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After the video game crash of 1983, it was going to take something seriously effective and innovative to change the public’s hearts and minds about gaming. That something came in the form of Nintendo’s NES, or Nintendo Entertainment System. By packaging the console as an “entertainment system”, Nintendo sidestepped the idea that it was “just” a gaming console, but they also managed to release some of the best and most influential games ever made for the system. Let’s take a look, in no particular order, at the top 25 best NES games of all time.
1. Super Mario Bros.
It doesn’t get much more influential than this. Super Mario Bros might not be the first ever sidescrolling 2D platformer, but it codified the genre, spawning a legion of imitators and jumpstarting one of the world’s most lucrative and enduring media franchises. Of course, none of that would have happened if Super Mario Bros wasn’t also just a darn good game. Its tight design, killer soundtrack, and sheer simplicity cemented it as a classic.
2. The Legend of Zelda
Speaking of influential…The original The Legend of Zelda holds up remarkably well today thanks to its open-ended design. From the off, you can go anywhere and do anything in this game (although you’ll probably want to get the wooden sword before you set out). This game’s free-form, hands-off approach to exploration heavily inspired 2017’s Breath of the Wild, too.
Metroid is lonely, atmospheric, and intense. Unlike later games, which would focus more on Samus’ personal story, the original Metroid for NES is all about the world itself; cold, unforgiving, and hostile. You must navigate it as best you can, unlocking a series of powerups that will allow you to reach more of it and finally exterminate the titular Metroids for good.
4. Super Mario Bros. 3
The central conceit of Super Mario Bros. 3 is theatrical; the game opens with a curtain being pulled back, and in some levels, you can physically drop “behind the scenes” to unlock secrets. That conceit gives the game a surreal, dreamlike quality, so while you’re experiencing some of the best and most responsive platforming the gaming world has to offer, it always feels like there’s something else on the edges of Mario 3’s world.
5. Mega Man 2
There are several Mega Man games on NES, but none of them are quite as accomplished as Mega Man 2. There’s a huge concentration of iconic stages in this game – Flash Man, Air Man, Wood Man, and so on – and the run-and-gun action has never felt so smooth. Mega Man 2 can be a little on the difficult side, but it’s no less rewarding for it.
As Simon Belmont, Castlevania tasks you with entering Dracula’s castle and divesting it of its inhabitants. In this tough, precise platformer, you’ll encounter lots of iconic horror monsters – Frankenstein’s monster, a giant bat, a mummy – and battle them using your whip and a series of sub-weapons. The deliberate pace of Castlevania was a clear influence on Dark Souls and its sequels.
7. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
We’re going to skip over Castlevania II, because while it was an admirable experiment, it failed in too many areas to be truly worth a recommendation. Instead, move on to this superior sequel, which returns to the linear stylings of the first game rather than embracing the open-endedness of Simon’s Quest. With multiple playable characters and paths to take, this one’s endlessly replayable, too.
8. Final Fantasy
The game that birthed a legend. Final Fantasy was named for the gamble it represented for developer Squaresoft (or so the legend goes), but nobody at the studio could know it would kickstart one of the most successful JRPG franchises of all time. Many of the most iconic Final Fantasy elements – the main theme, the victory theme, and many monsters – got their start here.
Back in the days of the NES, licensed games were more of a gamble than they are now. Instead of uniformly being mobile gaming cash-ins, they were often platformers or something riskier. DuckTales went one step further by actually being a pretty darn good platformer. As Scrooge McDuck, you must explore levels and raid them for loot, all the while using your bouncing pogo stick to launch yourself across gaps and onto enemies.
10. Duck Hunt
How many people bought a NES Zapper just to play Duck Hunt? It felt like magic when you pointed the gun at the TV, fired at a duck, and watched it fall in real time. Duck Hunt doesn’t work on modern displays, because it used a specific quirk of cathode ray tube TV technology in order to register hits, and that’s a real shame. There’s an immediacy and a tactility to Duck Hunt that hasn’t been matched since.
Here’s an underrated gem for you. If you’ve never checked out StarTropics, we’d recommend giving it a go. It’s an adventure game in which you’ll explore top-down dungeons, solve puzzles (many of which are fiendish indeed), and unfold a surprisingly sweet story about young high schooler Mike Jones. This game was originally notable for being packaged with a physical letter the player had to read to progress!
12. Batman: The Video Game
The main reason Batman: The Video Game succeeds is largely because it’s got very little to do with Batman. It’s supposed to be based on the 1989 Tim Burton movie, but there aren’t many elements in common (aside from a climactic showdown with The Joker). What there is, however, is some extremely tight, vertical platforming action, with the Caped Crusader nimbly hopping between hazardous platforming challenges.
13. Blaster Master
By modern standards, Blaster Master’s genre mixing looks a little more conventional, but in the days of its release, it was rare indeed to see a game mix top-down adventuring with sidescrolling platforming. With non-linear gameplay, several levels to master, and a mixture of on-foot and vehicular play, Blaster Master was a great way to kill a few afternoons with your NES.
14. Mother / EarthBound Beginnings
The original title of this quirky NES RPG was simply Mother, but after Mother 2 was localised in the West as EarthBound, this game was re-released as EarthBound Beginnings. You can tell it’s EarthBound’s forerunner; it has the same warped, twisted lens of American culture viewed through Japanese eyes, and it’s got the same lurching, thrilling tonal shifts between comedy and horror.
It’s remarkable what developers managed to achieve despite the relative limitations of the NES. Excitebike successfully simulates motocross-style racing, complete with stunt jumps and the sense of urgency and speed that a project like this really needs. The music is iconic, of course, but what’s surprising is just how much fun Excitebike still is to play.
16. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
There are two versions of this game: one with Mike Tyson and one without. Both of them feature a ladder of iconic fights along the way, though, so whichever one you’ve got, you’re a winner. At its core, Punch-Out!! is a game of reflexes and observation; you’ve got to watch what your opponents are doing and react to it accordingly, delivering your own blows as punishment.
17. Ninja Gaiden
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Ninja Gaiden is hard. It’s punishingly, brutally, painfully, hair-tearingly hard. It’s also rewarding in the extreme. This isn’t your typical Souls-style difficulty; there are no infinite respawns here, no summoning friends or NPCs to help you through the tough parts. It’s just you, your ninja tools, and a series of some of the hardest challenges ever committed to cartridge.
18. Maniac Mansion
Maniac Mansion is the precursor to LucasArts’ classic adventure game Day of the Tentacle. It takes an innovative approach whereby you explore the titular mansion with multiple protagonists, solving puzzles using each of their unique abilities. Different paths will open up depending on what route you take, making for some seriously impressive replayability.
The NES handled simple concepts well, and Contra represents the apex of that philosophy. In essence, it’s a very straightforward game: you (and potentially a buddy) must blast your way through a series of enemies and the aliens overseeing their operations, and to do so, you’ve got access to a huge arsenal of ridiculous weaponry. Contra cemented a legacy of run-and-gun fun for the series.
20. Dragon Quest IV
While there have been a number of translations and updates since Dragon Quest IV originally launched in 1990, this version still maintains a rough-and-ready charm. Rather than taking on the role of a single protagonist, you play as several heroes, each with their own chapter to play through before finally meeting the main character. Otherwise, it’s classic Dragon Quest: warm, comfortable, and familiar.
21. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
There’s a good chance that including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on this list is going to give someone flashbacks. This is one of the hardest games ever created for a console that’s renowned for its difficult games (to the point that “Nintendo hard” has passed into the cultural lexicon as a phrase). There are many infamous levels in this flawed genre-bending masterpiece; “the” water level, “the” truck level, “the” sewer level…the list goes on.
22. Bionic Commando
Bionic Commando’s controls will almost certainly feel stiff and awkward at first. It’s a platformer where your main mode of transportation isn’t jumping, but the grappling hook that is the game’s unique selling point. After a little while, though, you’ll figure out how best to optimise your grappling hook movement, and at that point, Bionic Commando becomes an intricate dance of mastery.
23. R.C. Pro-Am
Nintendo owes a lot of its livelihood to this creative Rare title. R.C. Pro-Am was one of the first racing games of its kind to give the player power-ups to gain an advantage over opponents; you could use bombs, oil slicks, and other methods to derail your enemies and gain the lead. With over 32 tracks of mayhem, R.C. Pro-Am is a clear and undeniable influence on Mario Kart.
24. Kirby’s Adventure
The jury’s out on whether Kirby is adorable or horrifying (hint: it’s both), but one thing’s for sure: his games are severely underrated. Kirby’s Adventure was the first game in which everyone’s favourite blob gained the ability to absorb the moves of his enemies, a trait so iconic to the series that it’s a wonder it wasn’t introduced with the first instalment on Game Boy.
25. Life Force
There was a point at which Konami ruled the roost when it came to shooters, and Life Force represents arguably the apex of that time. It’s technically a Gradius spinoff, although that doesn’t really matter given that narrative isn’t exactly a focus here. What matters is that Life Force sports creative level design, insanely satisfying shooter action, and an endlessly varied arsenal of crazy weaponry.