The Nintendo Entertainment System is one of the most successful and most enduring video game consoles ever invented.
Following the North American console crash, the NES emerged not only as the dominating force in home gaming, but as a pop culture icon so ubiquitous as to be almost unmatched in its ubiquitatious ubiquitosity!
Mario, Metroid, Zelda and Kirby have all become mainstays of this legendary console. Contra, Blaster Master, Castlevania and Mega Man got their start on the NES as well, and their legacy continues to this day.
But there are also tons of great games that have been overlooked in the mass of more popular titles. And I don’t just mean underrated games, either. We’re talking about grossly underrated and underappreciated titles in otherwise well-regarded franchises.
So, in case you’re interested, I pulled together a short list of what I consider to be unfortunately underrated NES games that are definitely worth a closer look. I’ll include curated eBay links in case you want to add any of these to your collection. Any purchases you make that way will earn a few cents toward keeping this site up and running, so it’s very appreciated!
On with the games!
Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link
I’m actually a little hesitant to put this one on here. Not because I don’t think it’s a good game—it’s one of my all-time faves for the NES—but because Zelda 2 is not nearly as underrated as it was a few years ago.
I even wrote a long editorial about Why Fans Hate Zelda 2 and Why They are Dead Wrong and I even started a petition for a remake of Zelda 2, like how Nintendo did with Link’s Awakening. The petition is still up, if you want to sign it. It… hasn’t been too successful so far.
When I announced the petition, I got a lot of the response I expected: “Zelda II sucks!” But I also got a surprising proportion of affirmative responses. And when I posted Why Fans Hate Zelda 2, I got a lot of mystified respondents claiming they had always loved Zelda 2.
I don’t know, but all I can say is that history has been mean to this black sheep of the Zelda family. It’s a great game, and totally unique in the franchise. If you don’t own it, you should pick it up and play it. And keep it. And sleep with it under your pillow for good luck.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
This game is good. But not for your ego.There are some tricks you can use to try to not die as much, but it’s still super hard.
That difficulty is, I believe, exactly why TMNT has such a bad rap. Yes, many 90s children were emotionally scarred by this game. Myself included. But just because a game is hard doesn’t mean it’s bad.
The graphics and music are great, some of your favorite characters are there (along with a whole crap ton of weird ones that who knows how they came up with ‘em), the controls are really responsive, and the overworld/platforming format is totally unique to the TMNT franchise. Almost every other TMNT game is a beat-em-up. This is one of a kind!
The good thing about being underrated is that the price of a physical TMNT cartridge is still pretty low. Go check it out!
You just don’t hear enough about Shatterhand. It’s fantastic! Extremely challenging, but really well made. If you’re not familiar with Shatterhand, think of the NES Batman game, but expanded with more gameplay elements.
Like Mega Man, Shatterhand allows you to choose the order to complete the levels. That’s an especially nice feature considering how hard this game is. Even if you get stuck on one of the levels, you can still play the others.
Shatterhand is a bit more rare than the others we’ve mentioned. It was released in December of 1991, the same year the Super Nintendo was released in North America. Needless to say, kids were not asking Santa Claus for Shatterhand that year. It’s a damn shame, too. This is some of Jaleco’s finest work.
The price is also prohibitive for a lot of gamers. If you’re vigilant, you can probably find a copy for around $80 before shipping.
While we’re looking at more expensive games, let’s get Power Blade out of the way. This one also runs around $80 but if you’re a collector looking to invest in a well-rounded NES collection, this is a great one to own.
Like Shatterhand, this one was released late in the NES life cycle, March of 1991. Still half a year from the NA release of SNES, but still too late to earn a spot on kids’ Christmas lists.
If you want to collect a really rare NES game, check out Power Blade 2! For whatever reason, the brains at Natsume thought it would be totally chill to release Power Blade 2 in October of 1992, over a year after the SNES had invaded our homes. The current price ranges wildly, but it’s worth a peek on eBay if only for curiosity’s sake.
Again, if you’re a dedicated NES collector, this is a great one to own. It’s tons of fun, with serious Mega Man vibes. But like, if the Quick Boomerang was the only weapon in the game. There’s a level select screen, allowing you to choose the order you want to play the first six levels
The levels are designed with forking paths, forcing players to explore a bit. Some of the paths lead to dead ends, some lead to powerups. There are cleverly-placed secrets and interesting environments. It’s a solid game and you should check it out!
Prince of Persia
I’ve mentioned at least twice about how games released later in the NES cycle tend to be more expensive. The SNES pretty much killed NES production. It’s understandable. But Prince of Persia for the NES flies in the face of my assertion.
As with any two console generations, there’s a period of overlap. I didn’t have a SNES personally until they had been on the market for a while. And during that overlap, many games were ported to both systems. Prince of Persia is one of those.
This one was released a month after Power Blade 2. And yet Prince of Persia is easy to find at around $30. And it’s a quality game, too!
Certainly this one doesn’t get much attention because it was released alongside the SNES port which, of course, looks and feels better. But don’t be so quick to dismiss the NES version!
This port features some of the smoothest animation on the system. The puzzles are challenging but fair, and the controls are surprisingly solid. Especially considering that this is a genre which is known for clunky, complicated controls. The lack of X, Y, L and R buttons don’t matter at all once you learn how to navigate the levels.
Players have one hour to beat this game. Within that time, you’ll go through a lot of short levels with unlimited lives. The password system lets you pick up where you left off, with the same amount of time remaining. It’s fun, fast, highly replayable, and utterly underrated for the NES.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Shut up. I can hear the sloppy sound of your eyes rolling.
Simon’s Quest is widely hated for a few reasons. Poor translations from the townsfolk means you’ll need a guide if you want to finish the game. Some of the bosses and dungeons feel unfinished and are easily exploited. The day/night cycle is a pain in the butt.
All these are valid complaints. But if you’ll quit being such a whiny little sissypants for like thirty seconds, you’ll see that the game itself is quite good.
Another reason Castlevania II gets so much hate is that, like Zelda II, it takes a completely new direction from its predecessor. Fortunately it didn’t change perspective like Zelda II (although I’m now curious to know what a top-down Castlevania game would look like).
Instead of Castlevania’s arcade-style structure of linear progression, this sequel attempts to put players into an open world. It was pretty innovative at the time, and it bears a close resemblance to modern “Metroidvania” games.
The action feels a lot like the original Castlevania, which is good, but the gameplay elements are expanded. Players are expected to grind hearts to purchase powerups and items that allow them to progress through the game.
Most players don’t realize that Simon also gains experience as he continues to defeat enemies, which makes it an RPG in my book.
There’s a lot of depth to Simon’s Quest, along with one of the all-time greatest chiptune soundtracks. And while Castlevania III does a good job of meshing the elements of CV1 and CV2, Simon’s Quest is a fine game in its own right.
I recommend checking out the fan-modded version, Simon’s Quest Redaction, which actually fixes a lot of the issues gamers had with the original version. Translations are updated and accurate, the night/day cycle is sped up and hearts don’t take as long to grind. Some of the boss exploits are repaired, too. You can get a physical copy of the original or Redaction on eBay.Dragon Spirit
I recently wrote a piece called The NES Had Some Pretty Good Shmups. I feel like my list was pretty good, but it was missing Dragon Spirit because I hadn’t played it yet.
Well, I gave it a go and I’m here to tell you: Dragon Spirit is also a pretty good shmup.
I’m not particularly good at shoot-em-ups and it’s not a genre I specialize in. I get frustrated and killed constantly. I’ve got to be in a certain mood to commit to getting killed a hundred times until I memorize a level.
In Dragon Spirit, you can actually take multiple hits before dying, unlike the vast majority of shooters. You definitely get rewarded for not taking damage though, by continuing to power up your dragon so that it has multiple heads, or multiplies into a small flock of dragons.
This is also one of the cheapest games still out there, with many copies on eBay right now for under $10. Plus shipping, of course. But if you find this at your local store, definitely pick it up!
Kabuki: Quantum Fighter
This game wasn’t too popular in the US, and I’ll tell you why.
None of us knew what the hell a “Kabuki” was.
We didn’t have an internet yet, and Japanese culture was only beginning to pop up in American households through video games and TV. Most Americans didn’t know (and still don’t,) that Kabuki refers to a classical theater style from Japan that involves elaborate makeup and costumes and is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
When I saw this game featured in Nintendo Power, I just knew there was some dude in makeup and a wig, wearing socks & sandals and trying to look cool fighting robots or something. I had no idea what I was looking at. I was seven years old for crying out loud!
There were some changes made between the US and Japanese versions, but not many. The Japanese version, “Jigoku Gokuraku Maru” was based on a movie. The story and some graphics were updated so the plot would (sort of) make sense to Americans that would never see the film.
But besides those very minor updates, Kabuki: Quantum Fighter was largely unchanged.
Compare this to Power Blade, which underwent a huge transformation to turn the little anime Mega Man clone into a tough, Schwarzeneggerian action hero! Or Bionic Commando which turned an evil zombie Hitler into… I’m not sure what. The Kabuki hero in Quantum Fighter was left as-is, and Americans didn’t know what to make of this game.
Anyway, now that we’re all grown up and have a deeper appreciation for Japanese culture, I can tell you that this game is a severely underrated platformer along the lines of Batman or Ninja Gaiden. It’s much more forgiving than Gaiden, but certainly not a cakewalk.
It was released in early ‘91 and isn’t especially rare, but retro gamers are beginning to recognize it, pushing the price higher and higher. Keep your eye on this one. Or get it while it’s still pretty cheap.
Friday the 13th
Here’s another decent game that got absolutely skewered by the Angry Video Game Nerd. And, like Simon’s Quest and TMNT, he had some valid arguments. Friday the 13th is far from perfect. It’s repetitive, arbitrarily difficult and completely cryptic, with no indication of how to actually win. Players have to just blunder their way through the game.
But I mean, come on! It’s an NES game, almost all of them are repetitive and difficult.
Yes, you’ll want a guide for this one too. But it’s 2022 and all the hints you need are just a Google away. Once you start to dig into Friday the 13th, you’ll find that there is plenty of nuance to the gameplay and it’s a lot more fun than you may have realized.
And while this one has also been creeping up in price, you should still be able to find it for around $15. Go have a look.
Tiny Toon Adventures
A lot of movie and cartoon tie-ins have managed to remain cheap over the years. Even though a lot of them were developed by Capcom and Konami and are actually great games! Tiny Toon Adventures is a Konami creation and is an excellent platformer along the lines of Super Mario Bros 3. It’s also a prime example of an underrated, overlooked game.
By the way, this one is still pretty cheap on eBay if you’re interested.
Back in ye olde days, when you made a video game sequel it wasn’t enough to call it “2”. Sometimes you had to make it “Super!”
Super C is Contra, only with a Super in front of it and the “ontra” left off. Don’t ask questions, maggot! That’s just how it was back then.
Super C is not nearly as iconic as the original Contra, but the gameplay is pretty much identical. The level design is a bit different, with a few subtle new tricks and new enemies. And the behind-the-back “3D-style” sections have been replaced with the top-down segments that would be a staple in Contra games to follow.
Basically, this is a very true and very similar follow up to Contra. It’s also considerably cheaper, owing to the fact that it is considerably underrated on the NES.
Here’s another great NES shoot-em-up. This time you play the role of a winged soldier flying across a blasted landscape where the ground itself tries to suck you in! …to play bonus rounds. Cool!
I’m guessing Legendary Wings wasn’t too popular back in its heyday because the main character looks like a pink angel in ballet shoes with his toe neatly pointed at the onslaught of enemies. Probably didn’t seem too “cool” back in them Too Cool For School Radical ‘80s, kemo sabe.
Fortunately for us, that means this game is still incredibly cheap. Pricecharting puts it at around $14 before taxes. But don’t be fooled! This is a quality shmup that’s worth checking out.
You’ve played Shadowgate, no doubt. And you may have heard of Uninvited, but that thing’s like 80 bucks. The least talked-about port from Apple’s Macventure series is Déjà Vu.
If you like Shadowgate and/or Uninvited, you’ll like this one. It’s about the same amount of fun. Which is to say it’s pretty frustrating but also engaging. The frustration is reduced somewhat with the lack of Shadowgate’s torch timers.
Like so many point & click games of the era, Déjà Vu is pretty unforgiving and you’ll probably find yourself progressing only through trial and error. Or with the help of Google. And I personally prefer Shadowgate’s dark fantasy theme. But Déjà Vu still keeps the mood pretty grim with its gritty film noir attitude.
This one is, surprisingly, a few dollars more than Shadowgate. But still quite cheap by NES standards. If you like point & click adventures AND you like the NES, this is definitely one you don’t want to miss.
Fester and his Quest get a lot of flak from certain gamers who like to regurgitate the Angry Video Game Nerd’s opinions as if he and his opinions were real and valid. Once again, yes AVGN has some legitimate gripes with this game. But once you move past the glaring flaws, you’ll find that Fester’s Quest is highly playable and better than many mountains of other NES games.
Going into this article, I assumed Fester’s Quest would have been published before Blaster Master. Like Fester was just practice for the design of Blaster’s dungeon levels. You know… because Blaster Master is a Blaster Masterpiece and Fester’s is just pretty good.
I was surprised to learn that Blaster Master was one of Sunsoft’s earlier NES releases, coming out in 1988. FQ was released in ‘89 and Batman in ‘90. Batman and Blaster Master have no place on an Underrated NES Games list, though. They are well-loved, brilliant and iconic. Leave them alone!
Fester’s Quest, however, has been a victim of circumstance and AVGN did it dirty. It’s actually a pretty decent game once you learn how to play it. And if you like Blaster Master, you should give this a try. It’s got similar vibes. Also it’s one of the few remaining decent NES games for under $10. Check it out!
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Let’s move on to my personal favorites. Honestly, I find it hard to make any NES list without these next few games. But they really are excellent games that still seem to be underrated and underloved.
Gremlins 2 is another Sunsoft game and has some hints of Blaster Master in its overhead meanderings. Gremlins seems to have a slightly lower perspective and more visual depth than BM and FQ. Also, you can jump! This was one of their last NES releases (late 1990) and you can tell from the smooth gameplay and excellent graphics that Sunsoft had pretty much perfected their craft by then.
While this one is several times the price of Fester’s Quest, it’s still an excellent game and worth checking out. And still, nobody really talks about it. Go check it out!
I won’t stop writing until everyone has a copy of Xexyz. How do you pronounce it? It doesn’t matter. It’s a cool game and you need it bad!
The action modes are split between side-scrolling shoot-em-up and side-scrolling platformer. I’m a sucker for platformers and definitely don’t mind a good shmup. Xexys does both genres justice. The boss fights are pretty cool, and you can thank me later, once you get this game.
Pretty sure Xexyz struggled with audiences because of the weird name. The official pronunciation (from what I’ve seen) is ZECK-zeez. Like “Sexies” but with a Z sound. Zexies. And let me tell you: this will be the zexiest game on your shelf!
Get it while it’s cheap! Like, ten dollars cheap!
You thought you could read an article from me that didn’t mention Air Fortress!? You fool! Me and Air Fortress love each other. And we’ll be together forever!!
Seriously though, Air Fortress is a tragically underserved game for the NES. It’s another platformer/shmup mashup. This time, you shoot-em-up into the air fortresses, dodging and destroying their outer defenses and collecting as many energy and bomb pellets as you can! Once you enter the fortress, you’re limited to whatever supplies you collected on the way in!
So the shmup portion is fairly forgiving, and the password system lets you retry as much as you’d like. But until you get a hot run in your approach, you’ll be struggling inside the fortress.
You’re on a severe time crunch in the air fortresses. Your energy not only serves as your HP, but it also provides your character with the life support systems he needs to survive in the fortress. Your energy leaks every time you use your jet pack to fly about the fortress and you’ll need to reach lots of high places.
The enemies are plentiful and some of them will absolutely demolish your energy reserves. Also, each level is like a maze, forcing you to first shut down the power core, then very quickly find the exit. After you destroy the core, the lights go dark, the music changes, and the suspense is palpable! This is a nail-biting game, where you’ll find yourself almost surviving many times.
Air Fortress also gets seriously difficult about halfway through. You’ll need to memorize the shmup approaches, finding the best loot and playing as shrewdly as you can once you get inside. Good luck!
This one is also quite affordable, even for complete-in-box copies. Go have a look!
There are plenty more
I have to wrap up this list because it’s getting way too long. But there are many many other underrated games for the NES. A few gems that come to my mind are Astyanax, Star Tropics 2, Dream Master, Klax, Whomp ‘Em, Captain America and the Avengers, and… Holy cow, that’s a whole other article right there!
If you like this type of content, let me know in the comments. If you have suggestions for games I missed, let me know here or on Twitter @Longie_Long.
Thanks for reading!