It's no secret that Nintendo games were tough. However, over the decades the difficulty of NES games have achieved an almost mythic status. There's even a special term for it. If you visit modern gaming websites you'll routinely see games described as "difficult, but not Nintendo Hard."
What does "Nintendo Hard" mean? Well, there's no real consensus. However, most view it as referring to a very special kind of challenge that existed almost exclusively in the 8-bit era. A time before check-points, and save features were common place. A time when "Game Over" meant you were back to square one. A time when games were harder, but better for it. Nintendo Hard refers to games that are unforgivably difficult to beat, yet ludicrously fun to play. The kind that are so addictive that no matter how many times you lose, you never throw in the towel, but instead redouble your resolve to pick up that controller and go another round.
But, maybe the best way to explain Nintendo Hard is to give you some examples of games that practically define it:
Yeah. When Contra's at the bottom of the list, you know these are games that don't mess around. And I'm not even talking about Contra with the code for extra lives. That's bush league stuff. When I say Contra was Nintendo Hard I'm talking about the standard three-lives, you're out. Take a bullet: lose a life. Enemy touches you: lose a life. Miss a jump: you get the idea. And with only three lives to start, that meant your margin for error was slim to nil.
So, why did you keep coming back to this game? Because when you played Contra, you were the all-American action hero, packing the most powerful rifle in the world, and if anyone could take on these odds it was you. Contra may have been absurdly hard, but every level you beat made you feel like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Norris all rolled into one unstoppable badass.
9. Kung Fu
Buy Kung Fu - For the NES
It's a game that's faded into obscurity over the years. Or maybe, a generation is just trying to forget the horrors that awaited anyone who stormed Mr X's stronghold. Either way, this game is a certified classic. Clocking in at just 5 levels long, you'd think it would be pretty easy. You'd be wrong. This tribute to every martial arts film ever made, will pit you against endless hordes of baddies. By the final level, you'll barely be able to take two steps without dispatching half a dozen black-belts with a roundhouse kick, sweeping the legs of a few psychotic dwarves, and somersaulting through the air to punch a killer bee in its face. This game does not let up, and neither will you.
Its combat is deceptively simple. Its enemies attacks are all telegraphed. Every time you lose, you'll think that you just got sloppy and made one bad call. But by the end, you'll have realized the sublime truth that Kung Fu is a discipline, one that can take a lifetime to master.
8. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse
Buy Castlevania III - For the NES
I know that this game's far more famous predecessor is what most people think of when they remember this series. However, if you replay the entire Castlevania trilogy, I believe you will agree that III is the toughest of the lot. It takes the core gameplay of the original, and ramps the difficulty up to 11. More death pits, more stairs, more Medusa heads! Drac is back, and this time he's pulling out all the stops! The only consolation for the player is the fact that they can now recruit one of three new characters to play at any time. A thief who can climb walls Spider-Man style, a powerful mage, and even the son of Dracula are all ready to let you control their unique powers at the press of a button. Each comes with their own unique weaknesses though, so don't think it gets easier.
Mix in the fact that the game also lets you choose multiple paths to the final showdown with Dracula, different endings depending on who you recruited to your team, and three new characters to master, and you have a game that's even bigger, better, and tougher than the original.
7. Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone
Buy Double Dragon III - For the NES
One life. You get one life to beat this entire game. That alone should be enough to set this game in an entirely different league from most other titles. However, just to add some more pain to the equation, the game developers decided to mix up the controls present in the classic original Double Dragon for the NES, as well as its groundbreaking sequel: Double Dragon II - The Revenge. The disorienting new controls and one shot at victory were the perfect storm of difficulty for veteran, returning players. However, their drive to see this epic trilogy to its conclusion only hardened their determination to make their last life count, as they took on the entire world. Even today, playing Double Dragon 3 is less about beating the game, so much as seeing just how epically you could go out fighting.
6. Mega Man
Buy Mega Man - For the NES
The first, and by most accounts, the most difficult game of the entire Mega Man franchise, this game was brutal. Maybe today, with the internet to tell you what weapons work against which robot master, it's a little more manageable. But, going into this game blind is a nightmare. You're on your own to figure out the weaknesses of your enemies, a process that will take plenty of trial and error. It's also important to remember that this was the blue bomber's first game. He had yet to get his signature slide to dodge attacks, and it was before the series offered any kind of save feature. You needed to beat this game in one go, and all you had at your disposal were your gun and the ability to jump. In terms of skills, you're working with the absolute basics. But even if you weren't playing the least maneuverable Mega Man ever programmed, this game's boss fights alone would easily make it one of the most grueling challenges on the NES.
You have not known true terror, until you've gone toe to toe with this thing!
Mega Man does not hold your hand. It is not your buddy. Every part of of every level is a potentially lethal hazard. But the high-octane boss fights, ample upgrades, and constant thrill of exploration make it a joy to play from beginning to end.
5. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
Buy Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! - For the NES
I've already covered how brutally difficult beating Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! is in a previous blog. However, it bears repeating. This boxing game is essentially one long series of boss fights. You've got to learn the patterns of each opponent before you have any chance of defeating them. Then you need to develop frame-perfect timing to hit them in their rare moments of weakness. It's not an easy game to master. However, even if it doesn't pull any punches, this game remains one of the all time greats for the NES. A must own, if ever there was one.
4. Blaster Master
Buy Blaster Master - For the NES
This game deserves a lot more credit than it gets. It successfully combined amazing platforming levels with top-down adventuring levels in the style of Nintendo's own Legend of Zelda. In the platforming sections, you play as a tank, that can jump, which is awesome. However, as you traverse Blaster Master's world, you'll occasionally come upon doorways too small for your tank. This is when you go out on foot and personally dispose of dungeons of enemies with your gun and an army's worth of grenades. This is also awesome. At the end of these dungeons, you square off with giant bosses and beating them will reward you with power-ups, Mega Man style. This is beyond awesome.
So, why is this game on the list? Because all that ordinance you're packing isn't to make you feel tough. It's honestly the bare minimum you'll need to survive this game. The world of Blaster Master is populated by giant-mutant crabs, lumbering stone golems, and legions of mechanical death-bots. Once you see the opposition, you'll wish they'd sent you in with a lot more than just one measly tank.
3. Kid Icarus
Buy Kid Icarus - For the NES
You can't make a list of Nintendo Hard games without including a title made by Nintendo, right? But, why Kid Icarus? Well, Nintendo Power described this game as a combination of everything that made Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and Legend of Zelda challenging. I'm here to tell you that doesn't begin to describe Kid Icarus. You see, this game is an uphill battle. Literally. Most of the levels will feature you climbing a seemingly endless series of platforms as you try to ascend to the heavens. You just keep climbing and climbing, the screen always scrolling up. And this is where the first real challenge appears. That screen will never scroll down. There's no going back. Once a platform is out of sight, it's gone, replaced by a black, bottomless void. This means that there will almost constantly be a lethal fall somewhere under you. And you can be sure, that you'll constantly be bombarded by flying enemies everywhere you go, making those jumps ever harder.
I'd call it cheap, if the entire game wasn't so carefully designed around its jumping mechanics. This is a Nintendo title, and with that pedigree comes a LOT of polish. The difficulty curb is gradual and fair. The enemies are tough, but you have the tools to take them out. And most importantly, it's a blast to play. Still, this is easily the toughest game Nintendo ever developed.
2. Ninja Gaiden
Buy Ninja Gaiden - For the NES
Remember how I said Castlevania III was the hardest game in its series? The same is not true of Ninja Gaiden. If you want to play the toughest Ninja Gaiden game ever made, pick up Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom for the NES. However, difficulty alone does not make a game Nintendo Hard. To be Nintendo Hard a game has to be one that keeps you coming back for more. And there's no denying that Ninja Gaiden excels in this category.
With over 20 minutes of quality cut-scenes, this was a game with an actual story. That alone gives you a lot of motivation to keep powering through its challenges. But what makes it equally compelling are its unarguably strong controls, memorable bosses, and one of the most iconic soundtracks ever composed for the NES. What makes it Nintendo Hard is literally everything else. Ninja Gaiden was designed to be a game that could only be conquered by the most hardcore of gamers. Its development team have been quoted as stating that they made Ninja Gaiden, so that every other game would be child's play by comparison. And they mean it. The difficulty in this game is borderline sadistic. But, you know what? As long as you're going to get beaten, there's a lot of satisfaction to be had in knowing you're being beaten by the best.
So, given Ninja Gaiden's infamous difficulty, you'd think it would be the final word in Nintendo Hard. And it would be, if it weren't for one other game...
1. Ghosts 'n Goblins
Buy Ghosts 'n Goblins - For the NES
Difficult doesn't begin to describe this Capcom classic. It's got everything that makes these other titles tough as well as one unforgivably brutal twist all of its own. But, we'll get to that in a moment. This is a game where one hit will kill you, unless you are decked out with the best equipment in the game. In which case, one hit will leave you running around in your boxers, defenseless and wishing that first hit had just finished you off. Jumps that require perfect timing abound. Enemies never stop spawning, and no matter what weapon you choose, you'll always feel under-armed. At least Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden gave you a few items that could level the playing field for a while. Oh, and there's a time limit. So, you better HUSTLE across every level. And do I even need to tell you that the bosses are all nightmares to deal with? But believe it or not, none of those are the reason why Ghosts 'n Goblins is at the top of my list. Stop reading now, if you don't want major spoilers.
Imagine this scenario: you've spent weeks mastering every level, and after a hundred failed attempts you finally manage through some miracle to defeat the final boss. You feel like you're on top of the world! Then this message comes on screen:
Woah, Satan tricked me? Like, THE Satan...Heavy.
And, BAM! Just like that, you've been sent back to the start of the first level. That's right. You're reward for beating the game is being told that it was all a dream, and that have to do it all over again. On hard mode. In the same sitting. Oh, you read that right. There aren't any saves in Ghouls 'n Ghosts. If you want to get the good ending, you've got to beat this game twice in a row. And given the time limit, you better do it fast. That's beyond cruel! It's the biggest sucker-punch in video game history. So why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of treatment? The same reason, you'd play any other game on this list: it's fun.
Gaming used to be just as much about the journey as much as it was about the destination. What made 8-bit era titles so special is that they made that journey just as rewarding as the eventual victory. Win or lose, these games were just plain fun to play. The difficulty might be intense, but at least its consistent. They're games that ease you into learning their pitfalls, so you won't run into many deaths that come totally out of left field. Nintendo Hard games create a challenge that's so much fun to tackle, losing won't even cause you that much stress...well at least not for the first hundred or so attempts.
So, what do you think of my list? Did I miss any? Or are you just so good, you feel some of these are too easy to even warrant a mention? Either way, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.