Following the video game industry crash of the 1980s, Nintendo imposed strict quality control standards concerning their flagship console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. Third-party Developers needed to adhere to Nintendo standards in order to ensure that an over-saturation of low-quality games didn't occur again. Now this doesn't mean that games got any easier to beat. Battery-powered cartridges with game game-saving capability were in their infancy, so the heavy focus for any game was replay value. This either meant wanting to play the game over and over, or the game requiring a long time to master or beat - and good God, some of them took a LONG time to beat. Some games did this in an enjoyable fashion, rewarding the user for mastery and discovery. Others were just simply cruel, whether by sadistic design or sheer incompetence. Here is a list of classic NES games which are impossible to beat, skewed by the bias of my childhood.
15 Super Mario Bros. 3
Compared to some titles in this list, Super Mario Bros. 3 isn't a hard game by design. Its gameplay and physics are so smooth, it doesn't seem difficult, however this game was a huge departure from its predecessors in terms of sheer size. I’m still haunted by the idea of beating eight maps in one sitting without being able to save. A schoolbus tip from my friend Anthony provided me with two flute locations and that was enough for me to beat the game eventually. In its context among Mario games we’d seen before, Super Mario Bros. 3 was a colossal epic, requiring significantly more dedication to complete fully. Personally, I find Super Mario Bros 2 (The Lost Levels) to be a much less arduous task, but we’ll get to that later…
14 Mission Impossible
I remember getting this game as a kid and reading the manual on the ride home. I was blown away by the different levels I was set to play through. There were three different characters I could cycle through, each with different skills and weapons. There were guns and mayhem, a skiing level and even one with a speedboat, little of which I ever saw. I never made it past the first stage. There is a password system, which made the game somewhat beatable in my adulthood, but the game is so unforgiving, it typically removes the will to continue by the end of the first of only five levels. Mission Impossible is beautifully designed and has great music but trust me, you’d rather watch someone else play through it than have to do it yourself.
13 Final Fantasy
This game doesn't require skill in the way of hand-eye coordination or split-second execution, but, compared to modern RPGs, it does require patience. Trapdoor spider patience. Nelson Mandela patience. Perhaps it only seems so difficult in contrast after going back and playing through without the luxuries found in newer RPGs. Most annoying for me was targeting an enemy who dies before my attack and it being a miss, rather than being applied to the next enemy. The battles are very, very long and frequent. This is still a brilliant game, however and maybe we all deserve to go back and suffer through it in order to appreciate how far the genre has come - especially with how easy and casual-user friendly some RPGs have become.
12 The Legend of Zelda II : Link’s Adventure
In the first Legend of Zelda, we were thrown into an open world, left to find weapons, discover and conquer dungeons while solving puzzles on our own without much guidance. It was complicated but rewarding and enriching, while, like virtually all other Zelda games, the gameplay was essentially quite easy. That is, all Zelda games but one - and really one stage in particular. In the second installment to the Zelda franchise, we were surprised to see a side scrolling perspective, as opposed to the overhead we became used to. This isn't what makes the game hard, however. In one of the most infamous difficulty spikes in any video game, Zelda II lulls you into a false sense of security only to kick you in the stomach with level 2: death mountain. There are dead ends and powerful enemies which will destroy you over and over, forcing you to grind it out and gain EXP in order to progress. This is hard in itself, but especially in contrast to what Zelda games typically embody.
11 Kid Icarus
I love this game although I’ve never actually completed it. This is thanks in large part to eggplants. I’ve always hated eggplants and this game only reinforced that hatred. The story, design and music are great, but I've always found the physics and gameplay to be difficult and rigid for a platformer. In addition, it’s a vertical scrolling game, thus mistakes are often met with instant death. Enemies are predictable and cyclical but they respawn endlessly and progressing through them can become frustrating. The most nerve-wracking among them are wizards whose projectiles turn our protagonist, Pit, into eggplants when he’s struck. If this happens, Pit must navigate defenselessly across the level in order to find a nurse, who removes the spell. Even Nintendo Power described Kid Icarus as having “unmerciful difficulty,” but it never seems to stifle the replay value of this classic game.
10 Mega Man
The first installment in the Mega Man franchise still evokes nightmares of falling. Whether suffering the spikes or disappearing blocks, this game grinds you into frustration until you memorize sequences over time. The endearing characters, impeccable design and enthralling music ease the process of training and memorization, so they aren’t a chore compared to some other games which are just insufferable (see Ghosts n’ Goblins). Thankfully the game isn't just rote memorization, since there is still enough left to one’s reflexes and chance. All of these factors combined have helped the game age very well, ensuring significant replay value which exists to this day. Whenever I feel like a sucker for punishment, I can always pop this game in (it looks fantastic in RGB on my Sony PVM) and see how well I can do based on memory.
9 Blaster Master
Blaster Master is yet another well-made game which spans several genres. It's a fun story with unique gameplay which alternates between driving a tank and exploring certain areas on foot. However, the on-foot gameplay leaves a little to be desired in terms of aim and control. The tank handles relatively well, but for a platformer, the jumping mechanics can be a bit frustrating. Often, it seems like you’ll clear a jump to another platform only to miss narrowly and pay the price -and the price to pay for failure in this game is quite steep. Fans of anaesthetic-free surgery will love this game for it’s lack of saves or continues. Defeating bosses on foot in the dungeons allows you to unlock upgrades and access parts of the game previously unattainable. This combined with the overall quality of the game make it a classic, save for the requisite days, weeks, months and years required to actually conquer it.
I tried to stick to NES exclusive titles for this list, but since I deem Tetris on NES to be the definitive version, we can make an exception. As with the description for the board game ‘Othello,’ Tetris takes “a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.” The principle is so beautifully simple: arrange a series of falling four-block pieces or “Tetriminos” to form a horizontal line, which is subsequently cleared. The mechanics are simple and virtually anyone who plays will enjoy their progress...until they see a master play. The NES version maxes out at 999,999 and it’s really something to see someone come even remotely close. Organizing rows to form a Tetris (clearing four lines at once) and maintaining calm while the music speeds up and your mess rises to the top on the brink of game over is so entrancing that people have and will spend a lifetime trying to hone and perfect their Tetris skills. My high score is 229,922 in case you were wondering. See if you can beat it.
7 Super Mario Bros. 2
Nintendo designed the follow-up to Super Mario Bros. as an additional challenge to an audience which had already mastered it’s style. The game was identical graphically and in gameplay, except for Luigi having a higher jump and lower ground friction, but that's not what makes the game hard. Super Mario Bros. 2 is notorious for cruel and even spiteful level design. In fact, the game makes a point of preying upon the audience’s mastery and understanding of the first game. I still remember the feeling of betrayal in spawning a mushroom which I assumed to be a new power-up in only to learn it was poisonous. That’s just the beginning of the cruelty. There are warp zones which bring you back to the first world. There are hidden blocks to inhibit Mario from jumping where he’s most likely to jump, sending him to his death. It’s so tough a game, Nintendo of America decided to forgo its release and opted to release a re-skinned version of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic which became Super Mario Bros 2. as we knew it in America. I found the game to be hard but not enough to warrant the degree of notoriety it received.
I’m exhausted even thinking about the NES version of this arcade game. I’d like to meet anyone who can say they've come anywhere close to beating this game... and it would only be through the use of their unnecessarily complicated password system. There are nearly 100 levels to this game and Gauntlet doesn't exactly inspire a zest to the conquer them all. For any masochists planning to try this game, be warned: your health goes down by the minute. Yes, you read that right. Gauntlet was a very successful arcade game and I’m a fan of the entire series. I own this game and I’ve tried - I wanted to get far or at least have some kind of enriching experience, but it’s just too grueling and tedious. It’s not a game which has aged well and when I picture the kind of person who might get far in this game, I think I might actually hate them.
My older brother and I rented Contra and we instantly knew we were two of the coolest dudes on the entire planet. We were going to kill everyone and it would be like our favorite movies. Well, we didn't kill anything. We got destroyed. In my adulthood, I might have managed to get to the third stage before conceding defeat. Contra is a great game which blends different perspectives into a captivating shoot-em-up game. It’s just so brutally hard to beat, one wonders if it was designed to be played using the “Konami Code,” which granted you 30 lives. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can get far in this game, let alone complete it without the use of the code.
4 Mike Tyson’s Punch-out!!
Although it’s cartoony, I’m glad Nintendo made a game featuring the ‘Baddest man on the planet’ despite their strict family-friendly mentality at the time. Mike Tyson’s likeness is done justice in this game: one shot can and will likely end the fight for you - that is, if you make it there. The mechanics of the game are simple enough, in that you have to punch, dodge and counter-punch. As the game progresses, however, opponents become much stronger and require precise timing in order to dodge. To an extent the game becomes an exercise in reflexes well as in rote memorization. Good luck playing this game on a modern set or with any kind of input lag. I only know one friend who has beaten this game, although the 4 a.m. screenshot he sent our group chat is dubious…
I have very little experience with this game since I was turned off by the notion of a Ninja Turtles rip-off as a child. I wasn't a fan of the not “real” ghostbusters, either. In fact, the first Battletoads game I ever played was their arcade swan-song. In my adulthood, I went back to play this classic for two reasons: 1) the music was composed by David Wise. 2) apparently it was supposed to be brutally hard. Well it’s every bit as hard as the Internet says, OK? This game belongs on the list and I probably don't need to explain why. It’s a beautiful game, with fantastic level design, great music and addictive gameplay. This creates a fascinating anomaly wherein millions willingly subject themselves to torturous failure and disappointment while enjoying themselves thoroughly. Forget the turbo tunnel, I’ve never even come close. The closest I want to be to completing this game is watching Bootsy from Cinemassacre beat it.
2 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Maybe in their overzealousness to copy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the creators of Battletoads tried to emulate the difficulty of their video game. I grew up right in the prime of the Ninja Turtles’ incredible popularity and if they stuck their name on something, you'd better believe I needed to own it or I would probably die. So imagine my disappointment when I could barely clear a single level with Raphael, my favorite and quite obviously the greatest turtle. 28 years later, I still haven't managed the courage to try to beat this game. Although it’s a fantastic game, the physics are a bit clunky which contrasts with the fluidity of the cartoons. The Dam level just tears it for me. By the time I make it there, my will is typically extinguished and I give up. Furthermore, I’m garbage with the stupid clay guys, I always screw up my jumps and have to go back through the bottom level again and I’m not economical with any of my items. I don't think I’ll ever make it to the Technodrome, let alone finish it.
1 Ninja Gaiden
Ninja Gaiden is my Moby Dick; my white whale. I haven't completed it but I will some day or die trying. The game is a perfect blend of fast, fluid gameplay, beautiful design and some of the best music you’ll hear complementing an interesting story about a ninja’s revenge. While the gameplay is fluid, certain areas of the game are extremely frustrating. In particular, enemies re-spawn endlessly, making it virtually impossible to jump from one platform to the next. This can make even the most stoic gamer yell and curse an inanimate object with a rage unprecedented. Almost cruelly, however, the game is just so catchy and addictive, you’ll just keep trying and trying and trying. Some friends and I spent an afternoon trying to beat the game, finally defeating whom I thought to be the final boss… only to be destroyed by a second boss immediately. I hear there’s even a third boss after that, but I wouldn't know.