With the Switch Nintendo finally makes you pay to play online. You have to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online to play online multiplayer, save your games to the cloud, or voice chat with other players. It’s the same type of model Microsoft and Sony have followed for over a decade, but that Nintendo—always leery of online play to begin with—long resisted.
Here’s the thing about Nintendo Switch Online, though: I don’t even play games online, and I’ve still happily subscribed since it launched in 2018. That’s because, in addition to its online features, it also includes a library of the greatest videogames ever made. If you subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online, you also get access to dozens of classic games from the NES and SNES. It turns the Switch into a portable library of the best games to grace Nintendo consoles from the mid ‘80s through the mid ‘90s, which, at the price of $20 a year, makes Nintendo Switch Online both one hell of a bargain and a big step up from Nintendo’s old Virtual Console, which charged per game.
Nintendo released another batch of NES and SNES games onto Nintendo Switch Online this week. That includes Donkey Kong Country, one of the biggest games made for the SNES. Nintendo’s not being precious or overly protective of its games, here—it’s releasing its biggest and most important games, ones that it’s always tried to tightly control access to, basically as a toss-in for an online games service. As somebody who spent hundreds of dollars rebuying old guys on the Wii’s Virtual Console, I like that, a lot.
We’ll look at SNES games later on. For now let’s take a look at the 20 best NES games you can currently play through Nintendo Switch Online. Together they represent a sterling overview of ‘80s and early ‘90s gaming history, and are worth the $20 a year fee on their own. And they represent less than half of the 54 NES games in the full lineup.
Here are the 20 best NES games you can play through Nintendo Switch Online.—Garrett Martin
Sure, the unquestioned champ of the NES Sports Series is repetitive, but Pro Wrestling was groundbreaking in its day. With a roster of grapplers with defined characters and subtly different movesets, and the ability to fight outside the ring and even do dives, it resembled real pro wrestling more than many games that came afterward.—Garrett Martin
Dodge ball isn’t a real sport, and Super Dodge Ball isn’t really a sports game. Yes, there are teams, and a ball, and occasional dodging, but there are also reality-warping ball throwing techniques that aren’t too far off from a Final Fantasy spell. There’s a reason this game keeps getting rereleased through every version of the Virtual Console—it’s so well-designed that even its flaws, like extreme flickering and stuttering, play into its strategies.—Garrett Martin
Parts of this game are great. It certainly deserves respect for its unique and envelope-pushing design decisions, like how it bounces between scrolling platforming and room-based dungeon crawling. It’s not necessarily a fun game to play, which is why it’s not higher on this list, but it’s still a game that should be played, at least once.—Garrett Martin
Startropics is hands down the best game where you pilot a one-man submersible and fight snakes with a yo-yo. With a lovely setting and quirky characters, it proved that there was plenty of room to take the Zelda formula in different directions.—Nate Ewert-Krocker
Released around the same time as Zelda II, Rygar features a similar blend of top-down overworld navigation, side-scrolling dungeons and non-linear progression. Except Rygar lets you throw a spiked shield on a chain, which is metal as hell.—Nate Ewert-Krocker
The second Zelda games remain the biggest anomaly in the series. It leans more heavily into traditional role-playing game turf—you actually have to collect experience points and level Link up throughout the game, the kind of overtly numbers-based style of progression typically seen in RPGs but never seen in a main Zelda game again. Its oddity isn’t a detriment, though; it stands out not just among the Zelda series, but among other action-adventures released for the NES back at the time.—Garrett Martin
One of the toughest side-scrolling games of its era, Gradius was originally released in arcades in 1985 and later spawned several home console sequels, as well as helped inspire generations of space games down the line. Some of the conventions established or reinforced by Gradius, like the power-up system, are used in videogames to this day. —Holly Green
Here’s the ideal NES version of Sokoban, the Japanese crate-shoving puzzle, full of cute characters and charming 8-bit pixel art. It’s the type of game where a single misstep can ruin your entire plan, which means it’s a fantastic puzzle game.—Garrett Martin
The American release of Super Mario Bros 2 transformed the concept of the Mario platformer through happy coincidence, as it was originally an entirely different game called Doki Doki Panic. Despite that, its contributions to the Mario universe are huge, including characters such as Shy Guy and Birdo. Plus: One of the best Mario soundtracks ever. —Jim Vorel
For evidence of Tecmo Bowl’s lasting influence, look no further than the recent Kia Sorento car commercial starring Bo Jackson driving across a digital football field modeled after the 1989 game. Better than the arcade original but bested by its NES sequel. Ready, down, hut hut hut hut hut. —Jon Irwin
Incredibly far ahead of its time, River City Ransom plays more like an SNES beat-em-up than an NES one, with a surprisingly advanced set of combat mechanics and upgradable, RPG-style stats for your characters. There’s great joy in beating up thugs to collect coinage, then walking into a sushi shop to find out what stats a piece of nigiri or tempura will boost. —Jim Vorel
Kirby’s debut may have been on the Game Boy, but Kirby’s Adventure first let him use his signature power: swallowing enemies alive to gain their powers. No word on whether cannibalism rates rose among American children in 1993.—Nate Ewert-Krocker
Sunsoft was never quite as famous as NES-era developers like Konami and Capcom, but it released a superb lineup of games. The best among them is Blaster Master, a thrilling action game that sprawls out across different perspectives and play styles. Want a run-and-jump platformer? Play Blaster Master. Want a top-down exploration/shooter hybrid that feels like a mash-up of Zelda and Commando? Play Blaster Master. Want to hop back and forth between running around and driving a dune buggy that can jump and has a massive cannon on its top? You know what to play.—Garrett Martin
When Nintendo zagged with the unusual sequel Zelda II, SNK snuck in with a game that would’ve been a better follow-up to Link’s debut. Crystalis has no formal connection to Zelda, of course, but it heavily borrows its look and control scheme. Crystalis is more about fighting than puzzle-solving, though, and its elegant take on swordplay makes it one of the most enjoyable games to fight through on the NES. Combine that with its RPG depth, and you have one of the best NES games ever made.—Garrett Martin
Arguably the most iconic videogame of all time, Super Mario Bros. defies summary. A testament to the frugal ingenuity of early game design and the creative brilliance of Nintendo’s key founding members, including Shigeru Miyamoto, it remains a steadfast favorite. —Holly Green
Whether with or without Mike Tyson, the iconic boxing game is a classic of patience and pattern recognition. It’s effectively a puzzle game built around memory and reflexes, with some of the best graphics and most memorable characters found on the NES.—Garrett Martin
Ninja Gaiden turned heads with its elaborate cutscenes and a surprisingly detailed story for an 8-bit action title, but it’s remembered most fondly for its snappy action, its top-notch soundtrack and its brutal, brutal difficulty.—Nate Ewert-Krocker
Metroid was instantly iconic in 1987 for a number of reasons, from its backtracking-heavy level design, to its dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, to the surprising revelation of Samus Aran’s true nature at the end of the game. With its multitude of secrets and power-ups, and the freedom to explore as you see fit, it was one of the first games to feel like a genuine adventure.—Garrett Martin
Link’s original adventure is the first console game that felt like a true epic, with a sprawling overworld, several dangerous dungeons to explore, and special skills and secrets hiding throughout. For its time, it was as flawless as games got, and even today it’s easy to disappear within this version of Hyrule for hours without even realizing it.—Garrett Martin
This is the best Mario game, right? I mean, it might be the best game, period, ever, so that would clearly make it the best Mario game. It took everything great about the original, imported a touch of the apocryphal weirdness of the unrelated second game, and created a massive universe that constantly reveals unexpected new angles and facets without ever dipping in quality. If you only play one game in your entire life, it might as well be this one.—Garrett Martin
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.