The Nintendo Entertainment System wasn't just a gray-and-black box that played video games. It was a paragon of late 1980s pastimes. Seizing an industry left vacant after a widespread collapse, Nintendo games invaded homes, stores, and every knickknack from pajamas to breakfast cereals. It verged on a religion for children of the era, and the angular NES was the altar upon which they sacrificed their allowances and afternoons.
The past ten years saw Nintendo grow more and more astute in repackaging older games, and the newly released NES Classic Edition is the most blatant attempt yet. The Virtual Consoles of the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS peddle games in downloadable form, but the NES Classic is a physical rebirth of the old console, a miniaturized system that runs 30 NES games.
Resembling a palm-sized version of the NES, the Classic strikes comparisons to the original whenever possible. The package is awash in Nintendo's late-1980s design sensibilities, and the single included controller is the same size as the original. The Classic does not accept actual NES cartridges, of course, and Nintendo confirmed that it can't expand its built-in lineup of games. Thirty familiar NES titles are all that you'll get here.
The old Nintendo aura spreads further once you've hooked the Classic into a modern television. Upbeat music and an efficiently arranged menu present the library and use up to four save-anywhere slots for each game—a blessing when it comes to password-driven fare like Metroid and Kid Icarus. If you leave it running, the menu gives way to a procession of sprite characters floating in the background, as Mario and Luigi bump question-mark blocks. It holds no apparent secrets, but it's a cute bonus.
In presenting these old titles on today's TVs, the NES Classic offers three options. The CRT Filter slaps scanlines and a blurrier look on the picture, just in case you want to relive playing Tecmo Bowl on your grandparents' ancient television. The 4:3 mode stretches the image slightly while staying relatively crisp, and Pixel Perfect presents the games at their original faithful resolution. It may not look quite as nice as an expensively upscaled and modded NES, but it's tough to find fault here.
The micro-console isn't quite as faithful in presenting the music and audio effects. Most of the games sound nearly the same as their NES versions, but devoted fans will notice a few deviations, whether it's the oddly muffled beat of the first-level music in Kid Icarus or the slightly tinnier clangs of a heart counter winding back after a Castlevania level. The games are also based on their Virtual Console versions, so StarTropics renames its yoyo weapon a “star.” Nothing really derails the overall experience, though. For all but the highest possible standards, these are the original NES games.
The NES Classic's biggest problem doesn't lie within the little console. The controller cord is a mere two feet long, forcing you to sit close to the TV, pull the tiny system forward on its HDMI and power cables (which aren't very long either), or simply buy a Wii extension cable, since the NES Classic uses the same connector. Yes, a lot of us sat dangerously close to the TV when plugging through Castlevania or The Legend of Zelda, but that's one old Nintendo memory made uncomfortable today.
The system also gets awkward when switching games. If you want to exit Excitebike and jump into Ninja Gaiden, for example, you must press the reset button on the console itself. Perhaps that's why the controller cord is so short. At least the problem vanishes if you plug a Wii Classic Controller into the NES Classic, as it uses the home button to cycle through games.
It's not the most convenient package, but the NES Classic's presentation works well with its old games in an accessible modern format. It doesn't hurt that those games (covered in detail below) remain highly enjoyable for the most part. Some weaker titles dot the library, but the Marios and Zeldas and other standouts put the NES Classic well above similar plug-and-play offerings for Sega and Atari systems. Nintendo built its reign on crafty marketing and strict licensing policies, but it was the games that turned it into a cultural touchstone, and the NES Classic shows why.
The NES Classic's 30-game lineup may seem paltry amid other options, legal and not. These titles are available on the Wii or Wii U's Virtual Console, but then you'd have to pay $150 to gather them all. Modern technology also makes it possible to bundle the entire Nintendo library into a single cartridge or a small homemade device. But then you'd be stealing.
Such comparisons also ignore the real reason people want the NES Classic. It's the same reason people buy revamped or recollected versions of the comics and cartoons and dolls and robots they had as children. Faced with a market that distrusted video games, Nintendo initially pitched the NES as an elaborate toy back in 1985 (you'll even find a poster of it inside the Classic's box), and that's what this little machine is: a toy. Toys don't need to be practical.
It's hard to disparage the NES Classic as it is. Controller cord aside, it's a neat little gadget that nicely encapsulates an age when Nintendo dominated games. It's affordable as well, though the $59.99 tag is tempered by scarcity and eBay auctions closing at three times the price. Once the NES Classic filters out in greater numbers, it'll be an enjoyable package for grown-up members of the NES generation, kids who want to know why Nintendo loomed over childhoods for half a decade, and anyone who just wants to play some great old games.
The NES Classic Edition's internal library wasn't meant to define the 30 greatest games on the system. If it was, it'd have Crystalis
and The Guardian Legend
. Instead, the Classic gathers up some of the most iconic games from the NES days, representing just about every major series and genre. Most are just as fun as they were decades ago, but a few coast on name recognition.
Many early NES releases were simple, arcade-style action games, and Balloon Fight is among the better offerings. It sees one or two players floating through stages, either popping rivals' balloons (and kicking them off-screen when they plummet) or running a gauntlet of obstacles. Primitive as it looks, Balloon Fight is a good choice for the lineup; it's two games in one, and the competitive mode adds a lot.
One the best multiplayer games on the NES, Bubble Bobble adapts a Taito arcade puzzle-action title about dinosaurs (or are they dragons?) with one basic attack: they blow bubbles that encase enemies and then pop them. Bubble Bobble then adds many power-ups, lots of different enemies, a hundred stages, and manifold secrets. It's a charming and fun game played alone, and it's even better with two players.
Konami's long-running gothic action series started here, pitting whip-wielding hero Simon Belmont against horror icons from Medusa to Frankenstein's monster, plus a never-quite-dead Count Dracula. The original Castlevania made a name for itself during the first few years of NES titles, and while its side-view gameplay is now limited by sluggish controls and some dull level design, its spooky 8-bit atmosphere remains intact. Yet it's odd that Nintendo didn't go with Castlevania III, a better game all around.
CASTLEVANIA II: SIMON'S QUEST
The NES Classic restricts popular series like Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden to one game apiece, while Castlevania gets to double-dip? There's a good reason for that, as Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is substantially different from the first. The side-scrolling approach looks much like the original Castlevania, but the sequel emphasizes exploration, offering multiple towns and stretches of Transylvanian countryside to cover. It's a basic attempt at the branching castle-mazes that Castlevania would later adopt, so Simon's Quest is replete with puzzling items and villagers whose advice is either shakily translated or deliberately misleading. Don't bother looking for the Graveyard Duck.
Nintendo's first major arcade hit helped the NES (and its Japanese counterpart) at launch, delivering a home version of the game more accurate than nearly every previous attempt. As it was in arcades, Donkey Kong is a challenging excursion that introduced Mario, his ape antagonist, and designer Shigeru Miyamoto's brand of whimsy. The NES edition lacks the arcade version's cement/pie factory and a few little touches, and while it may bore those who first met Mario in Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong deserves a spot here.
DONKEY KONG JR.
When the Famicom hit Japan in 1983, three games accompanied it: Donkey Kong, Popeye, and Donkey Kong Jr. Like it or not, it was there from the start. The follow-up to Donkey Kong never reached the same pop-culture heights, and it's not quite as inspired. Now cast as the villain, Mario holds Donkey Kong hostage at the top of each stage, and Donkey Kong Jr. leaps across vines and platforms in a rescue attempt. Like most arcade games of its era, Donkey Kong Jr. is basic and unforgiving. There were better library choices among early NES games (Kung-Fu, for example), but they lack the Donkey Kong name.
DOUBLE DRAGON II: THE REVENGE
Hey, where's the original Double Dragon? You know, Double Dragon, the arcade brawler that inspired a whole world of belt-scrolling action games where street gangs carry off helpless girlfriends? Well, the NES version of Double Dragon differs from the arcade one, as it loses the two-player mode and makes you gradually gain new attacks. Double Dragon II is much more faithful to its source—and the whole idea of arcade brawlers. Two players control Billy and Jimmy Lee as they punch through a legion of punks and mutants with their ample available moves. It's not the best brawler on the NES (that's River City Ransom), but it's a good ride in the spirit of crassly violent '80s movies. You'll have to supply your own Streets of Fire soundtrack.
One of the first games to ape the falling-block brilliance of Tetris, Dr. Mario set itself apart with a cute premise and a robust two-player mode (something the official Nintendo version of Tetris lacked). A coat-wearing Mario tosses pills into a bottle-shaped playfield, and the player matches up the colors to eliminate viruses, three of which caper amusingly on the side of the screen. Though not as elegant as Tetris, Dr. Mario remains good fun, and it's perhaps the most approachable game in the whole collection. A lot of people might not care to understand Final Fantasy or Super C, but just about anyone can get into Dr. Mario.
Representing the field of racing games is Excitebike. It's an early NES outing that sends motorcycles through courses full of ramps and hills and muddy patches, and navigating them is an exercise in balancing speed with an overheating engine. The highlight of the game is its level creator. Building courses is awkward with a stock controller, but there aren't many NES games that allow such freedom.
Nintendo themselves published the North American debut of Final Fantasy, the RPG that fueled its own industry of spiritual sequels, merchandise, ill-fated movies, and tired jokes about how a game labeled “final” can have dozens of follow-ups. The original Final Fantasy shows its age on many fronts, whether it's the slow speed of the characters, the lack of any real plot, or the way your party members often try to attack enemies their comrades just felled. Even so, it's an impressive game for its day, and those who prefer grinding, story-free RPGs might find it to their liking.
Namco's Galaga will forever be a symbol of early '80s arcades, but not so much the Nintendo Entertainment System. Galaga was nearly five years old by the time the NES arrived, and most of the console's attention went to newer fare. Yet the NES version of Galaga is a solid port of the arcade game, replicating the single-screen shooter clashes between the player's triangular ship (or ships, if your craft is captured and rescued) and fleet upon fleet of swooping space bugs. That explains its inclusion. You can get Galaga everywhere from smartphones to plug-and-play joysticks, so why not put it here?
GHOSTS 'N GOBLINS
Nintendo's desire to pack the NES Classic with familiar games leads us to this, the worst title in the mix. Now, Ghosts 'N Goblins is a classic among side-scrolling arcade games, thanks to its colorful characters and harsh difficulty. The NES version, however, is a puny approximation of the arcade beast, clumsily ported by a developer called Micronics. Small figures make it hard to appreciate the humor of the original (such as one enemy hit-stripping Arthur down to his underwear), Capcom's well-pitched soundtrack is rendered primitive here, and little graphical glitches abound. It rides entirely on nostalgia, having been a popular choice among NES owners who liked the arcade original. Capcom worked wonders on the NES after shaking off lousy ports, so it's a shame that Nintendo picked this over Bionic Commando or DuckTales.
Konami's side-scrolling shooter started several trends in the arcades of the mid-1980s, and the NES brought it home faithfully. The game sends a humble starfighter through fiendish waves of outer-space enemies, and a power-up system lets players choose among speed boosts, missiles, lasers, or more powerful weapons. Influential it may be, but the original Gradius is slow by the standards of NES shooters, and it demands memorization even on the first stage. Lifeforce, a semi-successor with a two-player mode and a cool alien motif, would've been a better choice.
Another release from the first round of NES games, Ice Climber presents a steady climb through slippery levels. The parka-clad heroes break overhead blocks to ascend and bop enemies with mallets, facing everything from pterodactyls to polar bears (though not the arcade game's seals, which Nintendo changed after international seal-clubbing controversies of the 1980s). The nonsensical characters are amusing, but the gameplay is routine and deliberately loose. It's likely to amuse only those who cherished it during childhood.
The neglected child of Nintendo's early NES offerings, Kid Icarus sat back and watched while Mario, Zelda, and Metroid drew greater followings. What did Kid Icarus get? A spot on the terrible Captain N cartoon. Despite that, Kid Icarus is a complex adventure, matching its winged hero against a variety of similar mythically spawned creatures, with shops and new powers to aid him along the way. The game includes mazes, vertical climbs, and side-view shooting, making it a satisfying journey for those who tolerate its occasionally dodgy control.
Knowledgeable students of the NES will note that just about everything on the Nintendo Classic comes from 1990 or earlier. Kirby's Adventure is the youngster here. It's a 1993 side-scroller starring the pink puff of a hero and his enemy-inhaling abilities. Swallowing a foe (in adorable fashion, of course) grants Kirby new powers, and the game shows off the detailed animation and effects that developers could wield in the last years of the NES. It's fun on its own merits, and it's also a look at how far the NES could go in technical terms.
A few years after Donkey Kong, Mario returned in the single-screen sewer stages of Mario Bros. Borrowing some aesthetics from Donkey Kong, it introduced several ideas that would later grow into Mario canon: turtle enemies, the art of bumping blocks from beneath, fireballs, POW blocks, and the support of a younger brother named Luigi. Mario Bros. is mildly enjoyable and picks up more with two players, though it's not the game that made Mario or Nintendo a hit.
MEGA MAN II
Nintendo wisely skipped the first Mega Man and went straight for the sequel. The original is a perfectly good game, of course, but Mega Man II cemented the character as a star of the Nintendo Era. Mega Man leaps and shoots through stages full of cute Tezuka-style robot foes, and he's free to challenge the game's first eight levels in any order, gaining a new weapon from each defeated boss. It's a remarkable game built through love of the craft; with management doubtful about a Mega Man sequel, Capcom's programmers created Mega Man II in their free time and threw in every good idea with the last-chance desperation that often seeds brilliance. That energy shows in the game's bright graphics, catchy music, novel weapons, and clever stage design. It's one of the brightest spots in the collection.
Metroid did things differently in 1987. While Mario and Zelda were cheerful, even silly adventures, Metroid was foreboding in its staccato soundtrack, dark backgrounds, and hostile labyrinth. It stars bounty hunter Samus Aran (who provided one of the earliest video-game twist endings by revealing herself as a woman) exploring the caverns of an alien world, and the items and powers she acquires open up new areas to explore. Metroid expanded the side-scroller formula with its sprawling levels and non-linear play, and it still presents a fascinating, if glitchy, challenge. Whether you play it for the first time or revisit it, you'll be well-equipped to complain about what Nintendo did to Samus with Metroid: Other M.
Actual cutscenes were the initial draw in Ninja Gaiden, which presents its story in stylish interludes of a quality rarely seen in 1980s games. And it's a story perfectly calculated for that decade's trends: a young ninja sets out for revenge on his father's killer and finds himself facing an ancient demon, a maniacal sorcerer, and about a billion hawks perfectly positioned to knock him into pits. Tecmo seemingly filched the side-scrolling gameplay and power-ups from Castlevania, but Ninja Gaiden has a much sharper pace and tighter controls. It's also the toughest thing here, politely challenging at first and then downright ridiculous by the final stages. The not-included Ninja Gaiden II plays better and forgives more errors, but the original stands as a monument to those frustrating NES games that somehow kept you coming back over and over.
Like Galaga, Pac-Man is ubiquitous whenever '80s arcades arise. The dot-gobbling yellow hero and his ghost enemies hail from one of the most influential games ever, so it served the NES well when a nice home version of Pac-Man nested there. It's not arcade-exact, as the maze playfield is squished a little. Yet you're likely to complain only if you're shooting for the world-record high score. In all other ways, the NES version of Pac-Man suits us fine.
PUNCH-OUT!! FEATURING MR. DREAM
The elaborate title demands explanation. Kids of the NES heyday knew this game as Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, an arcade-originated boxing sim featuring big, goofy opponents and Tyson himself for a brutal final boss. Nintendo reissued the game as Punch-Out!! when their contract with Tyson expired (and a conviction made him unmarketable). The silly characters remain, from Glass Joe to King Hippo, but the last bout now features the license-free Mr. Dream. No matter. Even without Tyson, it's a vigorous outing that helped Nintendo climb to the top of the industry.
International success led Nintendo to make some games specifically for the West, and StarTropics was perhaps the highest-profile of them. Never released in Japan, StarTropics features an all-American kid named Mike Jones hopping from island to island in search of his kidnapped uncle. Underground stages lead to cute enemies and conventional weapons (including baseball bats and yo-yos), and the game's broader story plays out with basic RPG-style quests. Compared to the Zelda games, StarTropics is simpler in design but often difficult in its boss encounters, and its gentle appeal might make you wonder why Nintendo abandoned Mike Jones after the NES era.
One notable absence in the NES Classic's lineup: Contra. Konami's macho, alien-filled side-view shooter ensured that many kids of the late '80s were more likely to know the Konami Code than the capital of their home state. If you'll pardon a controversial opinion, however, Super C is the better game. It switches from side-scrolling levels to overhead stages in its chronicle of two shirtless tough guys blasting away at extraterrestrial hordes, and it offers slightly better control and weirder Giger-esque monstrosities. It's Contra through and through, and it's great with two players.
SUPER MARIO BROS.
A lot goes back to Super Mario Bros. It established the side-scroller as a genre, it turned Mario and his numerous enemies into a young generation's celebrities, and it effectively made the NES a hit. Donkey Kong and Kung-Fu played their parts, but it wasn't until Super Mario Bros. that the NES proved to be something new and different. While its sequels are more detailed, the original is still lots of fun, whether you're rushing through the warp zones, figuring out the little secrets of every stage, or facing Goombas and question-mark blocks for the first time ever.
SUPER MARIO BROS. 2
Any true Nintendo geek will tell you, often unprompted, that Super Mario Bros. 2 was not a Mario game at first. It began life as Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, a side-scroller than Nintendo created as part of a multimedia push for the Dream Factory expo. Upon adding Mario characters and reworking a few things, Nintendo had Super Mario Bros. 2 for the west. It fits in well with Mario fixtures, letting players choose from four characters (including Toad and Princess Peach) and offering plenty of memorable oddities along the way. It's a much more satisfying game than the Super Mario Bros. 2 seen in Japan, which was merely a Super Mario Bros. retread later released here as The Lost Levels.
SUPER MARIO BROS. 3
If any game captures Nintendo's creative, childhood-defining apex, it's Super Mario Bros. 3. The game arrived in North America with copious fanfare, smugly confident commercials (one showing no gameplay, just Mario's face on America), and a glorified commercial-as-film called The Wizard. And it was worth it. Super Mario Bros. 3 is as near to perfection as a side-scrolling NES game might come. Its varied worlds let Mario (and Luigi) tackle stages in branching routes, and it seems as though every level introduces a new idea or crafty arrangement. Mario games on subsequent systems added more characters, 3-D looks, and more polish, but they never seized the market like Super Mario Bros. 3.
The NES has numerous beloved sports games: Double Dribble, Blades of Steel, Baseball Stars, Ice Hockey, and the creatively shortened Super Spike V'Ball. Tecmo Bowl made the cut for the NES Classic, and with good reason. It was perhaps the most popular sports attraction there, and it remains highly playable today, even with a limited and unlicensed selection of teams (though at least Denver is there). The simplicity works to its advantage, too. Instead of requiring knowledge of many formations and plays, Tecmo Bowls offers quick-and-easy options for each down, making it fun even for the kids who shunned every sports game more realistic than Base Wars.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA
Dismissing alphabetized conventions, the NES Classic sticks The Legend of Zelda among the last titles on the list. But hey, most of us just called the game “Zelda” anyway. Another founding member of Nintendo's library, The Legend of Zelda introduces elflike hero Link, the captive princess Zelda, and the land of Hyrule. Groundbreaking in its day, the game's overhead viewpoint, sprawling world, and many different items present players with a long and detailed quest. It's basic by today's standards, but there's good fun in the game's speedy pace and lack of intrusive hints—unless you're spoiled by “EASTMOST PENNISULA IS THE SECRET.”
ZELDA II: THE ADVENTURE OF LINK
It might be hard to imagine controversy in an era when Nintendo Power magazine was an arbiter of taste and practically no one knew what the Internet was, but Zelda II stirred up some debate. It ditches the solely top-down view of the original and presents Link with a new format: he wanders a large map from a bird's-eye angle, but towns, dungeons, and enemy encounters play out as side-scrolling action. Link gains levels and uses magic in a fashion more like a traditional RPG, and the larger world makes it easier to get lost. Some appreciate the change of focus, while others are still annoyed at Link's short attack range. Putting it on the NES Classic lets the controversy continue even today.