The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is a beloved piece of gaming history, renowned for its groundbreaking titles that have stood the test of time. While many remember the NES for its iconic classics, like “Super Mario Bros.,” “The Legend of Zelda,” and “Metroid,” it’s also notorious for hosting some of the most challenging games in history. Whether due to difficult mechanics, punishing level design, or just downright unfair challenges, these games have tested the mettle of gamers for decades. Let’s take a journey through some of the most formidable NES games ever released.
“Battletoads” is often at the top of the list when it comes to the hardest NES games, and for good reason. Developed by Rare and released in 1991, it’s a beat ’em up game with a reputation for its relentless difficulty.
The game is packed with platforming segments that require pixel-perfect precision, combat scenarios where you’re heavily outnumbered, and infamous stages like the Turbo Tunnel – a high-speed hoverbike segment notorious for its unforgiving obstacles and speed. Completing “Battletoads” is seen as a badge of honor among retro gaming enthusiasts.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins
Released in 1986, “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” is another title that’s synonymous with brutal difficulty. You play as the knight Arthur, battling through hordes of undead and demonic foes to rescue a princess.
What makes “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” particularly tough is the game’s ruthless mechanics. Arthur can only take two hits before he’s defeated, and losing a life means starting the level over. As if that weren’t enough, the game must be completed twice in a row to reach the true ending, each playthrough increasing in difficulty.
“Ninja Gaiden,” released in 1988, is a fast-paced action-platformer that’s as hard as nails. You play as Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja on a mission to avenge his father’s death.
“Ninja Gaiden” is infamous for its punishing difficulty spikes, especially in later stages. Enemies attack from all directions, often respawning endlessly, and the platforming sections require precise timing. The boss battles are also notoriously difficult, requiring you to learn their patterns to stand a chance.
“Contra,” a run-and-gun action game released in 1987, is another one of those notoriously difficult NES games. Despite its popularity and the fond memories many have of it, “Contra” is a brutal challenge, known for its relentless enemy waves and tough-as-nails bosses.
The game’s difficulty lies in its one-hit death system, which is compounded by the precision required to dodge enemy fire and the limited number of lives. While the game is easier with the famous Konami Code, which gives players 30 lives, completing it without this crutch is a true test of skill.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
While “The Legend of Zelda” is one of the most beloved franchises in gaming history, “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” stands out as one of the most challenging entries. Released in 1987, this sequel introduced RPG and platforming elements, and a steep difficulty curve that even seasoned gamers find challenging.
Enemies in “Zelda II” are tough and relentless, the puzzles are cryptic, and the game features a lives system, meaning game over can mean a lot of progress lost. With its departure from the original’s gameplay style and its punishing difficulty, “Zelda II” is a unique and formidable challenge in the NES library.
“Silver Surfer” is often cited as# I’ll search for more information on why Silver Surfer is considered one of the hardest games on the NES. You control the Silver Surfer through various levels that alternate between a side-scrolling and an overhead perspective. Each stage is divided into sections, with a mini-boss at the end of each and a supervillain from the comic book series serving as the final boss for each stage.
The game is known for its intense difficulty, featuring endless waves of enemies that attack in groups, traps scattered throughout the levels, and hazards in the environment that can lead to instant death. Even seemingly minor enemies can take several hits to destroy, and all of them are fast and relentless.
Another aspect that contributes to its difficulty is the loss of power-ups upon death. When a life is lost, all collected spheres, firepower, and extra bombs are lost and must be re-obtained. This can make the game increasingly difficult as you progress through the levels, as losing a life can mean losing significant firepower and having to face tough enemies and bosses with basic abilities1.
Moreover, the Silver Surfer is armed with silver pellets that shoot out of his hands to destroy enemies and their projectiles. The player can collect silver spheres that serve as “options,” which shoot additional pellets alongside the Silver Surfer. The spheres can change their shooting direction to forward, sideways, or backward, while the Silver Surfer continues to fire forward. This mechanic, while interesting, adds another layer of complexity to the gameplay and requires quick reflexes and strategic positioning.
While there are many more challenging NES games we could delve into, these six titles are often cited as some of the most notoriously difficult. These games represent a unique era in gaming history, one where difficulty was often a product of design limitations and hardware constraints, rather than a choice for game balance. They’re a testament to the creativity and ambition of early game developers, pushing the NES to its limits and providing experiences that have stood the test of time, both in terms of their challenge and their impact on gaming culture. Whether you’re a retro gaming enthusiast looking to test your mettle, or a modern gamer curious about gaming’s past, these NES classics offer a unique, if not frustrating, journey into the annals of gaming history.