While you could cite the amazing success of the arcade Donkey Kong or the pocket-sized phenomenon of the Game & Watch series as two points in time when it became evident that Nintendo was something special, the arrival of the Famicom in 1983 is perhaps a more pivotal moment in the history of games.
This was the console that would transform Nintendo into one of the most recognisable brands in the world, and, via its Western version – the Nintendo Entertainment System – would arguably lay down the foundations of the modern video game industry.
With 61.91 million units sold over its lifespan, the NES was practically synonymous with the term 'video game' back in the '80s and early '90s; it dominated the landscape in both its native Japan and North America, creating millions in revenue and reviving the console sector in the U.S. after the damage of the 1983 crash.
The console was also the birthplace of many of Nintendo's most enduring franchises. OK, so technically, Mario was born in the arcades, but Super Mario made his debut in a NES game – as did Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus and many, many more.
What are the best NES games of all time?
Our list of the best NES games covers a wide range of titles, not just from Nintendo, but from third parties such as Capcom, Konami, Square and Enix.
Below, we've picked a selection of must-play NES titles which every fan should experience – but they're not presented in any kind of order or ranking.
After the deviation that was Simon's Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse returns to the level-by-level approach seen in the 1986 original, but evolves the concept in every conceivable way. There are now four characters to control – Simon Belmont's ancestor Trever, female magic-user Sypha Belnades, pirate Grant Danasty and Alucard, the half-vampire, half-human son of Dracula himself. Trevor can switch to one of these companions during a level and benefit from their unique powers. This adds to the gameplay considerably, as does the fact that your path through the game branches in places, offering plenty of replay value. Add in some of the best visuals and music ever seen in a NES game, and it's easy to see why so many Castlevania fans consider Dracula's Curse to be the pinnacle of the series, at least in terms of the more 'traditional' entries before Symphony of the Night shook things up in 1997.
While it set the template of the series and pioneered the delicate mix of exploration and gradual empowerment, we have to be honest here: the original Metroid can be tough to return to, even if you played it back in the day. The audio and atmosphere it conjures remains incredible, but control refinements and quality-of-life features we're used to these days are largely absent from the Famicom Disk System/NES original and going back without the right mindset and context can be jarring.
Its biggest issue is that the fantastic Game Boy Advance remake Metroid: Zero Mission exists — truly the best way to experience Samus' first adventure. The original has its charms, though. You just need to dig deeper to find them these days.
As toweringly important as the original Super Mario Bros. was, Super Mario Bros. 3 was a colossal leap forward in practically every way. It refined the basics, switched up the visuals, and added more mechanical variety and one-and-done elements than any video game to that point; so many that even today there are certain suits, stages or secrets that fans of the game may never have found.
So many ‘old’ games are best approached with historical context in mind, or come with caveats when playing them years after release, but SMB3 needs none. It's just as boundingly inventive and fresh as the day it was released, and easily one of the very finest video games ever made. Play it, now.
What is there left to say about The Legend of Zelda? The game that started it all holds up well, although be prepared to explore and really work for the answers to puzzles here. A modern game would never ask you to try setting random bushes alight to reveal a hidden passageway without signalling it with a huge neon 'SECRET HERE!' sign. The Legend of Zelda trusted the player and had faith in its own strengths enough to let you miss things. It was a very unique prospect back in 1987, offering an unparalleled sense of adventure, clever combat mechanics, and a world ripe for exploration. Decades later, developers of titles big and small are still borrowing from it.
A landmark game that still feels fresh. Definitely worth revisiting.
Kid Icarus is a game filled with idiosyncrasies (like several first-party NES titles which didn't spawn a series with dozens of entries) and while it's got its share of flaws, this game still has a certain spark despite its missteps. It makes you wonder what could have been if Nintendo doubled down on Kid Icarus rather than, say, Zelda. Check it out.
Based on the hit line of miniature cars, Micro Machines on the NES illustrated keenly the amazing talent to be found within the walls of Codemasters, the UK studio founded by David and Richard Darling. Fantastic with two players, its ability to entertain hasn't diminished one bit in the subsequent years; while it was blessed with many sequels, the original is still utterly fantastic, and perfect post-pub entertainment.