NES is not my first game system, that was an Atari 2600 Jr., but I’ve got really fond memories of the NES, as it was a vital part of my early years as a gamer, especially in middle school. And let’s face it – there were just so many great games on it. Some people, usually having started in the 16-bit era or later, just love to reduce the NES’s significance, as far as games are concerned, to “Mario 1 and 3, the original Zelda and Mega Man”… But, having much more experience with the system than them, I know they are wrong. And this list is already good enough proof. Don’t expect to find any famous games here. These are the Top 10 hidden NES gems.
The title, particularly the “Top” part, is not to be taken literally. The order is by release date of the NES version of the game and I have only chosen games I have substantial experience with, which means that many other gems are not mentioned here. Of course, as the title suggests, I have also picked games that are not that well-known. But all of them are part of my gaming history. Due to the nature of the list and my intent to “advertise” these 10 games in a way, I have also chosen a YouTube gameplay video for each (many of them thanks to NESGuide). If you haven’t played them yet and they look interesting, why not give them a shot, too?
I hope you enjoy the list!
1. Binary Land (Hudson Soft, 1985)
Binary Land is one of the earliest NES games, and it’s very simplistic. Nevertheless, the concept is quite interesting. Before you start, you choose between the two characters, Gurin and Malon (a male and female penguin), but, as the game starts, you’ll see you play as… both. That’s right, you control them both at the same time. The choice only determines whose controls will be “normal” and whose will be “reversed.” By pressing right, your character moves right, and the other moves left. At least up and down are not swapped, both move up if you press up.
The goal is to have the two penguins meet at the centre top of the stage and unlock the caged heart there. They must be positioned exactly to the left and right of the heart. Once you do so, they kiss and you move on to the next stage. There are many obstacles scattered through the stages, like spiders, spider webs, birds and fires. Spiders kill you if they touch you, webs render you immobile until your partner comes and rescues you, birds swap the two penguins’ positions in the stage, and fires not only kill you, but are also invincible. Your weapon is a ray you can use to get rid of spiders and webs, as well as to rescue your partner when trapped in a spider web. There is also a temporary invincibility card with a picture of a whale on it that appears every once in a while. Once you get a hold of it, you kill everything by touching it, even fires. There are also bonus stages where your partner starts trapped and you’ve got to free him/her and finish the stage within the time limit. Despite liking it a lot, I never got that far into this game… Apparently, there is no real ending, there are 16 stages which repeat with slight variations. Nevertheless, the concept makes it a lot of fun, it’s quite difficult to control and pay attention to both penguins at the same time, especially with enemies nearby. It’s a feeling very few other games have given me.
2. Little Ninja Brothers (Culture Brain, 1989)
Little Ninja Brothers is a lighthearted RPG with interesting quirks. Taking place in large country called Chinaland (…yeah), it puts you in the role of the kung fu-student brothers Jack & Ryu. Yes, the game supports a 2-player mode, which actually functions excellently in a largely single-player genre like the RPG one. Of course, you shouldn’t expect a grand, philosophical story. It’s quite simple – evil guy has captured the Emperor of Chinaland, you must defeat him and save the ruler. On the other hand, the game is very humourous, from the story, through enemy design, town names, NPCs and the interaction with them… It’s really great.
The gameplay also shines. This is the only game I’ve played that actually combines action and turn-based gameplay, putting them on equal grounds (not merely implying one or the other in mini-games or such). Battles are action-based early on, with random encounters and entering separate battle screen from the world map once you start one. Punching and jump kicks are your means of attack, and, as you collect certain items, you can unlock the Dragon Kick and even the Mighty Ball move where Jack and Ryu join up (Ryu shows up especially for this if you’re in single-player mode) and deal heavy damage to the enemies. Later on, turn-based battles are introduced, which are a lot like your run-of-the-mill RPG battle, done by selecting options from a menu and the various attacks doing different amount of damage.
Pretty much every key RPG element is present here – world map, towns, dungeons, buying or acquiring better weapons as you move on, the ability to run from battles (action or turn-based), shops, special items that can let you escape from battle (skateboard) or even transport you to a town you’ve previously visited (whirly bird)… Everything to make a great game is here. Saving is done via a password system, which was a standard of the 8-bit days. You can get the password in towns, write them down, and, as you boot up the game next time, you need to enter your last password to continue where you left off. There is even a “Field Meeting” versus mode, in which Jack and Ryu compete in various track & field-like events.
I really loved this game back when I was in school, and I still do. I remember that once I played it for over 12 hours straight, starting around 11 in the morning and finishing after midnight. My parents weren’t happy with that, but I sure was. The game was just captivating. It was also a considerably long journey, so the sense of accomplishment was huge once I managed to beat it with my brother (a very neat feature is that you can play alone, save the password, and then a second player can join in during your next session with that same password). Little Ninja Brothers is still easily one of my Top 50 games of all time…
3. Strider (Capcom, 1989)
Long before Hiryu appeared in the Marvel vs. Capcom games, where sadly most contemporary gamers know him from, there was the Strider arcade game. It was an arcade action game, it was very difficult, like most arcade games. The NES version of Strider has little to do with it. It was actually being developed before the arcade version, although it released later. There are many things that are awesome about it… Based on the manga, the game’s story is not half bad for an NES game. There are a couple of nice twists. Hiryu is part of the elite Strider organisation, and his friend and fellow Strider Kain has been captured by the enemy. Commander Matic orders Hiryu to find and kill Kain. Naturally, Hiryu doesn’t agree with the latter, but goes to Kazakhstan anyway, to try to rescue Kain. One of the cute points about the game is that, if you choose the “Password” option, after giving you the password and before taking you back to the main screen, there’s a little text preview of what’s coming next in the game, just like at the end of an anime episode.
Hiryu’s weapon is his trusty Cypher, his attacks look a lot like in the arcade version, he can attack to the front or lift the Cypher up to hit enemies above. There are also some light RPG elements which allow you to learn and use various abilities on top of your normal attacks, and to find various items which allow you to do more (such as Water boots allowing you to walk on water, Magnet boots allowing you to walk on magnetic surfaces, even against gravity, etc.). Hiryu also has HP and MP, it’s game over when his HP runs out, but at least your progress in the overall picture is saved, though you have to start the stage you died in over. There are several stages throughout the world – Kazakhstan, Australia, Egypt, China, etc. You have to collect discs in order to get extra info and thus unlock new stages to go to, and sometimes you need to backtrack to stages you’ve visited before and access places you couldn’t before.
Despite all the good stuff, Strider is not without its flaws. Hit detection is not perfect, and it’s funny how even a couple of steps down a slope allow Strider to jump much higher than normally (that’s intentional, though). It’s particularly difficult to do a triangle/wall jump, and that’s necessary in some places. So it’s not unlikely to think you’re stuck if you don’t know about its existence… Back when I first played this game, I did think I was stuck a few times, which led me to tinker around with the password in order to advance the story. That actually worked (passwords followed certain patterns which I figured out), and the first time I beat the game was by using this half-legitimate way to get around a particular part mid-game.
4. A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia (Imagineering, 1989)
The first thing that struck me about David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob was how bad it looked – even for an NES game. The boy (and main character) looked little better than an Atari 2600 protagonist, environments were rather dull… But the gameplay turned out to be extremely fascinating. You have a pet blob… Who can turn into various useful forms that you’ll need in your adventure, such as ladders, holes, bridges, blowtorches… How? By eating jellybeans. You possess a limited amount of them and, by using the Select button, you pick a jellybean to give him. …And that’s about it. You just have to use the appropriate items at the appropriate time to progress, until you finally save Blobolonia. There are also 22 optional treasures to collect through the game, giving you something extra to do.
My personal experience with this game is rather limited, as I never managed to actually beat it back in the day. But I loved the idea of the blob changing forms and basically using him to successfully achieve your goals despite being practically a helpless boy by yourself. And you have to be careful with those jellybeans, too – there’s only a limited amount of them available, and you’ll simply get stuck if you’ve run out of the type required to progress through a particular spot. Recently, there was even A Boy and His Blob game for the Wii, reminding people about this forgotten gem.
5. Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll (Rare, 1990)
When people think of Rare and the NES, Battletoads is naturally the first thing to come to mind. Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll is not nearly as well-known, but it’s also one of the many great NES games (it even got a Mega Drive port later). The one thing that stands out the most is that it’s an isometric platformer, taking place in a pseudo-3D environment. The main characters are the snakes Rattle and Roll, and the game is even more fun in 2-player mode. You start as a snake’s head, basically, but as you eat balls appearing on the screen, you grow a tail. You have to gain a certain amount of weight and weigh yourself on the scales in order to open the door which allows you to proceed to the next level. You attack enemies with your tongue or by jumping on their heads. Warping across different levels is also possible.
Like in just about every other Rare game, there’s a nice amount of humour pretty much throughout the game, with the character and enemy designs being the most obvious, and some neat touches like the Jaws theme playing while a shark is getting closer to you if you’re in the water. This is another game that I haven’t beaten, but the fun times I’ve had with it, especially when playing with my brother or a friend, are much more important.
6. Captain Tsubasa Vol. II: Super Striker (Tecmo, 1990)
This is my favourite game of all time. And while originally it was Japanese-only, there is now a fan-translated version allowing you to play it in English! It’s a football/soccer RPG based on the legendary manga (also anime) by Yoichi Takahashi. This game is part of Tecmo’s Captain Tsubasa series of 5 games (the latter three on the Super Famicom). The story in the games actually branches from the manga/anime a bit, even if most of the characters are the same. Of course, the story itself is nothing that special, revolving almost completely around football, the friendships and enemies made on the pitch, and winning the matches and trophies. All the gameplay is playing matches, and you must win them for the story to progress. There are pretty awesome cutscenes between (and sometimes during) matches, which was particularly impressive back in the NES days. The matches themselves are quite cinematic – there are plenty of special moves (shots, passes, tackles, dribbles…) just like in every good RPG.
If you possess the ball, you move your player through the pitch, while your teammates and opponents move around, as well. At any time, you can press B to stop and pass or shoot, you are also forced to make a choice (shoot, pass, dribble, one-two pass) when an opponent is nearby. When you receive the ball in the penalty area, you can shoot a volley or a header (depending on how high the ball is), again pass, or even trap the ball and go on on the ground. You always control the player with the ball. In defence, you can switch between the players with A and B, getting to the one closest with the opponent with the ball and chasing him to try to take it away. Once you’re against an opponent, you can tackle or try to prevent a pass or a shot. Naturally, if you predict the action he’s about to execute correctly, the chances to take the ball away increase (likewise, you want to do what the opponent is not anticipating when you possess the ball). All of these actions’ success is determined by the players’ various stats and, of course, a random factor.
The game is very difficult, especially as you go further into the story. While this difficulty is achieved mostly through means many would describe as “cheap” (opponents’ stats are usually just considerably higher than yours, and they have infinite energy for special moves, called “Guts” here, while yours is limited), the AI (both yours – which is just the movement of off-ball players, really, and the opposition’s) is quite adequate in most situation, which is impressive considering the nature of the game and the hardware’s limitations. Captain Tsubasa II also has some really memorable tunes bound to make your matches even more enjoyable.
I could go on and on if I started to describe my own experiences… So I’ll try to keep it brief. I was a big fan of the anime (and I’d actually watched the Italian version where the names were changed) and was absolutely delighted when I came across this game in a local pay-to-play game club. It was completely in Japanese, but with enough determination and the good old trial-and-error method, I was able to learn the controls and play it.
As I said, it was really hard, and I did not beat it until like a year later (I hadn’t even learned where I could get passwords for several months, and then I didn’t know that losing had your stats go up so that you could have more of a chance the next time, I kept resetting if I was about to lose). But man, was it euphoric when I did… Later on, as I got my own bootleg NES machine, it was the first game I bought, and I learned it pretty much inside out. Even later, when I watched a version of the anime with the Japanese character names, I even taught myself to read and write the Japanese syllable alphabets, hiragana and katakana.
Despite my massive backlog, Captain Tsubasa II is a game I still replay on a semi-regular basis, I just love it so much.
7. Dick Tracy (Realtime Associates, 1990)
Dick Tracy had an episode of the Angry Video Game Nerd show dedicated to it, and that made me a little sad. It’s one of my favourite NES games. I’ve never really been familiar with the comic or the cartoon, but the Dick Tracy NES game resonated nicely with me. It was a detective story, you had to find clues, interrogate suspected criminals, and finally put everything together to find out who was guilty in the particular case, then catch him and put him behind bars. What’s not to like?
There are two “modes,” so to speak, in the gameplay – driving and action. In order to look for a clue or interrogate someone, you have to first get to the location where they are found. By looking through your trusty notebook (where clues are written down) and the mug shots, you could find those locations. Then, you had to get to them with your police car, in an overhead view mode. That’s not such an easy task, as the town is relatively big (making a map of the town comes in handy for this game), and there are snipers/turrets, as well as criminals driving around and occasionally attacking you as you navigate through it. Once you get to the desired building, you press Select to exit the car and then enter the building on foot, where the game switches to the side-scrolling action mode with the occasional platforming. There are several different weapons (and remember, you can’t shoot at unarmed thugs!) and a few items, the First Aid kit being a key one. Eventually, as you take out those thugs, you get to the clue or the guy you want to interrogate or arrest. The way to success in the game is to find all clues, then it becomes clear who the criminal is out of the suspects, and you have to go and arrest him.
Yeah, there are some slight problems and oddities with the game, such as having to press B + Select to consume a First Aid item, for instance, but it’s hardly anything as bad as AVGN made it out to be. My memories with the game are nothing short of great, what with drawing that map for it and then writing down which locations I’d already visited (my English wasn’t that good in my early age and I mostly found clues by chance). I loved watching detective movies and reading detective books, and this was as good a detective story as a game had ever given me, so I appreciated that. The criminals being oddballs (The Blank being the weirdest out of that circus of weirdos) gave the game quite a bit of charm and had an impact to someone unaware of the source material like me.
8. Kyatto Ninden Teyandee/Ninja Cat (Tecmo, 1991)
I briefly came across the Samurai Pizza Cats anime on the German RTL back in the day. Then I discovered that there was also a game on the NES, and it proved to be a really fun one. Kyatto Ninden Teyandee (or, as the bootleg cartridge I played read, Ninja Cat) is an action platformer in some ways similar to the Mega Man games. It’s a shame that it never saw an official release outside of Japan.
The gameplay is simple to pick up, but offers nice variety. Before a stage starts, you pick between one of the three main characters, and use him/her for that stage. There are also helper characters, also fully playable, but each possessing a unique ability, such as rock breaking, earth digging, swimming, etc., allowing you to go through certain tough spots in the stage. There are, of course, also special samurai powers at your disposal. The game looks quite nicely, between stages and before bosses, there are also cool anime cutscenes with typical exaggerated effects. Again, it’s a game I didn’t beat back in the day, but one that gave me enough nice memories to make it here.
9. Tokyuu Shirei Solbrain/Shatterhand (Natsume, 1991)
Tokyuu Shirei Solbrain is based on the Japanese live-action superhero TV series of the same name. The Western release of the game, Shatterhand, has several notable changes, most particularly the intro and ending. An interesting thing about this game is that, after the first stage, you can choose to play the next five in the order you desire (like in Mega Man). You have to clear them all so that you can play the last one. The gameplay is a lot of fun, with the variety of robotic sidekicks being the best part. You summon them based on a combination of Alpha and Beta letters you collect. With three letter slots, there are 8 possible sidekicks. And, if you gather the same three letters in the same order in the same stage, your sidekick transforms into a bazooka that you blast through enemies with. There are also points to be collected, which are then used to buy a power upgrade or health recovery at certain spots.
Back in the day, I thought the game was a Japanese version of RoboCop, what with the main character changing into a robot in the intro (at least that’s how it looked). This game turned out to be actually better than all the real RoboCop games on the NES. I never managed to beat it when I was a kid, I remember the last stage had some vicious platforming through which I couldn’t make it. Even when I got my own NES, I never managed to get my hands on a fully working version of the cart, but eventually, I did beat it via an emulator.
10. Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu (Technos, 1992)
As I mentioned a while ago in a Video Game Music of the Week entry, I love the Nekketsu series by Technos. There were so many awesome games in it, some fighting like River City Ransom, many others sports ones, I just had to pick one for this list. Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu is still my favourite fighting game of all time despite its simplicity. It’s not your typical old fighting game – the characters actually move through a three-dimensional space like in beat-em-ups. It’s also a team fighter – the story mode can only be played with a partner, be it AI-controlled or another player.
The concept is quite simply – your team has to beat down the other team until they run out of health. The moment both of a team’s fighters are out, the team loses. It all happens at the same time – you can gang up on a single enemy until his partner catches up with you, for instance. A fun quirk is that an item appears as a character is knocked out, and those often restore a lot of health that can help turn around a battle that seemed lost. As you start the game, you have to create your fighter which is done by entering a name, birthdate and blood type. Based on that, you’re assigned a fighter type (there are four in total) and a skill set.
There are special skills that you’ll find familiar if you’ve played other Nekketsu games, such as the Mach Punch/Kick. There are also the almighty airborne rolls, which can destroy an enemy if you can time them right. But, best of all, there are the combination attacks, which are the incarnation of your fighters’ team spirit! It’s always such a nice rush when you manage to pull off one. There’s a team spirit level which is influenced by how well you’re doing and whether you’re accidentally hitting each other in battles. If it’s high, the gauge that determines if your combination attack will work moves slower, making it easier to hit. There are various levels where the battles take place, each with its hazards (spikes, water, ice, electricity…).
The tournament is 15 matches long, much like in sumo, and, if you come on top, your team gets to face the infamous Double Tiger team that issued the challenge and created the tournament in the first place. If you win, you’ll witness the heart-warming ending (interestingly, even the ending varies depending on the type of your characters, their team spirit level, etc.). It’s quite awesome that, by playing the all-out-brawl mode of the game, you can also get passwords and use the predefined characters (such as Kunio and Riki, the River City Ransom protagonists and all-around stars of the Nekketsu franchise) in the story mode.
It goes without saying that this game brought me many nice moments, too, perhaps the most out of all the Nekketsu games. It’s great, frantic fun, it doesn’t require too much of a time investment (you can beat it in like half an hour), and there are so many different character options. I love the feeling after a well-earned difficult victory. And Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu is just amazing with a friend. I still play through it regularly with my brother.
The NES is such a versatile console, you’ll really find all kinds of games on it. Unfortunately, not nearly enough of them get the attention they deserve. I hope this list has managed to show you a few of them in a good light. Many 8-bit games aren’t nearly as outdated as you’d think. I’ll be very happy if this list contributes to your future gaming plans.
So, what do you think? If you’ve played some of these or if you’ve got any other NES gems to suggest, feel free to drop a comment!