The Games That Defined The Nintendo NES

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The Nintendo Entertainment System is legendary in the video game world. Nintendo virtually came out of nowhere to invade the world with a reborn love for home-based video games. To fuel the revolution, Nintendo and a skilled group of third parties loaded the NES library with a wealth of high quality 8-bit games that would not only ingrain themselves in the minds of youngsters, but set standards for video game generations to come.

With so many nostalgic favorites, it was difficult to have a comprehensive list without rambling on forever. I did my best to narrow the list down to what I thought were the games that defined what made the NES great and hold the most memories for retrospective gamers everywhere. If I missed mentioning your personal favorite, I apologize, but I would love to hear your story.

See Also: Hidden Gems: The Best Undiscovered Nintendo NES Games
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Special Thanks to flyingomelette.com for screenshots

Super Mario Bros. Series

Super Mario Bros NES ScreenshotBefore the NES, the home video game industry almost crumbled into non-existance. Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. came to the rescue just in time by bringing bright and vivid graphics, a magical environment, and addictive gameplay to a tired industry. In addition to saving the gaming industry it also helped position Nintendo as a new powerhouse in the home video game industry, dethroning the likes of Atari.

Though not terribly difficult, Super Mario Bros. struck a wonderful level of challenge with its various enemies, pitfalls, and occasional secrets (such as the variety of warp pipes scattered about the game). Coupled with its then-impressive graphics and catchy tunes, Super Mario Bros. was just impossible to ignore. (Even today, it’s landscapes and musical themes are etched into our minds)

After the tremendous success of the first Super Mario Bros. game, you can imagine the anticipation of a sequel. In Japan, Nintendo had a direct Super Mario Bros. sequel, but it was deemed too difficult for the American gaming audience. To remedy this situation, Nintendo repackaged another Japanese platforming game, known as Doki Doki Panic, with Mario-themed sprites and the name Super Mario Bros. 2. The results were a game that puzzled many young Mario fans, but managed to be and bizarrely entertaining.

In this new Mario installment, gamers were actually able to play as one of four different characters: Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad. Each character had a unique characteristic that gave them certain situational advantages against other characters. In a magical land where was a need to pull vegetables and throw them at enemies and jump far distances, there was a bit of strategy involved in character selection. For all the complaints Super Mario Bros 2 received, it was an interesting change of pace for Mario fans and remains a quirky nostalgia trip for many.

With a feature-length movie (The Wizard) serving as the ultimate commercial, Super Mario Bros. 3 was one of the most hyped and anticipated games of all time (and for good reason). It took everything that worked in the original Super Mario Bros. game and gave it a makeover that was bordering on 16-bit innovation.

Super Mario Bros. 3 featured eight, more unique worlds, each containing numerous levels, used an innovative map navigation system that blew the minds of many a Mario fan. While staying true to the format of the original, SMB3 introduced new gameplay elements including special suits that gave Mario new abilities and a number of new powerups.

Super Mario 3 simply did exactly what it needed to do as a Mario sequel. Nearly every level presented a flawless degree of challenge and the adventure itself was long and varied. Nintendo fine-tuned its skill at creating a fun-filled presentation with tons of hidden secrets to be found leaving players with an amazing ride from beginning to end.

The influence of the Super Mario Bros series on the NES was increasingly apparent throughout the 8-bit and 16-bit eras as numerous platformer clones emerged from nearly every publisher on every console. However, very few could even contend with the original.

The Legend of Zelda

Legend of Zelda NES ScreenshotMuch like he did with Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto changed the video game landscape with his other pet project, titled The Legend of Zelda. As many of us know, the game followed a young boy named Link who was chosen by destiny to save the royal Princess Zelda, gather the mythical Triforce of Wisdom pieces, and overthrow the evil Ganon.

Miyamoto based The Legend of Zelda on experiences that he had in local forests, lakes, and caves around his Kyoto home. One memory that stood out for him was discovering a large cave. This is something that is a recurring them in The Legend of Zelda series.

Zelda introduced many players to role-playing elements that were undiscovered by most gamers at the time. In addition to being able to roam around the territory of Hyrule and battle in real-time, the player was able to talk to other people and collect currency to buy extra weapons and power-ups. It was also a huge thrill when you stumbled upon a treasure chest filled with rupees (the currency) or other goodies. These all seem very common today, but in the early NES days, this was a fresh and experience for many.

Zelda’s gameplay was also different from anything we had seen before. It offered players the chance to play the role of a character, and to utilize his strengths to wage battles with enemies. The main difference from other games, however, was there was no set path — you must chose where to go.

One of the most interesting aspects of Zelda at the time was its freedom and ability to fight or not depending on your mood. Typical battles are not neccessary, but they are valuable, especially if you desperately need heart or rupees. And the difficulty really begins to kick in when five or more monsters are on the one screen in a total melee of confusion, dodging, shielding and attacking. The adrenalin really gets pumping with only half of a heart left, and you have got to do everything possible to save yourself. It’s a sense of survival, and its this feeling that keeps the player hooked on this game for hours on end.

Zelda is obviously considered a spiritual forerunner of the console role-playing genre (Action RPGs, in particular) as it broke many of the conventions of PC RPGs with its use of cartoonish graphics, real-time battles, and magical selection of music. It also brought role-playing gameplay to a wider audience which establishing one of the most powerful brands in gaming.

Metroid

Metroid NES ScreenshotProduced by the legendary Gunpei Yokoi, one of the more influential software and hardware designers at Nintendo, Metroid was a groundbreaking title in many areas. It was one of the first (if not the first) home video games that featured scrolling along both the X- and Y-axis, and starred a female protagonist, Samus Aran – a sharp contrast to the “Save The Princess” plot motif that was the norm at the time. But more-so than these achievements, what was truly groundbreaking was its non-linear gameplay and minimalist environments and music.

The action of Metroid is very simple. Samus has been directed to search the planet Zebes for Space Pirate activity and stop their plans of using a parasitic organism, called a Metroid, against galactic civilization. Scattered throughout Zebes are numerous power-ups that strengthen Samus’ firepower and stamina. Collecting these power-ups is necessary to gain enough power to challenge the Space Pirates and their leader, the Mother Brain. Speed also plays an important role, as different endings are triggered by different completion times, giving rise to the current concept of game “speed runs” and “sequence breaks”.

Metroid’s non-linear world design instantly set itself apart from other games of the same era. Instead of a relentless progression forward to an arbitrary “end”, backtracking to previous areas was encouraged, and even required for advancement. The player’s character, Samus Aran, must scour every nook and cranny of the entirely alien Zebes in the hope of finding the one power-up that would unlock the next area. It is interesting to note that the level designers were very careful to make sure the player could not easily enter, and get stuck in, an area that required a specific power-up to get through or back out of.

The atmosphere of the world itself also ran counter to the usual presentation of that time. Instead of bright, flashy colors, Zebes’ backdrop was plain, flat black. No sky, no clouds. The lack of any visible background or reference of an “outside” further to drive the sense of exploration of ancient tunnels and claustrophobia in the player. Dotting the foreground, and providing the platforms to navigate, is spritework that evokes “alien” and “ancient”. Why are there faces etched in some of the stones where Samus first appears?

Overall, Metroid had an unusually somber and mature narrative, atmosphere, and music considering it was a first-party Nintendo product. Prior to Metroid, Nintendo released mostly generic sports games and simple arcade-style action games. Metroid proved that video games could demand more from players than simple memorization and quick reflexes. The game was ahead of its time back in 1986, and now, 20 years later, the Metroid franchise remains on the forefront of innovation in the video game industry.

Duck Hunt

Duck Hunt NES ScreenshotDucks are evil. Or so Nintendo would have you believe. A game that trained many a future hunter in their formative years, Duck Hunt is an example of elegant simplicity as well as a practical demonstration of simple technology.

As one of the pack-in games for the NES, it was hard to find an 80’s kid that didn’t play Duck Hunt at some point in time. There was something magical about being able to shoot the NES Zapper at the TV and watch the ducks get knocked down. Many of us also wanted to be able to shoot the dog, but every game has its flaw.

By today’s standards Duck Hunt would be considered a cheap free flash game. When it was new, though, it allowed players to do what few other games had allowed them to do – shoot their TV. The graphics and audio are as expected for an early NES game, which is to say simple by the standards of even later NES games. The visuals could be considered cute and charming, though, and do not detract from the game. The audio, on the other hand, can at times be a bit obnoxious. The gunshot sounds more like a running water faucet than a gun.

Gun games have not seen great popularity on home systems over the years despite many valiant attempts such as Namco’s guncon games. Perhaps the popularity of Duck Hunt is due to the simplicity. Perhaps the popularity is due to the fact that the game was included with most Nintendo systems.

If you’ve been living on the moon and have never played Duck Hunt perhaps there are other gun games you might want to try. Games with more substance. Then again, though, maybe it is all about shooting the ducks. After all, ducks are evil. 🙂

Other than Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt is one of the most iconic games from the NES, serving as inspiration for artwork at shows such as iam8bit, serving as a mini-game in Wario Ware, and being one of the most anticipated remakes on the Nintendo Wii.

Excitebike

Excitebike NES ScreenshotIt is very rare for a sport-related title to age well. Improvements in technology, changes in taste from the general public, and switches in direction from video game companies have killed many a so-called “classic.” And then there’s Excitebike. More than 20 years have passed since Excitebike became an early release for the NES and it still plays like it’s brand new. The graphics are anything but realistic and the sound effects have a bad tinny sound to them, but the game is just pure, unadulterated fun.

The premise of the game is unbelievably simple, as you race your red and white motocross bike along five obstacle-laden courses and try to reach the finish line before your opponents. The game scrolls horizontally and you move your character up and down the lanes to avoid opponents and stationary obstacles.

The game’s controls were as straightforward as could be, but there was a surprising amount of strategy hidden in those controls. The A and B buttons were used for acceleration, but the A button also gave you a turbo boost for quicker acceleration. This acceleration came at the cost of some engine overheating, however. If you spend too long in the “red zone” and your engine would overheat, so you’d have to take a short breather while it cooled down.

The trick in Excitebike was to modulate the regular acceleration with just enough turbo to keep you going quickly, without killing the engine in the process. Keeping an eye on engine temperature was only a part of your challenge as there were also the many jumps on the course that you had to prepare for and take advantage of. Because you could tilt your bike backward and forward while in midair, you need to angle your bike downward when landing on the backside of a hill to maintain your momentum. Who would have thought such as simple game could be so deep?

There are also two modes of play in Excitebike. Mode A allows you to race alone so that you’re attempting to beat the clock. Mode B adds computer controlled characters to race against and most likely crash into. Hit them from the back and they fall over, while they can do the same thing to you.

A cool track editor (albeit an archaic one) rounds off the package and adds a lot of replay value. It actually works quite well, offering the ability to add just about any hill, bump, or patch of dirt available in the game. The lack of a way to save your custom made tracks is really the biggest flaw. Overall, Excitebike is a true classic that just about every NES owner and/or Nintendo fan should have.

Contra

Contra NES ScreenshotUp, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start. Sound familiar? Yes, Contra was the one game that almost single-handedly invented the “cheats” community. This Konami classic was also a legendary shooter that kept spaceships from having all the fun and instead defined the “run-and-gun” sub-genre.

Contra, a side-scrolling, two-player shoot-’em-up, let you (and a friend) play as a commando on a mission to blow away an alien invasion force. The game’s awesome selection of weapons, inventive and exciting levels, and frustrating difficulty level collectively raised the bar for what could be expected of action games.

Did I mention Contra is hard? Yes, one brush with an enemy or a single hit from a bullet meant certain death, and you only had three lives and a handful of continues to deal with. With enemies showing up in all sorts of places and bullets coming at you from all angles, any sane newbie to the game would want to throw the game out the window in order to rid themselves of the panic attack. But somehow, Contra turned gamers who were normally sane into twitchy gamers who became obsessed with progressing a bit further than last time just so they could defeat this masterpiece of a game.

The firepower you are provided with does help you reach your goal. In addition to being able to shoot in any direction, the power-ups throughout the levels provide great assistance. You start with a standard rifle, and can acquire machine guns, flamethrowers, and lasers. The weapons all have their own distinct advantages to match the player’s style. Smart bombs and invincibility power-ups are also available to aid the destruction.

Contra also had some different levels to break up the gameplay such as the “behind-the-character” levels where players must hit certain targets to blow open security doors while avoiding enemy fire, bombs, and rolling canisters. This mode involves ducking fire, waiting for the right moment, and attacking. It may not be quite as engaging as the main side-scrolling levels, but they provided a great diversion.

Overall, Contra was a landmark game in the action genre and many of its developers moved on from Konami to start their own development house known as Treasure. These masterminds went on to create more cult classic action titles such as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, Guardian Heroes, Ikaruga, and Bangai-O.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

Mike Tyson's Punchout NES ScreenshotThere was something special about Mike Tyson’s Punch Out that drew me in as a kid in the 80’s. Maybe it was the relatively large character sprites that seemed like a cartoon or the outlandish personalities they each portrayed. Perhaps it was the trill of starting out as the up-and-coming boxer by the name of Little Mac and finally figuring out how to conquer a menacing opponent. It’s hard to put your finger a single characteristic that made Punch-Out so memorable, but it remains as a iconic classic that has never quite been matched.

As Mac, you simply faced one humorously stereotypical opponent after another until you eventually reached the champ, Mike Tyson (who could send you to the canvas in one punch). What made this game different from previous boxing games outside of the Punch-Out series was its gameplay style, great presentation, and the unique characters.

Once you devoted yourself to Punch-Out for several days and learned the each opponent’s patterns, the first 12 boxers slowly became a test of your memory and timing. But once you entered the ring with Macho-Man, your skills were defined by whether you could duck his Super Macho punch. However, that would only be a prelude to the “toughest” boss of all-time. Kid Dynamite, himself, Mike Tyson took countless knock-out inducing upper-cuts at you for the first minute and a half of the fight.

Most players had contests as to who could last the longest, or better yet, simply last through the first 1:30 of the first round. Beating Mike Tyson was a mere afterthought. However, every elementary school in the 80’s had one kid who said he beat Mike Tyson, but didn’t have any proof to back it up. Even 20 years later, beating Mike Tyson is one of the biggest accomplishments any gamer can have.

Castlevania Trilogy

Castlevania NES ScreenshotKonami’s other hardcore action series on the NES was the Dracula-hunting Castlevania trilogy. And much like Contra, Castlevania was filled with deep gameplay and steep difficulty. However, as opposed to the immediate onslaught of action in Contra, the whip-lashing gameplay starts out a bit milder as Castlevania draws you into it’s creepy castle.

As Simon Belmont, you will fight everything from dogs to Death itself in his quest to defeat Dracula. The game is perfect for fans of the horror genre, with all the zombies, skeletons, bats, ghosts, and so much more. And who could forget the pesky medusa heads that moved up and down and always managed to get in your way just as you were jumping over a gap.

In addition to dodging all the creepy obstacles, Castlevania required lots of practice time to figure out how each of the levels worked, and which secondary weapons were appropriate for each scenario. The latter half of the game was filled with enemies that moved in eclectic patterns, requiring you to be patient and wait for the right time to move and attack. By the time you reached the Grim Reaper’s level, each hit would take away a quarter of your health, so you would die quickly if you were careless.

As if the original Castlevania wasn’t difficult enough, Konami treated hardcore fans for a more intense outing with the two follow-up games. In addition to pushing the limits of your gameplay skills, but the later installments (particularly part 3) also pushed the limits of what the NES could do with some great 8-bit graphics.

Kirby’s Adventure

Kirby's Adventure NES ScreenshotKirby’s Dreamland for the Game Boy, Kirby’s first appearance, laid the foundation for the gameplay and general feel of the many Kirby games to follow. But Kirby’s Adventure for the NES also made some additions, the most notable being Kirby’s power stealing ability. This has become a hallmark of the series and the character, and it’s hard to imagine the adorable little cream puff without it.

The game was released in 1993, very late in the console’s very long life (The NES was released in October, ’85 in the USA) and even several years into the 16-bit wars. As a result, the game differs quite a bit from much earlier releases. While many NES games have barren and bland-looking surroundings, Kirby’s are lush and colorful. After almost ten years of working with the NES, Kirby’s developers probably knew it from the inside out, thus resulting in one of the most gorgeous games on the system. Like Super Mario Bros 3, Kirby looked like an early SNES game with a smaller color pallete. Kirby had an advantage on Mario 3, however, as it was the largest licensed NES cart at 6 Mbit.
Kirby himself is a beautiful vibrant pink, the worlds he passes through are delicious lime greens, ice blues, chocolate browns – the rich colours do not attempt to emulate 16 bit, but instead try to make 8 bit as beautiful as possible. The attention to detail incredible as Kirby’s character animations are about as good as they get on the NES.
Another element that strikes me every single time I play is the relative low level of difficulty. Mega Man and Contra fans were definitely surprised when they first played this game. Again, the timing of the release probably played a big role. NES games as a whole were definitely hard, and most series gradually got easier so as to lower frustration and appeal to a wider audience.

As a whole, Kirby’s Dreamland truly showed off what the Nintendo Entertainment System could do in terms of audio, video, and gameplay resulting in a game that should not be missed by classic Nintendo fans.

Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy NES ScreenshotLooking back at 1987, it’s interesting to think that Squaresoft (now Square/Enix) was on the verge of bankruptsy, and as legend has it, the original Final Fantasy was a “Final” effort to save the company with a “Fantasy” game. As it turns out, the game sold incredibly well in Japan keeping it from being Square’s final game.

Final Fantasy not only saved Square from bankruptcy, but gave them the second most popular role-playing game franchise in the country (after Enix’s Dragon Quest). Thanks to some heavy promotion from Nintendo of America, the North American version of Final Fantasy also sold modestly well. Two decades and countless sequels later, there is no denying that Final Fantasy is probably one of the most well known franchises in gaming history.

Gameplay-wise, the original Final Fantasy is probably known for it’s difficulty level and the ability to choose your own party. Those that played it for the NES will remember the days that you had to target a different enemy from your ally, or else you’d attack thin air if that monster died. They’ll also remember the need for power leveling before having to go venture into a dungeon, since each new dungeon was becoming more and more difficult.

At the time, Final Fantasy also had a rather innovative storyline which involved elaborate myths and time travel. This lead to a deeper experience that many claim to be better than Enix’s Dragon Quest. With these groundbreaking characteristics, Final Fantasy, along with the original Dragon Quest, proved to be one of the most influential early console role-playing games, and played a major role in legitimizing and popularizing the genre.

Fans obviously love this title as Square/Enix can’t help but releasing a number of remakes on a variety of platforms, especially mobile devices. While all of these remakes contain various tweaks have been made in a variety of different areas, including graphics, sound, and specific gameplay elements. However, at the heart of each port, the core legacy of this NES classic lives on.

Kid Icarus

Kid Icarus NES ScreenshotKid Icarus was, unfortunately, a rather unknown game for most American kids in the 1980s who depended solely on Nintendo Power for their gaming recommendations. For some reason, Nintendo failed to promote this gem of a game properly. This all comes as a surprise considering Kid Icarus was essentially a sister game to Metroid (they were both designed by Gunpei Yokoi via the same game engine).

While Metroid introduced more revolutionary ideas like open-ended exploration and showing players areas they could not reach until they found a new item, Kid Icarus stuck a little closer to the platformer roots, but attempted to add a little more story and characterization with items that could be found and used along the way. Kid Icarus also differs greatly from Metroid in terms of atmosphere as it is set in a fantasy world, loosely based on and Greek mythology, by the name of “Angel Land”.

Kid Icarus is also deceptively deep for an 8-bit action platformer due to its use of RPG elements. The enemies you kill throughout the game are worth experience points at the end of each level as opposed to keeping a traditional score. Like an RPG, you also have increases in life meter and attack strength at certain experience point levels. After defeating enemies, you also have the opportunity to collect hearts, which are used as currency to purchase items for your adventures (Kid Icarus was one of the first platformers to have an inventory system).

Luckly, word of Kid Icarus spread among the more dedicated NES fans and eventually established a cult following. The enthusiasm for the game has continued for many gaming generations as a rumored sequel has been heavily been discussed for nearly every subsequent Nintendo platform from the SNES to the DS and Wii. Fans are still waiting for Nintendo to make their day.

Mega Man Series

Megaman 2 NES ScreenshotWhile it may be true that Capcom overused the Mega Man series in the 21st century without any significant innovation, you can’t deny that Mega Man was a cutting edge series on the NES. Mega Man combined fast-paced platform shooting with imaginative robot levels and bosses that reward you with inventive gun power ups. Each game in this established series is essentially the same, with the ability to slide around and charge your gun being the only major changes.

The basic formula of the Mega Man series is jumping and shooting through themed levels filled with creative robotic enemies before duking it out with the level’s Robot Master. After defeating that Robot Master, you acquire their special power. Those power can then be used in later levels to take advantage of the later opponents’ weaknesses rock/paper/scissors-style. Therein lies the genius of the Megaman series.

The original Mega Man was a respectible game (even though it had hideous box art), but Mega Man 2 is where the series really took off. From a gameplay standpoint, Mega Man 2 didn’t necessarily do anything wildly different from the original. However, the game was just a class act from top to bottom–resounding proof that games don’t need to be innovative to be amazing, they just need to be finely polished. Part of what makes the game so memorable is just how much attention to detail must have gone into it. Every stage offered its own unique opponents and challenges, and certain enemies would only appear maybe once or twice in the entire game. As well, the collection of weapons and special abilities you gradually earned transformed Mega Man from the basic run-jump-and-shoot video game hero into a versatile powerhouse. You can tell Mega Man 2 is a true classic simply because you can go back and play it right now, and it’s still fun and impressive even after all this time.

Mega Man 3 (where sliding was added) was also one of the favorites of the series, but many will say that part 4 is where the series started to go downhill. Mega Man 4 introduced the Charge Shot, an ability that allowed Mega Man to charge his primary weapon, the Mega Buster, and release a blast much stronger than his normal attack and could sometimes go through multiple enemies. Because of this, the series started downplaying the special weapons which made the series so special. The later installment each incrementally added some nice little features and we respectible games, but most will argue that Mega Man 2 is the peak of the series.

R.C. Pro-Am

RC Pro Am NES ScreenshotRareware’s RC Pro AM brought vehicular combat to the 8-bit generation and created its own subset of the racing genre. Borrowing its dynamic isometric point of view, slick controls, and quick gameplay, many games followed suit. Rock and Roll Racing being the most obvious, but even Mario Kart utilized the zany powerup idea birthed in RC Pro-Am. Its essence can be felt in games even today.Other elements introduced in RC Pro-Am would be the obvious track based upgrades (for Acceleration, Top Speed, and Grip), vehicle upgrades (you start as a truck, move to a van, then finally a race car), and weapons (bombs, rockets, and generic ammo stars). The superstar powerup, however, was the rollcage which can give you or your opponents (including bots) invincibility and the ability to run you off the road temporarily.

Even with plenty of ammunition, you still have to know how to drive to win an RC Pro Am race. The first few stages are fairly straight forward, but soon after, the benefits and hazards come in full force. Zippers (red arrow tips in series) will temporarily increase your speed to maximum for a short distance but there is a plethora of hazards to avoid such as water slicks and retractable walls that will wreck you instantly.

Later on in the game, there are some truely inventive and challenging tracks. There are some stages where you will be on a trail of zippers and then randomly there will be a popup wall – timed so that if you were the second one off the mark and maintained a decent speed, it will hit you right as you arrive, everyone else will make it just fine. Or the oilsicks right in the way of a perfect drift off a zipper around a turn. RC Pro-Am shows really the epitome of what classic games were, amazing gameplay coupled with damn near impossible tracks.

But that brings up another point I have yet to touch on, drifting. To win RC Pro-Am you must master the vehicles drifting. Since it is a two button game, shoot and go, drifting is achieved by taping turn, and not holding it down. Drifting does slow you down and provides you with what some consider and annoying sound, but it gives you an offensive edge in that if you know what you are doing, you can begin to drift, take out an enemy, then tighten your drift around their wrecked hull and pass them. Of course, this seems very passé compared to modern games were you can perform a bootleggers turns with very little effort, but at the time it was an art. Bottom line: it’s amazing that such a well-crafted racer was born in the 8-bit era.

Tecmo Bowl

Tecmo Bowl NES ScreenshotI’m probably in an extreme minority when compared to the general gaming population, but I thought sports games were more enjoyable when they were in two dimensions. Somehow when you had 3D camera angles and you weren’t able to see all your players on a single screen, the game got so much more complicated.

Sure, games like Tecmo Bowl won’t wow your football buddies with realistic graphics, but the game’s beauty is in its simplicity. While today’s NFL and college football games require military level tactics in order to survive, Tecmo Bowl was all about execution.

Forget the double reverse wide-receiver pass and the 3-4 zone blitzes; Tecmo Bowl had only four plays on either side of the ball to choose from. This kept the action moving and pressured you to find the open receiver or bust through the hole in the offensive line (or stop the other team from doing so, as the case may be).

Like any sports game, Tecmo Bowl had its flaws due to its simplicity (high completion rate, for example) it was just plain fun — and that’s what is truly important in a video game.

Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden NES ScreenshotNinja Gaiden had so much going for it (and still does). This action platformer had the feel of the trendy beatemup genre, the platform jumping that could only be rivaled by Metroid, a storyline and cinimatics usually unseen in an 8-bit game and the frustrating difficulty level of Contra. It was a hardcore gamer’s dream come true.

In Ninja Gaiden, you take on the role of Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja set to seek revenge for his missing father. In the game you will encounter several powerups, which consist of time freeze, recovery medicine, Shuriken, and several ninja arts each of which will help you combat the floods enemies throughout the game.

As opposed to most action titles filled with repetitive action with very little motivation to keep you going, Ninja Gaiden keeps you going with its deep story and amazing cutscenes. It is a wonderful example of what is possible with the limited resources of an 8-bit system if given the proper artistic direction.

As many modern gamers now, Ninja Gaiden’s legacy was continued in its XBox successor, but no one should forget the 8-bit roots that took the action genre by storm.

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Special Thanks to flyingomelette.com for screenshots

64 Comments

  1. fastbilly1 says:

    Awesome write up, but only two comments:
    1. The infamous Konami code, actually came from Gradius, Contra just made it famous.
    2. And even though it wasnt a Mario game to begin with, the character that became Toad in Doki Doki, looks very much like Mario in a turban. The character that became Mario actually wore all blue – despite what many places on the internet say.

  2. Matt says:

    Great article, Racket! I definitely agree with your choices in this article–especially the Mega Man series. Mega Man 2 is (at least in my opinion) the game that really took off the series. Even to this day, I don’t mind popping that cart into my NES and playing it. The same goes with Mega Man 3. This series is one of the series that definitely defines the NES.

  3. Archestratus says:

    The Virtual Console Archive rated “Ice Hockey” super low, and now it’s been left out of this article completely.

    Man, I tell ya… Ice Hockey must be the most underrated NES game of all time.

  4. Abras says:

    I LOVE Ice Hockey! I find a lot of the games mentioned here way too difficult. Ice Hockey seems just right. And it’s addictive!

    Also, Racketboy, you really need to read over your articles a few more times. I mean, the title itself is redundant! I’d be happy to proof-read future articles for you, and maybe even do a little editing (with your approval of course). Of course, this is all just a clever way for me to get a sneak peak at your next articles :D, but the offer still stands.

  5. garsh says:

    I don’t mean to nitpick, but there were no treasure chests in The Legend of Zelda.

  6. gnome says:

    Excellent write up and a reminder of games I must at least try, even if it forces me to go for overpriced VC downloads…

  7. Timerever says:

    Will you do the same for Mega Drive and Dreamcast? Like “Games that defined the Mega Drive” and “Games that defined the Dreamcast”

  8. jack says:

    I think the sports games are being shorted. Several people have already pointed out that ice hockey was great, but so was rbi baseball. Just ask this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JArXRxuVTgY

  9. Craig says:

    Not even worth looking at this list if it doesn’t include Baseball Stars or Double Dragon

  10. Darrell Barrett says:

    Ummmmm Double Dragon???

  11. Jay says:

    I loved Tecmo Bowl and its second version Tecmo Super Bowl. To this day I say that Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest football video game ever. I would choose it over all other games.

  12. PureChinoy says:

    Great list!!! I had every single one of these games. I’m glad to see that Kid Icarus made it on your list. It’s my favorite game on the NES and it doesn’t get enough credit for being a great game.

    (love how RC Pro Am made the list…but another noteable racing game was Rad Racer)

  13. brewman says:

    great write up, but you need to do a bit of proof reading. This article is filled with enough misspellings and grammatical errors to give any self respecting copy editor a heart attack.

  14. Awesome list, time to wipe the dust off

  15. Nick says:

    BASEBALL STARS!

  16. AceMan says:

    The fact that Battletoads and Bionic Commando are on here proves that this is a well-researched list.

    I am surprised that Marble Madness isn’t on here, though. First 3-D game I remember playing. It’s wicked cool, even if it was way too short.

    Also, I still play Dragon Warrior. I still haven’t beaten it.

  17. eldar says:

    I thought there were a couple games missing. Course you have to limit the list and with the NES, that is very hard to do.
    I thought 1943 should have been there. A hard game by any standards and extremely addictive with so many ways to distribute powerups. Another game was legendary wings. Fast paced with side and above scrolling.

  18. Mr. Yancy Poultaire says:

    I’m glad I read the comments and found someone that already said what I was thinking. Double Dragon. Hello!? Other than that (and maybe gradius or lifeforce since there were no shooter genre mentions), pretty good list of the classics.

  19. racketboy says:

    Well, my goal was to have games that were for the most part NES exclusives — hense the “Defined” part.

    Double Dragon was a great game, but it was all over the place and the arcade version was much better, IMO.

  20. Jason G says:

    Paperboy didn’t make the list.

  21. Paperboy was my absolute fav NES game. I spent many days playing it.

  22. Mo Lerner says:

    Info on Contra is incorrect!

    The up-up-down-down etc., code was first used on Gradius- it was used during testing various parts of the game, they say.

  23. racketboy says:

    It’s not incorrect. I never said it was the first or only one to use it. But as fastbilly1 mentioned in the first comment, Contra popularized it.

  24. chris says:

    I do not see Marble Madness nor the ninja game where you collect 3 of the same weapon then turn into a different animal (3 stars=tiger 3 staffs=bird 3 swords=dragon 3 whips=scorpion, man do i wish i could remember this title, but i know it is up north at our cabin

  25. The Apprentice says:

    Woah, I own almost all of these games! Good choices!

  26. aaron says:

    dudez. i think the racket is just trying to list what games are defining experiences for the NES, especially for newcomers to the system. most people’s lists will differ from one another because no two people have the exact same tastes or previous experiences with the console. when i think of double dragon, i don’t think nes, i think master system. when i think of 1943, i think arcade. when i think of baseball stars, i think neo geo.

    i think this article is great and totally accomplishes what it set out to do.

    ..even if it did leave out chip ‘n dale rescue rangers 🙂

  27. racketboy says:

    Thanks, aaron — you nailed it.
    But C&D was in the Gems list

  28. John says:

    I liked John Elway’s quarterback better than Tecmo Bowl.

    So right about the Contra code.

  29. Joshua Smith says:

    The picture you have there for Tecmo Bowl is actually from Tecmo Super Bowl, which is of course a far superior game. And I agree with you that 2D football like Tecmo Super Bowl is the best, but 3D for other sports may be better…

  30. ross says:

    Great list. I think 2 other important games that were quite important on that system were Tetris (that was HUGE) and the Olympics one, where you could hook up a floor pad and run and jump and do all these different sports. Innovative for the time. There were obviously a TON of great games, and I think you got the best ones on your list. Again, nice work, and thanks for the memories.

  31. extrarice says:

    Excellent article. These titles are what springs to mind when you talk about the NES (to people who played games back then). All in all, a very solid list.

  32. drw4e says:

    How could you forget RBI baseball? Another simple, sports classic.

  33. Nic Wilkins says:

    What about Ikari Warriors. The first time my dad rented a NES, we rented Ikari Warriors, Racer Pro-AM, and a game where you are a kid pilot that had to bomb tanks and stuff. These games are why I traded a 22 foot bowling lane for the money to buy my NES.

  34. raist66676 says:

    I think Contra was way better on the Amstrad CPC, where it was called Gryzor, and is regarded as far as I can remember as maybe _the_ best Amtrad cpc game ever. I like Gryzor more than any other version including arcade…

  35. Ha! says:

    Tecmo bowl?? baseball stars? stop asking for non-worldwide popular games! Double Dragon is the only one missing but it´s true that the arcade version was better, Great List!

  36. jake says:

    weird

  37. raine says:

    nice list but what’s the name of the game that someone mentioned about collecting 3 of the same weapons to become something like a scorpion or a dragon or such…?????

    if anyone can please email the name of that game i’d gladly appreciate it. (valefou611@tmail.com)

  38. Kataztrophy says:

    Duck Tales, Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck were made in a time when developers tried to make good games based off cartoons. Capcom was my favorite NES developer because of those three games.

  39. sir jorge says:

    it’s so true, these were the essentials if you had an NES back then.

  40. jero says:

    Excellent article. Thanks for the flashback. 10/10

  41. MichaelTSM says:

    Nice article,

    When you apologized for missing peoples favorite game I think you hit it on the head, considering the amount of games on the Nes and how young many of us were, each of us had a separate experience and remember different games with fondness…

    My favorite, and still a great game in its own right is Super Spike V’Ball, a port from the arcades, surprisingly fun, aged very well for a sports title…

  42. Jason says:

    Playing Contra on the NES changed my life. Thanks for this list.

    Jason

  43. homeplateslide24 says:

    Thanks for the great trip down memory lane. Just played Super Mario 2 for 20 minutes for the first time in many years. Fun, fun, fun. Strange game, yes, but incredibly addictive.

  44. Codyhunter2000 says:

    For those asking about the game where you collect stuff and turn into animals..its called Ninja Crusaders

  45. Robert(also known as Chopperdude) says:

    I love the Metroid series, my nr.1 fav. VG series ever.

    “It was one of the first (if not the first) home video games that featured scrolling along both the X- and Y-axis, and starred a female protagonist, Samus Aran”

    She is one of the first but She is not the first. Nacmo’s JP-only Baraduke/Alien Sector series(two games) stars Toby “Kissy” Masuyo, the playable main character who is in a bio-suit for the entire game, the ending shows that she is actually a female, thus predating Samus by about a year!
    Granted ‘Kissy’ is probably not the first female hero either as far as I know but still…

  46. Pete says:

    The only thing I don’t agree with is Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior but that’s just my personal preference because I do not like RPGs. Other than that this list is dead on!

  47. Patrick BBE says:

    Double Dragon! Double f@’wnm Dragon!

  48. mganai says:

    Whaaaat? No Zelda II on the main list? If the dated Metroid is deserving of a spot, then so is Zelda II.

  49. The Last Norseman says:

    Lol…Really? Comparing Zelda II to a defining game like Metroid? Zelda II was not half the game Zelda was.

  50. Smarty McAssjerk says:

    There’s one thing that bothers me and that is that “The Legend of Zelda” is classified as an RPG. In fact it has non of any RPG elements. The game is more like or even is an Action-ADVENTURE. You crawl through dungeons, solve riddles and puzzles and fight enemies in real time. So please tell me how this is an RPG.
    P.S.: The fact that you can give Link the name you want and get one or two better weapons/clothes (same in Metroid, which isn’t a RPG, too) doesn’t count.

  51. Latin Commenter says:

    I’d have made the list like this…

    Original ones:
    Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Battletoads and Kirby

    Ports of arcade and computer ones:
    Bomberman, Gradius, Metal Gear, Contra, Double Dragon and Maniac Mansion

    First-party ones:
    Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Kid Icarus, Punch-Out!!, Tetris and StarTropics

    Honorable mentions:
    All the others

  52. Hello,

    I noticed a lot of these screenshots were taken from my website. I’m not going to throw a big fuss about it, but one in particular, the Final Fantasy screenshot, came from The RAU Gallery, as evidenced by the character names. Since The RAU Gallery isn’t well-known outside of the site’s community, I would prefer if anything is taken from there that the source be linked back to. I will provide the link in my post:

    http://raugallery.flyingomelette.com/grimmoravsgeo.html

    I would like to suggest learning how to take your own screenshots via emulation. Not only does it look more professional to not have a bunch of stolen pictures all over your articles, but you’ll find that it’s much more convenient – you’ll be able to get exactly the shots you want and they’ll be unique to your site – that is, until someone comes along and takes them for theirs. 😉

    FO

  53. racketboy says:

    Hey FO — sorry about that! I’ve just added a credit link at the top and bottom of the post — hope that helps and thanks for your contribution 😉