This week has been exciting for retro Nintendo fans with the release of the NES Classic Edition, a bite-size bundle of 30 iconic games from the company’s history. It’s a great portable NES library, and even comes with recreations of classic NES controllers. Apart from the fact that the cords on the classic controllers are a little too short, the NES Classic is a great value at 60 dollars, and I recommend you guys go out and pick it up if you can.
Anyway, the NES Classic got me thinking about some of my favorite NES games. So to celebrate, I wanted to list my favorite games on the system. This list is going to be based partly on my personal tastes and partly on which games have had the biggest impact. All of them, though, will be available on the NES Classic Edition.
In addition to my own comments, I’m also gonna throw in videos on each game by one of the best retro game review channels out there, CGRUndertow. Massive thank you to Derek Buck for his amazing reviews.
10 – Balloon Fight
Oh yeah. You heard me. Balloon Fight. If you recognize this one, chances are you really know your way around the NES library. The whole game is similar to the arcade game Joust — it’s an arena-style game where you fly around with two balloons and defeat other enemies by popping their balloons from above. It also has a side-scrolling gauntlet mini-game called Balloon Trip that’s extremely fun and extremely hard. Although it’s pretty obscure, this game is definitely a Nintendo classic, and one of the most inventive NES games out there.
9 – Donkey Kong
Just about everybody and their mother has heard of Donkey Kong, and for good reason. This game was a breakthrough in the career of legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto, and one of the most iconic arcade games of all time. It created not one, but two mascots that would go on to impact the industry for decades to come. Although it hasn’t aged too well in my opinion, it’s still a good game and a good challenge.
8 – Kid Icarus
Another one from the depths of the Nintendo library, the story behind Kid Icarus is amazing. It was developed initially by novice game designer Toru Osawa, who slaved over its development for several summer months before the team from Metroid came on board to help the game meet its December deadline. The rest of its development was long and arduous, but it resulted in one of the best yet little–known platformers of early Nintendo history. It’s difficult and complex, but also has a unique style that was revamped to great success in the 2000s and even led to a sequel, Kid Icarus: Uprising, in 2012. If you get a chance to play this game, it’s well worth giving attention to.
7 – Ninja Gaiden
If you ask the average video game expert about hard NES games, Ninja Gaiden will be the first game that comes up. It’s a merciless, fast-paced, complicated platformer that was the bane of every kid in the 80s. It requires twitch reflexes, sense memory, and a whole lot of patience, but it backs up its grueling difficulty with character. It saw the first attempt at cutscenes in the history of gaming, and a surprisingly compelling story. It’s not a game for the faint of heart, but Ninja Gaiden is nevertheless a great game that’s worth trying out.
6 – Punch-Out!!
Punch-Out!! is a quirky little game, but it’s a great early example of games with personality. The plot is simple: you’re a short-but-tough American boxer named Little Mac who has to fight a series of opponents from all around the world. Every character in the game is a blatant stereotype of one culture or another, but it parodies every culture equally in a way that simply makes it a laugh. This game is also a good underdog story, maybe the first ever in a video game. It takes a lot of quick reactions and patient repetition to defeat each opponent, and it’s no easy task. But the game encourages you to keep coming back after defeat and earn victory time and time again. For that alone, I think this game is one of the greats.
Something about Kirby is irresistible, and I think the long list of games in the series is a testament to that. Kirby’s Adventure was where the legend of everybody’s favorite little pink blob started. Not only is it adorable, it’s a game that’s both easy and difficult at the same time. There are some levels where you can just float over all the obstacles, but then again there are others where you have to dodge enemies carefully and avoid hazards to make it through. This subtly hard gameplay is masked by catchy theme tunes, fun level names like “Butter Building” and “Yogurt Yard,” and an overall fun aesthetic. If you’re looking for good first NES game, this is the one for you.
4 – Castlevania
If Ninja Gaiden is the pinnacle of NES difficulty, Castlevania is a close second. In the same way that Ninja Gaiden is an example of extreme raw difficulty, Castlevania is an example of extreme refined difficulty. Every enemy placement is deliberate, and every control was meant to create clear rules for the player. Each boss has a strategy that takes trial and error to discover. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences in all of gaming, and its theme of European monster mythology created a dynasty that carried on for years. Sadly, the series hasn’t seen a release for a few years, but it generated a ton of great games throughout the 80s and 90s that every gamer should try.
Super Mario is one of the most iconic franchises of all time, and its initial trilogy of NES games is legendary. I had to put one on the list, and I thought hard about which one I should pick as the best one. The first broke new ground for the industry, and the second was charming and fun. Ultimately I decided on the third one, Super Mario Bros. 3. It was an incredible sequel that improved on its predecessors in nearly every way. It had an overworld, alternate paths, interesting themes, new items, and even some vertical level design. Every part of this game oozes personality, and it’s one of the best games in a series of full great games.
The Legend of Zelda was perhaps the earliest game in history to make exploration in games fun and accessible. You start this game with no clear goal and a lot of options. You just grab a sword and start fighting, exploring, and having an adventure. Soon enough you begin to find direction and take on dungeons, exploring to find secrets and items. The journey of this game is always as fresh as playing it for the first time. Each discovery feels new and natural. As simplistic as it is, this game is actually quite tough, and needs to be mastered in order to be beaten. This game is wonderful, pure fun, and it gave rise to a series of games that remains my personal favorite to this day.
1 – Mega Man 2
It was a hard decision, but I couldn’t bring myself to put anything above Mega Man 2. This game is an amazing work of balanced gameplay, experimentation, and skill. For the whole game, you play as the titular protagonist Mega Man as he journeys to defeat the evil Dr. Wily and his army of “Robot Masters” who are the bosses of each of the eight levels. Each boss has a themed stage and a weakness to a specific weapon that can only be obtained by beating some other specific boss.
To make it through the game usually requires figuring out the right order in which to beat the bosses. Beyond that, you have to finish another series of levels to reach Dr. Wily. Every victory in this game is well-earned, and every level will put you through your paces until you learn to beat each one. It’s a great challenge, but not an unbeatable one. I’ve managed to beat this game more than once in a single day, and I’ve never gotten tired of it. It’s fun, colorful, and has a kick-ass soundtrack to boot. If you try no other game on this list, give this one a chance if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed!