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 comes out Friday, is a waste of your money. For $60 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 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.
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 ass. (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.
Just like Space Invaders, pretty fun until it’s not anymore.
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.
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.
If you like sidescrolling shoot’em’ups, you can’t do much better than Gradius. A neat power-up system elevates this one.
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.
Doesn’t hold a candle to Super Metroid, but the first Metroid holds up surprisingly well. Spoilers: Samus is a lady.
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 criticized 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 ass. 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.
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.