Video game systems have certainly come a very long way, with modern graphics, online multiplayer, and tons of other functions that gamers of the 70s, 80s, and 90s couldn’t have even imagined would be possible. Still, it’s always fun to take a look back, and it’s hard to forget the NES.
While Pong was technically the first push to accelerate video games to the state we have today, the Nintendo Entertainment System helped define what a home console could be, and was one of the most definitive pieces of hardware of all time. The console’s controller shaped the evolution of the gamepad for decades to come, and it’s hard not to love everything about the box-shaped masterpiece.
These days, retro seems to be very in, with devices like the Nintendo Classic giving folks a healthy dose of nostalgia — if they can get their hands on it. If you’re up to take this trip down memory lane with us, strap in. It’s going to be a lovely ride. These are the 15 best NES games of all time.
Super Mario Bros. 2
While Super Mario Bros. 2 was not the first Mario game to be released on Nintendo’s definitive console, it is certainly one of the most memorable. The second iteration of the popular franchise allowed players to switch between four different playable characters, each with special strengths and weaknesses. The colors and themes introduced in the title are some of the most definitive of Mario as a brand, and its hard to give an opinion on the series if you have not spent some quality time with this title.
Interestingly, Super Mario Bros. 2 was not initially meant to be a Mario game at all.
Development started around a 2-play co-operative side scroller, which was rebranded to tie in with the Fuji Media Technology Expo. The characters and enemies in the game were meant to be representative of that event. After the regular Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan was found to be too difficult after extensive play testing, Nintendo converted the side scroller into Super Mario Bros. 2 for release outside of Japan, and the Japanese version became known as Super Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels around the world.
The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda series has evolved a lot over the years, and even recently took a massive leap forward with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But at the core, it’s always been an epic adventure game with a simple premise: save the princess and defeat Ganon (with a few exceptions). Part open-world, part guided adventure, The Legend of Zelda set a trend for how the series would evolve over the next couple of decades. The system of finding dungeons across the land and scavenging them for the next big weapon has persisted throughout most of the series, and has become its own sort of genre as well.
The game was released in Japan as Hyrule Fantasy: The Legend of Zelda 1, but was just labeled as The Legend of Zelda in other parts of the world. Due to its legendary status and overwhelming popularity, the game has been officially ported to both Game Boy Advance and Gamecube, and is also available on virtual console on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS.
Metroid is a side-scrolling adventure game that is based around re-claiming the parasitic aliens called Metroids from space pirates. The game is technically a side-scroller similar to Super Mario Bros., but allows you to go back and find special rooms that enable power ups for the main character, Samus Aaron. This gameplay mechanic is one of the first examples of physical progression with power-ups, which lets you access certain areas of the game after you gain certain abilities. At the start of the title you can only use your power beam and jump, but later on you are able to do things like use rockets and get special armor that allow access to new places. These mechanics have persisted throughout the history of the series, and have become beloved by many gamers over the years.
The series has become one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises over the years, and the original game has been ported to Game Boy Advance as well as the Nintendo Wii virtual console. The game was also one of the first to introduce alternative endings based on the speed of completion, making it extremely popular among speed-runners. The player only finds out that the protagonist is a female if they complete it within 5 hours, leading to one of the first female protagonists in video games.
Excite Bike is one of the first racing games available to consumers, though it did not utilize the now popular ‘Kart Racing’ style that we all know and love today. The game was one of the 18 launch titles available for the NES, and utilized a number of interesting mechanics like overheating to keep players from continuously holding down the gas.
While this game is mostly based around speed and beating your previous best time, it is greatly beloved by players around the world. It helped to define the racing game genre, and introduced mechanics like tricks to gain points. It was released on the Nintendo e-shop in 2011, and had a playable demo in Super Smash Bros: Brawl.
Kirby’s Adventure was not the first Kirby game ever created, but it was one of the most influential. The game introduced the sucking mechanic that would eventually become a crucial part of the character’s persona, and gave players special abilities based on what the player decided to suck up. The title used a multi-directional platforming for level design, which has persisted throughout almost all Kirby games to date.
The game was released just two years before the NES was discontinued, but it quickly became a classic and one of the most recognizable games on the system. The title received critical acclaim across the industry, and is known as one of the best in the series. The game also introduced the antagonist of Meta Knight, which has persisted throughout the series and also made appearances in games like the Super Smash Bros. series.
Super Mario Bros.
It’s impossible to make a list of the best NES games without mentioning the original Super Mario Bros. The game started a franchise that would quickly become one of the most recognized of all time, and spawned more spin-offs than almost any other franchise ever. It helped introduce the side scrolling platformer, and restricted the player from moving backwards in the game to promote a high-strung “in the moment” style. The game also introduced the gameplay style of moving around worlds and zones to play different levels with different terrain and enemies, which would follow the series throughout history.
While the game was technically a sequel to the original “Mario Bros.” arcade title, it is known as the spiritual original, and set high expectations for the future of the series. The title allowed the player to play as Mario’s brother Luigi for multi-player turned based play, which utilized both controllers on the NES to set a precedent for “Player 2” gaming in the future.
While this game is not exactly the deepest in terms of lore and plot, it’s arguably one of the most fun multiplayer games on the console. Balloon Fight is all about landing on your enemy while flapping your arms to rise around the stage, and has 2 different modes for the user to choose from. The main 1/2 player game mode is the primary meat of the title, tasking 1 to 2 players to knock out all the various balloon fighters on the stage. The second game mode is called ‘Balloon Trip’, which quickly whisks the players across the stage while avoiding obstacles and collecting more balloons.
Some of the most memorable moments I have are my sister and I playing this game at my grandparent’s house, and it is definitely optimized as a party game. It was re-released via the Gameboy Advance e-reader in 2002, and has been beloved ever since.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced a number of new abilities that made Mario even more fun such as the Tanooki suit. This, among a huge amount of other changes, made the game stand out and was easily the most advanced among all the Mario games on the NES. The title is widely known as one of the greatest games of all time, and helped spread the popularity of Mario far and wide.
The popularity of the title was so vast that it spawned a TV show titled The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3. as well as a swift sequel just 2 years later. This game also introduced Princess Toadstool as the main “damsel in distress” in the series instead of Princess Peach, and spread the game across 7 different worlds. It became the third best selling NES game of all time, and was ported to Game Boy Advance as well as virtual console on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Zelda II is a direct successor to the original title, yet it introduced a huge number of gameplay changes that the original title did not have. The game used side-scrolling gameplay which departed from the consistent overhead view from The Legend of Zelda, and also introduced a very different fighting system similar to Castlevania.
Unlike the original game, Zelda II also introduced the Magic Meter and experience points, which added a sort of strategic gameplay element to the title. Link uses his experience points to increase his magic meter and available life force, which helps to advance through the game after a bit of grinding. Many of the gameplay elements in this title were never carried forward though other Zelda games in the series, but rather defined Zelda II as a unique experience altogether.
Castlevania is one of the first games on the NES to be modeled after real-life folklore. In the title, the player plays as Simon Belmont, who wields a magic whip to destroy the vampire Dracula. The gamelay utilizes the side-scrolling style and is divided into six stages of three levels each. The game spurred an entire line of games that have come after it, but is known as one of the most definitive. It was so popular that Super Caslevania IV for the Super NES is modeled after the original title.
Many titles have come after the original, but none had the same appeal as the first. The title is known as one of the best NES titles ever released, and has attracted some die-hard fans over the years.
Mega Man is a platforming title that tasks the player to move forward in order to destroy the six evil robot warriors and Dr. Wily who controls them. Each time the player destroys one of these main 6 robot warriors he is able to take their signature attack and use it throughout the rest of the game. Because of this, the player has all the different skills from the different bosses by the end of the game, which adds a very progressive element to the game.
The game was not a commercial success, but has been critically acclaimed around the world. Much of the commercial failure has been said to be attributed to poor marketing in North America, though its sequels have found much more success than the original.
Contra is one of the first “run and gun” titles released for the NES, and it is also known as one of the best. Up to 2 players can play the game at the same time, running though the jungle with large guns and shooting down enemies. The title employs a number of different perspectives in order to tell the story, which was very different for game of that time.
The game felt a lot more like a multi-player arcade game than a console title, since it focused on action and excitement over story. It spurred a number of sequels that aimed to emulate the original feel, but the first Contra title is known as one of the all-time best in the series. The game is also known as being extremely difficult, and was rated by IGN as the most difficult game to complete of all time.
You can’t really make an NES Best-list without Tetris. The game was one of the first never-ending puzzle titles to be released on the platform, and was also the first game to be exported from the USSR to the United States. Because of it’s simplistic gameplay and versatility, the game has made its way to almost every computing platform ever created, and has become the standard for endless puzzle titles. Thousands of variations of the game have been produced over the years, with each acting slightly different from the next.
The score of the original title is known as one of the best video game scores of all time, being reprised in a variety of different games, concerts, and movies. At the time of writing, there are three different Tetris movies in production, which will likely make their debut sometime in 2017. The spread of the title is nearly endless, and you’ll find it difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard of the series.
Punch-Out!! is a boxing game released in America as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! It was the first title to introduce Little Mac to the world of Nintendo, who inspired the same character in Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U. While the title may not be the most realistic in terms of boxing fundamentals, Nintendo opted to focus on arcade-style fun.
The game was originally an arcade game which was ported to the NES, though it had to be rebuilt quite a bit in order to work for the play style of the new system. In the original version, the player is wire-framed in order to see the enemy on the flat screen, but the NES port opted to make the main character quite short as to add depth and allow the enemy to be seen more easily. It is often referred to as one of the greatest NES games of all time, and is playable through the NES port in Animal Crossing.
Final Fantasy is a title that grew so popular it spawned sequel upon sequel. Now up to 15 at the time of writing, the original Final Fantasy is known as one of the most influential in the series. The game played out as a sort of open world title which uses turn-based gameplay to move the player through the story. There are a variety of different transportation methods used in the game, which was quite different for titles at that time.
The title is based on a class system of which the player can select four to use throughout the duration of the title. Because of this mechanic, the game will play out differently each time is is played, adding quite a lot of variety and replay value. It is one of the most popular titles sold for the NES, and sold 700,000 copies in the US alone. Spin offs and mobile games have all spawned from the series, making it one of Square Enix’s most popular series.
While we obviously couldn’t include every game in our best NES games list, we tried to represent the best of the best. Do you think there are any titles that would fit better in this list? Let us know in the comments below.