As the world's most enduring first-party console publisher, Nintendo has quite a legacy of beloved games under its belt.
But Nintendo also has produced a lot of games that no one ever talks about any more. Some of those games never even show up in nostalgia-driven projects like WarioWare or as Smash Bros. assist trophies!
While everyone knows how important Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong were, but for some reason you never really hear about Sky Skipper and Monkey Magic. No publisher revels in its own history like Nintendo, so these older works feel conspicuous by their absence.
What the heck? A Breakout clone in which you take aim at what appears to be a brick-based effigy of the legendary Sun Wukong.
Why's it so obscure? Like a lot of early Nintendo arcade titles, this is basically just someone else's game with a small twist. In this case, the twist is that shattered blocks regenerate in time, so there's really only one stage in which the blocks constantly reappear. Given how many Breakout clones existed in 1979, little surprise this never left Japan.
Should I hunt it down? Ask yourself, "Do I need to own everything Nintendo ever created? And is it worth the unspeakable thousands of dollars I'd have to invest in bringing an obscure old arcade cabinet overseas from Japan?" Deep in your heart, you know the answer is "no."
Head On N
What the heck? A top-down racing game that looks (and sounds) suspiciously similar to Sega's Head On 2. That's because it's literally Head On 2 with a slightly different name.
Why's it so obscure? Nintendo picked up limited distribution rights for Head On 2 and changed the name a bit. This is a Sega game that was also distributed by its original name. Head On N literally had no reason to exist beyond a limited window of time in the late '70s.
Should I hunt it down? Just play Head On 2. It's a Sega game, so that means it's been ported to various home systems over the years.
What the heck? Yes, Space Invaders fever still burned hot two years after Taito's game became a hit. But by that point it demanded novelty. So here you control a submarine rather than a space ship. Viva la difference.
Why's it so obscure? Space Invaders was never as big outside Japan as it was in its home territory, so unsurprisingly there was never a market for in the global arcade scene. And, like most Nintendo arcade titles from this era, HeliFire is believed to have been produced by contractors Ikegami Tsushinki, whose falling out with Nintendo over Donkey Kong evidently put the kibosh on reissues and remakes of these old titles.
Should I hunt it down? If you ever have the chance to play it, sure. It's a moderately unique take on the Space Invaders concept, with threats closing in on your sub from above and below.
What the heck? A sequel to Space Firebird, but more demonic.
Why's it so obscure? Generally speaking, this is the same essential game as Space Firebird, which didn't exactly set the world on fire. It's hard to imagine distributors and vendors were falling over themselves for a beefed-up version of a game that barely made a blip the first time around.
Should I hunt it down? You could look for the rare, hard-to-find Galaxian clone... or you could play Galaga. Go with Galaga.
What the heck? One of Nintendo's weirdest games by far, Sky Skipper came along immediately after Donkey Kong, so Nintendo's designers were still trying to pin down what had made that game so successful. In this case, they went with "big monkeys," who wander around while you fly a biplane in an attempt to rescue captive animals emblazoned with card suits.
Why's it so obscure? Sometimes you throw something at the wall and it doesn't stick. Sky Skipper's arcade version never left Japan, so the only version Americans had access to was a clumsy Atari 2600 conversion by Milton Bradley.
Should I hunt it down? Sure, if you have a hankering for a confusing Atari game sometime, you could probably do worse. But Nintendo would prove that they could do a lot better.
What the heck? The power of Christ compels you to... move through a maze being directed by Satan and collect bibles like some weird cross between Pac-Man and a reverse Gideon. Huh.
Why's it so obscure? Devil World is one of only two first-party Famicom games Nintendo developed before launching the NES that never came to the U.S. (the other being an English language tutor). The collective Japanese perception of America is that we love hamburgers, and we love Jesus. Understandably, they didn't want to risk offending any sensibilities with this one. (Surprisingly, they didn't change it to "Burger World" for U.S. release.)
Should I hunt it down? If you have the means to play Famicom carts via, say, a RetroN clone console or something, sure. Devil World goes for cheap, and it's moderately fun in a dated, over-complicated Pac-Man clone kind of way.
What the heck? It's like Punch-Out!! (all the way down to the dual-monitor setup), but here you're trying to overpower your foe's right arm rather than overpower them with a nasty right hook.
Why's it so obscure? Like Punch-Out!!, Arm Wrestling was just too impressive-looking for the NES to reproduce accurately. Designer Genyo Takeda figured out how to turn Punch-Out!! into a more rhythmic puzzle-reflex game to create a home classic, but Arm Wrestling lacked the necessary depth to find new life on consoles.
Should I hunt it down? Old Arm Wrestling cabinets are likely expensive and difficult to maintain, but if you ever have the chance to grab one on the cheap, you absolutely should. It's not the greatest game, but those huge cartoony opponents still look pretty great.
Joy Mech Fight
What the heck? Nintendo's first attempt at making a fighting game. Players build toy robots out of plastic model parts and set them about punching one another.
Why's it so obscure? This one probably just comes down to tech and timing. The NES would have been phased out in the U.S. by the time Joy Mech Fight would have made its way over here, and its smoothly animated visuals required a pricey add-on chip that would have turned the localized version into a price risk.
Should I hunt it down? Definitely. Not only is it one of the coolest (and coolest-looking) unlocalized NES games ever, it also feels kind of like a spiritual ancestor to Smash Bros.: Toys duking it out for supremacy. Though with less free-for-all insanity, of course.
Marvelous: Another Treasure Island
1996, Super Famicom
What the heck? Before Eiji Aonuma became the boss of Zelda, he made this quirky 16-bit adventure game. It's very Zelda-like, yet also quite unique.
Why's it so obscure? Having launched late in the 16-bit era, aka "the point at which Nintendo was no longer investing in significant English-language localizations for games that weren't on Nintendo 64," Marvelous basically just missed the boat for leaving Japan. EarthBound's poor performance in the U.S. probably didn't help, either; Marvelous contained a ton of text and had a very slow pace, and Nintendo presumably didn't feel it was worth the risk.
Should I hunt it down? Sure, if you don't mind braving a lot of Japanese text — this is a great game, a real lost gem. Well, OK, there are ways of playing the game in English, too, but you didn't hear about those from us.
1997, Super Famicom
What the heck? A crazy puzzle platformer game in which you control a character who kind of resembles a kiwi bird and gets about by sucking the color from one interactive object and injecting it others. It's as fun as it is hard to describe.
Why's it so obscure? Sutte Hakkun brought up the caboose of Nintendo's 16-bit efforts, and it originally debuted on the Satellaview download service — a feature never available in the U.S. By the time it came out in cartridge form, Nintendo had basically wiped its hands clean of the Super NES and it was never localized.
Should I hunt it down? The cartridge version is very much worth owning and shouldn't be too pricey, and modding your Super NES to play import games is super easy. Although if Nintendo really loved us, they'd remake it for eShop.