NES Games with Atmosphere

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NES Games with Atmosphere

~by tankMage (February 2023)

The NES was rather limited in terms of what it could do with graphics and sound, but this did not keep creative devs from making truly atmospheric games that distinguish themselves from the pack to this day. This is a list of games that have that special NES vibe that I have come to love over the years. These games are not necessarily great, in fact some of them often receive negative criticism, but they are special just for the way they look, sound, and establish a sense of tension or wonder.

Being a work in progress, this article will be updated from time to time and I am happy to consider any game that does not appear below as a suggestion. My own personal biases and opinions figure heavily into this list, so feel free to give me some feedback… I may be persuaded to change my mind. Also, this is not a ranked list and I put the games in alphabetical order with an Honorable Mentions section at the end for games that didn’t quite make the cut.

Batman

Sonsoft’s Batman is a beloved NES title, because it actually did the comic hero and movie it was based on some justice. It also has a unique look and feel that make a good faith attempt to capture the spirit of the 1989 film even if it isn’t always accurate. While the Caped Crusader is a somewhat unusual purple color as opposed to his usual black and/or gray costume, this was a good design choice in my opinion since it makes him stand out in a game that features a lot of dark stages.

The stage and enemy design doesn’t quite mesh with the movie/comic books all the time and I often get the impression that this game was repurposed for Batman, but it works in a strange way. Sunsoft also got the action right, with Batman being able to wall jump, throw Baterangs, and fist fight bad guys, so this game gets points for setting itself apart from lesser licensed titles. The soundtrack also does an excellent job of setting the tone and I can still hear the Stage 1 theme as I type this line. 

Here’s a link to the Batman home page:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/batman-nes/

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

The second Castlevania is one of those titles people either love or hate. My own feelings towards the game have shifted back and forth over the years, but one thing is for certain: Simon’s Quest has its own unique feel. From the drab towns of medieval Transylvania to monster infested mansions, this game has an oppressive air to it that really drives home the fact that Simon Belmont is in dire trouble. After all, it’s a horrible night to have a curse!

Then there’s the soundtrack, which is almost universally loved thanks to Bloody Tears. Overall, Simon’s Quest manages to distinguish itself by using the limited color palette and sound capabilities of the NES to establish a sense of dread that was not all that common in 8-Bit games and is great for October evenings or snowy days in the dead of winter.

I wrote a guide and put together some passwords for this game years ago, so check out this link if you want to learn more:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/castlevania-ii-simons-quest-nes/

Contra

Contra is a must-play classic NES title and for good reason: it’s fun and challenging. It also has a great sound track and really nice visuals for an earlier NES release. Some of the stages, like the initial jungle level and waterfall have become iconic along with many of the bosses. Sadly, gamers in North America missed out on Contra in its full glory, because Nintendo did not allow third party publishers to release games made on their more advanced carts to be released in the US until later in the console’s lifespan. Consequently, we missed out on cutscenes, a map, and animated backgrounds. The good news is the magic of modern technology has made fan translated versions of the game available.

Visit our Contra page:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/contra-nes/

Deja Vu

I gotta be honest here, I’m not much of a fan of point and clicks, but Deja Vu made me reconsider my feelings towards the genre. This was thanks, in no small part, to the noir detective style of the game. You wake up with amnesia in a hostile world where nothing seems to be going right. Even the newspapers you find talk about Pearl Harbor getting bombed…oof. The rather tiny game world is lonely and the few people you meet are often untrustworthy. Combine all of this with some nice writing and you have something that’s hard to relate without actually experiencing.

Visit the Deja Vu homepage if you are interested in learning about it:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/deja-vu-nes/

Faxanadu

Faxanadu seems to get strong reactions from gamers. It is often recommended and remembered fondly, but some NES fans dislike it. Personally, I feel that it’s kind of average in terms of gameplay. That said, there’s something about this ARPG that distinguishes it from other NES titles. Our hero is on a quest to save the World Tree from a mysterious plague that has mutated the formerly friendly dwarves that lived alongside the elves. Strange creatures roam around the fantasy setting of the World Tree and an often dull color palette really hammers home how bleak the situation is. This game is also really good at making towns feel like tiny oases in an otherwise chaotic world. All of this is underscored by a really excellent soundtrack, so give Faxanadu a chance if you are looking for something different.

Here’s some more info on Faxanadu:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/faxanadu/

Ghosts ‘n Goblins

As one of the earliest NES games, Ghosts ‘n Goblins does not have much to offer in the way of graphics. Its sound effects and music also get pretty shrill. Even so, there’s something haunting about this game (excuse the unintentional dad joke) that earned it a spot on this list. Despite the fact that I did not touch this platformer until I was well into my 20s, the kid in me is creeped out by it. Maybe it’s the two hit kills, sluggish controls, Satan as the last boss, or the fact that the hero’s head on a pike acts as a cursor for the start screen, but this game is unsettling. I’m really glad I didn’t play this one when I was five years old.

More about Ghosts ‘n Goblins:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/ghosts-n-goblins-nes/

Kirby’s Adventure

Many of the games on this list are notable for having a rather heavy atmosphere, but Kirby’s Adventure takes things in a different direction with its cute graphics and soundtrack. Pastels, bad guys that look like they could be plushies, and an upbeat BGM make this title one of the cheeriest on the NES. It’s also fairly accessible in terms of difficulty and features enjoyable gameplay.

Kirby’s Adventure is one of those releases that manages to take the player into a world of imagination. Just about everything in this title is unique, from Kirby himself to King Dedede, which is an accomplishment when you consider the sheer size of the NES library.

Visit our Kirby’s Adventure home page if you want to know more about this game:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/kirbys-adventure-nes/

Metroid

I’ll be honest, I did not like the original Metroid very much, but this game has a sense of gravity and an air of mystery that is undeniable. From the moment Samus enters Zebes and the “Hmmm HMMMM Hmmm HMM Hmmmmm” theme plays you will be transported into an often spooky alien world that’s full of danger. While Metroid’s graphics were a bit blotchy and primitive even for the NES, they only added to the aura of strangeness this game possesses. 

See our Metroid page for more:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/metroid-nes/

Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos

While some of the titles on this list may be a bit divisive as far as their quality goes, Ninja Gaiden II is generally considered the best entry in the original 8-Bit Ninja Gaiden series. And for good reason; this game really made the most of the NES’s capabilities. Cutscenes, spites, and backgrounds are all done beautifully with an unmistakable sense of originality. An excellent musical score is the icing on the cake as it sets the tone of every scene and stage almost perfectly. Ninja Gaiden was considered a pioneer in story telling and NG2 has an excellent story told through cutscenes between stages. Of course, you’ll have to work to enjoy the story, because most of the stages are moderate to tough in terms of difficulty, but this only adds to the game’s mystique as far as I am concerned.

Check out this link if you want to know more about NG2:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/ninja-gaiden-ii-the-dark-sword-of-chaos-nes/

Shatterhand

In spite of its weird box art, Shatterhand is a great looking NES game that captures the spirit of the latter half of the console’s lifespan. While the story is a bit vague, the boss sprites and stages all look good and are set to high quality soundtracks. Animated backgrounds and a detailed world make a game that would otherwise feel generic come to life. Shatterhand ultimately has a feel to it that I can only describe as “anime”. Ironically, this game was originally based on a Japanese live action show and was altered a bit for western audiences who would not have recognized the show. Somehow this worked for the better, because this platformer very much feels like its own creature.

See more about Shatterhand:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/shatterhand-nes/

Vice: Project Doom

You know you’re in for something special just from the name of this platformer. Despite taking a tremendous amount of shall we say “inspiration” from the Ninja Gaiden series, Vice: Project Doom is very much its own game. A detective/sci-fi story and colorful game world set it apart from other NES titles. It’s also a solid platformer that boldly steps outside of its genre with shoot ‘em up stages and even primitive rail shooter sequences. The only thing that’s lacking is the sound track, which still manages to set the mood despite being mediocre.

Check out this link to learn more:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/vice-project-doom-nes/

Willow

Licensed games often (deservedly) got a bad rep in this era, but Willow is one of the outliers that managed to prove it is possible to make a decent game based on a film. Willow not only makes a commendable, though imperfect, effort to stick to the source material, but it also distinguishes itself as a competent ARPG. While many of the titles on this list set themselves apart through impressive sound and graphics Willow is special, because it manages to hammer home the sense that you are playing as a very small and vulnerable hero going up against a foe that is way out of his league. This is thanks to the many dangers the protagonist faces over the course of the adventure as well as the fact that he must level up to merely be able to swing the heavy swords he finds. Willow also boasts good artwork and varied backgrounds as well as a soundtrack that is just about perfect for a fantasy game.

See more about Willow:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/willow-nes/

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

I have a love/hate relationship with this game, but I cannot deny that it has a great setting, music, and overall visual design. Zelda 2 did a great job of expanding upon the world created by its prequel by adding towns and new places to explore. It also improved upon the graphics of the first game, which could feel generic at times. On top of that, there’s always something intimidating about entering the gates of a dungeon even after beating this adventure a few times, not to mention the great music used in the palaces. Even Link’s movement, which has a sense of inertia, enhances the atmosphere of this game. I’ll also have to admit that the Game Over screen, which had a silhouette of Gannon laughing, freaked me out when I was a kid.

Here’s more on Zelda 2:

https://retromaggedon.com/index.php/zelda-ii-the-adventure-of-link-nes/

Honorable Mentions

Fester’s Quest

Fester’s Quest is a bad game in my opinion, but it has a good soundtrack. There are also some areas that have an interesting vibe to them that makes the game stand out. Just don’t expect much if you try this one out for yourself.

Visit this site if you are interested in a review of Fester’s Quest:

https://wizarddojo.com/2017/02/06/festers-quest-review/

Ninja Gaiden 1 & 3

The entire Ninja Gaiden series is excellent even though only the second game made the list above. Both the first and third games almost manage to establish a vibrant game world, but fall short of the goal. I feel the first game was too prototypical and had some problems with its presentation that held it back. On the other hand, the third game was probably the best looking and sounding of the trilogy. That said, Ninja Gaiden 3 was such a themetic departure from the series that it alienated itself from its predecessors.* 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1, 2, & 3

All three of these games shine at times in terms of atmosphere. They can also be a bit bland, especially when it comes to their soundtracks. Despite all of this, the second two games have a nice feel to them and are pretty good, while the first game gets a nod just for nostalgia.*

The Legend of Zelda

Despite being an excellent game, LoZ didn’t make the list above, because I felt the sound and graphics were a bit too repetitive. That said, this title definitely has moments that establish a sense of tension, wonder, or even uneasiness. This is mainly thanks to the sound of waves crashing against the shore in beachside areas and the fact that you can hear bosses roaring a few screens away in dungeons.*

*Check out the Nintendo Entertainment System Game Catalog on this site if you want to read more about these games.

Thanks for checking out this article on NES games with atmosphere!

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