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The 30 Best Games on the NES

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The 30 Best Games on the NES

After originally launching as the Famicom in Japan, the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES) would arrive stateside in the fall of 1985. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Nintendo was set to totally reinvigorate the Western gaming market with the NES following the industry crash of 1983, and its console quickly became the “must-have” consumer electronics item in the West. Thanks to safeguards put in place by Nintendo itself, all software for the NES had to meet the company’s stringent guidelines for approval. Not only did this prevent the NES from becoming a home for shovelware like the Atari, it would result in developers creating some of the most influential and foundational franchises in the medium, with the best games on the NES marking the start of some of the medium’s most enduring franchises.

Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Metroid; the list of franchises with their debut entries on the NES is an impressive one. Right alongside those formative beginnings, though, are a host of one-off experiences that can only be found on the NES. These “hidden gem” titles may be less appreciated by the mainstream but are no less influential in the minds of gamers and developers alike, with the continued reach of games like The Guardian Legend, Crystalis, and Strider still felt today. The NES would end up being home to a new wave of video games, experiences only possible on a home console capable of saving games and returning to them, ditching the coin-op quick fix of arcades in favor of sprawling adventures players could get lost in.

30. Blaster Master

Blaster Master box art and gameplay

©Blaster Master key art - Original

  • Release Date — June 17, 1988
  • Publisher/Developer — Sunsoft/Sunsoft
  • Review Aggregate Score — 84% (Generally Favorable)

Sunsoft’s Blaster Master is a game that, on paper, shouldn’t work due to its off-the-wall premise, but in practice, it ends up being one of the better action platformers on the NES. Players split their time between side-scrolling driving sections (complete with the ability to both shoot and jump) and top-down third-person shooting stages when entering caves or buildings to take down mutants. The split perspective and twin halves of its gameplay would make Blaster Master a novelty of the era, but the air-tight shooting and platforming gameplay help cement it as one of the better action-adventure titles on the NES.

29. Batman: The Video Game

Batman: The Video Game box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 22, 1989
  • Publisher/Developer — Sunsoft/Sunsoft
  • Review Aggregate Score — 84% (Generally Favorable)

Prior to the release of Batman: The Video Game, most licensed titles on the NES (and especially on earlier consoles) were little more than cheap cash-ins with janky gameplay and only a passing resemblance to their source material. Sunsoft’s Batman changes this by being one of the first truly great licensed games and an excellent tie-in with one of the most important superhero films ever made — Tim Burton’s Batman. Aside from its connection to one of the best films of the 1980s, Batman: The Video Game is an excellent action platformer that gives players one of the best approximations of playing as the Caped Crusader before the release of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum.

28. Rad Racer

©Square Enix

  • Release Date — August 7, 1987
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Square
  • Review Aggregate Score — 77% (Generally Favorable)

Years before Western players would ever get their hands on Final Fantasy, many NES owners’ first introduction to Square would come about courtesy of the excellent Rad Racer. This highly enjoyable racing game is notorious for its longer stages that see the setting change from day to night, and then back into day, driving both into the sunset and sunrise in an era-appropriate Ferrari Testarossa. Sure, the game shares more than a little in common with Sega’s Out Run (including both titles featuring a Ferrari), but with that game only available on Sega’s own Master System console, Rad Racer is about as good as NES racing games get.

27. Strider

Strider box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — March 1, 1989
  • Publisher/Developer — Capcom/Capcom
  • Review Aggregate Score — 85% (Generally Favorable)

The arcade version of Strider is a classic title in Capcom’s catalog, but the NES version of the game is its own beast entirely. Rather than follow the arcade version note-for-note, Strider on NES follows in the footsteps of Capcom’s Section Z before it, altering the experience for consoles so that it acts as its own standalone title worthy of players’ attention. The NES version of Strider is actually closer to a Metroidvania, with players given the freedom to tackle stages in a non-linear order and backtrack to previously visited areas with new equipment in order to discover secrets and alternate pathways to secondary bosses. Its combat and traversal might not feel as smooth as in the arcade version, but the NES Strider‘s unique single-player campaign is an early (and excellent) prototypical Metroidvania.

26. Dr. Mario

Dr. Mario box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — July 27, 1990
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 1
  • Review Aggregate Score — 80% (Generally Favorable)

Though some might argue that the Tengen release of Tetris is the superior puzzle game on the NES, Dr. Mario earns some credit for being one of the best NES-era Mario spin-offs and for being the first officially licensed “Match-3” puzzler on the system. The premise is simple enough — Dr. Mario tosses down medicine in various color combinations that players have to match up with color-coded viruses to eliminate them from a beaker — but the execution of that premise gets more and more frantic with each passing stage. Like Tetris, the fun of Dr. Mario comes in seeing just how far you can get before it becomes nigh-impossible for the human brain and reflexes to keep up, and it’s arguably the best puzzle game to make its debut on the NES.

25. The Guardian Legend

Guardian Legend box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — February 5, 1988
  • Publisher/Developer — Irem (Japan) Broderbund (NA)/Compile
  • Review Aggregate Score — 72% (Mixed or Average)

Coming from legendary Shmup developer Compile, The Guardian Legend is a somewhat hidden gem in the NES library that mixes up its traditional, vertically-scrolling shooting stages with a top-down Metroidvania. While there are more than a few games in the modern era that have mixed elements of Shmups and Metroidvanias (especially bullet-hell titles), there was almost nothing like The Guardian Legend in 1988. Outside its innovation and unique premise, though, Guardian Legend is a game whose twin gameplay halves each shine in their own right, with the Shmup stages a great introduction to the genre with a fair difficulty curve and the action-adventure sections fleshing out the experience.

24. Bionic Commando

Bionic Commando box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — July 20, 1988
  • Publisher/Developer — Capcom/Capcom
  • Review Aggregate Score — 80% (Generally Favorable)

Like Blaster Master, Bionic Commando is one of the action platformers on the NES that would have only been possible on the console, and its Japanese release is even more bonkers than the localization. Regardless, Capcom’s now-legendary title is one of the few action platformers of the era where players can’t jump, forcing them to make use of protagonist Nathan “Rad” Spencer’s mechanical arm to grapple and swing across chasms. If not for that signature mechanic and its impressive physics, Bionic Commando would end up being a fairly rote third-person shooting game. Instead, it ends up being an essential in the NES library that players remember fondly for its atypical approach to the genre.

23. Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 9, 1988
  • Publisher/Developer — Tecmo/Tecmo
  • Review Aggregate Score — 83% (Generally Favorable)

Is Ninja Gaiden maddeningly difficult? Sure. Is it one of the best side-scrolling action games ever made? Absolutely. Like many other arcade ports of the era, Ninja Gaiden on the NES is a dramatically different experience from Tecmo’s arcade cabinet of the same name, introducing a greater emphasis on story and characters through the use of some impressive anime-style cutscenes and an unforgettable score that draws players into its sweeping tale of ancient cities, demons, and a plot to destroy the world. While it’s not all that different from action platformer titles to come before it, Ninja Gaiden‘s emphasis on both speed and pattern memorization make it one of the most grueling tests of player skill on the NES.

22. Crystalis

Crystalis box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — April 13, 1990
  • Publisher/Developer — SNK/SNK
  • Review Aggregate Score — 70% (Mixed or Average)

Another somewhat overlooked title in the NES’ large library, Crystalis is a top-down action RPG that somehow manages to be a better follow-up to the original Legend of Zelda than Zelda II. What sets Crystalis apart from most other action RPGs of the era is its unique setting, which actually places the player in control of a young hero in the post-apocalypse looking to prevent a second nuclear annihilation by stopping the world’s last remaining military powers. The mixture of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and high fantasy works in the game’s favor by giving it some unique dungeon locations, fun enemy designs, and challenging yet fair combat that feels more nuanced than other ARPGs.

21. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Castlevania II box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — August 28, 1987
  • Publisher/Developer — Konami/Konami
  • Review Aggregate Score — 70% (Mixed or Average)

Long before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would become one-half of the Metroidvania portmanteau, the actual first true “Metroidvania” in the series would be the franchise’s first sequel, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. This 1987 action platformer expands upon the original game in the series by introducing a full day/night cycle, towns with shops and NPCs to interact with, non-linear progression and puzzles, ability-gated progression, and plenty of secrets. Though most of the clues it gives to players are incredibly obtuse (necessitating the use of a guide when possible), the actual gameplay is rock solid and a commendable first attempt at expanding the Castlevania template.

20. Kid Icarus

Kid Icarus box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 19, 1986
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 1
  • Review Aggregate Score — N/A

One of several first-party Nintendo titles to be released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System and then make it to the West on a standard ROM cartridge, Kid Icarus is an interesting outlier in Nintendo’s first-party library. It’s an offbeat action platformer with a charming and lighthearted Greek mythology setting, but its length and plethora of secrets make it more difficult than most other first-party Nintendo titles of the era. Thankfully, Kid Icarus incorporates some light RPG elements that reward the player for keeping their health at or near full, with Pit getting some improved offensive and defensive capabilities the longer he goes without getting hit.

19. River City Ransom

River City Ransom box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — April 25, 1989
  • Publisher/Developer — Technos Japan/Technos Japan
  • Review Aggregate Score — 78% (Generally Favorable)

Rather than put either Double Dragon or Double Dragon II: The Revenge on a list of “Best NES Games”, the spot for greatest beat ’em up on the console undoubtedly belongs to River City Ransom. Interestingly, both the “Kunio Kun” games (Renegade, River City Ransom, Super Dodge Ball) and the Double Dragon games come from developer Technos, but River City Ransom ekes out a win over the more well-known Double Dragon series thanks to its more nuanced combat system and dabbling in RPG-style progression and growth. River City Ransom is a great beat ’em up that allows players to experience a pronounced power curve with the right strategy, and it’s even better in two-player co-op.

18. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Zelda II box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 1, 1988
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 4
  • Review Aggregate Score — 78% (Generally Favorable)

Though it’s all too easy to pile on Zelda II as the lesser of the series’ two games on NES, the fact remains that it is an incredibly competent and daring entry in the franchise. Obviously taking influence from the rising popularity of RPGs at the time (particularly, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy), Zelda II leans fully into the RPG side of the action RPG genre, complete with random encounters, gaining experience to level up, and needing to visit towns and talk with NPCs. Zelda II is also incredibly tough, significantly increasing the difficulty over its predecessor to become one of the early inspirations for the games that would, in turn, influence the creation of Dark Souls.

17. Faxanadu

Faxanadu box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — November 16, 1987
  • Publisher/Developer — Hudson Soft (Japan) Nintendo (NA)/Hudson Soft
  • Review Aggregate Score — 75% (Generally Favorable)

One of the best action RPGs on the NES is also one of the least-known titles in the console’s library, the excellent Faxanadu. Coming from developer Hudson Soft and published as a first-party Nintendo title in the West, Faxanadu is a massive side-scrolling action RPG with plenty of secrets, a satisfying power curve, a compelling story about trying to cleanse the world’s water supply, and some truly satisfying combat and puzzle design. Though it’s not nearly as well-known as either Crystalis or Zelda II, Faxandu is the best of the traditional ARPGs on the NES, with only one other first-party Nintendo title beating it at its own genre.

16. Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros. box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — September 13, 1985
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 4
  • Review Aggregate Score — 95% (Universal Acclaim)

The pack-in with the NES Action Set for the console’s Western retail release is none other than the game that single-handedly redefined the modern platformer, Super Mario Bros. Shigeru Miyamoto’s revolutionary title would begin its life as a Popeye game before eventually transforming to star the mustachioed plumber from both Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., cementing the character as Nintendo’s flagship mascot and Miyamoto as one of the most important developers working in the industry. Super Mario Bros. was groundbreaking for its time, and its subtle brilliance still helps it stand as a timeless experience today, only to be outdone by its sequels.

15. StarTropics

StarTropics box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 26, 1990
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 3
  • Review Aggregate Score — 82% (Generally Favorable)

The best Zelda-like game to not be an official part of the franchise and the greatest action RPG on the NES is none other than StarTropics. This offbeat and lighthearted adventure takes everything that Zelda II tried to do years earlier and does it better, all while incorporating a unique island setting not seen enough in games and an incredible earworm of a soundtrack. In terms of its combat and puzzles, StarTropics is decidedly less difficult than other ARPGs on the NES, but that push toward accessibility makes it one of the more refreshingly relaxed action-adventure games of the 8-bit era.

14. Castlevania

Castlevania box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — September 26, 1986
  • Publisher/Developer — Konami/Konami
  • Review Aggregate Score — 83% (Generally Favorable)

The original Castlevania is one of the many games from Nintendo’s legendary 1986 release calendar, and its place in the NES library and importance to the development of the action platformer genre can’t be overstated. While other, similar games focus on maneuverability and speed, Castlevania makes players work within the confines of protagonist Simon Belmont’s stiff movements and weighty whip swings to traverse through increasingly difficult stages, fighting one legendary monster archetype after another before eventually facing off against Count Dracula himself. It’s an incredibly difficult game (though not as difficult as Castlevania III) but mastering its physics and movement yields an experience that is one of the more foundational in the genre.

13. Mega Man 3

Mega Man 3 box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — September 28, 1990
  • Publisher/Developer — Capcom/Capcom
  • Review Aggregate Score — 83% (Generally Favorable)

Depending on who you ask, Mega Man 3 or Mega Man 2 will routinely come up as the best games in Capcom’s legendary action platformer franchise. Though the series has somewhat languished in recent years, the NES was home to a whopping total of 6 different Mega Man games, with each of them iterating on the series’ original formula of action platforming mixed with light puzzle solving to figure out the correct boss order. Mega Man 3 features an amazing collection of bosses and a much shorter ending gauntlet in comparison to the original Mega Man or Mega Man 2, and its incorporation of the slide move would change the series moving forward.

12. Excitebike

Excitbike box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — October 18, 1985
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 4
  • Review Aggregate Score — 82% (Generally Favorable)

Along with Super Mario Bros., perhaps no other NES launch title has as much of an impact on Western players as Excitebike. Gamers of a certain age no doubt either owned their own copy of Excitebike or had a friend with an NES who did, and it’s yet another of Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto’s formative titles that would establish the console as a must-have item. Needing to contend with multiple factors, such as bike engine temperature and realistic physics after successfully jumping ramps, makes races more involved than simply going from point A to point B, and its simplistic take on the sport of motocross still holds up today as one of the best.

11. Dragon Warrior

Dragon Warrior box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — May 27, 1986
  • Publisher/Developer — Enix (Japan) Nintendo (NA)/Chunsoft
  • Review Aggregate Score — 70% (Mixed or Average)

Much like the two games’ original Famicom releases, Dragon Quest would arrive in the West just a year before players would get their hands on its main competitor Final Fantasy. Of course, in the West players initially knew Dragon Quest as Dragon Warrior, and the title would find its way into the hands of thousands of players thanks to one of the best deals of the era, with Nintendo Power subscribers receiving a free copy of Dragon Warrior in exchange for a subscription renewal. The original Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior is pure RPG comfort food and an excellent, albeit linear and simplistic, experience that’s a perfect first step down the path of enjoying role-playing games.

10. Metal Gear

Metal Gear box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — July 13, 1987
  • Publisher/Developer — Konami (Japan) Ultra (NA)/Konami
  • Review Aggregate Score — N/A

Though its original MSX version is the superior experience, the NES’ port of Metal Gear is still an incredible game even without the involvement of creator Hideo Kojima. The NES version of the game famously features some different level designs, less dialogue, simplified stealth mechanics, and doesn’t actually include the Metal Gear as the final boss. Despite these omissions and its place as the “lesser” version of the game, Metal Gear is the first true “stealth” experience on the NES and the introduction many players would have to the franchise prior to the series’ (and genre’s) reinvention on the PS1 as Metal Gear Solid.

9. Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 18, 1987
  • Publisher/Developer — Square (Japan) Nintendo (NA)/Square
  • Review Aggregate Score — 79% (Generally Favorable)

Three years after its original launch on the Famicom, Western NES owners would finally (pun intended) get their hands on Square’s legendary RPG in the spring of 1990. Final Fantasy is an incredibly important and formative title in establishing the conventions of role-playing games, and its brilliance has only slightly dulled in the wake of subsequent entries and innovations in the genre. Like Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior before it, Final Fantasy is a phenomenal first game to introduce players to the RPG genre, and its mechanics and story are leaps and bounds above other genre games from the era.

8. DuckTales

DuckTales box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — October 20, 1989
  • Publisher/Developer — Capcom/Capcom
  • Review Aggregate Score — 81% (Generally Favorable)

During the lifespan of the NES, Disney would wisely partner with Capcom to release a series of action platformer games based on its animated series. Mickey’s Mousecapades, Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, and Darkwing Duck are each great titles released under this partnership, but none of them can compare to the two excellent DuckTales games. The best of these is the first DuckTales, which has some of the best precision platforming and one of the more memorable and enjoyable soundtracks of any NES game. Few NES action platformers can stand toe-to-toe with the Mega Man series, but DuckTales comes very, very close.

7. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — October 18, 1987
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 3
  • Review Aggregate Score — 89% (Generally Favorable)

Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! would end up being one of the many first-party titles to successfully make the transition from arcade to console, and the Western release of the title cashed in on the rising star of the Heavyweight Boxing Champion Mike Tyson. For its console release, Punch-Out!! simplifies its arcade control scheme to something more manageable with the NES control pad, and it actually works in the game’s favor to make it the definitive version of the title. Memorization of enemy patterns and dodging accordingly are the name of the game, and getting to best Iron Mike himself in the game’s final bout ranks as one of the most challenging boss fights in gaming history.

6. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

Castlevania III box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 22, 1989
  • Publisher/Developer — Konami/Konami
  • Review Aggregate Score — 82% (Generally Favorable)

The best of the NES Castlevania games also happens to be its hardest, with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse pulling no punches when it comes to actively trying to punish the player. Regardless of its tough-as-nails difficulty, though, Castlevania III ends up being the best game in the series thanks to its return to the linearity of the original Castlevania along with the multiple characters and branching pathways of Castlevania II. It’s the best of both of Castlevania‘s modalities, and it sets the stage for the franchise’s bright future.

5. Metroid

Metroid box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — August 6, 1986
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 1
  • Review Aggregate Score — 94% (Universal Acclaim)

Another of the famous Famicom Disk System titles to eventually make its way to the NES, Metroid is an experience that could only have been possible on consoles. In an era where most action platformer games featured stages and could be beaten in a single sitting, Metroid presents the player with an incredibly complex interconnected map that requires multiple return adventures to eventually learn and conquer. And, without the aid of Internet FAQs or strategy guides, players needed to create their own hand-drawn maps on graph paper and scrawl down passwords if they were to have any hope of ever beating Mother Brain.

4. Contra

Contra box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — February 20, 1987
  • Publisher/Developer — Konami/Konami
  • Review Aggregate Score — 90% (Universal Acclaim)

Both the NES’ best run ‘n gun game and its best two-player game, the console version of Konami’s Contra is a timeless experience with or without the legendary Konami Code that grants 30 lives. Across the game’s 8 stages, players are treated to some of the most frantic and challenging shooting action on the console, and playing it with a friend only makes the experience better. Like many other games on this list, Contra‘s soundtrack and presentation have the game burned into the memories of many players who spent countless hours playing through its campaign on repeat to see how many lives they could finish with, and the game is a relic of a bygone era in which simply moving from left to right and shooting everything in sight constituted a complete gaming experience.

3. Mega Man 2

Mega Man 2 box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — December 24, 1988
  • Publisher/Developer — Capcom/Capcom
  • Review Aggregate Score — 85% (Generally Favorable)

For its soundtrack alone, Mega Man 2 deserves a potential nod as the best game in the Mega Man franchise. Thankfully, the title also has the gameplay to back it up, increasing the total number of Robot Masters from the original’s 6 to 8 and getting even more creative with stage layouts and weapon powers. Really, though, the game’s legendary status is solidified by Takashi Tateishi’s era-defining score, with the stage themes for every Robot Master burned into the memory of anyone who grew up playing this action platformer masterpiece.

2. The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — February 21, 1986
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 4
  • Review Aggregate Score — 90% (Universal Acclaim)

The original Legend of Zelda is, along with Metroid, a game that could have only been possible on the NES, moving beyond the trite arcade ports of the era to deliver a sprawling adventure that players could only experience and return to in the comfort of their own home. And, also like Metroid, The Legend of Zelda helped to facilitate a sort of “Schoolyard Network” of sharing tips, maps, and strategies in an age long before the existence of online FAQs or official strategy guides. As such, the first Zelda game is both an important time capsule of 1980s gaming and the beginning of one of the medium’s most important and enduring franchises. Of course, the fact that the game is still just as brilliant and fun to play today as it was more than 35 years ago doesn’t hurt either.

1. Super Mario Bros. 3

Super Mario Bros. 3 box art and gameplay

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  • Release Date — October 23, 1988
  • Publisher/Developer — Nintendo/Nintendo R&D 4
  • Review Aggregate Score — 98% (Universal Acclaim)

If there is such a thing as a “perfect” platformer game, Shigeru Miyamoto and the rest of his team at Nintendo R&D 4 arguably already achieved that goal with 1988’sSuper Mario Bros. 3. After a somewhat disappointing second entry in the series in the West (with Japanese players getting the “true” Super Mario Bros. 2), Super Mario Bros. 3 feels like a major step up from the original, even though it retains the same basic structure. Including an overworld map is a stroke of genius, allowing the developers to get creative with the landscapes and progression paths through each of the game’s 8 worlds and unintentionally creating a whole community of speedrunners trying to beat the game as fast as possible using the secret Whistle power-ups. There are newer 2D Mario games, but there are none better than Super Mario Bros. 3.

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