I made a video about my Top 20 favorite NES games of all time a while back. But if you missed that, here’s a write up! I figured it would be a good way to kick off my new blog.
One of the most popular questions I get is what my favorite NES games are. You would think I would have made a list long ago, but favorites can be hard to choose. I guess I haven’t done it before because the NES has one of the most heavily documented and widely talked about libraries in retro gaming history. There’s no way most of these picks aren’t going to be fairly obvious to most of you. To be perfectly clear, with this list, I’m not trying to say that I think these are the best, they’re just games that I personally love.
One final thing, these are the ones I’m picking at this moment in time. If you would have asked me 5 years ago, or 5 years in the future, my list could be somewhat different. Tastes change as time passes, and as my knowledge and experience increases, so do my opinions. Okay, now onto the list!
20 – Palamedes
Immediately, I’m starting with what’s probably a surprising pick. But I absolutely want to vouch for this game because it’s a fantastic little puzzler. I only recently played this game while filming James & Mike Mondays. And I was taken back by how good it is. As a longtime veteran of the NES console, finding a gem like this nowadays is a rare treat for me. You’ve probably never heard of it because the title sucks. Hey, marketing is important!
Palamedes just isn’t a good name for a puzzle game. The concept is simple and fun, and it deserves a place alongside classic puzzle games like Dr. Mario and Tetris. The fact that not a lot of people know about it makes me especially fond of it. I can understand if you’d choose Dr. Mario over this one. But I just like that it’s that hidden secret game that only you and your friends know about. And all of you reading this now, I guess.
19 – Bucky O’Hare
As a kid I was a giant fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Another series around that time that wasn’t quite as popular was Bucky O’Hare.
Though the cartoon had more of a cult status, the NES game it got was amazing! In the game, you’re on a rescue mission, and as you free your captured friends you build an ensemble cast of playable characters that are fun to use. Blinky can hover, Jenny has an energy ball, Willy has a charged shot and Deadeye Duck can climb walls similar to Grant in Castlevania 3. The game has an awesome soundtrack, flawless gameplay, and plenty of challenge, which keeps me revisiting it over and over. I’ve never found it easy, and I’ve never found it anything less than a satisfying experience. The fact that this is a really good game based on a very obscure cult franchise makes it very special to me.
18 – Krazy Kreatures
Krazy Kreatures is another obscure but fantastic puzzler. This game cracks me up. The screen is constantly filling with animals and you’re frantically trying to clear them. It’s ridiculous mayhem, it’s fast-paced and it’s addictive. It’s also really satisfying when you complete a really long row of symbols.
As you get to the later levels, you need full concentration to stay alive. Unlike beat em ups where you can talk to your friends, this co-op mode will have you so deeply engaged, you won’t be able to do anything other than focus on the game itself. One thing I have to note is that you have to play this game with another person for it to reach its potential. When the game gets really intense, there’s something funny about two people getting intensely serious about matching up cat icons.
This game serves as a reminder that just because some games had to bear the mark of shame of being an Unlicensed NES Game, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some really good ones.
17 – Kung Fu
I don’t subscribe to the notion that games need to be long in order to be good. There absolutely is room in your life for a fun, brief and tightly-paced game now and then, and Kung Fu is a great example. This game is programmed really well. The hit detection is perfect, and defeating enemies just feels really satisfying.
One nice thing about making a short game is you can cram in a lot of variety, and Kung Fu’s definitely got it. If you really want to pour yourself into this game, the game loops after you beat the final boss and gets harder every time, so you can play it as a score-attack game if you’re so inclined. The ending is kind of upsetting, you rescue your girlfriend and you both share a cute hug. It says “Congratulations Tom and Sylvia! But their happiness does not continue long.” They might as well have said “Sylvia has been temporarily un-kidnapped! Lasting peace is unattainable!”
16 – Tetris
Tetris is a game that probably has more versions across more platforms than any game in history. So why would you want to play the NES version over the others? If you’ve ever had a desire to play Tetris and looked around for which one to play, you’ve likely encountered a lot of terrible versions. A lot of them have crummy graphics or controls, or the music and sound effects suck, or they introduce gimmicks that don’t make the game better. I’m not against mobile games, but there’s no way you can possibly make a good Tetris game with a phone touchscreen. Anything besides a good d-pad is really not suitable to play Tetris with. NES Tetris, alongside the GameBoy version are what you want to reach for when you want a pure, perfect Tetris experience.
You’re playing it on an NES, so you have a perfect controller to use for this kind of game. The graphics are good, the sound is good, everything about it is solid. One common feature in modern Tetris versions is the ability to hold a piece and save it for later. This game doesn’t have that, and if you’re used to piece-holding, you might think this version sucks. On the other hand, let’s face it, piece holding is a crutch. It’s designed to make the game easier. NES Tetris is a rock. It’s always going to be a good game no matter how times change or how many versions of Tetris come out. This is the version of Tetris that will stand the test of time.
15 – Kirby’s Adventure
I don’t think there can be a more “feel good” game than Kirby’s Adventure. It was made by HAL laboratories, and they knew exactly the market they were catering to. This is an easy going, soothing game aimed towards players that were most likely turned off by Ninja Gaiden.
What makes the game great is being able to absorb the powers of your enemies and experience new ways to play. Kirby’s Adventure is less about trying to find the most optimal strategy and more about choosing what powers you enjoy using the most. The previous game in the series, Kirby’s Dream Land on GameBoy didn’t have the power copying feature, so Kirby’s Adventure was a sequel that drastically reinvented the game and made it immensely better. If only more sequels could pull off what Kirby’s Adventure did.
Also, the game is just beautiful to look at. The backgrounds and sprite animation are all appealing and some of the best the system had to offer.
This isn’t a very hard game, especially considering you can float over nearly everything if you want to. I’m the type of gamer that is usually looking for a challenge. But not everything has to be hard as nails for me to consider it a good game. This is the type of game I play if I don’t want to be stressed out, but still have a really good time. It’s so colorful and happy, it’s really impossible to play this and not have a smile come to your face.
14 – Solomon’s Key
Solomon’s Key is about a Wizard named Dana that has to make it through a series of dungeons using a magic wand that can create and destroy blocks. This is an incredibly difficult action-puzzle game that is often overlooked, probably because of the difficulty level.
On each level you’re supposed to get a key, which unlocks the door to the next room. By creating blocks you can protect yourself or create a path. The layout of each room is different and they gradually get harder and more intricate.
Getting through each room requires some planning, so this isn’t a game you’re going to get far in quickly. You can pause the game and the screen stays up (unlike Tetris) so that’s one way you can get a lay of the land without the timer running down. If you do try this game out, when you get a game over be sure and hit UP, A and B together to continue from where you left off. You’ll need it. You basically have to figure out how to get through each room and gradually make it a little further each time. Even when you figure a room out, you still need to be able to execute your plan, which requires fast thinking and even faster reflexes. This is without a doubt one of the harder games on the NES. But the important thing is, even if you aren’t very good at the game, it’s still a lot of fun to figure out these logic puzzles anyway. It had a follow-up called Fire n ice in the US, and Solomon’s Key 2 in the rest of the world which is also excellent.
13 – The Adventures of Lolo
As you can already see, I love the puzzle genre, and Lolo is one of the best puzzle games of all time. This game defines what puzzle games are all about. The game has a mask to it, of being really colorful and cutesy, but it’s anything but that. This game will gut you inside and out, especially as you move to the later sections. It does require a small amount of reflexes, but it’s much more about your ability to figure out the correct way to complete the room.
Honestly, I think this is a game that should be used in schools to teach kids problem solving. Lolo is good for the mind the same way crossword puzzles are. It’s an excellent title and even has a few sequels which are also just as good. People talk about the TMNT trilogy for NES a lot, but not so much the Lolo trilogy. TMNT 2 and 3 require no thought. I love them, but you can be totally braindead and play those games. The Lolo games are way better.
12 – Jackal
Looking for another great Co-Op game for the NES? Look no further than Jackal. This was a very well done game made by Konami where you drive around a Jeep that can fire a machine gun or shoot grenades. Like most Konami games of the time, the music is very catchy.
As you go through the levels you blow up the little huts to rescue soldiers. If you save a general you get an upgrade to your weapon so that you can shoot missiles. This is excellent because the burst goes out in all directions which helps kills enemies. Though usually when I am playing I often stick to the grenades. It may be a personal preference but I think they work better.
There are continues to the game but they are limited. So the game is tough but it’s not impossible. One of the funny things is that besides shooting enemies, you can run them over which actually comes in handy pretty often. Each level ends with some giant boss you have to fight and they’re all creatively designed with different weak points to figure out. Again, this probably would not make my list as a single player game. But as a co-op experience, it doesn’t get much better than this.
11 – Castlevania
Of all the games that have been mentioned by Cinemassacre, Castlevania has to be one of the games we’ve discussed the most. You take a game intended to be an homage to classic horror movies and monsters which lets you take control of an awesome badass with cool weapons, throw in an amazing soundtrack and make the game extremely difficult, and it’s almost like someone made a game specifically for me.
Castlevania is another one of those games that I like because it’s rewarding to beat something that’s so challenging. But on top of that, the gameplay is fun. I didn’t include Ghosts ’n Goblins on this list, which is also a horror side-scroller. And that’s because I find that game to be more of a chore than anything else. I’m able to beat it, but I don’t really consider it all that fun. Where Castlevania is hard but fun to play at the same time. The term “NES Hard” gets talked about a lot, and I think if you want to introduce yourself to the concept, Castlevania is a good place to start. The game is very tough, and you’ll die a lot, but the game is very well designed. It’s not a punishing, unfair experience like so many tough NES games like the first Ninja Gaiden game. I think some people skip the original because the graphics are admittedly a little ugly, especially by the rest of the franchise’s standards, but this is definitely not the Castlevania game to skip.
10 – Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
This is where I have to remind myself this isn’t a review of each individual game, because I can literally talk about this game all day.
As you probably know, this is a very controversial game. Many people hate it, while others love it. I personally love this game to death. I remember the first time playing it being pissed off that it wasn’t like the original. They totally flipped the core-gameplay of the first Zelda on it head and made it something entirely different. And I think that’s what gives people a sour taste in their mouths. That and the fact that this is a very tough game. There are much harder games on the system for sure, but this is no walk in the park.
This game introduced so many awesome things that have remain staples of the Zelda franchise. Links downthrust and the Palace music are things I couldn’t imagine not being in Super Smash Brothers.
They took away the puzzle solving aspect, which is the main element I love about the original and Link to the Past, and turned it into a side scrolling action platformer. You would think that would just ruin everything, but they did such a good job designing this that it actually works.
Another thing that I love about this game is how Dark it is. I don’t think there is any other Zelda game as scary as this one. This game is the polar opposite of the vibrant cartoony style many of the later games leaned towards. This is basically Zelda in hell, and I love it.
I still hold out hope that someday we’ll get another side-scrolling Zelda game. Perhaps they could take the fun side-scrolling action we see in Zelda II and add back in the traditional elements of the franchise, such as puzzle solving and finding gadgets.
9 – Contra / Super C
You knew a Contra game had to be on the list. But the great debate is if I’m going to pick Contra or Super C? Honestly, it’s the same deal as how I feel about Star Wars. How can you watch New Hope without watching Empire Strikes Back? Both of these games are amazing, and I think equally as good.
They both provide an endless source of enjoyment because you can make the game harder on yourself by trying to beat it with less lives. There’s obviously the famous Konami code which allows you to get 30 lives. But trying to beat the game on 3 lives or less is a totally different ballgame.
The controls in this game are perfect. Everything is as responsive as you could hope for. Jumping between bullets and having those near-death moments makes the experience exhilarating.
The designers also were smart enough to give the game variety with the perspective. The levels change from Side-Scrolling to Top-down and even a quasi-3D look. This keeps everything fresh, and keeps the player engaged throughout. It should also be noted, when the angle changes, the game is just as good as it is on the side-scrolling stage you start out on. They took care to make sure the gameplay was good, no matter what mode you are currently in.
8 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
This is one that may be surprising to some people because there was an AVGN episode about it. And that episode still rings true, because this IS a flawed game. The biggest example being that awful sewer jump.
But flaws aside, I think this game has way more going for it than it has negative aspects. First of all, the music. This game has some of the most rocking tunes on the NES. They really went above and beyond with the soundtrack. The gameplay itself is fun and satisfying. Switching between turtles and using their different abilities depending on what situation you’re in at the moment was a novel concept for the time.
Though it is missing a few characters like Krang, honestly it DOES include most of the main characters you’d want to see like Shredder, Bebop, Rocksteady and the Technodrome.
The game is also really hard, which is something I admire. They weren’t afraid of giving kids a challenge, and while it’s tough, it isn’t totally impossible. Once you learn to collect scrolls, it becomes quite a bit easier.
TMNT the Arcade Game and The Manhattan Project are both games that get tiresome to me. Don’t get me wrong, I like them. But this game is way more innovative than either of those.
7 – Mega Man 2
There were 6 Mega Man games released for the NES. But, this is the game that belongs on this list.
Mega Man 2 is the game we have to thank for the entire rest of the franchise, because it was a stunning commercial success while the original one had some issues. It’s easy to see why, because this game is a masterpiece.
I feel like I should probably spend this segment arguing why it’s Mega Man 2 on the list rather than why a Mega Man game is on the list. Which is hard, because a lot of the things it does well, several other NES Mega Man games do also.
The easiest argument to make is the music. No Mega Man game can beat this game on the soundtrack. Even minor menu music and password theme songs are some of the most beloved and revered songs in game history. Not a single song in this game is anything less than perfection.
Mega Man 2 has Metal Blade, which is arguably the most powerful weapon in any Mega Man game. I’m sure Capcom later saw having one really useful weapon upgrade as a design flaw, because they proceeded to make most weapons in subsequent games so weak you just go back to using P shooter for the entire game. Metal Blade makes the game FUN, and the game is still plenty challenging even if you’re using it. What’s wrong with being powerful? Just compensate by making the levels harder. Other Mega Man games seem more obsessed with trying to make their weapons fit a goofy theme instead of giving you something you actually want to use.
Oh wow, I have a gun that shoots a SNAKE. Thanks! Sure am glad I’m playing Mega Man 3 instead of 2 and I can pop snakes out of my arm instead of tossing impossibly awesome sawblades everywhere.
Mega Man games often strive to design levels around the weapons you collect, but Mega Man 2 did it the best. Crash Bomber opens up shortcuts, Leaf Shield takes out swarms of enemies, Time Stopper freezes the world for those inconvenient moments when the entire world itself is trying to kill you. Bubble Lead easily lets you detect false platforms, (which, by the way, would have been really useful to have in Castlevania II). And Metal Blade is your reliable bread and butter.
Or, you can play Mega Man 3 instead. I could go either way.
6 – Super Mario Bros. 3
I love the original Super Mario bros and could easily choose that for this list. However, Super Mario Bros 3 added so much more to the experience that it really just took what the original game did and brought it to the next level.
I personally find Super Mario World to be quite a bit easier than this game, and I really like that Mario 3 isn’t afraid to test your skills, especially throughout World 8.
Mario 3 was the first truly huge platformer game. If you know anything about the limitations of the NES hardware and its cartridges, Mario 3 seems bigger than it should be.
This cartridge is crammed full of levels and fun stuff to find. This game was a tremendous value at the time with the amount of content it has, and it’s still a very robust title even by modern standards. This is something you’re going to want to play through multiple times, because you’re not going to see everything the first time you run through it.
The definitive way to experience this game is with 2 players. You don’t play with the other player on the same screen, you take turns playing levels. This may seem like an out-dated concept, but I think that’s just because games just happen to not be doing this kind of co-op anymore. It’s still a good idea. I think YouTube and Twitch have proven that people are just fine watching someone else play a game for a bit.
Super Mario Bros 3 is the strongest example of why 2 players taking turns is fun because each player is completely untethered to the other one. You’re both moving around this board game type world, getting into your own adventures. You’ll be stuck on an ice level while your friend is off in some other completely different crazy world with giant monsters. You’ll be just as engrossed watching your friend play as you are worrying about your own progress.
The thing that really makes me want to revisit Mario 3 again and again is the challenge. There are some pretty tough levels here that require several tries to get through, but nothing ever gets too insane to make it for hardcore players only. This game is sure to give you a good time.
5 – Batman
The Arkham series of games lets you live out everyone’s fantasy of being Batman, but the NES Batman game is the only one that lets Batman live out HIS fantasy of being the best wall jumper in the universe.
Sunsoft’s Batman is a really interesting anomaly in gaming. When you play it, the controls feel very precise and satisfying, but they’re also incredibly different from almost every platformer. Batman does a short crouch before he leaps into the air, which you would think would be annoying but it actually just feels really nice because it makes the game feel like it has weight. This game just feels really nice.
You jump with A, you push against a wall, you press the A button again, Batman pauses briefly to turn around and then he jumps off the wall in the opposite direction. Behold, the greatest wall jumping mechanic in game history, and this game has brilliant wall jumping puzzles because of it.
Not enough games have utilized these same wall jumping mechanics. In 30 years since this game was released, the only game that really comes close is Shovel Knight’s Spectre of Torment, which is amazing I should add.
Punching is really fun because you can wail on the button and obliterate enemies quickly. Batarangs are great because you have to use the strategy of positioning Batman the right distance away from the target to hit them at the apex of its arc to score extra damage.
The point I’m making that when a game has excellent controls and then the levels are built to make use of those excellent controls… it’s really difficult to have a bad game at that point.
Other highlights… I think Sunsoft’s Batman has the best color composition of any NES game that exists. The entire game is bright, vibrant colors of every hue against black backgrounds. It’s a rainbow of darkness, and that’s awesome. The game is gorgeous and somehow simultaneously does both the movie it’s based on and the comics justice at the same time.
Also the music is insanely good. And it’s really challenging in good ways. I need to cut myself off before I talk about this game for an entire hour.
4 – Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!
Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! is a game with pretty wide appeal, and it’s not difficult to understand why so many people like this game. It’s got simple controls and its trial-and-error gameplay is perfectly complemented by a masterfully designed learning curve.
Punch Out! succeeds because it makes almost no attempt to be a realistic boxing simulator. It certainly has all the elements of an exciting boxing match, throwing and dodging punches, the teeth-gritting struggle to whittle down your opponent’s strength, and the breathless suspense of the knockdown count, but at the end of the day, this game is a straight up cartoon version of boxing. And that’s what makes it fun, it’s a video game first.
Each character is memorable not just because of their visual design or dialogue, they live in your memory as a series of iconic attack patterns and signature moves. This game is a wonderful example of how video games as an art form can create characters based on how they behave and how it feels to interact with that behavior. Everyone remembers Bald Bull’s charge just as much as they remember Bald Bull himself.
30 years later, being able to defeat Mike Tyson is still one of the most widely respected video game achievements. Everyone who considers themselves a gaming connoisseur should definitely have that notch in their belt.
3 – Ducktales
I’m sure you’re not surprised that I have Ducktales on my list, but you may be a little shocked at how high on the list I ranked it. And that’s mainly because this is just a game that makes me happy. From the second I pop this game in, to the time I beat it, I enjoy the experience.
Every time I start this game, I am instantly transported back to the late eighties when the most important thing on my mind was The Disney Afternoon.
You could say I’m wearing nostalgia goggles choosing this one. But I’m going to say I have on quality goggles because this game rocks.
The Moon level music is regarded as one of the best tracks on the entire console.
( And for the record, I think my favorite NES tune is actually the title music for the Goonies II game. Though that game isn’t very well received. )
Beyond the music being iconic, the game itself is Capcom at it’s finest. The pogo-jump at the time was ground breaking. So good in fact, it inspired the primary move for Shovel Knight, one of the most successful indie games of the last several years.
Now I have to admit, I am a huge fan of the Scrooge McDuck character. I grew up reading all the original stories by Carl Barks. You should definitely go read those, you will be amazed at how good they are. Trust me on this one.
I had to ask myself if that fact slanted my judgement on this being such a great game. But with that said, I know many others rank this game very highly as well, so I can’t be too off base.
Like most Capcom games from this era, it is very well executed. They were one of the best developers for the NES, and this was one of their strongest titles.
2 – Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom
I’ve always loved the Ninja Gaiden games since I was a kid. When I was young, I only owned the original and was never able to beat it. Regardless, it was always one of my favorite games for the system. And I think that’s mainly due to the controls. It has to have the most perfect feeling controls of any side scrolling action game ever. Everything you do is satisfying. Wall jumping, flipping through the air, slashing at enemies and using magic attacks just all feel perfect.
While I love the first game, it has a lot of flaws. There were annoying sections where enemies would respawn too easily, or just really poor enemy placement in certain areas. Also, the last level of the game is infinitely harder than anything else so I feel like it was unbalanced.
The Ninja Gaiden series had the modest goal of letting 80s kids live out the fantasy of being a ninja, and the third installment is where this dream was truly realized. Ninja Gaiden 3 fixed all of the issues of the previous installments and retained the same great gameplay. It also has perfect enemy placement and level design. When you get good at this game, it just all feels seamless. It’s this high on my list because I just have fun every time I play it. I find myself drawn to this game, always wanting to play it over and over.
Before we get to number one, I do want to mention Metroid. I do love the game, but I prefer having a map available, so I’ve always leaned towards Metroid: Zero Mission for Game Boy Advance. That’s why Metroid isn’t on my list if you’re wondering.
There are many other games I love for the system, Double Dragon, StarTropics, Life Force and many others. That’s the tough thing about making a list like this. There’s still plenty of great titles out there. But let’s get to my number one..
1 – The Legend of Zelda
I’ve talked about how The Legend of Zelda is my favorite game of all time quite a bit. It’s pretty much part of my identity at this point, and I’m perfectly fine with that because this is and will always be one of the most important video games ever made.
I invite you to consider Zelda with some historical context. Sword and sorcery games had certainly been attempted prior to this point, but they really hadn’t hit the mark in ways that audiences really craved. Something was always missing, something was always off. When this game came out, it was doing many things that no game had successfully executed before, and things we always hoped games eventually would. Our fantasies finally came true.
This is a game that tosses you into a vibrant, unique world and lets you explore it any way you want. And when you explore, you get rewarded with things you actually enjoy finding. This was an adventure game where treasures aren’t just useless trinkets that give you points, they’re new toys to play with that open up new possibilities and make you more powerful.
The game introduced puzzle solving to advance through dungeons, and that’s the aspect I like the most. I have a natural fondness for puzzle solving, same reason I really love Adventure of Lolo, but putting puzzle solving into the context of an adventure game is like mixing peanut butter and chocolate. They’re better together.
This game is so brilliant that every generation of the games industry since look back to it for inspiration and reference. We’ve seen so many game since strive to capture Zelda’s mechanics of finding upgrades that allow you to access new areas, or solving puzzles to advance through a level. Even today, developers are looking back to The Legend of Zelda again and finding more aspects of it to try to live up to, such as the modern push for more open ended exploration and letting the player get lost instead of holding their hand.
This little gold cartridge is the Holy Relic of video gaming.
Also, you have to consider my personal history. Prior to Zelda coming out, I only had played arcade games and Atari 2600. Atari games in particular trained me to make up my own story for the game in my head, and Zelda was an entire world for me to do that in. It blew my mind, and was the exact game I was looking for. And, it still is.
This game has stayed my number one throughout the years because of the additional challenges that are possible with it, like doing a 3 Heart only challenge or a swordless run. And even more recently, there is the Zelda randomizer. So it seems the fun that can be had with the original Zelda is endless.