Updated 2020 – NES Hidden Gems, Non-hidden Gems, and Underrated NES Games you might want to try
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.”
A quick note before we start: I’ve included an affiliate link on most of these games. If you find something you like, please consider ordering it that way. It helps us keep this site running. Thank you! Now let’s get started.
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.
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.
(Get it at Gamestop.com)
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.
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.
Crystalis is another non-hidden gem. I mean, it’s definitely not hidden. It was a huge hit back in its day, and remains much-loved and extremely playable today. So yeah. It’s a gem, but just a regular gem. Not a one of those “NES Hidden Gems” that retrogaming YouTubers are always on about.
Anyway, it plays a lot like Secret of Mana, with equippable weapons that charge up for more powerful strikes. It’s very much a story-driven game too, where your journeys across to different areas brings new NPCs to bug and new weapons, armor, and items to find.
At a time when so many RPGs were turn-based, Crystalis was a godsend for those of us with short little attention spans that prefer action RPGs. It’s good, try it!
7. Adventure Island 2
This game might be a contender for the Ghetto Most Improved Award. Maybe Hudson Soft was feeling inspired by the leaps Super Mario was making (figuratively), or maybe they just decided it was time to revisit Adventure Island with updated tech, but the result was a very playable, pretty-addictive adventure platformer.
The resemblance to Super Mario Bros. 3 is subtle, but undeniable. Hudson made many of the same changes as Mario, allowing players to backtrack, implementing more verticality to the levels, more variations in power-ups, and ridable dinosaur companions.
…actually, wait. Was it Mario that borrowed the rideable-dinosaur idea from Master Higgins? Huh. Interesting.
Anyway, Adventure Island 2 is a great game in its own right, with a sprawling world to explore, and a suitable challenge for most players. Check it out!
I talk about this game too much. I’m not sure why. I actually made a review video for it, and it got a prominent spot in my Top 5 NES Games Under $10 post. But for some reason, I find RoboWarrior just incredibly charming. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but I think there’s a really addictive quality to RoboWarrior.
As I’ve said many times, RoboWarrior was published by Jaleco as a spinoff of Bomberman. But for whatever reason, Bomberman went on to enjoy an illustrious career in the bombing profession, and the RoboWarrior (his name is ZED) turned out to be a one-hit wonder.
You direct ZED through a series of top-down levels, like Bomberman, blowing up trees to clear a path to escape deeper beneath the planet’s surface, culminating in a final boss battle against the evil Xur!
Also notable is this game’s incredible soundtrack. Really, really jamming. In my opinion, of course.
8. Air Fortress
A very early entry for the NES library, Air Fortress had plenty of time to gain notice from fans and was never in any way an NES hidden gem. And yet, it hardly ever gets brought up on social media be retrogamers. Which is just a shame, really. Because Air Fortress is awesome.
Take control of Hal (a mascot for HAL Laboratories, the game’s developer?) through horizontal shoot-em-up style stages that set him up for the platformer stages that follow. It’s one of those double-games that tries (and succeeds!) to mash two genres together.
Air Fortress has a fair learning curve that goes from simple and casual in the first stages, then becomes an all-out struggle to survive about halfway through the game. I haven’t beaten this game at all, despite having spent hour and hours mapping it out.
There are some truly intense moments in this game, especially in those twilight moments after a fortress core is destroyed and Hal is making his way through the dark before everything explodes. Great ambiance really completes the survival-horror feels.
9. Monster Party
This really is a weird game. There’s a separate review for this one here if you’re down for a quickie.
Monster Party is full of twisted, creepy environments, utterly bizarre bosses (you’ve heard about the tempura shrimp boss, I’m sure?), and strange encounters.
If you haven’t played this one, it’s better you experience it for yourself, rather than letting me try to explain it.
While Monster Party won’t change your life, it’s interesting just to play and see how strange it is. And I think this one actually might be an NES hidden gem. But maybe not. Hell, I don’t know any more.
10. Kabuki Quantum Fighter
Another great game from HAL Laboratories, Kabuki Quantum Fighter has truly ninja-vanished into obscurity. And of all the games on this list, this one may be the most hidden of the NES hidden gems. Not that that’s a requirement for the list. None of these are hidden, dammit! There’s a Google now!
Quantum Fighter is another side-scrolling platformer. It plays a bit like Ninja Gaiden, though probably not as infuriating. But it does get tough later in the game.
You play as a special agent whose mind is uploaded to a government network to stop virus hackers from unleashing the world’s nuclear arsenals! Or something to that effect. The point is, the game takes place inside a computer, so all the enemies are just bits of code that appear as monsters. Some of them are very weird, too. And the hero manifests as a Kabuki actor.
If you’re not familiar, Kabuki in an ancient form of Japanese theater that involve elaborate costumes, including wigs and makeup. Honestly, I don’t see how anybody could battle dressed as a Kabuki. But I guess when you’re a Quantum Fighter, rules like that don’t apply.
This game never achieved much popularity in the US. Probably in part because Kabuki was completely unfamiliar here and the protagonist’s appearance caught us off guard. But Quantum Fighter really is an excellent game and is completely worth trying out.
Thanks for reading
I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ll plan to continue expanding it as I think of (or discover) more NES hidden gems, publicly exposed gems, or just some good ol’ fashioned underrated NES games that don’t get enough love.