Today marks 30 years since the release of the American Nintendo Entertainment System. In celebration of three decades of Nintendo gaming goodness, I thought I’d rank every early “black box” NES game.
For those who weren’t playing games (or alive) in 1985, the cover art for all early Nintendo-published NES games followed a very rigid template. Every game featured a black border surrounding colorful pixel art, and the game’s title in bold, italicized text. Eventually, Nintendo would embrace more unique cover designs, but they stuck with the standardized packaging from 1985 until mid-1987, releasing a total of 30 black box games. So, in honor of the NES’ 30th b-day, here’s a ranking of the 30 games that put it on the map.
Never heard of Gumshoe? That’s because Gumshoe doesn’t deserve to be remembered. Gumshoe deserves to occupy the hole recently vacated by all those unearthed copies of Atari’s E.T. Gumshoe is one of those lousy Zapper games where you have to protect a dumbass character who trudges forward constantly, oblivious to the dangers around them. Even worse, Gumshoe has instant-kill pits, and you need to shoot your character to make them jump. Ugh. Of course, like a lot of games that nobody bought because they were bad, Gumshoe is worth a ton of money if you can find it in-box today.
29) 10-Yard Fight
You’re going to see a lot of generic sports games occupying the lower half of this list. The black box sports games mostly felt like bare-minimum efforts, featuring generic graphics, re-used music, a lack of options and overly simplified gameplay. 10-Yard Fight is my least favorite of the black box sports titles, as it’s slow as molasses and lacks any of the sport’s strategy. The best early NES sports games focus on quick, responsive action, and 10-Yard Fight delivers anything but.
How to explain R.O.B. to those who weren’t there? R.O.B. was an actual plastic robot that came with every early NES. By performing certain actions in R.O.B.-compatible games, you could make the robot drop colored rings on pegs, spin tops and, well, that’s about it. Nintendo thought this was going to be the big selling point for the NES. Shrug. In Stack-Up, you instruct R.O.B. to reorganize your stack of rings by jumping a little professor dude around on an on-screen keypad. It’s tedious as hell, and there’s a frustrating disconnect between what you’re doing on-screen, and what you’re trying to make R.O.B. do in real life. Don’t get me wrong, R.O.B. is a cute little robo-dickens, but this game is anti-fun.
27) Urban Champion
Urban Champion is one of the first fighting games ever made. It’s also one of the lousiest fighting games ever made. You play as either a blue-haired dude or a green-haired dude, and your goal is to pummel your opponent backwards until he falls into a manhole. You have two attacks, a light punch and a heavy punch, and you can block. That’s the whole game. Most matches last around a minute, and once you’re done you’ve seen all the content Urban Champion has to offer.
The pitching and batting in Baseball is acceptable, which puts it above 10-Yard Fight on the lousy NES sports game scale. Unfortunately, you have no control over your fielders, and the game’s AI is completely unfair (their fielders will catch the ball far more often than yours). There were actually quite a few good baseball games on the NES, so there’s no reason to play Baseball.
Next up, we have Slalom, or as it’s better known, “that game where the guy sticks his super sexy ass in your face”. Slalom is technically impressive for an early NES game, but its controls are slippery as hell. Also, the game doesn’t actually require you to go through any of the slaloms, which is an odd choice for a game named Slalom. Interestingly, this game was made by Rare, making it the only black box game to be developed by somebody other than Nintendo.
More sports! Volleyball is mainly notable for the fact that all the players look like they’re perpetually dry-humping the air. Other than that, it’s another black box sports game that’s undone by unfair AI. Also, why would you play this when you could play Super Dodge Ball?
23) Mach Rider
Every once in a while somebody pipes up to say Nintendo should revive the Mach Rider franchise, proving definitively that they’ve never actually played the damn game. Mach Rider, which is set in a dystopian Mad Max-esque future, is surprisingly dark for an early NES game, and it’s technically fairly impressive, but the game is almost unplayably difficult. The tracks snake wildly in all directions, and hazards and enemies fly at you way too fast for you to react. If you can stick it out with Mach Rider for more than 10-minutes, you’re a tougher retro gamer than I.
This is the point where the black box sports games start to get fairly passable. Soccer is a very simple representation of the beautiful game, but it’s functional and fairly fun. This one also has AI issues, although, unlike Baseball and Volleyball, the problem here is that game is too easy. I’d rather a game be a bit of a pushover than maddeningly hard any day.
And here we have the other, far superior R.O.B. title. In Gyromite, you command R.O.B. to charge up a little top, which he then puts on either a red or blue pedestal, which activates a lever, which pushes the B or A button on a second NES controller, which in turn raises or lowers red and blue barriers on screen so your professor character can get by. Follow all that? Of course, you can skip all the R.O.B. farting about and just push the B and A buttons on the second controller yourself, but where’s the ridiculously convoluted fun in that? The whole R.O.B. concept remains silly, but take him away, and Gyromite is a decent, if simple, little puzzle-platformer.
20) Donkey Kong 3
And here we have proof that Shigeru Miyamoto isn’t infallible. For whatever reason, Miyamoto decided the third game in his landmark Donkey Kong series should take place in a greenhouse, and Mario should be replaced by the dorky, bugspray-wielding Stanley. Donkey Kong 3 throws the groundbreaking platforming of Donkey Kong out the window in favor of simple, not-terribly-challenging arcade action. Donkey Kong 3 is fun enough, but the change of genre is off-putting, and the game almost killed the series, which didn’t mount a comeback until a decade later with Donkey Kong Country.
19) Ice Climber
Ah, Ice Climber, the Nintendo classic that nobody actually likes that much. Ice Climber looks like it should be a great arcade game; it’s colorful, has fun enemies, distinctive main characters, and a straightforward goal, but unfortunately the game’s controls are kind of a mess. The arc of your jump is really wonky, and sometimes you’ll clip right through platforms. Ice Climber can be fun, but you’ll need to get to know the game’s many idiosyncrasies first.
18) Donkey Kong Jr. Math
Yes, I’m ranking Donkey Kong Jr. Math above Donkey Kong 3. At least this game borrows the fun mechanics and solid controls of Donkey Kong Jr., even if it is trying to make you learn stuff.
Shocking admission time – I never really “got” Excitebike. The mechanics and physics feel weird to me, and falling off your bike every five seconds really halts the game’s fun and momentum. Also, not being able to save your custom-created tracks is a drag. Still, the game looks nice, and some people seem to like it, so take my criticism with a grain of salt.
As I said earlier, when it comes to early NES sports games, arcadey is usually better. The exception is Golf, which is actually pretty fun despite being more simulation-based. There’s a pretty solid amount of depth here, as you can pick your club, adjust your swing and have to take factors like wind into account. The game’s physics sometimes feel a little off, and Mario is sporting some impressive dad bod, but otherwise there isn’t much wrong with Golf, aside from the fact that it’s, y’know, a golf game.
Depending on whether or not you consider pro wrestling a sport (you should), Tennis is either the best or second best of the black box sports games. Tennis is fast and responsive and a blast with a second player. A good straightforward version of a straightforward sport.
14) Clu Clu Land
Clu Clu Land is one of Nintendo’s most overlooked NES titles, which isn’t deserved, because it’s a pretty good little arcade game. You play as a red fish named Bubbles that’s perpetually swimming forward, and the only way to redirect yourself is to grab onto and spin around the pegs covering the board. Unveil all the hidden gold bars in a level (which usually form a distinctive shape) and you’re on to the next level. Clu Clu Land was clearly Nintendo’s attempt to make something like Pac-Man, and they came closer to succeeding than you might think.
Pinball is exactly what it says on the box; a well-made, basic game of pinball. Pinball’s singular table is a bit bland looking, but it’s well-designed, and the ball physics are right on. Also, the little bonus challenge where Mario runs around with a girder on his head is maybe my favorite random Mario cameo on the NES.
12) Wrecking Crew
Wrecking Crew is one of the more unique and thoughtfully designed black box games. A nice little puzzle-platformer. The game doesn’t have a great reputation, but I think that’s mostly because they shoehorned Mario in. People see Mario and they expect jumping and fast-paced action, which Wrecking Crew doesn’t really deliver. Play Wrecking Crew on its own terms and you’ll have a fine time.
11) Hogan’s Alley
Don’t worry, Hogan’s Alley isn’t some disturbing Hulk Hogan-related euphemism, it’s a pretty straightforward cops ‘n’ robbers-themed Zapper game. There’s not much to Hogan’s Alley, but the mode where you have to keep the cans in the air is addictive, and blasting the civilians in the shooting gallery is a rebellious thrill. I rented this one a lot, just to give my Zapper something non duck-related to do.
10) Wild Gunman
There’s even less to Wild Gunman than Hogan’s Alley, but I’m rating it slightly higher because it’s so packed with personality. Wild Gunman is a quick-draw game – a mean-looking varmint moseys on screen and you try to shoot before he does. Simple, and very easy if you hold the gun right up to the screen. What makes the game so memorable are the characters, which are huge and really well animated for an NES game (unsurprisingly, Wild Gunman was developed by the same team as Punch-Out).
Interestingly, Donkey Kong was originally supposed to be a Popeye game, but Nintendo couldn’t make the licensing deal happen. Miyamoto wasn’t about to let his spinach-powered dreams die though, so once Donkey Kong put Nintendo on the map, he made his damn Popeye game. And it’s pretty good! Not as elegantly designed as the Donkey Kong games, but similar in style, and maybe even a bit better looking. If Donkey Kong 3 not being at all like the other DK games has you down, play this instead.
8) Kung Fu
Known as Kung-Fu Master in the arcades, Kung Fu was ported to the NES by Nintendo itself, and the results were excellent. Kung Fu doesn’t look quite as good as its arcade counterpart, but it controls better and moves much faster.
7) Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong is the game that made Nintendo, spawned the platformer genre and pioneered video game storytelling. It still holds up as an addictive, bracingly difficult experience 35 years later. The reason I’m not ranking DK higher is because the NES version is sadly missing one of the arcade game’s four stages and most of its “cutscenes.” Great game, so-so port.
6) Pro Wrestling
Compare the complexity of Pro Wrestling to the rest of the black box sports games, and it quickly becomes obvious Nintendo had some serious pro-graps nerds working for them in the mid-80s. The generic sprites in most other early NES sports games are replaced with detailed, unique characters based on real-life wrestlers like Antonio Inoki, Hulk Hogan and, uh, The Creature from The Black Lagoon? Sure. The game also packs in dozens of moves, including two specials for each character, and the controls are more or less as good as the wrestling games coming out today. Interestingly, Pro Wrestling was essentially single-handedly developed by a guy named Masato Masuda, who would go on to create the cult-classic Fire Pro series, so you know this game was made with love.
5) Donkey Kong Jr.
Some people don’t like Donkey Kong Jr. as much as Donkey Kong, but I think they’re on pretty equal footing. The vine-climbing mechanics of Donkey Kong Jr. aren’t as iconic as the platforming in Donkey Kong, but they’re a blast once you get used to them, and seeing Mario portrayed as an animal-beating monster is memorably strange. Also, the NES port of DK Jr. doesn’t cut any levels, so that gives it a major leg up over the original DK.
4) Balloon Fight
Balloon Fight is a shameless rip-off of the arcade game Joust, but that’s okay, because I never played Joust as a kid, but I played the hell out of Balloon Fight (and for my money, Balloon Fight plays better than Joust). Also, Balloon Fight adds the Balloon Trip mode, an endlessly scrolling obstacle course which is one of the best “one more try” addictive challenges in gaming history.
3) Mario Bros.
No, we’re not talking about Super Mario Bros., this is the original Mario Bros. arcade game. You know, the one where you bop crabs and turtles from below and kick ’em off the screen. While not as refined as later Mario games, the original Mario Bros. is an endlessly entertaining arcade experience, and one of the best multiplayer games of all time. Don’t overlook Mario Bros. just because you already have its Super sibling.
2) Duck Hunt
The most recognizable and widely-played shooter of all time. Duck Hunt is as simple as they come — you point and try to shoot the ducks or clay pigeons, and curse that damn snickering dog’s name when you miss. That said, everything in Duck Hunt is imbued with such life, that you can easily lose hours mindlessly blasting at waterfowl.
1) Super Mario Bros.
Okay, so I suppose a few of you might have seen this one coming. Compared to other black box games, Super Mario Bros. is just on a whole other level of sophistication (it came out a couple of years after most of them in Japan). Every one of the 32 worlds in Super Mario Bros. is a master class in design, and it revolutionized gaming in too many ways to count. Most importantly, it’s still buttery smooth and fun as hell three decades later.
So there you have it, an exhaustive look back at the games that helped launch the NES into a phenomenon in the US. Have any fond memories of the black box games? Outraged by my ranking of Clu Clu Land? Scroll on down to the comments and we’ll box it out.