Best Shoot’em Ups on the NES

Shooters, Shoot’em ups, or Shmups were one of the staples of the arcade era. Many of these games were ported to the NES and other home consoles. They were some of the more memorable games I remember on the NES.

When I began collecting NES games in the 90s, I came across many games I didn’t know about. Some of these were played, tested, and placed on a shelf. While I was working on a different list, I started thinking about the different Shooters that I played when I was a kid.

In the last few years, I started revisiting these games that I had overlooked or not spent much time with. While doing this, I’ve compiled a short list of what I think are the best Shooters on the NES.

Selection criteria

Let’s talk about what qualifies for this list. I’m not just going to be putting any random game on this list. I will also include some games from the Famicom because they were easier and cheaper to acquire than their NES counterpart.

Here is a list of how I selected these games:

  • Had to be in my collection.
  • On the NES of Famicom.
  • Did I have fun with the game, or do I have fond memories of the game.

Review Score Note: Many of these games have low review scores. I disagree with them and choose to leave off the ridiculous.  


Developer: Compile

Genre: Vertical Scrolling Shooter

Review Score: 26/40 (Famitsu)

This is a game that I didn’t know about until the early 2010s. I had started collecting games again and saw Gun-Nac in a video of hidden gems on the NES. It was a hidden gem for me; I’m unsure how many others knew about it.

Gun-Nac is arguably the best shooter on the NES. It isn’t a port of an arcade game, so it got to be its own thing and changed to fit on a TV screen. There are several power-ups and different bombs you can collect, and it is easy to gain extra lives.

My only problem with this game was losing all your power-ups when you died. Typically, this is to be expected from games in this genre. However, it feels unfair with Gun-Nac as your base weapons are underpowered as the game progresses.  


Developer: Konami

Genre: Side Scrolling Shooter

Review Score: 7/10 (NintendoLife)

This is a port of the Gradius arcade game. Because it is a port of an arcade game, it has everything I like and dislike about the genre. It relies on memorization, quick reflexes, and a pocket of quarters.

You can use the Konami code to gain all the power-ups in the game. This is the game that the code comes from, even though it is more famous as the Contra 30 life code. That was how I knew it before I learned it could be used on many Konami games.

With Gradius, you need to enter the code while the game is paused. I’m guessing this was explained in Nintendo Power, or someone stumbled across it and then spread the word on the playground. Those were the fun days before the internet was a common thing.

For a long time, I had no idea this game started in the arcades. This happened a lot as I learned more about video games. Changes were made to port the game to the NES, and it might be worth seeing those differences.


Developer: Konami

Genre: Side Scrolling Shooter

Review Score: 3 ½ out of 5 stars (AllGame)

Originally called Salamander, Konami renamed the game Life Force for some reason. Either way, it is a wonderful game. This is a spin-off of the Gradius series, and I like it more than Gradius.

If you like Gradius, then you’ll probably like Lifeforce. It improves on that game in every way, and I think it is a bit easier. I never felt I needed to enter the Konami code on this game, and it felt like I was given what I needed to win.

Like Gradius and Contra, Lifeforce can use the Konami code. Instead of giving you all weapon power-ups like Gradius, Lifeforce gives you 30 lives. This was explained in Nintendo Power, but I wonder if anyone stumbled across it after using it on Contra.

I prefer this game to Gradius. It is a better entry point to the genre and a wonderful game. If I was going to rank these, I would put Lifeforce ahead of Gradius.


Developer: Home Data

Genre: Side Scrolling Shooter

Review Score: N/A

Like Gun-Nac, I hadn’t heard of the game until the 2010s, and just like Gun-Nac, I picked this one up on the Famicom because they were both cheaper. Both games are wonderful! This is close to being a Cute’em up.

In Sqoon, you play as a submarine and fight aliens. Along the way, you must save prisoners and fend off the killer whales that want to eat them. You also have to deal with having enough fuel for your submarine. A lot is going on in this game, and things can get very chaotic while playing it.

This was one of the games that I bought because of the internet. I saw a video and wanted to play it, but the market priced me out. This is part of the reason that I started collecting Famicom games.


Developer: Konami

Genre: Top-down and Side-scrolling Shooter

Review Score: N/A

Stinger has quickly become one of my favorite shooters! I had a ton of fun with this game, and it is a good example of what Konami used to make.

Stinger is part of the Twin Bee series of Cute’em ups, which is a subgenre of Shooters. These games look adorable, cartoonish, and colorful. The enemies don’t always look threatening, and the player’s character often looks like a stuffed animal.

 The only annoying thing about Stinger is the power-up system. Occasionally, you’ll shoot a cloud, and a bell will pop out. These act as bonus points and power-ups. The number of times you hit the bell can change the power-up you get. If the bell isn’t collected before falling to the ground, it is lost forever.

This is one of those games that feels like you’re on drugs. Things are bizarre, but that is half of the game’s charm. It is a delightful game.

Donkey Kong 3

Developer: Nintendo

Genre: Single-screen Shooter

Review Score: 6/10 IGN

Donkey Kong 3 has gotten a bad rap in retrospective reviews. It has the same issues as other single-screen arcade games. It can be repetitive, and there is no real ending.

You play as Stanley and must defend your plants from Donkey Kong and his army of bugs. To fight against them, you use a spray can. For some reason, this hurts Donkey Kong and doesn’t send him into a rage.

Donkey Kong is at the top of the screen, and if you push him up the screen enough, he might drop a super spray can. This is the only power-up in the game, and it lets you shoot to the top of the screen. Stanley isn’t locked on the bottom of the screen; he can jump on a few platforms and reach Donkey Kong with the spray can.

I like Donkey Kong 3 is much better than it has any right to be. It differs from the previous two arcade games but isn’t a big deal. It is a great arcade game, and this port is a lot of fun.  

Advance Dungeons & Dragons: Dragon Strike

Developer: Westwood

Genre: Vertical Free-Roaming Shooter

Review Score: 2.8 out of 5 stars (Moby Games)

This game might seem like an odd choice. The NES port is very different from the PC game that it is based on. The NES game is a free-roaming shooter that has you changing your elevation to hit specific enemies, and the PC game is a first-person shooter closer to a flight simulator. They’re basically different games.

DragonStrike was one of the games that I stumbled across while collecting NES games in the early 2000s. Like many other AD&D video games I played on the PC, I thought it would be an RPG. It was surprising to see a shooter, and it took me a while to get used to the controls.

Once you get the controls down, you’ll find this a challenging and fun shooter. The developers made this game work, and while not as visually impressive as the PC game, it is a ton of fun!


Developer: Capcom

Genre: Run-and-Gun Shooter

Review Score: N/A

Another port of an arcade game. The NES port takes a hit from a visual standpoint, and the controls aren’t as good as the game’s arcade version. There is also some slowdown and sprite flickering on the NES port. Those issues were common for games in that era, and they don’t have much of an impact on the gameplay.

You play as a commando, and you have to fight your way through waves of enemies. There are many games like this, and most of them are great. You have a machine gun and grenades to fend off the never-ending waves of enemies. This is a hard game that will challenge you quite a bit!

Commando is a great run-and-gun game feel like this is a classic game that I missed out on when I was little. Playing it again for this list has been a ton of fun!


Developer: Namco

Genre: Single Screen Shooter

Review Score: 8/10 (GameSpy)

Galaga is another arcade classic that was ported to the NES. This version of the game is a very good port that maintains many of the things that were great about the arcade version. It is a simple game that is as challenging as it is fun.

You play as a spaceship, and your movement is locked to the bottom of the screen. The enemies fly in the screen before forming at the top of the screen. Once the enemies have come onto the screen, they start shooting and dive-bombing your spaceship. They can also abduct your ship; you’ll unlock the dual ship if you can shoot the alien. This increases your firepower but doubles your hitbox.

I remember Galaga as an arcade game. It is tied to one of my few memories of hunting with my Dad. The NES game is a faithful port of the arcade game and is just as fun as the arcade game.


Developer: Capcom

Genre: Vertical-scrolling Shooter

Review Score: N/A

This is one of my favorite NES games. I have many memories of playing this with my friend Joe. He owned the game, and we spent many hours trying to get a little further in the game.

There isn’t much to 1942. You fly a plane and shoot other planes that appear at the top and bottom of the screen. Having planes come from behind you is the only thing I have an issue with. It forces you into the center of the screen.

You don’t have a screen-clearing bomb in 1942. What you get is a loop-dee-loop move that is designed to get you out of trouble. It can also get you killed. Would the game be better with a supper weapon? Probably not, but it would be cool to see what type of explosion Capcom would include.


There are plenty of other shooters on the NES. It was a staple of the arcades in the 80s, and it made a lot of sense to bring that success to the home console. Just look at Space Invaders and how it helped the Atari 2600 once it was ported to that console.

These ten games are the shooters that I like the best. When brought to the home console, they have some issues with retaining the quarter muncher gameplay style. The genre is easy to get into and is the best example of arcade games’ easy-to-learn but hard-to-master design.

This is a genre of games that my brother and I rented a lot. We didn’t have Nintendo Power then, and we had to guess if we would like a game. I think my brother just looked for something with a tank, plane, or submarine on it. That is probably how we rented Silent Service.

I know there are many great shooters on the NES. I’ve probably missed a few or left off some that other people have some nostalgia for. If you’re so inclined, leave a comment with your favorite NES shooter.

Published by Paul Werkema

Hi! I'm here to share my hobbies with all of you. I love video games and books, so I write about the books that cover video games or are novels about video games.

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