For all its flaws and frustrations, Nintendo's Virtual Console service — which turns 10 this fall — still represents the single most comprehensive attempt to treat classic games as viable products, worthy of support and promotion. As the collector's bubble continues to inflate the price of older games well beyond the limits of reason, Virtual Console provides a haven of sanity, where even the rarest oldies sell for $10 or less.
Currently, Nintendo and its third parties have published nearly 200 classic games for purchase on the 3DS Virtual Console, with Super NES games being the most recent platform addition to the service. That's a lot of games, and for those who aren't familiar with the original releases, the $5-10 price tag attached to Virtual Console purchases makes them a bit of a risk as impulse purchases. That's what this roundup is for: It isn't simply here to list releases, but also to break them down into three categories: Essentials, games worth playing, and games to avoid.
We'll update this list any time new games appear on Virtual Console, so check back any time you have questions about the latest releases! This roundup counts Nintendo and SEGA's 3D Classics series as Virtual Console, but it does not include games that are not available for general purchase. That means no 3DS Ambassador Game Boy Advance releases, no promotional games, and no delisted titles.
Latest additions (May 13, 2016): Super Punch-Out (Super NES)
Images courtesy of VG Museum
Nintendo Entertainment System
By far the most prolific platform preserved on 3DS Virtual Console, the NES was Nintendo's first home console and established the company's place as a first-party powerhouse. The downside is that Nintendo's approach to presenting NES games on 3DS feels imperfect — every game looks muted and dull, and their pixel resolution is stretched very slightly to preserve the proportionality of the games at the expense of their crispness.
This Joust clone occupies a crucial place in Nintendo's history — but it's also loads of fun, especially the secondary Balloon Trip mode.
A brilliant franchise began here, with a challenging platformer whose stiff controls belied top-class design... and that music!
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse
For many, the pinnacle of the Castlevania series — taking the premise and general feel of the original game and expanding it into a grand adventure featuring four different protagonists and just as many routes through the inventive and varied levels.
Double Dragon II: The Revenge
Technos/Arc System Works, 1990
Arguably the best-looking and best-playing brawler on NES, abandoning the odd RPG elements of its predecessor in favor of arcade-style cooperative play.
Gargoyle's Quest II
The excellent sequel to the groundbreaking Game Boy action-RPG, Gargoyle's Quest II plays much the same as its predecessor, but with a faster, less-cramped format.
The Legend of Zelda
The cornerstone of a gaming empire. Though sometimes a little too esoteric — don't be afraid to ask a friend for tips — there's a shocking percentage of this classic that survives in modern Zelda games.
The semi-sequel to Gradius, Life Force on NES represents the culmination of the arcade shooter Salamander's long and arduous evolution into a stunning cooperative shoot-em-up.
Mega Man 2
When Capcom decided to model Mega Man 9 on the best Mega Man game ever, they look to this masterpiece. Despite a few flaws, it's a timeless action classic.
Mega Man 3
The third Mega Man lost some of its predecessor's snappy simplicity, but it offered new moves (a slide attack) and a surprising set of remixed stages, which is why many fans love it even more than Mega Man 2.
Mighty Final Fight
Final Fight would never have worked on the NES hardware, which is why Capcom turned it into a comical super-deformed version that retained the arcade game's spirit, though not its looks.
NES Open Tournament Golf
Nintendo has published some great golf sims over the years, and this one has play mechanics every bit as good as the Mario Golf series without the need to juggle RPG elements.
The sluggish, derivative arcade brawler became a high-speed precision platformer on NES. Come for the manga-style story sequences, stay for the addictive action.
Ninja Gaiden II
The platonic ideal of a sequel: Bigger, prettier, and more varied than the original. It's also ever-so-slightly easier... which is to say only mostly soul-crushing.
Even if you don't get to fight Mike Tyson at the end, this is still a masterpiece: Boxing as a rhythmic, reactive, pattern-driven action puzzle.
River City Ransom
Technos/Arc System Works, 1988
Everyone was trying to turn their games into Dragon Quest clones in the late ’80s, so why not a brawler, too? Packed with personality, River City Ransom's loopy sense of fun more than makes up for its hilariously unbalanced design.
We may never see the original Contra on Virtual Console, but at least we get the awesome sequel — a two-player experience for the ages.
Super Dodge Ball
Technos/Arc System Works, 1989
Secretly part of the same series as River City Ransom, this classic takes the unlikely subject of Dodge Ball and turns it into a rollicking international brouhaha.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Yeah, it wasn't originally created as a Mario game. So what? Mario's least conventional adventure helped push the games toward a slower, more exploratory standard while codifying characters who would become series mainstays for decades to come.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Some would call this the greatest NES game of all time, and for good reason. A massive game, packed with secrets, loaded down with interesting powers, bursting with invention in every stage, this is a high point of video game history.
Summer Carnival ’92: Recca
Adventures of Lolo
HAL's puzzler series borrowed a lot from the box-pushing genre (i.e. Soukoban) but put plenty of its own original ideas into it.
Adventure Island II
A sort of throwback to the early days of NES game, Master Higgins' second outing offered snappy, no-nonsense platforming action.
A vivid, exploration-based platform shooter whose main weakness comes from the drudgery of the top-down on-foot sequences where you have to leave your rad-as-heck super tank.
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
The weak link of Castlevania on NES, this early action RPG broke new ground but suffers from needlessly opaque secrets and a sense of toothlessness from its boring enemies and dull platforming. Play it with a guide.
An old-school arcade-style platform-racing maze-chase, or something — a bit limited in design, but fun in a bygone way.
Clu Clu Land
Nintendo's best-known take on Pac-Man, Clu Clu Land has players revealing hidden gem patterns while avoiding bad guys — its main weakness being its fussy control scheme.
Crash ’N the Boys: Street Challenge
Technos/Arc System Works, 1992
Another game in the River City Ransom series, Street Challenge offers more variety than Super Dodge Ball, but not every school sport event here is a winner.
A landmark arcade classic, the NES version remains fairly entertaining... but the Game Boy version one-ups it in every way. Skip this one and buy the remake instead.
Donkey Kong 3
Unfairly maligned by history, this shooter has pretty much nothing to do with any of its predecessors, but it's pretty entertaining if you take it on its own terms.
Technos/Arc System Works, 1988
Rather than faithfully convert the revolutionary arcade brawler to NES, Technos decided to give it a massive overhaul with reworked levels and an RPG system. Interesting, but the lack of co-op play and the awkward platforming undermine it.
While the NES port isn't the greatest version of Galaga available, in the end, it's Galaga. Who doesn't love Galaga?
A classic shooter, and a tremendous challenge, but its follow-up Life Force outclasses it in every respect.
The original Mega Man features loads of great ideas, but it's definitely a rough draft compared to its sequels. But at least you can cheese it with save states!
Mega Man 5
A marked improvement after the disastrous Mega Man 4, this fifth entry feels a bit like business as usual but still offers some great moments (e.g. Gravity Man's stage) to make it worth your time.
Mega Man 6
Mega Man's final 8-bit hoorah deserves a closer look these days — what it lacks in invention it makes up for with weirdness and polish.
One of Nintendo's most important creations ever, but a bit of a drag to play these days. There's entertainment to be found here... for the patient.
Mighty Bomb Jack
The extraordinary jump physics of this arcade conversion take some getting used to, but once you wrap your head around them you'll find a creative puzzle-like platformer here.
The Mysterious Murasame Castle
Formerly a Japan-only release, this top-down action game offers more than simply the novelty of its belated arrival in the U.S.
The first of two Natsume cooperative action games — a bit unpolished as NES shooters go, but ambitious and entertaining enough to make up for it.
Shadow of the Ninja
Natsume's other big Virtual Console release, this Ninja Gaiden-like platformer lacks the finesse of Tecmo's legendary series but makes up for it in other ways — like two-player simultaneous action.
The first true puzzle-platformer on NES, Solomon's Key looks simple but the complexity of its stages and ferocity of its enemy monsters make for a daunting and engrossing classic.
Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight
Neither Street Fighter nor Final Fight, this quirky action game features some of the best visuals on NES... and its play format works quite well so long as you go into it realizing it has nothing to do with the franchises whose titles it wears.
One of the all-time gridiron classics, Tecmo Bowl pales only in comparison to its superior sequel, which hackers continue to update to reflect current rosters and teams.
Mario's final outing before Super Mario Bros. defined his future forever, this odd action game sits uncomfortably between arcade action and puzzler — but it's better than first glances might lead you to believe.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Save Your Cash
Bases Loaded sold primarily on the strength of its visuals back in the day. Those don't really cut it anymore, leaving just a mediocre baseball game.
It's kind of cool that this game came to the American virtual console despite never making its way to the U.S. back in the day, but as an arcade conversion it's only so-so.
Donkey Kong Jr.
The ungainly character design and controls of this simian sequel have always made it a lesser game than its predecessor. Play Donkey Kong 3 instead.
Ghosts ’N Goblins
An indisputable classic in the arcades, Ghosts ’N Goblins sank (and stank) on NES thanks to the unspeakably shoddy programming work invested into the game.
There's no shortage of cooperative action games on 3DS Virtual Console, so why spend time playing one with such awful controls?
This motorcycle-based combat racer feels like nothing else Nintendo has ever created, but "unique" doesn't always translate to "worthwhile."
A decent enough conversion of a decent enough game, but Nintendo really beat this one into the ground on Game Boy Advance — give it a few more years to regain its value.
Mega Man 4
The low point of Mega Man's NES outings, Mega Man 4 is undermined by insipid stage themes, uninspired bosses and weapons, and a new charge shot ability that spoils the fundamental concept behind Mega Man.
Milon's Secret Castle
A dull and drawn-out platformer whose obnoxiously hidden secrets make Zelda II's worst moments feel like a radiant revelation by comparison.
Ninja Gaiden III
Not a bad game, but Tecmo cut off its proverbial nose to spite its face: The U.S. version was rebalanced to be excruciatingly hard and only offered limited continues to prevent kids from beating the game on a rental.
Hey, it's an all-time classic. But is this version really the optimal form in which to experience it? Hmmm.
Technos/Arc System Works, 1987
This is also a part of the same series as River City Ransom! But probably the worst part. Avoid.
A lousy side-scrolling shoot-em-up.
This venerable game became a begrudging favorite in Japan and inspired Spelunky. Recommendation: Skip it, play Spelunky.
This game helped launch Hudson's PC Engine shooter empire, but it feels raw and unpolished compared to its successors.
Super Mario Bros.
A great, great game. But you can also buy Super Mario Bros. Deluxe on Virtual Console, which offers extra content, bonus challenges, a save feature, and — oh yes — the entirety of The Lost Levels as an unlockable. Get that version.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
The final official NES release ever, this uninspired puzzler proved that not everything bearing Wario's grotesque countenance was a winner.
Game Freak/Nintendo, 1992