Once A Year: NES Games

by JPohlman

What if you could only have one Nintendo Entertainment System Game for every year of the system's life? Which would you choose, and why? Here's my personal pics!

The Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected its industry after the 1983 Video Game Crash. In it's lifespan from 1985 to 1995, it kicked out over seven hundred titles! Many of these original eight-bit creations still live on today, with Mario serving as the textbook example of a corporate mascot; to say nothing of Link, Samus, Pit, and the dozens of other Nintendo all-star characters. But what if you could only choose one NES game per year? Would you select based on the historical impact of each title? Or would you eschew legacy in favor of your personal favorites? Welcome to "Once A Year!"

Picking One Of Seventy!

I mentioned that the NES spawned over seven hundred titles, and a convenient list of games is available from Wikipedia.  For the purposes of picking one game per year, this list is absolutely helpful:  It gives release dates for games experiencing a North American debut, meaning they were on our giant gray box and not, say, the original red Japanese Famicom!  We're not dealing with the Famicom, we're dealing with the NES, so this list is incredibly helpful!


But whittling down all of the games released from 1985-1995 is still no easy task.  My list will focus on which games I, personally, liked the most, released in that given year.  Remember:  Some years were weaker than others.  Early in the console's life, it's limits were still being worked out; once the SNES came out in the early 90's, developers focused on that instead, and the quality of NES games dropped. Some years I have, like, two decent games to pick from while in others there are runner-up games which easily beat anything that came afterwards!  But my list is about year-to-year, January to December, and it's my personal favorite games - history be damned (says the guy with a history degree).

You?  Your list can be anything!  I know, right now, at least one of my choices is going to be controversial.  Good!


1985:  Super Mario Brothers
Other Contenders:  Excitebike.  (??)

1985 was the first year the NES was out, and arguably the best video or computer game ever produced was released in that year:  Super Mario Brothers.  I don't even need to come up with a picture or a link for this one.  Simply put, it's Super Mario Brothers, the original.  Stomping on Goombas, kicking Koopas?  Unbelievably great.  Never mind that it's competition was essentially a list of primitive creations; basic motorcycle games and R.O.B. titles; Super Mario Bros. was simply unmatched in it's year.

If only they were all going to be this easy.


1986:  Ghosts 'n Goblins
Other Contenders:  Donkey Kong, Gradius

Ghosts n Goblins, courtesy of GamestationretroThis was another generally weak year, but with a few stand-outs.  Donkey Kong was an arcade hit, but was dated and short; Gradius remains a defining shoot 'em up franchise; but Ghosts 'n Goblins?  This game was both a classic, migraine-inducing arcade game designed to munch up quarters, and a classic side-scrolling game with an epic quest.

I could go on, but I would much rather cling to - ahem, give credit to - one of the best gaming critics of all time, the Angry Video Game Nerd.  He spells out why the game is so hard, so good, and so worthy of being played.


1987:  Mega Man
Other Contenders:  Metroid, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda

1987 was probably the first year that a lot of series made their debut.  Every one of those "other contenders" I mentioned are classic.  So which one did I pick?  The one I played the hardest, had the most fun with, and loved the best.

Mega Man, image thanks to Wikipedia.


 It's not that I don't have a love for these other series', but it's that I have such a love for Mega Man, the game.  Eight and Sixteen Bit Mega Man games were simply un-matched.  I remember seeing my grandfather on my mother's side the day I got it - a man who couldn't have given two shits less about video games! - and acting so proud of my pick that, well, even he kind of smiled.

Facing off against Robot Masters was fun, if frustrating. Stealing their weapons like some sort of Buffalo Bill android?  Now that was fun!  At the time we lamented how it wasn't two-players, because kids like two-player games!  But, hey, what can ya say?  It was the start of a whole style of gameplay!

Even if the cover art had nothing to do with Mega Man.



1988:  Bionic Commando
Other Contenders:  Zelda 2, Bubble Bobble, Contra

Ahh, if only Metroid had been born a year later!  Or, any of the other ones from last year!  Bionic Commando was one of those odd platformers in that you couldn't jump.  It wasn't particularly successful.  It was fun!  I logged lots of hours playing this game.  I got stuck, at times, but Bionic Commando stepped off the beaten path of "jump and shoot," and landed on "swing around and shoot."

It featured a level-up system whereby you got more health as you got further in the game, letting you live longer.  You gain new weapons with different abilities.  You fight bigger and scarier bosses.  All in all, it's a solid game.  And, it got a remake!  So, a good year!


1989:  Mega Man Two
Other Contenders:  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninja Gaiden, Tetris, Ironsword:  Wizards and Warriors II.

Mega Man 2, image by GamingboltThis year came down to a choice between the new, the old, and the meh.  Ninja Gaiden is a fantastic game, but it's difficulty curve is maddening and it's honestly not really my favorite kind of rampage.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was my favorite TV series, and consequently the often-criticized game fell far short of my expectations.

But Mega Man?  He'd created expectations - and he'd met them!  I loved this game, and I loved this game to no end.  There were more robot bosses, more clever tricks in the game, and overall it was an improvement on what was already a classic.  How could you go wrong?


1990:  River City Ransom
Other Contenders:  A Boy And His BlobSuper Mario Brothers Three, Final Fantasy

Hold on.  You mean...In the year that the supposedly-best game ever came out, I chose not to go with it?  Does that mean River City Ransom is?  No!  (I'm more a Mario 1 guy).  But River City Ransom was something unusual; it was a beat 'em up game with a levelling-up system!  You customized your characters so that they could gain new abilities (Dragon kick!), hit harder, take more damage, and ultimately stand a chance against the final boss.  Oh, and you could play with a friend!

The Nintendo Game Boy Advance remake didn't keep two-player functionality; but with a new sequel announced?  There's a certain amount of awesome, here.  I can't wait to see what they do with it, as long as they keep it true to its roots.  It helped inspire the Scott Pilgrim video game, as well as the entire damn book series, so it's gotta be worth something!


1991:  Battletoads
Other Contenders:  Smash TV

This is a year that isn't even a contest.  By now, the Super Nintendo was a big thing.  Nintendo's development staff would clearly be focused on SNES games, but third-party support for the high-capacity NES market was still pretty high.  Battletoads is regarded as one of the toughest games on the system, and has even been called downright impossible to beat with two players.  This assumption has been proven wrong, but that's the nature of retro gaming!

So, speaking of retro gaming:  Battletoads was a beat 'em up much like River City Ransom, but it involved platforming, speed-bikes, and other features that made it hard to get through a certain level which frustrated everyone because they kept hitting walls.


1992:  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III:  The Manhattan Project
Other Contenders:  Mega Man 4/5, Contra Force

TMNTIII, image by nintendolegendBy now, I was wholeheartedly converted to the SNES, and quite often a company would release an "eight-bit" version of a game.  Those never worked, but The Manhattan Project was a good arcade-esque game.  It was solid, far better than the original Turtles game on the NES.  Maybe it's just that I didn't want to pick a Mega Man game - oh, they're good! - once again, but in this case it's worth just remembering that the Turtles were a beat 'em up series for a while.




1993:  Tiny Toon Adventures 2:  Trouble In Wackyland
Other Contenders:  Bubble Bobble 2

One of the very few games I remember even playing when it comes to the later-year NES list, this game wasn't bad.  It was very much a generic platformer, but I was a huge fan of the Tiny Toons at the time, so there's that!  This year was just exceptionally weak, nearly as bad as the very first year except that instead of one shining title, it had a few "meh" ones which had been done long before.


1994:  Mega Man Six
Other Contenders:  None.

Mega Man Six, image courtesy of ConsoleclassixAnother Mega Man game!?  This is the cost of the experimental nature of this list, really; some years, especially later on, were simply dead.  So let's focus on what it did better:  By now, the Mega Man series was kind of complete; sliding, charging up the mega-buster, and Rush items all existed.  It was a fitting end to the 8-bit era (though not the end to the Mega Man series), and it's eventual return to 8-bit wouldn't happen for some time.

It was a solid game, but I would have loved to be able to put Metroid or Contra here.  Sadly, The Incredible Crash Dummies just doesn't do it for me.


So that's the list!  I realize there were plenty of unlicensed Nintendo games released in 1995, and that the Battle Kid franchise has inspired retro gamers to dust off their old gray boxes for new NES games, but those don't count.  Nintendo didn't license any 1995 games, and while Battle Kid would certainly win it's year of release, there were entire years where no new games were released.  I'm focused on the console's primary lifespan, not its post-peak curiosity.

Thanks for reading, and leave your own lists or thoughts in the comments!  Here's to a new style of review!

Updated: 06/06/2013, JPohlman
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Seelyon on 06/20/2015

I've had limited experience with NES games but definitely have played Ghosts 'n Goblins many times.

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gameaddict on 06/14/2013

Awesome read. I began my video gaming on the NES, and I have been addicted ever since.

JPohlman on 06/12/2013

Hey Cazort. I'm glad you were able to find something in the article to resonate with, man! I definitely have some picks for my next list; I also have to do a Venture Revue, though I don't think that'll be too long.

Thanks for commenting! And, I'm actually not familiar with Destiny of an Emperor. Was it on NES in NA?

cazort on 06/12/2013

Wow...I played all of these games except the tiny toon adventures. I thought River City Ransom was a masterpiece of a game...the complexity of an RPG, but in a side-scrolling fighting/martial arts game, and a captivating plot and rich world to explore.

The games I loved most though aren't here...I loved RPG's and my favorite was Destiny of an Emperor, which I only discovered years later through emulators. But I also loved Final Fantasy, with my favorite of the NES ones being ff3j (3 Japanese). Dragon Warriors 2-4 were pretty good games too, and they definitely got better with each sequel.

Another ancient game that was one of the best, I think was Metroid. And I loved the original Zelda too. I don't know the years each of these came out though so I'd have to look that up. But I think Destiny of an Emperor would trump all the games in the year it came out.

I love the Mega Man series though. I think II might be my favorite. I love the music in that series. Oh, another fun game I loved was Startropics.

JPohlman on 06/06/2013

Yes, WriterArtist, they most definitely are. Many hours spent on River City Ransom outweigh all the other potential winners, here.

WriterArtist on 06/05/2013

These games are so addicting.

JPohlman on 06/03/2013

Hey man, I'm glad you enjoyed! Other systems are a possibility; SNES is a real toughie, since I was an RPG machine and might give up some classic platformers in favor of 'em. PS1 is another tough system to pick for.

I could also do "Movie theater releases" for a certain decade. It could really be a whole series unto itself.

EliasZanetti on 06/03/2013

Interesting article. Can't wait to see your picks for other systems as well :)

JPohlman on 06/02/2013

Oh, no. Battletoads definitely earns a few inanimate-object beatings! I honestly didn't fully realize it came out so late in the NES cycle.

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