The 9 Best NES Games of 2020

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Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Super Mario Bros. 3 at Amazon

"Complete challenges and play mini-games to collect rewards."

Best Action: Mega Man 2 at Amazon

"Play as a little blue cyborg on a mission to defeat the series' most notorious villain: the mad scientist Dr. Wily."

Best RPG: Final Fantasy at Amazon

"Choose one of six different character classes — healer, fighter, thief, and more — to create a strong and balanced team."

Best Adventure: The Legend of Zelda at Amazon

"Battle a litany of pig warriors, rock-spitting octopi, sword-wielding lion creatures, and more."

Best Shooter: Duck Hunt at Amazon

"This game is the simplest and most beginner-friendly shooter for the NES."

Best Platform Game: Super Mario Bros. at Amazon

"It's sure to please any gamer that appreciates where the Mario mega-franchise started."

Best Puzzle: Tetris at Amazon

"The tile-matching puzzle game is still both addictive and challenging to play."

Best Sports: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! at Amazon

"This NES classic has you bobbing, jabbing, and upper-cutting your way through 13 opponents."

Best Run-and-Gun: Contra at Amazon

"This is an action-packed explosion for the NES and the system’s quintessential run-and-gun game."

Sometimes you just can't mess with the classics, so we've updated our definitive list of the best NES games for the original home entertainment system. We aren't just looking at these titles through the lens of nostalgia either, these are games whose aesthetics and mechanics have withstood the test of time to be hailed as some of the best.

While nothing can truly emulate the original experience of booting up a physical cartridge on an old CRT screen, not everyone has access to a working NES console, let alone a TV that could've belonged to their grandparents. However, there are still plenty of ways to experience these classics through online emulators or the Nintendo eShop.

If you're in the mood for something a bit less nostalgic, make sure to check out our guide to the best Playstation 4 games of 2020.

01
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Best Overall: Super Mario Bros. 3

Super Mario Bros. 3

Courtesy of Amazon

What We Like
  • An excellent evolution of the definitive platformer

What We Don't Like
  • Graphics may feel a bit dated

In this classic platformer, you can play as Mario or Luigi, exploring seven unique kingdoms and facing off against enemies as you race to rescue the imperiled Princess Toadstool. Complete challenges and play mini-games to collect rewards, rationing your inventory of items to prepare for each increasingly difficult level. There are also lots of quirky temporary power-ups, like a frog suit for improved swimming skills or a giant boot to protect you against spikes.

The simple platform design of Super Mario Bros. 3 makes it beginner-friendly and endlessly replayable. As you advance through the levels, the gameplay only gets more challenging — and the battle between plumber and Koopa continues.

If you're curious how this immortal title plays into the larger tapestry of gaming, make sure to check out our History of Nintendo Video Games.

02
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Best Action: Mega Man 2

What We Like
  • Open ended structure

  • Challenging enemies and levels

What We Don't Like
  • Difficulty can be brutal

Arguably the best action sci-fi experience for the NES, Mega Man 2 has you playing as a little blue cyborg on a mission to defeat the series' most notorious villain: the mad scientist Dr. Wily. Wily has created a series of menacing robots to take you down, and you must battle your way through their respective lairs — to the beat of a very '80s soundtrack, of course.

Climb down ladders, jump on floating platforms, avoid the falling spike traps, robo frogs, and more. If you survive, you're rewarded with a boss battle against each of Wily's dangerous robot masters. If you defeat them, you’ll gain their signature weapon (sawblades, whirlwinds, and more) which you can then wield against the next boss. Each boss defeat also earns you a unique password code that saves all your progress up at that point.

Mega Man 2 has a high replay value that will keep you entertained for hours. It originally took its developers 20 hours a day to make, resulting in one of the finest games to ever grace the NES.

03
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Best RPG: Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy

Courtesy of Amazon

What We Like
  • The original JRPG

  • Dated graphics mask a remarkably robust RPG

What We Don't Like
  • Slow paced

Final Fantasy was made during a time when its company, Square, was about to go bankrupt. Miraculously, it became one of the most influential and successful role-playing games (RPGs) ever. This game marks the first in the Final Fantasy series, and new games are still being produced today. But it originally hit its stride in the late '80s by offering a richer and more in-depth 8-bit RPG that was unlike anything the gaming industry had seen.

Final Fantasy also set itself apart from other RPGs with its character selection and cooperative gameplay. You play as the Light Warriors, four heroes on a quest to save the world from enemy hordes and demonic villains. Each player chooses one of six different character classes — healer, fighter, thief, and more — to create a strong and balanced team. You must work together to level up and form a winning strategy against your enemies.

04
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Best Adventure: The Legend of Zelda

What We Like
  • Timeless protagonist

  • RPG-lite progression systems

  • Excellent 8-bit soundtrack

What We Don't Like
  • Very little guidance or direction

  • Requires some manual note-taking

With The Legend of Zelda, you'll set out on the biggest adventure made for the NES. Played from a top-down perspective, this game was one of the first to feature an open world environment. That means you can freely explore the game's map as you try to complete your quest: collecting all the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom and rescuing Princess Zelda.

The story takes place in Hyrule, a medieval-looking fantasy land that’s been taken over by the evil wizard Ganon. You play as the adventurous Link, traversing forests and dungeons, solving puzzles to collect items, and battling a litany of pig warriors, rock-spitting octopi, sword-wielding lion creatures, and more. Don’t worry: there’s a save option.

The Legend of Zelda incorporates a mix of action and role-playing elements that make for exciting gameplay as well as an engaging storyline. It's no wonder this game is such a timeless classic.

"The original Legend of Zelda was hardly a masterwork of design but the open-world nature of the game and puzzles were certainly an interesting experience." — Alan Bradley, Tech Commerce Editor

05
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Best Shooter: Duck Hunt

What We Like
  • Simple premise

  • The best possible use of the Lightgun accessory

What We Don't Like
  • Requires a CRT screen to play

  • Lightgun isn't the most accurate peripheral

This is a game that truly anyone can play — it’s the simplest and most beginner-friendly shooter for the NES. Part of what makes Duck Hunt so unique is that it requires an NES Zapper to play. The Zapper is a light gun peripheral for the NES console that allows you to aim and shoot directly at the TV. (Note that you’ll need an older TV for it to work, as these retro accessories aren't exactly flat-screen friendly).

Duck Hunt can be played with either one or two ducks on screen. You have three shots to hit them. If you miss completely, the notorious Duck Hunt dog will pop up from the bottom of the screen and giggle at you. (If this doesn't sound rage-inducing...just wait.) There is also a Clay Shooting mode that's set on a different landscape but it just as straightforward to play.

The gameplay is definitely redundant, but each mode offers its unique challenges. Duck Hunt is such a classic because it's simple, novel, and equal parts meditative and frustrating. It can also make for a surprisingly hilarious party game.

06
of 09

Best Platform Game: Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros.

Courtesy of Amazon

What We Like
  • THE original platformer

  • A masterclass in many systems we take for granted in modern gaming

What We Don't Like
  • Water levels are still a drag

  • No real save system

Super Mario Bros. is the game that redefined what side-scrolling platform games could be, ultimately leading to their prominence and popularity in the '80s and '90s. Nintendo perfected the physics and game controls and, paired with the world's most recognizable video game character, created one of the greatest games of all time.

You play as Mario, the eponymous plumber and resident of the Mushroom Kingdom. The evil Bowser has kidnapped Princess Toadstool and it’s up to you (and a friend, if you'd like) to save her. You’ll journey through eight wild worlds with four levels each, swimming underwater, jumping atop sky-high platforms, and navigating lava-filled dungeons. Even 33 years later, the game retains its charm and challenge. It's sure to please any gamer that appreciates where the Mario mega-franchise started.

If you want to see how this entry stack up against other games featuring the world's favorite plumber, make sure to check out our definitive list of the best Mario Games of 2020.

07
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Best Puzzle: Tetris

Tetris

Courtesy of Amazon 

What We Like
  • Easy to learn, difficult to master

  • Remarkably addictive

What We Don't Like
  • Little variation or depth

Fun fact: the Soviet Union actually produced the best-selling video game franchise in history (170 million copies). That franchise was Tetris. The tile-matching puzzle game is still both addictive and challenging to play on the NES, providing hours of entertainment as you rotate and sort those little falling shapes.

Tetris uses seven different shapes called Tetrimino that are made of four (tetra-) blocks each. These shapes randomly fall from the top of the screen and stack up at the bottom. Your job is to move and rotate the pieces to fill the gaps and create solid horizontal lines of Tetrimino. Once a line is complete, it disappears. If the shapes stack up to the top of the screen, it's game over.

Tetris for the NES is filled with options, like selecting different levels of difficulty, picking three types of “concentration” music (including "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"), checking out the statistics of each type of block fallen in your game, and playing an endless or elimination mode of clearing 25 lines at a chosen difficulty and height.

"Strangely enough, the original Tetris, developed by Alexey Pajitnov was initially picked up by the Soviet Union's department of psychiatrists to test for hand-eye coordination." Alice Newcome-Beill, Associate Commerce Editor

08
of 09

Best Sports: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

What We Like
  • Classic characters

  • Fast-paced action

What We Don't Like
  • Characters adhere to racial stereotypes

  • Unforgiving difficulty

“Mike is waiting for your challenge!” Are you ready to get in the ring? No other boxing game competes against this NES classic that has you bobbing, jabbing, and upper-cutting your way through 13 opponents from all around the globe.

In Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!, you play as Little Mac, a 17-year old amateur boxer from the Bronx who is out to claim the title of the World Video Boxing Association. On your road to victory, you'll learn to read the telegraphed moves of your opponents, save your heart energy so you don't get exhausted, and perform counterattacks to earn stars — and ultimately deliver a knockout uppercut. Through each round, your trainer Doc Louis will give you advice on how to beat your next opponent. Hopefully, you'll be ready when the bell rings.

09
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Best Run-and-Gun: Contra

Contra

Courtesy of Amazon

Contra is an action-packed explosion for the NES and the system’s quintessential run-and-gun game. Originally released as an old-school arcade game, Contra came to the console in 1988. It's just as fun and challenging today, providing hours of entertainment as you and a friend become super commandos defending the Earth from giant robots and aliens.

If you love a certain brand of '80s movies — specifically Schwarzenegger and Stallone's brand of swaggering, explosion-filled action — then you'll probably love Contra. This game takes you through eight different stages, from militarized tech jungles to alien mouth bases, collecting power-ups that will help you fight your enemies. And there are lots of them: scuba soldiers, artillery, defense bots, and more. If the game is too hard for you, you can always use the famous Konami Code of up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start for 30 extra lives. But you didn't hear it from us.

Final Verdict

If you're looking for a place to re-experience your love of vintage video games, or are just looking for an awesome starting point for someone that missed out on these titles growing up, it's hard to go wrong with Super Mario Bros 3.

About Our Trusted Experts

Alice Newcome-Beill never got to experience these games the way many of her friends did during the heyday of the NES, but instead played many of these titles on emulated her Commodore 64. Tetris remains one of her all-time favorite games and is currently humming the theme to Legend of Zelda.

Tech editor Alan Bradley has previously written for PC Gamer, Rolling Stone and Paste. He enjoys writing about gaming and the larger impact it has in our tech-obsessed world.

What to Look for in the Best NES Games

Character - Most NES games have stood the test of time because of their charming and readable character designs, but not all of them are winners. It's pretty easy to pick out characters like Mario or Kirby from a lineup of classic characters, but ask anyone who Rygar is, and you'll likely just get a blank stare in return.

Content - Platformers certainly were the bread and butter of the NES, but the original home entertainment system definitely has more to offer than just your Marios and Mega Mans. You can mix things up with bullet hell staples like 1942, brawl from left to right with River City Ransom, or even experience the original stealth title, Metal Gear.

Difficulty - There is sometimes a misconception that NES games might be easy due to their generally charming, stylized aesthetic. But if you're using these titles as an initial foray into gaming, be careful which ones you pick. This is still the console that gave us titles like Battletoads, and Commando which were notorious for their difficulty.