The Nintendo Entertainment System was the console that launched the giant we know today for their Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong games, among other successful series. The NES library is huge, and going through it would take a while, so here are the 20 best NES games.
In no particular order, these are the games that were the most successful and gained the most attention. Some of these games were single-handedly responsible for Nintendo having a successful launch of the Super Nintendo and the success that it has today.
Super Mario Bros.
Developer: Nintendo R&D4
Mario has to be one of the most iconic characters in the gaming industry. An icon of Nintendo, the charismatic jumping plumber has made his appearance in many video games. Mario can be found in the main games of the series, as well as games that have nothing to do with Mario or Nintendo. He is that influential.
The game is called Super Mario Bros. because you can play as Mario and Luigi, his brother. This can be done in the two-player mode. It is a classic platformer, where you can jump on enemies and get mushrooms which give the characters power-ups. The goal of the game is to rescue Princess Peach Toadstool from King Koopa, also known as Bowser.
Contra is a classic run-and-gun game, though it had superior level design even at the time. Levels were a standard 2D left-to-right shooter, quasi-3D with an isometric perspective, or with a fixed screen in which the gun was aimed upwards.
You can play as two characters, Bill and Lance. Other than their sprites, they do everything the same. The gameplay is fast, with lots of jumping, shooting, and dodging. Power-ups are available throughout the game, as well as new weapons.
One of the first notable RPGs ever released, Final Fantasy is praised as one of the most important games in the genre. It was one of the games that popularized the genre and that gave Nintendo a large chunk of its fans.
Final Fantasy follows your typical prophetic heroes who need to save a kingdom from evil forces. It is set in a fantasy world with multiple races, including robots. Graphically and gameplay-wise, it was advanced for its time. As with most RPGs, expect to grind a little to get your characters to the desired level.
The Legend of Zelda
Developer: Nintendo R&D4
The Legend of Zelda is another legendary title that needs no introduction because the series is still popular and has bestseller games. With that in mind, the first title was also an important one, establishing the classic story of Link saving Zelda from Ganon while searching for Triforce parts.
As an action-adventure game with RPG elements, Zelda was fun for most players, and its eight dungeons contain challenges that scare today’s players. The game has a second playthrough that is more difficult and has different dungeons, which was uncommon at the time.
Developer: Nintendo R&D1/R&D2
Donkey Kong is one of the earliest examples of a platformer game. Given its early release, the fact that it had four stages was unheard of. This was the first game that featured Mario, Nintendo’s mascot.
Since it is a platformer, your main goal is to climb and jump upwards to reach Pauline and save her from an oversized gorilla. You can’t get hit by enemies, barrels, fall too far or let the bonus counter go to zero, lest you lose the game.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Developer: Nintendo R&D4
This game was released very quickly after the first one, in 1986 for the domestic Japanese market. However, Nintendo USA didn’t like it because it was too similar to the first one and too difficult. A couple of years later, and after some reworks, it was released as Super Mario Bros. 2.
Gameplay was vastly different. You had four characters, Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Toadstool. Each of the characters had their own special ability. Enemies couldn’t be defeated by jumping on them. Instead, you could pick them up and throw them at other enemies.
After its release in the USA, it was the top-selling NES game for a year and two months. Given its diverse gameplay and fresh approach to a quickly evolving genre, it is one of the best NES games and the fourth highest-selling NES game in general.
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Tetris needs no introduction, though a story would be in order. Originally released in 1985 for the Soviet Electronica 60 computer, an NES version was made and released in 1989. It was the first official console version by Nintendo.
It has two game modes, Type A and Type B. Type A is the standard Tetris, where you move tetrominoes and arrange them so that you eliminate horizontal lines. High scores prompt a victory screen with St. Basil’s Cathedral and various other objects.
The objects range from planes, and spaceships to Nintendo characters dancing in front of the cathedral, on the Type B screen.
Mega Man is a rather special platformer, which allows players to finish the game in any order they please. It is also known as Rockman, due to the main character’s name being Rock, as well as the name of the Japanese release.
The story revolves around an evil scientist Dr. Wily and his corruption of six robots. Dr. Light wants the robots stopped, and Rock, one of his robots, offers to help. He assumes the name of Mega Man and embarks on a quest to finish six stages and defeat six bosses.
Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Hudson Soft/Mattel/Sinclair Research/Nintendo
Bomberman was originally released in 1983 for various systems such as the PC-8800, Fujitsu FM-7, and Sharp X1. Two years later, it was released as an NES game, and it quickly became one of the best NES games ever.
The gameplay is non-linear, with you having to find a door to exit a maze. The doors are hidden behind rocks. You can play bombs that destroy rocks, enemies, and yourself if you are not mindful of the blast radius.
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Kirby’s Adventure is the second game in the series and follows up on Kirby’s Dream Land. Kirby is spherical and pink and can adapt his body to traverse obstacles or take care of enemies. He can fly and inhale objects and then throw stars back at opponents.
The novelty of the design helped make this platformer even more interesting. The story revolves around Kirby wanting to stop Nightmare from spreading bad dreams on and off the world. Like most platformers, puzzling out a solution is one of the main gameplay aspects.
Developer: Technos Japan
Double Dragon is a classic title that helped make belt scroll games more popular. It involves design elements from various hit movies such as Enter the Dragon and Mad Max, creating a rather bleak universe, but one where you can fight.
You take the role of Billy or Jimmy, known as Hammer and Spike, in the US versions. The goal is to save Marian, Billy’s girlfriend. You can punch, kick, and combo enemies. Weapons and the environment can also be used to your advantage.
Developer: Nintendo R&D1/Intelligent Systems
Metroid is a great adaptation to a world then full of platformers, beat-em-ups, and run-and-gun games. As an action-adventure title, Metroid allows non-linear gameplay and exploration, basically exploring an open world. It is considered one of the best NES games.
You assume the role of Samus Aran, a soldier in a Power Suit, with the goal of stopping Space Pirates from exploiting Metroid creatures. On the planet Zebes, your goal is to defeat the Space Pirates and find the Mother Brain, the main antagonist of the game.
Pac-Man is an iconic game that was developed as the ideal game to capture a wide audience. At the time, the game’s creator, Toru Iwatani, was aware that games were mostly war or sports-oriented, failing to capture the attention of women.
Pac-Mac was designed to be cartoonish, and accessible, and thus it attracted a wide audience. The goal of the game is to eat all the pellets while avoiding being caught by any of the four ghosts. It is one of the best NES games, and in general, it started a very successful series.
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Publisher: Nintendo/Hudson Soft
Using the popularity of Donkey Kong and great level and game design, Ice Climber was another huge success. The game features two ice climbers, Popo and Nana, who need to get their fruit back by climbing to the top of a mountain.
There are 32 levels, and each of the levels has obstacles and enemies getting in the way of the climbers. The very top of each level is a time trial where the climbers have to get their fruit back from a naughty condor who keeps taking it.
Developer: Atari Games/Eastridge Technology
Publisher: Atari Games/Namco/Mindscape
Paperboy is a very fresh game in terms of gameplay. Using an oblique perspective, the player’s goal is to deliver a week’s worth of newspapers to their subscribers, while riding a bicycle. Originally released for the arcade, it featured a yoke that was modified to look like handlebars.
The game isn’t simple. There are many obstacles on the road, hazards, and even traffic. Non-subscribers are also a problem, which the paperboy attempts to solve by vandalizing their homes. Missing a paper throw can also hurt your subscribers.
Tiny Toon Adventures
Cartoons are fun, and nothing beats Tiny Toon Adventures on the NES in that regard. This is a classic platformer, with six levels that each have three parts. The third part of each level has a boss battle.
You take the role of Buster Bunny, who wants to save Babs Bunny from the evil Montana Max. You have helpful friends such as Hamton and Plucky Duck. There is a secret boss in the game called Duck Vader, reachable if you obtain a number of carrots that is any odd multiple of 11.
Castlevania is a known quantity though not many new players will have played the first title in the series. You take the role of Simon Belmont, a hereditary vampire hunter. The game has six levels and three parts for each level. Castlevania is considered one of the best NES games.
Simon can move, jump and use his whip to battle enemies. Your goal is to reach Count Dracula and destroy him. Each of the six main levels has a boss named after popular movie monsters. Additional throwable weapons can be found, as well as power-ups.
Prince of Persia
Developer: Broderbund/Virgin Games
Publisher: Broderbund/Virgin Games
Before the modern Prince of Persia games, the original version was a platform game where you had to beat spikes, enemies, skeletons, and the timer. Mistakes were costly, and you couldn’t save in some versions of the game.
The NES version was released later than the original Apple II version, but it wasn’t lacking in anything. The unnamed Prince must rescue the princess from the evil Jaffar, lest he conquer Persia. The game had very fluid animations for its time, stemming from the use of rotoscoping.
Battletoads is a game known for its ability to frustrate even the most persistent of gamers. Its level design was notoriously difficult. The game was created by Rare who wanted to ride the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze of the early 1990s.
The game was immediately set in a cartoonish world, to allow creative level design and comply with Nintendo’s violence restrictions. To set the game apart from other platformers, racing and climbing levels were included, much to the dismay of the players. It is definitely one of the hardest and best NES games of all time.
Bubble Bobble is another platformer that grew to find international success. It also grew to be a series of games. Bubble Bobble has an interesting twist to level design and gameplay. It features two dragons, Bob and Bub, who need to save their girlfriends from monsters.
To do so, they must defeat all the enemies on a level. Defeating the enemies means trapping them in a bubble and then popping the bubble. Popped enemies turn into bonus items. The game has a secret ending if finished with two players, and another if finished twice.
One could write forever and still not write about all the great Nintendo NES games, but these twenty will have to suffice for now. They are some of the best NES games that were made for or ported to the platform.
Try them and see why they were so good and what they have contributed to many of the modern games and genres that we enjoy. Most of them started their own series or were pivotal points in the world of gaming, leading to today’s hits.
These hits and the first titles in the legendary series can be played with an NES emulator or by actually having the original console and cartridges, which is less likely. Some of the games are available as reworks and are parts of packs for modern consoles or even the PC.