30+ years on, there’s somehow nothing quite like an NES action game. From the soundtracks to the level design and airtight mechanics, classic NES games like Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man remain some of the absolute best the medium has to offer.
However, the NES library of action games is too extensive to be limited to those halls of fame-worthy examples. In fact, some of the best NES action games you’ve never played could easily rank among the best all time.
Shatterhand‘s bizarre cover did it no favors, but beneath the strange packaging lies a truly great NES action game.
Bolstered by great level design and a truly unique upgrade system, Shatterhand nails core NES action game concepts before introducing just enough little touches to help it stand out from the pack.
While the visual design of this game may remind you of the excellent Little Nemo, it’s actually a thinly veiled knockoff of the Mega Man series.
What truly distinguishes Little Samson, though, is its character swap system. The ability to swap between different characters with different abilities (but shared resources) adds an element of depth to an already solid Mega Man-like experience.
Clash at Demonhead
Scott Pilgrim references aside, Clash at Demonhead absolutely deserves to be remembered among the best NES action games.
Clash at Demonhead‘s excellent visuals are reason enough to recommend it, but it’s the game’s open exploration level selection system that makes it stand out all these years later. Why didn’t other games borrow this title’s ideas?
It would be easy to forget about Powerblade if it wasn’t for the game’s truly brilliant boomerang weapon and combat system.
While the ability to attack in eight different directions isn’t a big deal now, Powerblade‘s incorporation of that feature put it far ahead of other action titles of its era as well as made it one of the more strangely accessible action games of this era.
Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu
I’m as surprised as you are that there’s a Jackie Chan game for NES worth recommending, but here we are.
This game obviously doesn’t come close to recreating Chan’s brilliant fight scenes, but its stunning soundtrack, cute visuals, and martial arts side-scrolling combat make it an easy play that doubles as a somewhat strange historical footnote.
Low G Man
To be entirely honest with you, Low G Man’s stiff animations and bland visuals probably tell you all you need to know about why it’s not better remembered.
Yet, this game’s fascinating primary weapon (a long spear that behaves similarly to the cane in Ducktails) and varied combat design make it an often-overlooked oddity that at least deserves more of a cult following than it currently has.
Wizards and Warriors
As unbelievable as it is that an NES game made by Rare could ever be overlooked, Wizards and Warriors is just one of those titles you never hear anyone talk about.
Even though the game’s visuals and combat leave a lot to be desired, there’s an undeniable charm in the soundtrack and design concepts that invokes developer Rare at its best. Don’t make this the first NES game you revisit, but definitely check it out.
While Bucky O’Hare actually did garner quite a bit of acclaim in its day (it’s an NES game made by Konami after all), I’m not sure this game has ever really gotten the love it deserved.
Bucky O’Hare is a nearly perfect NES action game that’d I call the love child of Battletoads and Ducktales. It’s brutally difficult, but few NES action games feature the variety seen in this gem.
Metal Storm has actually become slightly more popular thanks to the power of the internet, but it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that not enough of you have actually played this game.
Even if Metal Storm‘s combat can feel a little stiff at times, the title’s multi-level navigation gimmick adds an element of platforming brilliance to the affair that you don’t usually get from NES action games. Think of this more as a great NES platformer with a little action thrown in for flavor.
Updated: Original post date Jan. 28, 2021