I bought an original NES! Since I recently re-purchased a Model 2 Genesis and built up a small collection, I was inspired to do the same for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first console I ever owned (but traded in long, long ago). After grabbing Turtles II and III for my cartridge cleaning post, it was only a matter of time before I had to get the NES itself! Over the past few weeks I’ve been collecting a “small but mighty” library of favorite NES games, bought mostly from my favorite local game store since they’re all pretty easy to find. It’s been interesting playing several beloved NES games with a modern and critical lens. So let’s look at NES games worth playing today!
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How to play the NES on modern TVs
Before we jump into games, let’s talk about how you even hook this bad boy up to modern TVs. Unlike the Sega Genesis, where you can easily use the stellar HD Retrovision component cables, the NES is either RF or composite only. RF isn’t going to give you great visual quality, but it’s workable with older TVs. So I recommend using the composite (red, yellow, white) cables! If you don’t have any with your NES, you can pick some up some cheap replacements at Castlemania (and use coupon code “THECHOZOPROJECT” to save 10%).
But there’s still a few problems. The first is you may not even have a composite input in your newer TV! Second, even when plugged into most modern TVs, composite alone isn’t going to look what I’d call “beautiful”. The visuals will be stretched and fairly fuzzy. But don’t worry-there’s two fairly inexpensive options to help with this.
One is to simply get a CRT TV and play like the ol’ days! You can often find them for free on places like Craigslist, cheap in pawn shops, or out on the curb on garbage day. Most CRTs have a composite input, but if you want to use it for component inputs too (which add red, green, and blue or “RBG”) for newer systems, it may take a little more time to find one. Just be careful lifting those beasts-between their size and crazy weight distribution, they’re no joke!
The other option is to convert the signal to HDMI. There’s a plethora of products that do this, but be wary of cheap HDMI converters; they don’t work well consistently and introduce substantial lag in controller input, which is a death sentence in NES-tough games. I strongly recommend the RetroTINK 2X-mini:
The RetroTINK acts as a line-doubler that upscales the image coming from composite and outputs via HDMI so it connect to your new TV, all with zero lag. It’s a very well made device that I also use with my SNES. And it won’t bankrupt you! It’s extremely easy to setup, and also has a “smoothing” feature to make everything look a bit more crisp on a big screen. Here’s what it looks like with cables connected (the only thing missing is an HDMI cable):
There are several more “expert level” RetroTINK models if you really want to get serious, but the MINI works great as a start.
The standard NES controller honestly works just fine! It may not reach the glory of the SNES controller, but it’s brilliant in its simplicity and holds up well all these decades later. The cord is sufficiently long where you should be able to play fairly comfortably from a couch, too.
I do enjoy gaming wirelessly when I can-with two cats and two small children, things can get interesting with too many long wires around! So I recently also picked up an NES 8Bitdo 2.4G wireless controller-I have the Genesis version that I use with my Model 2 and Nomad all the time.
They go in and out of stock, but you can pretty readily find one via eBay listings if you’re in a rush!
Don’t forget the NES Classic
Like I mentioned in my practical retro game collecting post, the “mini” systems are a quick, cheap, and still visually appealing way to play retro games. The NES classic is no longer on the market, but you can pick one up second hand or refurbished pretty inexpensively at this point. Several NES games worth playing today are actually already pre-loaded on the mini, and it’s a literal “plug and play” into an HD TV. Barely an inconvenience! It can also be hacked to add more if you’re okay with living a bit dangerously.
What makes NES games worth playing today?
Alright, back to the games! If you’ve read through any of my “top 10” or rankings lists, you’ll know my general approach. I always say that “best” is how well a game holds up today. How much fun will you genuinely have playing it in today’s modern gaming landscape? Where this gets tricky for the NES is in the realm of difficulty, which the console is well known for. Game systems were in their infancy during its era, largely still emulating the challenge of arcade games, which were designed to suck quarters and not with player-friendliness in mind.
I’m definitely not a gamer that enjoys punishing difficulty with harsh consequences for failure (no Dark Souls for me, my friends). I don’t really care for challenging games like Ninja Gaiden because dying is such a setback and you’re given very few lives before a game over. There’s no opportunity for trial and error to learn the mechanics or patterns of things! But I did love Cyber Shadow (above photo) which is inspired by Ninja Gaiden, but with modern upgrades like checkpoints where you can immediately try a tough battle or platforming section again without redoing an entire level. So the the NES games worth playing today are, in my opinion, genuinely fun titles that are in the sweet spot of challenge, where deaths aren’t a colossal setback. Here are my favorites!
Chip’n Dale Rescue Rangers
I loved this game as a kid. A Capcom platformer based on the popular TV show, Chip’N Dale Rescue Rangers has some clever mechanics and really embodies the spirit of the show. Movement still feels very tight, and you could pick up objects in the environment to throw at enemies or hide under-very cool! It’s not too challenging or long-you can finish it in just the right amount of time.
You can also check this one out in the stellar Disney Afternoon Collection, which I have on my XBox One (for reasons far beyond my comprehension it isn’t on Switch). And here’s the theme song to show, because if you grew up in the 90s you’re probably humming it right now:
Super Mario Bros. 1-3
I mean, this one is obvious. What’s crazy to me is just how well the original Mario games hold up now! I couldn’t believe how addicted I got to the original Super Mario Bros. all over again when it released on the anniversary Game & Watch a few months ago. It’s especially delightful speed running the game now using warp pipes.
Mario 2 is a neat and quirky title that’s definitely worth a play, if nothing else for the music and unique movement of each character. I enjoy coming back to it for a few minutes now and then, but for me personally it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor or successor. Speaking of which, I am absolutely in love with Mario 3-if you’ve never played it, know that the legends of its greatness are true! Mario 3 blew us all away back in the early 90s, and is still a joy to play through now (I can just hear the nostalgic World 1 map music in my head!) So many game design elements that are still seen today were pioneered in Mario 3-it’s my favorite NES game of all time.
You can play each of the original Super Mario Bros. in a variety of ways nowadays-on the NSO online catalogue, the NES classic, or stellar Mario All-Stars on the SNES. Check out more of why I love these games in my top 10 best Mario list!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II
The “go-to” Turtles game from this era is usually Turtles II: The Arcade Game. And yes, Turtles II still holds up well! Compared to later Turtles beat ’em ups, the gameplay feels a little more restrictive with a smaller moveset, and the difficulty is on the higher end. But it’s full of rockin’ Turtles goodness, and is especially a delight to play with two players! Do check it out at some point, in its NES iteration or in the original arcade edition (I’m very tempted to pick up an Arcade 1-UP Turtles cabinet since the digital version was removed from XBLA years ago).
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project
Potential hot take: I think Turtles III is far superior to Turtles II! Most folks didn’t play Manhattan Project because it released after the Super Nintendo did, and only months before the spectacular Turtles in Time. Yet there’s a multitude of new gameplay features Turtles III has over Turtles II that are worth discussing!
Each turtle has a “flip” move executed by holding down + attack to one-hit kill foot soldiers. The enemy AI is more balanced. Level design is much more varied. And my favorite is the addition of “special moves” unique to each Turtle that take one life bar to execute. That is, until you only have one life bar left-then you can use it all you want! (you’ll have some “photo finishes” where you barely take down a boss this way before dying). Additionally, with each life lost you can choose a new turtle to play, instead of waiting for a game over. I like that!
Couple these new variations in gameplay with a catchy 90s soundtrack and very lengthy levels full of references to the show, and you’ve got a phenomenal game. Unfortunately this one has never been re-released, so you’re looking at an original NES cart, hacks, or emulation. It’s worth it!
Mega Man 2 and 4
Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest Mega Man fan. I find a lot of the games annoyingly difficult and a bit repetitive in the long run. But these titles shine! Mega Man 4 gets a special mention since it’s the one my best friend Daniel and I used to play all the time when we hung out as kids. Most fans say the formula was getting “old” by this point, and that may be true, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome! The difficulty isn’t what I’d call “easy”, but it’s balanced enough, with plenty of reserve energy capsules you can use a backup in tough robot master fights. It’s got my favorite soundtrack of the NES Mega Man games too!
I didn’t play Mega Man 2 until the release of the NES Classic, and yeah, it earns a lot of its praise! It can be a little rough around the edges. There’s no Mega Buster, no slide, and power-ups are not easily identified in the pause menu. But level design is at its peak in Mega Man 2, perfectly complemented by the soundtrack in each stage! There’s no “filler”-just stages that are concise, fun, and the ideal amount of challenge.
What about Mega Man 3? Well to be honest, I like it just fine but am not nearly as blown away as most people are. I found it pretty difficult, a bit repetitive with the “Doc Robot” fights, and just wasn’t as impressed with the level design or soundtrack compared to 2 and 4! A good game, but not essential for me personally.
The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II
This is a bit trickier. The Legend of Zelda is my favorite series of all time. There are very few titles in the series I don’t love, and that extends to the NES originals. But looking at them honestly, they’re tough to go back to today. Influential? Yes. Epic? Yes. Satisfying once you get the hang of them? Yes. Insanely frustrating because they’re difficult and you have no idea what to do? Also yes. They’re both NES games worth playing today, but with a few caveats.
If you’ve never checked out the original Legend of Zelda, I’d strongly recommend playing it with the delightful Hand Drawn Game Guide. At least for your first play through! Once you get the general hang of locations, items, and how mechanics work, it’ll feel more natural. I wrote about my experience playing through the first game just a few months ago.
Zelda II is a unique side-scrolling game with interesting mechanics, but is often buried by some clunkiness and punishing combat. It’s ripe for a remake, but in the meantime it’s at least worth checking out for curiosity sake via NSO Online or NES Classic (you’re probably going to want those save states!)
This is another game I didn’t play until recently! Several friends on Instagram recommended it to me after I asked for a new Kirby game to try out. I originally played it on my Switch, and was floored by how well the game held up playing it now. I was having so much fun I almost finished it in a single sitting! My favorite Kirby game used to be Planet Robobot on the 3DS, but Kirby’s Adventure has now taken the top spot! Why?
Seeing as the game released late in the console’s lifespan, everything in the game pushes the hardware. The graphics are the NES at their best-super colorful, vibrant, and especially detailed in their backgrounds! The worlds and levels are creative and full of fun. Bosses are a pretty decent challenge too! And there’s a plethora of fun side games to play in between levels. If you’re a fan of platformers at all, check this one out on the NES Classic, NSO Online, in the Kirby Dream Collection on the Wii, or the stellar GBA remake, Nightmare in Dream Land”.
Dr. Mario is definitely my favorite puzzle game of all time (sorry, Tetris). If you’ve never tried it out, the old NES version is a great place to start! Definitely an “easy to learn, tough to master” puzzler that gets addictive very fast. I also have it for Game Boy, and love the underrated N64 edition where you can play 4-player (there was much chaos late into the night with my friends back in high school). It’s super cheap to pick up today and available almost everywhere-try it out and enjoy the “Fever” music, one of the catchiest (ha!) video game tracks of all time.
Are those the only NES games worth playing today?
Not by any stretch. These are just the games I really enjoy and find satisfying coming back to after all this time on the original hardware! I’m sure more skilled gamers (and those with far more patience than me) will appreciate and recommend so much more. With the ability to rewind and create save states, there’s quite a few other NES games I like playing, but that’s a list for another day!
Which NES games do you think are worth playing today? Do you have a lot of nostalgia for the system or is it more of a historical curiosity? Let me know in the comments below!