The NES had Some Pretty Good Shmups

Despite hardware limitations, the NES was a haven for some fantastic scrolling shoot-em-ups.

For its time and even by today’s standards, the NES is one of the most versatile game consoles ever created. For the most part, action/adventure platformers were the meat and potatoes of the NES library, but there was no shortage of RPGs, top-down adventures, run & guns, a crap-ton of arcade ports and even a few point & click adventures.

All of those game genres make perfect sense given the NES’s display limitations: The number of simultaneous sprites, colors, projectiles and just about everything had a limit in the 8-bit days. 

And yet…

Somehow, those intrepid NES developers were able to make a massive variety of epic shoot-em-ups with gobs of enemies loosing salvoes of missiles and bullets at a hero and—magically—the system handled it all like a champ. Shmups on the NES rarely even experience any slowdown. Amazing!

I don’t know how they did it…but they did! And the resulting library of NES shmups is stacked with really, really good games that are highly playable even today. Here are a few (very few)of our favorite picks from some of the best shoot-em-up games for the NES. 

The fantastical arcade artwork for Gradius. Sci-fi art definitely peaked in the ’80s.


  • NA Release: December 1986
  • Developer: Konami
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Two Players

This arcade port of  Konami’s original Gradius is an essential play for shmup shnobs and NES enthusiasts alike. And while Gradius isn’t quite the granddaddy of all space shooters (that title belongs to Galaxian, or perhaps even Space Invaders), Gradius certainly had a major influence over modern shoot-em-ups.

One thing that made Gradius unique was its introduction to the powerup bar. Unlike other shooters of the time, instead of presenting players with specific powerups upon defeating key enemy groups, Gradius has a pre-set list of powerups for the player to choose from. 

After defeating special enemies, the powerup bar’s cursor advances to the next powerup, with most of the more useful powerups sitting on the far end of the bar. This gives the player an added layer of strategy. Do I take the quick and easy powerups (like increasing speed?) or hold out for the more powerful ones (like the shields)?

Gradius is a great game and a wonderful little snapshot of classic gaming. Definitely check it out if you haven’t. It’s surprisingly cheap on eBay.

The fantastical arcade artwork for Salamander/Life Force. Sci-fi art definitely peaked in the ’80s.

Life Force/Salamander

  • NA Release: August 1988
  • Developer: Konami
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Two Players

What you call this next entry in the Gradius series depends on where you’re from. In the United States we called this one Life Force. Elsewhere you’ll know it as Salamander.

This game is a spin-off or follow-up to Gradius. While the title and plot are different depending on where you’re from, that nifty Gradius powerup bar is still there (though it’s presented a bit differently), bestowing its additional payload of strategic thinking. Additionally, Life Force alternates between Gradius-style horizontal scrolling levels and Galaga-style vertical scrolling.

But what really separates this one from its predecessor is the setting. Instead of just flying through space and through planetary surfaces, you’ll be piloting Vic Viper (or Lord British) through a gigantic snake-beast’s inner guts, dodging ribs, eyeballs, brainy things, and all manner of ickiness.

Like Gradius, Life Force/Salamander facilitates up to 2 players in co-op mode. In my opinion, Life Force is superior to Gradius in terms of gameplay, graphics and environment. But either one is definitely playable and still relatively cheap on eBay.

Japanese cover art for Abadox, 1990. Sci-fi art was past its peak by then.

Abadox: The Deadly Inner War

  • NA Release: March 1990
  • Developer: Natsume
  • Publisher: Milton Bradley
  • Single Player

If Life Force, with its inner-space blood & guts environments is a bit icky, Abadox is straight nasty, y’all.

Like Salamander, Abadox takes place within a massive living creature. In this case it’s a stellar being that has just eaten the planet Abadox. You must navigate through the creature’s body and rescue some princess before it’s too late. 

Also like Salamander, this game alternates between horizontal side-scrolling and vertical top-down scrolling. My opinion is that Abadox has superior graphics and cooler environments, but gameplay is not as slick as the Gradius games. Instead of a sleek starfighter, you have to pilot a dude in a spacesuit that can be awkward to fit around obstacles. It’s not as bad as Silver Surfer, but still…

Abadox had a pretty good reception when it came out. I still remember the commercial. The graphics were great for the time, and the gory, gooey theme was right in tune with the grossening advertising of the 1990s. The biggest problem with this game is that it is hard as crap. And unlike Gradius/Salamander, every single-hit death sends you back to the beginning of the level.

If you think you’ve got the “guts” (pun?), then you might want to pick this up on eBay while it’s still cheap.


  • NA Release: February 1989
  • Developer: Konami
  • Publisher: Ultra (Konami)
  • Single Player

Another arcade port, Gyruss is unique in a few ways. First of all, the perspective is unlike any other shooter I’ve ever seen. It’s a bit like Tempest, with the player’s ship oriented around a central point and shooting always toward the middle of the screen. It’s hard to explain so I’ll drop a gameplay video here.

Unlike so many shooters, Gyruss is relatively forgiving. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still really hard. But it’s easier to stock up on 1-ups early in the game. It also has a much slower difficulty curve, so the amount of time you can actually spend playing Gyruss before your lives run out is quite a bit greater than many of the others on this list.

If you’re looking to add this to your collection, you’ll be pleased to know that it is the cheapest game on this list so far. Copies on eBay are currently just a hair north of $10. Go check it out.


  • NA Release: September 1991
  • Developer: Compile
  • Publisher: ASCII Corporation
  • Single Player

…and here’s where the cheap games end. I couldn’t find a copy of Gun-Nac on eBay, but Pricecharting currently shows a value of about $420, bro. It was released in the United States just one month after the Super NES. As a result, it was massively overshadowed and sales were low. That rarity, combined with what a genuinely fun game it is, are what make Gun-Nac so crazy expensive.

Beyond the price tag, Gun-Nac is one of the weirdest, wildest shmups for the NES. From giant stomping bunny bosses to the numbered/lettered powerup system that affects your projectiles in all kinds of crazy ways… 

The game gets absolutely bonkers really quickly. There are times when the screen is so completely crawling with enemies and projectiles and obstacles that I can’t even tell what the hell is happening on the screen.

…not that I own this game, you understand. It’s four hundred dollars! And I would never promote retro game emulation, what with its being assuredly illegal in almost every instance. (See here for details on the legal gray areas.) But I’m just saying if I was the emulating type, this is one I would definitely want to check out!

“Gunning down a whole town is fine, but take that ‘bar’ off the cover”
– Nintendo (Image by Gamesradar)


  • NA Release: February 1988
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Single Player

Why the period between gun and smoke? I have no idea.

But that’s not all that’s weird about this entry. You see, Gun.Smoke doesn’t appear to be a shooter at all at first glance. It’s a top-down western game, not a spacebound laserfest! But Gun.Smoke does in fact keep players scrolling at a steady pace, pushing them through hordes of enemies and obstacles.

So even though it looks different, this is definitely a shooter at heart. And a darn good one, too!

One thing that’s cool about Gun.Smoke is that you can control the direction of your fire. Left, middle, or right. It’s really handy for positioning yourself more effectively on the screen to scoop up powerups while blasting enemies before they can intercept you.

You unlock all kinds of weapons and powerups in this game, too. From explosives and shotguns to a faithful steed to carry you into battle. There’s also a colorful cast of bosses for you to gun down and bring to justice.

This is another affordable one, too. It’s more expensive than Gyruss, but shouldn’t cost you more than $20 – $25 on eBay. Go have a look.

Legendary Wings

  • NA Release: July1988
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Two Players

This is another great two-player shooter that alternates between top-down and side-scrolling views. But there are a few things that set this game apart.

Instead of a ship in space, you play as a winged warrior on a futuristic planet. Skim across the surface in top-down mode while you blast enemies and acquire powerups in the expected way. But at certain places you’ll pass over giant faces in the ground with gaping mouths trying to inhale you.

If you do get sucked up, you’ll find yourself in a side-scrolling challenge. You’ll have to be fast or you’ll get crushed by the screen as you weave your way through labyrinthine obstacles and try to grab as much treasure and powerups as you can. 

It’s cool how Legendary Wings will let you land on the ground in side-scrolling mode. Instead of crashing like most shooters, your character will land on the ground and begin running. You can even crouch! …which is great for all the crouching fans out there.

This one also fetches a perfectly reasonable price of $15-$20 on eBay


  • NA Release: July1987
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • One Player

It’s no coincidence that Capcom and Konami make up the majority of this list. Both companies were standard-setters for not just shoot-em-ups, but for pretty much every genre on the NES. And both companies rightly earned their reputations for making extremely challenging games.

Section-Z is no exception. It’s a very well-made game that will test the limits of your focus and patience. Unlike the other games on this list, Section-Z presents players with the opportunity to choose their path at the end of each section: Up or Down?

Depending on the direction you choose, you may find yourself progressing to unexplored sections or boss fights, or you may find yourself right back in section 1. You’ll have to keep trying different paths, and it’s incredibly difficult to remember which way you already went. I’m sure a quick Google search will get you a sufficient guide to get you through, however.

But even with a roadmap, you’ll still find yourself blown to bits again and again. It’s tough!

Despite that, Section-Z really is a quality game. Like Gun.Smoke, you can control the direction of your fire, but here it’s limited to left or right. You’re able to withstand multiple enemy projectiles, unlike so many other one-hit-kill shmups. But if you collide with an actual ship, you’ll still go down in flames.

I’m a big fan.

Other awesome shooters…

Your favorite didn’t make it? Aw, crap. You mean The Guardian Legend, right?

Well, the thing is, TGL is a fantastic game. It’s top-tier NES for sure! But for the sake of this list, I wanted to limit it to strictly shmups. And as you know, The Guardian Legend is a multi-genre title. As is Xexyz, Air Fortress, and VICE: Project Doom. But they’re still great games!

Besides, Xexyz, Air Fortress and The Guardian Legend already appear in a whole crap-ton of my other articles. TGL is number one in my list of Non-Hidden Hidden Gems for the NES.

Other suggestions for this list were 1943, Dragon Spirit, S.C.A.T., Zanac and of course a whole slew of Famicom games I couldn’t even pronounce. Those are all great suggestions! But Unfortunately, I haven’t spent enough time with them to be a good judge. So let me do some “research” and update this article soon.

Till then, check out Kyle Glatz’s list of the 25 Best RPGs of All Time. That’ll keep you busy!

And hey! If you’re feeling spendy, check out this curated eBay widget. Purchasing from here or any of the affiliate links in this article will help me keep this site up and running.

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