After a turbulent period that saw the video game market hit a new low, the 1980s proved to be a decade of incredible growth for Nintendo. Having dabbled in the market since the 1970s, Nintendo’s new home console was a bold and exciting new direction for the company that helped cement it as a household name across the world. The hardware alone made for a handsome box of possibility, but it’s the games that helped Nintendo define its brand, with various first and third-party offerings making their way onto cartridges.
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Hundreds and hundreds of games were released over the years before the NES was eventually succeeded by the SNES, but which ones were the best? We’ve got an idea, with 25 games listed below that should please any fan of the NES glory days. A decent number of these games are available on Switch via a Nintendo Switch Online membership.
Batman: The Video Game
Michael Keaton’s caped crusader may have been cursed with limited peripheral vision and an inability to turn his neck when he suited up in Tim Burton’s landmark 1989 superhero movie, but those weaknesses weren’t present in Sunsoft’s brilliant tie-in game. Loosely based on the film, this game gave players a dark knight who could jump off walls, out-punch any criminal who ran into his fists, and a wonderful toybox of gadgets that would have any clown prince of crime wondering about how he could get his hands on them.
Battletoads and Double Dragon
Technos and Rare might have been ready for an ambitious crossover, but there was no doubt that the spotlight was on the infamous battling toads named after various skin conditions. Even with that in mind, the NES beat-’em-up was a joyride of over-the-top action, eye-popping graphics, and gameplay that didn’t waste your time.
The main takeaway from Capcom’s Bionic Commando was that every level could be completed with the use of an incredibly satisfying robotic prosthetic grappling hook. Think calling back Kratos’ axe in God of War or nailing a perfect counter in the Arkham series to get an understanding of just how thrilling it was to launch yourself over gaps. Factor in the attention-grabbing art design and you’ve got a great idea as to just why this game has been a valuable addition to the NES history books.
Games showed their hands early on during the 1980s, but Blaster Master is one of those rare titles which managed to surprise players with an extra slice of perspective action. Whether you were engaged in some classic side-scrolling and platforming fun or tearing through enemies with a top-down perspective, Blaster Master’s non-linear gameplay was a treat across all eight levels on offer as it combined two vastly different experiences into a cohesive whole.
The first but definitely not the best, Castlevania is still essential gaming content for anyone looking to see the origin point of one of the best franchises in the industry today. Classic Castlevania is a brutally difficult odyssey through Dracula’s infamous castle, but it’s still a game that’s delightfully cheesy, has a soundtrack that never grows old, and runs wild with its concept of a whip-equipped monster hunter carving a bloody path on his way towards the greatest villain in horror.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
The first Castlevania sequel may have had some ambitious and interesting ideas, but Simon’s Quest dropped the ball when it first arrived. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse on the other hand, managed to grab said ball with a deft flick of the whip and run wild. Striking a perfect balance between Castlevania 2’s more ingenious ideas and the original game’s action-focused gameplay, Dracula’s Curse increased the size of its roster, enhanced the visual quality, and delivered a soundtrack that would leave you tapping a foot-shaped dent into your floor.
The best use of the Konami code of all time mixed with character art that looked suspiciously similar to Hollywood blockbuster film posters, Contra is the stuff of legend. Run-and-gun action across several levels and dozens of lives if you knew the right inputs, the original game is a classic showcase of gung-ho attitude and innovative ideas for its time. Addictive and packed with memorable level boss fights, Contra’s a blast from the past, especially if you manage to get that overpowered spread gun.
Dragon Warrior IV
The final Dragon Warrior to be released in the West for many many years after it arrived in 1992, Chunsoft’s sprawling fantasy epic was going out with a bang in that region. Spread across five chapters that put a unique character in the spotlight, this specific sequel was peak Dragon Quest–yes, it’s the same seires–with its epic storyline, enjoyable gameplay mechanics, and a legacy that saw it get its own spin-off game. Years later, a PlayStation remake would arrive and spruce up the visuals while adding several new gameplay features.
A few more years passed and another remake arrived, this time on the Nintendo DS. After that, a version based on the DS remake would be released on Android and iOS in 2014, proving that Dragon Warrior IV had an enduring appeal that lasted for several generations.
Mario may have started his career as a plumber on a mission, but in 1990 the Nintendo mascot swapped his blue overalls for a white labcoat as he ventured into territory that was dominated by Tetris at the time. Dr. Mario’s prescription for breaking a Russian stranglehold on puzzle-based video games was color-matching pills, providing easily accessible digital healthcare that could keep you occupied for hours at a time.
Also known as Mother, Nintendo’s 1989 RPG is a strange mix of contemporary themes and battling formerly-inanimate objects that have suddenly developed homicidal urges. From its menu-based first-person perspective battle system to its overall USA aesthetic as viewed through the lens of 1980s Japan, Earthbound Beginnings became a cult classic after launch. It’s still as brutally challenging as ever before and it may have taken its sweet time to arrive in the West as a new offering on the Wii U Virtual Console in 2015, but this charming little adventure is worth experiencing at least once in your life.
Provided that you could tear yourself away from the screen and its catchy theme tune, Excitebike was motocross action that lived up to its name. Every track was a combination of high jumps, neck-to-neck competition, and watching out for hazards while you maintained expert control of your engine on every lap. That tight balance between speed, precision, and control made for an addictive combination, and decades later the formula holds up better than ever for some quick and dirty motorcycle mayhem.
Every legend has a beginning, and for Final Fantasy, that franchise’s rise to the top of the RPG food chain began in 1987 on the NES. Everything that you associate with Final Fantasy began here, as Square’s original game combined overworld maps, dungeons, and an intriguing plot with magic, a stellar soundtrack, and enough crystals to attract a horde of homeopaths to your home. The template that would become one of the biggest game franchises in the world, Final Fantasy’s original game still has enough magic in the tank to cast a spell of enchantment on anyone who gives it a whirl.
Kid Icarus may feel like a forgotten part of NES history these days, but the original game is still a quirky and delightful adventure that’s worth talking fondly about. It may be a flawed diamond with several peculiar gameplay decisions really standing out, but as a fun reminder of the past, the nostalgia still runs deep with Pit’s debut game. If you still have a Nintendo 3DS console, it’s well worth checking out that smoother incarnation of the game which offers tighter controls and more eye-pleasing graphics.
The Legend of Zelda
The blueprint to everything that would follow in its footsteps over the decades, it’s amazing to see just how much of this high fantasy game’s DNA has survived this far into the 21st century. Everything that you’d expect from a Zelda game is here, including green tunics, legendary swords, and puzzles with solutions that seem obtuse in hindsight. Undeniably difficult at times, Link’s original journey is still video game royalty that belongs in any gaming hall of fame.
Mega Man 2
When it comes to sequels, Mega Man is the blueprint for how to get a follow-up act right the first time. Taking the original game’s ideas and further refining them towards pixel-perfection, everything about Mega Man 2 just felt better. More responsive, bigger in scope, and introducing features that would become series staples, Capcom’s little blue android was firing on all cylinders for his 1988 return. Plus, Heat Man’s theme on the game’s soundtrack is still a certified banger.
It may be hard to believe, but Solid Snake’s first appearance on a home console wasn’t 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. The chain-smoking soldier first introduced audiences to his brand of stealth espionage action a decade earlier on the NES–well, as an adaptation of an MSX2 game–sneaking through enemy lines with nothing more than guile and cunning at the time. A radical departure from the more action-heavy games flooding the market at the time, Metal Gear’s emphasis on brains before bullets approach to infiltrating the mercenary haven of Outer Heaven made for an instant classic in 1988.
Metroid’s debut on the NES is admittedly a game that hasn’t held up too well over time, especially when a superior and more refined version exists in the form of the superb Metroid: Zero Mission on the Game Boy Advance. Where the game earns a spot on this list though, is through its introduction of several elements that would become series staples. A combination of atmospheric level design and spooky audio made Samus Aran’s first adventure a memorable one, setting a template for future games to further refine.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
By the time that Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! had arrived on NES, the infamous pugilist had become a household name for his ability to transform faces into abstract art whenever he stepped into the ring. While the man himself was an almost unstoppable monster if you managed to reach him, the fight to go from journeyman to main event challenger was a thrilling collection of boxing bouts against a colorful collection of brawlers. From Glass Joe to Bald Bull, every fight was a tense and tactical showdown before you got to Iron Mike and made certain that your next of kin had been informed of your championship dreams.
Ninja Gaiden’s debut on the NES was one that captured the pure power fantasy of being a shinobi–not that one–with unrelenting and grueling obstacles thrown your way. Ninja-running on a tightrope of fun and challenging gameplay, Ninja Gaiden at its best was an acrobatic showcase of protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s speed and lethal precision, which required god-like thumb reflexes to avoid an early death. Was it often frustratingly difficult? Absolutely, but all the effort and hard work in successfully completing a stage made you feel like a true badass when all was said and done.
River City Ransom
River City Ransom is one of those rare perfect games to have on hand when you want to sit back, relax, and have a friend join you for some couch potato fun. A brawler at heart, the magic in this game comes from having a partner by your side to offer a surplus of high kicks to the digital faces of any goons who get in your way. Adorably aggressive and loaded with charm, this is one game that’s still a blast to play and helped inspire a few other classic beat-’em-ups along the years.
Contra was a trendsetter when it first hit the scene, and while Super C doesn’t do much to improve on the formula of the original game, it does refine its ideas for gloriously over-the-top bullet hell action featuring color-coded commandos on a mission. Turning the action up to 11 for a blast of run-and-gun mayhem, Super C is still a hell of a brilliant two-player game, punishing and thrilling in equal measure with its ability to deliver well-earned blisters to your thumbs after a marathon gaming session. It also doesn’t support the 30 extra lives code, so good luck.
Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. may just have one of the most iconic opening levels of all time, a perfect introduction to its world of stomping action, brick-busting acrobatics, and eating nearby mushrooms to gain a power-up. Decades later, and that game’s historical importance has only grown since then to signify the beginning of a new generation for the industry following a disastrous crash in 1983. A milestone in design that still holds up today, the original Super Mario Bros. was just the first chapter in an incredible trilogy of games that reshaped the world around it with timeless fun.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Technically a reskin of Doki Doki Panic, Nintendo of America’s demand for a less-punishing Super Mario Bros. sequel still managed to find massive success in the West. A more colorful follow-up to the chart-topping success of the first game, Super Mario Bros. 2 feels like an odd duck when compared to its predecessor and successor, a middle child that nevertheless still had a profound impact on the franchise and is still well worth revisiting for some classic platforming action.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Was there ever any doubt that Mario was capable of packing a 1-2-3 punch of excellence? The previous games starring the plumber may have helped define the Nintendo era, but Super Mario Bros. 3 built on those titles to deliver not just one of the greatest sequels of all time, but also one of the best video games ever. Everything on offer here is a monumental leap beyond what came before it, from fascinating level design to inventive gameplay and visuals that can still leave your eyes shaken and stirred today.
Still as fun to play today as it was when it first arrived in 1988, this timeless masterpiece was the perfect game to cap off a trilogy of gaming excellence.
For fans of American football, Tecmo Bowl is still one of the finest examples of the gridiron sport after three decades. A classic that allowed for players to take to the field while wearing the official NFL colors of their beloved team, Tecmo’s legacy is one of realistic kicking action, bouts of chaotic fun, and a community that has kept the game alive with regular roster updates over the years. EA’s Madden series may feel like the only game in town currently, but Tecmo Bowl is still a reliable cult classic even in this modern era of gaming.