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4/21/2020

Top 101 NES Games, #101-91

What can one even say about the NES?  It was the quintessential game system of the 80s, single-handedly reviving a dying console market thanks to its colorful high-resolution graphics, tight controls and high-quality titles.  And now, after many years of scouring game shops, thrift stores and the giant internet game shop/thrift store known as eBay, I think I can at last declare my collection complete.  So in celebration, I'm going to be giving a shout-out to all of my picks for the platform's best titles.

For the purposes of list, I've imposed only two rules: The games must still be fun to play today, and only games which were commercially released during the NES's heyday are considered.  That means no pirates, ROM hacks, bootlegs of unreleased titles or contemporary homebrews are eligible.

101. Gyromite (Nintendo, 1985)


A puzzle game with a simple premise - collect all the dynamite in the level before the time expires, without getting crushed by a barrier or eaten by a Smick.  However, Gyromite itself isn't remembered so much as the peripheral that came with it - one ROB (Robotic Operating Buddy), who would be used in a roundabout way to operate a second controller in order to raise and lower barriers in the maze.  Basically, the player would send signals by pressing Start and then a button, and ROB would respond by turning left or right and opening or moving his hands.  By doing that, you'd manipulate him into operating a spinner and dropping it atop a lever that would press a button on the controller, in turn opening or closing the barriers in the game.  All as part of a scheme to get the NES marketed as a "toy" rather than a gaming system, as the Atari ruined the market for such things a couple years prior.  While this gimmick wasn't a system-seller for almost anyone (taking a backseat to the much more successful Super Mario Bros.), it was nevertheless an interesting experiment that led to a pretty decent puzzler.  And if you can't find ROB, hey, you can always just operate controller 2 yourself, or play with a non-robotic operating buddy.

100. Casino Kid/Casino Kid 2 (Sofel, 1989/1993)


Casino Kid is definitely a strange case as NES localization jobs go.  The Japanese version ($100 Million Kid) was a tie-in to a manga and featured four casinos to explore and four games to play - Poker, Blackjack, Roulette and Slots.  In bringing it to the west, however, they removed the latter two games, condensed all four casinos into one, stripped out all the licensing and removed most of the artwork, making it a much shorter experience.  The US-exclusive Casino Kid 2, released four years later, restored the Roulette game but did away with the exploration element entirely, instead having you fly around world and face nine opponents - three for each game.  Once all of them were defeated, you'd then face off with "the King" in all three games to claim the title of being the world's best gambler.  So we more or less got one game split into two, with unique window dressing added to each cart and released four years apart.  Weird, to say the least.  But regardless, both games are fun, and definitely the best of the gambling games on the platform.

99. Marble Madness (Atari/Rare, 1989)


Marble Madness is a hugely popular arcade classic; so much so that virtually every system of the time got a port at one time or another.  Rare handled the NES port and did an excellent job, maintaining the fluid gameplay and solid presentation of the arcade version despite the lack of a trackball.  The goal is simply to get to the goal, but of course, it's never as easy as it sounds.  All sorts of enemies and hazards will try to knock you off course or eat your marble, and you're on a very strict time limit - not just for each stage, but for the whole game, so saving every second you can quickly becomes key to success.  But if you want even more of a challenge, start up the multiplayer mode and try to make it to the end while keeping pace with somebody on controller two!

98. Binary Land (Hudson Soft, 1985 in Japan)

An early Famicom game that never came out here, but if you have the means to play it, it's only a few bucks to get a copy for yourself.  And you should, because it's a fun game.  A simple action-puzzler that has you control two penguins simultaneously (one with left and right controls flipped), your goal is to get both of them to the cage with the heart and have them touch it from either side at the same time.  Mazes are far from symmetrical, though, and laden with traps, so managing both of them at once is trickier than you'd think.  Touching a spider costs a life, and getting caught in their web will immobilize a penguin for several seconds, potentially leaving them vulnerable to attack (though both can be dealt with via a spray can that both are armed with).  It's not a widely spoken-of Famicom import, but it's one I always had a fondness for.

97. Pooyan (Konami, 1985 in Japan)


If you're into the emulation scene and have spent time perusing bootleg compilation carts, you've probably happened across this one too many times to count (alongside the mainstay of "Battle City", which I swear is on every single one of them I've ever looked at).  It's a good game at least, putting you in the role of a mother pig shooting down wolves; either trying to climb up the ladders behind you or get on top of the tree and push a rock on top of you.  You shoot down the balloons to get rid of them, and will periodically get a chunk of meat that can blast through several of them in a single shot, earning you a ton of points in the process.

96. Duck Hunt (Nintendo, 1985)


Another one that I think everybody's played; in no small part because almost all of them got it with the system, either on a two-cart with Super Mario Bros. or on a three-cart that also included World Class Track Meet.  To most of us, it was also our first exposure to a light gun peripheral - the Zapper, which detected targets by blanking out the screen for a brief moment and then flashing a bright spot where the targets were to register hits.  Duck Hunt has three modes - one duck, two ducks and clay pigeon shooting, and of course, nobody will ever forget that dog, who taunts you every time you miss a duck or waste all your bullets each round.  The game is a little one-note, but it's a fun and addictive little game.  Sadly we also never got a home port of the arcade version, VS Duck Hunt, which cycled through game modes between rounds and even had an exclusive bonus round (where you could get revenge on the dog at long last).

95. Zanac (Compile, 1987)

Shoot-em-ups (generally abbreviated to "shmups" nowadays) have been around since video games were first a thing, and there is no shortage of debate about which games in that vast genre are the best.  Zanac was definitely one of my favorites among those released in this era, though.  Not only did it feature surprisingly fast-paced and relentless action for its time, but it was surprisingly innovative too, containing an adaptive AI that would make things progressively tougher if you were doing well or firing too many shots, or ease up if you were struggling or consistently destroyed enemy recon craft.  It had quite a variety of weapons too - eight upgradable special weapons in total, plus an upgradable default gun, gave you plenty of options and firepower to deal with your foes.  It's not the prettiest shooter on the system by a long shot, but it plays amazingly well, so who's complaining?

94. Dragon Warrior (Chunsoft, 1989)


The first game in the legendary Dragon Quest franchise, which was (and still is) a huge hit in Japan.  It didn't fare quite as well in the west but it is remembered by many because of Nintendo Power, who gave away some 400,000 unsold copies of the game as a subscription incentive.  While I've personally never been a huge fan of the series, I do have some fondness for this one as it was the very first RPG I ever played.  It had quite a lot to offer for an early example of a console RPG, too - you actually had to talk to townspeople and follow their clues to find important places and objects, it had a surprisingly solid storyline with a high-quality translation, and despite its simple graphics and minimal animation, it looked and sounded surprisingly good too.  Like many RPGs of the era, it's a bit of a slog today because of its heavy emphasis on grinding experience and gold, but regardless, it's a game I will always have good memories of.

93. Devil World (Nintendo, 1984 in Japan, 1987 in Europe)

The only Shigeru Miyamoto-produced title to never be released in the United States, possibly because several controversial Atari 2600 games like Custer's Revenge and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were still fresh on peoples' minds and Nintendo didn't want to stir up another hornets' nest by releasing their new system with a title like "Devil World."  Regardless of its Abrahamic iconography, though, the game is ultimately harmless, starring a cute dinosaur creature named "Tamagon" as he collects crosses, dots and bibles in a monster filled maze a la Pac-Man.  This gets more complicated thanks to the titular Devil, who forcibly scrolls the screen in order to close off pathways and potentially crush you behind walls, adding another layer to the game's action.  It's ultimately nothing too spectacular, but it is fun to play, and certainly not the stuff of youth-corrupting evil.

92. VS Excitebike (Nintendo, 1988 in Japan, FDS)

Excitebike is one of the more popular early NES games, mostly remembered for its editor that allowed players to build and race on their own custom tracks (though not save them - the peripheral that allowed it was never brought over and Nintendo never implemented an alternate option).  I did consider including it on the list, but after playing the Famicom Disk System exclusive VS. Excitebike, I can't do it in good conscience.  The quality contrast between the two versions is night and day - VS Excitebike includes a more exciting single-player mode (having to qualify time in a solo run before you're allowed to run a race against the CPU) two player competitive play, music during gameplay, and the ability to save custom tracks directly to the disk.  It's criminal that this version was never localized until the Wii U rolled around, as it makes the original game look terrible by comparison!

91. Klax (Atari, 1990)


The title screen of this one proudly proclaims that "it is the nineties and there is time for Klax!"  Well, the nineties are long gone, but Klax is still around and just as fun to play as ever.  A clever little tile-matching puzzle game in the vein of Dr. Mario, but with a slight twist - instead of simply clearing tiles from the screen, you're given objectives to fulfill - survive a set number of tiles, get a set number of Klaxes or diagonal Klaxes, earn a certain number of points, and so on.  All while trying to manage space on a small 5x5 playing field and maintaining a stack of up to five tiles on your paddle; drop three or fill up the field without a match, and your game is over.  It starts out simple enough, but managing the chaos and staying alive quickly becomes a challenge.  Better get good at matching up those diagonal Klaxes and setting up combos!