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Top 111 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. Metroid (Nintendo, 1987)

The genesis of another legendary Nintendo franchise and an equally legendary genre, Metroid was notable at the time for its large world and gameplay that was almost completely open-ended - rather than giving you a set goal and a linear stage to progress through to reach it, you were pretty much just left to explore a giant enemy-laden labyrinth and discover its secrets yourself. A pretty daunting thing in an era before in-game maps were the norm. Thankfully, Metroid delivered enough content to keep players engaged for a good, long time with its eerie organic environments and a well-composed soundtrack that only made the in-game world all the more unsettling. Better yet, once you were used to the game it had five different variations for the ending screen, challenging players to complete the game in progressively shorter times to see them all. This could be considered the forefather to the whole speedrunning community!

13. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (Nintendo, 1987)

A game that was a damn impressive sight for 1987, with gigantic character sprites that featured fluid animation. The NES isn't normally capable of featuring such large sprites without massive flicker and slowdown, but Nintendo found a way - by adding a special chip in the cart called the MMC2 (Memory Management Controller 2) that allowed for much more graphical power. Oh, and the game's a lot of fun, of course. Essentially it's a a puzzle-based action game, wherein you must quickly block, duck and dodge your opponent's punches and time your counterattacks in order to land hits on them. Well-timed hits can also earn you stars (which enable a hard-hitting hook punch) or even knock the enemy down in one blow. All the while, you also have to be mindful of your heart counter - every time you take a hit or block an attack, your hearts will deplete, and when they're completely emptied, you become tired and cannot block or attack until you dodge several consecutive attacks to get your wind back. It's a test of lightning fast reflexes and pattern memorization, and defeating the game's final challenger (Iron Mike himself) will require you to be an ace at both!

12. 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.

11. Tetris 2 + Bombliss (Chunsoft, 1991 in Japan)

The US famously had two different versions of Tetris, one by Nintendo themselves and one by Tengen, but Japan had two of their own - the original by Bullet Proof Software (which infamously used the D-pad to rotate and A to hard-drop) and another, later version by Chunsoft that's easily the best on the platform.  Not only did it have game modes A and B from the North American version, it had a new "Mode C" that periodically caused garbage to rise from the bottom of the screen.  Bombliss was an entire new game mode that put a twist on the gameplay - adding bombs. Once you cleared a line any bombs in it would detonate, potentially causing chain reactions; your goal here was to clear the screen of all blocks before you ran out of moves.  On top of all that it even had two-player competitive mode similar to the Game Boy version of Tetris, so this is pretty much the total Tetris package of the time.