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Hidden gems for the NES

The Nintendo Entertainment System saved the gaming industry. After the video game crash of 1983, the whole idea of the home console seemed dead in the water. It took the Japanese company's new spin on the console concept to finally convince people that they had a place in the living room. And they have ever since.

Part of the reason for that was that Nintendo approved every game that ever released for the NES, keeping the quality of the content as high as possible. Between October 1985 and December 1994, hundreds of officially licensed cartridges were released, many of which were pretty awesome. Genre-defining games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda have always received top billing, not to mention a few games starring an Italian plumber. But there are also plenty of outstanding games that have never truly been given the recognition they deserve. Here are the top ten hidden gems for the NES.

Metal Storm

Any game that breaks the standard side-scrolling set of run-jump-shoot mechanics deserves special recognition. Metal Storm blew the doors off of those old school traditions in a very simple way, by figuratively flipping the script. Your M-309 Gunner mech can perform all of the standard actions…but it can also walk on the ceiling. This simple change in game physics creates a pretty interesting dynamic, making certain barriers passable only when inverted. Add all the usual joy of blasting the heck out of robot enemies, as well as critically praised animations, and you have a pretty solid game. That death explosion would make Michael Bay jealous.

Power Blade

There's a long, long list of Japanese Famicom games that were localized before they were brought to American audiences, but most of those titles were better in their original form. Power Blade is a rare exception, since the original, Power Blazer, was very clearly a ripoff of Mega Man, featuring selectable worlds and a blue-helmeted, chunky robot hero. Instead, the U.S. got a Terminator-like hero who throws energy boomerangs and occasionally upgrades into a metal armor suit as he fights enemy weirdos and seeks out door passes. The U.S. also got better controls, but the process of making the game "better" also made it easier. So while Power Blade is absolutely a fun experience, it won't break your thumbs either.

Shatterhand

You're a dude with two metal arms who can punch bullets out of the air, you have a customizable floating robot buddy to help you out, and you can even merge with your 'bot for more awesome powers. Shatterhand is the ultimate amalgamation of everything that makes these gems great. Again, it's a sidescroller, but it does so much more. By collecting "alpha" and "beta" power-ups in a certain order, you can build any one of eight helper robots—which is already astounding for an 8-bit game, and adds a ton of variety to how each stage can be played. Like Power Blade, Shatterhand is another localization, this time of Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain. And again, we get a badass, sunglasses-wearing, ultra-American hero to throw at the bad guys.

Mighty Final Fight

In some ways, Mighty Final Fight was an apology for the SNES port of the arcade game Final Fight, which was too neutered to truly compare to its awesome cabinet counterpart. Rather than try to crunch a full-fledged arcade game into a cartridge, Mighty Final Fight reduced the original's highly detailed characters and sprites into "chibi"-styled fighters, essentially making a parody of itself, but without losing the game's great fighting mechanics. It's clearly inspired by Double Dragon, but Billy and Jimmy didn't have moves like this. As far as scrolling beat-'em-ups go, this one is superior.

Shadow of the Ninja

While Ninja Gaiden's Ryu is known for sticking to walls, the heroes of Shadow of the Ninja can stick to ceilings. It may not seem like a huge difference, and both fall short of Spider-Man's stickiness, but when it comes to ninjas, our money is on Shadow. There are dozens of ninja-based games for the NES, but most just slap some throwing stars and a mask onto a generic character, with few actually capturing the wonder of being a ninja. Shadow's mechanics are solid enough that its planned sequel actually became an official Ninja Gaiden game, Ninja Gaiden Shadow. Nintendo seal of quality right there.

Totally Rad

While Totally Rad didn't invent the concept of power-changing costumes, it handles the mechanic awesomely. It's an oft-forgotten game that embodies everything great about the late '80s and early '90s, from the fun of gameplay to the screen-sized, Rat Fink-inspired boss fights. It embraces the genuine weirdness of the era, it's fun to play, and some of the stages are borderline psychedelic in their use of bright colors and SNES-styled shading. When the boss fight looks like a blacklight poster that would look good hanging next to Oingo Boingo on your wall, you're doing it right.

Bucky O'Hare

1984 was a pretty big year for anthropomorphic animals. Not only did the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first appear, but so did Usagi Yojimbo, both hot on the heels of 1983's Peter Porker, Spectacular Spider-Ham. The lesser-known Bucky O'Hare and his crew also made their first appearance in '84, but it wasn't until 1992 (and after a failed animated series) that they got their own game. Much like Mega Man, players get to select a world, fight through it, and gain new powers from defeating said level. Somehow, Bucky O'Hare's difficulty is even more punishing than Mega Man, and that includes the aneurysm-inducing dragon battle in Mega Man 2. Gird your loins…or whatever it is that rabbits have.

The Immortal

For a game originally developed for the Apple II computer, The Immortal is an outstanding example of 1990s RPG-style games. It's the closest you'll ever come to playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons on your NES, and that includes all of the terrible AD&D games actually released for the system. Using a combination of isometric wandering and up-close, twitch-action swordfighting, The Immortal is pretty merciless, and you'll die a lot before you even make it past the first few rooms. But that lack of hand-holding is what makes this game great. You learn as you go, and despite the title, you learn that you are very, very mortal. With a twist ending and really immersive gameplay, it's pretty much the best true fantasy title for the NES.

Snake Rattle 'n' Roll

It's like Snake, but on steroids. Snake Rattle 'n' Roll is a pretty complex isometric game. First, you have to eat orbs to gain enough weight to set off a scale at the end of the level. Second, you have to make it through each level with nothing but your tongue as a weapon. Third, controlling isometric stuff on the NES was never easy. And fourth, if you're playing with a friend, you better hope they're good, because even though gameplay is cooperative, your fellow snake can really hold you back. Slap a sock hop soundtrack on top and you have a pretty unique game that you really need to experience.

Kickle Cubicle

Really great top-down puzzle-action games are hard to come by, but Kickle Cubicle combines everything great about Bomberman and The Adventures of Lolo into one cool game. As Kickle, you can use your ice powers to freeze enemies or to make blocks of ice to use as barriers, weapons, or bridges. The variety of gameplay made possible by just this one power is impressive, but when you figure in the added wrinkle of using the enemies' powers to your advantage, you have a pretty awesome and complex puzzle game that goes miles beyond the usual "pushing boxes" theme. We're looking at you, Kwirk. And QBillion. And Boxxle.