The Magnavox Odyssey may have kicked off the home console trend, and the Atari 2600 may have popularized the idea, but the Nintendo Entertainment System was the machine which truly allowed the industry to take off in North America.
Ushering in a massively successful new era of graphical fidelity and gameplay standards, there are around 700 titles available for the system—depending on who you’re asking—and each has a dedicated, passionate fanbase eager to defend it. As a result, piecing together a definitive list of the top ten NES games is downright impossible, but, in the broadest terms popular, here are the console’s heaviest hitters.
10 Ice Climbers
Though this parka-clad pair is mostly remembered for their appearance in various Super Smash Bros. installments, they actually got their start on the NES. A launch title for the 8-bit console, Nintendo’s Ice Climbers tasked players with slowly scaling virtual mountains while doing their best to rack up a high score.
While it isn’t often included on many lists of the best retro Nintendo games, Ice Climbers was notable for being one of the best multiplayer experiences available during the system’s early days. Sure, it may be overly-simple—even for NES standards—but it’s a game that deserves as much praise as Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda.
9 Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!
One of the most fondly-remembered titles on a system as nostalgic as original vinyl records or Sony’s Walkman, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! is perhaps the best non-side scrolling game on the system. Released at a time when the rudimentary visuals and elementary level design of the original Mario Bros. was considered cutting-edge, this tongue-in-cheek boxing campaign felt extremely involved.
With the goal of fighting your way to the top and KO-ing the king himself, Punch Out had no video game equal. The game hosts a loyal fan base to this day, and the most dedicated can make their way through it while literally blindfolded.
8 Marble Madness
A game way ahead of its time, Marble Madness feels a bit like an attempt to port Super Monkey Ball over to an 8-bit system. In some ways, it feels like an overachieving demo which showcased the system’s power while remaining fairly light on content. In truth, Marble Madness only features six levels in total and can be beaten in all of five minutes by experienced players.
Yet, there’s still something magical about this digital test of skill. It attempted an isometric perspective on a system which wouldn’t see all that many releases in that style, and it would have been downright amazing to see running back in the mid-80s.
7 Tecmo Bowl
Sure, there were sports games before 1987’s Tecmo Bowl, and we all know that there has been an absolute overindulgence of them since, but few can compare to the utter glory which was that rudimentary football game. While it pales in comparison to recent Madden outings on a technical level, there’s no denying the charm and strange freedom of the title’s simplified playbooks and 8-bit body slams.
The funniest part about the game came from the fact that, while the developers could use the names of actual players, they didn’t have the rights to use the names of real NFL teams, so they had to make their own. Still, back in the day, this was all gamers had, and it was more than adequate.
6 Batman: The Video Game
One of the few movie-based NES games to attain any kind of report among gamers, Batman: The Video Game is very loosely based on Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. While the movie isn’t all that fondly remembered, the game is, and, in an era utterly dominated by side-scrolling action titles, Batman: The Video Game managed to stand head-and-shoulders above the competition.
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The old video game journalism cliche of stating that a game “makes you feel like Batman” may have worn out around the time of Arkham Asylum’s release, but this is an amazing attempt at placing players in the shoes of the caped crusader. Plus, as per NES tradition, it’s incredibly unforgiving, but all the more satisfying as a result.
Inspired by Ridley Scott’s legendary sci-fi horror film Alien, 1986’s Metroid was revolutionary in terms of both the breadth and scope of gaming. In years previous, games on home consoles could scarcely consist of more than a few screens, and most focused on racking up a high score rather than delivering any sort of narrative.
Metroid was so expansive and confusing that it actually required a map (later published in an issue of Nintendo Power), and the sprawling, complicated gameworld infused a great amount of verisimilitude into the experience. It may come off as a bit clunky and tough-to-navigate these days, but the original Metroid is still one of the premiere titles in the long-running series.
Back in the 1980s, arcade ports often had to make tons of concessions to be able to fit on a standard NES cartridge. This often meant a downgrade in visual appeal, playability, and overall quality of life. Yet, that wasn’t the case with 1987’s Contra.
A title which became arguably more famous on Nintendo’s system than it ever was in the arcades, this side-scrolling shooter was the dominant co-op experience of the 8-bit era. Notable for its crushing difficulty, this game is well known for being among the first to use the Konami code, a simple button combination which would grant the player thirty lives instead of the traditional three.
Originally exported from the Soviet Union to home computers like the IBM PC and Commodore 64 in the mid-80’s, Tetris has gone on to be perhaps the most ubiquitous puzzle game to ever see release. Available on nearly every single gaming machine created since 1984, just about everyone familiar with gaming or otherwise should be able to recognize this title.
The NES port probably isn’t as famous as some of the earlier translations of the game, but there’s no doubt that it played a major role in boosting the puzzlers popularity. Tetris is so beloved that, in 2019, gamers are still obsessed with it, and it’s managed to find new life in the form of a crazy pseudo-battle royale Switch exclusive by the name of Tetris 99.
2 Super Mario Bros. 3
The Mario Brothers may have been around in some form since Donkey Kong released in the early ’80s, but the platforming formula originally introduced in that arcade classic and later expanded upon in the original NES release wouldn’t be perfected until Nintendo’s third effort.
While it’s certainly a debatable subject, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the best of the side-scrolling Mario offerings to appear on Nintendo’s first home console. Introducing things like storable items, visually distinct themed stages, and an expansive overworld, Super Mario Bros. 3 was the cornerstone upon which the rest of the series would be built. It’s hard to make a list of the best NES games without including one of Mario’s early titles, and this is the best of the best.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is often credited as the best of the original NES Castlevania games, and it is a marked improvement over the first two. Yet, it’s tough to beat the series' overwhelmingly-nostalgic first entry. It may not have boasted all of the bells and whistles of its two successors, but it introduced a style of gameplay that would captivate audiences for decades to come.
What’s more, Konami’s original Castlevania release was one of the most atmospheric games to debut on Nintendo’s system, and it was genuinely scary when compared to the crude attempts at horror made in prior years.