The Best NES Games Of All Time
In 1983, things in the video game industry went south. Home consoles were still seen as a bit of a fad, and though they were booming in popularity thanks to Atari and the Atari 2600, a flooded console market and constant releases of subpar or even disastrous video games made the market volatile. With the amount of software and hardware available, consumers were essentially split, creating a market where no one wanted to buy the games being put out by the market. With the rising market of personal computers, analysts were reporting that the console market was dead, and when the Atari versions of both Pac-Man and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial failed to sell even close to what predictions had originally planned, the bottom fell out of the gaming industry, seemingly killing it for good.
Things likely would’ve stayed that way if not for Nintendo. By 1985, video game consoles were already being forgotten about as a fad, when Nintendo finally launched its Famicom console in the United States, more than two years after its launch (and success) in Japan. Renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES) in the United States, Nintendo worked hard to market the NES not just as another console two years too late, but as a full-blown entertainment device. This tactic, combined with the official licensing of third-party developers by Nintendo and the “seal of quality” stamp placed on every NES game sold, helped to create a consumer trust in Nintendo’s brand. Suddenly, two years after being seemingly killed by Atari, video game consoles were back and better than ever.
Though Nintendo’s business and marketing tactics with the NES were a huge reason why the system sold so well, it also helped that the games were better than they had ever been before. Nintendo has a thirty-five year history of developing incredible video games, from the original arcade Donkey Kong to the Mario and Zelda series, and all of those had some hand in the NES’s success. Thirty-plus years after its release in the United States, the Nintendo Entertainment system is still looked at by fans and newcomers alike with glee. While it would eventually be succeeded by the Super Nintendo, the NES had some incredible games that still hold up today—so much so, that Nintendo released a NES Classic two years ago, selling out every model they had made and eventually bringing back both the NES Classic into production, and creating a SNES Classic last year.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the twenty best games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Through a mixture of classic game design, old-school visuals and music, and yes, a healthy dose of nostalgia, all twenty of these games hold up today in some form or fashion. Whether you’re trying to recapture the magic of your youth, or you’re a younger game who wants to revisit the old classics, here are the twenty must-play games for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Fans can argue day and night about whether Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World is the better Mario game, but one thing’s for sure: Super Mario Bros. 3 is absolutely the best game on the Nintendo Entertainment system. An all-time classic and a must-play for any gamer, SMB3 is a groundbreaking title, with a gorgeous visual design aesthetic and features that would be carried through endless successors and influence every forthcoming Mario game, up to and including last year’s critically-acclaimed Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch. So much was added in this game that would eventually become series staples, from the overworld map showing stage selection to a wider range of power-ups, including the legendary Tanooki suit, that it’s impossible to overstate how much of an effect this game had on this legendary series.
With a wide variety of worlds and stages, complete with different themes and visual designs, the inclusion of hidden secrets within the level to encourage exploration, and the first appearance of the Koopalings as world bosses to defeat before reaching Bowser in the eighth and final world, Super Mario Bros. 3 takes the cake and absolutely ranks as the best game on the Nintendo Entertainment System. While our entire top five—especially The Legend of Zelda and Metroid—manage to give this game a serious run for its money, we simply can’t take away the fact that Super Mario Bros. 3 is a masterpiece and one of the greatest games of all time.
The backstory surrounding the original Legend of Zelda, at this point, has become lore infused within the series. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto—the same man behind Mario, Donkey Kong, and Pikmin, among other series—wanted to create a game inspired by his childhood experiences of roaming around Kyoto, exploring fields, woods, and caves behind his house. The Legend of Zelda follows a young boy named Link who sets out to save Princess Zelda from Ganon, the Prince of Darkness, by retrieving the fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom. To do so, he’ll have to explore the fields, caves, and ruins of Hyrule, an expansive fantasy land where mystery and the possibility of death lurks behind every corner of the world.
It’s hard to overestimate how important The Legend of Zelda was for video games in general. Though the series isn’t considered a role-playing game, it did set a benchmark and help establish the genre as a whole, thanks to its focus on exploration, hidden secrets, and fantasy-based combat. Released in Japan in 1986, it was one of the earliest console games not to feel like an arcade game at its core. In fact, you can thank the original Zelda for essentially inventing the save system, as The Legend of Zelda was the first console game to ship with a battery-powered RAM slot to allow for saving your game at all. The Legend of Zelda is certainly a dated entry in the series, but its imperfections helped to eventually refine (and in the eyes of some, perfect) the adventure game in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Whether you’re a newcomer to the series or looking to explore this legendary saga’s roots, The Legend of Zelda is a must-play.
Imagine what it must’ve been like to complete Metroid for the first time in 1987, when the game was released in the United States. In a pre-internet era, it was impossible to know much about the game, despite the fact that Metroid has been available in Japan since 1986, so when you finally beat the game—in under five hours, of course—it was revealed to you that Samus, the masked character you’d be playing as for hours now, was in fact a woman. It seems silly now, but that was groundbreaking at the time, with Metroid representing one of the first times a female character has been playable in a major video game.
Metroid isn’t only notable for its twist ending, of course. The game is a significant step in the action-adventure genre of gaming, a side-scrolling open-ended world that requires the player to spend time exploring the entire arena. While both Super Metroid and Metroid Prime took the series in new directions, Metroid established the basic core of the series that still holds up today: the idea of exploration and discovery. The game was wildly influential, both in terms of the directions taken by its sequels Metroid II (on the Game Boy) and Super Metroid, but also influencing Castlevania, the series developed by Konami. The combination of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Metroid gave birth to the Metroidvania genre, one of the most popular and important hybrid genres in gaming today. Without Metroid, there’d be no Ori and the Blind Forest, no Hollow Knight, and perhaps most notably, no Dark Souls.
Six Mega Man games were developed by Capcom for the NES, making it one of the largest lineups of games on Nintendo’s first home console. While they’re all solid games, there are definitely some that rank better than others, and there’s nowhere that’s more obvious than with Mega Man 2. While we shouted out Mega Man 3 below for its excellent progression in the series, we’ve chosen to honor Mega Man 2 as our favorite in the classic lineup of these first six games for an obvious reason: it’s the one that takes the promise of the original Mega Man and ends up innovating like crazy.
Everything here is improved from the original: the visuals are better than ever before, the soundtrack is an all-time classic, the score system has been replaced by a password-based save system, and the core gameplay has been refined to the point of being easy to pick up and easy to learn. While some fans will argue that Mega Man 3 deserves to be considered the best game in the original series, we have to admit that Mega Man 2 remains one of the all-time greats on all fronts. If you’re new to Mega Man and you want to try out one of the games before the launch of Mega Man 11 this fall, you’ll need to check out Mega Man 2. To this day, it remains the highest-selling Mega Man game of all time.
Generally speaking, 8-bit RPGs have held up worst than almost any other genre available on the NES. It’s not the genre’s fault—the RPG is one of our favorite genre, and the JRPG especially holds a special place in our heart. Instead, the problem comes from the simple fact that RPGs made a major, major advancement in the era of the Super Nintendo. From Final Fantasy VI to Chrono Trigger, Earthbound to Super Mario RPG, Secrets of Mana to Illusions of Gaia, there are so many all-time RPG classics on the SNES that looking back to the RPGs on the NES make it a tough buy. Making it harder was the huge amount of Japan-only releases for RPGs. Only one of the three NES Final Fantasy games was even released in the United States (and it hasn’t held up well at all), and games like Mother didn’t see a release in the West until years later.
So, take it with a grain of salt as we recommend Dragon Warrior III (known in Japan and in general, modern conversation, as Dragon Quest III, as Dragon Warrior was the US name for the series until 2005), which, despite its title as our favorite RPG on the NES, is still an 8-bit RPG. Spread throughout two worlds and with, no joke, over fifty hours of gameplay (unheard of for most NES games), Dragon Warrior III is a great entry-level RPG if you’re looking to play exclusively on the NES. There’s a class system, a full party system to allow you to select up to four members to fight with, and a solid story to keep you entertained as you work to save your world—and others—from Baramos, a dastardly villain set on full destruction.
We kick this list off with an odd entry, one that is sure to make a select few of our readers scratching their heads. Looking at Nintendo’s history of their most popular franchises makes it obvious that the company has a habit of going in wild directions for second entries. Zelda II switches to a side-scrolling action-platformer, Metroid II was released for the Game Boy and is more of a horror game than a traditional Metroid platformer, and Super Mario Bros. II…well, it’s barely a Mario game. Originally released in Japan as Doki Doki Panic, SMB2 is a departure from the original title, including Mario as a playable character but adding Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad as playable characters. While plenty of enemies and items return from the previous game, Bowser is nowhere to be seen, as Mario faces a new, lesser-known threat: Wart.
Developed by Konami, Contra is a classic in the side-scrolling shooter genre. Set in the distant future, Contra is somehow an ode to 1980s action movies while also having the benefit of actually having come out in 1988. With box art designed and inspired with Predator in mind, Contra will be loved by anyone with an affinity for difficult games, 80’s action-schlock, or run-and-run entries in the platforming genre. Contra is also well known for being one of the first games with the Konami Code, a famous entry of directions and button presses that allows you to unlock thirty lives. Trust us when we say you’ll need them, as Contra is incredibly difficult and challenge. While it’s a fun challenge, we need to place the emphasize right there: it is a challenge.
Sports games are a mainstay of gaming, and there aren’t many NES sports games you’ll find that offer a better mixture of fun and challenge that that which is found in Punch-Out!!, originally released in North America as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. An early third-person action game based around boxing, you enter the role of Little Mac, a small time boxer who begins fighting his way up through the ranks of challenges, fighting bosses like Glass Joe, Piston Honda, Great Tiger, and either Mike Tyson or Mr. Dream, depending on the release you end up playing. With a full game system of dodging, counters, blocking, and punching, Punch-Out!! still holds up today as one of the great early boxing games. Keep an eye out for a cameo from Mario as the referee in each fight!
Continuing the already-confusing saga of Super Mario Bros. 2, we have Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, a game originally released in Japan as, you guessed it, Super Mario Bros. 2. This game actually predates the North American port of Doki Doki Panic, and was originally a Japan-exclusive until 1993 when it was released in a special Mario collection for the SNES. The Lost Levels is nearly identical in tone and design to the original Super Mario Bros., but with one major difference: the game is much, much harder than most are probably used to seeing from Nintendo. That bump in difficulty is the cause for the game not being released in North America, but Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels did introduce plenty of changes in how the series worked. From the inclusion of Luigi as his own player (with his now-signature slippery feel making its debut) and dangerous objects like poison mushrooms, The Lost Levels is a must-play for any Mario completionist.
It’s tough to recommend Zelda II to anyone but the series’ biggest fans, thanks to how weird this game happens to be. A complete departure from the original game, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is a side-scrolling RPG, a far leap from the top-down action-adventure game the original was. Once again, the player takes up the role of Link, who is focused on rescuing Princess Zelda, who has fallen under the curse of a sleep spell. One of the few direct sequels to a game in the series, Zelda 2 does add quite a bit of new content that has become staples in the main series, including a magic meter. Still, the game remains an oddity, influencing little of the sequels outside of the Capcom-developed Game Boy games, which included side-scrolling elements mixed with a traditional combat system. Fans of the series should check this one out, but keep in mind that it’s considered the dark horse of the series.
Kirby’s Adventure is the second game in the Kirby series, following its debut on the Game Boy. Kirby’s Adventure was released late in the NES’s lifespan, which helped to produce one of the best-looking games ever released on the NES, thanks to the development team’s in-depth knowledge of the console. For those unfamiliar with Kirby gameplay, it’s pretty simple: most of the gameplay consists of platforming, boss fights, the occasional puzzle and the ability for Kirby to inhale enemies and copy their abilities. If you’re a fan of Kirby’s gameplay, want to get started with it, or just see how amazing this title looks for an NES game, Kirby’s Adventure can’t be missed.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is considered the pinnacle of the NES Castlevania series, focusing on side-scrolling action stages with branching paths based on how you finish the stage. If you’re into side-scrolling adventure and action (like in a lot of Zelda II segments), Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse will likely offer a lot of the gameplay you’re looking for. However, it’s worth noting that Castlevania III isn’t exploration-focused like other titles in the series, so don’t buy this game expecting a classic Metroidvania experience. Castlevania III is a prequel to the original game, making it a great start for anyone looking to jump into the long-running series.
When it comes to side-scrolling beat-em-ups, there’s no better series on the NES than Double Dragon, a fantastic entry in a basic, albeit now mostly defunct, genre of arcade-style games. In Double Dragon II: The Revenge, players are tasked with avenging the death of Marion, the girlfriend of Jimmy Lee and Billy, two brothers who escaped the last game with their lives intact. Despite its similarity in name to the arcade original, the 8-bit port of Double Dragon II is quite a bit different from the original, featuring a new co-op mode. With an expanded story, new moves for each of the players, and an excellent ending, Double Dragon II: The Revenge is a must-play game, especially for fans of River City Ransom.
Following the original arcade Donkey Kong and the follow-up Mario Bros., Shigeru Miyamoto took his series to the all-time greats by creating Super Mario Bros., a legendary, all-time great platformer that represents one of the best games on the NES. Mario is one of gaming’s most iconic legends, and Super Mario Bros. represents where it all started. While it was absolutely surpassed by one of its NES sequels, Super Mario Bros. is a rite of passage for many gamers. A challenging platformer with Goombas, Piranha Plants, warp pipes, and of course, Bowser himself. This game is legendary for a reason, and it’s absolutely worth trying at least once. While it isn’t the best game on the NES—or even the best Mario game on the NES—it’s absolutely a must-play game.
Kid Icarus is an adventure game wrapped in themes of Greek mythology, occasionally forgotten in modern gaming outside of a solid 3DS game from 2011 and Pit’s appearances in Smash Bros. With those appearances, interest in the Kid Icarus series has resurged, so you may find yourself interested in playing Pit’s first game. If you do, expect an extended adventure for sacred treasures, three boss fights against the guardians of those treasures, and a final boss fight against Medusa. Depending on your performance, you may also get a different ending, one of the first games to provide certain advanced players with new content depending on their choices and actions.
Wielding the NES Light Gun peripheral, you’ll be able to take your unholy vengeance against pesky ducks in what’s technically one of the first first-person shooters out there. The gameplay is as simple as aim and shoot within the time frame you’re given each round, but it’s pretty great fun nevertheless. However, it’s important to note that this game will not work on HDTVs. The NES Light Zapper requires an old-fashioned CRT display for its hit detection to work properly. If you’re using a modern TV, you won’t be able to play this game without using some crazy emulation tactics. Still, Duck Hunt is a blast to play, and absolutely worth trying if you can.
The first of two Mega Man games to grace this list, Mega Man 3 continues the series’ solid lineup of games on the NES by iterating on the gameplay first seen in the first two entries of the series. There’s plenty to love about both Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3, with how they helped to establish series traditions and paved way for later Mega Man games on the SNES and in the Mega Man X series of titles. For those who played Mega Man 2 and are looking for something more, or found Mega Man 2 to be too easy, Mega Man 3 presents an excellent challenge and an exciting take on the action-platforming series. Above all, however, Mega Man might be best remembered for introducing fans of the series to Mega Man’s canine sidekick, Rush.
The original Russian puzzle game, Tetris marks the first time gaming software was exported from the Soviet Union to North America, and what a game it was. Tetris has been released, re-released, and remade on virtually every system imaginable, but the NES version remains one of the best. Tetris is a simple game, one that is perhaps too simply to describe in great detail. The basic steps followed to defeat the game has you lining up the Tetrominoes to clear each line, unlocking a “Tetris” when you clear four lines at once, the absolute maximum possible. The game is still loved and appreciated today, though its availability on so many other platforms may make it a tough sell overall for the NES specifically.
Bionic Commando is a side-scrolling action shooter with a catch: a bionic arm! Using the bionic arm, you can grapple across pits and scale walls. It’s a pretty simple mechanic, but a popular one that set the stage for a number of grapple-based movement mechanics in later titles and still serves as great fun to use in this title. Additionally, the game’s story is completely insane. At least the non-American version. In Japan, this game is about killing a resurrected Hitler. There’s even a graphic at the end of the guy’s face exploding, which is utterly hardcore by NES standards! While you aren’t fighting Hitler in the American version, you’re still fighting a guy that looks a lot like him, with villains that resemble Nazis. It’s a crazy game, but one of the first of its kind, which makes it a must-try for anyone interested in wacky stories. The game was remade and rebooted last console-generation, and is available for PC.
Excitebike is an early racing game developed by Nintendo for the system. While primarily a 2D side-scroller, Excitebike allows you to jump between planes during the race and use ramps to make sick jumps. If you can make it through the track while controlling your acceleration and evading enemies, chances are you can probably make it to the end in relatively quick fashion. It’s a simple game, but a fun one. Newer ports even add a multiplayer feature, which adds significantly to the game’s replayability. Excitebike has been dormant for a long time, but you might want to pick it up after playing through the Excitebike-themed stage in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.