Even though emulation has made playing NES games ubiquitous, there are many of us that want to build a collection of original cartridges. My goal with this guide is to provide a cost-effective place to start — both for picking up essentials, but digging into some rather hidden gems.
This is my fourth revision of this particular list, with a handful of years in between each revision. Each time has allowed me to also expand out the list based on my own experience and recommendations from others. And even though this past decade has seen a lot of price appreciation, most of it has been on the cardboard boxes and manuals, with the bare cartridges values (for more common games, anyway) be impacted in only a minor way. In this revision, I have expanded the price threshold to $15 so I’m able to bring in a few more iconic games that have held steady in value.
The prices listed below are for cart-only games, as it is getting much more challenging (and expensive) to track down boxed NES games. Prices listed are an average eBay and Amazon price for US games, including shipping. I also take my experiences with independent retro game stores that I have visited.
Prices Current as of March 2020
Check out the other Cheapest Games Worth Your Time articles
Also, check out Games That Defined the NES, the Hidden Gems of the NES, and the Rarest & Most Valuables NES Games
Super Mario Bros. & Duck Hunt: $6
Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt / World Class Track Meet: $5
Super Mario Bros. $10
This has to be one of the most common game cartridges of all time. It is probably also one of the most loved cartridges as it contains two essential NES classics. This game pack came with nearly every NES sold and use game stores were quickly littered with a number of copies. It used to be if you were buying this online, you are essentially paying for only the shipping. (I still remember the days at Funcoland when these were in a pile for like a penny each). However, nostalgic gamers (now armed with the wide array NES clones) are starting to scoop these up and raise prices.
At the same time, the Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt cart is pretty much an essential purchase for any NES owner. You’ll need a display that can support light guns for Duck Hunt, but these two games Defined the NES for SO many people and they really hold up as time passes.
Super Mario Bros. 3: $12
Super Mario Bros. 3 was massively hyped at the time of its release (with special thanks to The Wizard’s theatrical release) and it ended up being one of the best-selling games of the era. It’s popularity teamed with plentiful supply has kept values conservative, but not overly cheap.
Back when we had this guide’s cut-off mark at $10, this game didn’t make the cut, but thankfully, resale prices of the Mario 3 cartridges has pretty much stayed the same over the last decade or more (I wish we could say the same for boxed versions, which have at least doubled in value over the same time).
(Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out: $20)
The Punch-Out series filled many playground conversations back in the mid 80s and the epic journey of Little Mac created one of the more iconic Nintendo franchises that didn’t get continual updates every console generation (and could never quite live up to the nostalgia of the original).
Even though the gameplay is a rather simplistic (but challenging) combination of pattern recognition, memorization, and quick reflexes, Punch-Out remains a iconic classic that is still loved decades after its release. Back in the day, you could score the classic “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out” for under $10, but we had to bump it a while back as it rose in value (now sitting at about $20). Now, if you want to save some cash, you’ll want to consider sticking with the later release that has Mr. Dream as your final opponent.
Blaster Master: $9
Blaster Master was a wonderful hybrid of side-scrolling action platformer and overhead Zelda-like exploration. Back in the NES era, this blend of gameplay styles was not only uncommon, but was also hard to pull off in a cohesive way.
With Blaster Master, Sunsoft produced one of the more original NES games (especially for a third party developer) that stands the test of time. It also demonstrated a number of graphical effects and technical feats that pushed the NES hardware.
If you’re interested, we actually published a full review of Master Blaster back in 2006.
Dr. Mario: $7
[shared by G to the Next Level]
Dr. Mario is one of my favorite puzzle games because aside from Tetris, I think it’s one of the easiest puzzle games to pick up and play, one that gets more and more challenging, but doesn’t feel overwhelming to grasp. It’s so simple and charming as you eradicate the viruses and figure out ways to make combos, all while jamming to some of the most infectious (pun fully intended) iconic soundtracks out there for any puzzler.
But I think the biggest reason why I love Dr. Mario so much is in the multiplayer. It is definitely my favorite puzzle game to battle someone in. When I was growing up, I spent countless hours playing against my sister in versus mode and our battles got pretty intense. Many years later, that same friendly rivalry in the game lives on between me and my wife. She is a puzzle game savant, yet Dr. Mario is one of the few puzzle games I can really give her a run for her money (and maybe even win a game or two).
It’s become one of our favorite pastimes, as days come that we’ll get the urge to pull out the NES Classic and battle each other for hours on end. We’ll pull out the N64 when we have people over and play 4-player Dr. Mario 64, which is even more fun. It’s just an excellent puzzler and I really hope that Nintendo will bring it to the Switch in some capacity.
Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers: $11
Rescue Rangers is probably one of my favorite NES gems — mainly because of how much of an absolute joy it is to play with a friend. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an excellent value as a single-player platformer, but you will have a riot with the co-op experience. In fact, the ability to pick up and throw your buddy (in addition to items) not only adds to the fun, but builds some strategy in as well. (You can read more in my full review of Rescue Rangers from 2005)
During this 8-bit era, Capcom made some of the best cartoon licensed games of all time and Rescue Rangers was right up there with the best. In 2017, Digital Eclipse created a great compilation of these games in the form of The Disney Afternoon Collection on modern platforms. But if you want the original experience, this is still a great value.
Overall, the games isn’t terribly long or difficult, but it’s solid fun and has always been pretty easy to find at a decent price.
Duck Tales: $14
Another one of the cornerstones of Capcom’s Disney-inspired lineup is Duck Tales. It also effectively brought some interesting gameplay mechanics to the platformer genre that was arguably overplayed in the era.
The Duck Tales game had tons of fun cameos to satisfy fans of the cartoon but also proved how much of a skilled adventurer Scrooge McDuck could really be. On a first play-through, the control scheme has a bit of a learning curve, but you’ll eventually learn how to use Scrooge’s cane to pogo hop and knock items with the best of them.
Now, I should also point out that, in addition to having the NES version included in The Disney Afternoon Collection mentioned above, Duck Tales also received multiple ports of the HD remake. But, again, this NES original is a great affordable piece for any NES collection.
The Legend of Zelda used to be on this Cheap NES guide back in the day, but it’s been pretty tricky to score within our price cut-off points for the last 15 years or so. The good news is that there’s another solid action RPG that can rival the original Zelda in many ways and has become a pretty solid showpiece of what the NES hardware could do when pushed to its limits.
In SNK’s Crystalis, the mechanics and story are best described as the precursor of SNES’s Zelda:A Link to the Past. Despite its high graphical and gameplay quality, Crystalis never became a runaway hit, although it is considered today a cult classic.
Bionic Commando: $10
If you need an action platformer that thinks outside the Metroid/Castlevania/Megaman formulas, check out Capcom’s wonderful Bionic Commando. Your character has a bionic arm that extends and contracts that allows you to grab on to fixed objects to swing around and climb up levels. This will become obviously valuable when you realize you can’t jump.
Obviously, this control scheme was a huge change in the platforming formula that was such a major piece of the 8-bit landscape. It does take some practice to become familiar with navigating around the maps while battling enemies, but it can be a very rewarding experience. If you’re interested in a fresh take on this classic, check out Hungry Goyiya’s recent video review.
Even with some renewed interest when a revival was launched on the 360 and PS3 back in 2009, this classic has stayed very stable in the lower end of the price spectrum.
Ninja Gaiden: $10
Just like the newer installments, the original Ninja Gaiden will school you with its high difficulty. 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.
Ninja Gaiden is a timeless example of what is possible with the limited resources of an 8-bit system if given the proper artistic direction. And even though the series is still very popular, there’s plenty of Ninja Gaiden carts to go around. The NES sequels to this classic are even still quite affordable if you up for even more intense 8-bit challenges.
A Boy And His Blob: $8
This puzzle platformer revolves around feeding your blob buddy different flavored jelly beans to alter its form into various tools in order to overcome obstacles and traverse the game’s world. Your character can’t accomplish a whole lot on his own, so you really have to think creatively to figure out how to meet your goals and progress.
For those interested, the Nintendo Wii also has a wonderful sequel that expanded on the concepts of the NES games and was, in my opinion, one of the coolest games in the Wii library. It also served as a reminder how cool and charming this game concept was.
StarTropics was a heavily promoted game back in the NES era, but often gets overlooked by those that didn’t grow up with it. The game felt very much like a natural extension of The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior, but has more of a contemporary feel than the typical fantasy-style adventure games. Much is due to the fact that it was developed by Nintendo specifically for the North American market — in fact it didn’t even get a Japanese release.
Star Tropics is much more linear than Legend of Zelda, but it has creative level design and a charming (but sometimes odd) storyline that keeps you entertained. There is a lot more dependency on solving puzzles and defeating enemies to progress and the difficulty level does ramp up more than many of its peers.
If you’d like to learn and see more about StarTropics, check out SNES Drunk’s quick review to see if it’s right for you. Gaming Historian also had a great video about the game as well.
If you are remotely familiar with 2D shmups, you are probably familiar with Gradius. If you’re an NES owner and are interested in dipping your toe into the genre, this revolutionary shmup from Konami is a great place to start — even if it may not be the ideal port of the classic.
The NES version actually help up relatively well to the arcade version . Any shmupper worth his salt is familiar with the ever-rough-and-ready “Vic Viper” player craft (so named for its twin frontal prongs and trailing “option” helpers, meant to mimic the fangs and coils of a snake), and instinctively aims for that small central weak point to blast open the shiny crystal “core” whenever a big baddie comes out to play.
Other squeal-inducing highlights for fans include ring-spitting “Moai” (Easter Island) statue heads, rapid-scrolling “speed stages”, non-stop “boss rush” encounters against several major enemies in a row, and the “power-up bar” at the bottom of the screen, which allows players to “cash in” generic collectibles for a buffet line of upgrades in any order they choose.
Life Force (Salamander): $11
The legendary success of the “named” Gradius games, however, doesn’t fully capture the wider scale of their influence: even if you don’t venture beyond the borders of the shooting genre, not only have outside developers lifted the usual bits and pieces for their own use, but Konami themselves have frequently seen fit to conjure up a slew of spinoffs and tributes to meet demand.
Gradius’ closest cousin is the Salamander series, which redeploys the Vic Viper against a different horde of enemies, features more organic level design, adds vertical-scrolling levels, and ditches the power-up bar for a more traditional setup.
Side-scrolling shooters were just starting to mature in the 8-bit era and Zanac on the NES is one of the best examples of more complex shooting gameplay in the dawn of console gaming. Developed by shmup powerhouse, Compile, Zanac eschews the usual wave-after-wave of enemy patterns. Instead, Zanac has an artificial intelligence that throws different kinds of enemies at you, depending on what weapon you are using. The result is one of the most innovative brand of shooters out there, as it’s always forcing you to adapt to different situations.
Zanac has an extremely visually repetitive look, given that this is one of the earlier NES titles and was a port of an MSX1 game, but the AI keeps every game at least somewhat fresh, so it’s still an amazing challenge.
The Guardian Legend: $12
Another NES classic from Compile is this hybrid vertical shmup/exploration/shooting adventure (reminiscent of Blaster Master) that didn’t get much appreciation until a decade or two after its release.
The game starts out similar to a traditional vertical shooter, but after a boss battle, you transition to a exploration of labyrinths. Within these labyrinths, you have objectives to complete, weapons upgrades to find (which can be used in both modes of the game), and must also find portals that take you to different parts of the planet. Those portals transition you to more shmup-style sections to blast though while traveling to different sections of the world.
And while the shmup sections might not be quite as deep as many of Compile’s later shooters, it is still quite impressive and the whole game is a technical marvel on the NES hardware. Overall, it’s a great NES exclusive and one of the best overall games in the library.
Bubble Bobble: $15
One of Taito’s most iconic arcade franchises received a ton of console, computer, and handheld ports over the years, but the NES version is quite beloved and feels right at home on the 8-bit wonder. It’s a great arcade gameplay experience that looks great and plays with wonderful tight and intuitive controls.
For those of you not familiar with the series, the objective is to clear out all the enemies on a stage. You can capture the enemies in the little bubbles your character shoots out and then “pop” them afterward to get rid of them completely. At the same time, you need to make sure you don’t get hit by any enemies. At its core, the game is pretty simple and is a great game for kids to get started on, but like any great arcade title, the difficulty and fun ramps up as you progress to more complex levels.
Bubble Bobble is an amazingly fun game in single player mode, but it’s phenomenal as a two-player experience.
Little Nemo: The Dream Master: $8
Here is another gem of a platformer from Capcom. This sidescroller focuses on puzzle-solving and collecting a certain number of keys in a level to proceed. As you progress, you also get to obtain different powers from the animals you encounter — many of which are necessary for you to succeed in the game.
It isn’t as straightforward as many other platformers in the era and can be quite challenging at times. If this sounds like your type of game, you should jump on this value.
You have to balance your bike’s acceleration and the engine heat to maximize your success. Your bike’s control is, however, very flexible and you need to learn how to maneuver in mid-air to create the ideal landings and maintain momentum.
Excitebike was a launch title for the NES and can feel limited, but games like this can really thrive on restrictions for those that enjoy quick pick-up-and-play games.
Surprisingly, the its early release, there is a level designer that ads quite a bit of depth for those that are into it (and makes for a good experience with friends). Just don’t expect to be able to save those levels on a traditional cartridge.
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RC Pro Am: $7
Speaking of relevant 8-bit racers, RC Pro-Am would definately fall into that category as well. Rareware’s classic racer is full of vehicle upgrades, weapons, and all sorts of goodies that keep things entertaining. The animation is also quite impressive for the era.
Like some other games of the era, the game features an isometric perspective, so the controls take a little getting used to for those that haven’t dealt with the perspective much. (But this actually feels more authentic for controlling real RC cars).
As you accumulate more power-ups and master utilizing in-track speed boosters, RC Pro-Am can become quite an addicting, adrenaline-pumping experience as you try to edge out the competition.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game: $11
Some may have spent a handful of their younger years with this cart, but it is also cool to see arcade games shrunk down effectively to lesser hardware.
The game itself itself is such an iconic experience (especially for those that enjoy the TMNT franchise) and should be a strong recommendation for those that enjoy beat ups.
Street Fighter 2010: $10
For the longest time, this game got a bad rap as a weird entry in the “Street Fighter” series. If you throw away any preconceived notions of the title, you will find that this little gem is quite a decent fighting platformer that offers a entertaining and inexpensive alternative to the likes of Battletoads, Double Dragon, or Final Fight. If you enjoy action platformers like Mega Man and Bionic Commando, you might actually feel at home here.
Street Fighter 2010 will also feed your desire for great boss battles instead of lots of filler. It is quite challenging though, so consider yourself warned.
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Adventures of Lolo: $10
There were a lot of great action puzzle games like Bubble Bobble, Bomberman, and Snow Bros. Not that all those are getting a bit more pricey, Adventures of Lolo is one of the really good puzzlers that are still cheap.
Lolo is a charming adventure of solving room puzzles to progress through a castle. To give you added context, Lolo is developed by HAL Laboratory — the same studio that is behind the Kirby and Smash Bros. series
Developed by Natsume and published stateside by none other than board game company Milton Bradley The game takes a page from Konami’s book, but instead of Gradius chooses to follow in the slimier footsteps of its organic offshoot, Salamander/Life Force (mentioned above).
Prepare yourself for lots of creepy pulsating walls, horizontally- and vertically-scrolling stages, and a stiff challenge that would do the original designers (if not their lawyers) proud. While it may borrow a lot of inspiration from Salamander, this NES exclusive tops Salamander/Life Force in terms of its graphical display on the NES. It’s actually quite a beautiful 8-bit shmup.
Double Dragon: $9
The arcade version of Double Dragon was one of the leading examples of the beatemup genre that became such a mainstay in the 2D gaming world and Double Dragon remains a timeless classic.
Unfortunately, the NES port doesn’t have the two-player mode that was so enjoyable in the arcade due to the keeping sprite counts down. There’s also a mechanic in the NES version where you accumulate additional moves as you “level up” in the game (doesn’t feel true to the arcade, but some enjoy it). It does have some great tunes — even compared to the great arcade version. As one interesting bonus, the NES version does have an intriguing one-on-one battle mode.
When all is said and done, the NES version is not the ideal port of the classic by any means, but if you can track it down cheap, it’s an interesting addition to a library and many are quite nostalgic for it.
The NES follow-up, Double Dragon II is also pretty cheap if you want to add to your collection further. They did manage to make a 2-player mode in this one and if you enjoyed the first, you should have a good time with the sequel.
Iconic Franchise Installments on the Cheap
Super Mario Bros 2: $14
Outside of Japan, Nintendo really went for something different for a follow-up to their blockbuster. It’s not a bad game, and being able to play as different characters is pretty cool, but it’s a grand departure from the series as a whole and those different characters aren’t exactly balanced with the level designs like you would expect from modern Mario games. The games isn’t ultra cheap either, so there’s much better values to be had above (or even below in the “Other Cheap Favorites”.
By broadening our price range to $15, it seems like a big name like Metroid would be a slam dunk for top billing in this list, but even as a big fan of the Metroid series, playing the original game is a rough experience. There are many Metroid fans that agree that the original NES installment feels like a prototype of what was to come. It builds a lot of the great concepts that we all grew to love, but there is a lot of rough edges and frustrating experiences along the way. Unless you’re really looking to experience it or just want it as a display piece on your shelf, you’re much better off playing the remake on the Gameboy Advance, Metroid Zero Mission.
Castlevania II Simon’s Quest: $10
Much like Metroid, the Castlevania series is one of the deepest franchises to start on the NES. It is also one of the few to still have a long legacy of 2D descendants that still have showed up on modern gaming machines. Simon’s quest is the more frustrating of the three NES installments (and as a result, the only one that is under our $15 price level). You would probably want to start with the original, and the third game is typically ranked as the highest of the NES trilogy. With that being said, take this value recommendation accordingly.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link : $13
Attempting to shake things up with the second Legend of Zelda game, perspective changed to a side-scroller, but it feels very odd to most that enjoyed the traditional Zelda games. As a result, Zelda II often ranks near the bottom of games in the franchise.
The original Zelda was revolutionary, but the follow-up seemed to imitate its contemporaries. The combat was nice but the overworld, towns and overall immersion was lacking. It is also filled with annoying random encounters and is a difficult game play without a guide of some sort.
Other Cheap Favorites
- M.C. Kids: $14 (eBay)
- Strider: $9 (eBay)
- Rygar: $9 (eBay)
- Gauntlet: $8 (eBay)
- Donkey Kong Classics : $13 (eBay)
- Marble Madness: $6 (eBay)
- Metal Gear: $10 (eBay)
- Yoshi: $10 (eBay)
- Pro Wrestling: $6 (eBay)
- Rolling Thunder: $7 (eBay)
- Smash TV: $11 (eBay)
- Ninja Gaiden II The Dark Sword of Chaos: $12 (eBay)
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: $8 (eBay)
- Dragon Warrior: $9 (eBay)
- Tetris: $8 (eBay)
- Cobra Triangle: $5 (eBay)
- Tecmo Bowl: $6 (eBay)
- Section Z: $7 (eBay)
- Solar Jetman: $6 (eBay)
- Star Soldier : $8 (eBay)
- 1943: The Battle of Midway: $11 (eBay)
- Sky Shark: $5 (eBay)
- The Mafat Conspiracy: $8 (eBay)
- Golgo 13 Top Secret Episode: $6 (eBay)
- Adventures of Bayou Billy: $6 (eBay)
- Yoshi’s Cookie: $7 (eBay)
- Rampage: $12 (eBay)
- Ghosts ‘n Goblins: $14 (eBay)
- Kung Fu: $7 (eBay)
- Rad Racer: $6 (eBay)
- Skate or Die : $6 (eBay)