The Nintendo Entertainment System defined home entertainment for a generation of American gamers who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s. Launched in 1985, the NES rose from the ashes of the ’83-’84 video game crash and grew to capture over 90 percent of the American home video game market during the late 1980s. It was a legitimate commercial and cultural phenomenon.
With a huge, diverse library of games on the NES, you’ll find no shortage of wonderful material to play if you take the time to look. But who has that kind of time these days? I know how it is: So many bills to pay, lawns to mow, and children to herd. That’s why I’m here to help you on your journey for easy self-validation by picking 10 games that you may or may not agree are the best games on the NES.
Using all the latest math and science equations, I’ve painstakingly assembled a list of what I consider to be the absolute best of the best games on the NES. This is not a “greatest hits” list that weighs cultural impact and legacy (that would just be Zelda repeated 10 times). No, you’ll instead find really amazing games to play in any era. All of these hold up.
Also, a note: For the sake of my sanity, I’m sticking to American NES releases only. Considering the massive Japanese Famicom library is a completely different beast. Have fun and happy gaming!
Kirby’s Adventure (1993)
Nintendo’s favorite pink puffball shines in this sequel to his Game Boy platform debut (Kirby’s Dream Land, 1992). As a late-era NES game, Kirby’s Adventure packs incredible graphical detail and fun music with delightful gameplay. For the first time, Kirby can swallow enemies and absorb their powers. A relaxed difficulty level compared to many NES platformers makes Kirby’s Adventure easy to enjoy for players young and old. It’s a surprisingly deep adventure for an NES game, and one of the console’s masterpieces.
Dr. Mario (1990)
If there’s one falling block puzzle game that outshines all others on the NES, it’s Dr. Mario. Tetris is Game Boy’s killer app, and NES versions of the Soviet hit never landed with the same impact. Dr. Mario, however, is an institution. Perfectly presented with endless replay value, this puzzler often found fans outside the usual video game demographic, including older players. I have a friend whose father bought a NES just for Dr. Mario and never took the game out for years. It’s that good.
Tecmo Super Bowl (1991)
Of all the games on this list, Tecmo Super Bowl may have the most non-stop gameplay hours sunk into it over the past 28 years. That’s because it’s a timeless classic that boils a complex team sport down into a game that can be enjoyed with a two-button controller. Also, fans on the internet still unofficially patch this game every year to match the current NFL teams and roster. Among a certain generation, football season wouldn’t feel the same without it.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1990)
Castlevania III takes everything great about its 1986 predecessor and ramps it up. Branching pathways through the stages add variety, and different playable characters join the story throughout (including the first appearance of Dracula’s son, Alucard). With detailed backgrounds and advanced scrolling techniques, Castlevania III’s graphics stand alone as a singular achievement among gothic horror games on the NES. Mix in a killer soundtrack, and you have one of the best NES games of all time.
Dragon Warrior IV (1992)
As the culmination of the Dragon Quest series on the NES (as it is known in Japan and later in the US as well), Dragon Warrior IV is the largest game on the platform with a huge multi-chapter story involving dozens of characters. It’s a random-encounter JRPG featuring party-based combat (with some members partially controlled by the computer) and transport by balloon or ship later in the game. The graphics feel stuck in 1987, but with a quest this deep, you hardly notice them.
River City Ransom (1990)
As a NES port of an arcade title, Contra could have been terrible, but Konami decided to handle the conversion in-house, adding additional levels and making sure the graphics, gameplay, and music met the highest standards. Contra’s tight eight-way controls make its steep difficulty level feel fair—it’s you, not the game, that must try to keep up. Back in the late 1980s, Contra inspired many co-op sessions between friends, especially with the aid of the famous Konami Code cheat that gave you 30 extra lives. Over three decades later, Contra still holds up as a must-play title.
Blades of Steel (1988)
Konami ruled in the NES era. With game production values that matched and sometimes rivaled Nintendo’s, it’s no surprise that the firm produced three games on this list. Konami’s arcade-style sports titles (such as Double Dribble) allowed non-sports fans to dive into endlessly replayable competitive action. Of those, Blades of Steel resonates most; the hockey game with simple rules, good graphics, crisp gameplay adds up to brilliant fun for one or two players. The zoomed-in one-on-one fight sequences are a blast. “Face-off!”
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987)
While ostensibly about boxing, Punch-Out!! doesn’t feel like a sports game. It’s a whimsical third-person rhythm experience with light fantasy elements (Punchoutvania). But seriously, its delightful gameplay and colorful cast of characters (with seemingly impossible large sprites) define the NES era for many.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! originated as a home interpretation of Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! arcade title. The firm brilliantly roped in the most famous boxer of the day, Mike Tyson, a media sensation at the time. In a 1990 re-release, Nintendo dropped Tyson from the game, but it remains an undisputed heavyweight gaming classic.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
You all knew this moment was coming, and it’s true: Super Mario Bros. 3 is probably the best NES game of all. Sure, the game is legendary, with its hotly anticipated release being a watermark of American youth culture. But beyond that, SMB3 radiates platforming perfection. Three decades later, it remains technically impressive, with great scrolling effects, multi-modal play, onscreen status bar, bonus games, and even an encapsulation of the original Mario Bros. arcade title tucked in. The game is huge, it spans 90 levels over eight worlds. There’s power-ups galore and wonderful music. Happy gaming!