Space has always been cool. It’s the final frontier, after all. But in the ‘80s and early ‘90s NASA, and space exploration in general, were hot, hot topics in pop culture. Every kid wanted to go to space camp. And growing up to be an astronaut was a legitimate ambition among children. So naturally there were plenty of space games on the NES.
However, once I started digging and deciding on some favorites, I ran into trouble. Very few NES games actually take place in outer space. And of those, the vast majority are shoot-em-ups. I’ve tried to make this list balanced and fair and include games from a few different genres.
I also tried to stick to the rule that the games involve traveling through space in some form. That ruled out a lot of games that take place on other planets, but not in space. Perhaps a controversial decision, but you’ll get over it.
Finally, I feel pretty sure that I left a lot of games unmentioned here, so feel free to comment down below and tell me what I missed.
Anyway, here are my top 5 greatest NES space games.
Let’s check ’em out!
Before Kirby, before the Mother and Smash series, even before The Adventures of Lolo, HAL Laboratories had been steadily churning out video games for the MSX. Actually, the story of HAL is pretty interesting and might deserve its own post. Hmmm…
Air Fortress was only the second game HAL released on the NES, but man is it a good one. The addictive gameplay and bright, punchy graphics make it truly enjoyable despite the sharp mid-game difficulty spike.
Combining elements of a horizontal shoot-em-up with mazelike platforming, HAL took a hybrid approach to Air Fortress.
And with the countdown-to-death element at the end of each stage, it achieves a level of tension that few 8-bit games ever could.
Everything seems to come together harmoniously in Air Fortress and it definitely belongs near the top of every list of absolute best NES space games.
It would be too easy to fill this list with shoot-em-ups.
I’ll try to resist that temptation in order to make my Best NES Space Games list a little more inclusive (It’s 2020 after all). But if I had to pick just one NES shoot-em-up for this list, I would go with Life Force, called Salamander outside the US. (Salamander being the cooler name by far in my humble little opinon.)
While technically this game takes place inside the guts of a giant beast-monster, the giant beast-monster lives in space. So it counts.
Konami took a really visceral (that’s a pun) approach to the space-shooter genre by forcing players to shoot their way through the innards of a beast, rather than going the traditional shooter route of sending them through a space fortress or skimming along a planet surface.
The result is familiar gameplay (this is a Gradius game, after all) in a gooey, gooey setting. Blast floating brains, dodge errant rib bones, dislodge alien spleens in your quest to defeat the giant space salamander monster!
Little known fact: The hero pilot of the Viper Vic spaceship is a lady. Check her out in my Top 4 NES Female Protagonists article.
Okay, fine. One more shooter. But Gyruss is different from Life Force because it takes a different angle on the genre. Literally.
Rather than moving across terrain, Gyruss makes the player’s ship the center of the action as they race from the outer solar system back to Earth in time to save the human race.
This games combines Galaga and Tempest gameplay elements and is really unique to the system. I love it so much I wrote a full review for it. Check it out.
Solar Jetman is kind of a weird game. Think of it as a scavenger hunt in space, with a control scheme like Asteroids. But unlike Asteroids, your ship must fight against planetary gravity and enemy gravity traps.
Technically most of the gameplay takes place along the surface of planets, not really in space, but the point of the game is to recover parts of some super-ship and you must navigate through space to visit each planet and complete the fetch quests.
Solar Jetman is hard. But if you can master the controls, it becomes a lot easier. However, the controls in Solar Jetman are notoriously difficult. So like, good luck with that.
Galaga – Demons of Death
Okay, okay fine! One more last final shoot em up. But this is it. Seriously.
The granddaddy of all space shooters. Actually, maybe Asteroids is the granddaddy… Hm… Actually actually, maybe I guess Computer Space (1971) would be considered the granddaddy of space shooters. (Man, one of those cabinets would look great in the Ghetto Game Room.)
Regardless of granddaddyhood, Galaga is one of the earliest “vertical” space shooters, and certainly the most enduring.
Sure, it’s hard to really call Galaga an NES game since it is such an arcade classic and has been ported to pretty much every console ever conceived. But I have to tip my hat to this game that really defined the space shooter genre and is still one of my all-time favorites to this day.
Games that did not make the Best NES Space Games list
This post grew from a tweet I sent out a few months ago. What are your best NES space games? I got a lot of responses, but most of them weren’t really in space. Here’s what I mean.
Metroid – The entire game takes place on the planet Zebes. Not in space.
The Guardian Legend – Where did The Guardian Legend take place? On the planet Naju. It was a popular nominee for Best NES Space Games, but the whole thing takes place on one planet. The shoot-em-up segments take place in corridors within the planet Naju. Sorry.
Gun-Nac – Technically yes, this is a space game. And a damn good one. But with a price tag of over $200, this is more of an entry for a Best Space NES Games to emulate unless you’ve got a lot of money to burn. The Ghetto Gamer will never put such an expensive game on a Best Of list, unless it’s specific to super pricey games. Sorry.
Abadox – I freakin’ love Abadox. But again, this whole game takes place on a single parasitic planet monster. The fact that it is one of the hardest games on the system did not play into my decision to leave it off the list. Again, I love Abadox.
Ducktales – The Moon level. Um… I agree it’s awesome. But it’s just one level, not a space game.
There were a few others, too. But I think this post has gone on long enough.
What do you think of my list? What did I miss? I’m sure there’s something. Probably lots of somethings. Let me know in the comments and if you’ve got more to say, consider becoming a writer for GhettoGamer.net, or become a Patreon supporter so we can keep bringing you Ghetto content and improving the site.
Till next time! Keep it ghetto.–GG