20. Kid Icarus
This kissin' cousin to Metroid has a weird, lopsided balance to it: The game starts out brutally difficult and becomes a cakewalk by the end. If you can somehow survive the first few stages, you can breeze through the rest of the game. Lots of fun ideas here, like the labyrinth palaces and tons of infuriating enemies like the Eggplant Wizards and thieving Plutons, but the NES version is hard to go back to after the subtly tweaked 3DS remake from a few years back.
One of the all-time arcade greats, this shooter features memorable enemies with wild, swooping formations and the daunting risk-reward bait of allowing the bad guys to capture one of your fighters, reducing your life count by one in exchange for the prospect of reclaiming your ship and doubling your firepower... but also doubling the size of your hit box.
While the NES version lacks a bit of the arcade edition's verve, it's a faithful rendition... and every bit as fun. Spot-on arcade ports were the point of the NES early on (and its Japanese version, the Famicom), and games like Galaga had a lot to do with its appeal.
Admittedly the least worthy of the Gradius games for NES (where's Life Force!?), this shooter nevertheless put Konami on the map. With a dynamic, player-driven power-up system and a memorable cheat code, Gradius is a heck of a shooter. Just don't die. Unless you like taking on late-game challenges with the weakest weapon, that is....
17. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
You're going to want a guide for this one — but as irritating as some of Zelda II's secrets can be, there's a lot to love about this adventure. It's by far the most reflex-oriented Zelda game, with legitimate platforming and face-to-face combat with tough enemies. At the same time, it's also the most RPG-like Zelda, with a proper experience system and even magic spells. It's a game of extremes, and also of annoyingly vague hints.
Like a slot racer meets motocross meets a platformer, this interesting race game drops the need to pay attention to the lateral twists of the racetrack in favor of managing speed, engine heat, and angle of approach as you take on all manner of slopes and hills. While we prefer the sequel (Excitebike Vs.) for its two-player competitive play, we're still happy to have another go at the original.
15. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
If you thought Zelda II was maddeningly vague with its hints and objectives, just wait until you take on the second Castlevania! But, like Zelda's sequel, Castlevania II feels much more bigger and more RPG-like than its predecessor. You're definitely going to want some tips or general guidance as you journey through Transylvania in search of Dracula's bits and bobs, but the atmospheric music and complex metroidvania world design more than make up for it.
14. Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream
Even without Mike Tyson to slug it out with at the end, Punch-Out!! remains one of the greatest and most innovative sports games of all time. One part boxing sim, one part rhythm game, Punch-Out!! challenges players to sharpen their reflexes and learn their opponents' tells inside and out. Total mastery is the only way you can ever hope to take on Mr. Dream at the end. And don't forget toin the Fun Club!
13. Super C
We may never know why Konami refuses to bring the original Contra to Virtual Console and other similar services... but whatever the case, its sequel is no slouch. Super C replaces the over-the-shoulder base assault stages with top-down sequences, losing a little bit of its uniqueness in the process... but its gruesome visuals, intense music, and punishing challenge level make this a true NES classic. And yeah, the Konami Code works for this one, too.
The original Metroid lacks the finesse of its sequels, presenting itself as more of a free-roaming and open-ended journey... and one that presents players with repetitive scenery and seeming dead-ends. You'll need a bit of patience to complete Metroid (and maybe a map), but there's more value than simple nostalgia to this shooter. It's an interesting, and quite challenging, journey in its own right... and it helped define an entire genre, so you history buffs will want to check it out just to see what inspired all those indie games.
11. Super Mario Bros.
Well, it's only one of the three most influential games all time, no big. Super Mario Bros. is a masterpiece — one that only fails to make our top 10 because it was edged out by two of its sequels, and several other games it helped inspire. We're basically talking about the greatest NES games of all time at this point in our rankings.
Super Mario Bros. could possibly be the single most important piece of software ever made for NES. And if the games it helped inspire (and pave the way for) hold a slightly higher place in our hearts than Mario's original adventure, well, there's no shame in being the giant upon whose shoulders others stood.