When it comes to the best NES games, you know you're in the presence of greatness. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about one of the best Zelda games, Mario classics, or either half of the Metroidvania portmanteau that would go on define a new subgenre, there's a reason these top NES games are considered prolific to this day.
The 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System had some competition with the likes of the Atari 7800 and Sega Master System when it launched in 1983, but the NES ultimately won out in terms of sales. The console is home to some of the best games of the 80s, after all, with many of those having spawned legacy franchises that run to this day. You might even find a few of them on our list of new games for 2024.
With such fierce and varied competition, it's not to crown the best NES games ever. But whether you're looking to add to your own retro NES collection, are researching which ports might be worth trying out on the Switch's virtual console, or you're just looking for a bit of nostalgia, this list is here to help.
If you're looking for the most memorable experiences on the consoles that followed, be sure to check out our pick of the best SNES games, best N64 games, or the best GameCube games. For now, though, we're focusing on Nintendo's breakout console with the very best NES games out there.
For more definitive rankings of Nintendo games throughout the years:
The very best NES games ever, starting with...
10. Duck Hunt
Duck Hunt is pure Nintendo. It was the quintessential game for the underutilized NES Zapper, and stands today as proof of Nintendo's long-standing love of palm-sized peripherals. Was it repetitive? I mean, there's only so much mileage you could get out of duck hunting and skeet shooting. Did everybody cheat by holding the barrel of the gun an inch away from the television? Listen, no judgment here, what you choose to do in the comfort of your own home is up to you! Duck Hunt is iconic, with an immediately recognizable visual style, and a pick-up-and-play approachability that is still felt through so many Nintendo games today. Duck Hunt may be largely unplayable these days but, for many players, hunting ducks with Mr Peepers was a rite of passage in the '80s and '90s.
9. River City Ransom
Developer: Technos Japan
When it arrived in 1989, River City Ransom struggled to pull itself out of the long shadow cast by beat 'em ups like Double Dragon, Ghosts 'n Goblins, and The Legend of Kage. But River City Ransom rightfully earned itself cult classic status in the years since. The game works smartly to incorporate adventure and RPG elements into the traditional beat 'em up framework, allowing us to explore an entire cityscape while smashing and crashing through the gangs of River City. It's smartly designed, full of humor, and is undoubtedly one of the most energetic games of its era. River City Ransom was ahead of its time, and it's still one of the best NES games that you can play today.
7. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
What is it about the underdog story that draws so many of us in? It's difficult to say, but the journey of underweight title contender Little Mac certainly captured our attention back in 1987. While Punch-Out!! Started life as an arcade unit, it was the Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! adaptation for NES that catapulted Nintendo's awesome boxing game into our hearts. In it, we follow Little Mac on his mission to topple heavyweight legend Mike Tyson – ducking, dodging, and jabbing his way to the top. The concept was accessible, the roster of fighters was memorable, and the pattern-based design of the core action was easy to learn but difficult to master. It may not look like much now, but Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! is an undoubtedly definitive NES experience.
That Contra is still so much fun to play today speaks volumes about the quality of its core design. Contra is a fantastic adaptation of the arcade experience, bringing the best shooting of the era out of the cabinets and into the living room. Konami captured the absurdity of '80s action blockbusters in Contra and turned it into a delightfully challenging 8-bit romp, alternating between horizontal and vertical scrolling stages to challenge you and your buddies to survive gauntlets of incoming enemy fire. With its inspired level design, gorgeous visuals, and a truly iconic soundtrack, Contra remains one of the best action games of the era – oh, and it's also largely responsible for training a generation of players to internalize the infamous Konami Code, which would grant you 30 lives if you could remember the correct button inputs.
6. Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse
Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse was a return to form. Developer Konami abandoned the RPG elements it had tried to introduce to the series with Simon's Quest, opting instead to expand upon the challenging platforming ideals that helped define Castlevania's debut adventure. Thrust into the boots of Trevor Belmont, Castlevania 3 was a wild nonlinear adventure, with branching pathways and multiple endings helping to extend the life of this harrowing push through Dracula's castle. Sixteen challenging stages, wildly fun combat mechanics, and a truly iconic visual style all helped to ensure Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse earned its place in the annals of NES history.
5. Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros changed everything – not just for Nintendo, but for video games. Super Mario Bros was entrusted with introducing entire generations to this new way to play, having come bundled in with a majority of NES systems at launch. Super Mario Bros. is widely considered to have a perfect opening level. World 1-1, the side-scrolling space that changed the world – it was accessible and challenging, full of secrets and smart ideas. That colorful introduction to the Mushroom Kingdom taught players everything they needed to know to survive Super Mario Bros' eight worlds, an adventure which tens of millions have indulged in since its release. It's difficult to say whether the industry-at-large would have recovered from the video game crash of 1983 without Super Mario Bros., but we do know that gaming would be entirely different without it.
Metroid was a landmark game for the NES. With its sprawling non-linear levels, silent storytelling, and password saves, Samus Aran's debut adventure helped redefine what action-platformer games could be. The haunting, desolate science-fiction setting was distinctive, as was the open-ended gameplay which focused almost entirely on quiet exploration; Metroid was all-too happy to let you get lost in a hostile alien world without supervision, and the pervasive sense of isolation that grew out of that was key to Metroid's unique vibe and presentation. While the successes of Metroid would soon be overshadowed by its sequel, Super Metroid for the SNES, there's still something so incredible about the original game's ambition.
3. Mega Man 2
Always wanted to try a Mega Man game but don't know where to start? Capcom skirted close to perfection with Mega Man 2. Requiring as much precision as it does patience, Mega Man 2 is a freeform action-platformer where you're tasked with trying to navigate Dr. Wily's house of robotic nightmares. While there are eight Robot Masters to be taken down, you can take each of the bosses on in any order, with each bequeathing Mega Man with a special power upon their defeat. These abilities can give Mega Man different advantages over different bosses, allowing you to effectively choose your own route (and difficulty scale) throughout the game. Mega Man 2 is a peerless action game and the pinnacle of the Mega Man franchise.
2. The Legend of Zelda
Why was The Legend of Zelda packaged in a gorgeous gold cartridge? I'm sure there's an extremely boring answer to that question that involves successful marketing strategies, but I like to believe it's because Nintendo knew it had literal gold on its hands. That the sprawling action-adventure contained within that golden shell had true value – its intricate and open-ended design formative to generations of players and developers alike. Link's first quest exposed our desire for more complex worlds to explore, that we wanted spaces with secrets carefully woven into the very fabric of the environments, and adventures so broad that we could barely comprehend their scale. There's no denying that The Legend of Zelda isn't just one of the best NES games of all-time, it's one of the most important games of all-time too.
1. Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros. 3 is a true marvel. Arriving shortly before the release of the SNES, Super Mario Bros. 3 was effective in replicating the successes of the first game in the series and expanded upon them brilliantly – introducing elements that are now seen as essential to the franchise. There's a reason why developers still look back to this 1990 2D side-scrolling adventure for inspiration; it's perfectly paced, has a truly unbelievable difficulty curve, and is revolutionary from a level design perspective. There's a richness and variety in its style that's still impressive to this day, while the scope of play and secrets to be unearthed ensures that there's always fun to be had – regardless of how many times you've dusted off the cartridge over the years. Super Mario Bros. 3 pushed the NES to its limits, and what we got in return was a truly seminal video game experience.
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