In today’s article, we’ll be discussing the most underrated NES games and NES hidden gems. Keep reading to discover stellar classics that you’ve (probably) never heard of.
It was 1983, and the future of video games looked bleak. The industry titans of the time were falling like dominoes as consumers stopped buying new games and investors pulled out. What the heck was going on?
Well, Atari’s 2600 console had made video game creation much more accessible, with friendly licensing terms and cartridge-based functionality. In turn, scores of new developers entered the industry, releasing new games at breakneck speed. The bad news? Many of these rushed titles featured boring, clunky gameplay ridden with bugs. Everything came crashing down right around the release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a pure money-grab dubbed one of the worst games of all time. Gamers had had enough, and game sales dropped a whopping 97% overnight. It was game over.
But then, something happened. In 1985, Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System, a cool box-shaped console with intuitive controls and — more importantly — fantastic games. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the NES reinvigorated the gamer base and introduced a wave of iconic characters that live on to this very day.
The NES’ most iconic titles include classics like Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, which are firmly cemented as the cornerstones of many people’s youth. However, the NES’ library of titles stretches much further than the Italian plumber and his mushroom-squashing escapades. This is a look at some of the lesser-known NES titles — games that (for whatever reason) never really made it big, but are much worth revisiting. We’re talking about the best NES hidden gems.
Top 10 NES Hidden Gems
Starting at number 10, let’s work out way down to the best underrated NES game ever made.
10. Déjà Vu
Developer: ICOM Simulations
Release Year: 1988
First on our list of NES hidden gems? You may have heard of it before. It’s called… Déjà Vu.
Déjà Vu is a point-and-click adventure set in a world of noir detectives. Initially released for the Mac and later ported over to the NES, this interactive mystery-meets-exploration experience featured all the great hallmarks of a detective novel translated into a playable video game.
In Déjà Vu, you take on the role of Theodore Harding, a private eye who awakens in a room with a murdered man but is unable to remember the events that transpired. Your goal? To unravel the enigma and avoid being framed for the murder — else risk spending the rest of your life in prison.
The game features solid graphics and leans heavily on text-based influences from games like Zork. There are a slew of ways to interact with objects and environments, including examine, open, take, speak, hit, close, use, leave, and move. In addition, the game has a robust note-taking and inventory system that is functional without being overwhelming.
The game may seem limited by today’s standards. But for fans of point-and-click adventures, Déjà Vu was an incredible interactive story that you could experience right from your home console.
9. Mr. Gimmick
Release Year: 1992
The rarest game on this list of NES hidden gems, Mr. Gimmick (or simply Gimmick! in Japan), only saw large-scale release in its home country and parts of Scandinavia.
Developed by Sunsoft and released in 1992, Mr. Gimmick tells the story of a youkai (creatures in Japanese folklore) called Yumetaro, who’s given to a girl as a toy on her birthday. But all is not well, as the other toys become jealous of all the attention the youkai receives from the girl! They devise a plot to kidnap her, then transport her to another dimension (a logical step for the toys to take). Not it’s up to you, the youkai named Yumetaro, to rescue her.
The game offers a unique blend of mechanics, taking inspiration from platformers like Super Mario Brothers and introducing a few twists. This platformer’s primary mechanic is the character’s ability to fire stars from the horn on its head. Used mostly for defeating the enemies in your way, you can also launch stars to use as a platform to reach inaccessible areas, adding a layer of complexity to the standard running and jumping action.
The game also has a special ending that requires you to find the magical item in every stage and complete all other stages with no continues. If difficulty and challenge are what you seek in your video games, this may be the best NES hidden gem for you to uncover.
8. Burai Fighter
Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up // Side-Scroller
Release Year: 1992
The first (but not the last) side-scrolling shoot ’em up on this list of NES hidden gems, Burai Fighter sees the player waging war against the seven Burai, cyborgs that want to bring destruction upon humanity.
The gameplay is straightforward for the shooter genre: you gradually move forward through the levels with your laser-wielding spaceman, blasting away any enemies who stand in your path while avoiding their attacks and environmental hazards.
To help you progress, you have access to three weapons in your arsenal, including a laser, ring, and missile. You can buff these weapons by collecting power-ups in the levels, but death means your held weapon will revert to its basic form, a serious setback in these types of games.
Video games in this era had a steep difficulty curve, and shooting games were the epitome of this trend. Burai Fighter is no exception, featuring three difficulty levels (Eagle, Albatross, and Ace) with the final sadistic mode of Ultimate requiring completion of the first three (or a special password). The game also overlaps with bullet hell type experiences, with lightning reaction speed and steel nerves required to beat the game even on its lowest difficulty.
Overall, Burai Fighter is not for the faint of heart, but among these classic niche games, it’s a title more than worthy of your time. One of the best NES hidden gems on this list.
7. Rockin’ Kats
Release Year: 1991
Borrowing a few mechanics from Mega Man (but leaving enough alone to stand on its own), Rockin’ Kats is an action-platformer that may have a cute exterior, but is a bonafide platformer experience with impressive gameplay.
In Rockin’ Kats, you play as the charming blue cat Willy as he fights against a gang of dogs controlling the city. But Willy is not without his tools, as he carries an extend-o-glove device that he can use to take out enemies left and right. This tool also doubles as a grappling hook of sorts that he can use to maneuver around levels, akin to the same feature in Bionic Commando. Just with more fur.
Unlike most games from that time, you can choose the order in which you approach each of the levels. Pretty cool, eh? But what shines brightest in this game is its personality. The NES was rife with platformers, many of which were fairly generic, with a kid-friendly face as the protagonist. This title expanded upon that baseline with a simple yet original idea, with engaging gameplay that was equal parts fun and challenging.
Whether you’re skateboarding in subways or flinging your way through a sewer system, Rockin’ Kats gives other established series a real run for their money. It’s one of the best NES hidden gems from back in the day.
6. Fire ‘n Ice
Release Year: 1992
Known by a few different names depending on what part of the world you’re from, this puzzle title from developer Tecmo went by Fire ‘n Ice in North America, Solomon’s Key 2 in the EU, and Solomon No Kagi 2 in Japan.
The story of Fire ‘n Ice revolves around Dana the Wizard, a beginner sorcerer who’s bequeathed magic by the Queen of the Fairies. His quest? To put out the flames on Coolmint Island before the entire land melts and the home of the Winter Fairies is lost forever.
Take control of Dana as you traverse the game world, going level by level to extinguish flames using blocks of ice. But be warned — objects in motion stay in motion, and blocks of ice have a tendency to slip and slide around! Use Dana’s ice magic to get a grip on the ice and solve each level’s puzzle before it’s too late.
With over 80 levels in the standard game and hidden stages that you can unlock, there’s lots to do around Coolmint Island. Fortunately, the game’s difficulty progression ramps up at the perfect pace, providing a brain teaser that doesn’t make you want to dive into a frozen pond out of frustration.
Overall, Fire ‘n Ice takes a wonderfully basic concept and slowly builds a fantastic game from it. If you enjoyed Mario vs. Donkey Kong, this is one of the NES hidden gems you don’t want to miss.
5. Felix the Cat
Developer: Shimada Kikaku
Release Year: 1992
Have you ever heard of Felix the Cat? Believe it or not, he’s actually been around since the 1920s! While he’s less popular nowadays (he may have expended all nine lives), he had quite the run last century, with a full lineup of cartoons and, yes, video games!
Released for the NES in 1992 (and later for the Game Boy in 1993), this feline’s adventure was created by Hudson Soft as an expansion of the Felix IP. But the game wasn’t just another attempt at cashing in on the hottest new industry. While Felix the Cat does feature a number of generic platforming antics, it also incorporates flawless controls, stunning graphics, and a handful of innovative ideas.
For instance, Felix has various forms that let him take on different abilities. He has a magic form, where he shoots out stars at enemies. He has a mobility form, where he hops into a car and moves around the level. He can even get hold of his own hot air balloon and throw items at enemies from it! The game also features a nice mix of environments to experience.
There is an important caveat worth mentioning, however. Since the game was targeted at a younger demographic, it’s not the most challenging title. Nowhere is this more evident than the game’s boss encounters, which don’t hold a candle to the likes of Dr. Wily or any of his robotic henchmen.
While this game isn’t the most revolutionary or groundbreaking, it’s a delightful title that, despite its licensing, manages to land on its feet. One of the best NES hidden gems around.
Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up // Vertical-Scroller
Release Year: 1990
Inspired by the arcade classic Galaga, Gun-Nac is a frantically intense shoot ’em up set against a rather bizarre futuristic backdrop.
The premise of Gun-Nac? The titular Commander Gun-Nac is tasked with investigating the seemingly random disturbances and incidents involving animals mutating and inanimate objects coming to life. Like any daring space cadet worth his salt, Gun-Nac jumps into his ship to do battle with these universal threats.
Those familiar with other games of the same ilk V titles like Starfox, Time Pilot, or 1942 — will find similar elements in Gun-Nac. For instance, you’ll encounter power-ups that upgrade your standard weapons into more powerful versions that deal more damage (naturally, our favorite upgrade is the wild boomerang-type laserbeam). Throughout your journey, you also collect money to use on handy boons like bombs and turbo abilities.
The game’s off-the-wall plot may seem a bit strange, but this actually opens the door to interesting enemy design, unusual but effective stage choices, and unique boss encounters that set themselves apart from the run-of-the-mill end-of-level bad guys.
If you’ve ever wanted to fire laser beams at a Maneki Cat in space, Gun-Nac is the NES hidden gem for you.
3. Mighty Final Fight
Genre: Beat ‘Em Up
Release Year: 1993
Known more famously for its arcade and Super Nintendo incarnations, Capcom’s beat ’em up series is often overshadowed by Sega’s legendary Streets of Rage franchise. That said, Mighty Final Fight on the NES was a fantastic testament to what the system could do, despite the technological limitations of the time.
Mighty Final Fight features a fairly simplistic plot involving the Mad Gear Gang, an organization that’s just kidnapped the Metro City mayor’s daughter, Jessica. Assume the role of one of three characters: the knife-wielding Cody, the street ninja Guy, or the mighty mayor himself, Hagger, and set out to rescue Jessica. Each of the three main characters boasts unique strengths and weaknesses that add a layer of nuance and depth to the game’s fighting mechanics.
As you fight your way across the urban streets of Metro City, you’ll take on various enemies, using the game’s intuitive controls to kick ass and take names. Throughout the journey, you’re sure to enjoy the game’s high skill ceiling that provides unprecedented challenges and lets you reach lofty heights of mastery — all while enjoying the stunning pixel art environments and chiptune soundtrack.
And, of course, the now established axioms of the genre are all present in this title. This includes weapons, combos, throws, bonus stages, end of level bosses, and even an experience system that increases your health bar as you defeat enemies.
If you’re a fan of 8-bit music and hardcore, old school retro games, this is one of the most underrated NES games to check out.
2. Metal Storm
Genre: Platform // Action
Release Year: 1991
Fans of the anime cartoon Gundam Wing will be right at home with this next title on our list of NES hidden gems.
Metal Storm has you playing as the robot M-308 Gunner, who has to stop a malfunctioning superweapon on the planet Pluto before it destroys the entire universe.
Run and jump your way through challenging levels, using your handy arm cannon to take out nefarious enemies within the planetary base. But, be wary. The game’s real challenge lies in its groundbreaking mechanic — namely, the player’s ability to switch gravity at will.
Pressing Up and Jump at the same time will cause the gravity to reverse, meaning M-308 will flip up to the ceiling, bringing a whole new dimension to the game with a simple perspective switch! Each level is painstakingly crafted to test the player’s mastery of this feature, meaning it’s not haphazardly “thrown in” as a mere gimmick.
Indeed, Metal Storm is not an easy game to overcome. Since the gravity shift requires some time to wrap your head around (as it also affects enemies), there’s a deep layer of complexity that you don’t expect at first sight.
Despite this crushing mechanic (which may turn off newbie retro gamers), Metal Storm features stellar visuals and a fantastic soundtrack, and overall, offers a tight and rewarding gameplay experience.
1. Little Samson
Genre: Platform // Action
Release Year: 1992
The number one game on our list of NES hidden gems? That honor lies with Little Samson.
Little Samson was developed by Takeru and published by former industry leaders Taito in 1992. The game is absolutely brimming with charm and beautiful graphics, and it oozes an abundance of character.
The premise of Little Samson? After the dark prince is released from imprisonment, he sets out to take over the kingdom. When the king hears of this news, his royal heinous enlists the help of four heroes to stop the malevolent foe. These heroes include Kikira the dragon, K.O the mouse, Gamm the stone golem, and the eponymous Little Samson himself. But are they up for the challenge?
Each of the main characters has their own unique twists and special abilities, as well as drawbacks and weaknesses. For instance, Gamm’s great strength and attack power come at the cost of his jumping prowess, and K.O’s speed is offset by him having the lowest health in the game. Playing on the Normal difficulty mode also means that perishing with any character (other than Samson) locks that character out until they’re revived.
Rather than designate specific stages to each character, the player can change their character at any time, very similar to the Mega Man games where the blue bomber can alter his current ability on the fly. This gives players a vast range of control over their experience, letting them stick it out with one character or expertly cycle through specific characters depending on the situation.
With such fantastic gameplay, why is it on this list of NES hidden gems, and not a list of most popular titles? By the time Little Samson hit the shelves, the Super Nintendo had already arrived on the scene. To add insult to injury, getting your hands on a copy nowadays is near impossible, as it’s one of the most coveted NES games of all time!
All of this is a real shame for retro gamers, as Little Samson is a true diamond in the rough and the best NES hidden gem on our list.