How hidden can a gem possibly be? I mean, we’ve had like 35 years to discover these games. Presumably, they were never really hidden. This list should be more like Games You Forgot. But “hidden gems” is such a buzzword, I’d rather use it.
Regardless, there is a massive number of NES games that are fantastic and fun and even pretty cheap. And with game prices going absolutely nuts over the last couple of years, it can be frustrating to get started collecting retro games in 2021 and, I imagine 2022 with be more of the same.
Lucky for you, I’m a retro-collecting cheapskate with a long memory and a will to write. So I’m pleased as heck to present you with the top 25 NES games I consider to be hidden or forgotten gems in that library.
This is not the first article I’ve written addressing this topic. I have another piece that (at one time) ranked fairly high on Google for the search term “NES hidden gems”. And yeah, most of the games from that list are here, too. But I wanted to make another, bigger list to be even more comprehensive. Consider this the Master List of Gems for this site.
So no, none of these games has ever actually been hidden. Some of them are mostly forgotten, and a few are actually still quite popular for collectors. But remember, this site caters to new and casual collectors as well as hardcore long-timers. And anyway, if you’re already and avid collector of NES games, you certainly already know these titles.
Pretty much every game on this list was marketed upon release, sold many tens of thousands of copies and has never been hidden. But if you’re like me, and grew up in a town with limited selection and limited locations to get games, a lot of these may have eluded you in your childhood.
Or if you’re a younger gamer, you may not have heard of these because they don’t get all the glorious spotlight that Mario, Metroid, Zelda, Castlevania, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and all those games garner.
Honestly, I don’t care if any of these titles surprise you, or if this list is exactly what you expected. It’s just a collection of NES game titles that deserve a little more attention. And if you’re a collector, you probably ought to have them.
Speaking of which, I’m supposed to let you know that I’m an eBay affiliate and if you click any of these product links and make a purchase, you’ll be helping me to keep this site alive. Thanks!
So let’s get started! Here are my picks for Top 25 NES Hidden Gems.
The Guardian Legend
No list—and I mean literally no list of NES Hidden Gems is complete without The Guardian Legend. I make this joke all the time. How can the most popular hidden gem be on literally every hidden gems list and people still think it’s hidden? I don’t know.
I guess you could call this the NES’ worst-kept secret. Even before the internet, I knew this game existed and was very familiar with its look because it was in pretty much every gaming publication except Nintendo Power back in the day. It had a few features in the Classified Information section of NP, but never a feature. Don’t know why.
So yeah, this gem was never hidden, and it was roughly as popular as other games that came out around the same time. And yet, The Guardian Legend is not as popular today as many of its contemporaries, so yeah.
If you haven’t heard of TGL before reading this, then there ya go. It’s pretty great. It’s a Zelda-esque top-down adventure with shoot-em-up sequences joining the different maps together. If you haven’t played it yet, I suggest you pick up a copy on eBay and get crackin’. It’s still pretty cheap, but who knows how long its “hidden gem” status will keep it that way.
Magic of Scheherazade
Definitely a more obscure title than The Guardian Legend, Magic of Scheherazade is another top-down adventure with Zelda vibes, this time in an Arabian fantasy setting.
Who knows why this one never hit the big time? Perhaps the name is too hard for westerners to spell? Or maybe the setting was just never as popular here as the high-fantasy settings of Zelda and Final Fantasy? Regardless, Magic of Scheherazade offers fun gameplay in a unique setting and is definitely worth checking out.
old mature enough to remember the TV show Gun Smoke, then you’re old enough to know that this game is not based on it at all. But the name and the Western gunslinger setting probably put it in the same ballpark.
At its heart, Gun Smoke (or Gun.Smoke sometimes) is a vertical-scrolling shoot-em-up, but with a few twists.
Players can fire at an angle to the left, to the right, or straight ahead depending on whether they’re pushing A, B, or A and B. It’s a small thing, but totally unique as far as I can tell. It’s not quite as intuitive as a twin-stick shooter, but it really provides for deeper and more interesting gameplay.
You can purchase weapon upgrades and ammo from the local townsfolk, as well as powerups and horses. Ordinarily the hero can only take one single shot before biting the dust but when mounted, the horse itself can take a few direct hits before it is murdered. Poor horsey.
To advance in Gun Smoke you have to kill as many bandits as you can, earning money along the way, until you can afford a wanted poster of that level’s boss. Until you get the poster, the level will continue indefinitely in a loop. After a few loops, you can find the poster in a barrel or something for free. Then the boss appears and badda-boom badda-bing, you’re fighting for your life.
This game is great. It’s really a fresh (Or like thirty years ago it was fresh) take on the shoot-em-up genre. Check it out on eBay, it’s definitely worth owning.
Somehow Jackal has been flying on the radar for decades. Not sure why. This game has been featured on Cinemassacre’s channel, which is sometimes sufficient to launch a game into the spotlight, but for some reason Jackal is still well under the radar and still relatively affordable.
Jackal is a vehicle-based run & gun. So really more like a drive & gun. Think along the lines of Commando or Guerilla War but with a jeep.
The two-player co-op is excellent and the arcade feel is spot-on. I played this game all the way through with my sister back when it was new and I’ve loved it ever since.
Whether you’re playing alone or with a Player 2, I definitely recommend Jackal. Grab a copy on eBay.
This one is a squinch more expensive than what I usually promote on this site, but Shatterhand is so legit that it needs to be on this list. And I highly recommend you check it out!
Shatterhand is a platforming action game, something along the lines of Ninja Gaiden, but with the player using his fists to fight enemies and break down walls and whatever else.
You earn coins throughout the game to buy upgraded armor and power ups. You also unlock flying robot friends to freaking obliterate your enemies throughout the game.
This game is hard as hell, though. So if you buy it, be prepared to spend a while mastering the platforming and combat techniques. But overall, this is a seriously underrated game that’s worth every penny.
Deja Vu, like Shadowgate and The Uninvited, is a MacVenture port. If you’re a fan of point-and-click adventure games, you’ll appreciate this film noir mystery.
Out of the MacVenture trilogy, this is the only game I’m including because Shadowgate is too well known to be a “hidden gem” and The Uninvited is just too expensive. (Just look at these eBay prices!)
But each of the MacVentures is a great game in itself, and while Deja Vu doesn’t have as much of the horror theme as its twins, it really does offer a fun and challenging adventure with a killer soundtrack and mind-breaking puzzles.
Best of all (for ghetto gamers, at least), it’s very affordable on eBay!
Possibly my all-time favorite arcade game! And while the Super NES port is certainly a lot more faithful to the arcade version, the NES port is still fun as hell!
You can play 2-player co-op in this, and the controls are pretty good. Like most NES top-down shooters, your character shoots in the direction he’s facing. But by holding down a button, he’ll freeze in the direction he’s facing. So you can aim him to the left, hold down both buttons to keep him shooting to the left while he moves all over the screen.
Why more games didn’t adopt this control scheme, I’ll never understand. It works extremely well and allows for fluid gameplay in co-op mode.
But if you’re playing solo, there’s another way! You can actually play with two controllers at once, holding them vertically like a TV remote, with a thumb on each of the D-pads. This way you have a true twin-stick shooter experience. It works incredibly well!
And while the graphics are severely dumbed down, the gameplay is surprisingly intact. Pair that with the innovative control schemes and you’ve got a pretty refreshing twin-stick shooting experience on the NES that was well ahead of its time.
Also, this game is cheap as hell! Just check it out on eBay.
While still not as common as The Guardian Legend, Xexyz spends a decent amount of time on NES Hidden Gems lists. As well it should. It’s fantastic!
This is another multi-genre game, alternating between side-scrolling shooter segments and side-scrolling platformer segments. You guide the protagonist through different themed worlds, searching through doors and discovering friends and enemies both, purchasing weapons and upgrades and facing progressively more awesome bosses.
This is another cheap one, too. And like the others on this list, it ought to be priced much higher than it is. I’m sure eventually its “hidden” status will be revoked and collectors will start aggressively snatching up Xexys. Here’s the eBay link to get your copy before that happens.
Zoda’s Revenge: Star Tropics 2
I was tempted to put Star Tropics on here, but that’s a stretch even for a shameless post like this one. But don’t deny that Star Tropics is pretty unfairly overlooked by the retro community. Some people don’t love the tile-based movement inside dungeons, but they’re dumb.
And if you don’t like that tile-based movement, then you should like Star Tropics 2, because while much of the gameplay and style are intact from the original, Zoda’s Revenge gets rid of the tile jumping altogether.
Personally, I preferred the tile jumping. But Star Tropics 2 is still an excellent game and still quite cheap as of this writing. Seems like another title that could potentially jump in value. Get your copy on eBay and be one of the cool kids.
Monster Party is one of the weirdest NES games I’ve ever seen. In terms of gameplay, it’s a pretty generic platformer. You play as a kid with a baseball bat that can crawl like a worm. What makes Monster Party really unique is the twisted world where it takes place.
About halfway through the first stage, the bloody and sick nature of this game reveals itself. Monsters apologize for being dead, and beg you not to kill them. But of course you’re going to. You’re at a monster party, what else can you do?
This one is kind of a cult classic and has a pretty big following. But if you’re new to retro collecting, you may not have this one yet. I highly recommend picking up a copy, especially if you like highly collectable oddities.
Codename: Viper is a Rolling Thunder clone. If you aren’t familiar with Rolling Thunder, then maybe it needs to go on this list, too? I’ll think about it.
Anyway, the gameplay is mostly timing-based side scrolling instead of traditional platforming. Your character can hide behind doors to let enemies pass in order to save ammo. But you’ll also spend some time climbing and shooting and all that good retro arcade stuff.
Due to the timing-based puzzle gameplay, this one can get very frustrating. But once you figure it out, it’s a lot of fun and definitely worth picking up on eBay.
Platoon is almost a good game. At the very least, it gets you the absolute best first-person experience the NES had to offer in stage 2. In fact, each level of Platoon is a different genre. Stage 1 is a side-scrolling shooter, stage 2 is a first-person shooter (believe it or not), stage 3 is a gallery shooter, and stage 4 is a top-down run & gun somewhat akin to the indoor segments from Contra. There are only 4 stages.
I actually really enjoy Platoon for the first few levels. They’re far from perfect and the game is quite difficult, but the FPS aspect of stage 2 was unprecedented on the NES. The fluid animation as you proceed through the underground tunnels is really unique on the system. For that alone, I think this is a game you need for your collection. Besides, it’s super cheap on eBay!
A lot of people absolutely love Faxanadu. Watch some reviews for it and you’ll hear the adoration in their voices. My theory is that they grew up playing this game and have strong feelings for it. Hey, that’s cool.
As a newcomer to this game, I found it a little difficult to get into at first. The graphics aren’t bad, but the color scheme is pretty repetitive and, well, very brown. But I guess it makes sense since most of the gameplay happens inside a giant tree.
After giving it an open mind and a legitimate try, I did find Faxanadu quite enjoyable despite a few flaws. It’s a side-scrolling RPG in the vein of Zelda II or Simon’s Quest. If you haven’t played it, you really ought to. It’s a unique experience within the NES library.
What is Crystalis doing on this list? I honestly don’t know. For some reason, bloggers that make NES Hidden Gems lists insist on slapping this game into them. Not to be outdone, I figured it had a place here, too.
But let’s be clear: Crystalis is not a hidden gem. It’s never been hidden. It dominated Nintendo Power’s Power Charts for years. It has been re-released many times for many systems. It’s in Nintendo Switch Online’s NES library. It has always been popular and never hidden. K?
Think of Crystalis as a sort of 8-bit Secret of Mana. The real-time battle system uses a similar weapon-charge mechanic and the top-down action is quite similar. The story is fun and the graphics are clean and stand the test of time. If you don’t have Crystalis, you should definitely check it out on eBay.
Abadox was marketed as being gross and bloody and for its time, it was!
The goal in this shoot-em-up is to blast your way through the guts of a giant planet-eating monster and destroy all his organs from the inside. Pretty gruesome.
I remember watching the commercials for this game and thinking it looked pretty cool, but I never found a copy back then. The game wasn’t especially popular despite being a lot of fun and relatively well made. Possibly it was just vastly overshadowed by Konami’s suite of shooters including Life Force (Salamander outside the U.S.) which had a very similar theme.
For a one-off experience and a soul-crushing challenge, you really can’t go wrong with this cheap game. See current prices.
For what it’s worth, I think Robo Warrior has one of the best overworld themes in the whole 8-bit world. It’s been continuously stuck in my head for over 30 years.
I have a weird relationship with this game and write about it pretty frequently. It was a childhood favorite, being quite easy to learn even as a kid.
Despite that shallow learning curve, there are a few mean tricks in this game that probably have contributed to its limited popularity over the years. As the protagonist is a robot, you must constantly replenish his battery which drains over time. There are areas of complete darkness and you must manage resources well or you’ll find yourself without a candle or lantern and be forced to wander in complete darkness. And if you miss the Chalice of Life, you’ll find yourself in an endless loop, replaying large portions of the stage.
Despite that stuff, it’s still a fun game. It’s quite long and has various boss battles and many secrets to keep it interesting. And like so much more of this list, it’s very cheap! Check current prices here.
Let’s face it: Tetris dominated the puzzle game genre in the 1980s. And that’s totally appropriate, given the addictive nature of the game and the all-ages appeal of those totally innocent little blocks.
But as the 90s approached, it was time for a much more bodacious and totally gnarly approach to the genre. That’s where Klax came in.
Of all the unlicensed NES game producers, Tengen was certainly the greatest. They brought us Rolling Thunder, Gauntlet, the original Tetris, and others. But Somehow, Klax fell by the wayside. It’s one of the few offerings on this list that I would consider an actual hidden gem.
The challenge of Klax is in quickly sorting your tiles and managing the mess that continually comes at you down a conveyor belt. Unlike Tetris, Klax has a feeling of depth as the tiles approach you from the horizon, inexorably flipping their way out of your screen. The graphics and aesthetic of this game is perfectly turn-of-the-decade, with glaring neon colors and jammin’ soundtrack.
If you like puzzle games, you will definitely enjoy Klax. And like the rest of this list, it’s super cheap. Have a look!
Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers
Sometimes, some crimes go slippin’ through the cracks. But these two gumshoes? Well, they’re picking up that slack on one of the many excellent Disney-licensed NES games.
Ducktales may be more popular, but Rescue Rangers offers co-op multiplayer, making it unique among its peers. Plus, the graphics are good and the characters are charming and the plight of tiny little Chip and Dale making their way through trees and houses is a fun and memorable adventure.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Gremlins 2 is classic Sunsoft. Imagine Blaster Master without the side-scrolling tank scenes. Imagine Fester’s Quest without all the game-breaking problems and a jump button. Gremlins 2 is a pretty game with nice, big sprites and upgradable weapons you can purchase throughout the game.
Too many movie-based retro games are garbage. Too many, in fact, that it can be easy to dismiss movie tie ins for the system. But Sunsoft did Batman justice, and they did Gremlins 2, too. Two?
Definitely check pricing on this one. It’s traditionally quite cheap, but prices have been creeping up recently.
If you think you’re pretty good at flying around, check this one out.
As the jetman, you fly around to different planets in an attempt to reconstruct a legendary ship. You’ve got to maneuver your spacecraft around various planets, both along their surfaces and inside their vast cave systems. Pick up the missing pieces with your tractor beam and prepare to become gravity’s bitch.
The physics in this game are amazing for an 8-bit cartridge. Each planet has its own mass and gravity, which affects gameplay across the board. Building momentum in your craft can be crucial as you try to lift heavy parts and carry them to your base.
Keep in mind, these heavy parts will swing at the end of their tether, influencing the direction of your ship’s momentum. You’ve got to learn how to swing your pieces about and and go with the flow. Fighting gravity wastes fuel and you’ll have to go back to base to recharge.
Sound complicated? It is. And for the incredibly complex physics, this game is way ahead of its time and definitely an NES hidden gem. Lucky for you, it’s also quite cheap.
Another movie tie in, Willow, has been overlooked in recent years. In its heyday, though, Willow did rather well both in theaters and on the Nintendo Power Charts.
But like many other movie games, many assume it won’t be anything more than a cheap cash grab. Not so! In fact, Willow offers a really unique approach to the action RPG genre. It’s entirely playable, and totally fun. And as of this writing, it’s still entirely affordable! Check prices here.
One of my personal all-time favorite NES games, Air Fortress came from the same studio that would eventually work on Kirby and Pokemon. Air Fortress is a hybrid shoot-em-up and platformer that has all the charm of Kirby and all the suspense of Silent Hill. Quite an impressive feat for an 8-bit game.
And like most of the others on this list, it is quite cheap on eBay.
Adventure Island 2
Adventure Island was great. Adventure Island 2, with its barely-concealed Super Mario 3 influence, is nearly a masterpiece. Yes, Master Higgins was riding dinosaurs long before (or maybe around the same time?) that Yoshi first appeared.
While Adventure Island 1 was a simple arcade port, and incredibly difficult, the sequel is clearly intended for longer play on a home console. Hudson Soft shifted their focus from simply getting the player from one end to the other, to allowing them a fun experience where the player can actually explore at a slightly more leisurely pace.
If you haven’t played Adventure Island 2, and still consider yourself a retro gamer, you might reconsider your status. Or go pick up a copy of Adventure Island 2. It’s great and epic and you’ll love it.
Tiny Toon Adventures
Real talk – Konami has never cared about your feelings. Not now that they’re totally AWOL with Castlevania, and not back when they made video games based on your favorite cartoons. And while Tiny Toon Adventures isn’t as hard as TMNT, it’s definitely an adequate challenge.
But like most Konami joints, this one is well-made with great graphics and excellent sound. And it’s fun, too. Pick it up here.
Kabuki Quantum Fighter
Probably the most hidden game on this list, and possibly the gemmiest gem, is Kabuki Quantum Fighter, from the same studio that made Air Fortress and all those others we discussed.
Maybe it didn’t get popular in the U.S. because the name was too Japanese for Americans at the turn of the decade? Maybe because Americans couldn’t get behind a super hero with a big red wig and red pantyhose? No clue. But the fact is, we were missing out on a great game!
Quantum Fighter blends Ninja-Gaiden gymanstics with Contra aesthetics. Run, jump wall-climb, platform-swing and all that stuff. Unlock powerups throughout the game, but don’t waste your ammo. Use your hair to attack? Yeah. Do that. And do it all within a primitive 1990 concept of what being inside a computer could look like. And it’s gruesome, folks. Freaky and weird.
If you’re a fan of platformers, especially the Gaiden games, this one is for you.