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When the Nintendo Entertainment System hit store shelves in 1985 it redefined the home console experience. While the NES wasn’t the first device to bring video games out of the arcade and into the living room, there’s no question that it is one of the most important pieces of technology in video game history. It changed the landscape of what home consoles could be, closing the gap between the home console experience and what you could find at the local arcade.
While the hardware was certainly impressive, it was the high standards that Nintendo held their games to that set the NES apart from its competitors. Nintendo broke their games down into genres, clearly printing what type of game you were purchasing on the box art, making it easier for both parents and kids to find the types of games they were interested in. The company also incorporated an authentication chip into the NES that helped them maintain quality control, no game that didn’t pass their high standards would work on their home console.
There was nearly seven hundred NES titles released here in North America, making for a large catalog to pick from when it comes to choosing the five best games released on the platform. Part of the fun of these lists is that they’re subjective, my number five could be another person’s number one, or not appear in their top five at all. But to me, these are the five NES games that I not only enjoyed the most, but that have had the biggest impact on the games that followed them. These are the titles that blazed a trail for the games we play today, building foundations for quality gameplay and storytelling.
It’s only fitting that the game that accompanied every NES console makes the list. Super Mario Bros. was a revolutionary platformer that not only set the standard for a genre that is still relevant today, it elevated its protagonist to superstar level. Whether you play video games or not, you know Mario when you see him. His level of fame transcends the medium he has dominated for over thirty years, he’s not just an icon in the video game industry but in all of pop culture. The game gave birth to a franchise that still generates games today, with Mario titles appearing on every Nintendo console to date. Super Mario Bros. would go on to serve as a template for countless platformers, but only the game’s direct successors would manage to surpass the game that inspired them. The Nintendo classic is still fun to play three decades after its release, and it remains one of the most influential video games ever made.
On the surface Metroid initially appeared to be nothing more than a platformer in a science fiction costume, but after just a few minutes of playing the game it was obvious that it had much more to offer. It combined vivid world-building with tight gameplay, cleverly incorporating specific tools and weapons to unlock new areas of the map. This style of game design would go on to be used countless times, eventually becoming known as “Metroidvania”, a combination of Metroid and the Castlevania series. One of my favorite memories of Metroid was the game’s ending, which featured a challenging battle through a seemingly-endless army of metroids that eventually led to the Mother Brain. I played it over and over again, I couldn’t get enough of this part of the game and the amazing score that played as protagonist Samus Aran escaped the facility.
By 1987 the Nintendo Entertainment System was established as the must-own home video game console. While they were dominating their market Mike Tyson was dominating the boxing ring, and the two powerhouses joined forces to deliver one of the best sports games of the generation. The interesting thing about Punch Out!! is that it was more of a puzzle game than a sports title, relying on pattern recognition and problem-solving to bring down the game’s cast of colorful opponents. Punch Out!! is the grandfather of every modern rhythm game, without the classic NES title there never would’ve been a Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Amusing dialog from your coach Doc and a cameo appearance by Mario as the referee add a whimsical tone that’s supported by characters like Bald Bull, Glass Joe, and everyone’s favorite King Hippo. It’s a timeless classic that is still fun to play, and it remains my favorite “sports” game.
While Super Mario Bros. 2 took the Mario franchise in a completely different direction than its predecessor, the third game returned the series to its roots. Mario’s third adventure is superior to the original in every way, it handles like a dream and might be the most creative game of the generation. It has costume changes and mini-games, hidden secrets and new power-ups, every level of every world has a unique flavor to it, leaving the game with a degree of freshness that just wasn’t seen before in the 8-bit era. Super Mario Bros. 3 never feels repetitive, there’s just so much to do and see in the game. Every boss battle is unique, every world offers multiple routes to success, in a time when video games had perhaps grown stale it proved that with some outside the box thinking anything was possible. Super Mario Bros. 3 could easily hold the top spot on this list, but that speaks volumes about how highly I think of number one.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of The Legend of Zelda. Every sandbox game owes a debt of gratitude to the NES classic, a game that built a blueprint for how a successful open world game is created. Zelda is a masterpiece, offering a level of exploration and freedom that simply wasn’t seen in video games in 1986. The above ground world felt alive with each area having a distinct look and feel, while also featuring enemies specific to the region. New mysteries and creative boss battles awaited in each of the game’s nine dungeons, and while tackling them in the order they were meant to be completed was ideal the game didn’t force you to do so. While home consoles were years away from matching arcade cabinets in terms of graphics and sound, Zelda did something the quarter-hungry machines couldn’t: it delivered an epic adventure for the cost of a single video game cartridge. And Nintendo wasn’t satisfied with providing just a main quest, as Zelda features the best post-credit treat in video game history: an entire second adventure! It all adds up make Legend of Zelda not only my top title of the NES era, but also my favorite video game of all time.