The NES was my first console and ultimately my gateway into video games. I’ve told this story before, but when I was a kid my babysitter was a huge gamer and she bought the NES the year it was released for her and her family. I couldn’t even grasp the concept of what a “video game” even was since I was only 6, but she played that thing every single day.
Within a year I had become obsessed with the NES and my parents gifted me my own Before I knew it, video games were the only things I cared about. If you played games in school, I wanted to be your friend. I didn’t want to “go outside and play” in the summer heat! I wanted to play Metroid and Contra!
Needless to say, I have a lot of nostalgia for Nintendo’s 8-bit offering. It was my gateway into video games and I’ll always have a soft spot for it.
I may not always adhere to these things, but at the end of every year, I like jotting down a short list of games that I want to prioritize when January 1st rolls around. Life changes, moods change, but there’s just something warm about making these lists. Sometimes it’s nice to make to-do lists just to feel some sort of catharsis by crossing things out.
So here are the 15 NES games I’d like to check out in 2022, in no particular order. Some I’ve played before, but never finished, and others will be completely new to me.
1. Faxanadu (1989, Hudson Soft)
I’ve definitely played Faxanadu before but I can’t remember if I ever finished it. I know it’s a favorite of Hungry Goriya, who is a wonderful retro game streamer and she’s solely responsible for my Sega Master System adoration, so I’ll play it on principal.
It’s actually part of the Dragon Slayer series, which includes Legacy of the Wizard (that appears further down the list) and the incredible Legend of Heroes series, as well as one of my favorite action RPGs from the previous console generation, Tokyo Xanadu EX+. Neat!
Like a few other games you’ll find on this list, Faxanadu is an RPG adventure that has you exploring the world, leveling up, buying new weapons and spells. It also has an incredible soundtrack and isn’t overly long either.
I will not have negative thoughts. I will remember my mantra.
Average completion time: 6 hours
2. Rygar (1987, Tecmo)
Another action-adventure game with a heavy emphasis on combat and platforming, Rygar has always been a bit too difficult for me to finish. Even as a kid, I always sucked at it!
Rygar is unique, placing you in traditional 2D segments where you platform, explore, and combat enemies with your whip-like spinning disc, then switching to a top-down section that (I think?) acts as an auto-scroller and focuses more on combat.
I’ve watched a bunch of speed runs and Let’s Plays over the years, love the soundtrack, and, even if I never end up beating it, it’s always a fun time.
Average completion time: 3 hours
3. Star Tropics (1990, Nintendo R&D3)
Another action-adventure game with RPG elements? No way!
I owned Star Tropics as a kid and never managed to finish it. I bought it used from Funcoland back in the early ’90s so it didn’t come with the instruction booklet or the ever-important letter from Uncle Steve. Why was this so crucial? Because there’s literally a puzzle in the game that can’t be solved without a secret code that’s revealed by getting the letter wet!
What the heck, right?
In Star Tropics, you’ll explore an island and chat with locals in a traditional RPG viewpoint, then whack monsters with your yoyo in Zelda-style top-down dungeons that also featured platforming and puzzles.
Star Tropics is a wonderful game and I look forward to hopefully seeing it through to the end in 2022. Who knows? I may even try and fit its sequel in as well!
Average completion time: 8 hours
4. Crystalis (1990, SNK)
After a nuclear fallout pushed humanity to the brink of extinction in 1997, you awaken from cryo-sleep 100 years in the future. Monsters roam the world and the Draygonia Empire rules with an iron fist. Guided by four sages, you’re the world’s only hope at defeating the Empire and preventing history from repeating itself.
Crystalis is a sci-fi action RPG that’s bound to be familiar to anyone who has played The Legend of Zelda, but there’s a lot going on under the hood that Nintendo’s outing didn’t dabble in. For starters, Crystalis has a level-up system that boosts your stats and an actual focus on storytelling.
Your main objective before tacking the Big Bad Evil(TM) is to collect four elemental swords, which can be swapped between on the inventory screen. You can also switch up your shields and armor to best suit your current situation, which isn’t something Zelda offered either.
I played this game quite a bit as a kid, but I never managed to finish it. I even picked up the remake on Game Boy Color and didn’t finish that one either. Honestly, though, I didn’t click with that one for some reason.
If you’re curious about this one too, it’s available on all modern platforms thanks to the excellent SNK collection.
Average completion time: 10 hours
5. Vice: Project Doom (1991, Aicom)
Talk about games way ahead of their time!
Vice: Project Doom is a multi-genre cinematic action game, blending 2D action platforming, driving, and on-rails shooting. Imagine the cinematic cutscenes and gameplay of Ninja Gaiden fused with Spy Hunter and Operation Wolf and you wouldn’t be far off. Oh! Or like The Adventures of Bayou Billy, but fun!
Unfortunately for Vice: Project Doom, it released in America at the tail-end of the NES’s life cycle. Hungry gamers were already flocking to the Sega Genesis in droves and Nintendo’s successor, the SNES, had just released as well.
It’s a shame too, because this game kicks ass. The visuals, the music, the gameplay… everything is super good! I’ve just never finished it.
Average completion time: 2 hours
6. Journey to Silius (1990, Sunsoft)
I feel like every discussion about Journey to Silius is required to begin with “this game started off as a Terminator game before Sunsoft ran into licensing issues,” so there you go!
It’s a run-and-gun that definitely feels fitting to the Terminator series, but it’s supposedly quite good on its own merrit. I mean, it’s Sunsoft. They put out some absolute bangers on the NES like Blaster Master, Batman and Batman: Return of the Joker,
Fester’s Quest (not you), Gremlins 2, and the often overlooked gem Ufouria: The Saga. Their track record speaks for itself.
In Journey to Silius you play as the ’80s-as-hell-named Jay McCray, the son of a prolific scientist responsible for developing space colonies to combat Earth’s population crisis. Robots kill him in a terrorist attack, but dad leaves you with the task of taking over his duties and protecting what’s left.
It’s an action-focused shooter with a variety of weapons and levels to blast through, but the weapon system differs from something like Contra since you only have limited ammunition to work with. Essentially, running out of ammo for your fancy new weapon will automatically revert Jay back to his pea-shooter.
I love a good run-and-gun and I’ve liked what music I’ve heard over the years, but I’ve never gotten the chance to actually play it. I bought a used cartridge back in 2000 (along with a game we’ll see later in this list) but it didn’t work and I couldn’t manage to repair it.
Average completion time: 1-4 hours (?)
7. Clash at Demonhead (1990, Vic Tokai)
I don’t know who names these guys, but in Clash at Demonhead you play as Billy “Big Bang” Blitz and now that I know that I’m immediately regretting my decision to add this game to my list.
Your goal is to track down and kill six villains in order to obtain all of their medallions, which are the key to stopping a world-ending Doomsday Bomb from detonating. You’re also tasked with rescuing a scientist named Professor Plum (are you fucking KIDDING ME?!). I already kind of hate this.
So why do I want to play it? Mainly because of the non-linear campaign and it being highly recommended by friends with similar taste in games.
On the surface, Clash at Demonhead seems like your average platform shooter, but throughout the game Billy Blitz and his dumb fucking name can purchase weapon upgrades and unlock magic that lets you shrink and fly.
Its pathing structure allows you to choose your own routes, of which there are 40, to complete the mission. This is similar to what occurs in Bionic Commando, I think?
Average completion time: 4 hours
8. Little Ninja Brothers (1990, Culture Brain)
Though questionably named Super Chinese 2 in Japan, Little Ninja Brothers is an action RPG where you play as two little… ninja brothers (ohhhhh) fighting back against the evil Blu Boltar after his invasion of the equally questionably named Chinaland.
I’ve actually played the first game in the series, Kung-fu Heroes (or Super Chinese), but it’s not one of my favorite games on the NES. This one takes some of the same action gameplay elements and blends it together with a traditional RPG foundation, complete with the occasional turn-based battle.
I’m also interested in a game if it blends genres together. Even if I don’t stick with this one (it’s on the longer side of things) I’m definitely keen on checking it out.
Average completion time: 20 hours
9. Legacy of the Wizard (1989, Nihon Falcom)
Like Faxanadu above, Legacy of the Wizard is part of the bigger Dragon Slayer universe, though the two aren’t narratively connected. And while Faxanadu is more of an action RPG, this one is more of an exploratory puzzle game.
Here you play as literally everyone in the Drasle family in order to descend a labyrinthine dungeon and defeat the evil dragon queen Keela. You’ll switch between 7 different characters, each with their own unique abilities that you’ll need to explore the labyrinth in search of four crowns that will unlock the titular Dragon Slayer sword (deep breath).
For instance, the family dog is invulnerable to damage and is good for scouting out locations. Dad is a strong boy whose larger body prevents him from jumping very high, while mom can cast magic at the cost of terrible defensive stats.
This is such a rad concept for an adventure game. I’ve seen this style of gameplay used in things like The Lost Vikings and Trine, but this takes it to the extreme, allowing you to explore far away from each other and learning whose ability you’ll need to progress in that direction.
There was a game released last year (2020) called Astalon: Tears of the Earth that seems heavily inspired by Legacy of the Wizard and I really need to check it out soon.
I rented this game a few times as a kid and really enjoyed it, but I never managed to finish it due to it being just an overnight or weekend rental. I never picked it up during my NES collecting obsession in 2000 and I’d really like to revisit it in hopes of finally seeing the credits roll. It’s a meaty game, though.
Average completion time: 27 hours
10. The Magic of Scheherazade (1990, Culture Brain)
Otherwise known as “the game with the unpronouncable name” when I was a kid, The Magic of Scheherazade is a middle-eastern fantasy-filled action RPG where you’ll travel through different time periods to rescue the titular princess and defeat the evil wizard Sabaron.
There are three different classes to choose from, being saint, fighter, and magician, which intruiges me. What intriguies me more, though, is that you’re occasionally forced into turn-based battles to break up the more action-focused combat found in most of the game.
I often see this game appear on “hidden gems” lists and videos and I’ve always wanted to check it out.
Average completion time: 9 hours
11. Power Blade (1991, Taito)
Look at that badass on the cover! That’s Nova, the world’s only hope of repelling an alien invasion set on destroying Earth’s Master Computer and putting us into extinction. Armed with the titular boomerang, you’ll crack skulls across a handful of levels and restore the computer’s database for the good of humankind.
This is another late release in the NES’s life cycle that caused it to fly under my radar. I was already obsessed with the Genesis and stopped asking my parents for new NES games moving forward. I also never found a physical copy during my collecting days……
Power Blade often shows up in “hidden gems” lists, along with its sequel. I generally enjoy these types of action platformers and I’m sure I’ll click with it. If I do, consider Power Blade 2 added to the list as well.
Average completion time: 1 hour
12. Kickmaster (1992, KID)
By the time Kickmaster landed on American shores the NES was long forgotten by my 11-year-old self. Like I mentioned above, I was head over heels with my Sega Genesis and often played SNES games at a friend’s house, so NES games couldn’t be further from my mind.
This is an action platformer with an emphasis on melee combat. As the name implies, you’re super good at kicking stuff until it stops breathing and you’ll be doing just that on this revenge mission.
Look at you, master of kicks.
As the titular Kickmaster, your royal parents have been assassinated and your sister kidnapped. It’s up to you to kick shit to death on your way back home, unlocking new abilities and magic along the way.
This is often considered one of the best playing action games on the NES, which is a bold statement. I’m ready to master some kicks, though.
Average completion time: 4 hours
13. Little Samson (1992, Takeru)
The rarest and most expensive NES game, Little Samson released very late in the NES’s lifespan (are you noticing a trend yet?) and I didn’t even know it existed until about 10 years ago when tales about its $1000+ pricetag started making the rounds. It’s now up to $4000 for graded copies, by the way.
Little Samson is similar to Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, where your titular hero can use the abilities of four different characters to battle monsters and solve puzzles. You can switch characters whenever you want and each has their own health meter, but share one life counter.
As Samson, you can move faster and jump further than the other characters, as well as climbing on walls and ceilings.
Kikira is princess cursed to live out the rest of her life as a dragon. She plays like a mix of Super Mario Bros 2’s Princess Peach, with the ability to float for a period of time, and Mega Man 4’s version of the blue bomber, firing projectiles that can be charged by holding down the attack button.
You eventually enlist the services of Gamm the golem, who has more defense and health than all the others, but his jumping ability kind of sucks. He is the only character that can attack in all four directions and his punches are the highest damaging attack in the game. Adding sizzle to the steak, he doesn’t take damage from stage hazards.
The final hero you obtain is K.O., a mouse that attacks with bombs and uses his small size to enter areas unreachable by the others. He’s fast, a good jumper, and can grab onto walls and ceilings like Samson.
With its variety of characters and play-styles, this seems like an action adventure game that’s right up my alley. I’ll be emulating this one, though, because I’m not giving anyone $4000 for any video game. Ever.
Average completion time: 4 hours
14. The Battle of Olympus (1989, Infinity)
This is the other NES cartridge that I bought and mentioned earlier in the list, and, like Journey to Silius, it didn’t work and couldn’t be repaired. I guess that’s why they were only $1 each back then?
As you’d expect, The Battle of Olympus is thickly rooted in Greek mythology and puts you in control of Orpheus and tasks you with gaining the favor of the gods in order to save your girlfriend Helene. Wait a minute *checks notes*… I thought they were siblings? They are! Well, that’s awkward then.
This game is often recommended whenever I mention enjoying Zelda II: Adventure of Link since it’s supposedly the same damn game with a Greek coat of paint. I’m always interested in experiencing new 2D action RPGs.
Average completion time: 13 hours
15. Gargoyle’s Quest II (1992, Capcom)
Serving as a sequel to the original Game Boy release and launching way too late in the NES’s life, Gargoyle’s Quest II blends traditional top-down RPG elements and exploration with 2D action platforming that would eventually show up in the SNES’s excellent Demon’s Crest.
As Firebrand, you can fly and shoot fireballs and boost your stats by talking with fellow demons in town and collecting secret items.
I love Demon’s Crest and enjoyed Gargoyle’s Quest enough, but I didn’t even know a sequel existed until I started making this list. It looks beautiful.
Average completion time: 4 hours
There are a plethora of games on the NES that I either liked and never finished or outright never played, but these are the top 15 on my list.
Have you played any of these? If so, what did you think of them?
I’m always interested in recommendations as well, especially for games that would be considered hidden gems, so don’t be shy in the comments!
*Some screenshots from Launch Box Games Database and NESGuide.com.