More than three decades after its release, the NES is still considered by many to be the greatest console of all time, even without modern bells and whistles like online play or 4K resolution. And with good reason: it’s home to tons of timeless classics like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid.
But the greatness of the NES goes far beyond those classics. Nearly 700 licensed games were released for the console in North America, and even today some of those greats are often overlooked
These are the 25 most underrated NES games that are still worth checking out:
25. Wario’s Woods
1994 | Nintendo
Wario’s Woods is an anomaly for plenty of reasons. It was the first Nintendo console game to star Mario’s nemesis and it’s also completely unlike any of the other games in what loosely constitutes the Wario series. The match-3 gameplay bears more than a passing familiarity to Dr. Mario, but instead of controlling pills dropped from the top of the screen, players control a Toad at the bottom that moves monsters and bombs. It was also the last NES game officially released in North America, so with almost a decade of experience programming games for the console at this point, it’s easily one of the best looking titles on the system.
Despite some odd design choices and complex controls, those that dive into Wario’s Woods often find a tough but satisfying puzzler. And while Nintendo has made the game available through the Virtual Console, the Big N left Wario’s Woods off of the NES Classic and seems to have zero interest in revisiting this type of gameplay.
24. Déjà Vu
1990 | ICOM Simulations, Inc.
The NES isn’t the first platform that comes to mind when thinking about point-and-click games, but it actually did have a few solid adventure titles. Even with the system’s limitations, Déjà Vu nailed the 1940s film noir vibe well. It’s enthralling figuring out the mystery of PI/retired boxer Ace Harding, as he explores the deep underbelly of Chicago.
As great as the game’s atmosphere is, its puzzles can be quite confusing. This was long before the days of Telltale when scenes could be completed by just checking everything in a room. Expect to use a walkthrough if you dive into Déjà Vu now.
23. Captain America and the Avengers
1991 | Data East
There were a lot of very bad Marvel games released for the NES. Anything with a Spider-Man or a member of the X-Men on it is best avoided. There’s one exception, though. Captain America and the Avengers may not be the best side-scroller on the console, but it’s better than any other Marvel title from the era. The developers even kind of nailed down the feel of Cap’s shield, which you can throw or use to deflect bullets and defend yourself from hazards. You can also play as Hawkeye, but he’s not nearly as much fun.
Sadly, while this is based off a beloved arcade game, some cuts had to be made. You can’t play as the Vision or Iron Man like in the arcade game, even though the title still references “The Avengers.” That means four-player co-op is out of the question, too. Still, this was a solid port for the times.
22. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
1990 | Sunsoft
The ‘90s were an era where pretty much every movie and TV show received a video game adaptation. Usually, these games were nonsensical and not very good, but every now and then, a great team of developers put something together that was surprisingly good. Gremlins 2 is one of those hidden gems from the era.
You play as Gizmo from a top-down perspective as he travels through a vast building to eliminate the gremlins using a variety of weapons, including a crossbow. This is a game that looks, sounds, and plays far better than it has any right to.
21. Krusty’s Fun House
1992 | Fox Williams
Acclaim released a whopping four Simpsons games during the lifespan of the NES. This is the only one not to star Bart and it’s also the best of the bunch. By a lot. Rather than focusing on traditional side-scrolling gameplay like the other games, you play as Krusty the Klown. His titular funhouse has become infested with mice and only he can get rid of them.
Gameplay is a lot like Lemmings, with Krusty moving around blocks and other objects to guide the mice to their extermination. And while other characters from the franchise are sparse, they do show up as bosses at the end of each level.
20. Ring King
1987 | Data East
Punch-Out!! may be the undisputed champion of NES boxing games, but Ring King is a solid contender. Rather than focus the camera behind your boxer, the fighters square off in third-person, like a wrestling game. Even though all of the boxers are palette swaps, there’s a lot of depth here and the graphics are surprisingly good for an early NES game.
While the gameplay is fun, Ring King has also become somewhat infamous online in recent years for another reason. Between rounds, your trainer comes to the ring, gets on his knees, and well… it can only be described as “servicing” the boxer.
1990 | Sunsoft
There was a time, long ago, when Batman movies got video game adaptations – even great video game adaptations. Based on the 1989 Tim Burton movie, Batman actually does a decent job of following the film’s basic plot and spicing in gameplay liberally borrowed from Ninja Gaiden, like the wall jump and Batarangs. It also boasts a killer soundtrack and some primitive, but entertaining cutscenes.
Just be warned that this is one difficult game to complete. You might not even make it through the first level, let alone live to see the final showdown with the Joker, but it sure is fun to try.
18. Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight
1990 | Capcom
Despite the title, Street Fighter 2010 is only sort of related to the legendary fighting game franchise. Capcom had a solid side-scrolling shooter on its hands but didn’t think anyone would pay attention to it in the U.S. So the main character was renamed from Kevin Striker in the Japanese version to Ken, a martial arts master, implying he was the same character from Street Fighter.
The game actually came out a few months before Street Fighter II hit arcades, so the series wasn’t nearly the phenomenon that it would be later in the ‘90s, making the localization decision even more bizarre. Still, there’s fun to be had here, with tight controls and a strong soundtrack if you just ignore all the unnecessary Street Fighter silliness.
1989 | Capcom
Based on an idea by George Lucas, Willow was one of those movies that was a big deal when it was released, but that has fallen into obscurity over the years. It seems rather unavoidable then that the game based on the movie would suffer the same fate. But Willow is actually good!
The game obviously takes a lot of inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, but with Capcom (which would later go on to make some Zelda games) at the helm, that’s not such a bad thing. Some might even prefer the required grinding.
16. Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics 2
1994 | Nintendo
The first StarTropics was a top-down adventure game that showed a lot of promise but had some control issues. For the sequel, Nintendo fixed that issue with a much smoother system that allowed movement in eight different directions, then added in some of the best graphics on the console and an awesome story that saw main character Mike Jones travel through time.
Like Wario’s Woods, this is one of those games that was pretty good but still seemingly sent out to die long after most gamers had moved on to the SNES. And for whatever reasons, Nintendo has completely ignored the series ever since.
15. The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout
1990 | Kemco
It’s Bugs Bunny’s 50th birthday, so of course, he has to fight a bunch of his friends to get to his party. I guess? Is that something anyone has ever had to do for a birthday party? It doesn’t really matter as that’s mostly just an excuse to give Bugs a hammer to take down enemies in a variety of side-scrolling levels, each culminating in a boss fight with a fellow Looney Toon.
It’s an odd game, but still one of the better ones to feature the Looney Tunes. And unlike a lot of NES games, the sprites actually look like the characters they’re meant to portray.
14. Adventure Island
1988 | Hudson Soft
Far too many NES side-scrollers ripped off Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man, usually with awful results. Adventure Island was one of the few platformers on the console that oozed originality. It took real skill to learn how control to Master Higgins and his stone ax, fireballs, and of course, skateboard. This side-scroller is the rare 8-bit game that’s tough because it’s meant to be, not because of poor design choices or the limitations of the hardware.
Adventure Island actually started off as a port of Sega’s Wonder Boy arcade game, but the decision was made to create an original character during development. Meanwhile, the Wonder Boy sequels would add more RPG features and go in an entirely different direction. Unfortunately, while Wonder Boy has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years, the Adventure Island series hasn’t appeared since an obscure 2009 WiiWare game.
13. Magic of Scheherazade
1989 | Culture Brain
Scheherazade was a game ahead of its time in many ways. While at first glance it’s a Zelda clone, the ability to travel between five different time periods actually preceded A Link to the Past by two years. The innovative combat system also mixed real-time and turn-based combat, a feature PC RPGs wouldn’t adopt until years later. It’s also one of the few NES games with a Middle Eastern theme, which helps it stand out from the pack.
At one point, a sequel was planned for the SNES, which could have really been something special given the groundwork laid by the NES game, but it was canceled with no further information announced.
12. River City Ransom
1989 | Technos Japan
Initially ignored in North America, River City Ransom’s reputation has improved over the years. While the NES had no shortage of beat ‘em ups, River City Ransom was the first to let you explore an open world. Your character could further customize his stats with food items or by reading magazines, something that was unheard of in the genre at the time.
Unlike many of the third-party games from the era, the River City Ransom franchise is still alive and kicking with the most recent game in the series, River City: Rival Showdown, hitting the 3DS last year. For better or worse, aside from sharper looking graphics, the games haven’t changed much over the last three decades.
11. Tiny Toon Adventures
1991 | Konami
Tiny Toon Adventures was an early ‘90s cartoon featuring younger characters based on the classic Looney Toons. For example, there was Buster Bunny, a blue rabbit similar in personality to Bugs, and Plucky Duck, a green duck not unlike Daffy. It was a pretty good show that was ultimately overshadowed by the even better Animaniacs, which debuted around the same time.
The Animaniacs never starred in a game this good, though. The graphics are bright and colorful, among some of the best NES could produce, and you can switch between four different characters, including Buster, Plucky, Furrball the cat, and Dizzy Devil, a Tasmanian devil. It’s a short game with some surprisingly difficult sections, but still worth a play today.
1991 | Compile
On the surface, Gun-Nac appears to be a by the numbers vertical shooter. There’s a galactic federation doing typical galactic stuff (as federations do) when suddenly… the toys take over? That’s when the giant rabbits and space octopi attack. Then there’s the cat boss that throws coins at you. Gun-Nac’s atmosphere is completely bonkers.
Thankfully, that’s not the only reason to check this title out. The shooting is solid, and you can upgrade your ship in-between levels. You’ll likely find yourself humming its catchy soundtrack long after you’ve finished the game.
9. Clash at Demonhead
1990 | Vic Tokai
Clash at Demonhead was a Metroidvania game before that term existed. Featuring a character who could collect numerous different abilities, like teleportation, shrinking, and a boomerang gun, the game featured more than 40 different routes to the end, with stages that you could go back and visit at any time.
Like the original Mega Man, Clash at Demonhead featured painful budget sci-fi cover art that had little relation to the actual gameplay. Unlike Mega Man though, Clash at Demonhead didn’t go on to inspire dozens of sequels, which is kind of a shame.
8. Ikari Warriors
1987 | Micronics
Contra is fondly remembered for its tough as nails co-op shoot ‘em up gameplay, but it hardly had a monopoly on the genre on the NES. Released around the same time as Contra, Ikari Warriors also featured two shirtless commandos shooting infinite waves of enemies, but from an overhead angle. While that means you can see more of the screen, it didn’t make the game any easier.
Another difference from Contra was the addition of vehicles, tanks, and helicopters. Ikari Warriors does admittedly look primitive given that it came out early in the lifespan of the NES, but it’s still an absolute blast with a co-op partner.
7. Little Samson
1992 | Takeru
Little Samson was Taito’s attempt at crafting a quality platformer that rivaled the sales and popularity of Mega Man. In terms of gameplay, Taito arguably succeeded. Little Samson is an absolute joy to play, with four characters you can switch between at any time. The graphics stand out among the best on the console.
Unfortunately, while the quality was there, the sales weren’t. Gamers had mostly moved on to the SNES by 1992 and weren’t going back to its 8-bit predecessor no matter how good the games were. If you can find a legitimate copy of Little Samson now, expect to pay somewhere around $1,000 for just the cartridge.
6. DuckTales 2
1993 | Capcom
While the first DuckTales game is fondly remembered, for a long time many NES gamers didn’t even know this sequel existed. It came out late in the console’s lifecycle and its print run was incredibly small. In terms of gameplay, it’s a lot like the first DuckTales game, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Like its predecessor, it’s a little on the short and easy side, though.
The title finally got its due with an appearance in Capcom’s The Disney Afternoon Collection in 2017, but it seems unlikely that it will ever see a complete remake like the first game.
1990 | Nintendo
Take The Legend of Zelda, move it to a modern setting with a bunch of aliens, and tweak the gameplay to focus on a yo-yo. In a lot of ways, the original StarTropics feels even more like a proper Zelda sequel than The Adventures of Link, the weird, side-scrolling sequel we got on the NES. It’s certainly aged much better than that game.
Oddly enough, while StarTropics was made by a group of Japanese developers living in the U.S., Nintendo has never released the game in Japan. Maybe that’s why the Big N has shown so little interest in resurrecting the series over the years.
4. Adventures of Lolo
1989 | Nintendo
HAL Laboratory took the typical story of a hero saving the princess and turned it into something truly special with Lolo’s sliding puzzle block gameplay. It takes some real strategy to get through all 50 of Lolo’s stages, knowing just where to move blocks and when to shoot enemies.
Two more sequels followed on the NES, and all three of the games are worth playing, though they don’t differ much in terms of gameplay. While Nintendo hasn’t revisited the franchise in years (which is a real shame), Lolo and Princess Lala do regularly show up in Kirby’s adventures.
3. Little Nemo: The Dream Master
1990 | Capcom
One of the cool things about the NES era was how developers were willing to find inspiration from all sorts of odd places. Though Little Nemo was based on an animated Japanese film, that film was based on an early 1900s comic strip about a young boy’s adventures in dreams. The result is a fantastical platformer wherein Nemo collects keys to open the next level while occasionally feeding candy to a frog, gorilla, or mole for rides.
The game was developed by Capcom during a period when the company just didn’t make bad games. Unfortunately, the title was a one-off, and since the Little Nemo movie didn’t exactly set the world on fire, it forever remains trapped in time as an example of the more unique games that came out of the era.
2. The Guardian Legend
1989 | Compile
Picture a game that’s part Zelda and part 1942, with an awesome chiptune soundtrack. Sounds amazing, right? It was. It still is. But the initial reception for The Guardian Legend was somewhere between ambivalence and straight up hostility. Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for something so different at the time.
As the titular Guardian, your mission is to destroy the alien planet Naju. Half the time, you’re on foot in top-down Zelda-style areas. The other part of the game, set inside Naju, is a straight shoot ‘em up.
A lot of the game’s early criticism was directed at the complicated password system, but since that’s not really an issue with modern emulation, the game has found a much more favorable reception in the twenty-first century.
1990 | SNK
It’s been 100 years since a nuclear war destroyed civilization. An evil new empire reigns. As an amnesiac warrior just out of cryogenic sleep, it’s now your duty to save the world. The story of Crystalis was surprisingly dark, which was a rarity for the era.
While the top-down action RPG gameplay wasn’t unique for the period, it just felt better than pretty much anything else around, and the story made sure the quest to obtain four elemental swords never got boring.
Unlike the other games on this list, the positive reception Crystalis received years after release did motivate Nintendo to release a remake for the Game Boy Color in 2000, but with poorer graphics and sound, the NES is still the best place to check out this underrated gem.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.