base Wars took sports to a whole other level on the NES. Mixing a bit of sport and RPG, you managed a baseball team comprised of robots. Winning games won you more money which let you upgrade your player's capabilities. Eventually, you could throw crazy fast or slow pitches, gun players down from center field, and launch home runs literally into outer space. I haven't even mentioned the best part of the game yet. Force play at first, fight! Tagged out at second base, not so fast, it's a fight! Many plays resulted in two robots duking it out in a battle; the winner takes all. Lose enough battles, and a robot would blow up, leaving their team short-handed. This game had so much fun wrapped up into one.
Bomberman is easily another NES classic. Playing as a bomb-wielding robot, you worked your way to puzzles of mass destruction. An enemy in your way, blow it up! Wall or other obstacles, blow it up! No matter the problem, just blow it up! With plenty of extra ability for your bomb and 50 challenging levels, this was another great game to play for hours on end.
I lost a few friends playing this game. There isn't much to the game itself; playing as a character you navigated through puzzles was relatively basic. The fun came from the cooperative mode, where a second player-controlled blue and red pillars in your way. One false (or totally on purpose) move and the main character got squished. Inevitably, someone would get tired of playing and “accidentally” squish their counterpart. Never play this game with a younger sibling either, as all it could lead to was bad news. Just for the sheer anger level, this game could create, it belongs on a list of best NES games.
Jaws was a game like no other. The main world is navigated by sailing around, basically aimlessly run into random underwater battles. Once they occur, you are changed to a side view controlling a scuba diver squaring off against jellyfish, rays, and small sharks. Enough battles allow you to upgrade your ability enough to take down Jaws eventually. Given enough time, you could power up enough to take on the big guy, who would only appear randomly. Once the scuba diver injures Jaws enough, you would go in for the final kill. Using a strobe device to send Jaws out of the water, you need to time the jabbing of your boat into him just right to take him down for good. Jaws was an overall challenging game, and with an added mini-game built-in, it deserves a place on anyone's list.
Jeff is a fan of all things finance. When he's not out there changing the world with his blog, you can find him on a run, a Mets game, or just playing around with his kids.