The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) single-handedly authored the future of videogames with its US nationwide release in 1986. Its North American platform development between 1983 and 1985 saw decisions that determined the fate of console gaming for decades to come. Not many realise the console almost released in North America as an Atari product, but a last-minute contract dispute over exclusivity that arose from Donkey Kong’s presence on the Colecovision console at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1983, combined with a later executive shakeup at Atari, forced Nintendo to ultimately release a console on their own. This gave breathing time for a redesign of the Japanese Famicom toploader system into an NES that would mirror popular tape decks of the time with a frontloading system that was more appealing and interactive. This series of events would inform Nintendo’s corporate viewpoint going forward and gave birth to the company name being synonymous with gaming and gaming exclusives.
Today, the NES is possibly the most legendary console of all time. It has a massive catalog of games spanning racers like RC Pro-Am to puzzlers like Tetris, and even niche ports like Bubble Bobble. The collector market is healthy and the console even appears in backgrounds of newsrooms and livestream personalities. Ranking the 10 best NES titles of all time is a huge undertaking, but we’re ready to feature the best of the best for your enjoyment. For inquiring minds wanting to know, we did limit franchises like Super Mario Bros. to one entry each on the list. Otherwise our top 10 would probably end up as a redundant Mario and Megaman stream of consciousness.
10. MIKE TYSON’S PUNCH-OUT!!
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! really has everything. It’s one of the early examples of celebrity game endorsement, has great graphics with huge onscreen characters, features fun gameplay, and has an obligatory appearance by Mario himself. The scaling difficulty of the game is fantastic, and although obviously a product of a bygone era, Punch-Out!! is still really fun to play today.
The word is probably overused, but Metroid is truly epic. With hordes of fans today eagerly awaiting the new side-scrolling release on Nintendo’s Switch console, 2021 is really the perfect time to revisit this classic. This scifi shooter that (sometimes annoyingly) requires players to traverse a winding map searching for powerups to unlock new locations is one of the first games to feature a female protagonist in Samus Aran. The game also has varying endings based on completion time making it one of the earliest titles to be popular for speedrunning. No matter how fast you do or don’t complete the game, the game is an absolute blast! It has the holy gaming trinity of good sound, great graphics, and tight controls. Metroid really earned the devoted fanbase it sports today.
8. CASTLEVANIA III: DRACULA’S CURSE
It’s fitting that this entry from the popular Castlevania series lands near Metroid on our list. The gameplay of both franchises actually spawned the title Metroidvania in gaming culture to describe the niche games like Hollow Knight fill. Acknowledging this, the Castlevania series has a very different look and feel than Metroid. In general, the gameplay is a little slower and the narrative far more gothic. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is regarded as the best entry on the NES console due to diverse ways of navigating the game with the addition of companion characters. Gamers new to the series via the popular Netflix animated series that are interested in exploring the game’s roots could definitely use this as a starting point.
7. NINJA GAIDEN
Selecting a single Ninja Gaiden title to appear on a list is a chore. Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is regarded by some as the best in the series. It expands the game mythology and has a slightly more even scale of difficulty across the game than its predecessor. That said, the original Ninja Gaiden is, in some ways, far more iconic. The degree of challenge in the game is memorable, and despite being one of the most frustrating games of all time to play from a difficulty perspective, it’s that same phenomenon that brings players back again and again. The memorable levels are seared into the brains of players and if you’re remembering 8-bit Ninja Gaiden there’s a good chance it’s the first instalment that has captured your attention. The truth is, if you’re diving into the world of the NES, you should absolutely play both Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II. But if you can only play one, this is where it all started.
6. HUDSON’S ADVENTURE ISLAND 3
The Hudson’s Adventure Island games on NES are underrated classics. Did they borrow from our dear friend, Mario? Possibly. Did they inspire anything about Turbo-Grafx 16’s Bonk? Maybe. Did Mario borrow elements from these titles for later SNES iterations? It could be. (We’re looking at you, Yoshi.)
Hudson’s Adventure Island 3 is the best of the NES releases in the series and definitely feels like a unique mix of original ideas with a little Mario and Bonk thrown in. It would be up to developers of the time to talk about what synergies do or don’t exist between the games, but acknowledging all of them is probably the best way to describe the gameplay to series newcomers.
There’s big characters, a bright color palette (think T&C Surf Designs – another great game), a healthy amount of challenge, and the most important factor for a game to be on this list: FUN. All of the Adventure Island games are worth playing, but if you must limit yourself, you can’t go wrong with this third installment.
5. DUCK TALES
Disney released several incredible titles for the NES. Duck Tales, Mickey Mousecapade, and Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers are all classics in their own right. They even spawned competitive releases from the folks at Warner Bros. in the form of games like Tiny Toon Adventures that had a similar look and feel to the Disney games.
The Disney games all have solid sound design, eye-catching graphics, and every one of them was fun to play. Duck Tales is the entry that earned a remastered version in 2013, however, and is the game that really separates itself from the pack. This is due to a combination of factors. Duck Tales is a very challenging game, but the challenges feel manageable as player skill in the game advances. The game also has cool secrets within levels and they are integrated in a way that felt conventional for the time period the games were originally released in, so scouting levels for secrets feels very organic in this game. Most importantly, though, this game had the best synergy with the product Disney released on television. Narratively, Duck Tales the game feels like an episode of the popular cartoon program.
Disney games were quality during this time and this is another scenario where it’s worth playing all of them. But if you’re looking for the quintessential experience, boot up Duck Tales.
Contra does everything right. It’s a successful arcade port to the NES that does an incredible job of both feeling like the arcade game and also feeling like it belonged in the Nintendo ecosystem. The gameplay has tight controls and the game action is fast. The title spawned a bevy of side-scrolling shooters across multiple generations of console hardware, but Contra integrated some gallery shooter gameplay to give it superior pacing to many of its successors. Even the box art for the game is legendary. Last but certainly not least, the presence of the iconic “Konami Code” is there to seal the deal on this one.
While not as graphically impressive as its arcade counterpart, something about the scaled-back graphics makes the game experience feel cleaner. There’s actually an argument to be made for the sound design being more successful on the NES platform too. As such, the NES release seems to have held up as the definitive version of the game.
3. MEGA MAN III
The Mega Man franchise of games on the NES are incredibly consistent in look and feel as well as playability. These games are definitely a brand with a recognizable experienced attached to them. This rock-solid consistency makes it difficult to parse out the best game of the series for a listing exercise such as this one. We turned an eye toward narrative to decide this one, and Mega Man III gained the edge with the introduction of Proto Man. The seemingly random appearances of the character, combined with being unsure if he was hero or villain, managed to build real tension through the fast-action gameplay in Mega Man III.
You’re probably tired of reading it, but you guessed it! All the NES Mega Man are totally worth playing. Mega Man III is arguably the definitive iteration on the NES.
2. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA
It’s fitting The Legend of Zelda contains the word legend. Literally everything about this game is legendary.
Players in 1986 were struck by the matte gold box containing the latest RPG to hit consoles. That wonderment only increased when they were greeted with the polished gold cartridge inside the box. There was nothing else like it. Even later tries in console gaming, like the red cartridge for the Maximum Carnage game couldn’t quite recapture the feeling of the first foray into premium physical distribution. Best of all, this glorious gold cartridge wasn’t even a limited edition. Nintendo knew it was selling something truly special.
You can argue some of the secrets in the game, and even some of the hidden spots the plot requires the player to visit, aren’t spelled out well enough in the game dialogue. This was the exact kind of game, in fact, that would drive players to call a Nintendo Game Counselor via the pay-per-minute line advertised in the Nintendo Power magazine players were already paying for. If you were or are currently mad about that, more power to you (pun intended.) The rest of us will be in the other corner complaining that Nintendo Game Counselor isn’t still a job and talking about how awesome The Legend of Zelda is.
The Legend of Zelda is everything. It introduces the iconic character Link. It has every RPG element imaginable in the game from weapons to quests to loot. The theme song is an earworm even today with countless covers available on YouTube to enjoy. There was even an animated series that shared a timeslot with the Super Mario Bros. Super Show that has its own following via Link’s tagline “Well, excuuuuuuuuuuse me, princess!” The Legend of Zelda has everything players enjoyed with traditional D&D titles like Pool of Radiance but with a decidedly Nintendo spin that makes it more accessible to players of all ages.
There’s really only one game on the NES that’s more iconic than this one. And that is…
1. Super Mario Bros. 3
Mario is Nintendo. And he never looked or played better on the NES than he did in Super Mario Bros. 3. This game was so big it spawned its own hype movie starring 80s icon Fred Savage called The Wizard, which still has a dedicated cult following today thanks not only to the Mario 3 reveal ending, but also the shameless Power Glove promo during the film. “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.” Was the line “so bad” or was the Power Glove? The world may never know. Super Mario Bros. 3 was so big, in fact, even small town Wal-Mart stores were running high score contests for the game around its release.
Super Mario Bros. 3 challenged the 2D archetype with environments the player could sometimes run behind, but more importantly it introduced gameplay elements that would define the series, including costumes that granted certain player abilities, storage of powerup items, and a family of Koopa villains for the player to face.
With a dedicated following that still performs speedruns and a modding community that still releases new levels for the game, Super Mario Bros. 3 is really the pinnacle of the NES in terms of both technical prowess and fun.
The NES console really refined and defined gaming at home, paving the way for a future of console gaming that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The development cycle and success of the NES shaped Nintendo’s outlook, too, forming a company ethos that is still unique in the gaming industry. Nintendo is always doing its own thing, and we’re totally here for it!
What are your favorite NES games? Let us know in the comments below.