Best NES Games Of All Time
Image: Zion Grassl / Time Extension

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.

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (NES)

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.

Metroid (NES)

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.

Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)

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.

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

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 (NES)

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.

Micro Machines (NES)

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.

The Guardian Legend (NES)

Do you like top-down adventure games? How about shoot em' ups? Good, because you'll get both sides of the coin with The Guardian Legend. While it doesn't master either genre, it's a solid mash-up that takes the right elements from The Legend of Zelda and Metroid to provide a fun time over the course of two hours or so. That cover art is a tad disconcerting, mind.

Kirby's Adventure (NES)

Kirby's Adventure is a vibrant masterclass of NES platforming whether you've got the 3D slider set to max in the 3D Classics version on 3DS or you're enjoying it old-school-style with just the two dimensions on NES or as part of the Nintendo Switch Online NES library offering. It's a high point in the pink puffball's illustrious career and its 8-bit visuals still look great all these years later. Even if you don't consider yourself a Kirby fan, this adventure will win you over. You might say... it sucks you in.

Mega Man 2 (NES)

Mega Man 2 is the textbook example of a sequel done right; perfectly, in fact. It retains the best features of the first game, tightens up the physics, retools the enemy AI, and adds a slew of new features and challenges. Its front-to-back brilliant soundtrack doesn't hurt, either. What else is there to say? It's an absolute all-time classic — one of the finest 8-bit games ever made — and if you only play one Mega Man game (er, why would you do that?)... you should probably toss a coin to decide between this or its sequel.

Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

The final NES/Famicom entry in Chunsoft's seminal RPG series, 1992's Dragon Warrior IV (or Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen as it's more commonly known these days) would be the last title in the series to arrive in the West for some time. It featured five chapters, each of which concentrates on one of the aforementioned 'chosen' characters. It was also the first of the mainline DQ series to get its own spin-off titles: Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon featured this game's merchant, Taloon, and was the very first game in Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon series, no less.

The Nintendo DS is the best way to enjoy the game these days, if you can find it for a reasonable price.

DuckTales (NES)

If you need to scratch your NES nostalgia itch or you also loved DuckTales as a kid, this game is for you. The gameplay is unique and extremely fun, the presentation is excellent, and the characters you know and love are intact; non-linear exploration and an alternate ending will have you coming back for more. Uncle Scrooge is just as cranky and loveable now as he was decades ago. One of the best licensed games ever made.

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (NES)

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos is a fine-looking NES game with some fancy cutscenes and decent music. Wall-jumping and the difficulty curve have been improved from the original game and there's a fun challenge to be found in this sequel (which carried the Shadow Warriors branding in Europe). Being sent flying straight into a pit and respawning enemies is annoying at the best of times, but the game is mostly fair and its plus points combine to overcome its faults and make Ryu's second NES adventure a mighty satisfying one.

Blaster Master (NES)

Blaster Master is yet another example to prove that Sunsoft was at the very top of its game on NES. With tight controls and eight varied levels, Blaster Master still manages to satisfy in the 21st century (so much so that Inti Creates have brought the series back with two excellent sequels in recent years).