River City Ransom (NES)

River City Ransom (NES)
River City Ransom (NES)
Publisher: Aksys Games / Developer: Technōs Japan
Release Date: Jan 1990 (USA) / 1992 (UK/EU)

River City Ransom mixes basic brawling with comedy to great effect, and its cute visuals still exude tons of character all these years later. Throw in a second player — plus a delicious frosty beverage or two — and you've got a great Saturday night ahead of you.

Final Fantasy (NES)

Final Fantasy (NES)
Final Fantasy (NES)
Publisher: Square Enix / Developer: Squaresoft
Release Date: 12th Jul 1990 (USA) / 7th May 2010 (UK/EU)

Where it all began. The name of Square's original Final Fantasy from 1987 came partly from the team's belief that this was their last-ditch attempt to make a successful game. They may have hoped for it, but few could have predicted quite how successful the series would become.

Going back, you might not guess so, either; by modern standards, this is a very bare-bones vintage RPG. The kernel is there, though, so although new players will definitely need to wash this down with a strong glass of historical context, series fans will find it worth investigating or revisiting. It's available in various forms, and is one of the titles on the NES Classic Mini.

Gargoyle's Quest II: The Demon Darkness (NES)

Gargoyle's Quest II: The Demon Darkness (NES)
Gargoyle's Quest II: The Demon Darkness (NES)
Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom
Release Date: 1st Oct 1992 (USA) / 17th Jun 1993 (UK/EU)

Although Gargoyle's Quest II does have the advantage of being on a stronger system than its predecessor, it plays things relatively safe, making some minor improvements and keeping most of the gameplay exactly the same. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing — the first game was great, making the similarity in this entry something to be praised and enjoyed.

Mighty Final Fight (NES)

Mighty Final Fight (NES)
Mighty Final Fight (NES)
Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom
Release Date: 1st Jul 1993 (USA) / 1st Aug 1993 (UK/EU)

Don't let Mighty Final Fight's kid-like art and style fool you. This is a challenging beat 'em up that has a surprising amount of combat complexity, and the story and art are refreshing and funny, especially compared to the gritty realism many games go for today. Gamers looking for some old-school fun are encouraged to check out Mighty Final Fight — they sure don't make 'em like this any more.

StarTropics (NES)

StarTropics (NES)
StarTropics (NES)
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: Dec 1990 (USA) / 20th Aug 1992 (UK/EU)

A game which stands apart in Nintendo's back catalogue, StarTropics melds elements of Zelda, the Mother series and classic RPGs to make something different. It isn't entirely successful and is let down by its controls, but it's well worth making a trip to C-Island via Nintendo Switch Online, if only to see a rare game from Nintendo which didn’t get a dozen follow-ups (although it did get a single sequel).

Crisis Force (NES)

Crisis Force (NES)
Crisis Force (NES)
Publisher: Konami / Developer: Konami
Release Date: 27th Aug 1991 (JPN)

The NES might be a bit lacking when it comes to truly essential shmups but this Japanese exclusive from Konami is well worth a look. Boasting amazing parallax scrolling, stunning graphics, pumping soundtrack and a surprisingly complex weapons system, it's a crying shame that Crisis Force never got a release in the West. It's effortlessly one of the best shooters on the NES.

Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream (NES)

Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream (NES)
Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream (NES)
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: 18th Oct 1987 (USA) / 15th Dec 1987 (UK/EU)

A boxing game that's not really a boxing game, Punch-Out!! is all about reading your opponent's tells and timing your dodges and responses. So maybe it's the perfect boxing game, then? Regardless, it's a great game that's brimming with colourful characters — outrageous comical stereotypes that wouldn't fly these days — and challenging Mr. Dream (or Mike Tyson) to a duel should be on every NES fan’s bucket list. Fight!

Super C (NES)

Super C (NES)
Super C (NES)
Publisher: Konami / Developer: Konami
Release Date: Apr 1990 (USA) / 1992 (UK/EU)

If at times Super C (or Probotector II: Return of the Evil Forces in PAL places) feels a bit "standard" from a modern perspective, it's only because it was instrumental in shaping all future side-scrolling run 'n' gunners; it created a template that would later stamp out classics like Gunstar Heroes and Metal Slug. It may lack the charm and personality of those later variations on the theme, but it's still well worth playing both as a classic of the genre and as a rewarding two-player game in its own right — any retro action fan will still have a great time with this run-and-gun rite of passage.

Zanac (NES)

Zanac (NES)
Zanac (NES)
Publisher: D4 Enterprise / Developer: Compile
Release Date: 3rd Dec 2007 (USA)

The NES isn’t exactly famed for having many essential shooters, but Zanac is undoubtedly a must-have download. If you’ve experienced all the other blasters on the console and want to try something that will challenge and entertain at the possible expense of graphical and sonic splendour, then this is highly recommended.

R.C. Pro-Am (NES)

R.C. Pro-Am (NES)
R.C. Pro-Am (NES)
Publisher: Rare / Developer: Rare
Release Date: Feb 1988 (USA)

Rare may have gone on to find more fame on the SNES and N64, but during the NES years, the British studio honed its talents with a series of third-party titles, including this unique isometric racer based on remote-controlled cars. The visuals still impress even today, with smooth animation and a great sense of speed; there's also a wonderfully combative aspect to the action, which makes this feel fresh and exciting, even after all these years.

Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)

Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)
Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)
Publisher: Sun Corporation Of America / Developer: Sun Electronics
Release Date: Dec 1991 (USA)

Boasting some pretty gorgeous visuals for the humble NES, Batman: Return of the Joker borrowed a few elements from Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, but was ultimately an entirely separate take on the caped crusader. Its gameplay is an odd blend of ‘Castlevania meets Contra’, and with only seven main levels clocking in at less than an hour (if you’re good), this is nevertheless a pretty cracking game. Best visuals on the NES? Quite possibly.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES)
Publisher: Konami Of America / Developer: Konami
Release Date: Feb 1992 (USA)

Konami finishes up its NES trilogy in fine form with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project. Some might consider the following 16-bit instalment on SNES to be 'better', but we've still got a special place in our hearts for TMNT3TMP, as nobody calls it. NES-owning Turtles fans certainly weren't lacking for choice in the early '90s.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)

Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)
Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)
Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom
Release Date: Sep 1990 (USA) / 12th Dec 1991 (UK/EU)

A great, licensed Capcom platformer on a system with an abundance of great, licensed Capcom platformers, Little Nemo puts you in control of the titular boy as he heads to Slumberland on a journey through his dreams. Along the way, Nemo runs into a variety of animals who he befriends and recruits to help him rescue the ruler of said destination from the clutches of the Nightmare King. It's all sleep-themed, see?

It's based on the film adaptation of the Little Nemo comic strip from the early 1900s, but despite the cute premise and the dreamy animals, Little Nemo is notoriously punishing, especially when compared to the developers' Disney games. Kids who rented this back in the day weren't going to breeze through it in 30 minutes, that's for sure. Despite the difficulty, affection for this one has only grown over the years. As with virtually all of Capcom's 8-bit output, this is worth investigating.