Back in the day, there wasn’t such a thing as couch co-op, or local co-op. There was just “two-player.” You had to have a console and you had to have two controllers. Anything beyond that was practically the realm of science fiction.
So dust off your old NES, plug in player two, and press start on the list of Best Two-Player NES games.
Marble Madness combined puzzle-solving with an isometric viewpoint to create a compelling, maze-like environment. It was originally released as an arcade game, where the player controlled the marble via a track-ball. When brought over to home consoles, this was changed to be controlled through a d-pad.
In the two-player variation, each player races against the other to get their marble through the maze in the fastest time possible. The winner of each race gets additional time added to their clock for the next round. A simple concept that allowed speed and skill to shine, with no flashy tricks or techniques to hide behind.
Blades of Steel
Sports Games are a critical addition to great two-player NES games, and we wouldn’t be complete without including Blades of Steel. Blades of Steel, released for the NES in 1988 was a port from the 1987 arcade game that modeled its teams after real Hockey franchises in the USA and Canada.
Each controlling a team of six hockey players, you and a friend hit the ice in a fast-paced hockey match. If you collided with an opponent three times in a row, the notorious fight would break out, where you each gained five health points and would punch, kick, and block to become the victor on the ice.
Additionally, at intermission, mini-games that served as ads for other games by Konami (the publisher) would be available to play through. To top it off, the game also featured voice samples, such as “FACE OFF,” which were relatively rare on the NES due to its hardware limitations.
With so many different engaging, high-speed elements, Blades of Steel is a classic two-player NES game that anyone will have fun picking up.
Bubble Bobble was another classic arcade game ported to the NES. In this two-player NES game, players take control of the twins Bob and Bub who have been turned from humans into dragons. Bob and Bub must fight and jump their way through 100 levels in order to be turned back into humans and reunited with their girlfriends.
Each level was a static screen, where Bob and Bub had to capture enemies within bubbles, and then pop those bubbles to defeat their foes. Lives could be lost by touching enemies or enemy attacks.
What’s most fascinating about Bubble Bobble was that if you beat the game in single-player, you didn’t unlock the true ending. Instead, a message appeared, saying “Come here with your friend.” Beating the game in two-player mode would finally reveal the transformation back into human beings.
A spin-off of the Gradius game series, Salamander was a side-scrolling shooter that debuted in 1986. In the two-player variation, one person controlled the fabled Vic Viper while the other player-controlled Lord British. The game took place across several vertical and horizontal stages, and was notable for being one of the first co-op shooter releases. It was originally released for arcade before being ported to the NES, where it changed names to “Life Force.” The title reflected a number of level changes, where levels were recolored and renamed after parts of the bodies such as “kidneys,” implying that the players were somehow traversing the inside of a body, as opposed to deep space in the original. Regardless, the game was still a major step forward for both shooters and co-op gaming.
Coming up next on our list is Gauntlet. Another port from an arcade game, Gauntlet was a fighter game where players had to traverse 100 levels across five different worlds to collect the sacred orbs and destroy the evil Mordak.
Each player could choose to play as one of four different characters from the original arcade game — each with different strengths and weaknesses. The two-player mode was notable for players having to choose how to equitably divvy up the health and treasure spoils across each level, making for a bit more strategic gameplay. The fast-paced combat, and nearly unending enemies made for a frantic play session, but the increasingly building challenge, as well as the unique worlds, made for an exciting game that kept players coming back for more. Gauntlet spawned several successful sequels, with significantly updated graphics, though none quite reached the highs as the original, 8-bit version.
Spy vs. Spy
With the word versus right in the title, this was not a co-op 2 player NES game. In Spy vs. Spy, you and a friend faced off as the two opposing spies in a race to collect various spy items inside of an embassy, completing your collection before your opponent. While playing, each player could set traps for the opposing spy, allowing them to hinder the other player’s progress. Each player had a thirty-second time limit on completion of the level, at which point the player’s spy would die.
Originally released on the Commodore 64 before being ported to the NES (as well as the original Game Boy), Spy vs. Spy was praised for its graphics, addition of strategy to competitive play, and quick nature of each level. Importantly, reviewers noted and lauded the fact that the game effortlessly captured the feel of the original comic strip in a way that many other video game adaptations had been unable to do.
R.C. Pro-Am II
R.C. Pro-Am II was a racing game that was released for the NES in 1992. It had a single-player mode, where the player raced AI-powered opponents around a track. This mode, unfortunately, received a fair amount of criticism, specifically lobbed at the unfair difficulty and random, nearly undodgeable air attacks.
In contrast, the multiplayer mode was lauded, with several reviewers mentioning that the multiplayer mode was the only reason to buy the game. It allowed up to four players to race at the same time on a single console, and allowed players to use upgrades that ranged from the simple (motor and tire increases) to the extreme (missiles and freeze beams).
The combination of simple racing and exciting combat allowed players to focus on different areas of strength, perfecting separate and unique strategies in hopes of taking opponents down. Beyond that, the levels themselves were littered with difficult obstacles such as ice, oil, and attack aircraft. It was a hectic playing field, but one that never got stale. For having such a wide variety of playstyles, R.C. Pro-Am II definitely deserves a spot on our list of best Two Player NES Games.
Always seen as the harder variation of the classic Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man was an arcade success before being ported over to the NES. It was this NES port that included the ability for two players to play at once — one as Ms. Pac-Man, the other as the original Pac-Man. This co-op mode featured 32 levels where you and a friend completed the classic Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man tasks of gobbling up all the little blue dots while evading the ghosts. Armed with power-up pellets that would allow you to terrorize the ghosts for a limited time, the game increasingly got harder as you made your way through the levels in classic arcade fashion. The NES also featured several new level layouts that the arcade game hadn’t featured. For the addition of co-op, as well as the unique levels unseen in the arcade, Ms. Pac-Man for NES is a standout arcade port in a landscape littered with subpar releases.
River City Ransom
River City Ransom was a classic beat-em-up. In co-op mode, the players played as high school friends, Alex and Ryan, who had to venture across town to save Ryan’s girlfriend from Slick, the evil villain who kidnapped her.
What made River City Ransom unique was that it was an open-world: the gameplay was not simply linear level to linear level. Instead, Alex and Ryan could explore the entire town, beating up the minions of Slick and putting a stop to the nine gangs, before finally confronting Slick in River City High.
The gangs were based on stereotypical high school cliques, such as “Frat Guys,” or “Jocks.” Players saved their progress through a password system, which allowed Alex and Ryan to save not only their game progress but also their stats and items — a relatively robust password feature at the time.
When released globally, it wasn’t originally met with much success outside of its home country of Japan. However, over the years, it became to be seen as a cult classic and spawned a number of ports and rereleases for GPA, Wii, Wii U, and most recently, Nintendo Switch. Pick up a copy today!
Tecmo Bowl was yet another arcade port, but a damn fine one. Notorious for being unable to get the NFL’s consent for licensing teams, Tecmo Bowl instead featured twelve teams that were only identified by the city where they were located. However, Tecmo Bowl was able to come to an agreement with the NFLPA, which allowed the rosters to reflect the actual rosters of the original NFL teams. A funny piece of gaming trivia.
The NES’s hardware limitations meant that each team could only field nine players at a time. Additionally, each time only had four different plays that could be called the entire game. After the offense picks a play, the defense is allowed to pick one in anticipation of what might be called. If the defense picks successfully, the offense collapses in either a sack or an interception.
There was a bit of an unfair advantage with certain teams, specifically with Los Angeles (Raiders), where running back Bo Jackson was notoriously unstoppable. The notoriety behind this imbalance was parodied decades later in Family Guy, where the show uses actual Tecmo Bowl footage to showcase just how unfair Bo Jackson’s running game was.
Often thought of as the mini-game in later Mario releases, Mario Bros featured Mario and Luigi in an underground sewer, where they both had to take on and defeat the shelled and spiked enemies that popped out of the sewers to attack them. It was famous for its wraparound level design, allowing a player or an enemy to exit on one side of the screen, and pop back on another. Additionally, it featured a POW block in the middle, that could flip enemies over when used by the player.
All in all, it was a relatively simple game, that was often thought of as the fun mini-game in the larger Mario games (such as Super Mario Bros. 3). Still, the fun POW mechanic, increasingly frantic pace of bad guy spawning and wraparound mechanic made this a fun two-player game that few could afford to miss.
Legendary Wings was a sci-fi fantasy mash-up where a player took the form of a winged soldier who had to save the world from a renegade, malicious supercomputer. As with many of these games on our list, Legendary Wings was an arcade port. The NES version did, however, have some unique features, specifically a new system of weapon upgrades.
Legendary Wings featured two different styles of gameplay: overhead and sidescroller. In the overhead flight mode, the airborne players attacked enemies from a top-down perspective in a vertical scrolling mechanism. After defeating all the enemies in these vertical portions, the players would then enter a palace or dungeon and the gameplay would swap over to a sidescroller. In the sidescrolling missions, play centered around traversing the palace to find and vanquish a formidable boss.
There were five worlds to traverse, with the final boss being the core of the Supercomputer, Dark. The whole game could be completed in around 45 minutes, but the high difficulty made this unlikely, thus increasing its gameplay value.
A fiendishly difficult run-and-gun two-player that happened to be equipped with one of the most famous cheat codes of all time (even Wreck-it Ralph referenced it), Contra threw the players into eight worlds of hell with only three lives and three continues — with a life being deducted if hit a single time. Like other arcade ports, it could be completed in under half an hour — if you could get past the unforgiving nature of the game. Granted this extreme difficulty could be cut down significantly through the use of the Konami Code, but Contra was still a very unforgiving game.
Contra’s eight levels were split into side-scrollers, fixed-screen fights, and proto-3D shooting gallery stages that made for a variety of fast-paced, non-repetitive fighting. As with others on this list, what truly made Contra special was its two-player co-op mode — a real rarity at the time.
Porting Tetris to the NES was not without controversy. Nintendo had acquired the rights to build a Tetris game for its console, while Atari’s variation had been released on arcade, and Atari was in the process of porting their own version to the NES.
What resulted was an unauthorized Tetris release under Atari’s Tengen label. Entitled Tetris: The Soviet Mindgame, this release was taken to court by Nintendo, before ultimately being removed from all stores. Rumors have it that Atari destroyed over 300,000 copies of Tengen Tetris, as Nintendo moved to populate the shelves with their own variation.
This is a bit of a shame, as Tengen Tetris had many unique features that Nintendo’s did not, namely two different two-player modes. The first mode was a standard competitive Tetris mode, where each player had a screen and tried to clear their rows of tetrominoes with an ever-increasing speed of blocks being dropped.
The second variation, however, remains unique in Tetris games. It was a co-op variation, where two players played on an expanded Tetris board, each controlling a single tetromino at a time. Many reviewers have praised the unexpected and somewhat off-beat nature of this game mode while also criticizing how the players had a nasty habit of getting in each other’s way as the speed increased.
For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to pick up a copy before Nintendo put a kibosh on its distribution, you’re in luck as virtual versions abound. Give it a shot!
Whether for arcade or for NES, Joust was and is a classic. You and a friend mount your trusty birds (ostrich for player one, stork for player two) and attempt to knock down enemy knights by knocking into them at a higher altitude than they are currently flying. It was a simple and elegant combat system that had a very low learning curve, yet a very high mastery curve. As the waves of enemies became faster and more difficult, the skill needed to successfully dispatch these enemy knights increased. On top of that, if the player was too slow to complete an enemy wave, an (nearly) indestructible pterodactyl would fly on screen, racing after the knights. Even with a second player to divide and conquer, Joust quickly became a frenetic free-for-all.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers
Developed exclusively for the NES (as opposed to being ported from an arcade game) Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers was a platformer adventure game in which the titular Chip and Dale go on a quest to rescue a lost cat.
However, the rescue mission is just a fake-out, and when completed, the true plot is revealed. The rest of the game focuses on saving their friend, Gadget, from the clutches of the maniacal Fat Cat, who had used the previous distraction to separate Gadget from her friends and kidnap her.
Gameplay was standard sidescrolling platforming, with the main draw being that it offered non-alternating two-player cooperative gaming. Critics at the time praised its cartoony visuals, fast-paced gameplay, and fluid controls. The lack of difficulty, however, was not appreciated. Still, due to its faithful adaptation of a beloved tv series, as well as its robust co-op mode, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers consistently ranks high on lists of best NES games, and certainly makes our cut for best two-player NES games as well.
Not just a ripoff of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Battletoads was a well-made, if incredibly difficult, game in its own right. On a quest to save Princess Angelica from the clutches of the femme fatale Dark Queen, the Battletoads must race through a variety of platforming, vertical scrolling, racing, and classic beat-em-up courses. With no save or password feature, and a run time that (without dying) pushed nearly an hour, Battletoads was a punishing affair before factoring in the insane difficulty level.
Battletoads is often considered to be one of the most difficult games ever created (with the Turbo level cited as practically unbeatable), and as a result, it has developed a strong cult following. Apparently, the reason for the games high difficulty was due to competition from the video game rental market. As video rental stores started renting out video games, video game companies countered this threat to their sales by making games longer and more difficult in order to prohibit players from beating their games within a rental period, thus forcing them to buy the game instead. With Battletoads, this seems to have been a slight overcorrection, as it basically couldn’t be beaten through rental or purchase.
For its complete disregard for player skill, yet uncanny ability to keep players coming back for more in masochistic video game style, Battletoads earns our slot as number one Two-Player NES game.