The Nintendo Entertainment System has a decent size library. Between 700 and 800 games were released for the console, depending on what you want to include. There were several unlicensed games made for the NES and some region-specific games.
I wouldn’t say I like all of the games, and I’m sure no one likes every game on the system. I have around 500 games for the system that I’ve collected over the years. While I like many of the games I own, these fifteen are my favorite.
Bottom Line up Front: These are the Fifteen games that are my all-time favorite games on the NES.
Let’s talk about what qualifies for this list. It isn’t meant to be an all-time list, and I’m sure your list will differ from mine. These are the games that I’ve enjoyed going back to the most and are the games that I have fond memories of playing over the years.
The Legend of Zelda
Genre: Action Adventure
This is my favorite NES game! It is one of the best games that I have ever played. I have many memories of this game; it was the first video game I received as a birthday present.
I feel weird describing what happens in Legend of Zelda. Depending on your definition, it is a top-down adventure game that may or may not be an RPG. There are nine levels where you collect the pieces of the Tri-Force and fight Gannon.
I remember sharing information about the Legend of Zelda on the playgrounds in elementary school. That was the only place I could go to get a strategy guide or tips on beating video games. It felt like everyone had committed the game’s map to memory. I remember trying to burn every bush and blow up every rock. I also tried to burn every rock and blow up the bushes because you never knew what would happen back then,
The Legend of Zelda was a spectacular game to play. Looking back at it now, the game can be very cryptic, and it might be hard for people to get into, especially with how the series grew and changed over the years.
Developer: Data East
BurgerTime is a single-screen arcade game. You play as Peter Pepper and work in the world’s worst restaurant. You walk over parts of a burger while dodging eggs, pickles, and hot dogs. I have no idea why these sentient food products want you dead, but it isn’t that big of a deal.
A friend of mine owned this game, and I remember spending a lot of time trying to beat it. We thought you could beat the game because we didn’t know it was an arcade game.
Maybe I liked this game because it was one of the few that my friends and I had to play. However, after returning to it over the years, it is one of the best games on the system. It is also one of the games I most remember playing.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game is one of the best-licensed games on the system. Konami did a great job with it, even if it has the trademark frustrations of one of their games. This is one of the games that I remember the most for the system. My friends and I played it a lot when we were younger.
The game alternates between side-scrolling action and a top-down view. You have four lives, represented by the four turtles. Each has its own life bar, and you can refill it by picking up pizzas throughout the game. The game loosely follows the story of the second season of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.
This game can sometimes be hard, especially when you’re a kid trying to get through the damn electric seaweed! The dam is as far as we got when I was a kid. It wasn’t until high school that I remember getting passed it. This is a game that I have many memories of, and it is one of the best games on the system.
Blades of Steel
Blades of Steel is one of the best sports games on the NES. It was made when Konami still cared about video games, and it was one of the games I remember playing with my friends. This was another arcade port that I didn’t know was an arcade port when I played it.
Like Tecmo Bowl, Blades of Steel doesn’t have a league license. This means that the teams are fictional but are from real cities in Canada and the US. Some color schemes line up with the real teams, but others are completely random.
Realism is thrown out of the window in favor of solid gameplay. It is also a nice-looking game. My favorite thing in the game was the fighting. I wasn’t very good at anything else, but I was good at the fighting mini-game.
Rampage is a single-screen arcade game where you destroy buildings. This game takes about two hours to beat and isn’t worth it on single-player. The NES port is missing the third monster, which would have made the game more interesting. The Master System port is more faithful to the original arcade game.
The graphics also took a hit then the game was ported over. The game still looks good for an NES game, but the graphics on the Master System port are better. It can be hard to see the bullets being shot at you. However, the NES port gives you unlimited continues, so the damage doesn’t matter all that much.
I remember playing this game and thinking that the two main characters were Godzilla and King Kong. I had no idea there was supposed to be a third character because I hadn’t played the arcade game.
Genre: Run and Gun
This is a fantastic game! Contra is where many people learned about the Konami code, and it is a game that my brother and I rented pretty often. I’m a little surprised that we didn’t ask for it for Christmas, but we didn’t ask for many video games, now that I think about it.
Contra is a run-and-gun shooter with spectacular controls. Even though there are one-hit deaths, it doesn’t feel like the deaths are cheap. Another game I didn’t know was an arcade game when I was younger. I’ve heard that the console port is better than the arcade. I’m not sure if that is true or not.
Contra is one of those iconic games. Even with how challenging the game is, it is a beautiful game.
Dragon Quest IV
I could have picked several Dragon Quest games to be on this list. I went with the one that I enjoyed the most. Dragon Quest IV has a fun story, and I like the episodic way it is set up. It also is a visually impressive NES game.
This one is arguably the best compared to the other RPGs on the NES. The way the story is set up is unique for an NES game. Multiple stories converge as the game goes on.
I missed out on this game. This was a game that I hadn’t played until recently. I didn’t know about it when I was younger, and I wish I could have played it. I might have had a different opinion about it than I do now, but I think it is one of the best games on the NES.
Iron Tank is a top-down shooter that plays like Jackal and Commando. In this game, you play as a tank during a coastal invasion. It can be a frustrating game at the start because of the control scheme.
This is an arcade port. It is one of the many NES games I wasn’t aware had been in the arcades. When I started collecting games in the late 90s, this was one of the games I looked for. It was one of the rental games that I remember fondly.
When I went back and played this game, I was having issues with the controls. It took a little while to get the hang of them, but it was worth it! Iron tank is an excellent game once you get into it.
Genre: Action Platformer
I was debating on which Castlevania to add to this list. Castlevania and Dracula’s Curse were the two that I was looking at. What separated the two was that I have more memories of playing this first game. I didn’t think that Simon’s Quest deserved to be on the list despite it being a good game.
The first Castlevania is the more linear of the three games. It also feels like playing an old Universal monster movie. It also mixes some elements of Greek mythology. It is a great-looking game, and the music is fantastic! The only complaint I have about the game is the controls. They can be a bit stiff.
Castlevania felt like a game that I wasn’t supposed to be playing. It was like a horror film that I wasn’t old enough to watch. I’ve come back to play this game several times over the years. It is always fun, and like many of Konami’s games on the NES, it can be very frustrating.
Double Dragon II
Double Dragon II is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, and it is much better than the first game. It is a direct follow-up to the first one. At a time when most developers went in a different direction with sequels, Technos stuck with the beat-em-up formula.
Some things could be improved with this game. The control scheme that is used can be confusing. When I went back to play it for this, I noticed that it took some time to relearn what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t that hard, but it was a problem at first.
This game is more fun with two players. I enjoy this type of game alone, but it is more fun with someone else playing with you. Mostly I remember playing with my friends in high school.
The Double Dragon games were a ton of fun! The second game is the best of the first three games! There weren’t that many beat-em-ups on the NES, which helped these games stand out.
These hockey games are classics, and they’re a lot of fun! I was trying to decide on this game or Blades of Steel. I couldn’t decide which one to cut, so I kept them both.
Ice Hockey is a four-on-four simulation of hockey. It uses countries instead of NHL teams or North American cities. Before the game starts, choose your four players’ body types. You can choose from Skinny, Medium, and Big. You also have more control over the make-up of your team.
The Big players are harder to knock down, and the Skinny players are a little faster. I have no idea what the advantage or disadvantage there is for the Medium players. Everyone that I’ve talked to about this game has their own team; I go with three Big players and one Medium. I’m not saying it is the best team; it is simply the one I’ve always used.
I don’t believe we ever rented this game. I know that two people in my neighborhood owned the game. It was always fun to play, and the only problem I have with it is how you control the goalie. I hate how the goalie is controlled in NES games!
Destiny of an Emperor
This is one of the better RPGs on the NES! I was also a little surprised that it wasn’t made by Koei, especially since it is set during the Romance of the Three Kingdoms period of China. It is an alternate version of the Three Kingdoms story but uses the setting and historical figures from the novel.
The story follows Liu Bei and his generals trying to unify China. Over the course of the game, you defeat other historical figures from the period and eventually unify the country. It is an alternate narrative retelling but works very well as an RPG.
This is one of the games that I first played on an emulator. After playing it, I spent a lot of time trying to find a physical copy of the game. There is a ton of nostalgia linked to this game for me. This is one of the system’s hidden gems that doesn’t get talked about enough.
Tecmo Super Bowl
This game was a Christmas present for my brother and me back in the early 90s. I never played the arcade game, but I vaguely remember watching someone play it. I remember playing Tecmo Bowl a few times at my friend’s houses and renting the game.
What makes this game different is the NFL license. This was missing in the previous two games in the series, which kept team names out of the game. The arcade game had two fictional teams, and the NES port only had city names. However, the NES port had a player’s license.
Unlike the Madden franchise, Tecmo Bowl games went for an arcade approach to the game. You had fewer plays, and the defense was often terrible. Having limitations like this made the game much more fun than Madden. Tecmo Super Bowl still gets regular updates to this day.
I still remember playing with my brother and yelling at him for looking at my controller. It was one of those memories of playing retro games that still makes me smile.
The first Final Fantasy is one of those games that I can go back to time and time again. The game built on what Dragon Quest had done and helped to shape the JRPG sub-genre. It also laid out many of the themes that would be revisited in future Final Fantasy games for the next few years.
This game has the player assemble a group of four unnamed characters. You have six classes to choose from. There is no right answer to putting together your party; it depends on what you want from the game.
The main characters are the only issue I have with the game, especially when I compare it to the first Dragon Quest and Phantasy Star games. Your characters show up and go through the game because the story says they do. It would have been nice if your party had some lines of dialogue or some motivation behind their actions.
This is all retrospective criticism. When I first played the game, there was nothing like it! Most of the games I had played at that point were action games. I had never seen an RPG, or I don’t remember seeing one. Final Fantasy is a great game and one of the best games on the system.
Super Mario 3
Genre: Action Platformer
There is a lot I can say about Super Mario 3. It is one of the best games ever made and one of the best games in the Super Mario series. This game felt like a huge leap forward when compared to the first game.
There were so many secrets in this game. The biggest one that I remember was the warp whistles. I don’t remember playing through the game without them. We always got the two warp whistles and skipped to the last level.
Collecting all of the different items in the game was amazing! It felt like you were discovering something you weren’t supposed to find. I remember hearing about them on the playground and then trying to get them in the game.
To this day, Super Mario 3 is a beautiful game to play. I don’t come back to it as often as other games, but this is one that I have some fond memories of, like The Legend of Zelda. This is one that I would play with in our laundry room on an old CRT. Level eight was the only level we could see with the lights on.
Best of the Rest
Narrowing this down to fifteen games was difficult. I had to leave many games off the list, and some of the choices seem odd. Here are ten other games that I considered but ultimately left out:
- Dragon Quest
- Pro Wrestling
- Super Mario II
- Life Force
- Ninja Gaiden
- Mega Man 2
- Duck Tales
There are so many great games on the NES. I had difficulty narrowing this down to fifteen, and I could have had a longer honorable mention list.
It has been a ton of fun to play through these games again! I remember playing them with my friends and rediscovering them when I was in high school. Playing these games again brought back a lot of nostalgia for me. I tried to pick games from different genres, so the list wasn’t dominated by one type of game. That is part of the fun of putting a list like this together. Everyone has their own list of favorite games, and it can be fun to see what ends up on each list.