Over three decades ago, a little-known company named Nintendo took the world by storm. The video game industry was still attempting to recover from a brutal crash, and it was unclear if the market would ever thrive. That’s when the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, appeared. Its incredible lineup of exclusive games was unmatched, and it quickly became the most trusted platform in gaming. All these years later, its library still contains some of the most beloved and influential games of all time. As a staff, we voted on our all-time favorites and compiled a top 10 list, complete with mini-reviews. Here’s Nintendo Enthusiast’s Top 10 Best NES Games!
Top 10 Best NES Games
Dragon Warrior III (#10)
Dragon Warrior, the original name for the Dragon Quest series in North America, gave birth to the JRPG genre. However, it was Dragon Warrior III that really cemented the genre’s tropes and mechanics, paving a foundation (along with Final Fantasy) for what was to come.
Chiefly, Dragon Warrior III lets you build your own party largely from scratch, selecting their classes and giving them names. Final Fantasy had done the same sooner, but Dragon Warrior III’s classes had more depth and personality, and you could change who was in your active party to fit shifting needs. An ability to change classes later without major restrictions created even more versatility. These design decisions offered the game terrific replayability and generally increased the satisfaction you received from building a powerful party. Dragon Warrior IV would go on to reverse this mechanic in favor of specific heroes in order to tell a stronger narrative — establishing a duality of JRPG styles that persists to this day — but in my opinion, III is just a bit more fun to pick up and play than IV.
One more critical thing Dragon Warrior III added to the JRPG genre was the mid-to-late-game bait-and-switch: The entire game is about stopping the evil Baramos, but when you finally confront and defeat him, a whole new enemy located in a whole new world emerges. Just when you think the quest is over, you discover there’s still much left to do. As a young kid, I was actually so outraged by this that I basically quit playing not long after that, and to this day I haven’t finished the game. But fleeting whims of an impatient young child aside, Dragon Warrior III is probably the first true masterpiece of the JRPG genre. Or put another, more frank way — it’s probably the oldest JRPG that’s actually still worth playing. That puts it in our top 10!
Review by John Friscia
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (#9)
The Castlevania series is at its best when it embraces its Gothic horror roots. These roots are then coupled alongside a camp from the Universal Monster movies such as Frankenstein, The Mummy, and of course Dracula. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse managed to strike the perfect balance between these two aesthetics, constructing a horror atmosphere that remains effective even today. It’s no surprise that the game ended up directly inspiring a dark animated series on Netflix.
Castlevania III has some of the best action-platforming gameplay you can find on the NES as well. You never have full control of its three characters and are committed to their every action. In an era that predates many of From Software’s action games, this kind of approach to video game design was certainly unique.
While it’s still brutal, Castlevania III is an ultimately rewarding game should you take the time to learn it. It’s one of the more engrossing games on the NES thanks to its atmosphere, and that immersion goes a long way with classics such as these. It’s well-deserving of a spot on our top 10.
Review by Daniel Thompson
There’s arguably no more recognized game in the world than Tetris. Young or old, casual gamer or hardcore, it doesn’t matter. People love Tetris. The world has Tetris for the NES (and Game Boy) to thank for that.
On the surface, Tetris is rather simple. Blocks fall from the area above the field and lock into place upon touching the highest bottom row. As these blocks fall, you can rotate and move them to position them. Filling up a row clears the line, prolonging the play session. While modern Tetris games have fancier features such as the ability to hold pieces for later use, the lack of such features here makes the game even more challenging.
The simplicity of Tetris makes it easy to get into, yet the challenge is what keeps you hooked. I’ve been in love with the game ever since I first played it, and even now I often settle in for a relaxing game after a long day at school. Though we may not have put it at the pinnacle of our top 10 list, you can’t argue against its being one of the most influential games of all time.
Review by Steven Rollins
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (#7)
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is often viewed as the black sheep of the series. Unlike its top-down brethren, this NES sequel focused on side-scrolling action. This unexpected style change coupled with an intense difficulty curve turned many players off of the experience. Those who stuck around found a worthwhile adventure.
Sure, the combat and platforming could be frustratingly difficult. It was also extremely rewarding. When you beat a difficult enemy, you really felt like you earned that victory. The RPG elements are similarly rewarding, as leveling up increases your health, strength, and magic. Exploring the game’s map and completing side quests grants the player new skills and abilities. And the game’s sprawling, multi-floored dungeons full of branching paths were ahead of their time. It felt like a “Metroidvania” long before Castlevania ever decided to emulate Metroid.
The Adventure of Link is a game that wasn’t afraid to experiment. The action-platformer style didn’t stick, but many of its innovations did. It introduced magic spells (as well as a magic meter), the series’s first-ever towns (which later inspired the names of Ocarina of Time‘s sages), and even the third piece of the Triforce. It was also the first game in the series with an elaborate backstory, though it remained confined to the manual. Yes, Zelda II was a very different game. And the franchise as a whole is much better off as a result. That earns it a spot as one of the top 10 best NES games.
Review by Ben Lamoreux
Mega Man 3 (#6)
Mega Man 3 is arguably the best Nintendo title in the Mega Man series. While most people regard Mega Man 2 as the best one on the NES, they often forget the innovations 3 brought to the series. Namely, the slide and Rush.
In the first two Mega Man games, Mega Man ran around on foot, not knowing the power of the almighty slide. Once Mega Man 3 launched and players realized the Blue Bomber could jettison forward on his butt, mouth agape, there was no turning back. Sure, you can jump through the end boss pizza boxes with style, but sliding is way more fun.
Also, Mega Man’s robot dog, Rush, was introduced in Mega Man 3. Gone were the generic Items 1-3 from Mega Man 2. In their place was Rush, a versatile companion who could bounce Mega Man on a coil, become a submarine for underwater navigation, and transform into a jet for an air joyride.
On top of those two permanent additions, Mega Man 3 has the first appearance of Mega Man’s brother, Proto Man, a badass with a shield and flute. The nefarious Doc Robots also show up, containing the move sets of all the bosses from Mega Man 2. Their inclusion helped make Mega Man 3 one of the longest Mega Man titles on the NES.
All of the stuff mentioned above, with excellent music, stages, and robot masters, to boot, elevate Mega Man 3 into the category of top 10 very best NES video games. Make sure you play it if you are a fan of Capcom’s mighty robot. Just remember — even Top Spin has its advantages.
Review by Arthur Damian
Mega Man 2 (#5)
There have been literally dozens of sidescrolling Mega Man titles across the series’s various incarnations, yet few of them have been as cohesive and wildly entertaining as 1988’s Mega Man 2. The original Mega Man was full of innovative and exciting ideas but a little sloppy in the execution. Mega Man 2 took everything that worked from the first game, cranked it up to 11, and refined the mechanics to near perfection.
It upped the number of selectable Robot Master levels to eight, and the levels were less random with their challenges. Threats were well defined, allowing players to devise an optimal solution to each and every one. Powers collected from defeating bosses were likewise versatile and valuable, inviting so many different strategies for how to complete levels the fastest way. Mega Man 2 also added three “Items” for maneuverability, the precursor to Rush. Taking these elements altogether, Mega Man 2 was a perfect game for speedrunning long before “speedrunning” was even a term. It was also just extremely replayable.
Ultimately, not only is Mega Man 2 one of the top 10 best NES games, but it is one of the best action platformers ever. It is a game that is challenging only in the sense that it really demands you to understand its mechanics. Once you learn the game – it’s honestly pretty easy, even on “Difficult” mode (i.e., the only mode in the original Japanese version). Brute forcing your way to victory through dozens of deaths is not the ideal way to approach this game. But if you choose to play the game cerebrally, one screen at a time, you might find that mastering Mega Man 2 is one of the most satisfying experiences you will ever have with a video game.
Oh, and “Dr. Wily Stage 1” is one of the most rocking music tracks in video game history.
Review by John Friscia
Kirby’s Adventure (#4)
Coming late into the NES’s life, Kirby’s Adventure marked the home console debut for Masahiro Sakurai’s super tuff pink puff. The second installment in the household Nintendo name didn’t just build on the gameplay concepts introduced in Kirby’s Dream Land on Game Boy. It expanded on them to a point that redefined an entire series.
Gone was the reliance on traditional power-ups! No longer were your only means of attack inhaling and spitting out foes! It was here where Kirby gained his now hallmark ability to copy enemy skills. From Sword to Fire, Hi-Jump to Stone, suddenly there was a wide range of easy-to-use copy abilities at your disposal. From then on, Adventure changed the dynamic of enemy interaction in Kirby games forever as baddies now double as ammo and power-ups. Kirby’s sudden versatility complemented his simple gameplay, thus making the game a low entry barrier to ease newcomers into the platforming genre.
Gameplay upgrades aside, Adventure also significantly built upon the world that Sakurai created with Dream Land. With the hardware boost from Game Boy to NES, we now had more engaging stages and beefier boss fights, split across seven distinct worlds. Of course, it was in Adventure where we met Meta Knight and saw a surprising amount of depth to a suddenly well-meaning King Dedede over the Fountain of Dreams fiasco.
Admittedly, I first got into the Kirby series via Nightmare in Dream Land, the Game Boy Advance remake. However, I did go back to playing the original, and still, I garnered about as much enjoyment. Kirby’s Adventure is an easy top 10 pick and a must-have for any NES library; if you ask me though, I would recommend the GBA glow-up. Too bad the remake missed out on that cute little intro: “First you draw a circle, then you dot the eyes. Add a great big smile, and presto: it’s Kirby!”
Review by Jeffrey McDonell
Super Mario Bros. (#3)
It’s almost scary to think about how the video game industry as we know it might not have existed today. With the market crash of 1983, arcades kept going strong, subpar and expensive home consoles sprouted like weeds, and Atari buried their shame with cartridge landfills in New Mexico. That all changed in 1985; Nintendo made its landmark home console debut with the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Super Mario Bros. with it.
Super Mario Bros. went above and beyond the expectations in the home console field. Popularizing side-scrolling platformers, its levels were simple and cleverly designed to ease you toward new obstacles. This is shown right from the first Goomba in world 1-1, where the player is tested by the NES controller’s limited inputs.
The game offered controls so precise thanks to adjustable jump height and a dedicated running button. As a result, falling to one’s death or running headlong into enemies truly felt like it was the player’s own fault. Better yet, you could unleash Fire Flower fury once you collect that power-up later in the same stage by preserving your Mushroom-empowered state.
Right out of the gate, players are taught that the game will reward them for their skill. Players can test their skills through an unheard-of amount of eight worlds with four stages each. Sure, Game Overs still thrust them back to the title screen. However, they didn’t have to keep dumping quarter after quarter into an arcade machine to keep playing.
Nintendo finally captured an arcade-quality experience, and from there, fans kept returning for more. Hell, Super Mario Bros. didn’t just revive the video game industry and set a new quality standard for games. The game propelled the medium to new heights of popular culture and kicked off a veritable dynasty of gaming, with Mario becoming the very face of Nintendo itself.
Speaking of faces, SMB also introduced us to memorable characters who would become franchise mainstays from then on. The fair Princess Peach, the loyal vassal Toad, and the evil Bowser / King Koopa would go on to join Mario and Luigi in many more adventures and spinoffs up to this day. Top 10 would be an understatement!
Review by Jeffrey McDonell
The Legend of Zelda (#2)
From the very first screen, it’s obvious that The Legend of Zelda is something special. At a time when most games still felt like arcade experiences, Zelda offered something new and exciting. You’re dropped into this enormous, wide-open world with nothing to guide you but your own curiosity and courage. And with that legendary overworld music setting the tone, you’re off on an adventure!
When you’re not exploring every inch of Hyrule for secrets, you’ll be battling your way through brutal dungeons. If you like a good challenge, this game is exactly what you’re craving. But its dungeons are more than just a test of strength. Little touches like the creepy statues in the entranceway, the eerie dungeon music, and hearing the roar of a boss from the next room over combine to create a memorable atmosphere. And with a sizable arsenal of weapons and items at your disposal, there’s a surprising amount of depth to the combat for such an old game.
The Legend of Zelda is easily a top 10 game on the console, but it’s more than that. It’s impossible to overstate just how important this game is to the video game industry. Along with Super Mario Bros., it helped establish Nintendo as a household name at a time when the video game industry looked to be circling the drain. It laid the foundation for what an adventure game should be, and that template is still being followed by many franchises to this day. It was also the first home console game that let you save your progress. And, of course, its success spawned one of the most popular video game franchises of all time. The greatness of The Legend of Zelda is a secret to nobody. It’s one of the best NES games ever made, and it’s the runner-up on our top 10 list.
Review by Ben Lamoreux
Super Mario Bros. 3 (#1)
Super Mario Bros. 3 must come to mind when discussing the top 10 best NES games of all time. After surprising Western audiences with a wildly different formula in Super Mario Bros. 2, Nintendo returned the series to its roots with Super Mario Bros. 3, one of the best games in the whole series.
Super Mario Bros. 3 upped the fun factor to 11 by including numerous new power-ups, such as the Frog Suit, Hammer Suit, Raccoon Suit, Tanooki Suit, and much more. These new abilities added a whole new layer to a game that already has perfect level design. On top of that, there are tons of secrets to find that help you get extra lives or, in some cases, let you skip through multiple levels of the game. Let’s also not forget that Super Mario Bros. 3 has one of the best soundtracks on the NES. Almost every single track in Super Mario Bros. 3 is still being used or remixed in Mario games to this day.
Super Mario Bros. 3 packs a bigger punch than any other Mario game on the NES. The original Super Mario Bros. had 32 levels. If you count all of the fortresses, airships, and towers in the game, Super Mario Bros. 3 features a whopping 90 levels in total. That’s almost 3 times the size of the first game. While you don’t have to beat every level to finish Super Mario Bros. 3, you would be missing out by not completing this game in its entirety. No matter which way you slice it, Super Mario Bros. 3 is a near-perfect game, and arguably the best game the NES has to offer. As such, it reigns supreme on our list of the top 10 NES games of all time!
Review by Adam Sherrill