Had a fun exchange on Twitter recently.
This is actually a tricky question, though; or, at least, I felt that way as I browsed the NES library.
Most NES games just… aren’t easy, whether that’s because the gameplay is friggin’ hard or the whole design is confusing and non-user-friendly. And to answer the question, I don’t want to merely name some games that are impossible to ‘lose’ (Mario is Missing) or made for small children (the Sesame Street titles are certainly not hard, per se). I think I can assume that the intent behind this question is to also have fun playing these titles, right?
So I thought along the lines of accessibility, and difficulty curves, and fairness, and what are some games that allow the player to ease into an enjoyable experience while neither babying nor torturing them?
I am convinced there is plenty of room for healthy discussion on this idea, this topic, so I only hope to add a constructive voice. You can slice this quandary many different ways. Here are my eight choices for easy NES games to recommend, in no particular order, with a brief note of explanation for each.
Rampage — Of all the 8-bit arcade ports, this is definitely among the friendliest. You can literally play without any concern for your character’s health and still end up destroying a handful of entire downtown skylines before the pesky military finally brings you down. Honestly, it’s just fun, too, to cause so much destruction and discover some of the humorous environmental interactions. This may not be a game you ever reach the end of, but it’s not painful to pick up and play. Who knew mass destruction could be so zen?
Guerrilla War — Oh yes. This is an action-packed cartridge that hits the ground running with both barrels blazing, a constant barrage of top-down military shooter action. But most importantly, it has one nice feature that defines it as a gunny slog: Infinite continues. That’s right: You may die many times, but there’s truly no excuse not to beat this game if you truly want to.
Rollerball — A pinball game? Well, sure! Pinball games are fun. However, if you just pick up any ol’ NES pinball title, you might come across something like High Speed or the Pinball Quest, which… as much as one can defend their merits, they are not as easy as Rollerball. Rollerball’s physics are very smooth, with a gently rolling metal sphere that doesn’t clunk through the floor as hard as the original Pinball game. It is also quite small for a pinball protagonist, offering the player more time to react and decide on potential tactics. I really like Pin*Bot, too, but Rollerball is the more welcome-you-with-open-arms choice here.
Capcom’s Disney library — Okay, yeah, a game like DuckTales definitely poses its own degree of difficulty. Overall, though, Capcom’s platformers are made so well that they are imminently enjoyable even if you have to endure a few frustrating lessons in the meantime. Some people are turned off by The Little Mermaid’s mechanics, but it has a slower pacing than most platformers, and can be a lot of fun in the right mood. I have heard Darkwing Duck referred to as “Mega Man for babies” which is clever, and not entirely inaccurate, but also doesn’t do justice to a great NES game in its own right (full disclosure, Duck can use his cape as a shield, it’s pretty sweet — and can make survival a little more easygoing!). I would recommend Rescue Rangers. Will you get to the ending on your first attempt? Nah. But boy is it fun, even when you pick it up for the first time.
Pac-Mania — Pac-Man is a legendary, simple game. So what happens when you give Pac-Man the ability to jump over those pesky ghosts when he needs to? … it may not be as iconic (and some may be turned off by the isometric presentation), but it is fun. Whereas the original relied on rapid mental puzzle-solving in regards to ghost positions, Pac-Mania allows you to relax a little more, even if this arguably (ignore the arguers) ‘lessens’ the whole product somehow. Trust me, it is still a neat little challenge.
Marble Madness — Ah, I can hear the disagreements now. “Seriously, Eric? I’ve never beaten Marble Madness, and I’ve tried dozens of times! It’s a hard game!” Well, okay, sure, but it is exquisitely simple. It is downright elegant in its controls. When you push Up on the d-pad, the marble goes up. Push down, guess what? Marble rolls downward. Tap or hold ‘A’ for increased roll speed, and — that’s it! No instruction booklet, no tutorial, no hand-holding of any kind required. Think about it: There are very few games in history that are as immediately evident as Marble Madness. The moment the game begins, you understand 100% of what it entails. Is it easy to master? No. But is it remarkably accessible? Yeah. … I mean, I think so anyway, but I could be wrong, whatever.
Bomberman II — I really like the Bomberman series. Many people will point to the 16-bit classics in the franchise, or even some N64 outings, but I do believe the NES carts are worth looking into as well. The Bomberman formula is suited for a slower, non-stressful form of puzzle/action-hybrid gameplay. In addition, you have password support, and powerful items like the Detonator are given to the player pretty early on. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a well-made thing.
Kirby’s Adventure — Yes, there are levels where you can just fly above all the enemies. There is also battery-save support. You can backtrack to prior levels if you need to grab a desired power-up or feast on extra lives. Even between the levels and bosses, there are quirky little minigames and Museum rooms. The whole presentation is a thundering triumph of light and sound for the NES console. Kirby is a deceptively powerful dude, and taking control of him is a blast.
Those are my picks. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below!