25 Best NES Games of All Time

It's the console that helped millions fall in love with gaming, but which NES game is the greatest of them all?

Best NES Games Ever
Photo: Nintendo, Konami

The Nintendo Entertainment System is the most important console in the history of home gaming. After the video game industry crash of 1983 and several years of arcade success, many still wondered whether video games still had a place in homes everywhere. Then, almost out of nowhere, Nintendo and the NES rescued our favorite hobby from the abyss and put it on the fast track to becoming the cultural cornerstone we know it as today. 

The main reason for the NES’ massive success story was its enormous library of great titles. Many of Nintendo’s long-standing franchises got their starts on the NES, and while some of the console’s games have aged better than others, all of them deserve our love and respect for helping reignite the industry and kicking off the fun that would ensue for decades to come.

As tough as it is to choose between so many true classics, here is our list of the 25 best games released for the NES.

A Boy and His Blob NES

25. A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia

This underrated gem was released to mixed reviews in 1989. To be fair, there’s not much to this game’s core concept that isn’t spelled out in the title. It sees you take control of a boy and his companion: a metaphysical blob who will aid you throughout your journey. 

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However, this title’s mix of puzzle and platforming elements is quite dense for its era and holds up rather well. If you prefer, though, then you could always play the reimagining of this classic that was released on the Wii in 2009 with stunning hand-drawn graphics and a stirring score that perfectly accompanies this poignant tale of friendship and overcoming adversity. – Shawn Laib

Duck Hunt NES

24. Duck Hunt

Originally released as an arcade game before getting an NES port in 1985, Duck Hunt is best known for its revolutionary use of the NES Zapper accessory. The famous add-on was essentially a plastic handgun with sensor technology, but it was a great example of the ingenuity Nintendo would later become famous for. 

The subject matter may be a little uncomfortable for some given that attitudes toward hunting for sport have soured in many parts of the world in the decades since this title came out. If you choose to look past that, though, Duck Hunt proves to be a simple good time as well as a noteworthy predecessor to some of the company’s later interactive innovations such as motion controls and pointer tech on the Wii. – SL

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project

23. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project

TMNT 2: The Arcade Game may have not offered an arcade-perfect experience, but it came as close to achieving that goal as any NES title ever would. However, it was that game’s somewhat underrated follow-up that fully realized the turtles’ 8-bit potential. 

Beyond the usual visual and mechanical improvements that the best video game sequels typically feature, Manhattan Project offered more ambitious levels, an improved soundtrack, and a generally more cohesive experience that felt like it truly belonged on the NES. It’s the kind of game you’ll be happy to return to for as long as it exists. – Matthew Byrd

Kid Icarus NES

22. Kid Icarus

The adventure of Pit and his quest to save Palutena gained more interest after those two characters were added to Super Smash Bros. series, but this game deserved far more recognition well before then. With its fascinating setting (mythology always piques our interest) and solid platforming mechanics, Kid Icarus is one of the more unique flavors to try out on the original Nintendo. 

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The franchise got an acclaimed Nintendo 3DS follow-up in 2012 in the form of Kid Icarus: Uprising: a title that expanded on the potential of the original and proved to be a much-needed modern take on the series. The controls also made that game were also quite difficult, which is at least a proper throwback to the surprisingly brutal challenges offered by this NES gem. – SL

Tecmo Bowl NES

21. Tecmo Bowl

The developers of the most acclaimed football video game of the NES era actually managed to get copyright permissions from the NFL so that actual players and teams could be depicted on-screen. That feature, along with the ability for multiple players to get in on the fun, made Tecmo Bowl of the great precursors to modern professional sports franchises like Madden and NBA 2K. 

A limited playbook that allowed for only a handful of run and pass options also contributed to the absurd abilities of legends like Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and, most famously, Bo Jackson. Trying to stop the Raiders’ legend in the open 8-bit field almost never ended well. – SL

Dr. Mario NES

20. Dr. Mario

If you take Tetris’s block puzzle-solving and add some Mario images and medical flair, you get the cult favorite that is Dr. Mario. The game substitutes Tetris‘ blocks for viruses and squeezes Mario into a lab coat to add a little personality to a fundamentally solid gameplay experience.

The Dr. Mario character was added to Super Smash Bros. Melee as a nod to the versatility of Mario’s occupational choices, and the game itself has been replayable on several of Nintendo’s later consoles. Regardless of when or where you play it, this puzzle game’s tight mechanics ensure its longevity. – SL

Adventure Island II NES

19. Adventure Island II

While there were three Adventure Island games released for the NES, the middle entry in the trilogy is the most complete package in terms of refinement and entertainment value. The platforming is crisp and the new inventory system adds a welcome amount of depth to the overall experience. There are even four dinosaur buddies that can accompany the player in each level, which is a nice forebearer to what we’d later see in games like Donkey Kong Country

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What really gives this series an identity that separates it from other NES platformers, though, are its environment and storytelling elements. Putting a kid on an island and letting him explore the natural obstacles of the world is a nice deviation from the sci-fi and fantasy adventures that made up so much of the NES library. It is a niche series, but it’s also one that everyone should take a look at. – SL

Batman NES

18. Batman

While clearly inspired by another game yet to appear on this list, Sunsoft’s 1989 Batman game rarely gets all the love it deserves. Of course, those who do love this game will waste no time telling you it’s one of the NES’ most complete action games. 

It also must be said that it’s pretty crazy that Sunsoft delivered a truly exceptional licensed game (and a Batman game, no less) at a time when the entire concept of licensed games was about as low as it would ever be. Honestly, this is still easily one of the best Batman games ever made, despite the fact that most people who play it will never beat The Joker. – MB

Excitebike NES

17. Excitebike 

It wasn’t easy to pick the best racing game on the NES, but Excitebike comes out on top by just a smidgen. Not many racing games use motorcycles as their vehicle of choice, and most games of this era regardless of genre certainly weren’t bold enough to offer something as expansive and incredible as this title’s course creator.

Excitebike was even designed by an emerging Shigeru Miyamoto: the legendary creator of Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and most of our best childhood gaming memories. The game’s sharp controls reportedly even helped inspire the movement mechanics in the original Super Mario Bros. – SL

DuckTales NES

16. DuckTales

For quite a few years, Duck Tales was really a “Who remembers this gem?” kind of game. Many with memories of the title were fond of it, but it wasn’t generally considered one of the NES’ all-time best games. In the last decade or so, that narrative has really started to shift. 

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It turns out that all of those “little things” about DuckTales (its music, its colorful levels, and even its license) that so many fans love all add up to elevate this title over some otherwise exceptional platforming titles. It also must be said that there are few platforming experiences more consistently thrilling than bouncing around on Scrooge McDuck’s cane. – MB

15. Bionic Commando

While Bionic Commando never reached the cultural heights of Contra (we’ll get there), you could certainly argue that Bionic Commando was the more complete action game of the two.

Bionic Commando’s grappling hook movement system not only gave it a…err…hook at a time when many games needed a gimmick to stand out, but it showed how a wider range of movement could really help open up the side-scrolling action experience. It’s also the only NES action game that lets you watch Hitler’s head explode (well…kind of). – MB

Life Force NES

14. Life Force

Gradius is definitely the most famous game in the NES’ shoot-em-up lineup, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that Life Force isn’t the absolute best game in that particular category. 

From its body horror-like level design to its shifting perspectives and wonderful co-op mode, Life Force is both a tribute to the brilliance of the “shmup” genre as well as the peak of that same concept in many ways. It’s rare to see an NES game as ambitious as this one feel so refined. – MB

13. Crystalis

From time to time, I still hear people refer to Crystalis as a Zelda clone. While that comparison isn’t unwarranted (the similarities are obvious), that label doesn’t come close to capturing the many things that make this game so special. 

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If anything, Crystalis is closer to a preview of what games like Diablo would eventually offer. Its deeper ARPG mechanics perfectly complemented the exploration-based adventure gaming concepts at the heart of the experience. You may not have played this one “back in the day,” but there’s a good chance that it has aged better than your old favorite. – MB

Kirby's Adventure

12. Kirby’s Adventure

These days, Kirby is most often thought of as a kid-friendly platforming franchise with a lot of heart and little depth. However, Kirby’s Adventure once argued that the pink puff could have been the star of Nintendo’s best platforming franchise. 

Just about every element of this game could be described as “creative.” From Kirby’s now famous “copy” ability to the various minigames spread throughout the title, almost every little thing in this game was designed to challenge the growing complacency of the platforming genre. It’s also just a ton of fun to play to this day. – MB

Dragon Quest 3

11. Dragon Quest 3

We’ve previously declared this game the best NES RPG ever made, and I find no reason to stray from that argument here. Even if future console generations would offer substantially better RPG experiences than the NES did, Dragon Quest 3 (or Dragon Warrior 3) still stands tall as one retro RPG adventure worth embarking upon.

From its massive world to its surprisingly deep story, Dragon Quest 3 really did offer the clearest example of what the console JRPG genre would eventually become. Innovations aside, this game’s glorious pixel art visuals and wonderful chiptune soundtrack brilliantly showcase the charms of the era it was otherwise ahead of in many ways. – MB

River City Ransom

10. River City Ransom

I actually don’t think it’s too hard to make the case that River City Ransom is the best beat-em-up on the NES, which is really impressive when you consider how great beat-em-up games were released for that console. Of course, the things that really made River City Ransom so good had little to do with the beat-em-up genre. 

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River City Ransom’s RPG-lite mechanics granted the game a level of depth rarely seen in other beat-em-games available at the time. It’s eternally satisfying to punch your way through a small army of bad guys one side-scrolling screen at a time, but River City Ransom was the game that made you feel like every punch was building towards something more substantial. – MB

Contra NES

9. Contra

The original Contra was an ideal scenario for crossover fans of action movies and video games in the 1980s. The environments and weaponry, along with the studly protagonists that you could control, all made it feel like you were the star of the very own excessive ’80s action film.

The gameplay itself is always arcadey and fun thanks to its side-scrolling shooting that relies on upgrading guns and avoiding absurd amounts of incoming enemy fire. The game does feature a couple of other modes with different camera perspectives to spice things up, but the traditional Contra gameplay obviously holds up all these years later. – SL

Ninja Gaiden

8. Ninja Gaiden

While Ninja Gaiden’s stunning cutscenes were certainly a revelation, this game arguably deserves to be remembered most fondly for its incredible controls and mechanics that elevated expectations for what an NES action game could (and should) be. 

Ninja Gaiden introduced many of us to the idea of an action game that was truly “fluid.” No cumbersome controls or limited movements would get in your way in this one. Instead, you were allowed to move and strike as swiftly as…well, as a ninja. Mind you, the game was still absurdly difficult. – MB

Punch-Out!! NES

7. Punch-Out!!

There is no sports title with better characters and more personality than Punch-Out!! Casting you in the role of Little Mac, the downtrodden tiny boxer with big dreams, this NES classic sees you fight your way through the ranks against an oddball lineup of antagonists. Pugilists Glass Joe, Bald Bull, and Mr. Sandman all made their debuts in this game and helped kick off this series’ proud tradition of over-the-top (sometimes stereotypical) antagonists.

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Punch-Out!! is a great example of the original Nintendo’s ability to create vibrant characters out of 8-bit sprites that would go on to innovate and carve long-lasting legacies despite their simplicity. Even Mike Tyson has played this series! – SL

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse NES

6. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

Castlevania is one of the most beloved action-adventure platform series of the NES era, and the third game in the franchise is simply the series’ finest NES hour. With better controls and more power-ups, everything here is just bigger and more refined than in the previous two titles. 

This one also gave rise to some non-linear exploring and multiple-ending storytelling; two concepts that would become significantly more popular in the SNES era and beyond. The game also introduced the character Trevor C. Belmont, who would later appear in several other Castlevania games and in Netflix’s hit animated series based on the franchise (and this game in particular). – SL

The Legend of Zelda NES

5. The Legend of Zelda

The game that started Nintendo’s most critically acclaimed franchise was revolutionary for a myriad of reasons. It combined action, adventure, and storytelling elements in an early open-world environment that was both unforgiving and exciting. 

The title hasn’t aged quite as well as other games we’ll soon be talking about, and Nintendo obviously improved upon this core concept in later entries, but the original still deserves acclaim for what it started. It’s truly amazing to play this game today and count the ways that it was so clearly ahead of its time. – SL

Mega Man 2 NES

4. Mega Man 2

Even after all these years and all the sequels, Mega Man‘s second adventure has never been topped. It added extra weapons and features to the first game’s already incredible action while retaining all the key platforming traits that made it famous. 

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The two biggest reasons for the enduring status of this game are its memorable collection of bosses and incredible music. Flash Man, Heat Man, and Wood Man rank high among the series’ most iconic foes, and Wily Stage 1 is arguably the best song in the canon. – SL

Metroid NES

3. Metroid

Samus’s first adventure has aged better than almost every other NES game by introducing the core components of the beloved and versatile Metroidvania genre. It also brought some much-needed science fiction adventures to the console at a time when the NES still needed some help in that genre department.

From the opening moments that challenged you to think about games in a new way to the famous ending that revealed Samus is a woman, it’s impossible to forget your first time playing this game. Even this game’s remake, 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission, retained much of what made the original special while incorporating future franchise innovations and refinements. – SL

Super Mario Bros. NES

2. Super Mario Bros.

Nintendo’s game-changing (literally) hit comes in second on our list of NES games thanks to its timeless soundtrack, innovative platforming legacy, and ability to be enjoyed by everyone regardless of age or experience. From grandparents to children, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t played (or at least heard of) Super Mario Bros

The iconic title has been re-released on so many of Nintendo’s other platforms that it almost feels limiting to call it an NES game. Its core controls and platforming gameplay are so enduringly fantastic that fans still make their own NES-style courses in Super Mario Maker and its sequel. This is the quintessential video game and always will be. – SL

Super Mario Bros. 3 NES

1. Super Mario Bros. 3

Although it isn’t quite as revolutionary as the original, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the best-made game on the NES by a good margin. It takes everything that made the original game amazing and combines those qualities with innovative ideas and intelligent refinements. It’s actually mind-boggling that both of these games were released for the same console considering how much more advanced this game is technologically and artistically. 

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Super Mario Bros. 3 also introduced many staples of the Super Mario series that are still enjoyed today. From the overworld map to the Koopalings to the Tanooki Suit, this sequel raised the stakes and honed everything into perfection. There is an argument to be made that this is the best game Mario has ever starred in, but for now, it’s enough to say that this is the best NES game ever made. – SL