Nearly 40 years after its release, the NES is still one of the most popular gaming consoles in the world! Much of that is due to nostalgia–which is a legitimate aspect to retro gaming–but few can deny the charming simplicity of the NES. Two buttons, four directions. What else do you really need?
And while it’s true that graphics and gameplay have come a long way since the ’80s, the NES nailed all the core principles of game design. Who even has time for ray tracing when hordes of skeletons are tossing their bones at you!?
Like any console, the NES had its share of clunkers. Plenty of ugly games and movie-based cash grabs that might not be worth your time. But for the most part, the NES was a solid platform with plenty of decent games. There are a handful, however, that have truly stood the test of time and are as fun and engaging today as they were back in the good ‘ol days!
Here’s my list of NES games that still hold up today. Enjoy!
1. Castlevania 3
There have been a ton of pixel-art games that have come out in the last decade. Many of them look incredible with newer technology that allows for more colors and more layers than the NES could ever dream of. But Castlevania 3 delivers a dazzling array of colors and textures that used every bit of power the NES offered.
Aside from the graphics, the gameplay in Castlevania 3 (and the rest of the series, really) holds up incredibly well today. The controls are super simple with no frills, but the environments are dynamic enough to keep players very much on their toes.
This series is so well loved that new developers are still cranking out “Metroidvania” games that have their roots in this series. And while the difficulty of CV3 can be quite extreme for modern players, there’s a reason that this game keeps getting cloned and re-released decades after it first hit stores.
This one’s getting a little pricey these days, but you can still find plenty for sale on eBay. Go have a look!
2. Super Mario Bros 3
The Super Mario Bros. series is a no-brainer. And honestly, all three mainline SMB games for the NES would be perfectly appropriate for this list. But Super Mario Bros 3 is especially special among this group of especially specials.
Like Castlevania, this series is still going strong today with entries and clones that reach back to the very first release. Games like New Super Mario Bros and Mario Maker pay homage to this one. Even Mario Odyssey shows 8-bit respect to great effect.
Super Mario Bros 3 was the first SMB game to perfect the side-scrolling formula that would be a staple in every 2D Mario game to follow. Things like the world map, storing powerups for later use, defeating mini-bosses and Koopalings… We still enjoy this stuff today!
In terms of graphics and gameplay, this is one of the all-time greats. Modern indie developers are still trying to divine the secret sauce that makes this game so gosh-darned magical! You know… other than Fred Savage and The Wizard making it so much larger than life.
Anyway, you should go grab a copy if you don’t already have one. It’s mandatory. And cheap.
3. Blaster Master
This is another early Metroidvania-style game. Of course, I didn’t realize that until about 20 years. There’s one part where you have to backtrack to your starting point and continue from there. It’s hidden and—in my opinion—even harder to figure out than Simon’s Quest and the kneeling tornado sequence. Unless you’ve got a guide, of course.
Cryptic gameplay concepts notwithstanding, Blaster Master has some really spectacular graphics for its time. Gameplay is addictive, with the grasshopper tank being particularly fun to hop around in.
When Jason leaves his ride and goes into the underground dungeons, the walking/shooting sequences are fun, too. Jason’s oversized character sprite is awfully cute in his pink and white suit. And I always thought his gun looks like a camera.
Like a lot of games on this list, Blaster Master is tough as rusty nails. But it’s a lot of fun! And if you’re already a fan, you should check out the Blaster Master Zero series. It’s a faithful homage and super-fun in its own right.
You can find Blaster Master on eBay really easily.
4. Mega Man 3
Mega Man is such a spectacular series. The last mainline entry was Mega Man 11 which came out all the way back in 2018. Capcom added a few new mechanics, but like 90 percent of the gameplay is totally true to the original series.
Now, I can hear you shrieking “But Steven Long, what about Mega Man 2? Mega Man 2 is better!”
You’re not wrong, friend. Not at all. In fact, you could probably put either one on this list. But I gave MM3 the edge in this list because, while MM2 certainly has the better music, MM3 has slightly better graphics. In my opinion.
This series has enjoyed popularity for decades and Capcom is still packaging up Mega Man collections for modern consoles. It’s a great series no matter what year it is. Go find the whole series on eBay.
5. Ninja Gaiden
Today, it’s so common for video games to have long (sometimes too long. And sometimes unskippable!?) cutscenes. Back in the 8-bit era, it wasn’t quite as common. Most games of the time did have an intro scene to create some context for the story, but Ninja Gaiden took it to a new level.
Players get to enjoy longer cutscenes than most 8-bit games in Ninja Gaiden. They’re well-animated and actually unfold an interesting story. I mean, it ain’t gonna win an Oscar or anything, but it was nice to see such a narrative approach to platforming.
Like so many of its kind, Ninja Gaiden is really challenging. Like, really really challenging. It’s on my list of the 35 Hardest NES Games. But when you get on a winning streak at Ninja Gaiden, it’s so damn satisfying!
Go get it while it’s still affordable.
6. Air Fortress
In discussing most of the games on this list, I’ve touched on the graphics. Nice graphics are good and help a game look nice when it’s destroying your ego. But great graphics are no substitute for great gameplay.
…which is fortunate for Air Fortress! Not that the graphics are bad exactly. But this was an early NES title and it does look a little more primitive than others on this list.
What Air Fortress lacks in visual appeal, it more than compensates when it comes to gameplay!
I love this game. It has players going back and forth between a side-scrolling shoot-em-up and a side-scrolling platforming adventure.
As you approach each air fortress, you fly in as a horizontal shoot-em-up, defeating enemies along the way and salvaging the supplies they drop. The energy and bombs you collect on the approach are then added to your inventory during the platforming segment inside the air fortress.
It’s really a unique style of gameplay. You must explore carefully, finding each air fortress’s generator, taking it out. You then have just a few minutes to find your way in the dark to the exit. As you’re searching for the exit, the air fortress begins to rumble, getting louder and more intense until the whole thing blows up with you inside. It’s really intense for an 8-bit game. It holds up. It’s good. TRY IT!
Here it is on eBay. For cheap!
7. Contra and Super C
Thirty-five years later and developers are still copying the Contra model. Games like Blazing Chrome and Super Cyborg have done so with brilliant results, but the original Contra for the NES and its sequel Super C are still the gold standard for side-scrolling run & gun games.
The graphics in Contra are among the best among 8-bit consoles. Konami was at the top of their game and it shows in Contra’s fast action and addictive gameplay.
I love Shadowgate maybe a little too much. It’s flawed. I know. Some of the puzzles seem like trial and error and the torch/time limit makes this one incredibly stressful. But in my opinion it is the best adventure game on the NES.
You may be thinking that Maniac Mansion is a better adventure game on the NES. But you are mistaken, friend. The thing is, Maniac Mansion is a neat game, and really quirky and interesting, but the controls and graphics just can’t stand up to Shadowgate.
Along with Deja Vu and The Uninivited, Shadowgate is part of the Macventure series that was released for Apple Computers back in the 80s. They were cutting edge then, and the point & click interface ported surprisingly well to the NES and its controller. Also worth mentioning that the graphics are fantastic and the music is some of the low-key best tunes the NES has to offer.
It’s also still dirt cheap on eBay. Go grab it!
Let’s face it: Tetris will never get old. And it will always play brilliantly whether you’re playing on the NES, Switch, Oculus Quest, MS DOS, Nokia 3310, anything. It doesn’ matter.
I would argue that Tetris on the NES is among the best port the game has ever seen. Especially the super-rare unlicensed Tengen version which has unique features that you can only experience in that version. It’s a bit pricey, but you should head over to eBay and get it anyway. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
11. The Guardian Legend
If you’re not familiar with this one already, it can take a bit of effort to get into it. After my third attempt to get the hang of the top-down portion of the game, it started coming together.
The Guardian Legend is a dual-genre game, switching between overhead Zelda-style non-scrolling exploration, and vertical shoot-em-up. Both segments are done as well as any other game on the NES, but the overhead portions can feel overwhelming at first.
There’s tons to explore and tons of powerups to find but once you get into the groove, Guardian Legend is one of the most fun and nuanced games on the NES.
Despite being a cult classic, this game is, somehow, still quite affordable. You can grab it on eBay.
12. The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
I can hear the haters already. How can I say Zelda II holds up in 2021, but the original does not? Well… because the sequel was technologically superior in pretty much every way!
Fans debate about Z2 and whether it’s a good or bad game, a true Zelda game, too hard to be fun, etc… It’s all very amusing to me, because I feel firmly that this is one of the best Zelda games in existence. It certainly is unique in the series.
There are plenty of Zelda games that do what Zelda 1 did, and do it way better! A Link to the Past was in the same style as Zelda 1 but is objectively better than the original. Link’s Awakening, despite being a much smaller game for the Game Boy, offers a much better, player-focused experience.
But there has never been another Zelda game that does what The Adventure of Link did. It remains completely alone in the franchise. If you want to explore the (canon) Zelda universe in a side-scrolling way, this is still the only way to do it. Yes, it’s challenging. Yes, it’s frustrating. But if you manage to git gud, I think you’ll enjoy it as much as any NES game.
The price has gone up lately, but if you don’t already have this in your collection, you can still pick it up on eBay for relatively cheap.
13. Star Tropics
Star Tropics is an almost-RPG that takes a unique approach to the genre. Instead of being turn-based with hours of grinding the same few palette-swapped enemies (Final Fantasy), Star Tropics challenges players’ dexterity as they get down and dirty within the game’s many labyrinths.
I call it an almost-RPG because it is missing the crucial element of building character stats via experience points. Instead, you discover new weapons and amass “heart containers” like a traditional Zelda game. But there are so many NPCs and plot twists that Star Tropics comes very close to being a full-on role-playing experience.
This is a great one for the shelf. The box art is beautiful and there are plenty of complete copies in circulation. You can find it on eBay for a really decent price. When shopping, keep in mind your copy of Star Tropics isn’t really complete unless it still contains Dr. Jones’ letter! Have a look here.
14. Punch Out!!
Fighting games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat were pretty tough to pull off on an 8-bit machine. It wasn’t impossible though. Games like TMNT Tournament Fighters and Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (what a name!) managed to deliver acceptable results. But they were certainly slower and more limited than what most players were looking for.
Punch Out!! found a way around technical limitations by letting players control a stationary character and using the d-pad to dodge, duck and block as well as control the targeting of thrown punches. The result is a tough-as-nails boxing game that is at once charming and challenging.
The first few opponents are easy enough, and all the later opponents can be defeated with good timing as you learn their patterns. It takes a while to learn, but Punch Out!! is tons of fun with memorable characters and another of the NES’ low-key greatest soundtracks.
Best of all, you can still pick this one up for under $20. There are two versions to note: The earlier “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!” starring Mike himself as the final opponent, and the later “Punch-Out!!” starring Mr. Dream. Nintendo dropped the Mike Tyson license due to money and drama. The Mike Tyson version is a few dollars more, but they’re both pretty cheap. Go get ‘em!
You may have noticed the lack of true RPGs on this list. And you can fight me over it if you want to. But in my opinion, there are very few real turn-based RPGs on the NES that actually stand the test of time. (For the record, Zelda II is the only Zelda I would consider a real RPG.)
Crystalis is an action-RPG whose bright, vibrant graphics make it easy to play even today. The top-down perspective, along with the charging-weapon fighting style make this play a lot like an early version of Secret of Mana.
The characters are fun, there is plenty to explore and discover, lots of weapons and items, NPCs and all kinds of fun for RPG and adventure fans.
Crystalis has gotten more expensive lately. Honestly I’m surprised it took this long! It’s a great game. But you can still get a loose copy for under $30 on eBay. Go have a look.