On November 11th, the NES Classic Edition is North America and Europe, and it’s packed with some of the best, most historically significant games that have ever been created. From first-party classics like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, to superb third-party selections like Mega Man 2 and Castlevania, it’s an excellent collection, not only including the best games, but striving to represent every genre that made the third console generation so significant. Of course, rankings like this are bound to be divisive, especially when the collection is chock-full of excellent games from Nintendo’s golden era. But hey, if you’re looking for something to be pissed off about right away, I ranked Tecmo Bowl higher than Final Fantasy.
30. Donkey Kong Jr.
Well, something has to take up the bottom spot, and in this case, that distinction belongs to Donkey Kong Jr. Despite its beloved characters, Donkey Kong Jr. is an old, short, buggy, stiffly-controlling game that’s made in the mold of the original Donkey Kong, but features vine-climbing and fruit-grabbing. This is one of the few titles that feels like filler, and is an unexciting inclusion that doesn’t even offer much historical significance. Criticism aside, it can be fun in bursts, but in a collection that already has a nice smattering of arcade games, this checks in at the bottom.
29. Ice Climber
Ice Climber is a game that’s all about overcoming wonky physics, weird jumping, and unconventional controls in order to climb to the top of an increasingly difficult series of mountains. Though the game gets more fun as you learn the odd nuances of the jumping, it’s a far cry from the Nintendo classics that defined the NES era. Its simple design is plagued by bad music, frustrating respawns, and the fact that Nintendo was still growing as a company when this game came out. It’s not great. In fact, it’s not even good.
There probably aren’t a lot of people who are going to buy the NES Classic Edition based on the inclusion of Galaga. Another classic arcade port, Galaga is your basic Space Invaders clone, with no music, blippity sound effects, and single-screen design. Players must fight off hordes of alien creatures who will attempt to shoot, capture, or crash into your ship. It’s okay for what it is, but it’s not really representative of what made the NES itself so great.
27. Balloon Fight
Balloon Fight is an early-era NES game that allows players to float around the sky while strapped to a pair of balloons. Players can flap their arms to adjust altitude, while fighting off enemies and navigating levels. The gameplay is based around learning to control the balloon physics, and it’s a lot of fun, but only for a short while. The simplicity keeps the game from shining for all that long, and with a collection like this, there are a lot of deeper, more robust games to play.
26. Mario Bros
Not to be confused with Super Mario Bros, Mario Bros is a cooperative two-player game taking place across a single screen. One player controls Mario and the other controls Luigi, and each player works to defeat simplistic enemies… or if you prefer, each other. It’s a fun, addictive little game, and a version of it can actually be found in Super Mario Bros 3, making this release a bit redundant.
25. Dr. Mario
Dr. Mario is a simple puzzle game in the same vein as Tetris, though perhaps not quite so memorable. To win, players must control the pills that Mario tosses into a bottle by rotating them and matching their colors up to the red, yellow, and blue viruses that are infecting the playing area. It’s easy to learn, but requires speed and precision to master. It’s a bit one note compared to the other classic games available, but great fun to a certain type of gamer. I remember it mostly as the game my parents were playing when I wanted to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or play Metroid.
24. Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong is an arcade classic that helped to invent and shape the platforming genre. It introduced Mario and Donkey Kong to the world, and features precise, timing-based gameplay that came to define a lot of Nintendo’s best games. But like other arcade games, Donkey Kong’s ambition is limited. There aren’t a lot of stages, and the gameplay shows less depth and complexity than even early NES games like Super Mario Bros.
One can’t dismiss the cultural significance of a game like Pac-Man, but at the same time, its simplistic approach to gameplay is indicative of a bygone era, when arcade games were built around high scores and tough, repetitive challenges, rather than the pursuit of an ending. There are still plenty of Pac-Man lovers who will treasure this game most of all, but it’s not exactly representative of Nintendo. Rating Pac-Man among all these other games is a bit of a lost cause because it’s such a different experience. It would be like comparing it to a pinball table or Monopoly. We may owe Pac-Man a debt of gratitude for putting video games on the map, but that doesn’t mean we have to play it.
22. Kid Icarus
Kid Icarus has always had the unfortunate burden of being compared to all the other first-party Nintendo games, particularly Metroid, which released a few months earlier and to higher acclaim. Kid Icarus is a fine action platformer, but its linear design and difficult gameplay garnered it a smaller following than some of Nintendo’s other classics. It offers a good alternative to players seeking a challenge, but from a design perspective, it feels a bit primitive.
21. Double Dragon II: The Revenge
It makes sense that Nintendo would want to have a classic beat em’ up present on their new console, but Double Dragon II: The Revenge is a fairly average representation of the genre. It’s more graphically polished than its predecessor, and offers a lot of cool levels with unique hazards, but it’s also plagued by cheap death traps. Besides, it’s not Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game. Heck, it’s not even River City Ransom, which the Japanese were fortunate enough to get.
20. Ghosts n’ Goblins
If there’s any game that was included on the NES Classic Edition specifically for masochists, it must be Ghosts n’ Goblins. An action side-scroller developed by Capcom, Ghosts n’ Goblins features tough enemies, nasty platforming, and two-hit deaths. Players control a knight named Sir Arthur who throws lances to defeat foes, but can also collect knives, fire, and other weapons. The game is famous for its red devil enemies who make the killer sun in Super Mario Bros 3 seem like a delicate little flower that you just want to hug. Worst of all, the game trolls players by making them play through the game a second time in a row in order to get the real ending.
19. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest adds free exploration and RPG elements to the side-scrolling action introduced in the first Castlevania. On one hand, this makes for a more robust, epic style of adventure, but on the other hand, some of the additions come across poorly as obtuse and difficult to comprehend. Simon’s Quest is a cryptic sort of game and will require a guide if you wish to see it through to the end.
The NES Classic Edition wouldn’t be complete without a side-scrolling space shooter, and Gradius is an excellent choice to represent the genre. The gameplay itself is nothing unique, offering the exact quick-shooting mayhem that you’d expect, but the graphics and music are great, as is the upgrade system, which allows you to choose how you want to upgrade your weapons on the fly.
When it comes to racing games on the NES, none are as well-known as Excitebike, which was a launch title in the United States. In order to win on any of the game’s five courses, players need to manage their bike’s speed and temperature, while also being mindful of its orientation in order to make jumps. The game is fun to pick up and play, holding up surprisingly well due to its unique, easy-to-learn mechanics. Most novel of all, players could construct and race on their own tracks.
16. Final Fantasy
The original Final Fantasy might be pretty basic compared to the sequels that it spawned, but it’s still a fun game, allowing players to construct their own parties of mages, fighters, and thieves. Players explore towns and dungeons while engaging in classic turn-based combat with a wide variety of enemies. It’s a bit difficult to play through nowadays, simply because the genre has evolved so much and has given us such a wide array of better games, including the outstanding PS1 remake of this very title. Final Fantasy is an important piece of gaming history, but a middle-of-the-road entry for the NES Classic Edition.
15. Super C
While it’s a bit odd that Konami didn’t include the better known Contra, Super C is an equally fun game with manic action and fantastic graphics. It’s tough and fast and has great shooting controls that feel right from the very first play. It’s a great representative of its genre, and a worthy inclusion that stands as a unique entry for the NES Classic Edition.
14. Tecmo Bowl
It’s interesting that we’re getting a sports game like Tecmo Bowl on the NES Classic Edition, but it’s also a welcome surprise. Tecmo Bowl provides an arcade style take on American football, allowing players to compete as twelve different teams, all based around their 1989 NFL counterpart. The playbooks are limited, and the teams are vastly imbalanced, but that’s by design in order to represent the actual rosters of the included teams. The game is a lot of fun, and still inspires tournament play to this very day. The lack of an NFL players’ license makes this version strictly worse than the original release, but the gameplay is the same. Bo Jackson by any other name is still Bo Jackson. Still, it’s a shame that we didn’t get Tecmo Super Bowl instead. Not only is that a superior title, but it’s one of the best NES games of all time.
13. Super Mario Bros
Super Mario Bros is undoubtedly the most iconic game coming to the NES Classic Edition, but that doesn’t exactly make it the best. After all, the technical difference between this game and Super Mario Bros 3 is as vast as the Grand Canyon. Nevertheless, it represents a leap forward in game design. The platforming still feels perfect after all these years, and it’s still a joy to bounce through levels, leaping off goomba heads and zipping down flagpoles. The game is still a huge staple of the speed-running community, and one could write an entire essay discussing its historical significance.
12. Ninja Gaiden
It’s fast, it’s precise, it’s brutal. It’s Ninja Gaiden! Distinguished as one of the first games to feature cutscenes, Ninja Gaiden is an action platformer, requiring a quick finger and a lot of patience. While the action is tight and satisfying, the enemy placement can border on ridiculous. Birds swoop in from off-screen and knock you into pits, while knife chucking enemies will guard platform edges, never giving you a fair chance to leap towards them. Though it controls very well, Ninja Gaiden can be a cheap sort of game that certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
11. Bubble Bobble
Bubble Bobble is one of the more unique games coming to the NES Classic Edition, and is a welcome addition indeed! The game allows for two-player cooperative play, and presents a series of single-screen stages that are filled with a colorful variety of different monsters. Players defeat monsters by blowing them into bubbles and then popping them. Players can also hop up their own bubbles to reach higher ground, and collect a variety of different power-ups to help them fight enemies.
10. Super Mario Bros 2
Super Mario Bros 2 may not feature the regular cast of enemies and worlds, but that only adds to its charm. Originally released as Doki Doki Panic in Japan, Super Mario Bros 2 allows players to choose between Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Peach, each of whom controls differently. Players can pick up items and enemies and toss them as weapons, giving the game a fun, freestyle feel that’s unique in the Mario universe.
Though Castlevania is renowned for its atmosphere, music, and imagery, it’s a somewhat stiff game that simply doesn’t feel as good as many other action-platformers of the era. The jump controls are unforgiving, not allowing you to adjust your trajectory in the air, while enemies will knock you around in a most annoying fashion, often resulting in you falling down pits. Still, when you learn the nuances of your enemies, the game is tough but fair, and Simon’s whip is one of the more iconic weapons of the 8-bit era.
8. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link has kind of an odd reputation among gamers. On one hand, it’s a fantastic title, boasting side-scrolling action, a vast overworld, dungeon and town exploration, and role-playing mechanics that are uncommon for the era. But the game is so different from the original Legend of Zelda, that some players had trouble appreciating the departure in difficulty and aesthetic. And to be sure, Zelda II is a very difficult game, requiring precise, patient combat and the navigation of large maze-like dungeons that include a particularly fiendish depiction of Death Mountain.
7. Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream
Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream is one of those games that people think about when they remember how difficult the original NES could be. Pitting Little Mac against a series of tougher and tougher boxers, the game is all about pattern recognition and finger dexterity. Though some of its luster is lost without the Mike Tyson license, this version of Punch-Out!! is otherwise the same top-level boxing game, full of incredible matches against a crazy cast of fighters.
StarTropics might be a lesser known Nintendo game, but it’s also one of the best, and we’re fortunate to have it coming to the NES Classic Edition. The game stars the generically named Mike Jones as travels between tropical islands and explores dungeons that are similar to those in The Legend of Zelda. And though StarTropics isn’t as well-known or as focused as that classic title, it captures much of the same magic, while introducing a jumping mechanic and a robust story. This game will be a real treat to those who haven’t had the chance to play it.
Metroid has always been a series known for alien worlds and extreme isolation, but perhaps the original game in the series captures those feelings best of all. Though Super Metroid improved the formula in many ways, the original Metroid introduced gamers to a non-linear labyrinthine world that would help spawn the Metroidvania subgenre. The player could explore at their own leisure, collecting weapon and armor upgrades, while venturing into the depths of a planet so hostile and strange that it was almost scary. Metroid is the loneliest game in the series, because the aliens are at their weirdest, and the storytelling is at its most minimal. Even Ridley looks far odder than his current design, possessing a series of translucent eyes that run down his snout. Metroid’s place in gaming history can never be lost or replaced, no matter how great the next sequel may be.
4. Kirby’s Adventure
Kirby’s Adventure was one of the last games to come to the NES, having released well after the Super Nintendo was already on the market. Fortunately, all those years of experience developing for the system resulted in one of the better, more polished games to come out. Boasting a wonderful cartoon art style and Kirby’s signature ability to eat enemies and absorb their powers, Kirby’s Adventure is an underplayed classic. It has great boss fights, cool powers, and memorable mini-games.
3. Mega Man 2
Considered by many to be the best Mega Man game ever made, Mega Man 2 is a brilliant inclusion, and a top reason to pick up the NES Classic Edition this November. This classic action-sidescroller features tight controls, challenging gameplay, awesome music, and a great cast of enemy robot masters, who you can defeat in any order to gain their unique weapon.
2. The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda was probably the first game I fell in love with as a kid, because it introduced a vast world filled with fantastical creatures and locations. The Legend of Zelda is an open-world game that can be tackled in a non-linear fashion. It begs you to find its secrets and to learn how to thrive among its cryptic puzzles and menacing bosses. The Legend of Zelda is a magical game, big on gameplay and enhanced by one of the best theme songs that any video game has ever had.
1. Super Mario Bros 3
Super Mario Bros 3 is the type of transcendent game that makes you forget just how limited the NES’s hardware really is. It’s a timeless, iconic classic with beautiful artwork and countless innovations that still define Mario to this day. From the overworld map, to the ability to fly, to the introduction of the Koopalings, Super Mario Bros 3 is the culmination of everything that makes the series so special. It controls as fluidly as any game ever has, and its diverse and colorful level design set a standard for platforming games that has never been surpassed. It’s as fun now as it was when it came out; a timeless masterpiece that will always be remembered as one of the greatest games ever made.