In the U.S., the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) absolutely revolutionized video gaming. Atari’s boom and bust had left the industry scrambling and Nintendo was a bit scared to come blazing into the west. Distributors were nervous as well, and some of them flat out refused to sell video games.
But the folks at Nintendo were determined to put something on store shelves, especially given the huge popularity of their Famicom system in Japan. So they changed their tactics for U.S. audiences and sold the NES as a “toy” or an “entertainment system” rather than a video game.
And it worked! The NES hit the west hard, infiltrating homes all across America, selling millions and millions of units and along with those, millions and millions of fantastic games!
For this list, I was unable to find sales specific to the U.S., at least from any source I trust, so I went with worldwide sales. In many cases, these numbers are reflected within the United States with one or two glaring—yet interesting—exceptions. We’ll talk about that later.
The sales of the NES system, and the sales for NES game cartridges breathed new life into the video game industry in the west. My personal belief is that we would have ended up here whether Nintendo “rescued” the western video game market or not, but I think it’s safe to say Nintendo were the first ones to impact so many American households, so completely, for so long.
So let’s quit gabbing and have a look at the top-selling NES games of all time!
35. Bases Loaded – 1.58 million copies sold
I’ve never been much into sports games. I like a big adventure or an exciting puzzle. But I get that I’m a bit unusual and tons and tons of people love sports games and will pay and buy and purchase and spend money on these things!
Besides, in the early days of the NES, Nintendo’s most popular franchises were not yet established. There was no Cult of Mario or Zelda yet. So Nintendo had to make games with universal familiarity like baseball and soccer, hockey, etc.
It’s far beyond my capacity as a gamer to say anything about this or any other sports game. You’ll see quite a few in this article, so don’t be alarmed that I don’t have much to say about them. Other than that many of the early sports games were very popular. Bases Loaded is no different. A million and a half copies is definitely not too shabby.
34. Ghosts n’ Goblins – 1.64 million
Capcom has never been known to pull punches in their game difficulty. And it has never been more evident than it is in Ghosts n’ Goblins.
Widely considered to be one of—if not the most difficult NES game ever made (See our list of hardest NES games here). But the jury is out on whether this game is legitimately challenging, or if it’s just broken. Honestly, the difficulty is mostly due to finicky controls and constant spamming of enemies.
To me, Ghosts n’ Goblins is too hard to be fun. It likely sold well because of the dark, edgy graphic style and because it was a port of a relatively popular arcade game. The arcade game wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either, but the NES game takes the difficulty to a whole new level. If you really love a challenge, Ghosts n’ Goblins has it.
33. DuckTales – 1.67 million
This legendary Disney cartoon came to life in 1989 with the DuckTales NES game.
Play as Uncle Scrooge, cane-hopping over enemies and traps to get the ultimate treasure—smelly moon cheese? Something like that.
Just like the cartoon, DuckTales for the NES was extremely well done and well loved to this day. The difficulty settings made it accessible for all ages of players and it was the second (I think?) game I ever beat.
32. Kirby’s Adventure – 1.75 million
HAL Laboratory was the developer of Air Fortress (one of my all-time faves), and would later go on to help out with many of the most iconic Nintendo franchises like Pokemon and Smash Bros.
Let us never forget, Kirby got his start in Kirby’s Dream Land on the Game Boy. But the people demanded more Kirby, and they got it! Kirby’s Adventure takes a step beyond the original Game Boy game, removing the titular hero from his linear Game Boy adventure and putting him into a much larger NES game where he can explore and unlock new levels, even backtracking to find secrets.
Kirby happened very late in the NES life cycle, when the technology for that console was effectively maxed out and anything that would ever be possible on the NES was right there at developers’ fingertips.
As a result Kirby’s Adventure was one of the most colorful, most robust and interesting games for the NES. It was still a bit of a rarity for platformer games to allow you to save your progress. Platformers either were meant to be finished in one sitting, or used a password system. But HAL knew Kirby was different. The scope of this game is enormous, and the gameplay is fun and addictive.
31. Kid Icarus – 1.76 million
For a lot of U.S. gamers, the last major gaming console before the NES was the Atari 2600 or one of its sequels. Those old systems could only hint at the long and varied adventures players would explore in games like in Kid Icarus. The technology of the NES made huge, sprawling games like this possible.
For its time, Kid Icarus offered some of the most interesting environments in gaming, with a huge roster of monsters and secrets.
But at its core, Kid Icarus is a super simple game where you just climb, jump, walk and shoot. But the environment is continually changing and introducing new enemies. Players are constantly challenged, too. And challenged a lot! Kid Icarus made it into our list of Top 35 Hardest NES Games.
30. Pinball – 1.85 million
Who doesn’t love Pinball? This 1984 release showed some real depth of play as it offered two screens worth of pinball table, and a bonus round in the style of Breakout, starring Mario in a daring rescue of Pauline. (From Donkey Kong. Of course you knew that.)
A home version of pinball was bound to be successful in the golden age of arcade gaming, and Nintendo did a great job of bringing an elaborate table to the home console.
29. Soccer – 1.96 million
Like I already said, early sports games for the NES sold very well. Even Soccer.
28. Rad Racer – 1.96 million
Rad Racer took some flak back in the day for being a pretty blatant copy of Sega’s OutRun. Despite that, Rad Racer sold quite well at close to 2 million copies! Probably thanks in part to the success of OutRun. Depends on who you ask, probably. But the numbers don’t lie, and racing gamers seemed to like Rad Racer just fine.
27. Top Gun – 2 million
Today, Top Gun is the subject of much criticism and eye rolling. But transport yourself back to 1987. Top Gun was strafing the box office, fighter jets were at maximum coolness, and flight simulation had just made a huge leap in realism and playability in the arcade.
In particular, Sega’s arcade hit After Burner was released the same year as Top Gun for the NES and I think gamers were generally extremely excited to play something, anything like Afterburner at home. Because, let’s be honest: After Burner is freaking awesome!
So Top Gun was released into a climate that was steaming hot for combat flight simulation and the Top Gun name itself. Gamers were ready to ride into the Danger Zone.
But did Top Gun deliver? Not really. Certainly not compared to After Burner.
The “flight simulation” was pretty decent for a home console for the time. But chasing enemy sprites around an almost featureless sky with a d-pad got quite monotonous and was not all that much fun. And there’s the infamous aircraft carrier landing that the Angry Video Game Nerd has hilariously failed at time and again.
26. R.C. Pro-Am – 2.14 million
By all accounts, R.C. Pro-Am is a lot of fun. It’s a racing game, sure, but it’s a decidedly different take on the racing game genre.
You control your radio-controlled car (very hot back in 1988) in an isometric view. Because this was a game about essentially racing toys around a track, the graphics had permission to be a little more colorful and cartoony than most racing games dared to be.
One thing that might have made this an even stronger seller would be a multiplayer option. But as it was, this was a very popular title.
25. Volleyball – 2.15 million
(I’m writing this list backwards, having started with number one. At this point, I’ve already run out of things to say about sports games. You’ll get some fun comments later on. Just keep reading, friends!)
Honestly, I’m not sure why Volleyball was such a hit. I guess people really liked volleyball in 1986? At least 2,150,000 people did.
24. Tennis – 2.17 million
Tennis is a game about playing tennis.
This was practically a launch title, and let’s just assume people still had a little Pong on the brain. And to be fair, bouncing a ball between two sprites really is the simplest and possibly most effective form of gaming. Maybe. I don’t know.
23. Mario Bros. – 2.28 million
I feel like this one is just here by mistake. How many millions of moms got this one on accident, thinking they were getting their kids another sprawling and innovative Super Mario Bros. adventure?
That said, Mario Bros. isn’t a terrible game. It’s certainly a far cry from the expansive adventures of the Super Mario games, but it’s still a good time.
I played this in the arcade before I ever saw it on the NES and I liked it well enough. And it’s a Mario game, so I guess it belongs on this best-seller list.
22. Pro Wrestling – 2.4 million
I never figured out how to play this one, but it had a pink Starman, so what else could you ask for?
21. Dragon Quest II – 2.4 million
If you’re reading this, you’re most likely an English speaker, most likely in the U.S. or Canada, and most likely grew up with a game called “Dragon Warrior”. And if you’re reading this, there’s also a really great chance you know all about the Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest differences between Japanese and U.S. releases of those games.
In case you didn’t know: In the U.S., there was already a popular RPG tabletop game called DragonQuest. To avoid confusion and copyright conflicts, they changed the name for western audiences. That’s why we got Dragon Warrior and Japan did not.
(For the full story on Dragon Warrior and the birth of the JRPG, check out my full article here.)
Furthermore, if you’re reading this you’re probably expecting to see Dragon Warrior somewhere near the top. Spoiler alert: You won’t.
See, while Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest seems to have been quite popular in the U.S. (thanks to a certain Nintendo Power promotion), the franchise itself was absurdly popular in Japan. They sold so many copies of the Dragon Quest sequels that they pushed Dragon Warrior right out of the bottom of this list.
To get Dragon warrior on this list, we’d have to dive extremely deep. Dragon Warrior was the 42nd best selling NES/Famicom game. Crazy, right?
But for what it’s worth, Dragon Warrior/Quest II is still a very excellent game and worth your time, if you still have patience for 8-bit RPGs.
20. Ice Hockey – 2.42 million
I’m not qualified to discuss sports titles. Especially hockey. Sorry.
19. Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan) – 2.65 million
By now everyone knows about the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, or “The Lost Levels” as it was eventually released in North America.
This game is crazy difficult. So difficult in fact, Nintendo decided not to send it to the U.S. and sent a certain reskin of a certain other game instead. I’ll tell you more about it later if you really want to hear about it.
The original version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was meant to be a direct continuation of the first one, and so it pretty much directly continued the difficulty ramp! I don’t know how American kids would have reacted to this masochistic game, but I know that American kids loved the Super Mario Bros. 2 we ended up with. And we still do!
18. Metroid – 2.73 million
I don’t know about you, but it hurts my heart a little bit to see Metroid so far far from the top 5 of this list. Metroid is one of the three pillars of Nintendo (Mario, Metroid, Zelda), and is still widely loved to this day.
Not trying to sell Metroid short here. Selling almost 3 million copies is still an impressive feat! And they managed those 3 million despite the odd niche Metroid occupies in the gaming market.
Metroid probably turned off a few kids who were expecting a much more linear, traditional platformer like Kid Icarus or Mega Man. Metroid wasn’t traditional at all. I personally remember trying Metroid at a friend’s house, getting the ball, going out the door and climbing up and up an endless corridor. How boring, I thought, and turned off the system.
Metroid tried to do something more. The developers utilized the full capabilities of the NES to make a huge game that unfolded at a more leisurely pace than most gamers in the 80s were used to. Metroid wasn’t just a game, it was an experience. And the totality of its greatness: the environments, the ambiance, the slow pace, the big build up, the massive exploration… were certainly lost on those younger gamers that made up the core of the NES audience.
So given all that, 2,730,000 copies sold is pretty impressive. It’s likely that a faster-paced game would have sold better. But it wouldn’t really have been Metroid, would it? And we wouldn’t have the amazing legacy we have today.
17. Punch-Out!! – 3.02 million
Originally sold for the NES as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, this is actually a port of a modestly successful Nintendo arcade game.
To get this double-screen arcade game onto the NES, many sacrifices were made. The cool wireframe boxer you played in the arcade was replaced with a tiny little sprite called Mac. Nintendo lacked the technology to make see-through wireframes on the NES, but had to keep Mac from blocking the player’s view of their opponent.
Developers used some proprietary graphics technology to make the enemy sprites extra huge. Just look at King Hippo and Bald Bull. Those guys take up the top half of the screen!
After the Mike Tyson license expired, Nintendo did not renew. Tyson was attracting far too much controversy and Nintendo was a family company. They replaced Tyson as the final boss with Mr. Dream, who will also pummel you into the dirt.
This is another extremely difficult game from Nintendo, but an instant classic and tons of fun!
16. World Class Track Meet – 3.08 million
I really hope this game feels honored to have made this list. I’m not sure there’s any way this would have sold 3 million copies if it wasn’t a NES console pack-in.
This was sold as a NES combo pack that included Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, and Track Meet, along with the regular NES controller, Zapper, and the Power Pad. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
The Power Pad was that mat that laid on the floor so you could stomp your way to victory. Something like an old-timey version of Dance Dance Revolution.
I feel pretty confident that the Power Pad was certainly not what drove sales for this combo. Even as a kid, I hardly knew anybody with this thing. And the ones that did just kept it stuffed into the corner after the novelty wore off.
To be honest, I’ve never even tried the Power Pad, but I’ve heard that it didn’t work all that well. It had issues. Which… we all have issues, so I can totally relate. But yeah. That was a thing.
15. Dragon Quest IV – 3.18 million
Once again, this list is based on sales worldwide, and this series was extremely popular in Japan!
14. Baseball – 3.2 million
A baseball game. A launch title. Of course it sold well!
13. Kung Fu – 3.5 million
Not quite a launch title, this was still a very early game for the NES. And at the time, The Karate Kid movie was a humongous hit with kids, and martial arts in general was extremely popular in the U.S. so this game was an obvious shoe-in for a hot-ticket item, especially being released just before the holiday shopping season in 1985.
12. Dragon Quest III – 3.9 million
As I mentioned, this list covers worldwide sales, so that’s why we are talking about Dragon Quest III (Japan) instead of Dragon Warrior III (U.S.). Again, this series was absolutely huge in Japan, but Nintendo didn’t have much faith in American attention spans.
Today, Dragon Warrior III is relatively rare and didn’t sell all that well compared to how it did worldwide. It’s still a great series though, and definitely worth your time if not your money.
11. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – 4 million
This was a pack-in game in Europe (or at least Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles was). But would likely still have made this list, even if it hadn’t been. European sales were relatively small compared to Japan and U.S. and this franchise was hot, hot, hot!
The Turtles were such a sensation that kids were frothing at the mouth to pick up this game. I rented it and got all the way to the overworld map with the turtle van. I thought that was a pretty good run for just a weekend rental.
I remember hanging out in my parents’ room where the NES lived, and getting permission to eat a Kid Cuisine TV dinner on their bed while I played. Life was incredibly sweet!
It’s a hazy memory but I don’t believe I picked TMNT game up again until adulthood. And what I never realized as a youngster was that everything beyond what I played during that rental is absolutely, mind-numbingly difficult. But hey, that’s cool.
I’ve always felt like the difficulty in the back half of this game doesn’t matter all that much. The front half is approachable enough even for a little kid like I was. Even if that’s all you play, there’s plenty to explore and plenty of shells to kick!
10. Golf – 4.01 million
Nintendo may have marketed their NES console to kiddos mostly, but they were wise enough to know adults were going to want to get in on this action, too. So there’s golf.
Or, I don’t know, maybe 80s kids were just avid golf fans?
9. Excitebike – 4.16 million
This game was released in 1984, when the NES library was still pretty small and it was slim pickin’s for fans.
To replay Excitebike today, you might think of the graphics and gameplay as very primitive, even for the NES. The fact is, games from this era bridged the gap between the blocky solid colors and harsh sounds of the Atari 2600, and a newer golden age of 8-bit gaming.
Despite its graphical shortcomings, Excitebike offered some impressive depth to the gameplay for the time, including different play modes, multiplayer, and an opportunity to actually create your own tracks to challenge yourself or a friend. That was extremely innovative for its time.
By today’s standards, the gameplay is probably too simple. It reminds me of one of those mobile games where you race a monster truck or something, and have to control the tilt so it always lands correctly, rather than flipping. You know what I’m talking about? It doesn’t matter.
Look, Excitebike was fun at the time, and today it’s still pretty neat.
8. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – 4.38 million
This game is a journey. And it’s been through a journey of its own!
Upon release (in the U.S.), players were rightfully impressed by the scope of the world Nintendo laid out for them. The original Zelda was large by the standards of the day, but Zelda II just blew it out of proportion!
We loved it in 1987. It was the first Zelda game I played, so I was not at all weirded out by the side-scrolling bent the game took. It seemed fine. It felt fine. And if sales are any indication, this game was just fine for fans of the day.
After a few years, and especially following A Link to the Past, fans started to turn their backs on Zelda II. It is certainly the outcast of the Zelda family, but still a great game. And as Nintendo continued delivering top-down (or overhead 3D) Zelda games, fans started getting nasty and hateful toward Zelda II.
Fast forward to today, when conveniently amnesiatic fans suddenly forgot they ever hated on this great game. Revisionist history at its worst!
Anyway, this is one of my favorite Zelda games and one of my favorite NES games. It is very difficult. But in today’s gaming climate of “Git Gud” and the love of challenging games like Sekiro and Dark Souls, I guess I can understand why Zelda II is coming back into fashion. High time for a remake if you ask me.
7. Dr. Mario – 4.85 million
Not to be outdone by Tengen/Atari (ever), Nintendo weighed in with a Tetris-like puzzler of their own.
Unlike the insanely popular Tetris, Dr. Mario makes an attempt at telling a story with actual characters. Yes, Dr. Mario is here with his drugs (Just Say No!) to wipe out germs to a great soundtrack with catchy song names like Fever and Chill.
After so much Tetris, I was glad for a change of pace that was still puzzling and fun, but with a slightly different take on the genre. Dr. Mario is a healthy dose of good times.
6. Tetris – 5.58 million
You knew this one would be near the top, right? In a lot of ways, Tetris is the perfect video game. There’s no time wasted with setting up a story, no characters, no language at all, nothing but iconic music and increasingly frantic puzzling action!
I remember Tetris as the game my Mom liked. I had it on my Game Boy (gotta have it for your Game Boy) and she played until I made her give it back.
Please note that the units sold reflected here are for the officially licensed version of Tetris. Tengen’s original black-cartridge version did not sell a whole lot of copies, though, and is quite rare today. Regardless, Tetris was a huge success. So much so that it survives today almost unchanged from its original formula. It may very well be the most remade, most copied, most iconic game of all time. It transcends culture. It transcends time and space. Tetris rules!
A massive overworld, unrivalled in scope
5. The Legend of Zelda – 6.51 million
The legend lives on!
When The Legend of Zelda hit stores, gamers already had some passing familiarity with top-down adventure games. But for many of us, the last real effort we’d seen in this genre was on the Atari 2600. For me, at least.
I had tried Adventure for the 2600 and had been a little impressed but mostly bored and confused. Kind of typical for an Atari game. Yeah, Adventure hinted at a big and interesting world, but it was hard to become immersed in a gray world of solid-colored blocks. The idea was grand and impressive, but the technology just wasn’t there yet.
Zelda borrowed the concept, and brought it a bajillion years into the future. Nintendo all but perfected the top-down adventure genre with The Legend of Zelda. It was a fully-realized epic, complete with one of gaming’s all-time great iconic soundtracks.
Like so much of what Nintendo was up to in the 80s, The Legend of Zelda was set to revolutionize gaming forever and become one of the most beloved franchises of all time.
4. Super Mario Bros. 2 (U.S. version) – 7.46 million
Get ready to get Super Mario’ed, because you’ll be seeing a lot of these bros over the rest of this list. I’m sure you’re not surprised. Nintendo put Mario on the front of everything. T-shirts, lunch boxes (including an incredible SMB2/Zelda2 hybrid lunch box like mine!), backpacks, cereal, whatever. Anything.
So yeah. The Mario Bros were Super as hell!
And in the very slim chance you’re one of the fans that doesn’t already know, I specified that this is the U.S. version because the SMB2 that japan got was very different. We eventually got it here as “The Lost Levels,” but the SMB2 from your childhood was a reskinned version of a game called Doki Doki Panic. Go look it up.
If you’re a fan you probably knew that, but we’ve got to be accessible here for n00bs and old-timey fans alike.
Anyway, even though Super Mario Bros. 2 is totally weird compared to the other games in the series, it was unarguably fun and sold like crazy. It was the first game I ever beat. I played it over years without getting bored thanks to all the secret shortcuts to discover, and so many reasons to keep playing.
It’s not a super easy game, but none of the Mario games are, really. This one is just challenging enough to give players a sense of accomplishment. It’s bright and beautiful and definitely deserves its place here on the list.
3. Super Mario Bros. 3 – 18 million
Sure, this one was a pack-in, which is probably why it sold so many copies. But…
Super Mario Bros. 3 would probably be in this exact same spot on our list even if it wasn’t. The numbers might not be as inflated, but it would be right here. And not just because of that glorified 90-minute commercial The Wizard, starring Fred Savage. Although I’m sure that helped.
Nope. SMB 3 is legitimately a fantastic game. It really, really showed what the NES was capable of, with great music, vastly improved graphics from the early days, varied multiplayer scenarios (including the infamous throwback to the original Mario Bros), cool bosses, interesting levels…
I could go on. But most of all, most importantly, Super Mario Bros. 3 was fun! And is generally considered one of the GOATs and really set the tone for Mario’s next huge adventure, Super Mario World. In fact, it’s probably safe to say Mario 3 has influenced gaming in ways most of us will never fully appreciate. The hype and impact are very hard to overstate today. Kids these days will never understand.
2. Duck Hunt – 28.3 million
To be totally frank, I believe this game is only here because it was packed in, along with the gray or orange Zapper. (I had the gray one.) That said, I have many hours of fond memories with this game. But I always enjoyed shooting the clay pigeons, rather than those erratic ducks. The ducks made me so angry! And that stupid dog!
There were quite a few other Zapper games for the NES, but hardly any of my friends bothered with them. My cousin had Hogan’s Alley, which was fun. But I think Duck Hunt gave us just enough light gun action that we didn’t need anything else.
We could debate whether Duck Hunt was a “good” game or an “okay” game, but it wouldn’t matter. It was a popular game, if only because it was included with the set. And I don’t know about you, but I got hours and hours of fun out of Duck Hunt.
1. Super Mario Bros. – 40.24 million copies sold!
No surprises here. Right from day one, Super Mario and his bro were destined to be the famed and celebrated torch carriers for Nintendo. The face of the company. Quite probably the most recognized video gaming icons in all of gaming history! The Super Mario Bros!
The original Super Mario Bros. was the first pack-in game, and was the shining example of what buyers could expect from this “entertainment system.” Did the developers know just how iconic the game would become? I doubt it. Especially considering the market climate in the U.S. at the time Nintendo launched the system.
By most accounts, Nintendo of America was terrified of being rejected by U.S. households. They were trying to revive the home gaming industry following that notorious console crash. They took great pains to make their products as palatable as possible to western audiences. They made many changes in their approach to marketing and distribution, for better or worse.
Allegedly, Nintendo thought wanted to sort of disguise the NES for American, so they changed the style of the console to look more like a VCR, with the cartridge sliding in horizontally, instead of top-loading like the Famicom or Atari consoles. They marketed the NES as a toy, targeting kids who knew jack squat about how game publishers had ravaged the market in the years before. Even the name Nintendo Entertainment System implied something separate and more hoity-toity than a measly “video game”.
Perhaps it was all those changes that helped launch Nintendo and the Super Mario Bros themselves into stardom and industry domination. But I think it’s more likely just the fact that all those 80s and late 70s kids were ready for a badass new gaming console.
Personally, I was still rockin’ my grandma’s Atari 2600 when the NES came out. For me and my sister, and most of our friends, there never was a console crash. Video games were cool then and they’ve always been cool. And looking at this next generation of games and gamers, I think the industry is going to be safe and will live on forever.
Even without Nintendo’s contribution to the industry, I think video games would be immortalized in some form. I think we’d still be here with similar technology, but with a whole different set of iconic franchises and characters. Who knows? In an alternate universe Sega might be the industry tyrants. Nah, just kidding that would never happen! (BURN!!!)
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