The 15 Toughest NES Games of All Time

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Some video games today are pretty tough (like, for example, the entire Ninja Gaiden series), but most don’t hold a candle to the difficult games of my childhood. Perhaps it’s the fact that as I’ve gotten older, my eye-hand coordination has improved, but back in the day, games didn’t have different difficulty settings. Furthermore, without the Internet, walk-throughs were non-existent. Some old school games were simply relentless, and only through tears of frustration and sore eyeballs could one persevere.

I imagine a list like this has been compiled before, but as lists like this are very subjective, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to compile one of my own. Keep reading to see the 15 toughest NES games of all time. Keep in mind that they’re my toughest games and are not presented in any particular order.

Ninja Gaiden

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Why it’s so tough: Countless enemies come at you, but the worst are the ones that seem to hit you right when you’re above a pit, sending you falling to your death. Also, dying on any of the three final bosses at the end of Stage 6-4 will send you all the way back…to Stage 6-1.

How far I got: I was actually able to beat this one after hours of crying, cursing, and controller-chucking.

Rygar

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Why it’s so tough: It’s a long, sprawling game featuring item collection, leveling up, backtracking…and no passwords or save points! If you’re going to take on Rygar, you’ll need a few hours to kill. And oh yeah, the bosses aren’t easy.

How far I got: I managed to beat this one, too, but not until owning it for a long. long time.

Battletoads

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Why it’s so tough: Where to begin? Regular enemies are difficult, the game features all different types of play, and in many levels, one wrong move and you’re toast.

How far I got: I could never pass the level in which you ride some type of scooter and have to avoid obstacles in your way. Impossible.

Ghosts N’ Goblins

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Why it’s so tough: You die if you get hit twice, which isn’t a lot, especially when you consider that enemies fire projectiles and swoop directly into you.

How far I got: I can hardly remember – level 2 in and of itself was a nightmare – but I definitely got no farther than level 4.

Blaster Master

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Why it’s so tough: Like Rygar, there’s weapons and upgrades to collect, tough bosses, and tons of backtracking…and like Rygar, there’s no save points or passwords. Just a few continues; that’s it. In the areas in which you exit your vehicle, every hit you take weakens the effect of your gun. It’s so frustrating.

How far I got: I always had a lot of trouble with Level 5 and the “crab boss” at the end, but I managed to beat him once or twice. I never passed Level 6.

Gauntlet

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Why it’s so tough: The game seemingly has no end, and your character’s health drains down constantly, as if it’s a timer ticking down your imminent doom. Plus that black figure (Death, I assume) sometimes appears and kills you quick for no reason.

How far I got: Oh man, who knows? Not far, that I assure you.

Mega Man

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Why it’s so tough: Lots of falling and lots of spikes. That’s pretty much it.

How far I got: I managed to beat Mega Man.

Silver Surfer

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Why it’s so tough: Just about everything – even the level’s structures – can kill you. One hit kills you, and enemies come flying in swarms at ridiculous velocities.

How far I got: Never farther than the first couple of levels or so. Let someone else lose their mind over a lame superhero.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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Why it’s so tough: Since only Donatello is worth a damn in this game, you’re pretty much finished once he dies. Jumping is a true skill in this game, and oh, did I mention the “dam” level where you have to swim around mines? I though turtles were supposed to be good swimmers.

How far I got: I was pretty decent at this game, but just not good enough. I once killed the giant Mouser boss, but died quickly in the stage that followed.

Karate Kid

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Why it’s so tough: There’s this one level with a lot of “wind,” and that wind tends to push you into pits, killing you instantly.

How far I got: That level with a lot of wind.

Top Gun

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Why it’s so tough: It’s tough to see the missiles enemies fire at you until the last second, but really, how many people crashed every time when trying to land at the end of the first level?

How far I got: I’m proud to say that I once made it all the way to the fourth stage.

Bionic Commando

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Why it’s so tough: The controls are a bit awkward (you can’t jump), and the layout of the game is pretty confusing at first.

How far I got: I beat this game, but I had my cousin over my shoulder telling me where to go. Still, I was the one playing, so I think it counts. Not really proud of it, though.

Contra (with no Konami code)

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Why it’s so tough: Because with just three lives – instead of 30 – simple, fluke mistakes can end your game quickly. No matter what it is, it just takes one hit to kill you.

How far I got: I actually managed to get up to Stage 6 in this one. I couldn’t beat it without the code.

The Adventures of Bayou Billy

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Why it’s so tough: This may actually be the toughest game on this list. The fighting is tough enough, but try the shooting levels without an NES Advantage and the Turbo buttons. The hardest, though, are levels 4 and 5 – the driving levels. Simply hitting a post on the side of the road kills you, but you can’t take your time – if you take too long, your game is over.

How far I got: Once – just once – I made it all the way to the final boss(es). I did alright, but they killed me, and I never made it back to that spot again.

Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!

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Why it’s so tough: The game wouldn’t be that bad if Tyson wasn’t so ridiculously hard. One punch during the first 1:30 of Round 1 and you’re knocked to the ground. As with a lot of games, though, pattern recognition is involved, and figuring out Mike is no different than figuring out the patterns of anyone else; there’s just much less margin for error.

How far I got: I actually got pretty good at fighting Tyson (and everyone before him) and have beaten him about a dozen times. I’m just used to it.

Any NES games that gave you fits that you think should be on this list? Let me know in the comments section! Also, I listed only games that I’ve actually played. For example, a lot of people tell me that Bart vs. The Space Mutants is very difficult, but since I’ve never played it, I felt it would be a bit disingenuous to include it.

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