The Absolute Best NES Action Games of All Time

Nintendo Entertainment System NES

The Absolute Best NES Action Games of All Time

The NES would mark Nintendo’s foray into home console gaming in 1985. Part of the third generation of video game consoles, the NES was one of the most popular and commercially successful gadgets. It was even named the best console ever in 2011 by IGN. So many revolutionary titles came out for the NES, and many franchises were started, including some of the best NES action games.

NES began as a 16-bit system with a keyboard and floppy drive. The president decided to go with a cheaper console that uses cartridges instead, intending to market it to a bigger audience. This turned out to work well, especially with the introduction of third-party companies developing games for the console. Gamers and non-gamers are familiar with famous titles, such as The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy and Super Mario Bros.

NES’s success continued throughout the 90s, even when its successor, the SNES, came out in 1990. Many of the NES games released were essentially ports of arcade games, but there were still a lot of stellar action games worth playing. Keep reading and discover which action games stood out.

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos

screenshot of Ninja Gaiden II The Dark Sword of Chaos game
Sometimes, lighting appears in the game between Level 1 and 3.

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The took place one year after the 1st Ninja Gaiden game and came out one year later. An agent of the U.S. army, Robert T. Sturgeon, recruits the protagonist Ryu and asks him to stop Ashtar, an evil emperor who wants to cover the world in darkness with the help of the dark sword.

The game involves platforming action, much like the original, where Ryu can latch onto walls, and ladders and jump. The game utilizes a simple health meter, with the player losing a life if it runs out. Special power boosting Items are obtainable and consume ‘ninja power’. Such weapons include shurikens, boomerangs, fireballs and an invincible wall of fire. Players can collect extra items that either increase Ryu’s ninja power and the player’s score or refill the health meter. At the end of each stage, you fight bosses. Sometimes the character is aided by a clone of Ryu if the player picks up a ninja symbol on his way.

Although the game didn’t win any of categories in the Nintendo Power Awards ’90, it did receive a nomination for ‘Best Theme & Fun’, ‘Best Play Control’, ‘Best Bad Guy’, ‘Best Overall’ and ‘Best Hero’. The game received the ‘Game Player’s NES Excellence Award’ in 1991 and was considered the best Ninja Gaiden game by Electronic Gaming Monthly. Generally, the game is challenging yet enjoyable gameplay and excellent controls. It’s undoubtedly one of the best NES action games. As far as the 8-bit era goes, Ninja Gaiden II is one of the most challenging but rewarding games.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse

Castlevania III Dracula's Curse
This title returns to the platformer style of the original Castlevania, opting to remove the RPG elements of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.

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As the third installment in the Castlevania series, came out in 1990. It is one of the prequels to the original game. As an ancestor of Simon Belmont, Trevor fights his way through Wallachia. Eventually, he reaches Dracula’s castle, where he defeats the Dark Lord with the help of the Vampire Killer whip.

The game innovates by including three optional playable characters alongside Trevor. There’s Sypha Belnades, who can cast magic spells, Grant Danasty, a pirate who can climb walls and jump in multiple directions, and Alucard, Dracula’s half-human son. He can transform into a bat and shoot fireballs. All players share the same health meter, and only one companion can join Trevor simultaneously. Branched routes lead to Dracula’s castle, with variations in gameplay. The ending also changes depending on which playable characters are present.

While Famitsu criticized the game for its difficulty, they praised the soundtrack and inclusion of new characters. Famitsu and Game Informer rated the game positively for returning to its roots, while Nintendo Power thought the improvements over previous entries were a highlight. Many publications consider it one of the best NES action games, so if you’re after a challenge on the classic console, Dracula’s Curse is a great choice.

Mega Man 3

screenshot of Mega Man 3 NES game
Gamers seeking out the most challenging Mega Man titles will love this game.

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As the third entry to the Mega Man series, Mega Man 3 arrived a year after Mega Man 2. The game’s plot differs slightly in that Dr. Wily has decided to form a peace pact with Dr. Light. His Robot Masters soon goes rogue, and the game quickly commences, with Mega Man facing off against these robots.

The stages can still be completed as the player wishes, like in the previous games. A new set of Robot Masters and accompanying power-ups do feature. Each boss is weak to another boss’ weapon. So, players can note this and be thoughtful about their choices for an easier time. Mega Man also has the assistance of his robot canine companion, Rush. He grants abilities such as flying, high jumps and swimming underwater. Mega Man can also slide along the ground in this rendition, adding another tactical element to the gameplay. The bosses from the previous game also feature, and you must defeat them before the final stage.

IGNGameSpotElectronic Gaming Monthly and Nintendo Power, praised Mega Man 3 highly for its music, graphics and challenging gameplay. IGN even argued the title was superior to the previous entry for its extended length and inclusion of extra Robot Masters.

The Legend of Zelda

screenshot of legend of zelda
The gameplay involves exploring a labyrinth with maze-like structures.

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The original Legend of Zelda/em came out in 1987. it is a perfect example of a game that fits squarely between the action and RPG genres. Countless gamers will be familiar with the series, but the first entry is arguably one of the lesser-known titles. Most games center around the elf-like Hyrulian called Link and Princess Zelda. Link is the protagonist, in their quest to stop Ganon from collecting all three pieces of the Triforce and conquering the world. The first game is no different, but the gameplay and storyline are stripped back.

Link is told to recover the pieces of the Triforce by Impa, Zelda’s maid, who would reappear in certain later games. Using an overhead perspective, you can explore world maps, with dungeons hidden throughout. The dungeons have a maze-like structure, with enemies and blocks. You have to face these to enter different areas, typical of the Zelda series. Many familiar items, such as the boomerang and Heart Containers did debut. Some less common items like magic rings and new and more powerful swords also feature.

Widely regarded as a revolutionary title, The Legend of Zelda set a new standard for the action and RPG genres. Famitsu gave the title a perfect score, while Computer Gaming World named it the best adventure of 1988. As a critically acclaimed title, The Legend of Zelda is undoubtedly one of the best NES action games.


Up to two players can play the game, with one controlling Bill and the other controlling Lance.

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Another game that kicked off a larger series, emContra, came to the NES in 1988. It is set precisely in the future, the year 2633. Two Marine Corps Contra unit commanders are sent to an island in New Zealand to destroy the Red Falcon Organization and uncover the secrets behind the alien forces controlling them.

The game proceeds in mostly a standard side-scrolling perspective, although there are pseudo-3D elements where the player can move toward the background. Characters can jump, run, shoot, crouch and move along the ground. Players can obtain alternative guns by destroying boxes or certain enemies. Upgrades give bonuses like increased firing speed and a temporary shield. Levels have different objectives, such as fighting off the enemy lines, traversing through bases on a time limit and fighting bosses.

Contra was a commercial success in arcade games, but the NES version also left its mark, mainly because of its cooperative play capabilities. Computer Gaming World called it a ‘truly outstanding epic,” and Electronic Gaming Monthly named it the Best Action Game of the year of its release. The difficulty is relatively challenging for the era, with IGN considering it the ‘Toughest Game to Beat.’ If you’re looking for one of the best NES action games that set a new standard for two-player games, look no further than the original Contra.

Mega Man 2

screenshot of Mega Man 2 NES game
Much like its predecessor, Mega Man 2’s gameplay occurs in linear stages.

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The second title in the Mega Man series, would hit US stores in 1989. It did improve upon several aspects of the original. The plot is similar to the first game, following Mega Man as he defeats the evil Dr. Wily’s Robot Masters before facing Dr. Wily himself. 

Each Robot Master defeated at the end of the stage awards Mega Man his weapon. Each Robot Master has a weakness to a particular weapon. This requires strategic thinking regarding which order the player decides to complete the stages, as some routes will be easier than others. The sequel included some features the first didn’t have, such as Energy Tanks which restore Mega Man’s health and a password system to resume gameplay.

Mega Man 2 was more commercially successful than the original Mega Man and has become the second-best-selling Mega Man game overall. Both Electronic Gaming Monthly and 1UP.com considered the game a vast improvement over its predecessor. They cited enhanced visuals and more balanced difficulty as positive points. Even the soundtrack had been very well-received, with IGN calling the central theme the best in the series. Hardcore Mega Man fans and those retro gamers looking for a memorable experience will be happy with Mega Man 2, one of the best NES action games.

Super Mario Bros. 3

The third rendition of the ever-popular series, hit the NES in 1989 and features the traditional story of rescuing Princess Toadstool (or Peach) from Bowser’s castle. The player can choose between Mario or Luigi to play and must also defeat each of Bowser’s seven children, known as the Koopalings. They have turned the rulers of the seven kingdoms into animals using the kings’ magical wands. The game is notable for being the first to introduce Bowser’s children.

As the player character navigates through the worlds, they face a Koopaling is faced at the end of each world. Bowser’s castle is the final stage in a realm known as the Dark Land. The overworld displays the various routes to reach the world’s castle. Most of the gameplay takes place within the linear levels. Players will be familiar with the 2D side-scrolling perspective of the Mario series. Some new features include sliding down slopes, climbing vines and throwing blocks. The game also added some new power-ups to obtain, like the Super Leaf and Tanooki Suit. Both upgrades give the player the ability to fly temporarily. Tanooki Suit also allows the player to turn into a statue, protecting them from enemies for a limited time. A rather primitive two-player mode is also included, where players can take turns completing levels.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is often called one of the best NES games, receiving praise for its replayability, graphics, soundtrack and gameplay. Publications like Nintendo Power, Famitsu and Computer and Video Games share these sentiments. Undoubtedly, this title would be the second-best-selling game of 1988. Famitsu even named it the best action game released five years prior. Mario fans will love this entry, but all retro games should give Super Mario Bros. 3 a try, especially if they’re looking for the best NES action games.

Last update on 2023-09-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Absolute Best NES Action Games of All Time FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

When did the NES come out?

The NES came out in the US in October 1985.

What was the first NES action game?

The first NES action game was Ice Climber, released in October 1985.

What was the last NES action game?

The last action game for the NES was Disney’s The Jungle Book, released in August 1994.

Which NES action game was the best?

The NES was practically known for its action and platform games, along with its RPG games, so it’s hard to pick a definitive title, but the Mega Man and Mario games are definitely up there at the top. Castlevania fans will enjoy Dracula’s Curse immensely, while Zelda fans will want to check out the Zelda titles as well as Crystalis. Fans of beat-em-ups should give River City Ransom a go, too.

Which NES action game sold the most units?

The best-selling NES action game was Super Mario Bros., which sold a mammoth 40.24 million units.

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