If you’re lucky enough to score an NES Classic Edition when it launches next week, it’s likely you’ll dive right into the big names. Maybe you’ll play your favorite Super Mario Bros., or you’ll relive what it’s like to explore a harsh alien world in Metroid. There’s a good chance you’ll get in a few rounds of Pac-Man as well. And if you have a lot of time on your hands, grand adventures like the original Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda await.
But the plug-and-play device, which features 30 built-in games, also includes a number of titles you might not be as familiar with. Games that you probably heard of, or maybe dabbled in, but aren’t burned in your memory like the maps of Hyrule and Zebes. Once you’re done with the biggest names, make sure to check out these games as well.
Few 8-bit video games can be rightfully called cinematic, but Ninja Gaiden certainly fits the descriptor. It’s a fast-paced action game that puts you in the role of Ryu, a ninja fighting his way through a number of locations — a gritty street full of thugs, a military compound — on a quest to avenge the death of his father. The action is challenging and intense, with an almost non-stop of barrage of enemies to contend with. But what really set Ninja Gaiden apart was its style. The game is divided into a series of acts, each with its own brief, but captivating, anime-style cutscene. Unlike most games from the time, Ninja Gaiden made you feel like you were fighting for a purpose.
Arcade space shooters are plentiful and often very similar. But nearly three decades later, Gradius still feels distinct and exciting. Gradius is a side-scrolling shooter, and like most of its contemporaries, it puts you in the cockpit of a tiny space fighter and tasks you with shooting wave after wave of enemies. What set Gradius apart was how dynamic it felt, with levels that keep changing and a power-up system that means your ship gets more powerful the further you progress. It’s also well-known for massive, screen-filling boss battles and arguably one of the best soundtracks of the era. To get a good idea of just how different Gradius was, play it right after Galaga (also on the NES Classic), an older and much simpler sci-fi shooter experience.
Castlevania isn’t exactly an unknown name. Since the original debuted in 1986, the gothic action series has seen multiple spinoffs across a huge range of platforms (there’s even a modern spiritual successor on the way). But the original is especially interesting to play now given how much the series has changed. Now, Castlevania is known for its elaborate interconnected worlds that put an emphasis on exploration. But that didn’t become a staple of the series until Symphony of the Night on the original PlayStation — the first Castlevania is a much more straightforward affair. It still has you exploring a huge and daunting place — in this case, Dracula’s castle — but your goal is mostly just to survive, fighting off everything from werewolves to bats to giant fish men. It may be simpler, but it’s no less intense.
StarTropics is an unassuming game. It looks strange, with oddly proportioned characters, and levels that can feel very similar. It also has a story that at times borders on nonsensical. But it’s also a fascinating offshoot of the Zelda formula, blending action and adventure in a more modern-day setting with a vibe similar to Indiana Jones (you’re exploring a series of island caverns while looking for a Dr. Jones). Just like in Zelda, you’ll gather new weapons and tools as you progress, and each area almost feels like a puzzle. There are lots of switches to flip and secret entrances to find. It’s also really weird: there’s a robot who can talk to dolphins, and lots of talk of alien abductions.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
The second Zelda is the black sheep of the series. Whereas most Zelda games are best described as adventures, Zelda II is an action role-playing game. There are random battles, and Link can gain experience and use magic. Action also takes place from a side-scrolling perspective, unlike the rest of the series, and there’s a heavy emphasis on sword combat. But despite these big differences, it still maintains the sense of exploration intrinsic to Zelda. It takes place in a vast, surprisingly open world, one that gives you only small hints at where to go and what to do. It’s a place that evokes a sense of adventure, and pride when you manage to find something new. The difference is that this time you’ll need to sword fight with a lot of skeletons to get where you need to go.
The NES Classic Edition launches on November 11th.