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Top 101 NES Games, #20-11

20. Ms. Pac Man (General Computer Corporation/Bally Midway/Tengen, 1989)

Ms. Pac Man on the NES is a strange case of a game getting two different versions released by two different companies - one in 1993 by Namco themselves, and an unlicensed version by Tengen.  Ironically, the unlicensed version is the far superior of the two, featuring countless new game options and additional features not in the later release.  These include variations on the stage layouts (from Mini to Huge to Strange levels), four difficulty settings, and even a two-player simultaneous mode where two players work together to clear the maze and avoid ghosts.  It may not have been as famous an example as another very prominent Tengen game (coming up later on this list), but Ms. Pac Man is proof that unlicensed games can sometimes have a lot more to offer than official ones.

19. Batman (Sunsoft, 1989)

Another example of not only a great action game on the NES, but a great movie-based game as well. ...Well, okay, I don't remember the giant clawed mutants, the jetpack guy, the factory with massive exposed electrical conduits or the Joker being able to throw lightning from the movie, but you know what? it's still a damn fun game with great graphics, amazing music, spot-on controls and a lot of challenges to overcome.  Not to mention some innovative mechanics - this is the first game I can think of that featured a wall jump, which added a unique twist to navigating the levels. It also strikes just the right balance of difficulty, being tough enough to keep you engaged but not so much that you quit in frustration. Definitely my favorite game from the Sunsoft camp.

18. Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo, 1988)

As alluded to in my earlier mention of "SMB2j", there's a little bit of controversy surrounding this one. Nintendo decided the "real" SMB2 was too difficult and similar to the original and didn't want their audience to feel like they were being short-changed, so they took another game titled "Yume Kojo Doki Doki Panic" - an unrelated Arabian-themed platformer created for a Japanese festival - and retooled it into a Mario game.  Confusing, to say the least. But hey, it's an excellent platformer with a lot of polish over its counterpart (adding more frames of animation to nearly everything and significantly upgraded mechanics) and introduced several new elements to the series, including vertical-scrolling levels (pretty innovative for 1988), picking up and throwing of items to defeat enemies, and even some clever stage design elements like sinking logs and riding enemy projectiles to faraway parts of the level in order to proceed. Clean, colorful, varied visuals were a pretty rare thing to behold in this era, too.

17. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1988)

Probably the most controversial entry in the Zelda franchise (excluding the CDi games, of course), as it underwent a complete change in gameplay style from an overhead adventure game with an emphasis on puzzle solving to something more akin to a sidescrolling action-RPG. But you know what? That's no bad thing in my book. There's a lot of content here for a 1988 game, with a large secret-laden overworld to explore, numerous giant bosses to conquer and even six well designed dungeons to venture through. The sidescrolling perspective also makes for much more busy and intense combat - you'll be blocking spears and rocks with your shield and constantly ducking, jumping and slashing to evade attacks and sneak past an enemy's guard. Hell, even the new magic system adds a bold new dimension to the gameplay - careful magic management is key to not only navigating the numerous dungeon obstacles, but surviving fights against the big bosses at the end. Honestly, the only real fault I find with the game is the somewhat uneven difficulty - over the course of the game, you'll often go straight from a relatively easy dungeon to a hellishly tough one with no prior warning of that fact (most notable early on where you venture from a relatively simple swamp area to Death Mountain, a giant maze laden with much tougher enemies than you've seen so far). But hell, it's still a groundbreaking game with a unique mesh of gameplay styles for its time, and were it not for this game's success, we may never have seen classic games like Cave Story, Symphony of the Night or Dust: An Elysian Tail get made...

16. Bubble Bobble (Taito, 1988)

A close-to-picture-perfect port of a bizarre but undeniably addictive arcade game, Bubble Bobble stars two dinosaurs who blow bubbles to entrap enemies, then pop them and turn them into fruit, which can then be collected for bonus points. Popping more at once results in larger fruits that give more points. Yeah, it's weird. But hell, it's great fun, especially given the large number of powerup items the game provides - everything from upgrading your characters' attack range and movement speed to allowing you to spew fire to calling down lightning bolts to wipe out everything onscreen at once. I hope you've got a second player, too, because having two players alive and well at the end of the final fight is the only way to see the real ending. Honestly, this game's only weakness is the lone music track, which you're going to get pretty tired of after 112 stages...

15. Gun-Nac (Compile, 1991)

Another fantastic game that got widely overlooked since the SNES was the hottest thing on the scene at the time. Gun-Nac is essentially an upgraded Zanac with colorful high resolution graphics, fast paced gameplay and a ton of weapon variety, from flamethrowers to laser beams to homing missiles. Unusually for a western NES game, it was heavily steeped in the elements of its Japanese roots - characters and cutscenes retained their manga-esque style and bosses included things like a giant robotic rabbit that shoots homing missile carrots and even a maneki-neko. It's a little surreal to have a spaceship fighting a giant cat holding a gold coin, sure, but that's honestly one of the things I like about it - it's not afraid to be wacky. A formula Konami would also use to great success in their Parodius franchise (and to a lesser extent, Masuya and their Cho Aniki franchise...).

14. Contra (Konami, 1988)

Ask any NES fan what one of their favorite games growing up was and Contra is almost certain to be on that list. Because honestly, there is no denying that this game kicks ass. Two players running around blowing up aliens and traversing a variety of clever stages including climbing up a waterfall, evading bombs tossed in from the background on a snowy field, and even wandering inside a giant alien's guts to destroy its beating heart? What's not to love about that? Well, the difficulty, perhaps, since you're given only three lives and two continues. But it's not even that much of a bother since the controls and mechanics in the game are so solid; you just have to get some practice in and you can beat the game with little trouble.

13. Tetris: The Soviet Mind Game (Atari, 1990)

Another game surrounded by controversy upon its release, as it was produced and sold by Tengen months ahead of Nintendo and Bullet Proof Software's "official" versions despite the fact that Tengen did not legally have the rights to sell an NES conversion. This led to a lengthy lawsuit between Nintendo and Tengen and resulted in the game quickly being pulled from shelves, turning it into a rare collector's item overnight.  Remarkably, though, this game is superior to Nintendo and Bullet Proof Software's versions for one big reason: two player support! Not only does it feature a competitive mode, but there's even a clever cooperative mode where both players drop pieces into the same field at the same time. Now how in the world did Nintendo forget to include that in their version?

12. Kirby's Adventure (HAL, 1993)

A followup to the Game Boy hit Kirby's Dream Land, its sequel was a huge step forward for the series, as it introduced Kirby's iconic power to swallow certain enemies and acquire entirely new sets of powers in doing so. There are a ton of them in the game, too - from turning into a wheel and running over enemies to swinging chains of sparks to spitting fire. It certainly added a lot more variety to the gameplay, as well as some clever stage designs and tons of new bosses to fight. A very fun game that also featured arguably the best graphics on the system. I mean, just look at that screenshot - it's good enough to be an early SNES game, and on a system that was eight years old at the time!

11. Crystalis (SNK, 1990)

A slightly more RPG-oriented take on the overhead action/adventure genre by the masters of 2D eye candy in the 90s, SNK. The game not only featured great visuals and massive boss monsters, but some clever gameplay systems as well. In addition to four elemental swords, each with their own unique charged attacks and the ability to clear certain obstacles, you had a wide complement of spells to play with - some useful (like restoring HP or paralyzing enemies), some necessary to proceed (telepathy, flight, transformation). The story was also pretty unique for its time, taking place not in a medieval fantasy world, but a post-apocalyptic future, with elements seemingly culled from Studio Ghibli's works (most particularly Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). There's even a pretty clever twist or two stemming from your character's ambiguous past which I shan't spoil here - this is a game that must be played to be fully appreciated.