All 30 NES Classic Games, Ranked

Most NES games have not aged very well. The Nintendo Entertainment System relied too much on antiquated principles from coin-operated arcades — timers, limited lives, inflated difficulty — that just don't make for good video games in 2016.

That doesn't mean the NES Classic, which was released yesterday, is a waste of your money. For $99.95 you'll get a tiny NES-shaped emulation box that will play 30 different classic games, and although at least a dozen of those games are only good for nostalgia value, there are still some that actually hold up. I've been playing around with the mini-NES for the past couple of days, and a couple have surprised me in both directions.

Let's rank'em, shall we? Here's a list of all 30 games in order, from worst to best, ranked not based on their influence or how they were back in the '80s and '90s, but how they play today.

Onwards.

30. Excitebike 

Excitebike, in which you must mash the A and B buttons to propel a faceless biker over hills and speed traps, is a truly awful video game.

29. Ghosts N' Goblins

Best known for its unforgiving difficulty, Ghosts N' Goblins might also have the worst sound effects of any NES game. It's tough to play.

28. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

In theory, Simon's Quest should be really rad, combining the platforming action of Castlevania with the depth of an open-world RPG. In practice, it's a disaster, thanks mostly to a terrible translation that makes it impossible to know what to do at any given time unless you're following a strict walkthrough.

27. Super C (AKA Super Contra)

I know a lot of people have fond memories of Contra, but today it's just kinda boring. The Konami code is still fun, though.

26. Double Dragon II: The Revenge

Like Super C, Double Dragon II is an arcadey sidescroller in which you fight through endless waves of enemies and try not to die because of dumb controls and inflated difficulty. Today it is mediocre at best.

25. Ninja Gaiden

Not terrible, but not quite as smooth as its successors. A lot of Ninja Gaiden's difficulty comes more from imprecise controls and unfair enemy positioning than any sort of real challenge.

24. Ice Climber

A silly game where you have to break bricks and jump up a series of vertical platforms. Gets old really quickly. Nana and Popo deserve better.

23. Donkey Kong Jr.

This game has some cool ideas — swinging between vines is fun, when it works — but the execution isn't great. The controls are too imprecise.

22. Balloon Fight

Hasn't held up well, even if the idea of floating around on balloons and knocking out birds was revolutionary for its time.

21. Mario Bros

Don't get confused: This is not Mario as we know it today. It's just a mini-game in which you (and/or a friend) jump around a pipe and bash monsters with your head. (You may remember that Mario Bros. was actually included as part of Super Mario Bros. and some of its sequels.)

20. Bubble Bobble

Another entry in the Arcade Game With No Depth category, elevated on the list because the music kicks arse. (I also may be a bit biased — when I was a kid, this game was the highlight of my orthodontist's office.)

19. Donkey Kong

You have probably played Donkey Kong. Rest assured: It is still Donkey Kong.

18. Galaga

Just like Space Invaders, pretty fun until it's not any more.

17. Kid Icarus  

Some nasty framerate drops make Kid Icarus far more frustrating than it should be, but it's still fun to hop around the world of Angel Land and shoot arrows at eggplant wizards.

16. Punch-Out

Little Mac isn't quite as fun in Punch-Out as he is in Super Smash Bros.. Still, there's a satisfying rhythm to dodging and walloping opponents in this boxing game.

15. Gradius

If you like sidescrolling shoot'em'ups, you can't do much better than Gradius. A neat power-up system elevates this one.

14. Pac-Man

Remember Pac-Man?

13. Tecmo Bowl

Surprisingly fun if you like football, even if it isn't exactly, uh, accurate. The tackling animations are incredible.

12. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Loses some points because it's so obtuse, and because the random encounters are so frustrating (random battles - real rewards = terrible combo), but this is an underrated Zelda game. Even if it doesn't feel like any other Zelda game.

11. Final Fantasy

Although the first Final Fantasy was a revolutionary game that gave life to JRPGs as we know them, it doesn't hold up on NES. Play the GBA or PSP versions instead.

10. Metroid

Doesn't hold a candle to Super Metroid, but the first Metroid holds up surprisingly well. Spoilers: Samus is a lady.

9. Castlevania

Just like Metroid, the first Castlevania is surprisingly fun and accessible in 2016. There's a reason we remember these games more fondly than, say, Ghosts N' Goblins.

8. Dr Mario

Although Dr Mario is one of those repetitive arcadey games I criticised earlier on this list, it's way better than any of them. Like Tetris (which, sadly, is sorely missing from the NES Classic), Dr Mario is an addictive puzzler that can get really challenging and never stops feeling fresh.

7. Kirby's Adventure

Kirby's Adventure, more than any other game on this list, feels like it could've been on the Super Nintendo. Released toward the end of the NES's life-cycle, in 1993, the first console Kirby game is way smoother and more polished than you'd expect from the 8-bit era.

6. Mega Man 2

Mega Man still kicks arse. Although Mega Man 2 can be as frustratingly difficult as other, less popular NES games, there's something about the structure (eight bosses that can be played in any order) and the reward system (when you beat a boss, you take its powers) that has always made Mega Man games stand out. It's the good kind of tough.

5. Super Mario Bros.

Feels kinda clunky, but still great.

4. Super Mario Bros. 2

Feels way less clunky. Still great. Weird as hell.

3. The Legend of Zelda

Hyrule is just as intimidating, mystifying and fascinating as it was in 1986. You might want a walkthrough if you intend to play Zelda in its entirety — or you could just pick a direction and start exploring. Don't forget: Dodongo dislikes smoke.

2. StarTropics

Surprise! I had never actually played StarTropics before the NES Classic, so I didn't expect it to rank this high, but it's aged surprisingly well. In short, StarTropics is a Zelda clone. You play as a baseball pitcher who has to rescue his uncle from a mysterious tropical island full of puzzles, baddies and bosses. Walking around the world feels a bit stiff thanks to a turning animation that's just a frame too long, but the Zelda formula makes it work.

1. Super Mario Bros. 3

If you're used to the forgiving smoothness of Super Mario World and every Mario game that's come out since, you might find the precise jumps of Super Mario Bros. 3 a little frustrating. But once you get used to the way it feels to slide, jump and fly, you'll find that SMB3 is still one of the greatest games of all time. Getting to play it on an NES controller again might be the best justification for purchasing this console.

WATCH MORE: Nintendo News


Comments

    Excitebike ... is a truly awful video game.m8 lets go

      yeh boi!

      nah but seriously, was an awesome game. especially the level creator.

    Also god damn I wish we got Street Gangs instead of... I dunno, Tecmo Bowl or something.

    What the actual f**k - what an awful selection process.

    Double Dragon II at 26? It's actually a pretty good game with some unforgiving platforming thrown in. But the sound track and theme are awesome. One of my top 10 NES games. Why would Kid Icarus be higher than this? If anything it's a lot less forgiving.

    Plus, you can't say SMB1 is clunky - that's just plain wrong. Compared to SMB3, yes, but that's like comparing apples to oranges, and definitely should be above SMB2.

    100% agree with you on Excitebike.

    /nerd rant

    "that just don't make for good video games in 2016"

    really... that is what makes games awesome

      Hahaha you want an explanation to a statement on Kotaku. Good luck.

      Last edited 11/11/16 1:45 pm

    Well I mean even if the top ten are the only good ones (let's face it, people are mainly buying this for Zelda and Mario Bros right?), it's still pretty good value. Looking forward to buying from the next shipment next month when the hype has died down. Bring on the Mini-SNES!

      10 minutes after playing our Mini NES last night we turned to each other and said "they should do this for the SNES!"

        They'd be bonkers not to, the way they've been able to move these things. I doubt we'll see a mini N64 or Gamecube, but NES and SNES can be easily emulated. The Spawn Point bar in Sydney already had emulators set up with Raspberry Pi which is basically all the Mini-NES is, as far as I know.

        I said this the moment this system was announced lol.

        Bring on the Classic SNES, and the Classic N64 while they are at it. Both are easily doable.

        Heck why stop there? Why not release a Classic Gameboy or Classic Gameboy Advance?

        Last edited 11/11/16 4:21 pm

    Drouble Dragon 2 is a breeze compared to Double Dragon 3. You just need to man up.

      I can agree with that comment. Double Dragon 3 was much more difficult as the user couldn't earn extra lives while playing the game. I agree, "Man up."

    I think people are angry at this list because of nostalgia. But there's very much a difference between how a game is received in 1986 and how a game is received 30 years later, and that's something that's got to be accepted

    This is a terrible article.

    I regularly hit up NES games on the Wii U and they still have tons going for them, even compared to modern games. Primarily they offer immediate action and challenge. No loading times, no introductory cutscenes, no walking simulator levels. You are just given a sword, gun, or pair of jumping boots and told to get going.

    The only real problem I have with NES games is the flicker and slowdown that sometimes happens.

      Funny thing is that flicker is one of the things that MegaMan X deliberately emulated.

      Its funny the things we get nostalgic for.

    Most of the comments about these games are so lame. These games have huge amounts of depth, it's just a different type of depth to what modern games offer. You can easily argue the same comment backwards and claim that modern games offer no depth. Sounds very much like the reviewer is comparing them to modern games. The way to approach NES games is imagine you just spent £30 on it and you wouldn't be getting another one for 2 months. Then instead of expecting instant thrills and entertainment, you really give it a chance and often find all sort of depth and interest that wasn't immediately obvious. A good example of this would be Days Of Thunder. I challenge anyone to think this game is good in the first 30 minutes of play. Come back to it though and give it a chance and eventually it reveals itself to be completely badass.

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