When the Nintendo Famicom launched in Japan in July 1983, no one could have predicted that it would almost single-handedly revive video games in the West. The North American video games market was at the beginnings of the crash of 1983, brought on by a market flooded with what we would call shovelware today, and Japan’s video games race was just beginning between the Famicom and Sega’s Master System.
Buoyed by success in its home region, Nintendo’s launch of the NES in North America was a risky proposition at first – that is, until gamers and the general public got a taste of the system’s games.
Bringing a level of fit and finish not seen in the market before, Nintendo’s NES birthed genres and franchises during a lifetime in which it not only proved foundational for gaming as we now know it but also created more classics than perhaps any other system other than Sony’s PlayStation 2.
This means it is tough selecting only ten games to include in this list. That means this is in no way comprehensive, nor is it definitive. So many games could be here and so many deserve to be the best game on the NES for various reasons. Also towards that end, our list is comprised of NES titles so anything that was only released on the Famicom is missing.
Nonetheless, here are the 10 top games for the NES!
Capcom’s version of the Disney classic Ducktales manages to capture the look and spirit of the show without sacrificing gameplay, sound, or fun in the process. Disney games can be hit-or-miss affairs, but Capcom’s oeuvre on the NES typically knocked them out of the park – Ducktales being no exception to this rule. It even received a lesser-known sequel that is also a stellar game in its own right. Perhaps remembered fondly for its iconic recreation of the beloved cartoon series, Ducktales also rocked an amazing soundtrack that continues to be remixed and reworked by chiptunes enthusiasts even today. If you’re looking for platforming perfection outside of a Super Mario Bros. game, then you really can’t do much better than Ducktales.
9. Castlevania III
Castlevania III ditched the obscurity of its predecessor and eschewed the 90-degree angle difficulty curve of the series founding game for an immediately accessible experience that saw players take control of other characters for the first time. Trevor Belmont, recently starring in Netflix’s own Castlevania series, is joined by Sypha and Grant in his quest to stop Dracula during a journey that is set chronologically before the events of the previous two games. Featuring branching pathways and the series ghoulish atmosphere, this game was also the debut of Alucard, Dracula’s son, who would later become the star of his very own Castlevania game for the PlayStation, Symphony of the Night.
The NES was the birthplace of so many legendary series it is hard to imagine what life would be like today without them. One of those is Metroid, Nintendo’s Aliens-inspired space opera featuring female protagonist Samus Aran. One thing that gamers need to keep in mind when looking at the original NES Metroid was just how open the series was for an 8-bit video game. To top that off, the game is also somewhat esoteric. In a reverse of open-world games now, where a player can’t really do anything wrong, in Metroid you needed to follow a pretty set path that was obscure to you. Metroid is game design done correctly as it gives players a wealth of options while really only making a few viable at any given time. Want to get through that corridor but can’t get through? Maybe you can find an weapon upgrade to help you do the job. It is this kind of design that Metroid would continue on to the series magnum opus in the eyes of fans and critics alike, Super Metroid for the SNES.
7. Mega Man 2
Mega Man 2 wasn’t really supposed to be the roaring success it became, but it succeeded and established one of gaming’s longest running and most prolific franchises. Mega Man 2’s predecessor, while being a solid game in its own right, was not a financial success for publisher and developer Capcom. The team behind the game felt that Mega Man 2 might be the last chance they would have to make a game featuring the Blue Bomber, and they were probably right if it was a sales flop. Mirroring another game on this list, the team poured their soul into this ultimate effort, believing entirely it was probably going to be the last Mega Man game. As history now tells us, they were wrong and the game went on to become an iconic in design, bringing the best of graphics, gameplay, and music to a system that was attempting to differentiate itself from the dross of the Atari era.
For this entry, we are referring to Nintendo’s version of Tetris for the NES and not the Tengen unlicensed version from Atari for the same system. Originally developed in the Soviet Union for a computer called the Electronika, Tetris is now a puzzle game par excellence and considered by many critics and gamers alike to be the best game of all time. Everyone who is even remotely familiar with gaming knows how Tetris works, and the tetriminos (the shapes that make up the Tetris selection) are icons of video games in their own rights. Nintendo’s two versions of this game, for the NES and the Game Boy, are both notable for their quality and adherence to the spirit of the game. You see, there were a ton of versions of Tetris out there, but Nintendo somehow managed to make their version the definitive version. Catapulting the Game Boy to blockbuster success, Tetris on the NES was no less the classic for home systems.
5. The Legend of Zelda
Another game that established a long-running series, The Legend of Zelda on the NES is a foundational game for 8-bit video games. There aren’t many other games like The Legend of Zelda and those that are similar are typically deficient in some major way. Like most NES games, progression was tough and the difficulty curve steep, with much of the game unfolding as you happened to stumble upon it. The challenge of solving puzzles and figuring out what to do next in a world filled to the brim with fantasy was just a novel concept back then. Even armed with minimal lore, The Legend of Zelda relied upon your imagination to fill in the blanks – which it typically did. It’s a magical game and a touchstone experience for many gamers that owned the NES.
When gamers talk about “NES hard,” this is often the title they are referencing. Don’t get us wrong, everything else about Battletoads is top notch, but it really stands out on this list for offering a level of challenge rarely seen in games now. Unlike some other difficult titles on the the Big N’s 8-bit machine, Battletoads was a game you could get better at with increased play. Some games, like Gun Smoke, were just cheap as hell – still a challenge, but a cheap game nonetheless – while Battletoads rewarded mastery. This doesn’t mean the game won’t have its moments. It has those in spades. But with enough of a time sink, you can beat this game. Back in the day this is what would be called a high replay factor, but now might just come off as too difficult for its own good.
3. Super Mario Bros.
The game that launched the console, Super Mario Bros. is the cornerstone of most platforming games. Sure, Activision’s Pitfall helped establish the genre, but nothing was quite the tour-de-force that Super Mario Bros. on the NES was. This game did everything right and has few if any flaws – a tradition that the series continues to this day. Nintendo’s introduction to the bizarre mushroom-filled world of Super Mario Bros. also breathed new life into a market filled with games that had a sci fi element. Never hesitating to provide a challenge, Super Mario Bros. spawned a direct sequel in Japan that came to the West in the form of The Lost Levels on the All Stars compilation for the SNES. The game was too hard for American audiences and really flipped a lot of the previously established conventions on their head. Looking at it, a solid game in every way, it is not tough to imagine that, had Mario originally debuted in such a tough format, video game history might have turned out quite differently.
2. Final Fantasy
Like Mega Man 2, Final Fantasy was born out of what the development team thought were its last efforts for Squaresoft. Square had made quality games but never really enjoyed any widespread market success – that was, until Final Fantasy. Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons combat rules and thrusting players into a medieval fantasy realm, Final Fantasy was many players first introduction to fantasy conventions such as leveling and class-based combat. The game went on to become a blockbuster success and put Squaresoft on the map. Tough as nails with a bare minimum of story, Final Fantasy was considered an epic experience on the 8-bit machine. Also in keeping with other games on this list, Final Fantasy established many of the series’ conventions in this the first installment. But so monumental was its release, it not only established conventions for this series but JRPGs in general. Rivaled only by Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy is often what consumers think about when they think of JRPGs.
1. Super Mario Bros. 3
What happens when you take the formula that made the original such a classic and amp everything up to the next level? You can a classic that spans generations – or Super Mario Bros. 3 to be exact.
Taking everything that made the first game so amazing, Super Mario Bros. 3 adds tanooki suits nad themed levels to the mix for a quest that is an acid trip of Nintendo goodness. While Super Mario Bros. introduced the titular plumbers to the world, Super Mario Bros. 3 insured their place at the apex of gaming’s mascots. Not until Sonic the Hedgehog’s release on the Genesis would Mario ever be challenged for the crown of gaming mascot and you can thank Super Mario Bros. 3 for that.
The graphics are classic, the music is iconic, and the gameplay is legendary. An instant hit when it was released, Super Mario Bros. 3 has made its way onto each successive Nintendo console in some form or fashion since its debut. Easily the greatest game on the NES, Super Mario Bros. 3 is arguably the greatest Mario game or greatest game, or all three.