Get ready to rip out your hair and throw some controllers. The hardest games on the NES are some of the hardest games of all time. Period.
It’s really cute to hear younger gamers (younger than me, at least) talk about how difficult Dark Souls is. You die a lot, yes. Perhaps screaming in agony. But what these n00bs don’t seem to realize is that, before the advent of hand-holding game tutorials, pretty much every game was “Souls-like”.
Of course times were simpler then. You put in your game and start it up. You play until you die. You play again, but hopefully you make it a little further. By the end of the weekend, you can beat the first level with your eyes closed, the second level is almost memorized, and level three is only a little hard. But then there’s level four…
Trial, error, and memorization were the keys to beating games in the 80s and early 90s. Games with save slots were still a novelty, and even password “saving” wasn’t a given, and continues were routinely limited. The only way to really beat these games was to sit down and play till you died. Again and again.
So yeah. Keep your Dark Souls and your autosave slots and your hours-long tutorials. I was never into that stuff. I would still rather get slaughtered by pixels when all I’ve got to help me survive are my old pals A, B, Select, and Start!
Speaking of Start, let’s a-go! Are these all the hardest NES games? Certainly not. There are tons and tons of games for the console and many of them are crushingly difficult. These are just some of the more popular titles, more notorious titles, or more controversial ones. So without further adon’t, here are the 35 hardest NES games I can think of.
Ghosts n’ Goblins
I’m not going to save this one for last. Let’s just get it out of the way now.
There’s a good chance Ghosts n’ Goblins was the first game that jumped into your brain when you saw this was a “hardest NES games” post. Some have said it is the actual hardest NES game, but I have my doubts. Some say it’s just broken, which, to my ears, sounds a bit closer to the truth.
Either way, Ghosts n’ Goblins piles it on thick. It definitely does NOT feel like a fair fight when you’re playing it.
By the way, I’ll drop a link for each of these games in case you want to grab it off eBay. These are affiliate links, so if you do decide to make a purchase, it’ll help out this site! Get Ghosts n’ Goblins on eBay.
To be totally honest, I could just fill this whole list with shoot-em-ups. The entire genre is hard as hell, especially in the 8-bit days. But Abadox seems to be particularly tough.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of shmups. They’re okay, and some are better than others, of course, but overall I am not especially good at video games and shmups just kind of rub that in my face.
Despite my misgivings, I do really enjoy Abadox. The gory, garish graphics. really make it stand apart, and the gameplay is plenty responsive and if you’re really dedicated, simply memorizing the levels can help get you across some pretty gnarly finish lines. So keep trying, you’ll get it eventually. Or not.
A hard-ass cover for a hard-ass game.
Double Dragon III
The Double Dragon series is another reminder of how not-good I am at video games. Beat-em-ups, like shoot-em-ups, are tough for me and it can be hard to tell if one of them is actually hard or if I just suck.
Based on public opinion, I have concluded that both are true, but Double Dragon III is an absolute butt-kicker.
The graphics and gameplay are good! Nobody complains about that. But the developer’s decision to give the Bimmy and Jimmy only one single shot at completing the first half of the game (and another credit for the back half) have made this brutally difficult game one of the hardest ever released for the NES.
There is plenty to like about Fester’s Quest. It feels very similar to the top-down sequences in Blaster Master, which is such an incredible game. But just a handful of issues have made Fester’s Quest incredibly difficult.
The issues in question include the insane amount of damage enemies can soak up, the fact they can respawn or multiply, and they move at almost the same speed as Fester. Throw in the fact Fester starts with a measly 2 hit points and has powered-up weapons that can’t work in the game’s many narrow passages. Fester’s Quest is a pretty-good game made difficult in the wrong ways.
Having a turbo controller will do a lot to mitigate some of the arbitrary difficulty, but this one’s still a hell of a grind. Plus, you respawn with your previously-acquired powerups a la Dark Souls. So keep at it and you’ll get through it one day.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The scourge of every NES kid’s childhood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is almost sadistic in its difficulty. Something like 30 years of attempting and memorizing this game have gotten me to the final stage, but I have yet to reach the Shredder.
When I was a kid, I don’t remember thinking this game was particularly hard. Back then, all games were hard so I just took it as it was. But today I know better. TMNT is hard as hell.
There are so many enemies on the screen so often that screen slowdown just feels like part of the game.
If you put in enough hours, memorize where the turtles go when they’re captured and where the scrolls are kept, the game gets much easier. And don’t let that water level psyche you out. It’s really not as hard as you remember. It gets way harder after that.
Back in the Olden Dayes of Hudson’s Adventure Island, a disproportionate number of NES games were just arcade ports. This one is no different.
The thing about arcade ports is that they are designed to make you die, and prompt you to insert more money. And while that’s fine in the arcade where you can just pay to play, it doesn’t always translate to home consoles that well.
When the developer’s goal is to make players die, they usually succeed. And Hudson’s Adventure Island on NES doesn’t have a coin slot. So ya just play till you die. And die. And die.
Adventure Island 2 did a much better job of adapting to home consoles. Apparently they took a cue from Super Mario 3, with a navigable overworld and the ability to backtrack in levels and store powerups. Honestly, Adventure Island 2 is one of my all-time favorites. But for a raw challenge, you can’t beat the original.
Like Adventure Island, Amagon is an absolute onslaught. And while it’s an NES exclusive, the constant dying makes it feel very much like an arcade port. Unlike Adventure Island though, Amagon suffers from unforgiving physics that make jumping stiff and awkward.
Pair the less-than-spectacular controls with the constant dirty tricks of deadly local wildlife coming at Amagon from every angle and you’ll understand why this game is so freakin’ hard.
Still pretty fun, though.
Life Force, or “Salamander” if you’re outside the U.S. is another gooey, gutsy shoot-em-up that was likely an inspiration for Abadox.
This is a spin-off of the Gradius series and as such, it plays very much like a traditional shmup. Gameplay alternates between horizontal and vertical crawls, so you’ve got to stay on your toes. Take one direct hit and you’re toast.
When it came out, The Immortal was pretty impressive. The isometric view was not commonly seen in NES games, and the graphics were dark and rich. Especially the fight scenes which feature zoomed-in views of the hero and his monstrous opponents.
The dark and gritty theme was the result of The Immortal being ported to the NES from the Apple IIGS. At the time, computer games were geared toward older gamers to a much greater degree than home consoles.
The original version of the game showed plenty of blood, which was not present in the NES version. The Genesis version, by contrast, ratcheted up the gore content to Mortal-Kombatian proportions, complete with intestine-spilling, head-exploding finishing moves.
While it looks like an RPG, the Immortal is certainly not. Yes, you interact with NPCs much more often than your typical action game, but without the ability to level up, or well…really no abilities to speak of at all, The Immortal is much more of an action adventure where exploration and item collection are keys to winning.
What makes this game so brutal is its over-the-top approach to trial-and-error gameplay. The maps are littered with instant-kill traps and invisible enemies. The controls are not spectacular and even when you see a threat coming, it can be hard to know if you’ve dodged a trap until it blows you to bits. Pretty much the only way to win this sucker is to keep playing and memorizing the levels.
This is the game’s main screen.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is tough for a number of reasons. The dungeon maps are large and easy to get lost in. Some of the enemies (the blue Ironknuckle omg) are extremely unforgiving, moving at random and dealing massive damage. The dungeons themselves can be extremely tough to find, given the game’s tendency toward cryptic clues from hidden townsfolk.
And yet, none of the difficulty can be blamed on the gameplay itself. The controls are incredibly responsive, the platforming is generally fair, and there are no dirty tricks. But the final slog of the game: the final approach to the last castle, along with its bosses, seems to stretch on forever.
For years, fans have disagreed on whether this is a “good Zelda game” or whether it’s a Zelda game at all. As I wrote recently, a lot of fans hate this game. But recently fans seem to be coming around and claiming they always loved this one. I’m not one to gatekeep, though. So it’s whatevs. Also we need a remake of this one badly.
If we were all Blaster Masters, this one wouldn’t be so hard. But alas, we’re just regular gamers.
Like Zelda II, Blaster Master presents a world full of complex puzzles and sprawling maps. The game world is humongous, and requires Metroidvania-style backtracking once you unlock special items.
Blaster Master is especially hard without a guide, because how are you supposed to know you need to backtrack all the way to the start of the game? There’s no way.
Even besides that, this game is a true test of endurance. If you’re playing without a guide, you’ll have to explore every nook and cranny of this huge subterranean world, dodging and slaying hordes of enemies all the while.
Mega Man 1
For my money, the original Mega Man (with its glorious North America cover art) is the hardest entry in a series known for its difficulty.
This game was fairly well reviewed when it came out, but sales in North America were not great. Critics said the game was too short and way too difficult (surprise surprise). These reviews had a huge influence on how Capcom worked on Mega Man 2, which came complete with selectable difficulty modes and was a great deal easier to finish than the original.
Ninja Gaiden series
Fans can split hairs over which game of the original Ninja Gaiden series is hardest. They each have their quirks. I find the environmental hazards (rain and lightning) in NG2 to present some of the hardest obstacles in the series.
But hey, why waste energy arguing over which Ninja Gaiden game is hardest? Let’s just say they are all tough as nails and will run you through the ringer.
Great games, though. All of them.
Here’s another staple on Hardest NES Games lists. Battletoads starts off relatively reasonably, with a first level that is fairly challenging, but that barely hints at the extreme difficulty that follows in the ‘Toads long rappel down a long tunnel and onto their speeder bikes, sliding across treacherous ice levels, hopping on massive snakes in a cave.
The difficulty never lets up and a skilled player can expect to sink many, many hours into this simple game before they can make it close to the end.
Yet somehow, despite the cruel difficulty, players love this masochistic game. It’s remembered fondly, due to the great-for-the-time graphics, the cool comic-style cutscenes, and the general edgy style of the game. The Battletoads were cool, the animation was unique and it was just a lot of fun. Hard as nails, but fun.
I’ve heard it argued that Silver Surfer is not really any harder than most shoot-em-ups. You fly through the levels, alternating between top-down vertical and side-scrolling horizontal levels. One hit and you’re dead. Sure enough, it sounds like a pretty typical shooter. But…
One of the things that really sets this game apart is the awkward shape of the protagonist’s character sprite. Instead of a small and sleek spaceship, Silver Surfer has to stand on his board and navigate all kinds of tight passages while standing tall and not knocking his head on roofs or ledges.
Whatever maneuvering tricks you’ve honed in more traditional shoot-em-ups will not work here until you learn to instinctively account for the Surfer’s height both in terms of dodging projectiles and dodging obstacles. And the obstacles are everywhere.. The slightest bump will kill you. It’s infuriating.
It might be easier to land on an aircraft carrier in real life.
There are a few reasons this one made the list. If you’ve never played Bionic Commando before, you’ll need some time (or a lot of time) to get used to the bionic arm and the lack of a jump button. It is fairly intuitive for an 8-bit title, but there’s still a steep learning curve.
And while you’re learning to use the arm, you’ll be getting swarmed by enemy troops parachuting directly into your face, and steady swinging across long hallways with spikes on the floor. Even friendly towns can be deadly if you haven’t mastered the timing of your swings.
You can stock up on extra lives by stopping the enemy convoys on the overworld map and, assuming you’ve figured out the grappling hook, you’ll do much better.
The Adventures of Bayou BIlly
NES beat-em-ups are just difficult. In Bayou Billy that’s true, but the racing sequences and shooting galleries are also difficult. It’s all hard. All of it!
Milo wanted to take a shot at Castlevania. It went about like you'd expect.
Please watch till the bitter end. pic.twitter.com/VJku0UHrKw
— The Gelatinous Gamer (@longie_long) July 9, 2020
The original Castlevania game for the NES is fondly remembered for its incredible soundtrack, classic horror ambiance, the hero (Trevor)’s cool whip weapon, and the controller-crushing difficult platforming.
The main culprit in Castlevania is the knockback that happens when the hero takes damage. The life bar is almost pointless when every enemy is just there to knock you off a ledge. Jumping from platform to platform, dodging projectiles and avoiding Medusa heads is a lot to ask from any gamer. But Castlevania demanded it all. Simultaneously!
Castlevania was tough. Castlevania III is approaching the realm of utter impossibility.
Apparently, Japanese publishers (or at least Konami) were royally pissed at the popularity of video game rentals in the U.S. It was driving sales down as fans were able to rent a game, beat it over a weekend or two, and never pay MSRP. Their response was to start making games difficult to the point of requiring long-term commitment to complete.
Castlevania III (and Battletoads, too) is a shining example of this beefed-up difficulty. The Japanese version of the game is marginally easier (still tough as hell, though.)
Fortunately, Castlevania III is good enough, fun enough, and pretty enough to make trying and retrying a pleasure. And when you finally break new ground (even after 20+ years of trying), it still provides a sense of accomplishment.
This is the only entry from the original Castlevania trio that I have not completed. But I’m getting closer. One day, Dracula. One day.
It’s such a simple concept. Just keep climbing. And yet…
The movement patterns of Pit’s enemies can make them incredibly tricky to hit. Dividing your attention between flying enemies and ground-based ones requires total focus across obnoxiously long levels, and only the most determined players will make it to the final boss.
This game is all about timing. The enemies in Punch Out!! follow specific, predictable patterns that—in theory—are easy to read and respond to. If you’re fast enough, you can sneak a punch at the perfect moment and earn some stars. If you’re not fast enough, you get… well, you know… punched out!!
The controls in this game are great and intuitive and if you can’t beat it you have nobody to blame but yourself. That said, the perfect timing required to reach Mike Tyson (or Mr. Dream, depending on the version) eludes the vast majority of players. Including you, probaby.
Here’s a childhood favorite. If you’re like me, you don’t remember Contra being that hard. But that’s only because you knew about that super-secret Konami Code to unlock 30 extra lives.
If the 30 extra lives were standard, Contra would not make this list. But if you try beating this game with the actual number of lives you’re granted, you’ll see what makes this one of the hardest NES games ever. Dodging gobs of projectiles, jumping, ducking and beating bosses is hard when getting hit one single time ends your miserable little life.
It’s hard to call a turn-based RPG particularly difficult when all you need to do is grind. Final Fantasy is easy enough if you’re willing to put in the hours needed to build up your party. Assuming of course that you chose an effective party to begin with. And assuming you can decipher the clues and figure out what you’re supposed to do in order to progress the story.
So yeah. All told, I think Final Fantasy could be easily considered one of the hardest NES games. And considering how much of your Final Fate is determined by random numbers of enemies appearing at random times, it can be a real chore to grind sufficiently without getting your party totally wiped off that glorious overworld map.
Final Fantasy is easy if you have the determination to grind, grind, grind.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan) AKA Lost Levels
The Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was released later in the U.S. as The Lost Levels. Super Mario Bros. 2 was meant to be a direct continuation of the original SMB, built with the same engine. Players were expected to start SMB2 immediately after completing the first one, so logically, they started the sequel with a similar difficulty level to the end of the first one. Make sense?
When the sequel reached its first American audiences for play testing, it was decided that the game was too difficult to be enjoyable. With nasty wind effects, poisonous mushrooms and other dirty tricks, Nintendo hatched a plan to replace the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 with a more forgiving but totally different game.
This, of course, is how we got a reskinned Doki Doki Panic here, instead of the SMB2 that was released in Japan. What? You already knew that? Well aren’t you flippin’ special!
Adventures of Dino Riki
While technically not a shoot-em-up, Adventures of Dino Riki is totally a shoot-em-up, along the lines of Gun.Smoke and King’s Knight. (More on King’s Knight later.)
Like any other shoot-em-up, you steer Riki through a constantly-scrolling screen as enemies flood into the battlefield in various formations (or scattered randomly) as you shoot them and shoot powerups to improve your weapon.
Where Dino Riki departs radically from traditional shoot-em-ups is in the platforming segments. You read that right. Imagine a vertical shoot-em-up with platforming. You’ve got to hop from lilypad to lilypad as the screen continues scrolling, and some of the platforms disappear and reappear. The timing is tricky to say the least, and I personally haven’t even reached the second stage of this game.
I’ve heard that this game is actually easy once you git gud at the controls. Well, good luck with that. The controls in Solar Jetman are uniquely difficult. It’s a bit like Bionic Commando, but your ship is very much affected by gravity.
Not only is planetary gravity a serious obstacle as you navigate the large, complex maps, but artificial gravity from enemy mines is also a serious threat, constantly pulling you and your cargo off course.
And if you ever do manage to git gud at the controls, the challenge continues because the gravity changes every time you visit a new planet.
Friday the 13th
This game may not be as difficult as many others on this list, but it’s definitely a tough one. Especially if you’re playing the game without a guide or Google, as it was originally intended.
Friday the 13th runs players through the wringer, but it isn’t really unfair once you learn how the game works. But that’s kind a problem, isn’t it? The game doesn’t make any attempt at explaining to players exactly what’s expected of them. To win, you have to complete a series of tasks, collect items and finally face Jason.
As you progress through the game, you’ll have various encounters with Jason that will leave you bloodied and feeling like, what the hell am I supposed to do!? There are clues scattered all over the camp, but they really aren’t very helpful. The clues may not be as bad as Castlevania II, but they’re still pretty bad.
Consult a guide and this game becomes much easier.
— The Gelatinous Gamer (@longie_long) October 16, 2019
Of all the NES games ever released, Shadowgate certainly has the most possible (and most gruesome) ways to die.
This is a computer-style adventure game where you point n’ click and collect items. There is an astounding number of deaths for combining certain wrong items with other ones. Every single room has some trap or some kind of environmental hazard that will absolutely obliterate you. And the text will describe it all for you in ghastly detail!
Oh, and this game has one of the best soundtracks you’ll hear on the NES. Enjoy.
Another arcade game, ported to the NES, designed to cost you quarter after quarter. But at home, with no coin slot, this game just makes you lose a lot.
To simply play and enjoy Paperboy is not all that hard. There are lots of fun hazards and goofy animations that I loved as a kid. And I could even navigate all the way to the end of the street sometimes. But if you want to actually win, or improve, Paperboy can be quite difficult.
The random nature of some of the hazards is flat out unfair, and the accuracy required to deliver papers just right is quite demanding.
Bart Vs the Space Mutants
In this game, you have to hide stuff from the space mutants.
Bart Vs the Space Mutants is sort of a puzzle-adventure-platformer where you have to collect items and interact with the level to cover, destroy, or otherwise remove the offending articles the space mutants are after.
It can be a bit cryptic to figure out exactly what you’re supposed to do. But what really makes this game so hard are the godawful controls.
Little Nemo the Dream Master
In this fun kids’ game, Capcom destroys your soul with crushing difficulty. But that’s Capcom for ya.
Dream Master has a lot going for it, though. It’s a really great-looking game with good graphics, cool characters, nice big character sprites, interesting environments. Nemo feeds candy to the different animals he encounters and can catch a ride from them or take over their bodies. Each beast has its own abilities and stats, providing a rich experience.
But it’s also hard as a rock.
If you’ve got the patience to learn this game and pick your way through it, Dream Master really is an excellent game. Just…be prepared.
As if the arcade version of Dragon’s Lair wasn’t hard enough. But really, the arcade cabinet is one of the quarter-suckingest games in the history of gaming, with constant and sudden, seemingly random instant-kill scenarios. And the NES version, while a totally different style of game, seems to do all it can to match that blistering difficulty.
From the moment the game boots up, players are left scratching their heads. While the animation in this game is really excellent, the controls are absolutely horrible. Yes, the walking and ducking animations are smooth and lifelike, the amount of time they take to execute will make you die again and again.
Allegedly, the Famicom version of this game enjoys faster framerates that may help make the controls more fluid, but I can’t imagine it being too much easier. For one thing, the slightest touch from many objects will kill the hero. For another thing, your hit box seems to be almost random at times. Basically, anything that should almost kill you, just kills you.
Furthermore, the puzzles in Dragon’s Lair are not at all intuitive. Crossing the drawbridge involves jumping over a weak part of the bridge, jumping back across it, and then tossing daggers at the dragon, allowing the arc of their trajectory to strike the moat dragon before he sinks back down, following the hero’s movement.
That kind of solution to a video-game problem feels like exploiting a bug, more than it feels like how a game should be made. I can only assume this trend continues on into the castle, because my patience dies long before that stupid dragon does.
In the style of Dino Riki, King’s Knight is a fantasy vertical shoot-em-up. It was Squaresoft’s first game, and I suppose it’s alright for a first. But the game does a terrible job of explaining how to win.
That’s where the problems start.
It’s not enough to survive the levels from bottom to top, defeat all the enemies, whatever. You’ve got to uncover secrets. All the secrets! And without them you can’t beat the final boss.
And you have to have all the characters survive. Or you can’t beat the final boss.
The only way to finish this game is to have a perfect, complete playthrough with each hero.
W, if anything, TF?
This was an early entry from Hal Laboratory, who would also have a hand in creating Kirby, Lolo, Pokemon, and other really popular games.
But before much of that, there was Air Fortress.
Air Fortress is one of my all-time favorite NES games. The zero-gravity platforming (a bit like Kirby’s gravity-ignoring float ability, huh?) is a completely new take on the sidescrolling genre. The character sprites are incredibly simple, but still effective and fun to look at. The environments are all pretty similar (except for palette swapping, of course), but when combined with the mood music, Hal really ratchets up the tension.
Each level takes place in an air fortress, with a shoot-em-up style approach segment where you blast enemies and gather powerups to use in the second part of the level. Hal enters the guts of the fortress to explore the dark dangers and destroy the power core.
Once he finds and blows up the power core, the lights go out. The music turns ominous. He has just a few minutes to find the exit and escape before the whole thing explodes. It’s those few minutes that makes Air Fortress such a thrilling game. The rumbling grows gradually, letting you know how close you are to losing. The screen shakes. It’s a feat for the NES.
The first few stages are quite simple. But right at the halfway point, the difficulty of Air Fortress skyrockets. Enemies are everywhere and new ones are introduced. Many of the enemies can propel themselves through the air and are as fast as Hal himself. There are these tiny Death Star enemies that fire a blast of flame that will absolutely consume the hero.
Like any good game, the difficulty curve gives you a few well-made levels to feel like a badass, setting you up for the realization that you are definitely not.
Great game. But man. It’s a tough one!
As always, thanks for reading. If you’re starting a collection, you might want to check out my Ultimate Guide to Collecting Retro Games. It’s got tons of info and links to even more info to get you started collecting retro, without wasting a bunch of money.