10 - Ninja Gaiden
Unlike a certain other game on the lower end of this list, Ninja Gaiden is an action platformer that can be brutally difficult while still being mostly fair. There is a definite method to its madness, and the game succeeds at building you up and breaking you down without making you feel underpowered. Ninja Gaiden has a pretty steep learning curve, which can be one of the harder things to deal with in the game. The lesson that it tries to teach you is that it’s meant to be played fast, what with its respawning enemies, timed levels, and very limited items. Ninja Gaiden wants you use your speed and twitch reflexes to dominate its obstacles, and once you understand what the game is trying to tell you, then it becomes a totally thrilling experience. It’s also reasonably merciful, offering you checkpoints after dying and continues after losing all your lives. That’s not to say it’s perfect, though – the screen is always centered on you, which often means you’re unable to see deadly threats that are just offscreen. This results in enemies that can pop up right in front of you and knock you to your doom if you don’t occasionally slow down, which is the opposite of how the game should be played.
9 - Dr. Mario
Dr. Mario remains one of the most interesting, innovative and challenging takes on the Tetris formula. That said, it’s actually very different from Tetris in a number of important ways. Eliminating stacks of blocks isn’t the goal here – you need to match specific colors in order to erase a randomly generated group of viruses. Having multiple colors per piece means that foresight and planning is needed to erase them all before they stack up against you, especially since you have a fairly small area to work with. Maneuvering pieces around germs gets harder and harder as you complete more levels, but that just makes it more rewarding when you line up the right combos and see your plans fall into place. However, a single piece that mistakenly lands in the wrong spot can be infuriating when an entire level depends on it, so you need to be way more careful with dropping pieces than you might like to be.
8 - Super Mario Bros
Here it is, the game that made Nintendo a household name in 1985. For the most part, the primordial platformer has aged rather gracefully, even if its actual platforming may feel inflexible compared to later entries in the series. Jumping and running is still spot-on, secrets can still make you feel clever when you find them, and the brilliant grasp of scaling difficulty is still there as you advance from world to world. If you’ve got the guts to take on the game from start to finish (that is, without using warp zones), then a massive sense of gratification awaits you after you drop Bowser into that final pit, knowing that you did it without losing all your lives and having to start the whole game over from the beginning.
7 - Bubble Bobble
Don’t let the cutesy appearance and easy controls fool you – Bubble Bobble is a deceptively deep and intriguing puzzle game. The straightforward premise of trapping baddies in bubbles and popping them just seems like a laid-back activity at first, but the game incorporates tons of ways to combo enemy kills into more points along with its ever-growing difficulty. There are also plenty of things to discover and bonuses to unlock at higher stages, and the password system ensures that you can resume your adventure at any time. Bubble Bobble is still a great game to pick up and play in bursts or with a friend, but it has some respectable complexity underneath the surface as well.
6 - Super Mario Bros. 2
The platforming may be a little too straightforward to rival other games in the series, but Super Mario Bros. 2 has some outstanding ideas of its own. You can play as Mario, Luigi, Toad or the Princess, all of whom have unique abilities that change up the moment-to-moment gameplay. The novelty of picking up and throwing plants, items, enemies, and almost anything else you can find is just plain fun, but it’s also the game’s most integral feature. The grab-and-throw mechanic is used to solve puzzles, fight bosses and uncover secrets, and there are a LOT of secrets that require you to utilize it in progressively more creative ways. But in a game with so many weird and wonderful moments, the repetitive parts become that much more noticeable: fighting the egg-spitting Birdo over and over again really gets old when you have to do that same thing at the end of almost every level.
5 - Super C
Super C is the sequel to the infamous Contra, and it’s the essence of the run-and-gun genre distilled into its purest form. Frantic and furious, the game demands quick reflexes and snap decisions in order to shoot and dodge the bombardment of enemies on screen. You die in one hit, and with a maximum of ten lives, the game seems almost insurmountable on your own. Thankfully, that’s why the cooperative mode is there. The game gets even better with two players as you strategize and coordinate to take down legions of enemies and a host of awesome bosses. The only time Super C slows down is during the top-down levels that put a bit of a damper on the experience, but they’re nothing a pair of synchronized spread guns can’t handle.
4 - Punch-Out!!
Even in 2016, Punch-Out retains its title as the best form of boxing fantasy fulfillment in a video game. The flawlessly accurate controls actually deserve to be called easy to learn, but hard to master. Each new opponent tests your skills and your head in distinctive, unexpected ways, and beating them to advance through the World Video Boxing Association is hugely gratifying. Punch-Out is one of those rare games that makes the process of trial-and-error feel good, because every defeat is instructive rather than punishing. The goofy sense of personality also goes a long way, providing comic relief in an otherwise uncompromising game. This version may not have the vicious Mike Tyson as the final boss, but that’s really the only gripe to be had.
3 - Mega Man 2
This is the sole Mega Man title on the NES Classic Edition, but at least Nintendo knew which one to pick. Mega Man 2 is perhaps the best example of what the series got so right in the first place. The slick, responsive action platforming. The restless intensity of fighting Dr. Wily’s robot army. The fear and anticipation of what lies in the next room. Mega Man 2 constantly keeps you on your toes as each level introduces all new enemies, platforming concepts, and of course, deadly specialized bosses. The thrill of ultimately beating a level and getting a new weapon is unlike anything else, and deducing which weapon could be effective against which boss adds a cool layer of thought. Oh, but it’s not entirely ideal. There are still those awful disappearing block puzzles.
2 - The Legend of Zelda
The very first Legend of Zelda endures as one of the best games in the series. It is the definition of an “open-world” game, allowing you to go to any dungeon at any time and complete them in any order. The puzzles and traps contained within them are both clever and deeply rewarding once you figure them out for yourself. Combat is nothing to scoff at, either – enemies not only get stronger, but smarter as well. Later enemies will actively try to outmaneuver you or pin you down with projectiles, but you’re never locked to a grid-based movement system, so the game always feels just fluid enough for you to dodge and counter. Collecting the myriad of equipment and items all open up new possibilities in the overworld and dungeons alike, giving you even more reason to seek out the game’s countless secrets that hide above and below. All these elements combine to make you feel like you’re truly adventuring through a foreign world, even when you’re just steadily memorizing the map or slowly grinding for rupees.
1 - Super Mario Bros. 3
After all these years, Super Mario Bros. 3 isn’t just one of the best Mario games, it’s one of the most enjoyable and challenging platformers ever made. It’s hard to overstate the ingenious kind of excitement that you still get from playing it, even without the context of past or future Mario titles. It has an awesome sense of momentum that makes jumping twice as effective, and great powerups like the tanuki suit enhance the fun while playing into the game’s smart and dangerous level design. Levels are endlessly featuring new things, such as an angry sun that descends and furiously chases you until you outrun it long enough to beat the level. Even if you don’t feel like doing a particular level, you get the option to choose between a number of levels on the world map that offer split paths to reaching your goal. Add to that the minigames, bosses, and a crazy amount of secrets, and Super Mario Bros. 3 can keep you happily busy for a very, very long time.