On July 15, 1983, two major players made their debut in the Japanese home console market. While Sega’s release from that day, the SG-1000, didn’t amount to much — it’s mostly notable for paving the road to the Genesis — Nintendo became a permanent fixture in home gaming on the strength of its Family Computer system (aka Famicom). The Famicom would make its way to the U.S. a few years later as the Nintendo Entertainment System, becoming the first international hit console.
Three and a half decades after that debut in Japan, we can still feel the influence. The licensing system Nintendo devised to avoid another “Atari Crash” has become the standard not only for other consoles, but it’s even shaped open-platform services like Steam and the iOS App Store. Franchises that debuted on NES continue to live on today — we’re just a few months away from new Mega Man and Dragon Quest releases. Perhaps most importantly, many of the game design concepts that developers introduced on NES still define the medium.
To celebrate the console’s 35 anniversary, I’ve combed through the library of 700+ official U.S. releases to pick out the true elite: The 35 best NES games ever created. The choices here represent a combination of historical impact and lasting playability ... weighted heavily toward the latter factor. If a game was a big deal in 1987 but isn’t any fun to play today, was it actually that great to begin with? To keep things simpler, this list concerns only North American releases; it discounts the handful of Europe-exclusive games and the roughly 1,000 games published only in Japan. Perhaps some other time, Famicom fanatics ...
35. Uncharted Waters
Uncharted Waters really gets to the heart of the game design experimentation trend we saw on NES. The console’s relatively low development costs and enormous popularity meant game makers could afford to take creative risks and still stay in business, and that’s precisely what Koei (the grittier half of the current Koei Tecmo corporation) did here. Uncharted Waters combined the massive scale and complexity of the company’s cult-favorite strategy simulations — think Nobunaga’s Ambition — with the granular involvement of a Dragon Quest-style role-playing game.
Although Uncharted Waters never rose above the level of “minor hit,” its fans still admire the way in which it combined two similar but ultimately quite different genres with such confidence and style. Being a Koei game, of course, it’s rooted in real-world history — in this case, the Age of Discovery, featuring quite a few names from the history books. The multimodal play format of this innovative adventure prefigured the seamless simulations to come.
Sadly, Uncharted Waters is rarely remembered with the same reverence as Toys for Bob’s Star Control, despite being the two being released around the same time as one another and sharing a great deal in common.
Nintendo’s early consoles didn’t command a lot of respect among arcade fanatics. Compared to, say, the Genesis or TurboGrafx-16, both the NES and Super NES lacked the speed and power to push blazing-fast shooters in a convincing way. Well, that was the case for most developers, anyway. Compile was not most developers.
Gun•Nac initially came off as a parody of the company’s hit vertical shooter, Zanac. Rather than focus on menacing alien intruders, though, Gun•Nac took a decidedly goofier tone that played off the idea of rabbits living on the moon, a Japanese folklore tradition. But even though the bad guys here had big ears, buck teeth, and carrots for missiles, they were no less deadly for it. Indeed, Gun•Nac is a technical marvel as shooters on NES go: It’s smooth, fast-paced, loaded with danger and projectiles flying in all directions, and insanely challenging. Only the incredibly rare Japan-only Recca: Summer Carnival ’92 tops Gun•Nac in terms of sheer space combat frenzy.
You didn’t come across such impressive high-speed action titles too often on NES. Best of all, the involvement of the shoot-em-up masters at Compile insured Gun•Nac turned out to be as entertaining as it was technically astounding.
33. Balloon Fight
(Nintendo/HAL/Intelligent Systems, 1986)
People tend not to give a lot of respect to the early “black box” games that accompanied the NES at its launch. And it’s true that many of those games have aged terribly; no one wants to revisit the original Baseball or Donkey Kong Jr. Math. But just because a game arrived early in the NES’s lifetime doesn’t mean it was bad, merely simple; and no black box title turned its simplicity into an asset quite like Balloon Fight.
Now, there’s no getting around the fact that Balloon Fight was an utter, shameless rip-off of Williams’ Joust; indeed, it was co-developed by HAL Labs, which had converted the original Joust to the NES as a proof-of-concept pitch to sell Atari on the idea of distributing the system in the U.S. before Nintendo decided to go it alone. Derivative or not, Balloon Fight is loads of fun, dropping one or two players into an aerial arena in which they flap around trying to pop the bad guys’ balloons. More importantly, it goes one better than Joust by offering a single-player challenge mode, Balloon Trip, which involves avoiding lots of passive hazards while listening to a catchy tune.
So yes, it’s simple. But it’s simple in a good way.
32. Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom
The graphical adventure genre was huge on Famicom in Japan, but it never found much traction on NES in the West. The handful of those games to actually make their way to the U.S. stand out all the more for their scarcity ... and none manages to be quite so memorable as Hudson’s incredibly bizarre Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom.
As the title indicates, this adventure drops players into the role of a brave vegetable (one Sir Cucumber) as he journeys through a land populated by plant people. His quest: to rescue the eponymous Princess Tomato. Helping (and hindering) your journey is Sir Cucumber’s impish companion Percy the Persimmon, who has an annoying tendency to perform wildly unhelpful actions ... like, say, dropping all your stuff.
The usual adventure game logic rules here, so there’s a fair amount of second-guessing the puzzles or just using brute force to work through every possible menu command. Despite these flaws, it’s unique (and amusingly written) enough to hold up 30 years later.
31. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: The Manhattan Project
It took Konami a while to get Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles right on NES. Its first attempt was interesting, but it was also weirdly punishing and completely unrelated to the company’s hit arcade game. TMNT2 did adapt the arcade game, but it involved a lot of compromises that didn’t sit well with fans. It was only here, in the Turtles’ third NES outing during the waning days of the platform, that all the parts lined up just right.
While TMNT3 builds on the walk-and-brawl design of the Turtles’ arcade hit, it’s a wholly original work designed specifically for the NES. It borrows several elements from the second coin-op title, Turtles in Time, while reworking them into all-new experiences. The end result is one of the best cooperative brawlers on NES, boasting 10 stages and some of the finest visuals and music ever experienced on the console.
Like all brawlers, it does get pretty repetitive. Nevertheless, the mechanical differences between the four selectable characters (you know: Leo, Don, Mike, and Raph) combined with the potential for fast-paced two-turtle teamwork keeps the pace so snappy that you barely even notice the fact that you’ve just punched your hundredth Foot Soldier.
By the time the NES hit the North American mass market, it had already been around in Japan for so long that Nintendo had already refreshed the hardware with the Disk System add-on. The Disk System ran (naturally) on floppy disks, which offered greater memory capacity than carts. They also allowed players to save their progress. This opened the door for larger, more complex action games like Metroid, which took the budding young side-scrolling platformer genre into a tangent of role-playing.
No, there weren’t stats or turn-based battles in Metroid, but there was persistence, exploration, and character upgrades. Metroid’s world consisted of a sprawling maze packed with secrets and hidden passages, and its ominous sci-fi themes felt a world removed from Nintendo’s usual cartoon whimsy. Its design and structure forced players to chip away slowly toward their end goal over the space of weeks, returning to make a little more progress with each session: acquiring one more upgrade for heroine Samus Aran, or taking down one more boss.
Nintendo and many other developers have improved on this formula over the years, but Metroid got it more or less right from the start. And while Americans never saw the Disk System, the advent of larger cartridges and password-based save systems meant Metroid made its way here in due time with few compromises. It became an instant favorite.
29. The Guardian Legend
Though this Compile-developed shooter doesn’t quite stack up to Gun•Nac in terms of sheer speed and intensity, it has something much better: An entire other half of the game.
Much like Uncharted Waters, The Guardian Legend demonstrates the glee with which developers mashed together disparate genres on NES, breaking game mechanics out of their rigid boxes and paving the way for today’s more mutable experiences. The Guardian Legend treated its vertical shooting sequences like boss fights: In order to advance through the game, you needed to conquer “corridors” full of spaceships and weird alien lifeforms by flying around and blasting stuff.
The meat of the game, however, took the form of a Zelda-style action RPG in which your starfighter transformed into a robot girl and explored an abandoned space station. Along the way, she acquired new powers, accessed terminals to learn more about the story, and visited shops where strange round creatures would sell items in exchange for “computer chips.” While not the best shooter or the best action RPG on NES, The Guardian Legend’s inventive combination of the two remains a unique video game experience, three decades on.
8-bit conversions of real-life arcade machines rarely satisfied. For that matter, 8-bit pinball games in general usually didn’t turn out so well. This NES adaptation of Williams’ popular Pin•Bot table, however, proved a welcome exception.
Sure, it lacked the extreme approach of Naxat’s “Crush” series of video pinball games. Even so, it proved the NES could quite neatly simulate the coin-op pinball experience. Much of this was down to Pin•Bot’s excellent ball physics, which convincingly imitated the weight and movement of an actual pinball on a real table — something you rarely saw on hardware of this vintage.
The extra care Rare invested into the Pin•Bit experience sells it the rest of the way. Despite its low resolution, Pin•Bot on NES looks almost contemporary thanks to its use of the blue and purple color/lighting scheme that’s all the rage in Hollywood at the moment. Everything on the virtual table animates smoothly, and the game’s theme (in which players “journey” from the edge of the solar system to the sun) creates an interesting meta-challenge beyond the high score. A clever split-screen effect allows the table to scroll to follow the ball while always displaying the flippers at the bottom of the screen. Oh, and the sound design is top notch — and not just in terms of music. Pin•Bot’s eerie digitized voice will haunt your dreams ...
27. Double Dragon 2
Technos’ NES conversion of arcade smash Double Dragon took an interesting creative risk by throwing in RPG mechanics in place of tandem two-persona action, but therein lay its flaw. In becoming a single-player only affair, it lost sight of the most interesting thing about the coin-op game. The sequel, however, corrected this failing.
Double Dragon 2 abandoned the experience point-based skill system of its predecessor in favor of a return to pure two-player punching and kicking. Yet even as Double Dragon 2 conquered the technical challenge that brought its predecessor low, it somehow managed to look and play better than perhaps any other brawler on NES. Two players could team up as the Lee brothers to conquer the world. Every one of the game’s compact stages consisted of a series of standalone set pieces, each rendered vividly and packed with challenges that made for a more diverse play experience than your typical walk-left-and-punch brawler. One minute you’re knocking guys out of a combat chopper, the next you’re making you way across a series of moving platforms.
In short, Double Dragon 2 was fast, fluid, technically impressive and (above all else) a highly social way to be antisocial. If Technos intended Double Dragon 2 to be an apology for the first game’s disappointing design, well, consider those bridges mended.
26. Blaster Master
Tank controls don’t always have to be a bad thing ... at least not when the tank in question can jump, swim, fly, and climb on walls. Blaster Master opens up looking for all the world like an update of Irem’s Moon Patrol, as you guide a small vehicle across hazardous ground by leaping pits and firing at bad guys. But then you enter the game’s first main cavern and everything changes.
You quickly discover your hopping war machine needs to traverse large, nonlinear spaces riddled with traps and obstacles that can only be bypassed by acquiring special upgrades. Soon after that, you discover Blaster Master’s really crazy party trick: you can actually hop out of the tank, controlling a tiny (and extremely squishy) humanoid to reach spaces your vehicle can’t.
Outside of the tank, most of the action revolves around top-down Zelda-inspired mazes, which are easily the worst part of the game. For that, you can thank a baffling design choice which causes your weapon to power down any time you suffer damage from enemies. Nevertheless, as in The Guardian Legend, these alternate scenes contain the bosses, who hold the keys to forward progression. The prospect of controlling your ever-more-powerful super-tank through increasingly deadly environments makes for a powerful carrot dangling in front of the player’s face despite the murky extra-vehicular sequences, cementing this one’s status as a true classic.
25. NES Open Tournament Golf
Nintendo was one of the first developers to properly figure out how to represent the sport of golf in video game form, something it accomplished back with the black box NES game called, simply, Golf. The company continued to iterate on that release for the next few years in arcades and on the Disk System. With NES Open Tournament Golf, those efforts came to a head. It’s a great game of golf.
In many ways, this plays like a prototype for the Mario Golf series. Of course, there’s the fact that you can actually play as Mario (rather than as Golf’s Mario-looking duffer). More importantly, though, NES Open Tournament Golf contains an entire battery-backed career mode that challenges you to master the links across three courses in different countries. This gives the race for a below-par score extra substance: The more money you earn, the more quickly you advance through the ranks.
Naturally, the actual golfing plays great, with a satisfying array of clubs and hole arrangements. The swing meter and in-close approach design Nintendo helped pioneer with the original Golf had come a long way in more than half a decade of iteration. Comparing that early NES release to NES Open Tournament Golf offers a master class in how much technical and design refinement can be accomplished over the course of a mature platform’s lifetime.
24. Double Dribble
A fair few basketball games showed up on the NES over the course of its lifetime, ranging from the classic Jordan Vs. Bird: One on One to the goofy sports brawler hybrid Arch Rivals. None of them, however, hit the same sweet spot as Konami’s Double Dribble.
At the time, of course, Double Dribble caught players’ eyes with its flashy exhibition images — choppy full-screen animations of players performing impressive dunks. Those once-stunning monochromatic sequence don’t land quite as hard in the age of 4K graphics, but that’s OK. Look beyond Double Dribble’s graphical embellishments and you have a remarkably solid basketball sim pitting a full five against five, a feat that NES roundball sims failed to achieve more often than not.
So maybe the action is simple, and maybe the teams aren’t precisely authentically licensed (the Boston Frogs!?). But to this day, Double Dribble remains quick, fluid, intuitive, and a lot of fun for two players. And you know, those slam dunk animations are still an awfully satisfying to rub salt in the wound after a great play against your rival ...
23. Final Fantasy
The world’s (second? third?) most popular RPG franchise got its start on the NES, and Nintendo gave it the deluxe treatment in bringing it over from Japan. Not only did it come with a massive manual-cum-walkthrough and two fold-out map charts, it also received all sorts of promotion from Nintendo Power. Deservedly so.
Final Fantasy raised the bar for console RPGs, cheerfully combining elements pilfered from Dungeons & Dragons, Ultima and Dragon Quest, and mashing them all into a totally inventive new take on the genre. While it’s barely recognizable as part of the same series as, say, Final Fantasy XV, this adventure laid down standards that have served as the backbone of a sprawling franchise through the years. From elemental crystals to spell designations to the particulars of its character classes and prestige upgrades, the original Final Fantasy kicked things off to a great start.
Oh, and one thing hasn’t changed in 30 years: even on NES, Final Fantasy had a convoluted, brain-bending plotline — in this case, a time loop in which the very first boss you defeated fell into the past to become the final boss. Yeah, that’s Final Fantasy, all right. It’s a solid start for a world-class franchise.
22. Ninja Gaiden 2
The original Ninja Gaiden on the NES more or less invented the concept of “cinematic” gaming, with manga-inspired interstitial cut scenes providing drama and context for players’ journey into a demonic castle. Ninja Gaiden 2 continued the storyline, and in doing so it took the storytelling to an even more sophisticated level. It presented its narrative with more stylish framing, more impressive visual effects, more intense music, and even more shocking twists.
What makes this such a great sequel, though, is that its creators didn’t stop at merely beefing up the story bits. Ninja Gaiden 2 also plays better than the original, which itself had been a game with a compelling rhythm to its breakneck-speed action. For the sequel, players found themselves dealing with the same style of action and overwhelming odds, but this time they came armed with impressive new techniques. The best of these: the ability to summon “shadow” ninjas who effectively triple their firepower.
These beefed-up powers proved to be essential in taking on the equally upgraded bad guys (including bosses who couldn’t simply be killed by standing in place and slashing quickly) and a plethora of dangerously unpredictable environments. It’s a bigger, brasher game in every way, and it’s one of the finest twitch-reflex experiences on any 8-bit platform.
21. Baseball Stars
People may have been impressed by the over-the-shoulder perspective of Tecmo’s Bases Loaded back in the day, but now that the dust has settled on the NES era, the baseball genre pennant ultimately goes to SNK’s Baseball Stars. Not unlike NES Open Tournament Golf, a big part of Baseball Stars’ appeal came down to its battery-backed save data, which allowed players to pursue full season-long careers. Baseball Stars emphasized the “stars” part of its name, with an incredible League Play mode that allowed players to create and edit a team for the long term, with management-level factors like trading an underperforming player in exchange for a talented slugger (or just firing bums outright).
All of these long-term factors make for a delicious cherry atop the sundae of excellent play mechanics. Baseball Stars manages to master the trickiest tightrope of 8-bit sports games: Not only is it a joy to play against other people, it’s also totally reasonable against the CPU — an essential requirement for making that career mode something more than a journey into frustration. On top of all that, it even tracks your personal records in various areas of the game, giving you one more competitor to face off against: yourself.
20. Adventures of Lolo 3
(HAL Labs, 1991)
Before Kirby came along, HAL already had a lovable little round hero in the form of Lolo: a blue ball of puzzle-solving persistence. The Lolo games expanded on the concept of Soukoban (also known as Boxxle or Shove It), challenging its players to solve dozens of self-contained puzzle rooms by pushing around boxes and blocks.
What set Lolo apart from a billion other 8-bit box-puzzlers was its integration of real-time elements, which created a constant sense of danger. Poor Lolo didn’t simply have to shove blocks around in order to advance to the next stage; he also had to dodge a bunch of bad guys while doing so. His only retaliatory power? A limited ability to render enemies harmless by transforming them into eggs, which often needed to be used to solve the current puzzle.
Fundamentally, this Lolo adventure wasn’t so different from the two that preceded it, but since all the Lolo games are at the top of the class for 8-bit puzzlers, that’s no bad thing. Lolo 3 did incorporate some small improvements to make its 100 stages all the more involving. There’s a tutorial, a world map ... and, most charmingly of all, Lolo’s girlfriend Lala is playable here rather than being simply a kidnapping victim. A brain-bender of a game; it’s a true HAL classic.
19. River City Ransom
Another genre hybrid on NES? Yes. This one might be the best of all.
River City Ransom built on that weird role-playing element Technos had added to the NES version of arcade smash Double Dragon. Since this was a game built from scratch for the express purpose of supporting RPG concepts, it all worked a lot better. Our heroes in this adventure, a pair of high school delinquents named Alex and Ryan, had to punch their way from one side of River City to the other in order to defeat the villainous Slick and save Alex’s gal pal. The gangs of high school bruisers along the way became more and more vicious, with the toughs roaming the halls of “final dungeon” River City High capable of laying the heroes flat in a single blow.
But that’s OK; Alex and Ryan could snatch up cash from defeated foes and use it to purchase new skills and stat upgrades at shops along the way. Admittedly, River City Ransom does a lousy job explaining what the various goods you purchase are actually good for — it’s definitely one to play with the help of a guide — but once you sort out the confusing litany of permanent strength boosts, health recovery consumables, and sophisticated combat techniques they open up, this becomes a genuine and legitimate role-playing adventure.
Oh, and even though this takes its RPG-brawler inspiration from Double Dragon, it doesn’t use the role-playing elements as a substitute for cooperative play. Indeed, it’s far more fun with a friend; you can even use your pal as a projectile in a pinch. River City Ransom is is deep and multiplayer.
SNK took the light flirtation between The Legend of Zelda and the role-playing genre and created a genuine love connection. With an entertaining post-apocalyptic storyline driving the player through its world, Crystalis managed to push the top-down Zelda-style format further into both the action and RPG genres. It incorporated a genuine experienced-based leveling system, which didn’t simply make the hero stronger — it also gated his skills and weapon options. Still, despite the increased emphasis on numeric improvements (which required a fair amount of grinding for experience), Crystalis was a much faster game than Zelda, with zippy combat and movement in eight (rather than four) directions. In a lot of ways, it felt more like Falcom’s Ys, except that its battle mechanics had a lot more nuance. Admittedly less innovative than those other games, Crystalis arguably represents the pinnacle of action RPG design on NES.
There’s nothing better than playing games with a friend. Konami knew it, and they embraced it in a big way with Contra. A run-and-gun platformer pitting a fragile soldier against endless waves of alien invaders, Contra is pretty fantastic even if you play it alone. Heck, the NES version is inexplicably more fun than the arcade original, which is something you never saw back in the day.
Throw a second player into the mix, though, and Contra gains layers. Deep, complicated layers. Yeah, it’s handy to have a second gun hosing down Red Falcon’s evil forces ... but think of the tough compromises you have to make! Who gets to collect the power-ups? Who stands where in each combat scene? And let’s not forget the friendship-ending potential of certain game design details, like the way a player caught at the bottom of the screen in vertically scrolling sequences would die if the lead player scrolled upward too quickly. Or the way a player who ran out of extra lives could keep going ... by stealing a life from their partner’s reserve.
Contra represented a tug-of-war between friendship and enmity in a way you rarely see outside of Nintendo’s own first-party creations: a way to cement a partnership, or destroy it forever.
16. Super Mario Bros. 2
If ever we needed proof that the Mario series has the power to somehow transcend the mundane shackles of other video games, consider Super Mario Bros. 2 for NES. Even when a Mario game doesn’t start off as a Mario game, it’s still a far sight better than almost anything else on the system.
Mario 2 began life as a Mario-inspired adventure starring another company’s characters, but Nintendo retooled it as a quest for Mario and his pals when it exported it to the west. And most gamers didn’t even flinch. It was weird that you didn’t crush enemies by hopping onto them, true, and the sudden lack of Goombas and Koopa Troopas was a little surprising. But there was no established Mario “vocabulary” at this point, and the skills and enemies that did appear here were loads of fun.
So who cared if Mario was fighting weird masks and feeding vegetables to a giant frog? He teamed up with his brother Luigi, Princess “Toadstool” and the little Mushroom Retainer guy from the first seven castles of the original game to run, jump, and throw things with reckless abandon across seven surreal worlds. The ability to lift and throw pretty much anything that wasn’t bolted down didn’t simply allow Mario’s pals to beat bad guys by chucking other bad guys at them; it also added a small element of puzzle and exploration to the adventure. You could stack boxes to create shortcuts, throw bombs to open alternate paths, and lug keys to locked doors — provided you could dodge the key’s indestructible guardian Phanto, of course.
Levels scrolled up and down and back and forth and consisted of lots of different areas linked by rooms and passages. Each stage presented new challenges to overcome, ranging from sinking quicksand to vanishing platforms created from whale spume. You’d hijack a flying carpet from its rider to cross a pit, or just hop on a bird’s back. Explore the mysterious Subspace to find coins to gamble for extra lives in a casino or find a temporary life boost. Defeat a cool-looking mouse by throwing its own bombs back at it.
Oh, and to add a little more spice to this already impressive mix, Mario and his comrades each possessed different powers to allow them to approach every challenge from a different angle. Mario was the workmanlike average man, while the princess could hover momentarily — a life-saver on tenuous platforms. Luigi could jump ridiculous high — quite the contrast to poor Toad, who could only get about with short hops. But the little guy’s arm strength meant he was perfectly suited for levels that involved digging.
No, Super Mario Bros. 2 may not have started out as a “real” Mario game, but its ideas began to show up in future titles right away: Super Mario Bros. 3 carried forward enemies like the explosive, ambulatory Bob-ombs as well as the ability to grab and throw objects. Meanwhile, the distribution of powers split among the four playable characters still defines these four central Mario universe heroes, from Princess Peach’s aerial maneuvers in Smash Bros. to Captain Toad’s nose for treasure. Honestly, it’s ridiculous to quibble about Mario 2’s authenticity. Who really cares, when the game itself was (and is!) such a delight?