15 NES Games That Have Aged Incredibly Well
Even some NES "classics" haven't actually aged that well, but these games have truly stood the test of time.
The Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) is turning 40 in 2023. While 40 isn’t quite as old as it used to be when we’re talking about people, it’s pretty much ancient for any piece of technology. The Famicom/NES were released at a time when people were debating over Betamax vs. VHS, rocking out on their Sony Walkmans, and checking the time on their CASIO watches. It’s natural that many of the games made for the NES will not have aged that well in the grand scheme of things. Of course, that makes it that much more impressive that there are some NES games that have actually aged incredibly well.
What does it mean for an NES game to age well? The answer to that question will vary from person to person. For me, though, a game ages well when you can play it today and not get too hung up on its age or how much it reminds you of the modern gaming conveniences you’d rather be enjoying. Some are technically impressive, some feel way ahead of their time, some perfectly represent a style of design that is still being used today, and most of them are just a lot of fun.
From classics you almost certainly grew up with to games waiting to be rediscovered, these are some of the most notable NES games that more than hold up.
15. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Yes, the original Legend of Zelda has aged incredibly well. If I’m splitting hairs, though, I’d argue that subsequent games in the Zelda franchise that were built upon that formula also improved it in ways that will make you look at the original game differently. Besides, there’s another game on this list that offers a refreshingly modern take on that formula.
I’m always amazed by how well Zelda II has aged, though. The long-running black sheep of the franchise remains a strange game, but its blend of side-scrolling action, classic Zelda adventuring, and JRPG ideas are strangely wonderful to explore. Sure, it’s tough as nails, but even that is part of the charm. There’s never been another Zelda game like this, and it’s genuinely impressive that Adventure of Link remains such a compelling curiosity.
I”m not going to score any points by suggesting that Contra has aged well, but it really is amazing how this game that is so often used as a reference point for so many action games that would follow manages to be so much fun to play to this day.
Contra (and Super C for that matter) doesn’t try to do much in the grand scheme of things, but it nails so many of the things it chose to emphasize. It’s genuinely amazing that so many games that followed in Contra’s footsteps couldn’t quite replicate the fluidity of its action, animations, and controls, and you’ll have a hard time finding too many two-player NES games that remain as thrilling as this one.
13. Bucky O’Hare
There was a time when Konami was one of the undisputed kings of quality video game adaptations. Yet, one of the studio’s most complete accomplishments in that area is also one of the games that went a lot of years without getting enough love.
Based on the comic book series of the same name, Bucky O’Hare is an action platformer that features the airtight gameplay that you’d expect from a Konami game of that era. I don’t want to breeze past that gameplay (it’s incredibly good and even features multiple playable characters), but it’s this game’s graphics that make it such a treat to play to this day. Bucky O’Hare clearly benefited from being released towards the end of the NES lifecycle, and its combination of advanced visuals, sound, and gameplay make it feel pleasantly modern.
No NES gamer back in the day ever expected the NES version of Strider to replicate the chaotic brilliance of the arcade game of the same name. Of course, no NES gamer back in the day expected the NES version of Strider to establish its own legacy that remains just as impressive to this day.
Seemingly aware that Strider’s frantic arcade action would be impossible to replicate on the NES, the developers of this port instead opted to covert that game into a more Bionic Commando-like action title with minor adventure elements. The result is a still pretty fast NES action game that feels so much more substantial than even some of its exceptional NES counterparts. There are some rough spots in this one and the whole thing does feel a bit incomplete in place, but Strider is a remarkably smooth and captivating example of a certain type of NES game.
11. Super Dodge Ball
There are actually a number of NES sports games that hold up remarkably well. That’s largely because there are times when you just want a simple sports game over a more modern (and complex) sports simulation. However, there is at least one NES sports game that I think presents a playable version of its chosen “sport” that is still better than any video game adaptations of that sport that followed.
Super Dodge Ball is a straight-up joy to play to this day. It’s an almost absurdist take on the concept of dodgeball that still manages to treat the basics of the sport with a surprising amount of respect. There is depth to this experience that makes it worth mastering, but none of that depth gets in the way of the simple good time that any game of dodgeball should be. I also love this game’s character designs and art style, though I freely admit that some of its pop-in issues are one of those things that reveal the game’s age somewhat.
10. Life Force
Despite its technological limitations, the NES was a surprisingly reliable source for great shoot-em-up games. Developers of that era just found ways to maximize the simple fun of the Shmup genre and minimize the technical demands that made many Shmup games arcade darlings. Life Force is probably the best example of what made NES Shmup games so special.
The sequel to the also excellent Gradius (at least in the U.S.), Life Force boasts some of the best level design in the history of the genre as well as arguably the best Shmup gameplay you’ll find on any console regardless of the era. It’s both a testament to the evolution of the Shmup genre on consoles at that time and a sometimes sobering reminder that there are certain things that the NES really did better than (or as good as) so much of what would follow.
9. Destiny of an Emperor
While the JRPG genre was only finding its feet during the NES era, the console still became home to a number of role-playing games that are still looked back on fondly to this day. Of course, many of those JRPGs would later be surpassed by spiritual successors and actual successors. To this day, though, there’s nothing quite like Destiny of an Emperor.
Capcom’s early (and largely forgotten) foray into the RPG genre sees you travel across China in order to defend your people and lands. The game itself is actually a unique, challenging, and incredibly enjoyable blend of traditional strategy and JRPG combat. The highlight of that experience is an elaborate recruitment system that allows you to temporarily add defeated units to your party if certain conditions are met. This astonishingly original game isn’t just one of those titles that should have found a wider audience in its day; it’s a genuinely compelling experiment that arguably plays better than ever.
Hudson Soft made quite a few NES games that hold up remarkably well to this day, but Faxanadu may very well be the studio’s masterpiece.
Faxanadu is perhaps best thought of as an ARPG version of Metroid. It’s a game that is both satisfying to play from moment to moment in that old-school NES game kind of way and deeper than many games of that era could hope to be. There are many modern titles that still try to find the right balance between action, role-playing, and Metroidvania-like exploration, which makes it that much more impressive that Faxanadu pulls off that format with a style of its own.
7. Vice: Project Doom
Vice: Project Doom is one of those games I had in my personal NES library growing up that I never heard anyone talk about and that few people seemed to remember. Years later, I can understand why. Even if you did play this sometimes overlooked title, large parts of it often feel like a fever dream.
Vice: Project Doom is primarily an action game in the style of Ninja Gaiden or Batman. However, it’s actually a blend of several different kinds of genres (including driving sequences and light-gun-like shooter levels). That variety certainly helps keep you engaged, but what’s really impressive is how Vice: Project Doom masters so many forms of 8-bit gameplay. It’s almost like a collection of several of the best styles of that era that also happens to look great, sound great, and not be nearly as difficult as some other NES titles.
I strangely think that StarTropics is one of those games that you’re better off playing now than at the time of its release. StarTropics was always good, but there’s something about the game that stands in wonderful contrast to some of the aspects of modern gaming that makes it feel especially refreshing.
StarTropics has often been compared to The Legend of Zelda. There are certainly similarities between the two, but that comparison only takes you so far into what makes this game work. Zelda may have been the closest thing to StarTropics at the time in the minds of many, but we can now recognize StarTropics is almost more of an Earthbound-like quirky RPG that happens to utilize platforming, puzzle solving, adventuring, and real-time action. It’s an NES epic that avoids the bloat of modern larger games by making every milestone step of the game feel streamlined and unique.
5. Super Mario Bros. 3
Yes, this is an incredibly obvious addition to this list. However, Super Mario Bros. 3 could very well remain the poster child for games that age remarkably well until the grimacing sun comes crashing down upon the Earth.
For as much as I love 3D Super Mario games, this game remains the reason why you’ll always have fans calling out for more traditional Super Mario experiences. It’s an airtight version of the entire platforming genre that benefits from some of the most creative visuals, mechanics, and levels that have ever been produced by a company that is known for excelling at all of those things. While I personally think that Super Mario World deserves a little more of the love that this one sometimes gets, you’ll struggle to find another NES game that feels like such a complete realization of such ambitious ideas.
4. Mega Man 3
The truth is that this spot could have gone to any of the NES Mega Man games (besides the first one, sadly). However, I ultimately decided to give it to Mega Man 3 due to both that installment’s gameplay refinements (such as the slide ability) and my personal desire to not give a single slot to a franchise.
Much like the Sonic franchise, the biggest testament to the strength of the original Mega Man games is the fact that fans seem to be stuck in this eternal cycle of waiting for developers to just return to the original formula that worked so well. Call it a lack of progress, but there are just some times when developers “figure it out” relatively early on. Mega Man 3 is still the action game that so many other action games want to be.
3. River City Ransom
Recent years have gifted us with a River City Ransom renaissance of sorts. It’s not that the game wasn’t successful or respected in its day, but rather that it took us all a while to appreciate how brilliant this open-ended beat-em-up RPG really was. No matter how many spiritual successors we get, though, the original River City Ransom remains an incredibly enjoyable achievement.
It’s hard to beat a good NES beat-em-up no matter how you look at it, but that aforementioned ability to explore surprisingly diverse environments and grow your character as you punch your way through waves of foes really does make River City Ransom something special. It’s not that it hasn’t aged a day; it’s that it might be better now than ever.
Like StarTropics, Crystalis wore the “Zelda-like” tag as both a burden and a badge of honor. Of course, we now know that Crystalis is actually closer to an ARPG that might actually also be a more complete modern gaming experience than the original Legend of Zelda.
Blasphemy, I know, but it’s hard to play Crystalis today and not find yourself amazed by all of the things this game did in 1990 and how well it did them. There’s almost a Diablo-like quality to Crystalis’ approach to action, dungeon diving, and gear, but the game’s most epic moments are much closer to the absolute best JRPGs at the time. Crystalis‘ visuals and soundtrack will also remind you why the fondness for NES-style presentation is about so much more than nostalgia.
1. Kirby’s Adventure
The Kirby franchise is a rightfully beloved and successful series filled with entries that are worth playing for one reason or another. However, the biggest reason that Kirby’s Adventure tops this list is the simple fact that I personally believe it’s the only Kirby game you need to play.
Released incredibly late into the NES’ run (1993) as the successor to the Game Boy’s Kirby’s Dream Land, Kirby’s Adventure is a truly magical game. Few NES games look this good, few NES games sound this good, and few NES games boast a style of gameplay that even significantly more advanced titles have never been able to top or even properly replicate. Seriously, Kirby’s ability to absorb enemy traits has never felt as satisfying or well-utilized as it does here.
There are a lot of great NES games, and quite a few hold up well today. Yet, Kirby’s Adventure is the NES game that I’m always surprised to find holds up as well as it does no matter how many times I play it.