The 100 Best NES Games

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The 100 Best NES Games

One of the hottest products last holiday season was a tiny box that played a bunch of videogames from 30 years ago. Something like the NES Classic doesn’t become impossible to find merely out of nostalgia; its popularity was a testament to the enduring triumph of the best games released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the Nintendo Entertainment System saved the entire home videogame industry. After the videogame crash of 1983, the console was essentially dead, and the arcade reigned supreme. A glut of poorly made games for the Atari 2600 killed the marketplace as the industry lost billions in revenues in just a matter of months. It was so bad that retailers notoriously had little interest in carrying Nintendo’s new console when the Japanese company launched it in America in 1985. They had to bundle it with a robot and a toy gun in order to get their system, which they named the Nintendo Entertainment System, on toy shelves instead of in the electronics department. The NES quickly became a defining part of 1980s culture, converting millions of kids into lifelong videogame fans, reestablishing the industry as a multi-billion dollar concern, and convincing some parents that every subsequent videogame system, no matter who made it, could be referred to simply as the Nintendo.

Of course it wasn’t the hardware that made every kid want a Nintendo 30 years ago. It was the games. As a developer, Nintendo’s legacy of quality was established even before the NES was released, but it quickly grew after such games as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3 were released for the NES. That core of Nintendo classics was bolstered by reams of top-notch third-party games, from such acclaimed publishers as Konami, Capcom and Tecmo, to form perhaps the deepest roster of games ever seen on any videogame console. Let’s explore that library together as we look back on the 100 best games released for the NES. It’s basically a history class in list form.

nes games rampage.jpg 100. Rampage

Although not an ideal port, this got the basics right enough that nobody could really complain. It’s got overgrown beasts just beating the hell out of some skyscrapers, while also trying to swat away helicopters and stomp on tanks. It’s just more proof that aimless violence can be cathartic for all ages.—Garrett Martin

nes games track and field ii.jpg 99. Track and Field II

Combining the splash page close-up action shots of Double Dribble with the button-mashing fury of the original Track and Field, this 1988 sports omnibus was a crucial postscript to the 1988 Seoul Olympics for every starry eyed kid who loved videogames and Greg Louganis in equal measure.—Garrett Martin

nes clu clu land.jpg 98. Clu Clu Land

Don’t listen to those who pooh-pooh the Clu Clu. There’s nothing else like it in the history of videogames. Where else do you race through a labyrinth to uncover gems that form a picture all while being chased by Pac-Man-ish ghosts? —Jon Irwin

nes ikari warriors.jpg 97. Ikari Warriors

Amid a sea of Commando clones, upon its 1986 release to arcades, Ikari Warriors carved an identity of its own with a unique two player mode and the inclusion of rotary joysticks. Sadly, the latter did not make it to the NES port in 1987, but Ikari Warriors was well received on home console nonetheless. —Holly Green

nes games gunsmoke.jpg 96. Gun.Smoke

Why thumbs were created. And you’ll use ‘em, since this Western gunslinger sim is a punishing riff on the “vertical walking shooter” sub-genre. Find your horse, upgrade your weapon, and dodge a hailstorm of bullets and knives while tracking down the latest Wanted Poster cover model. —Jon Irwin

nes karnov.jpg 95. Karnov

This game is about a Soviet strongman using his Soviet muscle to smash his way through the flesh and bones of his enemies. Some of those enemies are…dragons? And genies? And other strong men? It’s really hard, but if you persevere you can punch a snake thing to death at the end. This game seems like it’s probably a political metaphor. The strongman is a metaphor. —Cameron Kunzelman

nes solomons key.jpg 94. Solomon’s Key

The most fanciful thing about Tecmo’s brutal puzzler, where you play a wizard who can create or destroy blocks in midair in order to avoid deadly floating faces and rescue magical fairies, is that your wizard’s name is Dana. That’s like playing a Conan-style barbarian named Blair. Huge in Japan and released early enough in America to make a solid impression, Solomon’s Key wasn’t content to merely tease brains—it basically ripped them right out of the skull and spiked them on the ground like an end zone celebration.—Garrett Martin

nes festers quest.jpg 93. Fester’s Quest

As we all know, the daily events in the life of Fester Addams is one of the most interesting topics that one could make a game about, and luckily someone did that. It’s a little bit like an Ultima game, but it has the personality of terrifying bald man who may or may not be dead already. —Cameron Kunzelman

nes commando.jpg 92. Commando

This Capcom classic and it’s dashing, run-and-gun style was first released in arcades in 1985 and on the Nintendo Entertainment System the following year. It would go on to later influence many other shooter games, the game’s unlimited ammo allowing for a satisfying break-neck pace, and its isometric perspective facilitating an appeasing field of view that would later form a primer for the 3D games to come. —Holly Green

nes ice climber.jpg 91. Ice Climber

As with many of the games on this list, Ice Climber hasn’t aged well, but it holds an undeniable and ironically warm spot in our hearts nonetheless. Its protagonists, Nana and Popo, climbed a series of ice-covered peaks to reach the top of the mountain and recover their stolen vegetables from thieving condors. In spite of or perhaps because of this unlikely premise, its legacy lives on. —Holly Green

nes defender of the crown.jpg 90. Defender of the Crown

The NES port of this swashbuckling strategy game might not have looked or sounded as nice as the Amiga original, but it was actually deeper in its tactics and possibilities. Conquering England has never been this much fun.—Garrett Martin

nes romance three kingdoms.jpg 89. Romance of the Three Kingdoms

This game is an adaptation of a 14th century Chinese novel, and the designers thought that content would translate perfectly to a turn-based game of regional conflict between the heroes of Chinese history and myth. I’ve played this game a few times, and I can never make heads of tails of what is happening, but it’s really impressive that they got this thing going on the NES. —Cameron Kunzelman

nes scheherazade.jpg 88. Magic of Scheherazade

This Zelda-ish action-RPG is based on One Thousand and One Nights and includes a number of unusual features for its day, including time travel and a combination of solo and team-based combat. Although far from perfect, it was unique and weird enough at the time that it deserves revisitation.—Garrett Martin

nes deja vu.jpg 87. Déjà Vu

In a move that might sound counterproductive for true noir stalwarts, the NES version of this mid-‘80s MacVenture point-and-clicker arrived in full color. It was actually an improvement: with a full palette, the darkness you expect from a good noir was more pronounced. More importantly, though, it preserved the rich story and stimulating puzzles of the original, and was an uncommonly mature game for Nintendo’s first console.—Garrett Martin

nes rbi baseball.jpg 86. RBI Baseball

The original RBI Baseball was a sac fly for Atlanta Braves fans, the only baseball fans who matter in Paste’s opinion; you couldn’t play as the team, but you could play as Dale Murphy with the NL All-Star team, and since he was the only Brave worth playing in 1986 (or, honestly, almost any year that decade), it was hard to get too worked up about the whole thing. Oh, yeah, you could also play as people who weren’t Dale Murphy, too, if you were weird like that; this was the first console baseball game to snag a license from the Major League Baseball Player’s Association.—Garrett Martin

nes clash at demonhead.jpg 85. Clash at Demonhead

The only game on this list most recognized as a band name from a fictional universe (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). To continue the rock ‘n roll etymology, Clash at Demonhead is more like Extreme: Perhaps not as wild as the name implies. But still pretty rad. —Jon Irwin

Dragon_Warrior.jpg 84. Dragon Warrior

Apparently Americans hate the word “quest”? Japan’s blockbuster role-playing game Dragon Quest was released in America as Dragon Warrior, and although it’s incredibly simplistic (and a little bit of a bore) it did prepare us for the next year’s release of Final Fantasy. Fans of contemporary PC RPGs like the Ultima series would probably find Dragon Warrior too simplistic, but as an introduction to an entire genre, it’s perfectly serviceable.—Garrett Martin

section-z-usa.png 83. Section Z

Maybe astronauts wouldn’t have lost their cool over the years if a laser gun was a standard part of their toolkit. In Section Z you control just such a guy as he shoots his way through a sprawling space station, with the A and B buttons shooting either to your left or right. It’s long and hard and also a relatively early NES game; it lacks any kind of save or password feature, which makes it feel even longer and harder.—Garrett Martin

Power_Blade_Boxart.jpg 82. Power Blade

An early example of the “Noun-as-Adjective + Noun” fantasy title template still used today. (See: Kingdom Hearts, Mass Effect.) It also leaned into the burgeoning Schwartzneggar fandom, putting a Terminator-era Arnie lookalike on the cover for no discernable reason. There’s serviceable sci-fi action here, but it’s no Junior. —Jon Irwin

battletoads-usa.png 81. Battletoads

Battletoads proves that a concept that’s vaguely adjacent to something popular is at least as important as solid game design when it comes to making an impression. Okay, Rare’s action game is hardly bad—it wouldn’t be on this list if it was—but today its reputation easily outstrips its merits. It’s about as capricious as games got in 1991, and a triumph of commercialism more than anything.—Garrett Martin

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