15 Hardest Levels in NES Games

How many of these infamously difficult NES levels did you manage to beat?

Hardest NES Levels
Photo: Nintendo, Capcom, Konami

You’re not imagining things: video games really have gotten easier over the years. That’s due, in large part, to the now-common addition of variable difficulty settings and other accessibility options. While some gamers complain these things make games too easy, they’re a welcome change for many of us who grew up in the ‘80s.

Much of the NES library was known for its extreme difficulty. Part of that was due to the console’s technical limitations. It just wasn’t always easy to make characters move as developers intended. Sometimes it was much more conscious. Developers would make games harder so that they would last longer and so that gamers couldn’t just blow through titles in a weekend rental. But even keeping those things in mind, a few developers went above and beyond to create some of the most devious and fiendishly difficult challenges imaginable. Decades later, these are the 15 hardest levels in NES games.

The Drawbridge – Dragon’s Lair

15. The Drawbridge – Dragon’s Lair

Even though the gameplay is very dated now, the original arcade version of Dragon’s Lair remains a landmark title that’s worth checking out at least once thanks to its extensive use of full-motion video and beautifully animated sequences directed by the legendary Don Bluth. The game’s 8-bit NES port, of course, had none of that going for it. 

On the NES, Dragon’s Lair is a platformer that has a lot of potential on paper. The problem is that Dirk is big, slow, clunky, and an overall chore to play as. You start the game at the castle drawbridge, and as you cross it, it begins to crumble. Fall into the moat below, and you die. Avoid that, and a monster arises from the moat. Get hit by one of its fireballs, and you die. Get past him, and the gate ahead closes. Oddly enough, if you touch the gate, you also die. Instead, you have to get back to the left side of the screen, avoiding fireballs the whole way to throw daggers at the monster, slay it, and safely cross the drawbridge. Thanks to the poor controls, it’s just a needlessly difficult opening scene that very few players ever made it past.

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Quick Man’s Stage – Mega Man 2

14. Quick Man’s Stage – Mega Man 2

You knew Mega Man was going to be somewhere on this list. The series has always been synonymous with difficulty. There are plenty of contenders for a spot on this list from the Blue Bomber’s six NES games, but in the end, the most frustrating has got to be Quick Man’s stage from Mega Man 2.

The issue is those damn beams. Throughout the level, they quickly come at you from the left and right, and if they hit you, you die, regardless of how much health you have. Memorization and Flash Man’s Time Stopper ability go a long way toward getting through the stage, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. At least Quick Man himself doesn’t pose too much of a challenge, especially if you manage to conserve your Time Stopper ammunition after all those beams.

Death Mountain – Zelda II: The Adventures of Link

Zelda II is something of a black sheep in the series due to the introduction of side-scrolling and RPG mechanics like leveling up. It remains the only game in the series to incorporate these gameplay ideas, and given how much time has passed since its release, it seems unlikely that Nintendo will revisit this style of Zelda game. It also remains the hardest game in the series by a large margin.

Many kids were gifted this title because they loved the original so much. Even into adulthood, few have ever beaten it. And for most, the trouble started with Death Mountain. In most Zelda games, that’s just a name. Here, it’s a promise. You will die a lot thanks to hordes of difficult and overpowered enemies. To be fair, the main issue is that you’re likely going to be under-leveled at this point if you’re just trying to rush through the story, so going back and grinding levels does help. Still, it’s never an easy trek.

World C-3 – Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

12. World C-3 – Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

Nintendo infamously declined to release the real Super Mario Bros. sequel outside of Japan in the ‘80s due to its high difficulty. When it eventually did make its way overseas as The Lost Levels, gamers quickly saw that Nintendo wasn’t exaggerating how hard the game was. Along with the poison mushrooms and warps that take you back to previous levels, a lot of the stages here put all of your platforming skills through their paces.

The secret level C-3 is pretty short, but what’s here involves super springs, massive jumps, wind, and Lakitus constantly throwing out Spinies. To date, it’s still one of the most difficult levels in any Super Mario game, but somehow still easier than a lot of fan-made levels in Super Mario Maker 2.

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Reptyl – Silver Surfer 

11. Reptyl – Silver Surfer 

Honestly, it’s difficult to pick one single level of Silver Surfer because the game is so insanely hard. But its Mega Man-style level select first highlights Reptyl, which is likely where most players started when they loaded up the game, thinking it was recommending that stage to learn the basics before moving onto more difficult stages. Wrong. Silver Surfer does not mess around from the very beginning.

Reptyl’s stage suffers from the same problems as the entire game. Yes, the enemies are difficult, as with any shoot ‘em up, but too often it’s confusing to tell which area of the screen is safe to be in, and which part is an obstacle that will result in instant death if you touch it. It’s too bad, because graphically, it’s one of the better-looking NES games (and the soundtrack still rocks), but the game’s high difficulty has always been a huge knock against its reputation.

World 8-2 – Adventure Island 

10. World 8-2 – Adventure Island 

Back in the day, Adventure Island seemed like one of those NES games where everyone had a friend with a copy, but few people seemed to actually own it themselves. Like, you’d go over to someone’s house, play a level or two, and then move on to Mario or Zelda and kind of forget about it. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t come up too often when people talk about difficult NES games, but it definitely deserves to be in the conversation.

Adventure Island actually starts off as an enjoyable, fair platformer, but the later levels are ridiculously punishing. The infamous World 8-2 is largely made up of clouds dry against an ocean backdrop. Jumping from cloud to cloud is simple enough, but add in dozens of octopi jumping out of the water, plus birds and flying fish randomly coming at you from the right of the screen, and timing everything correctly quickly becomes an ordeal.

Springfield Museum of Natural History – The Simpsons: Bart vs. The Space Mutants

9. Springfield Museum of Natural History – The Simpsons: Bart vs. The Space Mutants

While The Simpsons cartoon started out great before slowly declining in quality over the years, the games based on the show followed the opposite trajectory. Later games were quite good, while the earlier titles, like Bart vs. The Space Mutants, are best left forgotten like “The Principal and the Pauper” episode.

At least Bart vs. The Space Mutants tried to do a little bit more than the typical platforming. To defeat the aliens, Bart inexplicably has to complete extra goals, like turning purple objects red or collecting exit signs. While even getting through the first level requires figuring out several obtuse puzzles that the game never really explains, the fourth level, Springfield Museum of Natural History, is where most runs end due to the tricky platforming of the tar pits.

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There are a number of platform hit zones that aren’t entirely clear and jumps that stretch Bart’s ability to their limits. All of this culminates in an even more difficult miniboss fight against a dinosaur, where even if you jump on his head all three times as required, the game can still glitch, dump you into a pit, and kill you. Sometimes, poor programming was the worst enemy of all on the NES.

Gotham Cathedral Belltower – Batman 

8. Gotham Cathedral Belltower – Batman 

Amidst a pile of licensed schlock that filled the NES library, Batman, based on the 1989 Tim Burton movie, has always stood tall as an example of what can be done when developers clearly understand and care about a property. It’s a graphical and sound showcase for the system, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy game. Batman’s final level has felled many players over the years.

The problem with the Belltower is that it requires lots of vertical jumping, and many of the platforms you need to reach are guarded by enemies who will quickly whittle down your health if you touch them. That alone is pretty frustrating, but climb the tower, and you’re next met by a mini-boss battle with Firebug. He’s fast, but actually not too difficult. No, the real challenge is saved for the true final boss – The Joker. Here, Batman’s archenemy is armed with a long gun that does massive damage, and he can also call down lightning for some reason. His patterns are tough to master, but at least the game has unlimited continues, so you only have to go back to the beginning of the Belltower instead of the start of the game if (or when) you lose all of your lives.

Mike Tyson – Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

7. Mike Tyson – Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

Beating Punch-Out!! is all about pattern recognition. The problem is that these patterns get more and more complicated and progressively difficult. So by the time you reach the final “dream match” against Iron Mike, the game assumes that you’re basically perfect in your execution of dodges, jabs, and uppercuts.

Almost 30 years after it was released, there are now thousands of videos and articles online discussing strategies about how to beat Mike Tyson, but no matter how well prepared you might think you are going into this fight, it’s still going to take you plenty of attempts to actually KO the former world champion. 

Act 6-2 – Ninja Gaiden

6. Act 6-2 – Ninja Gaiden

The Ninja Gaiden series has been known for its high difficulty since its inception. I’d say many of those games are actually tough, but fair. They just requires a lot of patience and practice, much like a Soulsborne game. Except for Act 6-2 of the first NES game. This level is just a straight-up evil mix of annoying enemies and questionable design decisions.

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The act kicks off with jetpack ninjas throwing stars at you, which admittedly sounds kind of awesome. It’s very easy to die here, though, and things just get worse as the level devolves into a whole bunch of tricky platforming and constantly respawning enemies. Just made a tough jump? Awesome, here’s an unavoidable bird to instantly knock you off the platform you just landed on and into the pit below. Again and again.

The Technodrome – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

5. The Technodrome – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Look, we all remember the dam level from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It will forever be known as a major pain in the ass to diffuse all those bombs in just a couple of minutes without being electrocuted. When I was a kid, I could never actually get past it without the help of a neighbor who could always make short work of it. And yet, the game only gets harder after that.

Meet The Technodrome: 8-bit Hell full of all of the most obnoxious design choices of the NES era, including excessive projectiles, enemies with extra health, and of course, randomly respawning enemies. And there’s not really any way to cheese it. Basically, take your time, and use Donatello with his overpowered bo staff attacks as much as possible. And you’ll probably still die a bunch. Oddly enough, if you can make it to the final boss, Shredder, he’s one of the most stupidly easy boss fights of all time. It’s just a massive struggle to get to him.

The Driving Stages - The Adventures of Bayou Billy

4. The Driving Stages – The Adventures of Bayou Billy

A game about a backwater vigilante fighting a crime boss that features three different styles of gameplay sounds awesome in theory. However, the problem with The Adventures of Bayou Billy is that it was essentially made by people who actively hate gamers. The game was actually first released in Japan under the title of Mad City, and it was a challenging but fair game for the era.

For whatever reason, when it was time to release the game internationally, Konami decided to crank the difficulty up to an absurd level. Most notably, the jeep in the driving levels of the Japanese version had a health bar that allowed it to take multiple hits before ending the level.

That feature was completely removed for the U.S. release, so any collision now means instant death. Plus, there’s a time limit and the roads were actually made narrower during localization. Oh, and the controls sucked to begin with. Yes, these are technically two different levels, but they’re similar enough to warrant one spot on the list. And since they’re back-to-back, even if you somehow get past the first one, the second one is almost certainly where your game is going to end.

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Dracula’s Final Clock Tower – Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

3. Dracula’s Final Clock Tower – Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

With its multiple paths and playable characters, Dracula’s Curse is actually the first Castlevania game where you can see the genesis of the modern Metroidvania format of the series. While the first few levels are actually pretty standard NES fare, the difficulty quickly ramps up with one of the hardest final levels on the system.

The level starts off with some nasty bird enemies (a common theme with NES games), then an annoying auto-scrolling segment where it’s easy to fall to your death. It’s then a gauntlet of more frustrating enemies, long jumps, and a tricky crumbling floor bit. All of that is pretty bad, but the icing on the cake is the three-stage final battle with Dracula. You’ll have to be pretty much perfect to end the count’s reign of terror once and for all. 

Stage 6 – Ghosts ‘n Goblins

2. Stage 6 – Ghosts ‘n Goblins

Ghosts n’ Goblins is arguably the most difficult game on the NES. I picked it up when I was a kid not knowing its reputation, and could never even make it past the first level. There are just too many endless enemies, and if you take just two hits, you’re dead, either returned to the last checkpoint or the beginning of the level. And extra lives and armor are not easy to come by.

Stage 6 features everything that made the rest of the game difficult, just ratcheted up to 11. Tons of enemies, now requiring even more hits to take down, and sometimes spawning out of thin air litter this castle level. Frustratingly, this level also features glitches like the “poison ladder” that can end a run just for climbing a ladder at the wrong time. And then the game actively tries to screw with you, offering you weapons that will be ineffective against upcoming enemies. But if you don’t finish the game with the cross equipped, you’ll be transported back to Stage 5. Even if you do have it, your “reward” is to go through this hell of a game a second time to see the real ending. Honestly, you’re much better off just looking it up on YouTube.

The Revolution – Battletoads 

1. The Revolution – Battletoads 

Battletoads is the best NES game that most players gave up on at the third level. Yes, the infamous Turbo Tunnel deserves its reputation for crushing the dreams of many a gamer lured into playing Battletoads by its cool character designs and the enjoyable first two beat ‘em up levels. And yet, as incredibly difficult as that level is, it’s still not even the hardest level in the game.

There are actually a few contenders for that title, but in the end, The Revolution, Battletoads’ final level, is the ultimate challenge on the NES. At least this level looks cool thanks to a pseudo 3D effect rarely seen on the console. That’s about the only good thing I can say about it, though.

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As you climb the tower, you’ll be met by disappearing platforms, extremely aggressive enemies (including clouds shooting spit bubbles that can instantly kill you), and finally, a giant invincible cloud that just keeps trying to blow you off the tower. Oh, and then you still have the final boss to contend with, though that’s somehow the easiest part of the entire ordeal, she’s still no pushover. Truly, anyone who can beat Battletoads without using any cheats deserves all the accolades they get.