I was going to make this a “NES hidden gems” post, but I feel like the NES library is pretty much revealed AF and the “hidden” gem thing is becoming cliche. These games are 30+ years old and many of them may have been forgotten a few years ago, but the recent retro revival has shone such a blaring spotlight at the NES catalog that pretty much all the gems are now out of hiding.
Today, the biggest factor keeping any of these gems hidden is the price. Yeah, I don’t think S.C.A.T. is hidden at all, but nobody wants to cough up the hundred-plus dollars for a physical copy. Except for serious collectors, of course. Which is fine and admirable.
And really, with ROMs free and super-easy to download, there’s not much point in purchasing pricey games unless you just want to collect them. I mean, I really, really prefer playing on original hardware. But for games like Little Samson and Gun Nac, I’m just not going to shell out that much dough. I’ll enjoy them on my PC or download a bootleg version. I’m not a serious collector. Just a casual one.
Therefore, I’m not going to make this a hidden gems article. But I do have a few games in mind that deserve a shout. Just because they’re good.
Let’s call them “unhidden gems.”
1 – The Guardian Legend
The Guardian Legend gets plenty of attention without my help. Upon release in 1988 it received lukewarm reviews. Not bad, but not great. It seems like reviewers and fans just weren’t sure what to make of it.
This game combines genres to make a varied experience. The game world is a sprawling, top-down Metroidvania-ish. Large Zelda-style top-down maps are connected by shoot-em-up sequences. Reviews at the time lamented the repetitive style of The Guardian Legend, and reviews were mixed over whether the multi-genre style was a hit or a miss.
Today, the game is generally regarded as a fine piece of work, but certainly ahead of its time. The Guardian Legend didn’t make my list of Retro Remakes we Really, Really Need, but I’m wondering if I need to revisit that article to include a few more unhidden gems. Because was a Metroidvania before that was even a thing, and is more closely aligned with today’s popular games than with those of 1988
2 – Batman
In keeping with the totally-not-hidden theme of this list, Batman is definitely in my top-tier list of NES games that absolutely definitely exist.
In my video review of this game (a few years old now. I really need to make some more…), I describe the gameplay as having “nothing wrong with it.” Which sounds meh. But what I mean is, most NES platformers have some really discernible flaws. Astyanax is clunky. Castlevania won’t let you change directions mid-jump (still a near-perfect game tho). Adventure Island has slippery controls. Batman’s controls have none of those things. In my opinion, at least, there’s nothing at all wrong with the controls in Batman. It’s all tight and super-responsive.
Likewise, I have no complaints about hitboxes, graphics, music (great tunes!), difficulty (it gets hard toward the end, like a game should). It’s just all good!
Never mind that Batman is purple. I rather like the purple Batman. He’s very stylish.
3 – Shatterhand
Here’s one that a lesser reviewer might place into that tacky-ass “hidden gem” category. But no. You’ve had thirty-plus years to discover Shatterhand.
This game shares a lot of similarities with Batman. The character sprites are around the same size, the characters both use punches as a primary attack, they can cling to walls. But Shatterhand has a few elements that set it apart.
After an intro level, Shatterhand allows you to complete the game levels in any order you choose, followed by a final stage a la Mega Man. Throughout the levels, you collect coins that can be used at little power-up kiosks to increase your power, health, or earn an extra life.
You also collect Greek letters throughout the game, and when you collect three, you are rewarded with a hovering robot assistant that fires a unique weapon depending on the letter combination you’ve collected.
Shatterhand currently hovers between $50 and $60, making it a no-go for many casual collectors. That may also be the reason it has been relegated to the “hidden gem” category for so long. But it really is good. And it definitely exists.
4 – Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Movie-based NES games tend to be bad. Some of them catastrophically so (Bill & Ted, Back to the Future), but Gremlins 2 is pure greatness!
And it’s a bit novel to see a top-down game with extensive platforming, but Gremlins 2 has it. And it works really well!
Like Batman, this is a Sunsoft joint. And if you’ve played Fester’s Quest, you’ll already have an idea of how it works. A lot of the mechanics from Fester’s Quest are revisited in Gremlins 2, but the design is vastly improved.
Personally, I remember seeing Fester’s Quest in all the gaming mags of the moment. It looked really cool. The graphics and ambience were very attractive at the time, and the top-down style with a good-sized world to explore was appealing as well. But the level and weapon design, and difficulty of Fester’s Quest made for a truly frustrating experience. I’ve tried many times, but I just can’t enjoy it.
Don’t worry. Gremlins 2 takes all the good things about Fester’s Quest and puts them in a much more smartly-designed game. Gremlins 2 is much easier too, but that’s mainly thanks to the improved balance and better-designed maps that allow Gizmo to utilize his weapon types.
Best of all, this game is quite cheap. So even if you insist on playing your NES games on OG hardware, it’s very easy to get your hands on.
5 – Xexyz
Like the Guardian Legend, Xexyz is a multi-genre game. This one consists of sidescrolling platformer levels joined together by horizontal shoot-em-up segments.
Xexyz has a lot of obstacles to popularity. One of the biggest is probably that weird name. It’s pronounced, “ZECK-zeez.” It also was released smack-dab between Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Wizard. So it’s no wonder this game was overlooked, even at release.
I this is a great game, and definitely worth checking out, and it definitely exists. So here it is. Also, I did a big, fancy Nintendo Power style-article with it. You absolutely should check it out. And I know you haven’t already, because WordPress tells me everything.