By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
I hide my Nintendo fanboyism on this website about as well as Quentin Tarantino hides his love of 70’s cinema. So I’ve decided to challenge myself a bit this week with my top five, which I wanted to make NES-themed as today marks the 20th anniversary of the date that Nintendo officially ceased production of the console in North America. My true NES top five would consist entirely of Mario and Zelda games, which, of course, would be the correct answers, boring and obvious though they may be. That said, here is how my list looks when I outlaw games that were created by Nintendo proper–still no huge surprises I’ll admit, but I don’t believe that peoples’ personal favorites always have to be obscure or unexpected choices in order to be valid.
5 – Super Dodge Ball
While I feel that I was less socially awkward and a tad more willing to be active and play outside than your typical grade school game nerd in the 80’s, there was one stereotype that certainly applied to me in a big way: my fear and dread of dodge ball day in gym. But as it goes with a lot of other things that I don’t like to do in real life, I inexplicably loved it in video game form (see also: pretty much every activity in Animal Crossing). At its most basic level, this is your average game of dodge ball: Two teams throw a ball back and forth, and if the ball hits you without you catching it, you’re out. In this game, though, getting hit doesn’t just send you to the sidelines: it kills you! Of course, that death comes in a cute, Japanese anime kind of way–you just turn into an adorable little angel who slowly floats towards the top of the screen.
The other major twist that was added to spice up the real-life game of dodge ball was the addition of special super-powered throws, a few of which were unique to certain players, with a handful of others shared across the rest. One flattened the ball into a player-controlled rocket that barreled through any player in its path. Another froze the ball in mid-air at the center line for a few seconds before plowing directly into a player of its choice. One particularly interesting one had the ball coast over to the other side in extreme slow motion, but the pace of it made it tricky to time your catch, and it was also the most powerful ball in the game, sending you off screen before you came crashing back down to earth.
At the end of the day, though, it’s almost a moot point trying to extol the virtues of this game to anyone else, as there are only two types of people in the world: Those who loved Super Dodge Ball, and those who never played it.
4 – Double Dragon II: The Revenge
Beat-em-ups were at their creative and commercial peak in the 16-bit era, both in the arcades and on 16-bit systems, but the genre did have a presence on the NES, with the best of them being Double Dragon II. Yes, River City Ransom is a classic thanks to it’s open-ended structure and quirky anime tone, but the action itself was a little weak in my opinion and couldn’t hold a candle to the visceral thrills of Double Dragon II.
The original DD for NES was a solid game, but the sequel improved upon it in every way – especially with the inclusion of co-op. It’s hard to imagine it now looking back, but there was a time when Double Dragon II was a rough, gritty game that made you feel like a badass out of an R-rated 80’s action flick as you used chains, baseball bats, and a wicked spinning cyclone kick to take down all manner of thugs as you traversed areas that represented various cliches of machismo: a heliport, a lumber yard, a factory, and the woods. Like the best NES action games, it was the kind of game that I could run all the way through one day and happily start it again the next, and feel just as exhilarated as I did the first time. My favorite home console brawler of all time is Streets of Rage 2 for Genesis, but I’m pretty confident in saying that this would take the #2 spot.
3 – Baseball Stars
It’s sort of ironic that I more or less retired from sports games completely once they started getting too complex, when one of my all-time favorite sports games is one that was actually way ahead of its time in its complexity. In Baseball Stars, the number of on field moves at your disposable surpassed the average baseball game at the time (on the NES, anyway), especially on defense: you could jump for high line drives, slide to snag pop-ups, even climb the wall to prevent low home runs, all with idiot-proof ease. Aside from that, though, the action was pretty straightforward fare for a sports sim of the time, albeit a really well-playing one.
Where Baseball Stars left its peers in the dust and went unrivaled for years to come in video games period was in the custom player and team options. You could create an entire team from scratch, naming each and every player – even choosing their gender, something that most other sports games nearly three decades later still don’t do! Your team started out as a club full of scrubs, and you had to play games in order to earn more money to improve your team. You could up your existing players’ stats with the cash, but they couldn’t be fully maxed out – to get real superstars, you had to buy brand new players (which you could then also change the name of if you wanted it to match the player you had to fire to make room for the new star). This lent an almost RPG-like vibe to the game, as you basically had to “grind” by playing single-player games to up your stats and improve your players. It gave you a sense of ownership over your players and your team that just taking an existing pro team through a season can’t replicate.
Even with a game where from-scratch customization is the star of the show, Baseball Stars still features a league full of creative – though fictional – teams and players. How about the “Ghastly Monsters”, a team of players named after classic movie monsters, or the all-girl “Lovely Ladies”, or the “Ninja Blacksox” with their insanely fast baserunning that had stolen bases being a threat on almost every pitch. It was cool to see so much personality given to the dozen or so teams in the game to make up for the lack of any real-life MLB teams – and to a kid like me who didn’t watch baseball anyway, they were good enough for me.
2 – Mega Man 3
I spent many years feeling like something was wrong with me for favoring Mega Man 3 over its fan-favorite direct descendant, but I’ve come to learn that there is actually a small but vocal subset of gamers who give the edge to MM3 over MM2. Personally, I feel it’s almost six of one, half dozen of the other as to which game is technically superior – both games take the promise of the foundation laid by the solid but flawed original to its full potential, before the series went on to have three entries too many on the NES. The overall quality of the core Mega Man series’ post-NES career has had its highs and lows, but most fans agree that the peak was MM2 and 3.
So why do I give 3 the edge? First off, there’s Rush, your robotic dog helper. His transformations may have been rather limited and very specific to select situations, but it still gave the game just a hair more gameplay variety than part 2. Secondly, you have to fight versions of all of MM2’s bosses in MM3, and the coolness of that speaks for itself. Lastly but probably most importantly, though, it was my first Mega Man, so despite going back and playing 2 after the fact, Mega Man 3 just got to me first so it had a bigger impact…which, I would imagine, is the reason that so many of the people who played them in order favor 2. Had Mega Man 2 been significantly better than 3, this would’ve only ended up being a small part of the decision, but since I don’t believe that it is, it’s actually the key to it. Either way, you can’t go wrong: Two amazing action games with some of the most creative level, enemy and boss designs ever seen in a game, 8-bit or otherwise, accompanied by music that is instantly recognizable within the first five notes. Not everybody has the patience or digital dexterity to handle a (good) Mega Man game, but for those that do, it’s gaming nirvana. There are few purer examples – not named Mario – of what exemplified all that was great about the NES era than Mega Man.
1 – Contra
I know I’ve already covered this elsewhere, but it’s hard to get over how absurd it is the many dozens upon dozens upon dozens of hours I have poured into a game that is probably only about an hour long. To this day, I am in awe of what an incredibly well-crafted game Contra is – you get the sense that 90% of the development time was devoted specifically to tuning and balancing everything until it was absolutely pitch-perfect, which it is. The controls are flawless, the soundtrack is one of the best on the system, the level design is second-to-none, the weapons have a depth and a variety that were years ahead of their time, and the difficulty is brutal but never feels impossible or cheap. Even details that would’ve been quick throwaway decisions in a lesser game and maybe have even been left to randomization, like the frequency of the weapon drop pods and what was in each one, were clearly given a serious amount of consideration and were tweaked until they got it just right.
This game would’ve still been one of the best action games of all time even without the co-op, but with it, it’s untouchable. Going to a friend’s house for the night and playing Contra from the moment we finished our pizza until our parents yelled at us to go to bed well until the AM hours was the perfect way to spend a sleepover for the kids of the Nintendo Generation – one of the last generations of children who got to have real childhoods, untainted by the internet, cell phones, and age-inappropriate clothing length.