The best NES games of all time

Nintendo is a company that is dedicated to bringing us quality games and products. Although the best Switch games have highlighted some of Nintendo’s strengths, Nintendo’s dedication can be seen as far back as the NES.

From games like Super Mario Bros to Legend of Zelda, the NES has a game suited for any and all players’ tastes. Although there are many different games, we have listed a few of the top games based on their genre. See if your childhood favorite makes it to the top, and take a look at the best NES emulators to play on your phone.

We’ve also found the best SNES games, N64 games, and Gamecube games of all time if you’re hoping to dive down a rabbit hole of nostalgia.

Action

Vice: Project Doom

Vice: Project Doom was a sleeper hit when it first debuted in ’91, but there was truly for no reason at all for its slow start. The storyline was original and intriguing, focusing on a detective and his investigation of a secret alien corporation and a food substance moonlighting as a highly addictive drug on the black market.

It was a multi-genre game, showcasing platforming elements akin to Ninja Gaiden and driving segments reminiscent of Spy Hunter, with first-person shooting elements trickling through via a .44 Magnum and M-24 sticky grenades. Moreover, it’s embellished with all the standard facets players came to expect, such as a health gauge and a limited number of lives, while boasting 11 levels of futuristic weaponry and cinema-style cutscenes. It’s available through Nintendo Switch Online.

Contra

There’s no denying the ’80s was a decade of super-muscular action flicks (think Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger in anything). The action heroes used massive machine guns and biceps to blow stuff up, and like the aforementioned blockbusters, Konami’s beefy title basked in a sea of high testosterone and ammunition.

There wasn’t really any real strategy to Contra, other than holding down the “fire” button and running like hell, and its brutal difficulty pretty much made cooperative play a necessity for amateurs and professional gamers alike. Moreover, the game popularized the now-famous Konami code, one giving players 30 lives to squander in their mad dash for victory. Few games have replicated its success — including the very disappointing 2019 release Contra: Rogue Corps.

Jackal

Released in the United States three years after Rambo: First Blood Part II, Jackal was also about the rescue and retrieval of POWs. However, whereas Stallone relied on a barrage of explosive arrows and a mean six-pack, Jackal relied on a Jeep outfitted with an upgradeable rocket launcher and a heavy-set machine gun.

As with most run-and-gun games, players lost lives when taking damage, gained lives when they garnered points, and were faced with a myriad off boss battles once they dropped off their rescued comrades at their respective rescue locations for helicopter pickup. Yet, unlike Rambo, players were far more productive with a teammate who could lend a helping, trigger-happy hand than alone.

Rygar

Often overshadowed by similar games such as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, Rygar was an action and platformer game known for its unfortunate combination of high difficulty and lack of a save function. The player must seek out five magic items, all guarded by bosses, in order to ascend to the floating castle of the evil King Ligar for a final confrontation. Some areas can only be accessed with certain items, a la Metroid, encouraging exploration and backtracking.

Given that the “Metroidvania” genre has so long been dominated by the two titular franchises (Metroid and Castlevania) Rygar is a fun little curio, taking the standard elements of the genre and setting them in a Mesopotamia-inspired world. As mentioned, the game is known for its draconian difficulty, but thanks to modern conveniences like emulators, it is possible to alleviate some of its problems through save states.

Adventure

Maniac Mansion

Adventure games, like the moon, have waxed and waned throughout video game history. One of the high points for the genre was in the late ’80s/early ’90s when companies like LucasArts (then known as LucasFilm Games) began to improve on the genre’s text-based origins by adding richly detailed environments the player could interact with.

The torchbearer for this new wave of adventure games was LucasFilm’s Maniac Mansion, the brainchild of renowned developer Ron Gilbert. Mansion is an homage to the teen horror movies of the 80s (think Friday the 13th). Players control a group of teenagers trying to rescue one of their own from the mansion of a mad scientist and his depraved family.

The game is notably dark in spite of its humor. The player has the ability to control five distinct characters, and they can easily fall victim to the perils of the mansion. Characters can die, in which case the player must choose from one of the remaining characters to continue. There are multiple endings depending on which characters survive, and it is possible for all of them to die.

Maniac Mansion was originally released for the PC, and that first version contained a great deal of suggestive humor that Nintendo did not consider acceptable. As such, the NES version removed many of the more adult jokes in the game, though the overall sense of humor remains. Nowadays, you can play Maniac Mansion for free thanks to The Internet Archive browser-based emulator.

Action-adventure

Castlevania

Fans of Castlevania games made post-Symphony of the Night may find the series’ original outing a bit barebones. Unlike in later games, Castlevania does not feature large, interconnected areas to explore, nor an expansive variety of abilities and items to customize your style of play. What Castlevania classic does offer is one of the best platforming experiences on the NES. Players control Simon Belmont and explore Dracula’s Castle in hopes of vanquishing the dark lord. Along the way, Simon must fight through several enemies such as mummies and Frankenstein’s monster; unlike later Castlevania games which adopted a more baroque style, the original draws on old Universal monster movies for influence. Simon can find some items such as throwing knives and holy water to help him, but his primary weapon is his trusty whip, a series mainstay. It’s a simple game by the franchise’s standards, but so much of the core gameplay is present that it barely matters. Castlevania is on the NES Classic and its remake Super Castlevania IV is available on the SNES Classic.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

After experimenting with RPG elements and exploration with Simon’s Quest, Konami reined in the gameplay for the third installment in the Castlevania series, Dracula’s Curse. Set before the first two games, the game follows Simon Belmont’s ancestor, Trevor, as he seeks to vanquish Dracula. As usual for the series, the vanquishing doesn’t quite take.

Despite going back to platforming basics, Dracula’s Curse did introduce some changes of its own to the Castlevania formula. Main character Trevor Belmont is joined by three new characters who can accompany him: Sypha Belnades, a sorceress with powerful spells; Grant Danasty, an oddly named pirate who can climb on walls; and Alucard, Dracula’s son who can shoot fireballs and fly around like a bat.

Although the game is divided into straightforward levels like the original Castlevania, there are a few points in Dracula’s Curse where the player can allow two different paths. This sort of branching gameplay adds variance to playthroughs, and there are different endings depending on which companion Trevor travels with. It’s also the main source material for the Castlevania Netflix series and boasts many of the same characters.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Sometimes greatness is less about actually being good than about being bold. That’s certainly the case for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, which built upon the platforming adventure gameplay of the first Castlevania and added RPG elements, such as a world map and experience system. The game adopted the nonlinear exploration of Metroid, which made for much more open gameplay, however many of the items needed to finish the game are hidden in extremely esoteric locations, requiring the player to decipher cryptic clues given by NPCs or otherwise simply stumble upon the items in question. As such, Simon’s Quest has developed a reputation for notoriously fiendish difficulty, being nigh impossible to complete without a guide.

While Simon’s Quest may not be the most fun or well-designed game on the NES, it did introduce a number of mechanics

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