Monday, August 15, 2016

My Top NES Games Pt. 1

So, inspired by the announcement of Nintendo’s “NES Classic Mini”, coming in November, I decided to write this article, originally appearing on Skirmish Frogs, detailing My Top 30 Favorite NES games.

It’s funny, because just a week or so ago, I was hanging out with my long-time friend Harold (whom many of you have now “seen” in a couple of “Game Challenge” episodes, and currently starring in his first official RR Youtube playthrough, his favorite game of all time, MC Kids . We were recording a playthrough of the Japanese Famicom game “Mickey III”, which was repurposed in NA as the great classic Kid Klown. He suddenly posed the question to me, “What are your Top 10 NES games of all time”, or something along those lines, and for once, especially given this kind of subject matter, I actually found myself rather stumped. I didn’t have a full answer for him, and while it was no big deal, it bothered me a little bit. Mainly because, I guess I had up until that very moment, never really sat down and dedicated time to deciding what games DID make up my Top 10, or Top 20, or whatever.

I have, of course, I have in the past already nailed down what I more or less now consider to be my iron-clad Top 10 Favorite Games of All Time , for all platforms ever. And it just so happens that the Top 3 of those, are NES games. So the first three games in what will become my very own “Top NES Games Ever” list, are already decided.

 1 – Game: Super Mario Bros. 3, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1988 (’90 in NA)

Simply put, while SMB1 was the game that got me to become obsessed with gaming, SMB3 was the game that stole my heart, and made me fall in love with gaming. As far as I’m concerned, it is the greatest game, the MOST flawless video game ever crafted, of all time. This was Nintendo in their prime, at their absolute best, getting the most they could out of that NES hardware in the late 80s, and stuffing as much content as they could into that little gray plastic cartridge.

They perfected the platforming/side-scrolling controls and mechanics that they themselves had pioneered. They had honed the “Mario formula”, which they had been tweaking and messing with, down to it’s finest and most distilled elements. They took the ridiculously catchy nature of SMB1’s music, and composed a bouncy soundtrack that simply refuses to get the hell out of your head. They provided a wide array of worlds, with a plethora of challenges and unique experiences contained in each. They presented gamers with an enormous menagerie of different monsters to overcome, and a bad ass arsenal of new power-ups with which to do so. This game established so many precedents, such as the Mario Suits, the Koopa Kids, a fuller picture of what the Mushroom Kingdom/World actually looked like, etc.

Simply put, this game has a bit of everything, for everybody. And while it’s easy for anyone, of any gaming experience level, to just pick up and play, and enjoy, it also happens to be arguably the hardest Mario game ever made, as it has some downright sadistic levels contained within it. There was a time when I played this game SO often, that in my childhood years (ages 9-13), I got so good at it that I could go through the entire game, without warping or skipping levels, while losing very few lives at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever done a DEATHLESS run, but I was goddamn good at it. In my old age now? Not so much.

But as mad as this brilliant classic now makes me sometimes, I still love it to death, and I easily and gladly maintain that it is my very Favorite Game of All Time.

2 – Game: Mega Man 2, Publisher: Capcom, Originally Released: 1988 (’89 in NA)

Very similar to how SMB3 shows Nintendo at it’s finest, firing on all cylinders, you could easily make the same case for Mega Man 2. While later Mega Man games would, little by little, add neat little elements that more often than not really did add to the overall experience, such as the slide, the charged Mega-Buster shot, and Rush the robo-dog, MM2 really kinda was the old school Mega Man team at their very best. And while it seems popular to say that “MM2 is the best Mega Man ever”, it really kind of is, with there being some very specific reasons for saying so.

This game was, simply put, a pure passion project. This was Keiji Inafune and his team at their height of caring and dedication, as the original Mega Man was actually not a big hit, and Capcom did not desire a sequel. But Inafune-san more or less begged them to allow his team to make another game, and they gave him permission to do so, so long as they did so in their own free-time, while they were also working full-time on whatever game Capcom actually wanted them to make. And the very fact that this game was a passion project, bleeds through in every single pixel and bloop you experience.

Like SMB3, it takes the basic mechanics and formula that MM1 established, but refines and pretty much perfects them all. The controls are tighter, the bosses are cooler (all of them), the level designs are more intricate and creative, many of the boss powers tend to be far more useful. And the MUSIC! My god, the music. This game has the reputation, by many, of having the single greatest soundtrack of any game ever made, and while I’m not certain I would say THE SINGLE best of any game ever, personally, I absolutely will say it’s right up at the top. It isn’t just incredibly catchy, it’s actually damn good tunes! MM2 may not fully perfect and refine the Mega Man formula the way SMB3 did for Mario, as sliding, Rush, and Charge Shots are pretty damn cool/useful. But it IS, I would argue, the most “perfect”, top to bottom, for what it is,
of any Mega Man game, or for that matter most games ever made.

I think I would, in fact, actually go so far as to say that I think MM2 is the second greatest game ever made.

 3 – Game: Kirby’s Adventure, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1993

There may well be a recurring theme here, at least for these Top 3 games. The original game, Kirby’s Dreamland, released for the Game Boy in 1992, and was one of the earlier big hits for Nintendo’s original portable console. It was a fun, but short and very simplistic game, basically perfect for the “on the go fun” vibe that GB was originally all about. But it was with the NES sequel, Kirby’s Adventure, in it’s full glorious 8-bit color, that Iwata, Sakurai and Co. went absolutely nuts, making what would turn to be a rather huge game. In just about a year’s time, it would seem, they managed to churn out not just a “by the numbers” sequel, but to put it in modern gamer vernacular, a “Megaton”.

This was the same basic deal, in many ways, as MM2 and SMB3 before it, in that they took a formula, added to it, refined it, and perfected it. When I rented this game in the mid-90s, even though what I had seen of the SNES (didn’t own one yet) and Genesis and of course Arcades were “way ahead” of it, I was still blown away by this game. It floored me just how much content they stuffed in this game, from the fact that it has 20 (yes 20) different powers, a huge slate of enemies and bosses, a wide variety of very different and very creative levels, catchy tunes, hidden secrets, and awesome mini-games. The final (full) world, “Rainbow Resort” by itself, with it’s crazy level designs, even providing a “grayscale” Game Boy style level, really impressed me. What they achieved on aged NES hardware in 1993, was honestly every bit as impressive and innovative as anything that had been achieved during that same era on a variety of considerably more powerful consoles. It isn’t just a major achievement, I don’t mind calling it a masterpiece.

This instantly became one of my very favorite games of all time, permanently winning a spot in my heart, both for the Kirby character, but also for this game specifically. They even made an awesome remake of this, 16-bit style, on the Game Boy Advance, years later, called “Nightmare in Dreamland”. You even get to play as Meta Knight if you can 100% the game! However, no matter how many new Kirby games come out in the series, much like MM2 and SMB3, to me THIS game will always be the quintessential Kirby experience. It’s the best Kirby, in my opinion, ever created.

So, that’s my Top 3, as I said, easy peasy, and I could honestly go on at far greater length about any one  of those games. Now, rounding out the Top 5 probably isn’t too terribly tough either, at least as far as filling in the spot for #4. There are probably several games that could make a case for these spots, but I’m pretty sure that these fit up at the top, the best.

4 – Game: Star Tropics, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1990

 I originally rented this game, and liked it a lot, even though it’s challenging, as a kid. I eventually wound up owning a copy, and beat the entire game. I don’t mind telling you that when I beat this game, it was a major childhood triumph, and to me at the time, the (unusually elaborate for the console) ending was totally worth it. Star Tropics is an oddity, in that it was developed in-house by Nintendo, but specifically for the “western” market, meaning that it was never originally released in Japan. Which of course makes zero sense, because I think Japanese gamers would have loved this gem just as much as Americans and Europeans did.

Now, this game may be an acquired taste for some. It features, to put it nicely, rather rigid gameplay, with a lot of well-timed jumping being the key to greatest success. It’s not quite as “pick up and play” as Mario or Zelda, or even Kirby. But it’s also not all that hard to get into, or get used to, and once you get the “cadence” of the jumping down, you really can conquer this game. The main challenge actually lies in a few moments of rather clever (and even devious) puzzle solving you are tasked with, including an infamous submarine code that could (originally) only be discovered by dampening a piece of paper that came with the game. But all in all, with it’s tongue-in-cheek, self-aware cheesy dialogue, catchy soundtrack, cool story, and sense of wonder and exploration, it’s a game that I would say any gamer should at least try.

It was a unique and fresh experience for it’s time, that still holds up to this day.

 5 – Game: Yoshi, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1990 (’91 in NA)

To be perfectly honest, there are probably many games that I could make an argument for deserving this Top 5 spot. Maybe even some games that, at some time or another, I have played the living shit out of and have loved more than this game. BUT, it just so happens that, behind only “Puzzle Bobble” (aka “Bust a Move” in NA), this game is probably my second favorite puzzle game of all time. Most people seem to know of it’s more bizarre cousin, “Yoshi’s Cookie”, which released on NES and SNES a year later, but somehow this little treasure is more obscure to the greater gaming consciousness.

And that’s a damn shame too, because it is, I don’t mind saying, a far better game than Cookie. Part of it’s immediate allure to me as a kid, of course, was that the puzzle “pieces” that you have to match up in this particular Tetris-inspired puzzler, happened to be actual, honest-to-Boswer enemies from Mario games. More specifically, their sprites were obviously inspired by the enemy designs of Super Mario Bros. 3, which just so happened to be my favorite game. The game featured Yoshi, an invention of “Super Mario Bros. 4” (World) on SNES, but it otherwise screamed SMB3, which suited me just fine.

But beyond aesthetics, it’s a genuinely fun, addicting, and clever puzzle game, wherein you have to stack up enemy monsters to clear the game board. That in and of itself isn’t terribly unique in a post-Tetris world, but the clever part of the gimmick, was that you could also sandwich monsters in between halves of a Yoshi egg, and depending on how many monsters you stacked before putting the top on, you would get a bigger Yoshi, and thus more points. If you brave enough to risk a game over by having the monsters reach the top of the board, you could get the biggest Yoshi and max points. The Yoshi’s went in order: Baby, Adult, Winged, and Star Yoshi.

Ultimately, this game gets the #5 spot because it’s damn fun, and in my opinion one of the best puzzle games ever made.

SO, now that I’ve covered my Top 5, I’m going to cheat a bit, and not be quite so elaborate for the remaining games. I’m also, in the interest of time and space, not going to bother (for now) with making sure I place them all precisely where I think they belong numerically, in relation to one another. The remaining games on this list, will still be in some kind of descending order of greatness, in my opinion of course, but I’m not going to stress too much about making it a definitive, finalized list. Rather, I am going to list games that I love, played a shit-ton as a kid, or otherwise consider to be tops when it comes to the NES library. So away we go!

6 – Game: Mighty Final Fight, Publisher: Capcom, Originally Released: 1993

A late NES era rental that I fell in love with, Mighty Final Fight is a somewhat miniaturized port of the arcade classic. But in all honesty, while it is missing two-player, one of the areas from the arcade, it is still in many ways, at least in this man’s opinion, the best port of FF. The action is crisp and responsive, the soundtrack is rockin, and the game even features a “Double Dragon”-esque leveling system that is unique to this version. Plus, unlike the SNES port, you get to choose between all three characters, Cody, Guy, and Haggar. This game, while tough at times, gets my vote for best beat ’em up on the NES.

7 – Game: Final Fantasy, Publisher: Squaresoft, Originally Released: 1987 (’90 in NA)

This game gets up pretty high on the list for two reasons. The first being, it was basically the first console rpg I ever played. I had played a couple of old PC rpgs, such as Sorcerian (great game) and Times of Lore, but this was the first so-called “jrpg” styled game I experienced. The second reason being, while it is VERY “old school”, very simple and even obtuse in certain ways, it is still a really, really good game. Having to buy your magic sucks, and having to grind for days for levels and gold can get old, but the original Final Fantasy has a lot to offer, and hard-as-nails or not, it still captured my imagination, and I eventually beat it. I was rather proud of myself.

8 – Game: Super Mario Bros. 1, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1985

I wondered to myself which of the original two Mario games I thought should come before the other in this list, but the original won out. The primary reason being, as mentioned before, it was this game, specifically, that made me go from having a passing childhood interest in video games, thinking they were neat, and fun to play if I could get my hands on them, to growing into an outright childhood fixation. This game captured my attention upon first seeing it at my friend Harold's house, and captured my imagination and my heart, as soon as I was finally able to own an NES myself, a late-comer to the scene, in 1990.

This game drove me nuts at age 8/9, to the point at least once of crying when I got to one of the last levels and couldn’t beat it. But it also became ingrained in my psyche, as I would very often pass the time or distract myself from homework, etc., by imagining Mario running and jumping around my house, or wherever I happened to be at the time. The main Mario tune, in fact, to this day is still always somewhere playing in the back of my mind. And I was very proud that I was the first kid I knew to figure out that goddamn last castle, and beat the game. I even showed Harold and his brother how to beat it. I felt like I was the shit, for that.

But this is also THE game that more or less revived console gaming in the United States, and it also single-handedly made the NES the king of consoles in the mid-to-late 80s. It’s one of the best games ever made, and the only reason SMB3 tops it, is because it took everything about this game, and perfected it.

9 – Game: Adventure Island 2, Publisher: Hudson, Originally Released: 1991

The Adventure Island games are a classic part of gaming history. And the way they’re set up, you could argue they were some of the first to lend themselves to “speed running”, as that is literally what you have to do: run for your life and avoid obstacles before your meter runs out. Originally “Wonder Boy” in the arcades, published by Sega, the developers of that game split off, and continued and refined the formula as “Adventure Island” on the NES, while Wonder Boy actually went on to become something totally different on the Sega Master System. I actually only rented the first of this series myself as a kid, though I did play either 2 or 3 at a friend’s house. I chose AI2 because it’s my favorite, and my pick for best of the NES set, though they’re all highly fun (and challenging) games.

10 – Game: Tetris, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1988 (’89 in NA)

My grandmother had already discovered (and become hopelessly addicted to) “Dr. Mario” on a chance rental, and she later bought it for “me” (IE herself) as part of probably the most bad ass Christmas package I ever got (also came with Bugs Bunny and SMB3). She was so addicted to Dr. Mario, that she would sometimes play it for hours, and of course it being MY NES and all, and my not being allowed to have the NES hooked up to the TV in my room (believe me I tried), that did get a bit annoying to me. She would often rent other puzzle type games when she found them, though none stuck on her quite as much as the good Doctor. Tetris came close, but surprisingly, she never bought it. She DID however borrow my Game Boy she later got me often enough to play that version.

I would say that the NES version of Tetris is pretty much the definitive version, if not for two issues. The first being, unlike the unlicensed NES game, it's not 2-player, which is absurd. The other being, that while it has good music, it does NOT feature the tune most people identify as “The Tetris Song”, which was only in the Game Boy version for some stupid reason. But, I include it on this list because Tetris is probably my third favorite puzzle game of all time, and it’s otherwise a really good version of the game.

11 – Game: Arkista’s Ring, Publisher: American Sammy, Originally Released: 1990

The first games that I owned, were the SMB1/Duck Hunt cart that came with so many NES units. The other two earliest games I remember owning, were another Light Gun shooter called “To The Earth”, a space-based shooter that was hard as hell, but I did somehow beat, and this obscure gem. At first glance, I’m sure to some it seems like a Zelda clone. In fact, my grandmother stopped me from actually renting Zelda 1 myself (a heinous crime, to be certain), because she claimed it “looked too much like that other game you own, try something different”. However, it is actually not much like Zelda at all.

It’s an odd little game, that comes straight from the arcade era of gaming. It literally seems like it would be a port of a 1980s arcade game, as it has the style, the points, the simple, limited stages, etc. But nope, it’s an NES original, and it’s actually a lot of fun. You play Christine, a female warrior elf, trying to save the kingdom, etc. etc., you use a bow and arrow, though you can upgrade to fireballs and a couple other odd powers. The game features about 31 stages, and true to older type games, you have to beat it not twice, but THREE times over, to get the “Ending”. Otherwise, it’s a great, underrated gem that I think more people should try.

12 – Game: Monster in My Pocket, Publisher: Konami, Originally Released: 1992

As detailed here, probably my single favorite toys from my childhood, were a line of monster figures called “Monster in My Pocket”, released in the early 90s. Thankfully, someone decided to cash in on the (sadly) temporary craze, and made a game of it, because it turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. Developed by Konami, back when they actually made good games (or actually made games at all, really), I would say this was one of the best games they ever put out. You play as Vampire and Frankenstein’s Monster, and go against a legion of other monsters from the set, all possessing the same point values the figures themselves did (nice touch). You journey through five or six stages of miniature mayhem, before finally taking on the master of disaster himself, the Warlock. It’s a great game, lots of fun, with co-op 2-player, and a bad ass soundtrack.

13 – Game: Kid Klown, Publisher: Kemco, Originally Released: 1992 (’93 in NA)

A very similar case to “our” Super Mario Bros. 2, this game was originally released in Japan as “Mickey Mouse III: Balloon Dreams”, and part of me wishes we had gotten this game, if only so that the NES would have had a GOOD Mickey game. But, I am alternatively glad we got a repurposed game, because on the one hand he’s a cool original character, and on the other, we got the amazing name for the new bad guy: The Night Mayor! That name alone sells the game all by itself, as far as I’m concerned.

But in all seriousness, this game is a LOT of fun, plays very well, and features a defining game mechanic that I have perhaps never seen a developer make better or more diverse use of, in any other game. Your main (only) weapon are red balloons, but with these balloons, you can throw them (including varying distances), you can hold them as a shield, you can drop them on the ground to jump on (giving you a boost), throw them straight down to jump on mid-air, and even hold them in the air to float-jump. If for no other reason than that multi-purpose balloon action, I would say retro game lovers owe it to themselves to try this game out.

14 – Game: Super Mario Bros. 2, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1987 (’88 in NA)

Speaking of which, here is Nintendo’s own repurposed game! And I’m very glad, personally, that this is the “Mario 2” that we got. Because, while not a bad game, in my opinion at least, what would later come to be known to us as “The Lost Levels”, the original Japanese Mario 2 is an uninspired, professional hack of Mario 1. Some people love it, and I can understand that, but I can also fully see and appreciate why Nintendo decided against bringing it stateside. Instead, they gave us THIS masterpiece, which was not originally a Mario game at all, but they covered it with Mario paint (pun-intended), and it is now forever part of Mario lore. I specifically remember originally renting this game and not liking it all that much, because “hey, THIS isn’t like Mario 1 and 3 at all!”

But I later came to own it, played it more, and came to appreciate it for the brilliant little platformer that it is. In fact, I really wish they would make another 2D Mario game in this style. Or hell, even a game starring Toad or SHY GUY (one of my fav. Mario enemies), so long as it has this same gameplay and takes place in Subcon, the land of dreams.

15 – Game: The Legend of Zelda, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1986 (’97 in NA)

The game that to many people, officially kicked off the “action/adventure” genre of gaming. As previous described, I was going to rent this once as a kid, and my grandmother cut me off, suggesting I rent something else. And for whatever reason, I never tried to rent it again. I actually DID later play Zelda 2, and my first “real” Zelda experience, is when I came to own “Link’s Awakening” on Game Boy, my favorite Zelda of all time. But, I eventually got to play Zelda 1 in my teens, and though compared to later Zeldas it’s very “rough” (IE few hints, etc), it is considered a classic and one of the best games ever made for a reason.

I really love Zelda 2, for all its ridiculous hardness, but I’ll put Zelda 1 higher simply because it’s Legendary (pun-intended) status deserves it. This, Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man and Tetris should all be requisite playing for serious gamers, so that they can fully appreciate gaming history.


Well that's it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2, covering #16-30!

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