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The 100 Best NES Games

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One of the hottest products last holiday season was a tiny box that played a bunch of videogames from 30 years ago. Something like the NES Classic doesn’t become impossible to find merely out of nostalgia; its popularity was a testament to the enduring triumph of the best games released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the Nintendo Entertainment System saved the entire home videogame industry. After the videogame crash of 1983, the console was essentially dead, and the arcade reigned supreme. A glut of poorly made games for the Atari 2600 killed the marketplace as the industry lost billions in revenues in just a matter of months. It was so bad that retailers notoriously had little interest in carrying Nintendo’s new console when the Japanese company launched it in America in 1985. They had to bundle it with a robot and a toy gun in order to get their system, which they named the Nintendo Entertainment System, on toy shelves instead of in the electronics department. The NES quickly became a defining part of 1980s culture, converting millions of kids into lifelong videogame fans, reestablishing the industry as a multi-billion dollar concern, and convincing some parents that every subsequent videogame system, no matter who made it, could be referred to simply as the Nintendo.

Of course it wasn’t the hardware that made every kid want a Nintendo 30 years ago. It was the games. As a developer, Nintendo’s legacy of quality was established even before the NES was released, but it quickly grew after such games as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3 were released for the NES. That core of Nintendo classics was bolstered by reams of top-notch third-party games, from such acclaimed publishers as Konami, Capcom and Tecmo, to form perhaps the deepest roster of games ever seen on any videogame console. Let’s explore that library together as we look back on the 100 best games released for the NES. It’s basically a history class in list form.

100. Rampage

Although not an ideal port, this got the basics right enough that nobody could really complain. It’s got overgrown beasts just beating the hell out of some skyscrapers, while also trying to swat away helicopters and stomp on tanks. It’s just more proof that aimless violence can be cathartic for all ages.—Garrett Martin


99. Track and Field II

Combining the splash page close-up action shots of Double Dribble with the button-mashing fury of the original Track and Field, this 1988 sports omnibus was a crucial postscript to the 1988 Seoul Olympics for every starry eyed kid who loved videogames and Greg Louganis in equal measure.—Garrett Martin


98. Clu Clu Land

Don’t listen to those who pooh-pooh the Clu Clu. There’s nothing else like it in the history of videogames. Where else do you race through a labyrinth to uncover gems that form a picture all while being chased by Pac-Man-ish ghosts? —Jon Irwin


97. Ikari Warriors

Amid a sea of Commando clones, upon its 1986 release to arcades, Ikari Warriors carved an identity of its own with a unique two player mode and the inclusion of rotary joysticks. Sadly, the latter did not make it to the NES port in 1987, but Ikari Warriors was well received on home console nonetheless. —Holly Green


96. Gun.Smoke

Why thumbs were created. And you’ll use ‘em, since this Western gunslinger sim is a punishing riff on the “vertical walking shooter” sub-genre. Find your horse, upgrade your weapon, and dodge a hailstorm of bullets and knives while tracking down the latest Wanted Poster cover model. —Jon Irwin



95. Karnov

This game is about a Soviet strongman using his Soviet muscle to smash his way through the flesh and bones of his enemies. Some of those enemies are…dragons? And genies? And other strong men? It’s really hard, but if you persevere you can punch a snake thing to death at the end. This game seems like it’s probably a political metaphor. The strongman is a metaphor. —Cameron Kunzelman


94. Solomon’s Key

The most fanciful thing about Tecmo’s brutal puzzler, where you play a wizard who can create or destroy blocks in midair in order to avoid deadly floating faces and rescue magical fairies, is that your wizard’s name is Dana. That’s like playing a Conan-style barbarian named Blair. Huge in Japan and released early enough in America to make a solid impression, Solomon’s Key wasn’t content to merely tease brains—it basically ripped them right out of the skull and spiked them on the ground like an end zone celebration.—Garrett Martin


93. Fester’s Quest

As we all know, the daily events in the life of Fester Addams is one of the most interesting topics that one could make a game about, and luckily someone did that. It’s a little bit like an Ultima game, but it has the personality of terrifying bald man who may or may not be dead already. —Cameron Kunzelman


92. Commando

This Capcom classic and it’s dashing, run-and-gun style was first released in arcades in 1985 and on the Nintendo Entertainment System the following year. It would go on to later influence many other shooter games, the game’s unlimited ammo allowing for a satisfying break-neck pace, and its isometric perspective facilitating an appeasing field of view that would later form a primer for the 3D games to come. —Holly Green


91. Ice Climber

As with many of the games on this list, Ice Climber hasn’t aged well, but it holds an undeniable and ironically warm spot in our hearts nonetheless. Its protagonists, Nana and Popo, climbed a series of ice-covered peaks to reach the top of the mountain and recover their stolen vegetables from thieving condors. In spite of or perhaps because of this unlikely premise, its legacy lives on. —Holly Green



90. Defender of the Crown

The NES port of this swashbuckling strategy game might not have looked or sounded as nice as the Amiga original, but it was actually deeper in its tactics and possibilities. Conquering England has never been this much fun.—Garrett Martin


89. Romance of the Three Kingdoms

This game is an adaptation of a 14th century Chinese novel, and the designers thought that content would translate perfectly to a turn-based game of regional conflict between the heroes of Chinese history and myth. I’ve played this game a few times, and I can never make heads of tails of what is happening, but it’s really impressive that they got this thing going on the NES. —Cameron Kunzelman


88. Magic of Scheherazade

This Zelda-ish action-RPG is based on One Thousand and One Nights and includes a number of unusual features for its day, including time travel and a combination of solo and team-based combat. Although far from perfect, it was unique and weird enough at the time that it deserves revisitation.—Garrett Martin


87. Déjà Vu

In a move that might sound counterproductive for true noir stalwarts, the NES version of this mid-‘80s MacVenture point-and-clicker arrived in full color. It was actually an improvement: with a full palette, the darkness you expect from a good noir was more pronounced. More importantly, though, it preserved the rich story and stimulating puzzles of the original, and was an uncommonly mature game for Nintendo’s first console.—Garrett Martin


86. RBI Baseball

The original RBI Baseball was a sac fly for Atlanta Braves fans, the only baseball fans who matter in Paste’s opinion; you couldn’t play as the team, but you could play as Dale Murphy with the NL All-Star team, and since he was the only Brave worth playing in 1986 (or, honestly, almost any year that decade), it was hard to get too worked up about the whole thing. Oh, yeah, you could also play as people who weren’t Dale Murphy, too, if you were weird like that; this was the first console baseball game to snag a license from the Major League Baseball Player’s Association.—Garrett Martin



85. Clash at Demonhead

The only game on this list most recognized as a band name from a fictional universe (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). To continue the rock ‘n roll etymology, Clash at Demonhead is more like Extreme: Perhaps not as wild as the name implies. But still pretty rad. —Jon Irwin


84. Dragon Warrior

Apparently Americans hate the word “quest”? Japan’s blockbuster role-playing game Dragon Quest was released in America as Dragon Warrior, and although it’s incredibly simplistic (and a little bit of a bore) it did prepare us for the next year’s release of Final Fantasy. Fans of contemporary PC RPGs like the Ultima series would probably find Dragon Warrior too simplistic, but as an introduction to an entire genre, it’s perfectly serviceable.—Garrett Martin


83. Section Z

Maybe astronauts wouldn’t have lost their cool over the years if a laser gun was a standard part of their toolkit. In Section Z you control just such a guy as he shoots his way through a sprawling space station, with the A and B buttons shooting either to your left or right. It’s long and hard and also a relatively early NES game; it lacks any kind of save or password feature, which makes it feel even longer and harder.—Garrett Martin


82. Power Blade

An early example of the “Noun-as-Adjective + Noun” fantasy title template still used today. (See: Kingdom Hearts, Mass Effect.) It also leaned into the burgeoning Schwartzneggar fandom, putting a Terminator-era Arnie lookalike on the cover for no discernable reason. There’s serviceable sci-fi action here, but it’s no Junior. —Jon Irwin


81. Battletoads

Battletoads proves that a concept that’s vaguely adjacent to something popular is at least as important as solid game design when it comes to making an impression. Okay, Rare’s action game is hardly bad—it wouldn’t be on this list if it was—but today its reputation easily outstrips its merits. It’s about as capricious as games got in 1991, and a triumph of commercialism more than anything.—Garrett Martin


80. Snake, Rattle ‘n’ Roll

Full of the weird humor and brutal difficulty that are Rare’s calling cards, Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll is an unusual isometric platformer about fattening up snakes. It kind of defies description. Just go play it—it’s part of the Rare Replay compilation for the Xbox One.—Garrett Martin


79. Tecmo Bowl

For evidence of Tecmo Bowl’s lasting influence, look no further than last year’s Kia Sorento car commercial starring Bo Jackson driving across a digital football field modeled after the 1989 game. Better than the arcade original but bested by its NES sequel. Ready, down, hut hut hut hut hut. —Jon Irwin


78. Zoda’s Revenge: Startropics II

If The Legend of Zelda and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? had a baby, it would be this game. Travel through time and battle monsters in Ancient Egypt, Frontier America, and foggy England. Even Sherlock Holmes shows up. Fun Fact: The last NES-exclusive Nintendo game.—Jon Irwin


77. Mega Man

Not quite the work of punishing genius that its first two sequels became, the original Mega Man is still a vital example of 8-bit platforming action at its most innovative and unforgiving.—Garrett Martin


76. Solstice

This isometric puzzler has two huge things going for it: some obscenely difficult brainteasers that will keep you enraptured for hours, and a fantastic score from Tim Follin. It’s main title theme is the single best composition on the NES.—Garrett Martin



75. Vice: Project Doom

This game is a synthesis of film noir, midnight movies, racing, action platforming, and first-person shooting. It might be one of the weirdest games for this system, and it looks beautiful on top of that. It’s like if John Carpenter made a videogame. —Cameron Kunzelman


74. Excitebike

What looks like a racing game is more like a resource-management puzzle to solve. Boost too long and your engine overheats. Land jumps perfectly to cool the engine down. An early Miyamoto joint that’s still fun today. —Jon Irwin


73. Double Dribble

One of the classic NES sports games, Double Dribble was more realistic in its presentation than any basketball game had been before. With its five-on-five teams, two-player local action and vibrant cut-scenes, it was a must-own in its day.—Garrett Martin


72. Ironsword: Wizards and Warriors II

With deeper RPG elements than the original, and more impressive graphics that maintain the same comic book-ish aesthetic, Ironsword is a commendable follow-up to the original Wizards and Warriors.—Garrett Martin


71. Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins

Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins might be the hardest game ever made. Not only is it six murderous levels of zombies, spooks and monsters, but if you manage to beat it once, it boots you back to the beginning and asks you to do it again. Harsh.—Nate Ewert-Krocker



70. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

While it didn’t yet contain the series’ most important feature (the ability to make characters kiss), the first Fire Emblem was nevertheless a new and clever combination of strategy and RPG—creating a hybrid genre that’s been going strong for decades. —Nate Ewert-Krocker


69. A Boy and His Blob

Famously created by David Crane, who would go on to make the SNES game David Crane’s Amazing Tennis. You feed jelly beans to a sentient glop of alien goo that changes shape and helps you along the way. An example of the power of friendship over terrestrial physics. —Jon Irwin


68. Blades of Steel

Blades of Steel did for hockey what Double Dribble did for basketball, but is even more devoted to realism. It infamously has a separate fight screen with its own pugilistic mechanics, where you can live out all your Hanson Brothers fantasies.—Garrett Martin


67. Pro Wrestling

Sure, it’s repetitive, but Pro Wrestling was groundbreaking in its day. With a roster of grapplers with defined characters and subtly different movesets, and the ability to fight outside the ring and even do dives, it resembled real pro wrestling more than many games that came afterward.—Garrett Martin


66. Shadowgate

If Shadowgate was more fondly regarded than Déjà Vu at the time, or better remembered today, it might simply come down to fantasy being an easier sell for game fans than hard-boiled crime fiction. Another MacVenture game, Shadowgate devoted the same adventure-game aesthetic as that noir classic to a tale of warlocks, demons and ancient arcane evils. Relying heavily on patience, observation and deduction, it wasn’t for every kid back in 1989, but it was massive for those players who connected with its particular rhythms.—Garrett Martin



65. Cobra Triangle

I don’t even think it’s lazy to call Rare’s Cobra TriangleR.C. Pro-Am in water with guns.” That’s exactly what it looks and feels like: you’ve got a boat, it’s got guns, you zoom around various courses and bodies of water trying to blow stuff up or save stranded swimmers. There are boss battles. It’s fun and colorful and pretty weird, like most Rare games of the era.—Garrett Martin


64. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game

The original, top-down Ninja Turtles game has its charms, but the combat of TMNT 2: The Arcade Game was far superior, doing a much-improved job of capturing the spirit and art style of the animated series. With enemies more closely drawn from the show, it made itself one of the NES’s best pure beat-em-ups. —Jim Vorel


63. Jackal

Most action games let you run around on foot, but Jackal puts you behind the wheel of a military jeep. Imagine Rambo if John never left his Humvee. It also opens with this disconcerting epigraph: “The battle will make your blood boil. Good luck!” —Jon Irwin


62. Gargoyle’s Quest II

One of the few NES games that originated on the Game Boy. This side-story of the Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise puts you in control of Firebrand, that red demon that hounded you as Arthur. Now you get to play as the monster. The Grendel of videogames. —Jon Irwin


61. Dr. Mario

Dr. Mario emerged as an impressive challenger to the falling-block Tetris throne, providing an even simpler take on the concept by using a set of capsules as a match-three mechanism. The result was endless hours of high-paced fun, and today Dr. Mario is still available to play on multiple platforms, even appearing as a mini-game in the Brain Age games. —Holly Green


60. Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom

The always-cinematic Ninja Gaiden saga concluded with another brilliantly subtitled game chock full of the unapologetic brutality the series was known for. Returns had diminished a bit by the time this one was released in 1991—only sports games can survive annualized sequels—but between its intense action, the advanced-for-its-day storytelling, and the lovably absurd plot, there’s a lot of mileage left in this ancient ship.—Garrett Martin


59. Little Nemo: Dream Master

Based on the 1989 animated Little Nemo film, this game is full of beautiful, vibrant levels, but is probably best remembered for teaching children that if you feed a frog candy, it will open its mouth and let you crawl inside it. —Nate Ewert-Krocker


58. Little Samson

Arriving too late in the NES’s life span to make much of an impact, Little Samson is a testament to what experienced designers can wring out of hardware that they’re deeply familiar with. It’s a beautiful and beautifully designed platformer that deserves more attention than it received back in 1992.—Garrett Martin


57. Wizards and Warriors

Rare’s action-RPG can’t hide its Dungeons & Dragons influence—it’s right there in the name, and can be found in the names of many of its power-ups. Now almost forgotten, this was a big hit in its day, due in part to its colorful graphics, its fantasy trappings and its combination of action and puzzles.—Garrett Martin


56. Super C

Super Contra certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel from the first game, but it does do away with a few of its more annoying modes, such as the faux-3D, while tightening the basic shooting/platforming segments and adding some very difficult top-down portions. Shame on you, Konami, for not putting the official Konami Code sequence in this one. —Jim Vorel



55. Super Dodge Ball

Dodge ball isn’t a real sport, and Super Dodge Ball isn’t really a sports game. Yes, there are teams, and a ball, and occasional dodging, but there are also reality-warping ball throwing techniques that aren’t too far off from a Final Fantasy spell. There’s a reason this game keeps getting rereleased through every version of the Virtual Console—it’s so well-designed that even its flaws, like extreme flickering and stuttering, play into its strategies.—Garrett Martin


54. Strider

The NES version of Strider was significantly different from the arcade original and the heavily hyped Genesis version, and in many ways was the best of the bunch. Instead of a straight-forward action game, you had to go back and forth between levels, searching for various objects and power-ups that would unlock sections of other areas. Imagine a cross between Metroid and Bionic Commando, but starring a ninja with a jaunty scarf.—Garrett Martin


53. Kid Icarus

Parts of this game are great. It certainly deserves respect for its unique and envelope-pushing design decisions, like how it bounces between scrolling platforming and room-based dungeon crawling. It’s not necessarily a fun game to play, which is why it’s not higher on this list, but it’s still a game that should be played, at least once.—Garrett Martin


52. Dragon Warrior III

It’s typical PR boilerplate to call every sequel “bigger and better,” but that cliché perfectly fits Dragon Warrior III, especially when you compare it to the first game in the series. Instead of a single hero, you now have a party, with a class system offering great variety in combat. The world is larger, the battles are deeper, and the game comes closer to feeling like a Final Fantasy-style RPG than either of its predecessors.—Garrett Martin


51. Duck Hunt

Nintendo repurposed their arcade “Laser Clay Shooting System” into this launch title for the NES, allowing home users to engage in America’s two favorite pastimes: murdering fowl with firearms and being laughed at by a cruel, sneering dog.—Nate Ewert-Krocker



50. Adventure Island II

The Eighties were the era for short chubby guys. Think: Mario, Gorbochev, Robin Leach. Here you play as a short chubby guy named Master Higgins who rides a skateboard. He doesn’t quite have a Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous. But at least nobody tore down his wall. —Jon Irwin


49. Faxanadu

Part RPG, part hack’n’slash action game, Hudson’s Faxanadu (published in America by Nintendo itself) is an earthy, haunting adventure with echoes of Norse and Germanic myth, and not a roller disco musical starring Olivia Newton-John.—Garrett Martin


48. Bomberman II

Hudson’s enduring classic wasn’t originally created for the NES, but it did make its American debut for Nintendo’s system. The first of countless sequels over the last 30 years, Bomberman II introduced multiplayer to the original’s formula, which makes it the better of the two NES games.—Garrett Martin


47. Final Fantasy II

Final Fantasy II was a bold departure from its predecessor: different battle system, new world, bigger cast and more melodrama. Not every change it made was a smart one, but it set the precedent for the series to continually reinvent itself with every entry.—Nate Ewert-Krocker


46. Famicom Wars

The West wouldn’t see an entry in the Wars series until 2001’s Advance Wars, but most of the pieces were in place in this 1988 debut: Colorful armies, capturing territory and sending squad after squad of cartoon soldiers to die in the trenches. War is fun!—Nate Ewert-Krocker



45. Battle of Olympus

If Battle of Olympus reminds you of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, well, that makes sense: the two were created with the same game engine. It’s a deep, side-scrolling action RPG based on Greek mythology, and it also didn’t have to deal with the confusion of Zelda fans upset with how thoroughly different Zelda II was from the original.—Garrett Martin


44. Ufouria: The Saga

Underneath the challenged spelling and horrific title screen font lies a gem of a game. Luscious animation for its time combines with a Metroid-like combo of exploration and retraversal to make this a must-play for you retro enthusiasts. —Jon Irwin


43. Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers

There are very few games that allow you to address the tyranny of toys, small boxes, and cats in tuxedo shirts. This one of them. This game is known for letting players drop down into a metal barrel as a defensive measure, and it’s a shame that more games don’t allow that kind of behavior. —Cameron Kunzelman


42. Mega Man 4

While it may not hit the highs of its two predecessors, Mega Man 4 is still a top-notch action-platformer. This is the one where the Robot Masters start to get silly: Pharaohman? Skullman? Dust… man? Come on, Dr. Wily. Now you’re just goofin’.—Nate Ewert-Krocker


41. Snake’s Revenge

This NES-only sequel to Metal Gear was developed with no input from series auteur Hideo Kojima, making it an apocryphal installment. That’s a shame: with a less confusing structure and the addition of occasional side-scrolling sections, it’s a worthy follow-up that doesn’t just rehash the first game.—Garrett Martin

40. Maniac Mansion

I don’t think that anyone would sincerely try to convince you that the NES is the best platform for adventure games, but Maniac Mansion sure is an attempt. This game has the “bonus” content of being edited for to make its content more family-friendly. Luckily, this would be the last time anyone asked a company to do this, ever. —Cameron Kunzelman


39. Startropics

Startropics is hands down the best game where you pilot a one-man submersible and fight snakes with a yo-yo. With a lovely setting and quirky characters, it proved that there was plenty of room to take the Zelda formula in different directions.—Nate Ewert-Krocker


38. Baseball Stars

It took years for most baseball games to catch up to Baseball Stars. Yeah, you didn’t have real players, but you could create your own, as well as your own teams. You could then play a full season with them, saving everything to a battery backup. It’s basically a baseball RPG, and the clearest antecedent to classics like MVP Baseball and MLB The Show. —Garrett Martin


37. Rygar

Released around the same time as Zelda II, Rygar features a similar blend of top-down overworld navigation, side-scrolling dungeons and non-linear progression. Except Rygar lets you throw a spiked shield on a chain, which is metal as hell.—Nate Ewert-Krocker


36. Bubble Bobble

Its single-screen arcade action already felt a little archaic when Bubble Bobble hit the NES in 1989, but Bubble Bobble made up for that with its co-op play, its massive number of stages, and its unapologetic difficulty. It’s also adorable as all get-out.—Garrett Martin



35. Gradius

One of the toughest side-scrolling games of its era, Gradius was originally released in arcades in 1985 and later spawned several home console sequels, as well as helped inspire generations of space games down the line. Some of the conventions established or reinforced by Gradius, like the power-up system, are used in videogames to this day. —Holly Green


34. R.C. Pro-Am

If you wanted to race remote-controlled cars in the 80s, you could have raced remote-controlled cars… or played this riotous two-player game from Rare. Harder to replicate in real life were the miniature weapons and tiny oil slicks. A simple concept but unadulterated joy. —Jon Irwin


33. Final Fantasy

It’s funny to think that the first-ever Final Fantasy has more sense of choice and freedom than most of the entries to follow, but it’s true. The game doesn’t hold your hand and allows you to assemble your own party with whatever class makeup you want. Four black mages? Sure, you can do that. Good luck, but you can do that. —Jim Vorel


32. Adventures of Lolo

Here’s the ideal NES version of Sokoban, the Japanese crate-shoving puzzle, full of cute characters and charming 8-bit pixel art. It’s the type of game where a single misstep can ruin your entire plan, which means it’s a fantastic puzzle game.—Garrett Martin


31. Life Force

In America we know it as the sequel to Gradius. In Japan it was a spin-off, under the name Salamander. Either way it’s one of the best scrolling shooters for the NES, with a similar weapons power up system as Gradius and levels that alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling.—Garrett Martin



30. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

This is the first Zelda game I owned and played. I was not yet ready. The frustrating combat and obscure progression turned me off the series. I wouldn’t play a Zelda title until 2003’s The Wind Waker on GameCube. For this and so much more: I apologize. —Jon Irwin


29. Tetris (Nintendo)

This is the LEGALLY CREATED version of Tetris for the NES, and unlike that bootleg Tengen version it is all about stacking colorful shapes on top of each other. Well, I mean, they’re both about that, but this one is different because you get the self-satisfaction of being fully in compliance with international intellectual property law. It also lacks a side-by-side competitive mode. —Cameron Kunzelman


28. Double Dragon II: The Revenge

The fine NES version of this prototypical ‘80s brawler isn’t just a port: it changes the arcade game’s story and structure significantly, and might be stronger for it. Unlike the NES port of the first game in the series, you can play simultaneously with a friend, which is an absolutely crucial addition.—Garrett Martin


27. Lode Runner

Based on a prototype called Kong that was created by a University of Washington student in 1982, Lode Runner is among the first puzzle-platformers. Instead of jumping from platform to platform in order to achieve objectives, players instead used the platforms themselves to trap or outmaneuver enemies. This simple twist on an early videogame convention earned Lode Runner the distinction of being Tetris designer Alexey Pajitnov’s favorite puzzle game for years. —Holly Green


26. Ninja Gaiden II

The original Ninja Gaiden had the feeling of a fantasy epic starring a ninja, but Dark Sword of Chaos is like a Troma film that also happens to star a ninja. It’s dark and industrial, and the main antagonist looks like he might be a magical dinosaur. It’s a little cleaner, a little more bizarre, and very fun. —Cameron Kunzelman



25. Batman

Batman the 1989 film by Tim Burton may have had songs by Prince (R.I.P.), but Batman the 1990 game by Sunsoft may well have the better soundtrack. You can stuff Rocksteady’s Arkham games in a sack; I’ll take this one any day. —Jon Irwin


24. Tecmo Super Bowl

This is the Godfather: Part II of sports videogames. It boiled down America’s modern-day pastime into a play-call guessing game, with cinematics echoing the stars’ personalities and an addictive season mode that tracked your stats. Pit Atlanta vs. New England and see what happens. —Jon Irwin


23. Metal Gear

The US version of Metal Gear might be a spliced up, bowdlerized version of Hideo Kojima’s original game, but we didn’t know that in 1988. What matters is how it combines the 1980s fixation on paramilitary action with an adventure almost as sprawling and mysterious as Legend of Zelda, while also basically introducing the entire stealth genre. It’s deep and inscrutable, infuriating and glorious, and a fine start to a great series.—Garrett Martin


22. Super Mario Bros. 2

The American release of Super Mario Bros 2 transformed the concept of the Mario platformer through happy coincidence, as it was originally an entirely different game called Doki Doki Panic. Despite that, its contributions to the Mario universe are huge, including characters such as Shy Guy and Birdo. Plus: One of the best Mario soundtracks ever. —Jim Vorel


21. Tetris (Tengen version)

Before Nintendo released Tetris itself in 1989, Atari whipped out a dubiously legal version under its sublabel Tengen earlier that same year. Many would argue it was better in Nintendo’s, especially because it had a side-by-side two-player mode. (This was the first version of Tetris that I ever played, and considering that I rented it several times from the same video store in 1989, and barely ever played Nintendo’s NES version, it’s the one I think of when I think of NES Tetris.)—Garrett Martin


20. Castlevania

A classic example of “Nintendo hard,” the original Castlevania takes no prisoners and is still a hardy challenge today for the unprepared. Dripping with more atmosphere than almost any other NES title, it presents Dracula’s castle as an unconquerable mountain with a terrifying boss at its zenith. If you beat it (and had witnesses), you had reason to brag. —Jim Vorel


19. Mega Man 3

The best Mega Man game. Disregard the ranking saying otherwise. Lay down your own misconstrued opinions on how Mega Man 2 is the Blue Bomber’s true ultimate expression. These are falsehoods. Does Mega Man 2 have a robotic dog? No it does not. Does Mega Man 3? Yes. Okay then. —Jon Irwin


18. Simon’s Quest: Castlevania II

In what later almost became tradition, this sequel is altogether different from its predecessor. A Day-night cycle gives the world an uncommon sense of place for the 8-bit era, but opaque riddles and high difficulty proved challenging for fans of the classic original. —Jon Irwin


17. Mother

What we know as Earthbound in the west is actually the sequel to this RPG that never left Japan (until a Virtual Console release on Wii U last year). What does an American childhood look like through the prism of a Japanese ad-man? Baseball, hippies, and pizza delivery. —Jon Irwin


16. River City Ransom

Incredibly far ahead of its time, River City Ransom plays more like an SNES beat-em-up than an NES one, with a surprisingly advanced set of combat mechanics and upgradable, RPG-style stats for your characters. There’s great joy in beating up thugs to collect coinage, then walking into a sushi shop to find out what stats a piece of nigiri or tempura will boost. —Jim Vorel



15. Kirby’s Adventure

Kirby’s debut may have been on the Game Boy, but Kirby’s Adventure first let him use his signature power: swallowing enemies alive to gain their powers. No word on whether cannibalism rates rose among American children in 1993.—Nate Ewert-Krocker


14. Blaster Master

Cliff Bleszinski cites this game as a personal influence on Gears of War. I just remember it as the game that let you drive a jumping car named Sophia. —Jon Irwin


13. Ducktales

Disproving the axiom that licensed games are subpar, Capcom’s Scrooge McDuck-starring platformer is as beautiful, challenging and well-designed as any of its non-licensed games. It also features maybe the best soundtrack of the era.—Garrett Martin


12. Final Fantasy III

Big, complicated, and tough as nails, Final Fantasy III took the six character archetypes from the first game and heaped on another sixteen, letting you switch classes on the fly and proving you should never send an Onion Kid to do a Ninja’s job.—Nate Ewert-Krocker


11. Crystalis

When Nintendo zagged with the unusual sequel Zelda II, SNK snuck in with a game that would’ve been a better follow-up to Link’s debut. Crystalis has no formal connection to Zelda, of course, but it heavily borrows its look and control scheme. Crystalis is more about fighting than puzzle-solving, though, and its elegant take on swordplay makes it one of the most enjoyable games to fight through on the NES. Combine that with its RPG depth, and you have one of the best NES games ever made.—Garrett Martin



10. Super Mario Bros.

Arguably the most iconic videogame of all time, Super Mario Bros. defies summary. A testament to the frugal ingenuity of early game design and the creative brilliance of Nintendo’s key founding members, including Shigeru Miyamoto, it remains a steadfast favorite. —Holly Green


9. Punch-Out!!

Whether with or without Mike Tyson, the iconic boxing game is a classic of patience and pattern recognition. It’s effectively a puzzle game built around memory and reflexes, with some of the best graphics and most memorable characters found on the NES.—Garrett Martin


8. Contra

Contra fans wouldn’t know what the term “couch co-op” meant in 1988, but they would definitely know what it felt like. Between that beautifully designed tandem action, the varying points of view and scrolling orientations, and the diverse collection of memorable guns, Contra was an instant NES smash at the time, and still holds up better than games that are decades younger.—Garrett Martin


7. Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden turned heads with its elaborate cutscenes and a surprisingly detailed story for an 8-bit action title, but it’s remembered most fondly for its snappy action, its top-notch soundtrack and its brutal, brutal difficulty.—Nate Ewert-Krocker


6. Castlevania III

Konami’s third vampire-killing extravaganza has branching paths, three different companions to recruit and the most in-your-face prog rock an 8-bit system could manage. Just about the most fun you can have with a whip.—Nate Ewert-Krocker



5. Mega Man 2

Mega Man 2 is the classic example of a sequel improving upon the basic formula of the original to create a genre classic. Everything is better, from the memorable new Robot Masters (curse you, Air Man!) to the weapon-stealing RPG mechanic. And who can forget any track from one of the greatest videogame soundtracks of all time? —Jim Vorel


4. Metroid

Metroid was instantly iconic in 1987 for a number of reasons, from its backtracking-heavy level design, to its dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, to the surprising revelation of Samus Aran’s true nature at the end of the game. With its multitude of secrets and power-ups, and the freedom to explore as you see fit, it was one of the first games to feel like a genuine adventure.—Garrett Martin


3. Bionic Commando

Between a unique grappling-based control scheme, a large game world, a variety of diverse and well-rounded weapons, and a level of difficulty that’s challenging without ever feeling unfair, Bionic Commando swings in near the top of our list. —Garrett Martin


2. The Legend of Zelda

Link’s original adventure is the first console game that felt like a true epic, with a sprawling overworld, several dangerous dungeons to explore, and special skills and secrets hiding throughout. For its time, it was as flawless as games got, and even today it’s easy to disappear within this version of Hyrule for hours without even realizing it.—Garrett Martin


1. Super Mario Bros. 3

This is the best Mario game, right? I mean, it might be the best game, period, ever, so that would clearly make it the best Mario game. It took everything great about the original, imported a touch of the apocryphal weirdness of the unrelated second game, and created a massive universe that constantly reveals unexpected new angles and facets without ever dipping in quality. If you only play one game in your entire life, it might as well be this one.—Garrett Martin

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