The Absolute Best NES Action Games of All Time

The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) burst onto the home video game scene in 1985 and revolutionized gaming. With iconic characters like Mario, groundbreaking play control, and innovative action titles, the NES dominated the late 80s and ushered in a golden era of gaming.

In its nearly 10 year lifespan, the NES amassed an impressive library of over 700 games, many of which were landmarks for the action genre. Their tight gameplay, memorable music, and revolutionary graphics made them instant classics.

Out of the entire NES library, these 8 action games stand out as the absolute best on the system. They redefined genres, inspired countless future hits, and remain just as enjoyable today as they were over 30 years ago.

8. Mega Man 3

The third entry in Capcom’s iconic series cranked up the challenge to deliver one of the most difficult Mega Man experiences yet. This 1990 release added new power-ups like the sliding ability and Rush robot dog sidekick to keep the classic run ‘n gun platforming fresh.

With two sets of robot masters to defeat, a longer adventure, and a killer soundtrack, Mega Man 3 built upon the formula that made Mega Man 2 so revered. Nintendo Power applauded it as “the biggest and most exciting adventure yet!”

7. Super Mario Bros.

The game that made the NES a household name could not be left off any "best of" list. Mario‘s side scrolling escapades still remain as fun now as back in 1985 thanks to its genius level design and precise controls.

From World 1-1‘s opening trot over goombas to Bowser’s perilous lava filled castle, Super Mario Bros. set the template for the entire platforming genre going forward. Its theme song is etched into gaming’s collective consciousness for good reason – this was the start of Mario mania sweeping the nation.

6. Contra

Get ready for blisteringly tough run ‘n gun action in Konami‘s 1987 classic. One or two players step into the shoes of Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque commandos Bill and Lance to blast their way through jungles, bases, and alien hives. With an awesome array of weapons and two player co-op, Contra gave 80s gamers an excitingly gory change of pace from Mario‘s kid friendly adventures.

Contra‘s relentless difficulty famously made it one of the first games to popularize the "Konami code" cheat just to make it manageable! Once you memorize the patterns and power ups placements, tackling Contra solo provides one of gaming’s biggest adrenaline rushes.

5. Castlevania III: Dracula‘s Curse

Konami struck NES gold again with Castelvania III in 1989, often hailed as the best NES entry in this storied franchise. This time Trevor Belmont is joined by three possible allies in his epic quest to send Dracula back to the grave in 1476 Transylvania.

With multiple paths to choose from, a beefed up whip, and new transformation abilities, Castlevania III gave platforming fans their best Dracula destroying simulation yet. Destructoid retroactively awarded it a 10/10 score in 2013, gushing "Castlevania III will absolutely floor you the way it did over two decades ago."

4. The Legend of Zelda

Link’s original NES quest from 1986 lands an undisputed spot. Unlike later entries, the very first Zelda drops players into the wide open land of Hyrule with little guidance beyond finding the eight dungeons housing Triforce pieces. Part action, adventure, and even early RPG, Zelda gave NES owners an entirely new style of gaming experience.

With an accent on exploration and experimentation, Legend of Zelda felt thrillingly ahead of its time in the possibilities it hinted gaming could achieve. Plus, who could ever forget hearing Zelda‘s now iconic main theme for the first time?

3. Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos

Ninja Gaiden‘s intense platforming translated splendidly from arcades to home console in this lauded 1990 sequel. Unforgiving enemies and lethal traps make every leap from walls a true test of virtual ninjutsu reflexes. It even adds new magic abilities like devastating fire dragons to obliterate foes.

Ninja Gaiden II wowed Electronic Gaming Monthly with its adrenaline pumping gameplay – naming it the outright best NES action game ever in 1999. Fans everywhere agreed, as evidenced by its winning Nintendo Power‘s Player‘s Choice Award in 1991. Aspiring 8-bit ninjas must prove their skill with Razor Ryu‘s katana in this classic.

2. Mega Man 2

Building upon a strong debut, Mega Man 2 refined its core formula into an exemplar NES action title after releasing in 1989. Sliding, shooting, and gear collecting dissolved hours for gamers strategizing the ideal robot master order. Oh, and metal heads everywhere loved the soundtrack enough to vote it among the best video game music ever. reminisced feeling "this was the game equivalent of watching a favorite cartoon show suddenly up its game." Indeed, Mega Man 2 still impresses today with tight run ‘n gunning few others matched on NES. If you only have time for one Mega Man experience on the system, make it this masterpiece.

1. Super Mario Bros 3

The greatest side scroller ever? Mario’s biggest 8-bit adventure makes a strong case by combining sheer joyful gameplay with epic ambition. SMB3 realized Mario’s world like never before with 7 uniquely themed lands and dozens of game changing power-ups in 1990.

Turning Mario into a raccoon, frog, hammer bro and more addressed criticisms the series was going stale pre-Super Nintendo. From navigating airships armadas to defeating the magic wand wielding Koopalings, SMB3 overflowed with ideas still copied today. The greatest NES action game? For many, Mario‘s leading role settles that debate.

In the decades since, developers still aim to capture the ingenious level design, precise controls, and sparks of genius these NES action classics pioneered. Their impact shaped gaming permanently. Retro enthusiasts looking to study gaming history firsthand need search no further than loading up these genre defining 8-bit cartridges.

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