For all its flaws and frustrations, Nintendo's Virtual Console service — which turns 10 this fall — still represents the games industry's single most comprehensive attempt to treat its history as something worthwhile. 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 usually sell for $10 or less.
Currently, Nintendo and its third parties have published more than 200 classic games for purchase on the Wii U Virtual Console, including a number of Game Boy Advance and DS games that don't appear on 3DS. 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 does not include games that are not available for general purchase, e.g. have been delisted.
Latest additions (May 13, 2016): N64 and Game Boy Advance lists
Images courtesy of VG Museum; header image photo credit Wikipedia contributor Takimata
Nintendo Entertainment System
By far the most prolific platform available on all Virtual Console services, the NES gave Nintendo's its entrée into the home console market, where it's remained a prime mover ever since. Unfortunately, the Wii U Virtual Console's presentation of NES games feels like a significant step down from that of the original Wii Virtual Console: The games look darker and less vibrant, and the console can't output at true 240p resolution for those who prefer to play retro games on CRT televisions. On the other hand, Wii U does introduce better save state options and off-screen play on the Game Pad, which are huge selling points.
More than just a Joust clone, this two-player game includes the wonderful Balloon Trip mode — and it has historical significance, too, introducing Nintendo to genius programmer and future company president Satoru Iwata.
You may see it as stiff and unforgiving, but Castlevania worked on the same principles as Dark Souls: A game whose challenge derived from the player's limitations and a world carefully designed to force you to master your small set of control options without being unfair.
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse
There are a few parts of this game that fall short of perfection, but mostly this represents the pinnacle of methodical 8-bit action gaming. With multiple different characters to play as, several routes through the game, and top-notch design throughout, Castlevania III demands to be replayed over and over again.
Double Dragon II: The Revenge
Technos/Arc System Works, 1990
Taking a far more arcade-faithful approach than the first Double Dragon on NES, this brawler finally included a multiplayer option and made countless minor refinements to the coin-op game's design that make it the definitive take on Double Dragon II.
Gargoyle's Quest II
An NES sequel to a Game Boy game? Sure, why not. Carrying over the quest design and mechanics of the original Gargoyle's Quest into the console space, the expanded screen resolution and overall faster pace resulted in a superior sequel and a great little action RPG.
It's always great to see what aging hardware can do in expert hands, and Kirby's Adventure demonstrates the full potential of the NES. A massive, multilayered platformer, HAL put Kirby on the map with this one and gave the NES faithful one last reason to take pride in their dying consoles.
This Gradius spin-off is arguably better than any game bearing the Gradius name (at least until Gradius Gaiden on PlayStation). Featuring two-player cooperative action, alternating play formats, console-exclusive stages, and stunning graphics and music, 8-bit shooters didn't get much better than Life Force.
Mega Man 2
Using the inventive but uneven Mega Man as a launching point, this sequel upped the stakes in every sense: More bosses, more stages, more weapons, more tools, better graphics, incredible music, and tons of memorable encounters. Sure, it has a couple of rough spots, but this passion project set a high-water mark for platformers.
Mega Man 3
The last time the classic Mega Man series would see true innovation, this sequel goes even beyond Mega Man 2 with even more refined graphics, a new slide attack for Mega Man, a mysterious new rival, and four boss remix stages featuring the "ghosts" of returning enemies. Future games would dial back from the standard established here, and more's the pity.
Mighty Final Fight
You wouldn't think a belated 8-bit port of seminal arcade brawler Final Fight would have been worth playing, but Capcom completely rethought the workings of the game and prioritized "fun" over "realism," with excellent results.
NES Open Tournament Golf
The product of considerable refinement over several Japan-only expansions to the original NES Golf, this take on the links is frankly as deep and well-designed as any golf game you'll find on modern consoles. If you don't mind the dated graphics, there's a lot to love here.
Koei Tecmo, 1989
This game has nothing to do with the crummy arcade brawler besides an opening stage in which a ninja fights through New York. Instead, this is more of a fast-paced Castlevania-style experience, with ferocious enemies and precision action, plus plenty of cool manga-style cut scenes as a reward for surviving the ruthless enemy hordes.
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos
Koei Tecmo, 1991
Faster, cooler, and (thankfully) slightly easier than the first game, Ryu Hayabusa's second adventure reprises some familiar territory while throwing in all manner of new challenges and hazards — but also some welcome support in the form of "shadow clones" that triple Ryu's power in the style of Gradius' Options.
River City Ransom
Technos/Arc System World, 1990
A two-player fighting game set in an open, nonlinear world, featuring RPG-like experience and leveling, an in-game economy, and tons of special techniques and weapons to purchase at shops along the way. A bit janky in places, sure, but wildly ambitious for its time, and still loads of fun today.
While not as good a game as the NES adaptation of Contra, this sequel still beats its original arcade version... and most other platform shooters, too. Despite the clumsy and unwelcome top-down stages, Super C is absolutely an NES essential.
Super Dodge Ball
Technos/Arc System Works, 1989
What River City Ransom did for brawlers, Super Dodge Ball did for, well, dodge ball. For a game that isn't really all that much more complex than Pong, Technos sure did a bang-up job of packing it with variety and strategy.
Super Mario Bros.
Everyone needs at least one copy of this game in their library. An all-time classic.
Super Mario Bros. 2
The obligatory weird NES sequel, don't be put off by its strangeness; this makeshift Mario game ended up having a profound impact on the entire series... and also, it's fun.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Three for three on Mario? Yep. Mario 3 felt like an attempt to take an early NES creation to its logical end, and the results hovered somewhere between "awesome" and "incredible."
Ufouria: The Saga
This quirky exploratory platformer never made it to the U.S. back in the day, and the cartridge is really expensive these days. Make the most of the opportunity to grab this great import legally for an excellent price!
Based on the enhanced arcade Vs. Excitebike, this classic racer offers competitive play and the ability to save custom track designs. It's loads of simple fun... and it completely moots the standard version of the game.