Or if you’ve already heard of all those really obvious choices in the main list, because who hasn’t by now, then try this list of lesser known NES gems instead! (And games like Strider, Bionic Commando, Street Fighter 2010, and etc should really be on here too, but I figured I’d just avoid any Capcom, Konami, or Nintendo releases and stick to the even lesser known titles)
#7 – Metal Storm
Metal Storm was a linear side-scrolling action-platformer that had a heavy sci-fi/anime theme, and I’m sure you’re thinking “ok, but so did 300 other NES games”, but what really set the game apart from all the others of its kind was the fact that you could flip gravity at any time. Nowadays gravity flipping in games has been pretty much done to death, but back in 1991 it was a pretty revolutionary feature. The developers at Irem implemented it in some really creative ways too (though some of these may have been related to the technical limitations of the time and the fact that there was no jump button), which led to some really intense, brain-twisting platforming, as well as some really unique boss fights. It’s a must-play for anyone that’s into old-timey sci-fi mech games with a lot of explosive 8-bit action.
#6 – Xexyz
Xexyz (try saying it out loud) is another sci-fi side-scrolling action-platformer, but with a few different twists. First, Xexyz shakes the old standard action-platformer formula up a bit by having less straight-forward levels. You have to search “ordinary”-looking ground levels for power stars, which you needed to unlock the door to the mechanical fortress of each world, but to do so you have to search through all these little rooms, some of which contain shops, others have strange gambling mini-games, others still involve a mini-boss battle for that power star, and some even involve rescuing giant anime bubble bath babes for some reason. Sure, why not.
Once you get into a fortress the enemies get tougher and the path ahead becomes a lot twistier, but if you can make it through you’ll be treated to an impressively large boss fight and the revelation that the game suddenly turns into a flying shoot-em-up every other world. It’s a strange little hybrid game, but it does what it sets out to do pretty well and has a lot of content for what it is.
#5 – Faxanadu
Faxanadu is another one that, like Xexyz, probably owed a lot of its obscurity to its weird name and bland cover art. If you happened to actually stumble upon it somehow though, you would have found a surprisingly well-done action-RPG. The game has a pretty strange and challenging selection of enemies to throw at you, a large world to get lost in, and a really great soundtrack too. I just wrote a whole thing about this one recently so go there for more info if you’d like.
#4 – Clash at Demonhead
Here we have yet another side-scrolling action-platformer with some RPG elements sprinkled throughout, because hey, that’s what the NES was great at! This one featured a map with a branching structure of levels that could be navigated in different order, kind of like Bionic Commando, but also traveled back and forth through from either side. As the tantalizing info-graphic explains…
you have to find and defeat the seven special bosses hiding among the various levels in order to enter and defeat the final level. Along the way you’ll find shops full of helpful gear such as special environment suits that let you survive under water or lava, and even a fancy jetpack. You’ll also encounter some friendly hermits who you’ll need to learn special powers from in order to find and beat all those bosses. It seems to still be a surprisingly overlooked NES game even despite having some compelling cover art and a brief feature in Nintendo Power back in the day.
#3 Super Spy Hunter
A lot of people still remember Spy Hunter, but it seems that the NES exclusive sequel Super Spy Hunter (not to be confused with the arcade game Spy Hunter 2) flew under a lot of radars. This takes the compelling, but extremely underdeveloped, concept of the original Spy Hunter and turns everything up to 11.
More guns, more enemies, more power-ups, more levels, boss fights, and even some special levels where you turn into a plane and a boat. This is just one of the best vertical-scrolling shoot-em-ups I’ve ever played, even to this day. It feels a lot like a Capcom game, with a lot of fun weapons, really well-designed bosses, and one of the best soundtracks you’ll ever hear on the NES.
#2 – Rygar
Do kids these days know about Rygar? EH? SPEAK UP I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I’d like to think that Rygar wasn’t all that obscure back in the day, but he hasn’t really had much attention since the 80’s so who knows? There was one attempt at a comeback in the PS2 era, but it never really took off. Rygar also had an arcade game in the 80’s that was an entirely different game than the home version, but it wasn’t that great, so it’s understandable that no one seems to remember him.
Back in my day though, Rygar was one of the best early NES games. It’s yet another side-scrolling action-platformer with light RPG elements, though there were also top-down areas too for some reason. As usual with all the best NES games, Rygar had very memorable visual and sound design, and had a surprisingly deep and deadly world compared to the original arcade game, which was literally just walking in a straight line forever. This was also the source of the game’s greatest flaw though, as Rygar took around 8-12 hours to complete, yet had no save or password function whatsoever. This meant that the only way to beat the game back then was to leave it paused overnight and just turn the TV off and hope that mom and dad didn’t notice and turn the NES off before you got back to it. It was pretty frustrating and I imagine it had a lot to do with the game’s obscure place in history, despite being such a good game.
#1 The Guardian Legend
And finally there’s The Guardian Legend. I bet you thought I was going to say this was another side-scrolling action-platformer, but HA! YOU’RE WRONG! It’s a strange hybrid of top-down action-adventure that much resembles the original Legend of Zelda, and vertical-scrolling shoot-em-up! You play as…some weird transformer lady I guess, I don’t know, these things rarely have coherent plots.
Anyway, you’re a mechanical soldier of some kind who has to blast your way through a series of complex dungeons, each with their own hidden power-ups and shops. The trick though, is that you have to not only find the exit, but figure out how to open it too. Some will open with keys, some require you to find and use specific weapons in order to pass, others require you to figure out strange riddles that want you to do other strange things to get through. Once you do, you’ll find yourself transforming into a futuristic spaceship and entering one of the game’s many flying sections. These are not mere mini-games either, they’re actually really well done shoot-em-up levels with a healthy helping of difficulty and some really monstrous boss creatures to fight.
And that about does it for this list! Between this and the other list, you should know enough great NES titles to keep you busy for quite some time now, so you better hurry up and get started!