The NES defines our generation. Period. There are those that call us the Star Wars Generation, others Generation X, Y, the Echo Boomers or what have you, but nothing’s affected our culture and upbringing like the NES did. Nothing even comes close. As a trigger for nostalgia, I can think of nothing else that has the power of the Nintendo Entertainment System. And once you’ve conquered a generation’s nostalgia, you’ve conquered that generation. (Hell, at least that’s the pipe Hollywood’s smoking, with all the Hasbro movies coming out these days…)
Choosing my favorite NES games is no light task. It’s like asking someone from the seventies to pick their favorite rock albums- the best were all seminal. This is the medium that we helped foster as children, so picking out the best in show is more or less describing the most sublime works that these burgeoning artists unearthed for us 80s Babies to enjoy.
As with my Top Ten Mario Games list, I won’t pretend to have an objective view- almost all of my formative years with my NES are soaked in the sweet non-alchoholic wine cooler of nostalgia, and I won’t pretend that I can extricate that from the games themselves. We had some really good times, me and that little white box.
Oh, and so as not to disappoint, I’ll say this right up front- yes, you didn’t misread the list- Super Mario Bros 3 is not in the #1 spot, and not even on my top ten list. Look, there are plenty of filmies’ top ten lists that don’t mention Citizen Kane, and plenty of lit scholars who don’t include Billy Shakespeare (who wrote a whole bunch of sonnets) in theirs. I’m sorry- personally, I liked SMB2 and SM World better. Objectively, SMB3 is probably the best of the lot. Understood.
And now onto the list:
Still one of the best soundtracks of any video game, and one of the most iconic first levels that exists, Castlevania is a short, sweet bullet of NES perfection. I remember how some of the bosses in later levels were so hard to get to, they were legends on the playground. The idea of the ever-lengthier whip and the B + UP special weapons was sheer genius. The levels were varied, the atmosphere was as good as it got with 8 Bits, and I have to admit, there were moments where I screamed. (I was eight.) True NESers can probably rattle off every level’s boss without thinking twice. I think I nearly had an aneurysm when I finally killed Frankenstein…
The first time I played this game, the token weird kid in my third grade class invited me over for a slumber party. He promised me Castlevania, and who was I to say no? We headed to his house after school, which looked like someone had emptied a garbage truck into it. The whole house smelled like pee, his dad was unnerving, and his six year old sister bragged that she recently lost her virginity (whatever that was). There was no way in hell I could sleep, so instead we took turns playing Castlevania and trying to solve the Gollum riddles in The Hobbit. Despite the trauma, this game is definitely top ten. And somehow, that night was also top ten.
9. PUNCH OUT
Speaking of rattling off bosses, I have to imagine that nearly any geek can shoot right through the Punch Out lineup in their heads. From Glass Joe to Bitey McEary Tyson himself, the personality (read: hilarious stereotyping) they gave each fighter was unprecedented and brilliant. Why they’ve never made a Punch Out movie, and instead made two shitty Street Fighter movies, is beyond me. I would kill to watch a live action King Hippo duke it out with Don Flamenco. Who wouldn’t? Just to watch Little Mac running in his pink jogging suit with the coach on his bike… priceless.
So besides being iconic, Punch Out’s simplicity and fun factor shoot it to the top. The difficulty level was perfect. It wasn’t impossible (well, until you got to Mr.Sandman or Super Macho Man) but beating Bald Bull 2 for the first time had all of my neighborhood friends dancing around the room. Hell, even a good match against Piston Honda 2 was cause for crazy celebration. It won’t be the same without Tyson, but I’ll admit I’m curious to see what the Wii is cooking up…
8. GHOSTS AND GOBLINS
Let’s say it right up front. Toughest. Game. Ever. This game was so ridiculous difficult, it’s a testament to its awesomeness that my brother and I never stopped trying to beat it. Something about the graphics and the level design are just out and out gorgeous, and the way that they show you how insignificant your progress is with the world-map intro is frustratingly fantastic. Even passing through half a level alive was an epic win, and the first time we reached the town (which I believe is only level three!) it was more satisfying than beating just about any other NES game. I have to imagine that this was the game that later caused devs to question whether it paid to make a game maddeningly, impossibly difficult to beat. This generation (and the last) of consoles has no Ghosts and Goblins. I can’t think of a single game as challenging as this. I also can’t think of a game with so much male nudity.
Here’s the game that swallowed our lives entire for months or years. Somewhere there’s a chunk of your brain dedicated to the memories of 1987, and all you’ve got is Dodongos, Moblins and that 8 bit magnum opus of a score. My friend described his year with Zelda as going to bed with a controller in his hands, and waking up already playing. It was the best year of his life.
What else can be said about Zelda? It was wrapped in effing GOLD- they knew it was the game to end all games. If this list was objectively meritocratic, I completely agree that this should probably be at the #1 or #2 spot. I have nothing but love for Link, and that flute riff and Secret Door riff run through my head daily.
6. BIONIC COMMANDO
Bionic Commando seems like one of the first games to deconstruct its NES bretheren and try to deliver something entirely new. The pitch is killer- a platformer where you can’t jump, and use a Bionic hook-arm instead. And in this case, the game completely delivers on the premise. Tough as hell? Sure. But we weren’t sissyboy gamers back in the day, and played the same level hundreds of times in the hopes that the 398th time we’d beat it. Once you really got the hang of the arm physics, this game was pure adrenaline.
Also, do you remember the first time you beat it? The ending was an epic WTF!! Hitler curses you out, then his head literally explodes- easily the goriest moment on any NES Game! Damn, so many NES endings left us cold, but Bionic Commando’s wrapped us in its warm, controversial goodness, and let us rest easy knowing that Hitler was finally dead.
5. MEGA MAN 2
Where do you begin with this tour de force? My buddy Random proved to the world that this is by far the best and catchiest score to any video game, ever. Past that, you’ve got pitch-perfect level design that only Mario on his best days could beat. Add an anthropomorphic toaster, classic level after classic level (Quickman being my favorite- video above for your nostalgic pleasure) and a cadre of weapons that has no equal in any 3D game I can think of (shut up Ratchet & Clank)- and you have yourself one of the most ridiculously enjoyable gaming experiences the good people at videogameland have ever produced.
Sure, it’s a bit short. And Mega Man 1 (and 3) were also mind blowing. But Mega Man 2 steals the prize for this fanboy… What level wasn’t classic? Heat Man’s treadmills, Air Man’s bizarro floating heads, Wood Man’s psycho robotic kangaroos, Bubble Man’s giant robot fish… All top quality cyborgy genius. Oh, and don’t forget about the giant robo dragon around the end. Jaw dropping 8Bit graphics at their best. Lordy do I love me some Mega Man 2!
If one NES game defined our generation, young ‘uns would probably peg Super Mario Bros or Zelda. Real NES heads know that no game has left the cultural imprint that Contra has. Tons of gamers wear the Up, Up, Down, Down, etc shirts, the song has been covered by a thousand geek bands (including that techno version that showed up in DDR!) and I have to imagine that most people reading this can name the level order instantly. Endless props to those who can beat the game without the code.
No question, this is the game I’ve played through the most, and the best two player game of all time. In the eighties, replaying Contra was a perfectly acceptable social activity among dudes, on par with fishing or watching the game. “Hey man, you want to play through Contra real quick?” “Do I?!” And somehow, despite the fact that the game didn’t ever really change, this game was just as fun the 1,721th time as it was the first. I never got tired of jumping through the ice level, beating the dancing robot, and riding on those little mine carts. I’m also wondering why Oscar favorites Uwe Boll and Dolph Lundgren haven’t touched this IP for a sweet sweet movie.
3. SUPER MARIO BROS 2
Apart from having a fascinating creation history, Mario 2 shattered our expectations of what a Mario game could do, or be. All of a sudden we could play four characters, we were in a world far more colorful and complex than Mario 1’s brick-and-pipe landscapes, and we were fighting crazy mutant rats with sunglasses and riding on whales. The gameplay and level design of this game is breathtaking, and I still find myself humming the theme song on the subway all these years later. Oh, and the hype for this game was deafening- the very first issue of Nintendo Power (which everyone under the age of 15 subscribed to in those days) was devoted to showing us glimpses of this soon-to-be-legendary game.
Known as “God Slayer” in Japan, this game was criminally overlooked and sadly underplayed. Everyone should have been playing Crystalis back in the day, as it has one of the most compelling gaming experiences out there. Definitely Zelda-ish in feel, something about this game’s epic story won all of us (who played it) over, enough that Wikipedia says, “though it never became a runaway hit, it is now considered a cult classic”.
In case you’re one of the majority who’ve never played it, I’d rather not give anything away and instead urge you to download it and play it. It’s repetitive at first, but the way the story unfolds is really breathtaking for an 8 Bit wonder. We had a couple of friends whose dad spent almost every Sunday trying to beat his best time for beating Crystalis. (This is sheer insanity, because this game isn’t Mario Bros’ length- it’s a lengthy-ass RPG quester!) So, yes, Crystalis is the pinnacle of NES gaming goodness.
1. KID ICARUS
The first NES game I played is still the best NES game in existence. Kid Icarus is perfect. It was the first present I “bought” for my little brother (I think I was seven or eight), and I played it secretly for months before I wrapped it for his birthday. The first three levels are tattooed into my brain- I judge all videogames against level 1-1 to 1-3. Level 1-3 every Icarus lover must have played infinity times- it’s so ridiculously challenging, I feel like by the end you’re drenched in sweat praying to Papa Daedalus that you can make it past those weird crab monsters and finally put down your bleeding controller. The maze levels were fantastically difficult to beat, and had your friend scribbling a map next to you as the Eggplant Wizards gave you giant purple tumors time and again. The magical three weapons kicked ass, and nothing beat racing through some of the end levels shooting sniper arrows engulfed in flame, with orbs shielding you from all the mythical baddies trying to jump on you. It doesn’t get better than Kid Icarus. It just doesn’t.
BLASTER MASTER: a sci-fi car platformer that let you jump out and blast weird blobs? Genius. I love being able to get completely lost inside this game.
BUBBLE BOBBLE: a game you can play for weeks straight and never get tired of it. These two cutesy dinos infected my dreams for years.
ICE CLIMBER: thanks Miyamoto for bringing these dudes to Smash and Virtual Console, so others could experience this oft-forgotten classic. This one should’ve made my top ten- one of the best two-player games ever.
IKARI WARRIORS: this game made us all feel like we were at war- there was only screaming and cursing every time we turned it on. I loved being tossed into the battlefield.
LIFEFORCE: so Contra-esque it was almost equally as brilliant. Dust this one off and replay it- one of the best videogame experiences out there.
MARBLE MADNESS: there were only five levels, making it ridiculously short, but playing this game with two players is unbeatable.
METROID: I bow down to the brilliance of this game. Agreed- it should’ve been on my top ten. I didn’t play it through as a kid though- no patience back then.
RC PRO AM: The precursor to Mario Kart, sort of- tons of fun.
RUSH N ATTACK: Another criminally-overlooked game that all should download- the level three boss was impossible without the trick (which was stupid- don’t fight the dogs).
SECTION Z: Has anyone else played this? There are something like 4,998,093 levels that are nowhere near sequential. No rhyme or reason to it, but addicting as hell.
GAUNTLET: The only reason this isn’t on my top ten is that I love the arcade version a billion times more.