The NES is, and probably will always be, the quintessential gaming system. Sure, the Atari 2600 came first, and maybe the PlayStation was the first system to do the disc thing right, but the original Nintendo Entertainment System is just…timeless. Ask any gamer over the age of 18 (and some even younger) about the console and they’re likely to fire off with a misty-eyed recollection of great times had. Since the mid-’80s launch of the NES it’s introduced millions to gaming.
The console’s memorable design and cast of lovable characters are a full-scale cultural phenomenon, both from a nostalgic standpoint and evidenced by the hundreds of games that are spun-off from various NES titles. This console is also historically important, as a precursor to what the gaming industry could become. Thanks to the system’s quality construction, plus emulators and Nintendo’s genius backward compatibility idea for the Wii, people still play their beloved NES games today. I’m no exception, still using my NES to play favorites like The Magic of Scheherazade more than twenty years after its US release.
The top 10 list of games for the NES has been done a million ways. Most copies sold, readers’ choice from gaming magazines, even the top 10 most expensive games for Nintendo collectors. Though the names in my list are still familiar, they’ve been chosen not just for popularity’s sake but also for the long-term impact they’ve made on the gaming consciousness. Some have spawned enormous game franchises, while others can arguably be credited as the blueprints for a particular game genre or style.
#1: Super Mario Bros.
Everybody loves these overall-wearing plumbers. Brothers Mario and Luigi (but let’s face it, mostly Mario) have been saving the Mushroom Kingdom since 1985. If gaming has an icon, Mario is it. The original Super Mario Bros. has spawned dozens of games based on characters from the Mario universe – such as Yoshi, Bowser and Princess Peach. They’ve had their own movie, cult classic television show, and been featured on oodles of merchandise over the years.
Players are so passionate about the Mario games that they even claim Mario’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, is God. If you’ve never played a video game in your life, this is the one to try. Running, jumping, monster stomping, coin collecting and a quest to save the Princess – what more could you want?
The ultimate puzzle game. The premise is simple: rotate and drop colored blocks of various shapes into neat rows to make them disappear. What’s not so simple is recovering from mistakes and dealing with increased speed as the levels go on and your blocks get higher up the game board. Tetris remains as addictive as ever, with several sequels of its own for more recent gaming consoles and can even be played via cell phone. Tetris has inspired similar puzzlers over time, including fellow NES title Dr. Mario. One of Tetris’ most memorable features was its music, which has been reused in numerous dance tracks such as this one.
Bigger gaming nerds than I may be tempted to point out that Tetris was found on Nintendo’s popular handheld Game Boy and in arcades before being developed for the NES. That is accurate Tetris trivia, but I believe more people will remember playing this title on the NES than other gaming platforms of the time.
#3 The Legend of Zelda
Another quest to save the girl decades before Peter Petrelli came along, Zelda straddles a few game genres to create something truly special. This game was also created by Shigeru Miyamoto, and remains a staple of the Nintendo world. Subsequent games in this franchise have appeared on every Nintendo platform since the NES, to the delight of legions of fans. It’s something of an inside joke that each time Nintendo announces the release of a new gaming platform, information about a new Zelda game is soon to follow.
A young boy named Link is the hero of the series, wielding the Master Sword in his quest across the land of Hyrule to save Princess Zelda and defeat the evil Gannon. He must find and use a variety of items on this quest, solve puzzles and beat some serious monster butt. This is the grandaddy of all video game RPGs.
#4 Romance Of The Three Kingdoms
This game is a true gem, leading the way in the strategy genre. Unfortunately it’s also one of those games that many people have never heard of. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (or ROT3K) is set in China around the year 200 AD, during a tumultuous time in the nation’s history known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The country is divided into 58 states, under a number of governing “Masters”. You play as one of these Masters, managing all the details of your empire and conquesting to expand your territories. Intrigue, war, and peasant feeding are all in a day’s work.
Most of the gameplay isn’t as active as many other games – par for the course in true strategy games. Despite ROT3K being relatively unknown by mainstream gamers it has still become an enduring franchise, with titles for several systems from the NES up until today’s Wii. ROT3K is also the inspiration for the popular Dynasty Warriors series of games, with many of the playable characters bearing the same names as Masters and generals from its NES ancestor. Fans of this game might also want to seek out the even more obscure Bandit Kings of Ancient China, also on the NES.
Simply the best sports game for the NES – and there were lots of them. From common sports like football and golf to totally rad ’80s crazes like skateboarding and BMX racing, sports gamers had plenty to choose from. But Punch-Out!! got right what so many sports titles get wrong – they made it enjoyable for everyone. You didn’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy getting in the ring, due to the game’s easy-to-use controls and the absolutely hilarious-looking opponents.
You play as Little Mac, a scrawny little guy trying to make a name for himself in the world of professional boxing. Fighting your way up the boxing circuit you encounter some strange opponents, like Don Flamenco and Bald Bull. In the incarnation of this game most people are familiar with, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Little Mac goes up against Iron Mike for the heavyweight championship belt. It’s a fun ride the whole way there, learning the tricks to exploit each opponent’s weakness to victory. More sports games should be this accessible.
#6 Double Dragon
The classic “beat ’em up” game, as straightforward as it gets. You’re on the quest to save the girl yet again – you’d think Nintendo was trying to raise a generation of gentlemen with the way this chivalrous theme keeps popping up. You have to punch and kick your way through the mean streets, with the help of your brother if you’re using the 2-player option or all by your lonesome. In an interesting twist, if you and your 2-player buddy made it to the end of the game and rescued Marian together, you’d have to fight each other for her affections. What’s up with that?
Game developers of the day clearly liked this game, since its gameplay was duplicated almost exactly by The Simpsons and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle games for the console. Of the bunch, I liked the TMNT games the most, but to each their own. While it wasn’t until the next round of gaming consoles that Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat (arguably the best fighting games of all time) entered the ring, Double Dragon was a taste of things to come.
#7 Super Mario Bros. 3
Oh, those Mario Brothers! We’ve already talked about the start of this franchise up in the #1 spot. While the original Super Mario Bros. is still the most recognizable video game of all time, #3 made some significant strides too. #2 is still an important element of the franchise, and showed some strides in terms of gameplay and graphics improvements from the original – but it just wasn’t as influential as numbers 1 and 3.
Super Mario Bros. 3 took what was great about the first Mario game and tweaked it into something even better. Puzzles, a choice of movement between levels that would later be echoed in Super Mario World for the SNES, and an improved color palette are all standouts from the title. Another big element of Super Mario World has its origins in Super Mario Bros. 3 – Yoshi. He’s grown to be a franchise of his own, but the original ideas for the lovable dinosaur were as concept sketches for this title.
This game even made it to Hollywood. It didn’t get a movie of its own, but it was featured in the 1989 Fred Savage film The Wizard. The film follows a pair of brothers and a friend they meet along the way to the Nintendo World Video Game Championships – where Super Mario Bros. 3 was the final game to be played. This was pure product placement, as the appearance in the film introduced the game in the United States. The movie also spawned the idea for the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, a tournament similar to the one depicted in The Wizard. I love the power glove, it’s so bad.
#8 Metal Gear
Yet another enduring franchise that had its humble beginnings on the NES, Metal Gear is an action/adventure game with a military elite ops theme. Memorable hero and cosplay favorite Solid Snake is a special ops agent, tasked with a solo mission to save the world from nuclear destruction. The character was loosely based on another Snake – Kurt Russell’s character in the post-apocalyptic film Escape From New York (and later, Escape From L.A.), Snake Plissken. Over the years, Solid Snake has become a mishmash of other popular action film heroes.
Metal Gear was key to the development of some other great military and action games such as the Splinter Cell franchise. It’s also an unlikely ancestor to the Assassin’s Creed series due to its credit as being the first game to feature the use of stealth as a means to complete objectives.
#9 Final Fantasy
The first game in what would become an award-winning franchise, Final Fantasy laid the foundation for many other RPGs as well. Not surprisingly, this game contains details that are synonymous with the series: rich storyline, menu- and turn-based battle elements, and memorable music. In Final Fantasy, four legendary Light Warriors are charged with the task of defeating Chaos to save the world. The catch? When they manage to do it, it alters time so that no one will remember the Light Warriors’ efforts.
The Final Fantasy series has been wildly successful, cementing developers Square Enix as major players in the gaming industry. Final Fantasy VII is considered by many to be the greatest video game of all time, spawning a CGI film in its own right. There is also a popular MMORPG based in the Final Fantasy mythos, entitled Final Fantasy XI or Final Fantasy XI Online (more commonly abbreviated to FFXI). A second MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV is currently in production. Final Fantasy XIII was released only weeks before this writing, more than 22 years after the original’s 1987 debut for the NES.
#10 Dance Aerobics
Love Guitar Hero, Wii Fit or Dance Dance Revolution? Meet Dance Aerobics. This game was released in 1987 and has the distinction of being the very first rhythm-based video game. This game worked with a rhythm pad, which players would stand on to perform various objectives. The game contained elements reminiscent of Twister and Simon, being instructed to press buttons with the hands or feet in a particular order or repeat a sequence. Dance Aerobics also worked as an exercise game, with players following an instructor to work out in time with the game music.
I’d never heard of this particular game until recently, but was amazed to learn that there had been a NES game employing elements of some of the most popular titles of the last few years.
More than 25 years after Mario used his first mushroom, the NES is still a lifeline in the gaming industry. This console’s titles continue to provide inspiration to game developers and entertainment to gamers everywhere. If they’re not on the list, think about your own NES favorites – maybe their influence can be seen in more recent video games too. Hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective!