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The 35 greatest NES games, part 2

Take a look at the top 15 games on Nintendo’s groundbreaking console

The Nintendo Entertainment System
| Evan Amos

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the NES’s launch in Japan (as the Family Computer), I’m counting down the 35 greatest games to appear on NES in the U.S. You can find the first part (from 35-16) here. Now, on to the top 15 …

Tecmo Super Bowl
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

15. Tecmo Super Bowl

(Tecmo, 1991)

Football games have changed a lot over the years, drifting toward the full-season career management model of Madden NFL with the occasional unlicensed hyperactive arcade-style experience. There actually are other approaches, though! And right around the time the original Madden was making its mark, Tecmo created a gem of an alternative.

Tecmo Super Bowl, the sequel to the beloved Tecmo Bowl, embodies the best of the old-school 8-bit football style. It plays less like a coaching sim than modern football games, yet it nevertheless avoids being an all-out action title, too. By walking the line between the genre’s two extremes, Super Bowl continued Tecmo’s trend of producing top-flight sports games (with great soundtracks!) for NES.

Tecmo Super Bowl improves on its predecessor in several respects. First, it features the actual NFL license, so it’s one of the few 8-bit games to include a complete set of pro teams and accurate player stats for the then-current season. It maintains the brisk pace of the previous game while adding more play options and a wider variety of field condition simulation elements. And it allows dedicated players to experience a full season, including playoffs and the Super Bowl, tracking their favorite franchise for an entire in-game year.

It’s also worth noting that of all the games on this list, Tecmo Super Bowl is the only one that’s still a “living” product. A set of diehard fans continues to release annual roster update patches for the NES ROM, allowing devotees to experience the current season through the Tecmo Bowl medium. Any game that can inspire that degree of loyalty has got to be worth something.

Dragon Warrior 4
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

14. Dragon Warrior 4

(Chunsoft/Enix, 1992)

Without question, the finest role-playing game on the NES. Dragon Warrior 4 (aka Dragon Quest 4) represented the culmination of the most influential console RPG series of the era, bringing to bear all the refinements and tricks its creators had learned with the first three Dragon Quest games; it married these evolutionary improvements with genuine creative vision and no shortage of ambition. Along with its 16-bit contemporary Final Fantasy 4, Dragon Warrior 4 defined what we think of today as the “JRPG.”

Fundamentally, Dragon Warrior 4 plays more or less like you’d expect. Players travel from town to town, solving local quests and earning cash for equipment upgrades by delving into nearby dungeons and fortresses. Battles play out in a turn-based format, with enemies gathered into “groups” in which your heroes will automatically target the foe that offers the greatest strategic advantage. As most party members are controlled by the CPU, combat in Dragon Warrior 4 can be a little unpredictable ... but because it’s turn-based, and because the player-controlled hero character has such a wide array of options at their command, it never feels unfair.

What really sets Dragon Warrior 4 apart from its predecessors and peers is its structure. The plot advances through a concrete narrative that begins as something of a mystery and ultimately reveals the schemes of a man who seeks revenge on an uncaring world by harnessing and corrupting the process of evolution itself. This takes a while to become apparent, though, and until it does you’re always a step or two behind him.

Most unusually of all, you don’t even meet the Hero him- or herself until well into the adventure. Instead, Dragon Warrior 4 spends its opening hours allowing you to get to know the Hero’s companions by playing portions of their personal stories. Rather than treating its party members as resources for the Hero’s quest, Dragon Warrior 4 follows their stories and the way their personal quests intersect with the main character’s. These vignettes range from typical RPG fare (Ragnar, a soldier hunting for abducted children) to the inventive (Taloon, a portly merchant whose chapter revolves around getting his weapons shop up and running). These characters all become A.I.-powered backup fighters once you reach the Hero’s chapter, but because you’ve spent so much time with them individually, they never feel like faceless filler.

With a sprawling story set in a vast world and populated with the best-defined characters in any 8-bit RPG, Dragon Warrior 4 is a triumph of the genre that works around the limitations of the console by making use of smart ideas and sharp writing.

Life Force
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

13. Life Force

(Konami, 1988)

The NES wasn’t known for its shoot-’em-ups ... which isn’t to say the system couldn’t handle them, just that they didn’t usually turn out too great. And, frustratingly, most of the best ones never made their way outside of Japan. The exceptions, however, can be every bit as satisfying as the best Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 shooters, despite running on humbler hardware. Konami’s Life Force tops them all.

An offshoot of the Gradius series, Life Force has such a complex design that it required a special cartridge in Japan to power its grand ambitions. Nintendo of America didn’t allow the use of those custom carts in the U.S., though, which makes the NES version even more miraculous: Somehow, Konami managed to squeeze the whole thing into a standard NES cart with only a few small compromises (most notably, players can summon one fewer “Option” companion bit to boost their firepower in the American release). And what a shooter it is.

Half of Life Force plays out as a side-scrolling shooter that’s almost impossible not to mistake for a Gradius game. You gun down waves of enemies while avoiding bullets and obstacles, collecting power-up capsules that you can exchange on-the-fly for instant ship upgrades ranging from ground-scouring missiles to defensive shields. Life Force’s loose biomechanical horror theme results in some dangerously dynamic stage designs where the walls mutate and seal off the path forward. There are plenty of other memorable scenarios outside the space monstrosities, too, like the inferno corridor in which you have to dodge solar prominences. Konami even managed to include two all-new stages for the home release of this arcade conversion, including a fun (albeit thematically inconsistent) Ancient Egypt sequence.

The other half of the game, however, takes the mechanics of Gradius into a top-down format. Familiar elements like volcanoes and Moai heads and power-up capsules feel totally fresh when viewed from that perspective — and are no less difficult to master. The alternating point of view never becomes disorienting, thanks in large part to the consistent mechanics and the fact that the top-down stages are carefully designed to reflect a Gradius design sensibility from a different angle.

There’s one feature that makes Life Force truly sing, though, and that’s the game’s cooperative play element. It’s a bit of showing off on hardware of this vintage, really. Despite everything the game throws at you (including throbbing stage mutations and swarms of bullets), and despite the impressive armaments you can deck your ship out with, you can still tag another player in to play alongside you. Most impressively of all, your pal can even power-up with the same arms upgrades you use, which means that at max power you have not one but two shielded space fighters flying around with Options trailing behind, all spewing streams of lasers and salvos of missiles. Technically astounding and loads of fun with a friend? That’s a rare sight in any genre, but especially in shooters like this.

Metal Storm
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

12. Metal Storm

(Tamtex/Irem, 1991)

The NES saw no end of mega-hit releases, but sometimes the most interesting games were the ones that never stood a chance of becoming anything more than cult favorites. Such is the case with Irem’s Metal Storm, a one-of-a-kind creation designed by the publisher’s partner studio Tamtex.

Metal Storm took a fresh angle on a genre that had plenty of representation on NES, the side-scrolling, run-and-jump platformer. It put players in control of a large suit of mech combat armor, which set it apart from the plucky cartoon characters and lanky human heroes that dominated the NES — although anyone expecting the armored robotic protagonist to be more durable than, say, Mario were in for a nasty surprise. Metal Storm subscribed to the Contra school of difficulty, where a single light scrape with danger would instantly cause the hero to explode.

No, the point of the robot-like player avatar wasn’t about durability; it was about mobility. The player’s M-308 Gunner armor couldn’t take much damage without a the help of a power-up; its combat load-out was fairly meager; and even its basic jumping ability left a lot to be desired. What the M-308 Gunner could do that no other NES hero could do was reverse gravity at will. With the press of a button, the player could invert the direction of gravity in Metal Storm’s world, sending both the M-308 and all its enemies falling toward the ceiling (or back to the floor again).

This single mechanic made Metal Storm a unique action game. NES owners spent a lot of time running and gunning, but Metal Storm’s emphasis on toggling gravity allowed Tamtex to create scenarios and challenges without precedent. Sometimes players needed to “fly” by constantly reversing gravity in a way that would keep the M-308 suspended in mid-air long enough to pass over deadly hazards. Other areas involved slipping around obstacles that would react to gravitational shifts, or navigating physically impossible virtual spaces with a wrap-around screen effect.

Even better were Metal Storm’s boss encounters, each of which demanded you make use of your gravity-flipping skills in different ways. At the most basic level, this meant zapping up to the ceiling to shoot a computer’s weak point. Later in the game, you had to conquer more mind-bending challenges, like bosses that doubled as platforms in chambers that offered no other safe ground to stand on.

At a mere six stages in length, Metal Storm felt remarkably brief by the standards of the late NES era. But each and every one of those levels came packed with situations that could be found nowhere on the platform — or on any other, for that matter. There’s something to be said for a highly focused examination of a single concept that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and Metal Storm epitomizes creative economy of design.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

11. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

(Nintendo, 1987)

Nintendo wound down its dedicated arcade development efforts once the Famicom console took off in Japan, which means there was disappointingly little overlap between the company’s arcade creations and the NES. By the time the console arrived in the U.S., games like Donkey Kong and Popeye felt like relics of a bygone era. The kids were all about their Super Marios and Zeldas instead. There was one glorious exception, though: The Nintendo arcade classic that became even better on NES, Punch-Out!!

Or rather, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! The company’s big pitch for this coin-op-to-console conversion wasn’t, “Hey, play this cool arcade game at home!” but rather, “Hey, try to beat the reigning world champion of boxing!” Though Nintendo would come to regret incorporating Tyson into the game as his reputation both in and outside of the ring became more and more checkered, the stocky, cocky pugilist made for a memorable video game final boss. Nintendo even distributed a password to allow players to take on Tyson directly soon after the game shipped, just so everyone could go toe-to-toe with the star attraction right away.

In nearly any other game, a code to skip to the final boss would have greatly abbreviated the software’s shelf life. Not so with Punch-Out!! It was technically a sports game, yes, but Punch-Out!! leaned heavily on skill-based combat rules that blended elements of fighting and rhythm action. Just because you could challenge Tyson right away didn’t mean you could actually beat him. The champ turned out to be just as nasty in the virtual ring as in the real one. Newcomers were lucky to last 30 seconds against him ... which, if nothing else, certainly helped the world empathize with Michael Spinks.

The secret to beating Tyson was to earn your way to the final match the hard way, working your way up the World Video Boxing Association’s ranks by defeating the colorful contenders along the way. Tyson may have been the star of the show, but Punch-Out!! didn’t lack for memorable opponents. From the timid Glass Joe to the enigmatic Great Tiger, every boxer in the Punch-Out!! had his own look, his own fighting style, and his own special techniques. All of these were rooted in broad ethnic and national stereotypes, but they never came across as mean-spirited, simply a way to keep things lively and distinct. By learning the proper timing to dodge, counter, and outsmart each opponent’s advanced moves, players eventually mastered the mechanics of Punch-Out!! to the point that they could, indeed, conquer Tyson himself.

Most of these boxers came straight from the arcade version of Punch-Out!!, which had rendered them with huge, cartoonish graphics that remain striking decades later. The NES couldn’t hope to duplicate the coin-op’s visuals, but Nintendo did its best: It created a special mapper chip for the Punch-Out!! cartridge that beefed up the console’s capabilities, allowing the game to feature a set of rivals that remain among the most impressive-looking characters ever seen on the console. With password saves enabling a proper career mode and more fairly balanced play, the NES version has held up a lot better than the coin-op ... even if it doesn’t look as cool.

As for Tyson? Eventually, his contract with Nintendo lapsed and Nintendo (quite understandably) chose not to renew, replacing him with a less memorable but equally ruthless new champ named Mr. Dream. But no matter who awaits you at the end, the journey through the WVBA remains one worth experiencing.

Bionic Commando
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

10. Bionic Commando

(Capcom, 1988)

Like Metal Slug, Bionic Commando represents a brilliant attempt to take one of the NES’s most prolific genres — the side-scrolling platformer — and radically reinvent it. Protagonist Radd Spencer, the eponymous bionic commando, can’t flip gravity. For that matter, he can’t even jump! Instead, he relies entirely on his bionic arm to get him around the game. You fling a mechanical arm forward, grasp the ceiling, then swing forward or retract your arm to rise up to the grapple point. It’s brilliant.

By shifting its primary mechanic away from leaping, Bionic Commando requires a considerable investment from players. Grappling and swinging don’t come as naturally or intuitively as, say, Master Higgins’ quick hop. The fact that even a knee-high bump on the ground can arrest your forward movement here can initially be quite frustrating. But as a reward for taking the time to come to terms with its rules, Bionic Commando gives players some of the most satisfying play physics on NES; only Mario comes close. Once you get into the swing of things, as it were, Bionic Commando’s mechanical limitations feel like absolute freedom.

It helps that the game’s dozen levels are designed thoughtfully around the protagonist’s particular skills. They can be daunting at times — the stage that gates players from the second half of the game is utterly unforgiving in its design, requiring a series of perfect consecutive swings across tiny grapple points, each demanding pinpoint precision. In the hands of a skilled player, though, Spencer absolutely flies across the screen. He can go nearly anywhere and mount any obstacle. Taking on a vast expanse of open flame without a single platform ahead of you — only grapple points — can be utterly daunting. Master it and you feel like a gaming savant.

To bind the entire quest into a cohesive whole, Bionic Commando frames everything as a proto-action-RPG. Players need to speak to allies (and wire-tap foes) in order to get a read on where they have to travel next. A limited but varied inventory of tools and weapons helps you unlock new areas of the game while simultaneously giving you your choice of how to tackle each new situation. You can even collect experience points in the form of item drops to boost your maximum health.

And at the end of it all, you get to make Hitler’s head explode. Although he’s not actually called Hitler here, it’s pretty clear what’s happening. And if there’s anything that makes Bionic Commando a thrill to play in the year 2018, it’s that you’re absolutely trashing an army of Nazis. How current! But the game physics and mechanics help a lot, too. Many games have attempted to capture the elegance of Bionic Commando’s swinging physics, but until Flinthook came along, not a single one had succeeded. It truly is a singular work, even 30 years later.

Maniac Mansion
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

9. Maniac Mansion

(LucasFilm Games/Jaleco, 1990)

PC-to-NES conversions weren’t exactly uncommon, but they rarely worked out well. Typically they felt clumsy and compromised: furtive attempts at grasping ideas that worked on more powerful devices offering far more input options than the NES’s two buttons and D-pad. From unplayable flight sims to painfully downscaled versions of Cinemaware’s groundbreaking adventure games, an origin in the world of computers usually spelled doom for an NES cartridge.

Maniac Mansion, LucasFilm Games’ groundbreaking point-and-click adventure, proved to be a glorious exception. The secret of its success? Rather than shopping it out to some external studio to convert on the cheap, actual LucasFilm staff oversaw the game’s transformation to the NES format. It made all the difference. Though the original Maniac Mansion team had moved onto new projects, having people close to the source material running this port effort meant a high level of care was invested into the task. It also meant that the process of accommodating Nintendo’s considerable demands for content changes in order to be more “family friendly” didn’t compromise the material too much.

Indeed, Maniac Mansion gives us a brilliant example of how valuable it can be to have people close to the original creative team heading up conversions like this. See, the Japanese release of Maniac Mansion wasn’t simply published by Jaleco, as the U.S. version was — the company handled the programming and design of the Famicom version as well. It’s decent enough, but it pales in comparison to the work LucasFilm Games did on NES. Maniac Mansion on Famicom suffers from technical compromises and reworked puzzles that detract from the game’s clever design. The NES version, despite its changes, doesn’t feel significantly downgraded from the PC release.

Ah, and what clever design it is. Maniac Mansion introduced LucasFilm Games’ legendary SCUMM system, the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. The SCUMM engine powered the company’s graphical adventures for years, even after the studio changed its name from “LucasFilm Games” to “LucasArts.” Not only did it serve as the basis for some of the greatest adventure games ever made, the SCUMM engine proved perfectly suited for console play. It deprecated the need for the kind of text-based input parser common to previous graphical adventures, replacing it with a simple verb-object menu format. By giving players a limited set of verbs (e.g. Use, Give, Open) and a fixed inventory, Maniac Mansion did away with the need for blind experimentation and guesswork that had typified the adventure genre to that point. While prospective adventurers still needed to use clever, sometimes unconventional logic to solve predicaments, the solutions always felt like natural extensions of the tools and rules they had at hand.

Of course, the SCUMM system could have been a wonderfully clever tool and still resulted in abject failure if Maniac Mansion had been a poorly designed or badly written mess. Happily, it was nothing of the sort. LucasArts legends like Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer crafted one of the smartest, funniest video games of the generation here — a clever spoof of schlocky B-movies and “kid detective” adventures a la Scooby-Doo. Players take a team of three teenagers into a creepy mansion occupied by a family of reclusive weirdos in order to rescue a kidnapped friend, and in the process they thwart the mad scheme of an evil alien lurking at the heart of the mansion.

Much of Maniac Mansion’s brilliance comes from its writing; the mansion’s occupants are strange and sometimes violent, but they’re not really bad types — more like a normal nuclear family that simply ... isn’t normal. They (and even the evil alien!) have their own dreams and aspirations, and many of the possible story endings involve fulfilling or exploiting those wishes. Maniac Mansion also thrives on its replay value. Players build their team of three teens from a pool of six characters, each with his or her own special abilities. These open up complete different routes through the game, leading to multiple resolutions for the main quest. Nerdy Bernard solves problems with technology and tinkering, while punk rock chick Razor prefers a more direct approach and music.

Smart, accessible, funny, and highly replayable, Maniac Mansion on NES remains one of the finest PC-to-console conversions ever.

Castlevania 3
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

8. Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse

(Konami, 1990)

Konami’s Castlevania series helped define the NES back in the day, and it remains synonymous with the platform. Of the three vampire-slaying adventures to appear on the platform, the final chapter of the trilogy (actually a prequel!) stands heads-and-shoulders above the other two ... and above nearly every other action game on the system, for that matter.

Dracula’s Curse retains the deliberate, whip-based play mechanics of the first two Castlevanias. Protagonist Trevor Belmont moves somewhat slowly, can’t jump very high, has to commit to his attacks and lacks other platform heroes’ ability to change directions in mid-air. He’s a limited hero, but Konami designed the entire world around his limitations, and it works. Castlevania 3 is never easy, but at no point does it become impossibly difficult ... though it always helps to have the right friends on hand.

This third Castlevania adds one critical feature to the series: The ability to swap between the Belmont hero and a companion character. Along the way to take down Dracula, Trevor may encounter as many as three different vampire-hating heroes who can join him in his quest. While only one partner can tag along at any time, they add a great deal of variety and potential to the action. Trevor may wield all the powers (and suffer all the weaknesses) of the Belmont clan, but the other characters play quite differently. Mystical Syfa commands nearly game-breaking magic spells, a power balanced by her incredible physical fragility and pitiful melee attack range. Grant is similarly weak and has limited attack options, but he can leap high and even climb walls and ceilings. And finally, Dracula’s rebellious son Alucard possesses the fewest offensive powers on the team, but he can take a hit like Trevor — plus he can transform into a bat and fly anywhere.

Much of the joy of Castlevania 3 comes in learning to use these characters’ skills in different situations. You can bypass sticky combat situations by flying past them with Alucard. You can breeze through brutal auto-scrolling stages by using Grant to speed along and slip through seemingly impassable openings. You can savage bosses with Syfa’s homing spells, or render difficult flooded passages trivial by freezing the water solid and walking along the top.

Or, you can skip the companions altogether and play as Trevor alone. Castlevania 3 offers tremendous flexibility of design, and nearly every level is laid out in a way that makes it rewarding to experiment with different characters. The developers recognized this, too: After you defeat Dracula, the game loops so you can use your companions to explore and conquer levels they couldn’t experience on your initial trip through the adventure. Castlevania 3 simply begs to be played over and over again.

And it definitely doesn’t hurt that this is one of the best-looking and best-sounding games on the NES. Its levels shimmer with detail, from temple ruins to swirling fog, and there’s not a single false note on the soundtrack. It’s simply one of the best expert-level action games of the 8-bit era.

The Legend of Zelda
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

7. The Legend of Zelda

(Nintendo, 1987)

It takes guts to sell a game in a gold cartridge, swaddled in packaging that breaks the standards and format of the rest of the platform’s library. But then, The Legend of Zelda is a heck of a game.

It’s true that in a lot of respects the original Zelda doesn’t hold up perfectly now, more than three decades after its debut. The action can be a bit on the simplistic side, thanks in part to protagonist Link’s ability to move and attack only in cardinal directions. Much of the game involves blind luck and trial-and-error, with entire dungeons hidden in obscure locations and esoteric clues pointing players in their direction. The game is dotted with hidden secrets, but finding them often degenerates into bombing or burning every tile on every screen until they appear.

To ding Zelda for being a product of its time isn’t entirely fair. Yes, it’s obtuse at times, but so was every role-playing-style game in the mid-’80s. Zelda followed in the tradition of adventures like Falcom’s Xanadu and Atari’s Adventure, both of which expected players to suss out unintuitive actions on their own in order to advance. By contrast, Zelda laid itself wide open to players; the game even shipped with a huge fold-out map that detailed most of the overworld (leaving the more difficult corners shrouded for players to discover on their own) along with many of the dungeons.

By contemporary console game standards, Zelda absolutely blew away everything that had come before it. It contained nine dungeons of increasing complexity beneath a completely open overworld map that players could tackle at their liberty. Although the quest contained a few sequential elements built around areas gated behind the need for specific tools (e.g. islands accessible only by raft, or dungeon moats that could only be forded with the ladder), it otherwise allowed players to tackle it as they wanted — or maybe just in the order they stumbled across things. In theory, players could take on, say, the sixth dungeon before doing anything else in the game ... but the throngs of aggressive, durable enemies within pose a massive challenge to poor Link until he bolsters himself with extra life, stronger swords, and a defense-boosting shield ring.

And yet, that’s a big part of Zelda’s appeal. It cleverly distills the freeform exploratory nature of PC RPGs into something more palatable (not to mention technically feasible!) for console play. Nintendo billed it as a “never-ending adventure,” which was stretching the truth. But in an era before the internet, before strategy guides, Zelda felt truly massive. It’s a game you can complete in a single sitting if you know its secrets, but the initial process of discovery took weeks or even months for NES owners in 1987. This was a game so huge that it came with a battery inside of it to save your progress! Truly, it earned that golden box.

And think how many franchise standards got their start here. The legendary Triforce. Link, Princess Zelda, and the villainous Ganon. Weapons like the Master Sword. Monsters like octoroks. Death Mountain. The specifics have changed, but Zelda games work off this NES template even now. Indeed, Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda to have recaptured the sense of immensity and freedom and “what do I do now?” that made the original so enchanting. The NES game may not seem like much by current standards, but in its day, it absolutely created the same sense of overwhelming adventure that permeates Breath of the Wild today.

Mega Man 2
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

6. Mega Man 2 or 3

(Capcom, 1989/1990)

For fans of classic Nintendo consoles, the only “which is better” argument that comes close to being as heated as Super Mario Bros. 3 versus Super Mario World revolves around Capcom’s Mega Man series. Which is better: 1989’s Mega Man 2, or 1990’s Mega Man 3?

The former came almost out of nowhere to blow a million children’s minds. Sure, it was a sequel, but pretty much no one had cared about the original Mega Man. Its lack of promotion and astoundingly garish box art turned it into one of those Nintendo games that languished, unloved, in the video game cases of the few retailers that carried it. It wasn’t until Capcom (and Nintendo) began pushing the sequel that people sat up and took notice of the little blue robot with the silly name.

Mega Man 2 broke new ground for graphics and sound on NES. It wasn’t the most detailed game of its time, but it was perhaps the best-looking. With a consistent art style uniting its heroes and enemies alike, Mega Man 2 made the most of its bold, simple, cartoonish visuals. Everything from the tiniest little single-sprite robo-frog to the most daunting screen-filling mechanical dragon looked of a piece, with strong outlines defining rounded robotic shapes topped with maniacally grinning, googly-eyed faces that somehow managed to be incredibly intimidating despite also being utterly goofy.

And it played so well! Mega Man responded perfectly to player input, moving crisply and precisely. Not only that, but he was astoundingly versatile; he began the game with nothing but the power to jump and shoot, but by journey’s end he could swap between a dozen different weapons and tools, each of which had specific utility against the bad guys he had to defeat. Each stage had its own unique visual theme, paired perfectly to memorable music, and players could play the first eight stages in any order before advancing to the evil Dr. Wily’s lair (where even better music, crazier bosses, and a fake-out plot twist awaited).

Mega Man 3 didn’t hit with the same surprise punch, because NES fans had already been groomed to expect the name “Mega Man” to amount to total brilliance. That said, the Blue Bomber’s third adventure more than lived up to expectations. What it lacked in originality it made up for with much-needed refinement. Mega Man 3 addressed its predecessor’s more lopsided design choices. There was no longer a single overpowered add-on weapon that worked in practically all situations for almost no cost; there were no bosses so tied to specific weapon configurations that players could potentially become stuck if they ran out of energy; there were no instant-kill traps that practically demanded the use of a special weapon to survive; even the trademark vanishing block gauntlets felt more forgiving. Mega Man began this adventure with a support tool (in the form of his robo-dog Rush) and the handy new power to slide beneath low walls and enemy projectiles.

Even as it improved on the previous game’s shortcomings, Mega Man 3 also built on its strengths. The bosses used less predictable attack patterns. The stage layouts and themes were even more varied. The visuals retained the series’ trademark cartoon style while incorporating more fine detail. And just to top things off, four of the main stages reappeared in challenging remix versions that forced players to triumph against all eight of Mega Man 2’s bosses (while still using Mega Man 3’s power-up set) before taking on Dr. Wily and his skyscraper-sized super-robot Gamma. In short, it felt like the grand finale to a great trilogy.

So which is better, Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3? Rather than clutter this list with Mega Man games, we’re going to call it a draw and let you decide which deserves to sit at #6 ... or, if you want, to put them both here. We won’t blame you.

Super Mario Bros.
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

5. Super Mario Bros.

(Nintendo, 1985)

In terms of sheer historic impact, Super Mario Bros. might be the single most important game ever to appear on the NES. Back in 1985, no other game demonstrated the difference between the NES and consoles that had come before it so effectively. It looked great, sounded great, played almost perfectly, and (at 32 levels long) it was absolutely enormous. Atari 2600 and ColecoVision never had a game like this. With Super Mario Bros., Nintendo made a bold statement to American kids hungry for new experiences: The next generation was here. Those hungry American kids snatched it up by the millions.

Happily, Super Mario Bros. has more going for it than simply its place in history. Even today, it’s genuinely great. The tiny six-man team that put this masterpiece together in a matter of months somehow managed to coax unprecedented performance out of the NES — indeed, the game was conceived as the “ultimate” expression of what could be done on NES with its standard hardware before moving along to the more powerful Disk System platform in Japan. It’s funny to think of this game, which launched alongside the American NES, as a sort of swan song. But Nintendo had no way of knowing that the console would explode in the U.S. just as advanced cartridge tech expanded the hardware’s capabilities. What was intended as a final statement really ended up being more of a statement of intent.

Super Mario Bros. plays brilliantly. Mario himself responds almost instantly to the player’s input — almost. There’s a little bit of inertia to everything he does here, whether that’s breaking into a run, leaping high into the air or skidding to a stop. The mechanics of Super Mario Bros. tread a difficult tightrope between flawless responsiveness and realistic physics, achieving a rare kind of balance. It controls the way you want it to while simultaneously forcing you to deal with just enough almost imperceptible inconveniences that it feels convincing and “realistic.” Not that anyone would mistake Mario’s athleticism for real life, thanks to his ability to soar high and bend the arc of his jump in midair. But it’s not meant to be real life. It’s meant to be satisfying. It absolutely is.

Every single element of Super Mario Bros. has been canonized by its sequels and by competitors. Enemies, background elements, power-ups, control physics, characters ... even stage layouts. Super Mario Bros. has been dissected by fans, referenced in other games and even deconstructed by Nintendo itself for Super Mario Maker. The first few screens of World 1-1 alone may make up the single most written-about, referenced, and satirized moment in video game history. And there’s a reason for that: It holds up to all that scrutiny. It’s the launchpad for a game, a franchise, a corporation — perhaps even for an entire industry.

Super Mario Bros. makes use of an “invisible hand” approach to design to teach players its ins and outs without being obvious about it. By coaxing them to leap over (and onto) enemies, by repeating stage layouts with more difficult enemy placement and by suspending invisible blocks in spots likely to be revealed by errant jumps, the game subtly demonstrates how to handle its challenges and reveal its secrets. Super Mario Bros. isn’t an easy game, and it demands much of players, but it’s always unfailingly fair. It arms players to master its challenges.

Blue skies and a calliope soundtrack symbolize drew players into Mario’s sprawling world. But it’s the exquisite design discipline of Super Mario Bros. that kept people playing — and that keeps them playing even now. There aren’t a lot of games that can launch both a platform and a legendary franchise, but Super Mario Bros. had — and has! — what it takes.

Jeremy Parish/Polygon

4. Tetris / Tengen Tetris

(Bullet-Proof Software/Nintendo/Tengen, 1989)

Two versions of Tetris appeared on NES back in the day: Tengen’s conversion of the Atari arcade game, and a Nintendo-published version developed by Bullet-Proof Software (the company whose boss, Henk Rogers, played a pivotal role in bringing Tetris to the west). Tengen got there first. Nintendo got there with all their legal paperwork in order. Tengen’s version was pulled off the market after just a few months, and Nintendo’s became a best-seller.

Both represent distinct takes on the game, yet both are, fundamentally, Tetris. And that means both are profoundly addictive. As two different renditions of the same masterpiece, they both stand among the best NES games ever made. Which of the two deserves to stand at the #4 spot on this list comes down to personal taste.

Do you prefer the shiny, candy-like sheen of Nintendo’s version? Bullet-Proof made magnificent use of the NES’s limited color palette here, giving each of the game’s block shapes (tetrominoes) its own vibrant hue. In terms of simply playability, this works wonders in Tetris’ favor. At higher speed levels, Tetris requires intense concentration; peeling your eyes away from the central well of the action to glance at the shape of the next block in the queue can be a distraction at an inopportune moment. The color design of Bullet-Proof’s tetrominoes makes it easier to pick up on your next move without shifting your focus — it’s easier to distinguish color out of the corner of your eye than it is shape.

The Nintendo-published rendition of Tetris has something else going for it: A brilliant soundtrack. The tunes here make great use of the NES sound hardware, weaving intense and multilayer melodies together to create a perfect backdrop for the action at both moderate and manic speeds.

The Tengen version, by comparison, lacks the audio-visual pizzazz of Nintendo’s release. The music is OK but hardly memorable. The visuals are so flat and muddy-looking they practically make the Game Boy version seem scintillating by comparison. What Tengen Tetris does have going for it, however, is competitive multiplayer. Two players can go head-to-head to race one another for the high score, something present in Bullet-Proof’s Game Boy adaptation of the game but inexplicably lacking in its NES rendition. Tengen’s Tetris also has physics and controls closer to the original standard for the game, leading some to prefer it over Bullet-Proof’s efforts.

Still, they’re both Tetris. And that makes them both almost infinitely playable for people of all races, ages, genders, nationalities, and so forth. The simple gameplay involves shuffling and rotating seven types of four-brick blocks as they descend into a well, attempting to keep the screen as clear as possible by creating unbroken rows of blocks. Each complete row will vanish and cause the remaining rows to descend toward the bottom, with multiple simultaneous rows cleared resulting in score bonuses. That’s all there is to it — the action becomes faster as you clear more rows, and you earn a maximum bonus for clearing out four lines with a single piece, but ultimately it’s simply a test of spatial reasoning and reaction that doesn’t need bells or whistles to be interesting. It’s Tetris, and that makes it timeless.

Kirby’s Adventure
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3. Kirby’s Adventure

(HAL Labs/Nintendo, 1993)

HAL Labs always had the NES’s number. From the very beginning, when Nintendo hired the studio to perform contractual triage on some of its more challenging Black Box projects, HAL seemed somehow able to coax more from the system than any other developer — and always without the need to rely on expensive add-on chips. That tradition held true from its work on the likes of Pinball and F-1 Race in the early ’80s, all the way to the very end of the NES’s life with the team’s final NES project: Kirby’s Adventure.

Kirby’s Adventure was, in effect, a sequel to HAL’s charming Game Boy platformer Kirby’s Dream Land. Puffy protagonist Kirby himself returned, of course, and Adventure even included a callback to Dream Land in the form of a monochromatic stage that reprised some of the Game Boy title’s content.

Beyond that, though, the NES game improved on its predecessor in every way imaginable. It contained far more worlds, more monsters, and more stuff to do. It’s one of the richest games on the NES in terms of content; its levels thrive on novelty. You’re fighting a tree or navigating an electrical maze one minute, traveling the perimeter of a rotating tower the next. Every world has multiple bosses, some appearing unexpectedly in the middle a stage. Most levels offer alternate routes or bonuses tucked behind puzzle-like barriers that can only be “solved” by using the correct power-up. To keep things lively, you also have to complete special challenge sequences against unique enemies or master minigames (including a crane game in which Kirby tries to win plush versions of himself for extra lives).

Despite being such an enormous game offering so much variety, Kirby’s Adventure looks incredible. Visually, it almost appears to be a 16-bit creation, with nicely animated monsters, convincingly shaded background graphics, and advanced scrolling effects. Indeed, Kirby’s Adventure might represent the zenith of what was capable with stock NES hardware and standard cartridge mapper chips; a work of this scope and richness would have been unimaginable back when the NES debuted.

And yet, all the wacky monsters and sumptuous backdrops are nowhere near being the most impressive thing about Kirby’s Adventure. No, that honor belongs to Kirby himself. He had been a cute and fairly versatile hero on Game Boy, capable of sucking in air to fly and breathing in enemies to use as projectiles. Here, though, his suction powers became the key to an all-new skill set: The ability to transform. The Kirby we know and love today really began here, and the breadth of Kirby’s potential skills made him by far the most mutable 8-bit character in gaming.

By slurping down his foes, Kirby could now acquire that monster’s powers. From slinging fire to swinging a sword, half the joy of playing Kirby’s Adventure came from snagging different powers and hanging onto them as long as possible, and from tackling various obstacles and battles with a different suite of abilities. Kirby’s rare abilities in particular — the screen-shaking karaoke mic, for example — proved especially fun to experiment with. And the prospect of stealing super-charged boss powers made those end-of-world encounters all the more memorable.

Inspired by Mario, the 2D platformer ended up becoming one of the most prolific genres on NES. And no one faked Mario like Kirby.

Bubble Bobble
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2. Bubble Bobble

(Taito, 1988)

Bubble Bobble got its start in arcades and was ported to a number of systems at the time. Somehow, though, the NES version managed to rise above the rest. Despite graphics that looked as dated as its simple, single-screen design, this oddball relic from another era embodied everything the NES stood for.

For starters, Bubble Bobble developer Taito did a canny job of bringing the game to the NES. The coin-op’s clean visual style lost very little in making the transition to less powerful hardware — maybe the water effects weren’t as impressive, and some subtle shading went missing (as did the martini bonus item, to conform to Nintendo’s no-booze rule for its games). Otherwise, though, Bubble Bobble worked out to be one of the more faithful-looking arcade-to-NES conversions of the era. And the music, well ... the NES’s sound chip changed the tune from toothy FM synthesis to chirpy triangle waves, but it was no less an earworm for the transformation. The 60-second Bubble Bobble theme played behind all 100 stages of the quest, constantly looping with its relentless carnival theme, changing only to quicken the pace as a warning to the player to get on with solving the current screen.

What didn’t change was the sheer play value of the game. Bubble Bobble resembles the kind of simple early ’80s arcade game that had been spiked into obsolescence by Super Mario Bros. and its dozens of scrolling worlds. Yet there’s a lot more happening here than in true vintage coin-on like Kangaroo or Mappy.

Bubble Bobble gives its heroes Bub and Bob a unique power: They can spew bubbles. These bubbles are guided by distinctive physics, blasting forward a short distance horizontally before slowing and beginning a leisurely vertical ascent. An enemy struck by a bubble as it flies forward becomes trapped in the bubble. Once a bubble begins to drift upward, it can serve as a makeshift platform for the heroes.

In arcades, Bubble Bobble contained randomized elements that played off cumulative play time and factors that built up across multiple play sessions. These secret play factors kept things fresh and unpredictable. That communal element obviously couldn’t work on NES, so the developers tweaked the game’s hidden rules to insure the home experience could be as dynamic and surprising as the coin-op.

Most of all, Bubble Bobble remains so playable because of its emphasis on multiplayer. Indeed, it’s literally impossible to see the game’s true ending as a single player. Only by teaming up with another person can you hope to see the real finale — which neatly underscores Bubble Bobble’s theme of friendship.

Thankfully, Bubble Bobble truly is more enjoyable when played in tandem. The game reveals a gentle push-pull of cooperation and competition in this mode. You can conspire to trap enemies and create platforms for one another, but you’re also competing for high scores and the E-X-T-E-N-D letters that grant an extra life. Of all the two-player experiences on the NES, Bubble Bobble possesses the greatest depth and subtlety. It’s a disarmingly simple-looking game, but like the NES itself, its primitive appearance belies the fun it offers.

Super Mario Bros. 3
Jeremy Parish/Polygon

1. Super Mario Bros. 3

(Nintendo, 1990)

Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka defined the potential of the NES in its early days with Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Fittingly, then, their final statement for the platform established the high-water mark for the console. In terms of design, variety, creativity, and sheer polish, nothing on the NES compared to Mario’s third and final super 8-bit adventure.

Super Mario Bros. 3 took our hero back to his roots after the oddball outing of Super Mario Bros. 2. Still, he had clearly learned some tricks along the way. Though Mario 3 pushed things back toward running, jumping, and flinging fireballs in a timed rush to the end of each of its dozens of stages, the process of reaching those goals required a much wider palette of skills than in Super Mario Bros.

For one thing, Mario could now fly. Two new power-ups — the Leaf and the Tanooki Suit — allowed Mario to leverage his B-dash skill into momentum that would send him airborne for a few seconds. This opened up the design of levels to include all sorts of interesting hidden secrets and alternate routes. If you could find a flat stretch of ground long enough to build up Mario’s “P-Meter” flight power, chances were pretty good you could find some sort of reward for taking to the air. Maybe the prize would be a hidden 1UP. Maybe it would simply be a shortcut to the boss inside a castle. But there was never a reason not to fly.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Mario 3 gave players lots of great reasons to remain grounded. Not every new power-up enabled flight for Mario, and in some situations these offered much greater value than fluttering around. The Frog Suit made Mario a force to be reckoned with in the game’s many water levels, which were far more complex here than they had been in the original Super Mario Bros. And the extremely rare Hammer Suit gave Mario the ability to fling blunt objects into the air, just like the Hammer Bros. ... plus, the various kings throughout the realms Mario assisted just raved about the look.

As with classic Mario powers like the Fire Flower and Starman, old familiar enemies returned alongside many new foes. Goombas and Koopa Troopas roamed the worlds; now the former could fly or hop around in a wind-up boot, and Mario could pick up the latter’s shells to use as projectiles. In World 4, bad guys (and the environments) sometimes appeared at double-size as Mario ducked into doors that changed the scale of the world around him. Now-iconic threats like Chain Chomps and Koopa Kids debuted here, and big bad Bowser finally adopted an attack pattern more interesting than hopping up and down while spitting fire. Mainstays like indestructible skeletal enemies and bashful ghosts show up here for the first time, along with less common bad guys (such as the green dudes who barf up giant spike balls to fling at Mario).

Practically every single level of Mario 3 introduced a new element, challenge, or idea for players to come to terms with. Dodging hungry fish while the water table rapidly rose and fell. Navigating a maze of pipes. Evading the attacks of an angry sun in the desert. Sliding down the slopes of underground caverns while taking out swarms of fireproof bullets. Navigating Bowser’s massive convoy of military vehicles. Working your way to a hidden maze in the sky. Slipping along icy surfaces while using fireballs to melt power-ups free of frozen blocks. Collecting formations of bonus coins while riding mechanical platforms or plummeting footholds across auto-scrolling chasms. You never knew what each level would hold, only that it would require you to make use of your full suite of platforming skills.

And that’s not even getting into the countless bonuses and hidden secrets in the game. Mysterious conditions might cause an airship loaded with treasure to appear on the world map. Or maybe you could fall behind the scenery and find hidden warp whistles. Or take on enemies roaming the world map. Or compete with the other player (controlling Luigi) in a competitive homage to the original Mario Bros.

Best of all, it plays perfectly. The spot-on physics of the first Super Mario Bros. see even greater refinement here, expanding to accommodate the hero’s expanded array of powers. You can — for example — grab a block, duck back to run up and take flight, wing into the air, and launch your cargo as an air-to-ground attack against a hapless bad guy below. Really, the only thing Super Mario Bros. 3 does wrong is fail to provide players with a save or password feature, forcing them to play the entire game in one sitting. It’s difficult to find enough time to experience the entirety of such a tremendous game in one session! Good thing is the kind of game you want to play over and over again. There are bigger, prettier, and more challenging NES games. But there’s no other NES game that does everything as well as Super Mario Bros. 3. The game’s novelty and innovation have faded after three decades, but it’s no less of a masterpiece all the same: The zenith of NES game design.