The very best the NES has to offer.
MY BRAIN IS ON FIRE. CLICK THE LINKS BELOW IF YOU NEED TO.
#25 – R.C. Pro-Am II
Ok, so the four-player mode isn’t as awesome as I initially thought in my review. It doesn’t matter: R.C. Pro-Am II is still the best racing game on the NES. Intuitive controls, “tricking” your “ride” with nitrous and lazers, and twenty-four unique tracks make for a bomb diggity of a good time.
24 – Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy feels simple and pure. Future games in the series would get bogged down by broken battle systems, obnoxious characters, and stupid stories. The original remains in its own self-contained universe, untarnished by the series’ bi-polar legacy. Customizable characters, a vast world, and non-stop combat was all Square needed to set their fortunes right and change the RPG landscape forever.
23 – Batman
For as much as an 8-bit game can, Batman really places you in the Caped Crusader’s shoes. You have access to his gear, you can wall jump, and beatings occur up close and personal. The backgrounds are gritty, the challenge is brutal, and the music is so epic, it could start a riot in the most conservative of Midwestern towns. Batman don’t want no scrubs.
Caveman shmups are a rare breed. Dino Riki tops them all – and many of the system’s other shmups, besides – with its relentless oog-boog action. Few shooters force you to pay attention as much as Dino Riki does. The sense of satisfaction that occurs after you beat a level is worth it, though.
21 – Castlevania
Few games on the NES whipped up the perfect blend of atmosphere, music, and gameplay as well as the original Castlevania did. And does. Like Dracula himself, this first game in the series has aged remarkably well. Sure, we’d all like for Simon not to fly backwards when he gets hit, but if that’s the price we pay for near-perfection, I’ll take it.
Sorry, Mr. Dream. Give me Mike “Ear Chomper” Tyson any day of the week. Punch-Out!! is less a boxing game than a series of timing exercises, but that doesn’t detract from the sense of accomplishment one receives after belting down a strong opponent. As a “Little Mac” myself (not so much in size, but strength), getting to the end of Punch-Out!! continues to feel like a personal victory.
19 – Contra
For those who grew up on its beatings, re-visiting Contra is always bittersweet. It’s an amazing game, but damn, does it treat you bad. Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start gives you thirty lives and a fighting chance to beat the game’s eight balls-hard levels. Two-players help diffuse the madness, but only a tight headband and an 80s butt-rock mix-tape help you see the game through.
The Ninja Gaiden series provided a cinematic scope rarely found in NES games of its day. It’s the cut scenes, the rollicking soundtrack, the varied environments – but mostly, the cut scenes. The lighting, the mood, the atmosphere, and the direction are still first-rate. Ninja Gaiden II is a top-shelf action game in its own right, but I doubt I’d remember it as fondly today without dem cut scenes.
#17 – Kid Icarus
I must enjoy masochistic games more than I originally thought. Kid Icarus might be Nintendo’s hardest game ever, but it’s also one of their most rewarding. So many distinct features here: password, leveling up (pre-Zelda II), progressing vertically instead of horizontally. It takes time getting accustomed to Pit and his adventure, but that’s because “the kid” is so distinct.
16 – Guerrilla War
SNK brought over-the-top crazy to the NES long before Metal Slug was a glint in their eye. Guerrilla War is the most insane action game you’ve never played: save prisoners, roll around in tanks, collect ridiculous power-ups, shoot everything. Unlimited continues aren’t pansy: they’re a necessity. Guerrilla War is the gaming equivalent of loving the fresh smell of napalm in the morning.
15 – Super Mario Bros. 2
Eat your damn vegetables or else, Wart! Super Mario Bros. 2 brought Princess, Luigi, and Toad alongside Mario in a surreal platformer that wasn’t even a true Mario game. Princess could float, Luigi could flail, and Toad could… well, we love Toad. Many consider this their favorite among the three NES games. I wouldn’t go that far, but re-skin aside, it’s a first-rate Mario game.
14 – River City Ransom
The beat-em-up would never again be as dynamic and fully-formed as it was in River City Ransom. The fighting is first-rate, while the RPG elements are seamless. The different city gangs and the shopping strips make River City feel like a place people live instead of a mere background prop. Learning new moves via books while gobbling down a bowl of Spicy Chili is one of RCR‘s many pleasures. Truly a king among games.
13 – Dragon Warrior IV
Few JRPGs made narrative a strong focus before Dragon Warrior IV. After the game’s release, however, narrative no longer took a back seat to combat in the genre. Each of the first four chapters focuses on a different character’s story before the final fifth chapter brings all the characters together to stop the evil Necrosaro. The NES never saw such grandiosity again.
12 – Super C
From the review: “If Super C was a piece of beef, it would be a wagyu Kobe, the finest of the fine. The action contained within the game is pure, raw, and most importantly, overwhelming while remaining navigable. Every furious moment, from the traditional waves of enemies to the more extravagant death-filled set pieces, makes the player feel alive. Navigating between scores of bullets whilst laying to waste dozens of enemies from every corner of the screen is ecstatic gaming that has rarely been replicated in this current generation. It’s an honor to partake in Super C.”
11 – Mega Man 3
Mega Man 3 feels like Mega Man 2’s tormented brother. Whereas the latter embraced a lighthearted, optimistic feel, MM3’s graphics, music, and overall tone are more somber. Thankfully, the robot-busting, power-sucking gameplay is as fresh and lively as ever. You can make Mega Man depressed, but he’ll still get the job done. ‘Cause, you know… he’s a robot.
10 – Life Force
Whether careening down a fire-infested corridor or blasting the charred bone off the head of an endoskeleton, Life Force never fails to surprise, enlighten, and terrify. Two-player co-op, vertical and horizontally scrolling levels, and a bevy of weapon upgrades are but a few reasons why Life Force is the ultimate NES shmup.
River City Ransom has style and personality to spare in its beatdowns, but few games celebrate good times (c’mon) like Double Dragon II. For my money, the ultimate two-player co-op experience on the NES. The amount of hours I spent/wasted trying to beat this game with numerous compadres over the years can not be measured. Find yourself a friend and crack some skulls… together.
I’m stunned that Lolo has yet to make a comeback. His cute, squatty design and curiously complex puzzle adventures seem ripe for re-imagining. Until then, I’ll continue to sink my teeth into his trilogy of NES games. I know it’s cheating to include all three games as one entry, but they do seem less like sequels than continuations. The first game is perfectly balanced, the second one ramps up the difficulty, and the third entry adds a world map that Lolo can roam around, but they all retain the same block pushing, bubble blowing, Lolo squealing gameplay. No self-respecting NES fan should deprive themselves of the NES’ second greatest trilogy.
I’m not the biggest fan of old arcade games that focus more on point accumulation over objective completion. That being said, Galaga has just the right amount of depth to suck me in, time after time. Shooting aggressive spacebugs never gets old, and recovering your ship after it’s been captured for double fire-power is one of the great rewards in gaming history.
Castlevania III is one of the greatest platforming games on the NES not because it’s unique, but because every single element of its design is flawlessly executed. Branching paths, multiple characters with different skills and strengths, and beautifully rendered gothic landscapes put the series on firm footing after the ambitious, but vague second entry.
Destiny of an Emperor mixes the battle system of Final Fantasy with the history lessons of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The result is pure zang! What separates Destiny from other RPGs and Koei strategy games is its accessibility. Fight generals in random battles, then recruit them in the local towns. The battles are an engaging blend of melee and tactics, while amassing an ever-increasing army of generals (150 to recruit, 70 to travel with, 7 in your main battling party) is more addicting than one might think. The best RPG on the NES.
4 – Little Samson
Little Samson takes a young warrior, a dragon, a golem, and a rat and throws them all together into a platforming game. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Once you’re able to switch between the four characters, experimenting with their strengths and weaknesses in the game’s seventeen levels is enthralling. The unadulterated joy one receives from playing Little Samson can not be overstated. An absolute, unsung classic.
Super Mario Bros. 3 set a new standard for the platformer, Nintendo as game makers, and gaming as a whole. Remember seeing Grass Land in its entirety for the first time? Six levels, a mini-castle, a Toad House, and a regular Castle seemed overwhelming! Not only that, but there were eight worlds, each more devious than the last. Two years in development well spent, I’d say.
Like any long-established classic, the praise for Mario 3 can seem hyperbolic, particularly if you weren’t alive upon its release. The haters might say, “Yeah, it’s a good game, but it’s not that good, right?” Well, unless you’re a hipster drowning in PBR and ironic self-loathing, Super Mario Bros. 3 really is that good. Even if you weren’t alive to appreciate its initial significance, playing Mario 3 can make you feel like a kid again. Few games command such power.
2 – Mega Man 2
If any game could be defined as a labor of love, Mega Man 2 is it. After the disappointing sales of the original game, Capcom only agreed to a sequel if the developers worked on other projects alongside it. Every person involved in Mega Man 2, from Rockman/Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune on down, worked on it in their spare time. No easy task.
All those weeks of sleepless nights were worth it. Mega Man 2 is a no-doubt-about-it masterpiece. It had an incalculable influence over the action platforming genre and on millions of gamers worldwide, including myself. The intro cinematic is goosebump-inducing, the soundtrack is one of the grandest in gaming history, and the gameplay remains exciting and fresh, despite the overabundance of Mega Man games throughout the decades. The Blue Bomber will never have a game as engaging as Mega Man 2, but so what? We should be thankful he was allowed to come this far.
From Part 1 of my review: “Super Mario Bros. invented (for all rights and purposes) the side-scrolling platformer, a genre that would come to dominate the 8 and 16-bit generations of systems. Each of the Mushroom Kingdom’s thirty-two stages were singular creations that felt breathtakingly vast compared to any game of the time. The Kingdom’s denizens – Goombas, Koopas, Piranha Plants, Bullet Bills, Bowser – made it feel like a functioning world, whether Mario was present or not. And who could fathom the amount of secrets the Kingdom contained upon going through it for the first time? 1-Ups were carefully concealed. Some pipes led underground to riches, some shot climbable plants upward to the heavens, while still others went nowhere. You could walk on the ceiling of certain stages, bypassing them altogether. Outrageous! There were warp zones and, one of the best glitches of all time, The Minus World. The game’s star Mario – the former blue-collar worker turned fantastical hero – was the ultimate protagonist. He could run like an Olympic sprinter! He could spit fire from his hands! He could jump higher than flagpoles! No wonder the Princess wanted him to save her. Within his flabby plumber physique was the soul of a champion. Super Mario Bros. was the must-have experience of the mid-Eighties – and it was only available on the NES.”