In its heyday there were over 760 titles released in the US and PAL regions for the Nintendo Entertainment System, also referred to as the NES. Many of these games are absolute classics that to this day remain nostalgic keystones in people’s childhoods. Who can forget the first time they hopped on a Goomba in Super Mario Bros., gunned their way through the jungle in Contra or blasted Mother Brain in Metroid? These games, while some not so heavy on story, were crafted in such a way that it didn’t matter that we only had two buttons and a d-pad. We had strongly defined characters in engrossing new worlds with clear elements of mystery and adventure to overcome.
This is a list of some of those games, games where the premise is so strange and the mechanics so unnatural that they've either become instant blockbusters or cult classics. Of course, some of the games on this list are just plain bad, but to be fair have to be represented. I also chose not to use any games that were specifically designed for the arcade or that were not released in the United States.
So with that out of the way let’s get started easy with...
10. CRASH ‘N THE BOYS: STREET CHALLENGE (1992)
What seemed to be an innocuous track and field type of game, Crash ‘n the Boys suffered from what I like to call the “early 90’s edginess factor”. This game is like the NBA Street of the track world, throwing in locales such as dirty rooftops and graffiti bombed hurdle courses. Now this in and of itself is not that weird of a concept as plenty of games in the 90’s were trying to re-invent old genres with a “hip vibe” or whatever they thought the youth were into at the time. The strangeness comes from the story that was supposed to coalesce these characters into such a setting, i.e. out of the stadium and into the streets.
Jeff “Crash” Cooney is a star athlete and leader of the Southside Boys, who led his team to victory over the rich snobs of the Hills in the latest All-City Track Meet. The leader of the rich boys is Todd Thornley III, the son of the owner of Thornley Industries Worldwide, Mr. Thornley. A very unforgiving man, Mr. Thornley is quick to scold young Todd and create an ultimatum: Win or die. He’s gonna kill his kid over a track meet? Who does that?! Todd swears vengeance in the form of an unregulated track meet and due to the scheming of Mr. Thornley’s assistant Mr. Lee, he will have a team of “super atheletes” culled from the ranks of the corporation’s “over 900,000” employees. This vengeance will all be served of course Super Dodgeball style in events such as Roof-Jumping, Hammer throwing, swimming and of course “Fighting Scene”.
Now, I understand the need to create clear cut villains in a game so the player identifies more with the protagonist, but seriously! This is a TRACK AND FIELD GAME, why do I care about any of these people?! They could have just launched me straight to the title screen and then to the event menu; why in heaven’s name did they need to embellish on a story that will clearly have no conclusion? There is no story mode, you just randomly pick events to play and then when you’re finished you go back to the menu.
9. KID KLOWN IN NIGHT MAYOR WORLD (1993)
Go ahead, I dare you to come to any reasonable conclusion as to why there is a clown boy jumping through the forest fighting spiders with balloons. Forget the fact that by the extra life description, you are actually playing as multiple people that all look the same and the fact that they labeled strawberries as 'chips'. Forget all of that and listen to the premise of this odd title.
Kid Klown and his freaky clown family are on their way to the circus when this very obviously evil man dressed in brown clothes comes up and asks the Kid to open a magical treasure vault for him. Saying no, he decides to blackmail you into doing it by abducting your family and telling Kid Klown to “come to my castle if you want your family back!”
So, of course, using your mighty clown logic you decide to go, not knowing of course that he will sling a million monsters and enemies your way! Why in the name of Marcel Marceau would you try your absolute damndest to murder the only person (in the world apparently) who can open your evil treasure chest? This story was a clear result of getting lost in Circus Circus on too much LSD.
Seriously though, this game is relentlessly awful and only the most masochistic are going to want to put themselves through the pain and suffering involved with an entire run-through.
8. A BOY AND HIS BLOB: TROUBLE ON BLOBOLONIA (1989)
From the first screen you see (the title card blatantly ripping off Indiana Jones), A Boy and his Blob remains to this day one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played in my long tenure as a gamer. Right away you are plopped onto a dark street with a bouncing, smiling amorphous white mass that follows you around everywhere you go. No opening story, no narration boxes, just you and your reeling imagination trying to come up with a rational explanation for what you are seeing.
As a kid I had bought this game secondhand and therefore never had the manual to decipher the storyline, always imagining an ET type scenario where you had to get this gooey snowman looking alien back to his planet or whatever.
Thank goodness for Wikipedia:
“A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia is a side-scrolling platformer in which the character and his friend Blob (full name Blobert) travel together on Earth and on Blobert's home planet Blobolonia in a quest to defeat an evil emperor.”
Blobert? Okay maybe I was better off not knowing. The really strange part is the fact that, in order to overcome the poorly illustrated obstacles that litter the game, you’ve got to feed this bag of snot jelly beans in order to turn him into ladders, rockets, holes and whatever else seems to be the solution to the specific problem you’re facing. The issue: You have no clue what these jelly beans do to him until you throw them in his gaping maw! There are no descriptions! Some of these you only have a couple of, so when you toss them in his pie-hole and find out that’s not the one you need, well sorry pal but you’re out of luck a half an hour later when you finally do need it.
7. ZOMBIE NATION (1990)
Once again I want to start you off with an image that will leave you with the same feeling of confusion-infused brain goo rolling around in your skull. Zombie Nation defies the usual norms of game construction and story development by making you a giant floating Kabuki head.
As per the opening sequence:
“In 1999 what appeared to be a harmless meteorite crashing into the Nevada desert had turned out to be Darc Seed, an evil alien creature with horrible powers. By shooting strage [sic] magnetic rays, Darc Seed had turned the helpless nation into zombies and had brought the Statue of Liberty to life to do his dirty work (WHAT?). These rays had also given him control over many deadly weapons, but none were more powerful than the legendary samurai sword, Shura. When the great head of the samurai, Nakamubi, heard that the sword had fallen into evil hands he set off immediately for the United States. For only he possessed the strength and knowledge needed to recapture the magical swords and free the U.S. from the evil clutches of Darc Seed.”
Knowing this, one would think that, even if you are a floating samurai ghost head, your mission has been clearly stated as one of rescue and daring heroism. No. Why would that be the case? Instead you are a rampaging ghoul with the visage of Ben Franklin that goes around destroying the ever-living bejeesus out of New York City.
Your character is such an antagonis that not only is the Army attacking you, but even the citizens are firing at you from rooftops to keep you at bay! Now, I tried to get far enough into this game to see if there is any narrative changes but the sheer enemy count and abusive level design kept putting me out of commission, and you only get one life!
6. BATTLETOADS (1991)
You must have known this was going to show up sooner or later. Battletoads is a bit more well known of a game than the others so far on the list, but that doesn’t mean the developers didn’t ratchet up the weird level well past Rip Taylor (just underneath Dennis Rodman in a wedding dress, though).
Battletoads is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up along the lines of Double Dragon and was made during the height of the whole Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle anthropomorphic animal craze just like Samurai Pizza Cats, Cowboys of Moo Mesa and Biker Mice from Mars. I can only imagine the sales pitch to Tradewest: “Okay Ron, you know how your kids are always blabbering on about those fighting turtles? Well get this: Space Toad Bikers from the Future, and they all have nasty names like Rash, Zitz and Pimple! I haven’t worked all that much on the title yet, but what do you think?” ... “Genius! Begin production immediately!”
The enemies in this game range from giant pig men and robots to the more innocuous, such as rats and crows. It’s a pretty fun game if you’ve got a friend who is into masochism as well, but the real horror is in the third level during the infamous hover-bike sequence. Congratulations to you, if you can manage to beat that sadistic track with two people while sharing your continues.
5. PRINCESS TOMATO IN THE SALAD KINGDOM (1991)
What if DÃ©jÃ Vu or Shadowgate was a lighthearted romp through vegetable land instead of the dark, gritty, RPG’s that made them famous? Well then you would get Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, the delightfully odd point and click adventure made by Hudson Soft.
The in-game description reads:
"Many growing seasons ago, there was a place where vegetables lived happily, and in perfect harmony. One day, Minister Pumpkin betrayed King Broccoli. He kidnapped Princess Tomato and stole the Turnip Emblem. He took them to his castle in the Zucchini Mountains. He sent his cruel Farmies out to terrorize all the vegetables in the Salad Kingdom. Shortly thereafter, the poor King died from the loss of his beautiful daughter. But he promised you, brave Sir Cucumber, the Princess' hand and the kingdom if you bring them back safely.”
Of course in order to do that you’ll have to brave ferocious enemies in bouts of… wait, Rock-Paper-Scissors? Enough of the precocious intro- This game is weird. Hunter S. Thompson in full-on drug madness weird. You have a baby persimmons as a sidekick, get investigated by a Sergeant Pepper and have to traverse this nightmare-scape of misshapen anthropomorphic heads and veggie puns all to save a princess. Sometimes you just have to be okay with letting the princess suffer, and move on with your life. After all, carrying her all the way back to the castle would be cu-cumbersome! Oh god what have I done?!
4. KIRBY’S ADVENTURE (1993)
Aside from being one of the most graphically lush games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Kirby’s Adventure was also one of the more absurd in turn of concept. It turns out that this was actually a sequel to a Game Boy game, though not having one as a kid this was the first time that I (and the rest of the kids on my block for that matter) had ever heard of our pink balloonish hero.
If my memory serves me correctly, you are a dream cloud or something, fighting to save Dreamland. I don't remember exactly, but the commercial I saw for it was awesome!
So as you can see, Kirby is a guy who defies description but it works in context of the game. The enemies, levels and game mechanics are all great looking and work well, but they are still pretty out-there. Going around inhaling your enemies so that you can become them and when you're done exploiting their powers? Shoot them out of your mouth with such force that they and anyone in their path are destroyed on impact.
You fight artists on roller blades, giant tires and all sorts of weird scribbles that infest the many levels of Dreamland, stopping only to... insert yourself into a claw prize machine, have high-noon quick draw shootouts, catch eggs with your mouth and fight in arenas?
I take it back. These guys were smoking some serious "Dreamland Tobacco" during the development of this game.
3. MONSTER PARTY (1989)
Now this here is a doozy. Monster Party was a game released by Bandai, a name synonymous with bad games, anime and guys in spandex suits. It was released around the same time as Splatterhouse in what appeared to be an effort to bring a more adult themes to the NES. At least that's what the marketing led people to believe. It wasn't until years later that I actually got a chance to play this game and realized for the first time that this was a game for kids.
The main character, Mark, is a young kid returning from baseball practice or some such when a shining light blasts down to earth and reveals itself to be an alien/gargoyle/demon thing that just prefers to be called Bert. Apparently Bert's planet is being overrun by evil beings and the only person who can save them is an twelve year-old with a baseball bat. Mark isn't too sure that his bat is up to snuff if even the menacing yet friendly Bert can't even handle the monsters. Not to worry! According to Bert he just needs to get behind Mark and fuse with him to become more powerful. No, no subtext here.
Anyhow, in the game you head off to a very gory (though not as much as the Japanese release I am told) planet where monsters, ghosts, robots and a general mish-mash of horror-themed objects are hell bent on killing you so hard that they have all prepared one-liners to quip before they do so. Your only chance to defeat these enemies is the fact that you can at certain points in the game, transform into Bert and lay waste to your foes with his laser vision. The game itself is pretty entertaining in a cliche side-scrolling adventure kind of way, but where this game really sets itself apart is the bosses.
Yes, why in fact that is a pair of robots who have decided to kill you with shrimp tempura. Bosses like this abound throughout the game, each with a one-liner to throw your way before they hover about the screen and shoot god-knows-what at you until you defeat them. I personally never got a chance to finish this game, but I would recommend it to anyone with some free time on their hand, just to see how bizarre the game gets.
2. LITTLE NEMO: THE DREAM MASTER (1990)
First, let me start off by saying that I love this game. Back in the day, Little Nemo: The Dream Master had to be one of the most treasured games in my collection. I used to play this game into the wee hours of the night, heading off on adventures with Nemo to strange places unknown, with just a bag of candy and my imagination. Good times.
That being said, even dreamscapes aside, this is a pretty strange game by any definition. You play as the titular hero Nemo who has been summoned to Slumberland at the request of the Princess. After making sure that he doesn't have to kiss the beautiful princess, Nemo jumps aboard the odd-looking zeppelin and takes off for adventure. Once you arrive you meet a frog who tells you that he is Flip and he's here to help by leaving you stranded in the forest with no clear path to the castle you've just recently been ripped out of bed to go visit. That always struck me as odd, I mean to just drop you off in the forest and say good luck? Why not just take him all the way there? Did the zeppelin run out of gas? Did they not bring toll money?
Anyway, you're running through levels filled with all kinds of things out to kill you dead, snails, bees, it doesn't matter, they hate your guts and wanna send you back to reality as quick as possible while some very catchy music plays in the background. One of the most defining characteristics of this game to me was the fabulous soundtrack by Junko Tamiya, credited in the game as "Gonzou" for some reason. It will stay in your head all day, trust me.
Back to the weird: you can't actually fight any of these enemies in the traditional sense, you're only able to fling pieces of candy that stun them for a short period. Instead you have to rely on your animal "friends" to defeat your foes and get through the level. I use the word "friends" loosely because in order to use their abilities, you feed them candy and then climb into their mouths to control them!
All in all this was definitely a sleeper classic back in the day, with lots of charm and challenge, but still crazier than the hobo down the street who thinks he is a reincarnation of Washington's cherry tree.
1. SUPER MARIO BROS. 2 A.K.A DOKI DOKI PANIC (1988)
How could this not be number one? Take the already strange premise of Italian plumbers tripping on mushrooms in a fantasy land where giant dinosaur turtles steal princesses, and layer that over a completely independently developed effort from another company and you'll get Super Mario Bros. 2. This is the real Mario 2 as far as I'm concerned, since as kids growing up in the U.S. we were deemed unworthy of the natural successor of the first game. No, I'm not bitter.
This game pulls out all the stops on reality and throws you full on into the madness of Mushroom Kingdom. You've got cross-dressing, egg-shooting dinosaurs, floating tiki masks, turnip weapons, alternate shadow dimensions, slot machines and no real reason to be there! I mean, you can play as the Princess at any point in time. Why are we even going through this trouble? Who are we saving; what is the danger? All of these questions and more will burn through your brain as you revisit this classic. The music, graphics and controls were all top-notch and the character selection offered different strategies for conquering levels, which made for a great game. Despite its quality, it is still good old fashioned nightmare fuel that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
And that concludes my list. I know everyone is going to have different opinions based on the games available to them, and their own personal perceptions while playing. I will say though, that there were many honorable mentions that just couldn't quite hack it into the top ten category (Bad Dudes, I'm looking at you). So what did I miss? Let's get a little discussion going in the comments because I'm sure there are some games on the NES that I'm unaware of and are even more mind-blowing than those on this list.