The best Nintendo NES games of all time

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, is often hailed as the all-time-classic retro console – but which of its titles represent the console’s vast library of games best?

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The best Nintendo Entertainment System games

Check the Internet, and it'll often tell you that the Nintendo Entertainment System is 100% responsible for modern gaming as we know it. That's not even remotely true, but it's an online "fact" thanks to the overwhelmingly US-centric frame of reference of so many retro-gaming sites.

Here in Australia, the NES definitely had a role to play, but it was in fierce console combat with Sega's popular Master System in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as a legion of gamers used to playing on Commodore 64s, Amigas and other home computer platforms. That does give NES games a degree of rarity Down Under because they were one among many, not the dominant platform as was the case in the USA and Japan.

Still, the NES (and Japanese Famicom's) dominance overseas meant that the NES got a lot of the very best games of that era. While there's a retro-chic for 8-bit visuals in modern indie games that's been a factor for some time now, which of the NES's original library is still the very best? Here's our take.

How did we pick this list?

For a library as vast as the NES, you could poll 1,000 gamers and get 1,000 different "best of" lists because to any reasonable degree such matters have a high quantity of subjective picking. We're not backing away from that, but the writer is using his extensive, multi-decade retro game playing and collecting habit – including a library of hundreds of NES and Famicom games – to start from.

To give that a wider appeal and reduce that subjective factor, we've also considered online and consumer reviews to come up with our list of the very best NES titles.

Read more detail on our methodology below.

Best Nintendo Entertainment System game overall: Super Mario Bros 3

Pros

  • Creative play style that still stands up after all these years
  • Plenty of secrets to uncover for new players

Cons

  • Nintendo’s endlessly re-released SMB3 for… everything
  • Full mint-boxed copies are pretty pricey these days
Price (RRP): $40+
eBay price: From $12.71 to $63.02
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

Really, could it be any other title than Super Mario Bros 3? Nintendo took years of software development and knowledge of the Famicom's inner workings, threw its most famous game designer at the peak of his creative powers and unleashed a game on the world that's essentially platform gaming perfection.

Sure, Nintendo's diluted the pool over the years by re-releasing Super Mario Bros 3 on just about every platform it has produced since then bar the Virtual Boy, but that's just a sign of how influential and special Super Mario Bros 3 is.

If you're brand new to the NES or Famicom, Super Mario Bros 3 is absolutely the first game you should play, although it will rather spoil you for the rest of the NES's vast catalogue.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game – Action Adventure: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Pros

  • That rarest of beasts – a good movie adaptation video game!
  • Anyone who says Gizmo isn’t adorable simply doesn’t have eyes

Cons

  • You have fixed firing patterns, but enemies move randomly
  • Why is the already-deceased Mr Wing in this game selling Gizmo power-ups?
Price (RRP): $50-$100+
eBay price: From $36.92
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

If you want to buy a bad game for a given console, you're either a masochist or you're looking for easy YouTube video material. Either way, the common agreement is that your first port of call should be movie tie-in games. Ever since the days of ET for the Atari 2600, they've been generally awful cash-ins rather than great games in their own right.

Mostly, that is.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a bit of a hidden gem of the NES action-adventure library, with a top-down view, some surprisingly crisp graphics for the 8-bit platform and a lot of challenge hidden within its levels, without falling into that classic "Nintendo Hard" trap.

Gizmo's control is nicely handled for a top-down view, and while there is a learning curve to defeating enemies, especially the tricky end-of-level Gremlin bosses, it's a highly satisfying journey through a lot of recognisable movie scenes.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game – Platform: Super Mario Bros 3

Pros

  • Creative play style that still stands up after all these years
  • Plenty of secrets to uncover for new players

Cons

  • Nintendo's endlessly re-released SMB3 for… everything
  • Full mint-boxed copies are pretty pricey these days
Price (RRP): $40+
eBay price: From $12.71 to $63.02
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

Easily the pinnacle of platform gaming on the NES, and often cited as the best platform game of all time, Super Mario Bros 3 gets just about everything right when it comes to run and jump action. There's immense variety to its levels, very crisp visuals – helped along with a few cheeky mapper chips on the cartridge – and some of the best tunes in any NES game, period.

While most of its secrets are effectively memes these days, if you're coming to Super Mario Bros 3 cold, there's also a heck of a lot to discover. While each level may only take a minute or two to run through, finding all their secrets and the optimal route through each of them will take you a lot longer.

Just one tip: Despite its heavy promotion in Super Mario Bros 3 ad-turned-terrible-flick The Wizard, don't try to play Super Mario Bros with the Nintendo Power Glove. It's so bad.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game - Racing: Micro Machines

Pros

  • Relive your childhood again by throwing toy cars around the kitchen floor and tabletops
  • Multiplayer races can quickly become heated battles (even if it’s only over who has to do the dishes)

Cons

  • Aladdin Deck Enhancer version requires extra and quite fiddly hardware
  • Game avatars are rather blatant stereotypes that haven’t aged well
Price (RRP): $50+
eBay price: Check site for current pricing
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

The 8-bit power of the NES made actually fast, fluid action a big challenge for programmers who actually wanted large sprites in play, with many racing games using the same parallel flickering lines effect to give rear-view racers such as Rad Racer their sense of speed.

However, there was more joy to be had – and enduring fun – from the top-down or side-angled racing view, and Codemasters' version of Micro Machines for the NES retains its sheer playability – and the silly fun of sending an obviously matchbox-sized car fanging around a breakfast table – after all these years.

Single-player acquisition of every single vehicle will take you a good long time with challenging courses to conquer, but it's in the multiplayer mode that you'll face your toughest test. The one big caveat here is that Codemasters released two versions of the game: one standalone cartridge and one that requires the Aladdin Deck Enhancer (which does very little enhancing in this case) to function at all.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game – Shooting: Life Force

Pros

  • Multiplayer shooters on the NES shouldn’t work this well
  • The switch to top-down adds a genuine new degree of challenge to the series

Cons

  • Some slowdown in the most hectic sections
  • Japanese Famicom version is slightly better with more options allowed
Price (RRP): $40+
eBay price: From $3338.22
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

The pew-pew-pew arcade roots of video gaming in the 1980s meant that the NES is home to a lot of excellent shoot-em-up titles, including great arcade conversions such as Galaga and Gradius. The NES couldn't fling huge quantities of pixels around the screen, but canny programmers made the most of what they had, and that's amply demonstrated in Life Force, one of the many Gradius sequels/spin-offs that see you heading out into deep dark space with only a single ship to save the entire universe.

Except in Life Force, you're not alone. You get multiplayer co-op play to help you make your way through the game's excellent mix of side-scrolling and top-down shooting action. Taking that core Gradius upgrade/option system and adding a second player does strain the NES's resources a fair amount, but the end result is well worth it.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game - RPG: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Pros

  • A deep and lengthy adventure awaits you, oh promised one
  • More than just combat with a complex moral underpinning guiding your actions

Cons

  • The Sega Master System version is still the definitive console version
  • In-game music isn’t great – to put it politely
Price (RRP): $40-$150+
eBay price: From $273.23
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

The near-absolute dominance of the NES/Famicom in Japan meant that the system is ripe with some truly excellent RPGs, including the forebears of some truly massive series, such as all the Zelda games, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and others.

Still, it's a Western-developed RPG that we reckon is the NES's pinnacle if you're after an RPG that both looks good and still plays out a compelling and challenging narrative. Ultima IV didn't start its life as an NES title – it was originally an Apple II game – but the console version sweetens the visuals, simplifies the text input entry of the original and delivers a surprisingly complex adventure for the humble NES. You're not just saving the world – although of course you are – but also proving your worth as the avatar of virtue, a task that's considerably more complex than just dashing through a few dungeons and sticking swords in orc skulls.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game - Fighting: Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!

Pros

  • Each fighter brings new challenges
  • Animation remains satisfying as each punch lands

Cons

  • Once you understand each fighter, they’re easy to beat
  • Single player only
Price (RRP): $30-$100+
eBay price: From $499.50
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

Fighting games arguably came of age in a competitive sense in the 16-bit era, which means that if you're after something to sate your inner thumping urges, you're more likely to line up with a single-player experience. There are plenty of quality options to choose from, including arcade classic Kung Fu and sprawling brawlers like River City Ransom and Double Dragon, but it's the boxing-centric Mike Tyson's Punch-Out! – later released just as Punch-Out once the licence had expired – that can still last the distance in a tough fight.

It's essentially a rhythm game rather than a straight-up fighter, with victory as the tiny Little Mac only coming once you've sorted out the attack patterns of each of the game's unique cartoon fighters. Except Glass Joe – if you can't even beat Glass Joe, then maybe video games aren't for you.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game - Sports : Excitebike

Pros

  • A simple riding mechanic with a lot of depth
  • Course design gives you plenty of scope for harder tracks

Cons

  • Can’t permanently save your own course
  • That high-pitched engine sound is pretty horrible
Price (RRP): $20-$50+
eBay price: From $50.00
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

Lots of US articles will tell you that Tecmo Super Bowl is the definitive NES sports game. That's because they're incredibly US-centric, and unless the NFL is your pure passion, it's not that great a title outside pure nostalgia. The NES didn't quite hit the annual-release-churn upgrade cycle that now defines most sports games, but many of its games haven't aged all that gracefully anyway.

Excitebike might seem to fall into that bucket – it's certainly not a graphical or audio showcase for what the NES can do – but it scores highly on the most important factor for retro video games because it's simple motocross fun. That's true whether you're racing through the game's essentially time-trialled stages or designing your own devilishly hard courses – a pretty innovative feature for its time.


Best Nintendo Entertainment System game - Puzzle: Tengen Tetris

Pros

  • If you don’t like Tetris, you don’t like fun
  • Competitive and co-op multiplayer modes are hectic, chaotic fun

Cons

  • Official Nintendo version has better music and visuals
  • It's a pricey title to buy due to its rarity
Price (RRP): $70-$200+
eBay price: Check site for current pricing
Buy at eBay

Why we chose it

Tetris hit the Western world by storm in the late 1980s, and Nintendo's systems took maximum advantage of the company's licence for the game to shift consoles – but then, you're probably thinking of the Game Boy version, aren't you?

That's a classic in its own right, but there are actually two games just called Tetris for the NES. Nintendo's in-house version has flashier graphics and nicer sound, but the Tengen/Atari version – which is also substantially rarer – offers two-player competitive and cooperative modes, making for a much more fulfilling version of everyone's favourite block stacking game. Unfortunately, the fact that it was yanked from sale for legal reasons does mean that it's a rarer title and, as a result, rather more expensive to buy now.


Buying Nintendo Entertainment System games

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What to consider when buying NES games:

  • Boxed copies are getting harder to find: Unlike Sega, which opted for plastic boxes for Master System games, Nintendo saved a few bucks and opted for cardboard boxes for most Famicom and NES games; only Namco in Japan strongly opted for plastic cases. Cardboard ages badly, particularly when you consider the core kid's market these games were aimed at. As a result, 25+ years later, there are far more loose cart versions of games around than there are complete boxed copies. If you want that classic game in complete mint condition, it's going to cost you.
  • Famicom or NES version? You can often save a few bucks by opting for the Japanese/Famicom version of select titles, but there are a few catches to be aware of here. Firstly, Famicom games use a 60-pin wide layout where NES games – even with the same code – have 72 pins, so you'll need a cart-shape adaptor to run Famicom games on an NES console. If you're thinking of getting a Famicom to dodge that, look into an AV-modded system unless you want to struggle with the vagaries of now-ancient Japanese TV standards that aren't anything like an Australian CRT of the same era. The other, rather more obvious, point is that unless you're fluent in Japanese, some games are essentially unplayable unless they're highly action-centric.
  • Don't blow those cartridges! Yes, it's common wisdom that blowing into an NES cartridge will "help" it run on a screen displaying a blinking grey screen. It won't – you're really only encouraging rust and decay on already ageing hardware. Get some decent isopropyl alcohol and give those contacts a simple rub-down with a cotton bud and you'll get better results and keep your NES collection in better order, too.

Amazon prices last updated on 25 October, 2021 at 04:00 am
eBay prices last updated on 25 October, 2021 at 12:00 pm

Methodology

1
Brands considered
200+
Products compared
7
Best products chosen
  • Our picks are based on price, game ratings, availability and user and professional reviews.
  • The writer has 30+ years of game collecting and curating experience.
  • The products on this list are chosen by our editorial team and are not selected based on commercial relationships.

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