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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. 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.

100. 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!

99. 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.

98. 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).

97. 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!

96. 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.



95. Final Fantasy (Square, 1990)

It's a tale well-known to any RPG fan - Square was a relatively unpopular game company on the brink of bankruptcy, and in a last-ditch effort to turn things around, decided to cash in on the RPG genre with a title that drew heavy inspiration from the Wizardry franchise.  To their surprise it became a huge success, kicking off a massively popular media empire that continues to this day.  It's not hard to see why it was so popular, either, as it had quite a lot to offer for the time.  An enormous game world to explore, tons of different enemies and bosses to battle, and the ability to pick your own party of four characters (with six distinct classes) made it a game with a lot of replay value.  Later games in the series would try out plenty of new ideas, expanding on the series' signature class system and trying out all manner of new mechanics, but they retain a consistently high level of production value and imagination.

94. 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.

93. 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!

92. Destiny of an Emperor (Capcom, 1990)

The Three Kingdoms period of Chinese History is one that's ripe for adaptations, and there have been tons of them in the realm of gaming (probably the best-known of which are Koei's Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchises).  Capcom took their own crack at it (and their first foray into RPGs) with an adaptation of the manga "Tenchi wo Kurau".  Not a turn-based strategy game as you'd expect, though - a traditional Japanese RPG with a few terms switched around.  Hit Points are your soldiers, Tactics are your spells, and there are 150 recruitable characters to serve as your generals in battle, act as a reserve force should one of your generals fall, or become your tactician and provide your whole team with various Tactics to utilize; unlike most RPGs though, most of their stats are fixed and don't improve with levels.  Battles tend to go on for quite a while, but fortunately there is a handy function in the "All-Out" command that causes both sides to continually attack one another and skip all prompts and dialog boxes until one side falls (Handy for quickly mopping up weaker forces - not so much when you're facing any considerable threat).  Destiny of an Emperor is not the most talked-about NES RPG, but it does have a dedicated following, with fans creating their own editing tools and scenarios to keep players coming back for more.  Worth a look!

91. 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).