15 Hardest NES Games of All-Time

Recently released retro action game Cyber Shadow faithfully emulates NES classics but doesn't hold a candle to the console's hardest games.

NES Games
Photo: Capcom/Nintendo/Rare/Konami

With the recently released Cyber Shadow, publisher Yacht Club Games (the studio behind the brilliant Shovel Knight) prove that they’re the masters of revitalizing those brutally difficult NES games that defined an era and haunt gamers to this day.

The absurd difficulty of the average NES game can be attributed to a variety of factors, but the fact remains that there’s a reason the term “NES Hard” exists in the gaming lexicon. The hardest NES games weren’t just difficult: they were nightmarish excursions into another world where demands for perfect inputs met fundamentally unforgiving (and sometimes simply terrible) game design.

Those are the games we’re going to look at today. Some are good, some are bad, but for one reason or another, these are the absolute hardest NES games ever made.

Mike Tyson's Punch Out NES

15. Punch-Out!!

The problem with Punch-Out!! is that every new set of fighters essentially bumps up the game’s difficulty setting by a couple of levels. That makes it nearly impossible for anyone to really learn the game at a reasonable pace.

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To make matters worse, this game basically treats your accomplishments with a level of spite typically only seen in house cats. By the time you reach the Mike Tyson fight, it assumes that you must be a literally perfect player.

However, there’s no way to practice for Tyson’s punching pattern the first time around, and reaching him again makes you navigate such extreme levels of difficulty that “lesser” fighters can actually make you worse. It’s an absolutely devious piece of game design that leads you to believe the game is fairer than it really is.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES

14. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Konami eventually got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles right (which is a statement that really ages this era of gaming), but their debut effort is the reason many people don’t trust licensed games to this day.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a fundamentally poorly designed game. However, it uses excellent graphics, good music, and the strength of its developer’s name to cover its nearly impossible jumps, terrible resource system, and crippling framerate issues.

By the time most of us reached the infamous swimming level that required you to be accurate and fast in a game designed to offer neither of those concepts, we realized we’d been had. The rest of us never made it past the Technodrome.

Gauntlet NES

13. Gauntlet

NES gamers eventually realized that most NES ports of arcade games were going to be a shell of their former selves that typically only retained the crushing difficulty, but Gauntlet abuses the privilege of forgiveness typically afforded to these titles.

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As one of the first NES games developed in the United States, Gauntlet does its best to justify the old “Made in America” manufacturing jokes with its shoddy combat system and terrible visuals. Yet, Gauntlet truly earns its place on this list by virtue of its maze-like levels, unintuitive puzzles, and the fact your health is constantly dropping. That means you’re solving those levels and puzzles while battling a soft time limit.

There’s just no reason to play this punishing game, which is really a shame considering the other versions of this arcade classic are actually quite good.

Ninja Gaiden 3 NES

12. Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom

The debate over which Ninja Gaiden game is the toughest will undoubtedly continue, but Ninja Gaiden 3 earns its spot on this list by virtue of how punishing it is in comparison to its predecessors.

Ninja Gaiden 3’s limited continue system, overwhelming number of constantly respawning enemies, and floaty jump controls essentially take away everything that you could have used in previous Ninja Gaiden games to gradually make your way through them.

Sadly, the fact that Ninja Gaiden 3 offers so few illusions that you can eventually beat it makes it the least enjoyable entry in the original series for everyone but expert players.

Ikari Warriors NES

11. Ikari Warriors

Yes, Contra was hard, but it was also a well-designed game that is rightfully remembered as an action classic. We were lucky to have Contra in our NES libraries. Some kids had to settle for Ikari Warriors.

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Like Contra, Ikari Warriors fills the screen with deadly projectiles ready to end your limited life pool in an instant. Unlike Contra, Ikari Warriors’ awful controls, worse graphics, and hidden threats mean that you’re never really sure why you’re dying.

Incredibly, Ikari Warrior’s version of Contra’s cheat code doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to beat the game even if you somehow possess the patience and motivation to do so.

Final Fantasy NES

10. Final Fantasy

The thing you have to remember about Final Fantasy is that it helped kick off a genre (and a legendary franchise) that wouldn’t be refined for years to come.

As such, the original Final Fantasy embodies the worst elements of JRPG design as well as the most challenging. Do you hate grinding in JRPGs? Final Fantasy demands it to make simple progress. Do you hate random battles? Both the appearance and difficulty of Final Fantasy’s enemies are truly random. Because there’s no way to mechanically master Final Fantasy, some of these random fights are either nearly impossible or (at times) legitimately impossible.

Even if you suffer through the basic gameplay, Final Fantasy’s confusing world navigation and ambiguous puzzles will leave you wondering whether it’s better to find an online guide or just leave the memory alone.

The Adventures of Bayou Billy NES

9. The Adventures of Bayou Billy

The diversity of the NES library is exemplified in the difference between Final Fantasy and The Adventures of Bayou Billy. Whereas Final Fantasy makes you suffer through repetition, The Adventures of Bayou Billy pulls off the impressive feat of making you suffer through variety.

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Bayou Billy’s side-scrolling levels are already among the genre’s most challenging, but this game’s driving levels hold the unique distinction of being some of the most difficult driving levels on a console infamous for them. On top of that, you’ve got incredibly challenging light gun levels that are nearly impossible to overcome even if you do have a working NES zapper.

Having said that, I have to give Konami credit for making a game called The Adventures of Bayou Billy so difficult that we’re still talking about it over 30 years later alongside games like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden.

Paperboy NES

8. Paperboy

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Paperboy is the most famous NES game that few players beat and fewer players actually enjoy.

Despite being one of those NES games that you can beat in 15 minutes if you’re good enough, Paperboy’s unforgiving controls and avalanche of oncoming obstacles offered quite a bit of value the hard way to a generation of gamers who were forced to play such titles over and over again.

Honestly, why is a game about being a Paperboy so hard? Were American parents of the ‘50s constantly encouraging their kids to get paper routes so that they’d be able to quietly get rid of them and enjoy a life of reasonable real estate prices, afternoon cocktails, and social oppression?

Ghosts and Goblins NES

7. Ghosts and Goblins

Ghosts and Goblins has been synonymous with difficulty for so long that it’s easy to forget why the game is so challenging in the first place.

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However, even a few minutes with this infamous action/adventure title will quickly reveal that Ghosts and Goblins‘ biggest hurdle is the game’s enemies. From the infamous red devils that kill most players in a few minutes to wandering foes placed in the absolute worst positions, Ghosts and Goblins’ basic enemies could easily be minibosses in lesser games.

To make matters worse, there’s really only one viable weapon in Ghosts and Goblins and the game only allows you to take two hits before dying. It’s not the “cheapest” game on this list, but it is one of the most mechanically frustrating.

The Immortal NES

6. The Immortal

We’ve talked about The Immortal before, but it would be irresponsible to talk about the hardest NES games without giving this devil its due.

The Immortal is a practical joke disguised as a game. Its carnival of traps and hidden dangers means that the only ways through this nightmare involve cheating and dying over and over again until you find out the literal pixels that you can and cannot interact with.

Shout out to The Immortal for accurately recreating the feeling of being thrown into the deepest pit of the most dangerous dungeon, but it turns out that there’s little pleasure to be found in a game where the biggest reward is no longer having to play it.

Battletoads NES

5. Battletoads

Yes, we all know that Battletoads legendary speed bike level is the shining single example of NES difficulty and one of those pieces of shared misery that make this era in difficult gaming so special. However, I really want to talk about Battletoads’ co-op mode.

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At a time when siblings were often forced to share time with the NES, Battletoads co-op mode felt like one of the best ways to play a game together. That’s why it’s that much crueler that the co-op mode is designed to make you hate whoever you’re playing with.

From melee friendly fire that’s nearly impossible to avoid to a shared life total that ends your run when one player dies, managing to beat Battletoads with another human rightfully ranks among retro gaming’s most impressive achievements.

Castlevania 3 NES

4. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

The biggest case I can make for Castlevania 3’s pot on this list is that the game is so difficult that many people retroactively consider the original Castlevania to be fair by comparison.

Castlevania 3 is rightfully (if painfully) remembered for its stairs. Several levels in the game require you to climb stairs while dodging enemies and projectiles. The problem is that the stairs limit your movement to such a degree that avoiding everything requires you to move at a glacial pace, except for the times when you actually need to move quickly to have a chance to survive. It’s cheap in a way that other games in the series often avoid.

In general, Castlevania 3 is a collection of platforming death traps capped off by a stunningly difficult three-stage boss fight that requires you to start the level over if you die at any point during it. What a beautiful nightmare of a game.

Mega Man NES

3. Mega Man

The game that is sometimes credited for ushering in a new era of NES difficulty impressively manages to remain one of the hardest NES games ever despite years of worthy challengers.

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The original Mega Man is difficult for the same reasons every other retro Mega Man game is difficult (tricky platforming, tough bosses, and durable enemies), but this historic gem elevates itself above the rest of the franchise by virtue of the things it lacks.

No energy tanks, no passwords, and unrefined controls make the original Mega Man harder than many of its successors, despite the fact that the pure content in a game like Mega Man 3 is arguably designed to be more challenging.

Fester's Quest NES

2. Fester’s Quest

To this day, my mind wants to rebel against the idea that a game based on the ‘60s Addams Family series could rank cleanly amongst the hardest NES titles of all-time, but the years have proven it is worthy of that position for all the wrong reasons.

Most of the challenge of Fester’s Quest comes from the game’s controls. Fester moves like he’s as excited to play this game as you are, yet you’re expected to navigate the often tight areas loaded with constantly respawning enemies that don’t offer a moment to breathe. You are able to defend yourself, but unless you have a turbo controller, be prepared to constantly mash the attack button just to have a chance to inch your way forward.

Even if you resolved all of those problems, you’d still have the game’s unintuitive puzzles and bizarre first-person segments that were ahead of their time in the worst way possible. Fester’s Quest is both legitimately challenging and challenging because of historically awful game design.

Silver Surfer NES

1. Silver Surfer

By their design, these flight style side-scrolling action games are intended to be hard. That’s why NES games like Gradius and Life Force offer some of the console’s most memorable challenges.

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However, Silver Surfer takes that concept to a whole new level. This game would be hard enough if it only featured the bullet hell death maze patterns that it already requires you to navigate, but the experience is made historically memorable by virtue of truly bad visual design that can make it nearly impossible to reasonably guess what is a projectile and what’s part of the environment.

If nothing else, Silver Surfer remains “Exhibit A” in the case of why only truly talented developers should attempt to make genuinely challenging games.

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