The Nintendo Switch’s online service finally launched last week to much fanfare (or furore, in many cases), and front and centre among its advantages – other than getting it for roughly £4 a year because my family pass thinks I have, like, seven dads – is the library of NES games playable anytime. Featuring not one, not two, not three… …but twenty classic games from Nintendo’s classic grey box, all wrapped up in an interface slicker than seagulls in an oil spill – it can be intimidating at first glance. Fortunately, as always, I am here to help; to sort the NESessary from the unNESessary, to sort the games with fiNESse from the games that make me wish I had amNESia. Ranked worst to best, here we are:
20. Pro Wrestling
Two strangely proportioned faceless gentlemen flail at each other while a blood-thirsty crowd of onlookers cheer for more carnage. Unlike the other brawler-like games currently available on the service, Double Dragon and River City Ransom, which send you in against multiple weaker minions (not literally Minions, unfortunately), Pro Wrestling sets you against either a friend or a CPU opponent that clearly has psychic powers to see the future. Either way, it quickly descends into mindless button-mashing; I think there’s a reason most of us hadn’t heard of this one.
Bunch of speck-eyed ant-people that make a Space Invader look like the Mona Lisa go out for a kickabout. There’s nothing really wrong with this one, it’s just so painfully basic even for an NES game that it might as well be pumpkin-spice scented. It’s worth a look at, once, and then you’ll remember that second-hand copies of FIFA are so cheap and plentiful at your local second-hand retailer that in the future we’ll probably use them as currency. Fun for five minutes.
If you need me to explain to you what tennis is you probably need to go outside a little more often. Ironically for such a simple game the NES hardware might be holding this one back – the ball scales weirdly and jerkily which makes it difficult to predict where it’s actually going to land. Given that the only thing more common than FIFA out there is Wii Sports, this one also seems a little superfluous. It’s a nice addition for people who like the history of the console, but not something I think most people would actually want to play.
The multi-talented ant-people are back, this time for a butchered rendition of classic British pastime Rounders. This is the first of a couple games where having the manual included would’ve been nice (and by “nice” I mean “necessary”), so I can find the button for “making my outfielders run faster than an asthmatic drunk slug.” There’s evidently some depth to this one, but again, Wii Sports exists, so this is just another quick distraction.
16. Tecmo Bowl
Please send help. I have absolutely no clue what is going on. I gather some kind of sport is being played but that’s about this. This one is only so high because of word-of-mouth; I’m told it’s a surprisingly decent American Football game, that a lot of people remember fondly. It certainly looks the part, but its so dang complicated than anyone without a master’s degree in Handegg is going to be left out in the cold. Unfortunately the vast majority of the population of the United Kingdom fall into that category.
15. Ice Hockey
Little men in bumblebee jerseys ruin a Disney on Ice concert to fight over the last black pudding with sticks. This one is probably the most proficient of the random sports games in the package – fast-paced and easy to get to grips with, and hockey makes a good fit for a basic video game. It’s still not a classic by any means, but good for a little bit of fun.
14. Double Dragon
President of the “wearing only blue and having a silly haircut” fanclub goes on a murderous rampage, potentially to save a woman. Now we’re getting into the “actual classics and not just history pieces” section of the list – Double Dragon is probably the most well-known example of the now defunct arcade brawler genre. It’s a lot more tactile and, for want of a less punny term, “punchy,” than Pro Wrestling, and makes for an enjoyable co-op romp. I’ve also had the pleasure of playing an actual Double Dragon arcade cabinet, and jump to NES holds up well.
The final appearance of the incredible performing ant-men, this time performing the ancient mystical art of motocross racing. There’s a lot going on in this one – both races and time trials, and even a course creator. The gameplay is somewhat basic, mostly about making sure you land jumps carefully, like traversing a minefield on a pogo-stick, but carrying your speed well is really satisfying to get right.
12. Mario Bros.
Famous overweight Italian gentleman commits tortoise genocide in the world’s largest sewer. Mario Bros. has always been considered something of a black sheep to the Mario games, and because of its slightly strange design it hasn’t aged as well as the others; jumping locks you into an arc that often results in death, movement is weirdly momentum-based and worst of all, every level is the ice level. It’s still an enjoyable game, but in a charming nostalgic way.
11. River City Ransom
Enormous square-headed freak cosplaying as Homer Simpson embarks on a quest to save his dudebro’s girlfriend. River City Ransom is basically Double Dragon with a heaping helping of character sprinkled on top; characters are much more expressive and have clearer personalities, animations in general are more over-the-top, and the music has a silly ragtime, Scooby-Doo-chase-scene quality to it.
10. Donkey Kong
Aforementioned popular Italian chap rescues four-time world champion of the “most emotionless girl” tournament from a business gorilla. The classic everybody knows and loves, except it isn’t, because it’s the NES version not the arcade version. It’s largely the same for people with the itch to play it – asides from feeling a little stiffer due to using a D’Pad instead of a joystick and Donkey Kong being massively more of a pain in the arse.
9. Ice Climber
Mute Eskimo couple have their vegetables stolen by dinosaurs. Ice Climber is an odd beast in that’s an exclusively vertically scrolling platformer – which actually works in its favour. It’s controls have many of the problems Mario Bros.’s do, but because you’re almost always above solid ground, and enemies approach from the side, they feel less burdensome. Also features some great co-op.
8. Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins
Medieval-themed male stripper has his bride kidnapped by literal Satan, goes on masochistic adventure to get her back. Move over Megaman, move over Ninja Gaiden (until it comes out for the service in December), here is the original “stupidly unfair-level difficult game that somehow kids in the 80’s could complete.” More of a true side-scroller than perhaps Megaman is, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins is so brutally hard it makes Dark Souls look like Cooking Mama.
7. Balloon Fight
Weird balloon chap launches surprise counter-attack deep in enemy bird-people territory. Balloon Fight is the first game of the collection that I would argue has aged reasonably well (despite having less pixels than Mario’s left nostril these days). The controls are fluid and the gameplay loop is still a lot of fun to play – something of an underrated classic on the system.
Mario gets a part-time job as a lazy-susan, hatches dinosaurs and slays classic Mario enemies in the process. I’ve always wondered who the eponymous “susan” of a lazy-susan was, and whether she really was so lazy it warranted naming a weird table-esque thing after her. Uh, anyway, Yoshi is a fairly obscure puzzle game for the NES (and not to be confused with Yoshi’s Cookie, a different Yoshi-themed NES puzzle game… talk about a monopoly), and puzzle games really suit the switch’s play anywhere ethos. There’s a decent amount of depth to stacking and hatching Yoshi’s, and things can get fairly exciting and frenetic.
5. Super Mario Bros.
Turtle Steals Woman Because of Reasons(™), plumber is only man available to go rescue her. I don’t believe there’s a single human being left on this planet and its surrounding colonies that hasn’t actually played Super Mario Bros.. If somehow you’ve managed to survive under a rock for the last thirty-three years, Super Mario Bros. is the side-scrolling platformer; it didn’t perfect the genre, that part comes a little later, but it’s still a fun game today.
A spaceship does spaceship things. Whereas most shoot-em-ups from this era preferred a top-down perspective, Gradius was among the first to take things to a side-scroller perspective – as well as implementing its iconic upgrade system. The ship feels a little sluggish in 2018, but the soundtrack is one of the best in this collection, managing to convey a sense of grand adventure in remedial chiptune.
3. The Legend of Zelda
Dwarf / Peter Pan enthusiast saves a princess from a pig using triangles. Everyone knows that the original Zelda for NES was a pioneer, not just for Zelda games but for adventure games as a whole. The free-form world structure directly influenced recent world-beater Breath of the Wild, but thankfully it’s hilariously cruel difficulty didn’t. Though even that’s nothing compared to Zelda II…
2. Super Mario Bros. 3
Turtle Steals Woman Because of Reasons(™), Mushroom Kingdom government accuses of spending the entire defence budget on parades and cakes. Many hold up Mario Bros. 3 as something of a holy grail among platformers, and despite being more of a Super Mario World kinda guy it’s easy to see where they’re coming from – 3 drastically improves on everything the first two Mario games did and then some.
1. Dr. Mario
Plumber breaks into hospital, starts throwing vitamins at creatures he says are viruses but that anyone with a GCSE education could tell you aren’t viruses, somehow isn’t promptly arrested. Dr. mario is a timeless, scarily addictive puzzle game that deserves to be held up next to Tetris in the hallowed halls of perfect puzzle-game design. The objectives are easy to understand, and yet it’s so easy and satisfying to start creating monster combos – and this all combined with the Switch’s portability makes this the most accessible, enjoyable game in the collection, and one that owes me hours of my life back.