Get depressed: The NES came out almost 30 years ago. Or over 30 years ago, if you are Japan. That’s old. Thirty years before the NES came out, Eisenhower was president and rock’n’roll was an infant and videogames didn’t even exist. If, like me, you owned an NES when you were a kid, we should probably stop talking about videogames on the internet and go spend some quality time with our grandkids right now. Because life is short and we are ancient.
When I was still young and an NES man I would occasionally wonder why some of my favorite games didn’t exist for my gaming system of choice. From arcade classics I’d pop quarters into at the bowling alley, to Atari or Sega games that never got an NES version, there were a bunch of games I wanted to play in the comfort of my own home but could not. It’s been almost 30 years but there are still new games coming out today that I wish I could’ve played with my friends on the NES back in the 80s. Here are ten games that would’ve been welcome additions to my NES collection, if only Nintendo ports existed at the time, and if only it was possible to reverse engineer games from today into the Game Paks of yesteryear.
Konami’s classic arcade fighting game appeared in drastically different form on the Famicom in Japan, but it was never released in the States for the NES. Although simplistic compared to fighting games that followed, Yie Ar Kung Fu was an arcade favorite in the mid 80s, and today its lack of combos and basic two-button system give it an austere appeal that transcends mere nostalgia.
There were a lot of home versions of Robotron in the 80s, but none of them really worked because dual joystick controllers didn’t really exist. An NES version would’ve met the same fate, but at the age of ten I would’ve gladly accepted even a subpar version of Robotron in my home. It would take over a decade for Sony to introduce the DualShock controller, which finally made twin-stick shooters viable for home consumption.
Let’s talk about the Sega problem. The Sega Master System competed directly with the NES, meaning most of Sega’s arcade hits weren’t officially released for Nintendo’s system. There were weird unlicensed ports and foreign versions of some of Sega’s biggest games, but if you wanted to play them without a lot of hassle you pretty much needed a Sega Master System. But nobody needed a Sega Master System, though, unless they wanted to alienate their friends. Zaxxon, one of Sega’s earlier arcade smashes, had home versions on a variety of platforms, but few of those systems had the power to truly recreate the isometric experience of the original. The NES could’ve done that. It would’ve been fun, and totally isometric. But Sega had their Master System, so the world was denied the NES version of Zaxxon it deserved.
Reread what I just wrote about Zaxxon. I only know of the anime-based Zillion because it was a fixture in the Sega Master System demo station at the Lechmere in Sarasota, Florida. It felt like Sega’s version of Metroid, a creepy sci-fi story where you had to find new power-ups to unlock old doors and continually expand the game’s exploratory turf. I don’t remember much about Zillion, but I remember how much I wanted to take it home and play it in full, along with the free cassingles Lechmere gave away during its opening month.
Super Mario Kart couldn’t have existed on the NES, at least not in the way it did on the SNES in 1992. That first-person, split-screen, Mode 7 biz was technologically beyond what an NES could churn out. Still, Nintendo was still making NES games in 1992, and the basic idea of a racing game starring Mario characters would’ve cheated tons of kids out of their allowance money at least as far back as 1988. Just take R.C. Pro-Am and slap some Mario heads on it. Boom, instant best-seller. Kids don’t ask for much. Instead we had to wait until Nintendo could do the idea right with a pricy new piece of hardware.
On the next page, we look at five modern day games that would’ve been great on the Nintendo in the late 80s.
Do you ever play a new game and wish that it had been a part of your life since childhood? Is that weird? Man, I hope not. Here are five games of relatively recent vintage that would’ve been really nice on the NES.
Klaus-Jürgen Wrede’s board game didn’t exist until 2000. In retrospect, it would’ve worked well on the NES. I don’t know if I would’ve been that excited to play something so slow-moving and cerebral when I was ten, but maybe when I was twelve. Those are two pivotal years right there. After the sugar high dies and Contra loses its buzz Carcasonne would’ve been a great two-player come-down game. I envy the kids of today. I envy them because they can play Carcasonne, and not because of the internet or DVRs or the continual advancement of science and medicine. Because of Carcasonne.
Ubisoft’s brand new RPG couldn’t possibly run on the NES’s outdated technology, of course. The game’s most basic elements, from its two-dimensional perspective and turn-based battles, to its text-only cut-scenes and storybook art style, could have existed in a game in the late 80s, though. If Child of Light had been on the NES it would’ve been the rare game at the time with a female lead, and would probably be on its twelfth sequel or remake by now. It would’ve been a Zelda competitor where Zelda gets to be the hero.
Here’s another new game, but one that visually could’ve run on the Atari 2600. Hokra is the amazing four-person version of keepaway that’s a part of the crucial Sportsfriends bundle, meaning you would’ve needed the Satellite to play Hokra on the NES. It’s a four-person game: That is its entire point. The Satellite was that adapter that let you plug five controllers into the NES that you got for your birthday one year and then never used ever. Anyway, Hokra in 1987 with my Cub Scout troop would’ve been the best.
Nidhogg is another new-ish multiplayer only game, one where you fight for your turf like it’s football while trying to stab your fencing rival with a rapier, and like Hokra it also has intentionally rudimentary art design. The core game probably could’ve been plopped down on a Game Pak with minimal fuss, and it would’ve been another great way to kill a Saturday afternoon with a friend between biking down to the Quik Stop for Slim Jims and Cokes and watching the NWA on TBS.
As an adult I don’t have the time or patience or ability to focus to become truly great at a game like Canabalt. Somehow I had all those things in spades as a kid. (I was also a lot smarter then, and better looking, and a fine little dancer.) Today on my phone I usually mistime my jumps after a few minutes and do a header into the side of a building, or wipe out on an inconveniently placed crate. There are probably practical limitations to the NES hardware that would necessitate a pivotal change in Canabalt’s central thesis (I don’t know if the NES could constantly loop backdrops like a Hanna Barbera cartoon) but Canabalt would still be a splendid time even if its endlessness was split into distinct levels with increasingly complicated obstacles. Plus I could’ve still used my NES Max controller after the B button broke.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald. He is probably older than you.