The NES was a revolutionary home entertainment system in an era that marked the transition between the arcade and the console. It was home to epic hits such as Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros.
Like with every great console, the NES also had its fair share of misfires. From the ludicrously difficult to the boring to the downright cruel: here are the 13 worst NES games that ever graced the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The Worst NES Games Of All Time
In an era where very few gaming companies were making and marketing video games for women, Barbie was a rarity. Unfortunately, it was hampered by cumbersome controls, a very odd hybrid 2D – 3D perspective, and a general dullness that was difficult to overcome.
The player plays as the titular Barbie, traversing her dream as she solves puzzles, completes basic platforming, and evades enemies. The game itself isn’t bad, and again, the creation of this game specifically for girls is laudable. Yet, it becomes increasingly apparent that many elements of this game were simply lifted from earlier gaming forays and re-skinned to become a Barbie adventure. Plus, this game had neither passwords or battery-operated save, meaning it had to be played through all at once.
For finicky controls, unoriginal elements, and a dull play through that cannot be saved or loaded, Barbie falls in at 13th on our list of Worst NES games.
12. The Karate Kid
Another tie in! The Karate Kid tried to combine fighting with a side-scrolling platformer experience. The entire game is crammed into four levels, which become increasingly difficult and frustrating as the game drags on.
One of the main complaints of The Karate Kid is the general sense of confusion that permeates the game. As a tie-in, The Karate Kid attempts to hew close to the source material of the first two Karate Kid movies but neglects to spell out to the audience what is happening. This leads to situations where our hero, Daniel, fights off villains in Okinawa without the game explaining why Daniel is fighting them. The game simply expects that the player has seen the movies.
Another massive complaint about The Karate Kid was the controls, where the up button on the d-pad was used to jump. This use of d-pad jumping made forward and backward jumping highly difficult — especially when the clunky graphics made it hard to tell what was a platform and what was background art.
Difficulty isn’t always a bad thing for a video game, but in The Karate Kid, it was downright frustrating. The Karate Kid only had three lives with no continues. Even though it was only four short levels, a game over would send the player back to the start of the game.
It’s this overwhelming sense of frustration, along with the realization that the difficulty was soullessly amped to compensate for the lack of gaming depth that put Karate Kid as number 13 on our list of worst NES games of all time.
11. Where’s Waldo
The classic Where’s Waldo puzzle books center around finding the titular Waldo in the middle of massive drawings of cityscapes, filled with dozens of people acting out colorful activities. They’re eye-catching and rich with details.
The NES, while a breakthrough in gaming, did not have the graphic capacity to get anywhere close to hand-drawn images.
Where’s Waldo for the NES knew that the NES could not replicate hand-drawn images, and decided to make a video game based around the joy of looking at static images anyway.
The result was an ugly, blocky mess that forced the gamer to look at 8-bit cityscapes to find Waldo, using a magnifying glass to zoom in. In all fairness, the game also had some minor puzzle solving levels, as well as a level where Waldo walked in and out of view where the player had to hunt him down before he disappeared. Still, even these deviations from the standard “find Waldo” trope were not enough to lift this game out of “maddeningly dull” territory.
For those brave (or bored) enough to venture into YouTube to watch a playthrough, the entire game can be beaten in four minutes.
This video game was packaged and sold on its own; not bundled.
Four minutes for an entire video game. One of the absolute worst NES games.
10. Super Pitfall
Definitely one of the worst NES games, Super Pitfall was derived from an earlier Atari video game called Pitfall, and yet still managed to feel like a knock off of a game that came after: Mario.
In Super Pitfall, the player-controlled an explorer named Harry, who had to traverse dangerous caverns in order to rescue his niece, Rhonda. It’s a wafer-thin plot that would feel more at home at an arcade or an Atari game than on the NES, where even by 1985, developed plot had become more important.
Even a thin plot can be rescued by exciting gameplay. Unfortunately, Super Pitfall doubled down on mediocrity, creating gameplay that superseded the plot in terms of atrocity.
The graphics were jittery and strobe-like, the controls were very unresponsive with a long time between input and execution, and the hitboxes from enemies were inconsistent and unclear. Furthermore, jumping could not be modified — a key element in the controls of any platformer. As a result, Harry could only jump at one height, and his jump was at the mercy of the input lag, making player reflexes almost worthless.
9. Sunday Funday
Not officially licensed by Nintendo, Sunday Funday was a re-skinned release of Menace Beach (a skating game where a skateboarding hero had to rescue his scantily clad girlfriend), where all of the racy elements were bowdlerized. Now, our hero is late for Sunday School and must skateboard past distractions and bullies to make it to Church.
The entire game could be completed in less than half an hour, and ended with the message “Sunday is a Fun Day when you spend it at church.”. Seriously?…
8. Top Gun
The saving grace of this game is that it features the Top Gun anthem redone in MIDI. The anthem itself is so effortlessly cool that it feels unfair to list this game along with the likes of Super Pitfall.
However, the gameplay itself demands it.
The player takes control of an F-14 Tomcat and has to progress through four missions of increasing difficulty in which the player must shoot down enemy fighters, aircraft carriers, and even complete a secret mission inside of the USSR itself. So, nearly off the bat, the game completely abandons the storyline of the movie (which, to be fair, is based around flight school — not the most thrilling of video game settings).
It’s a relatively on the rails shooter, with some early flight simulation elements, where the player flies along a relatively pre-determined path, shooting down enemies as they get closer to the player.
The execution, however, was abysmal. The backgrounds for each of the levels are predominantly dichromatic: one color for the sky, and another for the land or sea (they made the USSR red!). On this nondescript background, enemies would appear as tiny dots, barely getting any bigger until the player was meters away from the enemy. This inconsistent scaling made accuracy nearly impossible — a heavy frustration in a game built around shooting down moving targets.
Returning for a moment to the dichromatic backgrounds, this issue was exemplified in the notorious carrier-landing mission. The blue sky on blue sea background, complete with a tiny ship in the distance that scaled improperly, made completing this mission almost impossible.
Again, the difficulty in this game, like so many others listed, didn’t come from a place of fairness: it wasn’t a difficulty that came from an intentional desire to test the skill of the player. Instead, it came from poor game design.
Poor game design, along with a desire to milk a relatively short game to amp the playtime, haunt Top Gun for NES, continuing a trend of these flaws cropping up on our list of worst NES games of all time.
7. Back to the Future Part II and III
Surprise! Another tie-in abomination. For some reason, the best movies make the worst NES games.
B2F II and III was a single came made by LJN who, not coincidentally, made many of the other tie-in horrors on this list such as X-Men. In B2F, the player has to steer Marty through multiple eras in time in order to return all the misplaced items that Evil Biff has strewn through space-time, causing repeated time paradoxes.
This is where the similarities between the movies and game end, and where the frustrations of a poorly built game explode. First, there is no map for B2F, and the world is sprawling. Reviewers noted that they took several hours just to map out the entire overworld, before finally shutting the game off in frustration.
This leads us to our second glaring issue — no saves and only one password. The password allows the player to jump from Part II to Part III — somewhat past the halfway mark of the game. Other than that, there is no way to save progress, meaning most of the game has to be completed in one sitting. This wouldn’t be so terrible if the game were fun to play.
Having said that, the reviews are nearly unanimous that this game is dreadful to play. To progress through the level, doors have to be unlocked with keys — keys that randomly spawn after enemies have been defeated. These keys have a nasty habit of disappearing quickly, thus forcing the player to repeat the entire level in order to progress.
Plus, as a platformer, Marty has to avoid dangerous enemies — enemies which have nothing to do with the Back to the Future Franchise, and are instead ripped design-wise straight from Super Mario Bros.
So, you have a poorly designed game with enemies ripped straight from an unrelated franchise. Clunky, difficult, and no ability to save progress: a frustrating game nightmare.
Athena follows the bored Princess Athena, who stumbles through a secret portal in her palace home and winds up nearly nude in a threatening landscape where she must fight the monsters that hunt her down.
Though fan-service is almost unviewable in 8-bit form, the game took what could have been a strong female warrior and turned her into an object to be ogled (not an uncommon occurrence in video games, unfortunately). On top of that, the gameplay itself is poorly designed.
One noted criticism is the frustrating way in which items are acquired. Athena picks up items from her recently downed foes, and in the process, she loses her previous weapon. While quick, there is no way to decline a new weapon; if Athena touches it, she gets it. This leads to situations in which the player is actively trying to avoid newly dropped weapons, as an acquisition will inhibit forward progress. In rare situations, a newly acquired weapon will render the level unbeatable.
This, combined with a time limit on each level, makes careful play all but impossible. Add on top of it finicky controls with wonky platforming, and you wind up with another classic failure: a fiendishly hard game that isn’t any fun.
5. Dragon’s Lair
This amazing arcade game was one of the absolute worst NES games.
Dragon’s Lair was based on the hand-animated Laserdisc arcade game of the same name. It follows the of Dirk the Daring as he faces off against an evil dragon to rescue a princess — standard video game stuff.
Unlike the Laserdisc game, with its beautiful graphics and gameplay centered around quick-time events, Dragon’s Lair for NES was a crudely drawn sidescroller. Though it followed the plot of the original game quite closely, the execution was sloppy.
The lag between directional input and action by Dirk was significant, and the animation for each action was lengthy and slow. This, combined with poorly designed platforming elements (such as hard to see holes) caused the player to die quickly and easily. Additionally, Dirk had a health bar, but often one hit from an enemy was enough to lead to death. In one instance, a hit from a door was enough to one-hit-kill the character.
This, along with no continues, combined to create a shockingly difficult game that was simply not fun enough to warrant completion.
4. The Uncanny X-Men
What’s mostly uncanny (noun, strange or mysterious — especially in an unsettling way) is how bad this NES game was. Yet another tie-in (noticing a trend?), The Uncanny X-Men took a popular franchise and stretched its characters over a horrendous action game in order to make a quick dollar.
You play as one of six X-Men, three of whom can punch and three of whom can shoot. If you play solo, the computer plays as your partner.
The computer quickly becomes the first of your problems, as its AI is so poorly executed that it continuously shoots blindly before either getting stuck in a corner or blindly falling into pits, killing itself.
Without the AI to hamper you, your X-Man now faces wave after wave of enemies that deal inconsistent damage and have ever-changing hitboxes, making the combat (a crucial element of a combat game) a game of chance.
Of course, the fun doesn’t stop there. The levels are so crudely and monotonously designed, riddled with warps to nowhere, that progressing through ugh each becomes a test of sanity.
At the end of each level is a secret code that has no explanation. If you last through each level, you piece together a code that says to first press select and then add that to the code on the back of the X-Men game box. Add those codes together, input them at the start of the game, and you face the final boss. This anticlimactic way to the final boss (you had half the puzzle the entire time!) is emblematic of the game’s attitude toward gaming itself: half-baked.
3. Deadly Towers
No ranking of worst NES games of all time would be complete without the inclusion of Deadly Towers — a monstrous dungeon crawler that still makes players’ blood boil decades later. Taking control of Prince Myer, the unlucky player has to spelunk across dungeons to find seven bells, burn them in the sacred flame and eventually defeat the Devil of Darkness: Rubas.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem unusual. Additionally, Deadly Towers utilized an isometric perspective to give the illusion of 3-D graphics — a rarity for the NES.
That’s where the positives stop, unfortunately. Once the player is thrown into the world of Deadly Towers, the game quickly becomes a form of video game torture. The player is armed with a sword which can only be thrown, not slashed, and cannot be re-thrown until it makes contact with an enemy or flies off-screen.
This leads to slow-paced projectile combat where a mistimed throw leaves the player exposed. Additionally, enemies often require dozens of hits to be killed but can kill Prince Myer relatively quickly.
The dungeons are littered with these improperly scaled monsters (some as creative as bouncing balls), and each dungeon has hundreds of rooms. Couple a sprawling dungeon with zero map capability, and any forward progress is attributable to dumb luck.
The game’s cruelty doesn’t stop there, however. Deadly Towers has a password feature as opposed to a save function. Except, when the passcode is entered, the game starts the player back at the beginning of the entire game! Only the items and health are ported over!
As this is a heavy dungeon crawler, this makes the save feature one step above useless. It’s a mind-numbingly exercise in futility that continuously finds new ways to frustrate the player. Truly awful.
2. Little Red Hood
Another unofficial NES game! Little Red Hood was so unofficial that it had to have an official NES cartridge plated over top of it in order for the NES to even register the game.
Enter recipe for one of the absolute worst NES games of all time.
In Little Red Hood, the player controls Little Red as she attempts to exit through a forest full of malevolent spirits. To do so, she has to find hidden keys to unlock gates that allow her to proceed to the next level.
The problem is, there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to how to get the keys, and there are no clues as to how to get them. Some require beating certain enemies, others require kicking fruits, and others still require finding hidden staircases that pop into existence, again, without any rhyme or reason.
It’s a game where one stumbles from one element to the next. Additionally, because it is an unofficial game, the design itself barely functions; there are graphic glitches throughout. Nearly every level has the same game design, there is no screen which lets a player know how many lives Red has, and enemies respawn immediately after killing.
The one bright upside is that this game was/is so bad that very few cartridges survived, making this quite a valuable collector’s item.
1. The Worst NES Game Of All Time: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The dubious distinction of worst NES game of all time goes to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a video game so bad it often vies for “worst video game ever made.”
Jekyll and Hyde drops the player in Victorian London, where Jekyll needs to get to the church for his wedding. That’s about as much information and plot as the game gives you.
Along the way, nearly every man, woman, and child in London attempts to attack Jekyll, for reasons unknown. As Jekyll, you are given a cane to hit people, but, amazingly, the cane does zero damage, and instead only increases Jekyll’s rage meter.
When Jekyll’s health hits zero or his rage meter fills up, the game flips modes completely, and he becomes Edward Hyde — transported into a demonic alternate London.
In Demon London, the game forcibly scrolls from right to left, and Hyde can shoot psycho-waves at demons to destroy them. As he destroys them, his rage meter depletes until it hits zero when he turns back into Jekyll.
If, however, Hyde is not able to get his rage back to zero before he reaches the same spot in the level where Jekyll turned into Hyde, then Hyde dies. Game over.
Confusing, right? As the Angry Video Game Nerd summed it up “if you die as Jekyll, you turn to Hyde, if you die as Hyde, game over,” and one of the ways to die as Hyde is to not clear your rage in time.
This is beyond ridiculous as the Hyde variation of the game is the only one in which the player can actually fight the enemies facing them. And if you’re in the Hyde variation for too long, you die, making it feel that the game punishes you for enjoying it.
Instead, the player is forced to cleanse Hyde of rage, and resort back to the defenseless, incredibly slow Jekyll, who ambles through London, trying to avoid the surprisingly deranged townsfolk.
The game spends so many levels beating the player over the head with the concept of Hyde = bad, that by the end, the player fully understands to never let Hyde get past where Jekyll transformed.
Except, without any hints, knowledge, or warning, the final level requires you to transform to Hyde and then get past the transformation point in order to beat the game.
That’s right: the game completely upends the entire system of internal logic and mechanics and does not clue the player in at all to this seismic shift. Instead, the hapless player who has suffered through thus far has to happen upon it by sheer dumb luck or trial and error in order to finally win the game. It’s galling.
It’s this amazing, bald-faced form of “screw you” game design that truly takes the cake as the Worst NES Game That Was Ever Made.