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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 this 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. 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!

100. 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.

99. 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 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 if you didn't mind losing points).

98. 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!

97. Astyanax (Aicom, 1990)

A fairly popular game in its time that isn't talked about much these days, Astyanax was quite a sight to behold on the NES.  Large sprites with a surprising number of animation frames, elaborate and detailed backgrounds, some imaginative (and gruesome) boss designs, and gameplay slightly reminiscent of Castlevania.  The player gets a choice of three weapons, though the way they operate is slightly odd - some get more damage from simple swings but cause the player's magic attack to consume more or less of the gauge in return.  A bit odd for sure, but it's a relatively fun game to play through, and the imagination employed in its visual design alone certainly makes it worth a look for fans of obscure gems.



96. Swords & Serpents (Interplay, 1990)

A lot of early PC dungeon crawlers got NES ports, though their execution was often not the greatest; whether due to bugs (Might and Magic), a substantially downgraded presentation (Bard's Tale) or just dragging pacing in general.  Swords & Serpents is one not based on an existing computer game, but rather an entirely original offering, and they did a good job taking advantage of the NES's strengths rather than working against them.  The unsettling atmosphere and grotesque monster graphics definitely aided with that, as did an uncomplicated UI and even an onscreen minimap.  Also unique among dungeon crawlers on the platform, this one is multiplayer, supporting up to four players via the NES Satellite or Four Score.  It is a bit of a pain to save your game and come back later (there are FIVE passwords to keep track of - one tracking your progress through the dungeon and one for each of your four characters), but Swords and Serpents is nonetheless a fun time for RPG dorks.

95. The Goonies II (Konami, 1987)

Goonies II is a strange case in many ways.  While there was a game based on the Goonies, it actually never got a home release outside of Japan, only appearing in the west on the Playchoice-10 and VS systems in the arcades.  Then, as if that wasn't odd enough, Konami decided to produce a sequel to it even though there wasn't a sequel to the movie.  It changed up the format quite a bit, taking cues from games like Metroid; you explore a very large environment throughout, uncovering clues, finding upgrades for your character, and eventually rescuing all of the Goonies from captivity.  Even at this early stage, though, Konami definitely showed off the quality in their games with some detailed visuals, smooth animations and a quite good soundtrack (including a rendition of Cyndi Lauper's "The Goonies 'R' Good Enough").  It may not have had a corresponding film, but Goonies II was a classic game just on its own merits.

94. 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 for 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!

93. M.C. Kids (Virgin Games, 1992)

M.C. Kids is a game that's frequently overlooked, but I can't give people too much crap for that.  Between its late release and being an advergame for McDonalds, it's one that few people paid any mind to in the 90s and most who learned of it later dismiss immediately.  However, those who gave it a chance found a highly polished and fun platformer that takes several cues from the Super Mario Bros series.  One can pick up and throw blocks to defeat enemies or weigh themselves down to spring higher on springs, flip their own gravity and traverse stages upside-down, and of course find a huge plethora of secrets and bonuses in each level.  Even the visual style is similar, with some smoothly animated characters and detailed sprites.  Virgin would go on to make several highly-acclaimed games (most notably Aladdin on the Sega Genesis), but M.C. Kids never quite got its due.

92. Ai Senshi Nicol (Konami, 1987 in Japan) (FDS)

Ai Senshi Nicol ("Love Warrior Nicol") is a surprising one - a high quality Konami game that never got a cartridge release, let alone a localization.  Moreso because it's built on the model of games like Zelda and Metroid with its large open stages.  Each one is many screens tall and wide, and has you collect powerups to bypass certain obstacles, blast enemies and finish each stage with a big boss fight.  All with surprisingly good graphics for the time period - it came out in 1987 and yet looks and sounds almost as good as NES games from the 90s.  The latter also uses the extra sound channel on the Disk System to provide some nice music that the base hardware simply wasn't capable of.  A very cool and overlooked game that's well worth your time if you can track down a copy (and the hardware to play it on).

91. Kickle Cubicle (Irem, 1990)

A relatively unique and well-crafted puzzle game by Irem, where you play as a snowman-esque character named Kickle who can create ice pillars and freeze enemies with his breath to turn them into cubes.  Said cubes can then be pushed into the water to create floors, or pushed into other enemies to eliminate them, or ricocheted off of springs or hammers to redirect their motion (though they can easily clobber you as well, so you must be careful).  Your goal in each stage is to collect the three "dream bags", though as in any good puzzle game, this quickly becomes a daunting task - avoiding enemies, being careful not to trap yourself and setting up pillars in the right time and place to avoid hazards are all skills you will have to master (especially in the bonus stages, unlocked after completing the main game).  There are boss fights too, which require some quick movement and reaction speed to overcome.