Difficult NES Games

Top Ten – Notoriously Difficult NES Games!

It’s time for another fantastic NES Top Ten from our Andy, aka UKNESBoy! This week he rounds up the top ten notoriously difficult NES games!


There is often debate raging on the internet as to whether video games now are easier than from way back when on consoles such as the NES, and if games today will live long in the memory for their difficulty. What can be agreed is that there are certain games burned into the memories of gamers never to be forgotten, be it for the high difficulty throughout or the general unfairness of going all the way back to the start of the game when you lose a life.

With the absence of walkthroughs and YouTube videos for guidance, gamers have to be relentless and persevere in order to succeed through anger, burning eyes and controllers just asking to be thrown across the room.

Bearing that in mind, here are ten games released on the NES that are notorious for one reason or another for their difficulty.

There are honourable mentions such as Jekyll and Hyde, Silver Surfer and Super Mario: The Lost Levels however those were not available in Europe at the time so therefore not counted on this list.


10. Top Gun



Landing the plane. Need I say more?

Well actually, the game itself was not a walk in the park, what with missiles that came out of nowhere giving you not much time to react and swerve away from. What seems to stick in the mind of those who played the game is the infamous landing-the-plane sequence with his confusing instructions on screen. Both difficult and frustrating in equal measures, a lot of time is spent trying to conquer the first level alone – a theme throughout this article I’m sure…

Some people will read this and think that the plane-landing part is easy, or that it can be done 99 times out of 100, and if you are one of those people then nothing but the greatest of respect to you. Although you can go to level 2 if you don’t land the plane, it still is difficult to accomplish but doesn’t prohibit moving on hence its lower position.


9. Punch Out



It’s not often that a sports game would go on a list of difficult games, but Punch Out! is no ordinary sports game. The game is visually appealing with responsive controls – all that is required is to punch and swerve when needed to, adding a dash of countering. The game however though lulls you into a false sense of security – starting off easy enough but the deeper into the game you go, the quicker your reflexes need to be.

Pinpoint precision is the key and also a good sense of memory to remember the sequence of punches your opponent lands. Then there is the final challenger, be it Mike Tyson or Mr Dream – oh boy will you need to be razor sharp at that point. The one saving grace is the password system that allows you to jump straight into the final fight so at least there is no grinding involved getting back to the final challenger but even with this, a game remembered as being on the of the most difficult sports-based games on the system.


8. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles



In the same way that Top Gun is remembered for its difficulty through one part of the level, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or TMNT to save cramp in the fingers) is remembered for the Dam level. An underwater level (bad enough in itself) but add to the mix electric seaweed, mines dotted around and bombs that need to be defused, the level caused many an anger and stopped a lot of gamers in their tracks.

Another aspect of the game was that subjectively Donatello was really the only good turtle in the game with his long Bo – every other turtle’s weapon was short and couldn’t quite cut the mustard compared to Don’s big stick. As a result, if Donatello died, it wouldn’t be long afterwards that the others perished one by one. The jumping can be awkward in the side-scrolling platform sections with enemies all around, on the ground in the sky just everywhere.

The game required a great deal of time, patience and experience just to make it to the final stages and to the Technodrome where hell awaited the player. If you got to that point, you truly deserved a medal of some kind.


7. Zelda 2



Zelda 2 is often seen as the anomaly of the franchise as it didn’t follow on from the style of the first Legend of Zelda game which set the standard for Zelda games to come even to this day. It did have some aspects of the first game, with it’s dungeon solving and (partial) overhead views in a world to explore but also introduced RPG-type elements to proceedings and spells as well as mainly side-scrolling aspects. So what is difficult about that I hear you say? Two words – Death Mountain.

Oh boy, if you thought the going was tough leading up to this point then Death Mountain chews you up, spits you back out and kicks you halfway from here to Hyrule. The issue is that this happens early in the game before you have properly levelled up and got stronger with more health – to paraphrase from a certain angry video game nerd it is like a child taking on a fight against Hulk Hogan. There are powerful enemies waiting to kick seven bells out of you and the only way to proceed is to grind and grind and grind away. If the distinct anti-Zelda style doesn’t put you off Zelda 2 then Death Mountain certainly will so proceed with caution.


6. Fester’s Quest



The premise of the game seemed so good – based off the successful Addams Family it had you pitted as Uncle Fester having to save the world from aliens. Sounds straightforward enough but the plot is the only redeeming feature of the game.

Alongside terrible gameplay, sub-par graphics and bad repetitive music, was the difficulty of the game. You start the game with a basic gun and along the way can get different guns (some are completely useless and inadvertently miss the target) and alongside that get “power-ups” or “power-downs” which either enhance or reduce how good your weapon is. It’s not the worst feature of the game but adds to the frustration.

There’s Fester moving slowly, low amount of health, pseudo-3d graphics in the corridors which is confusing and nauseating, and the sense of wandering around aimlessly not knowing where to go – this is no Breath of the Wild/GTA open world exploration. Oh, and top that all off with when you die you go right back to the start – how annoying. The difficulty lies within how bad the game is and not explicitly the enemies. If you managed to beat this game you get eternal respect and a free ice cream – you earned it!


5. Mega Man



If ever you need to know one thing about Mega Man it’s that it’s *balls hard*. It is that important that asterisks have to proceed and follow that statement.

Mega Man is not a game for casual gamers, a lot of time you will be shouting, swearing and wanting to throw your controller out the window. The problem is that unless you memorise the levels and the enemies within it, you don’t know what is coming up – you jump across a gap and then an enemy flies out of nowhere to knock you into the hole in the ground instantly killing you. Or, an enemy is on the ground so you cannot kill it by standing next to it and shooting, you have to jump on the platform below, jump up and shoot which you find doesn’t kill the enemy but paralyses them for a moment.

What doesn’t help is that Mega Man’s moving physics resemble Luigi from Super Mario or if you run on ice in games – you start running but when you stop you carry on a little bit further. This doesn’t help when you have enemies that spring up from the ground and wasn’t expecting it, or on the ice level which you carry on moving even when you stop moving the d-pad, right into an oncoming enemy. Your reflexes and reactions have got to be sharp with this game; it isn’t one you can play lightly and without giving your full concentration.


4. Battletoads



Battletoads is one of those rare games, a beautifully crafted game with addictive elements to it, but ruined by high difficulty throughout the game.

Graphics great, music great, gameplay gr….getting there. However, even the most regular of enemies can be difficult without proper focus and attention. The first two levels seem okay however the difficulty ramps up and spikes with the infamous “Turbo Tunnel” level. It’s rare you find people who have completed the turbo tunnel stage, and even then if someone mentions they have done so it is best they have some kind of evidence to back this up.

After the turbo tunnels section there’s a surfing-type level which is equally as difficult and as frustrating, with rumours abound the game gets even harder! Not a game for the faint of heart, and both equally loved and hated but if you manage to do the turbo tunnels stage alone you are worthy of being The Wizard.


3. Contra



Side-scrolling run and gun gaming at its finest, Contra takes itw place high up in the list of notoriously difficult NES games due to the one-hit deaths the player can encounter through seemingly random enemies and bullets attacking. Even when memorising the levels and noting attack patterns, one simple mistake or lucky stray bullet makes you flay backwards and lose one of your precious lives.

Most gamers would be furiously punching in the Konami Code before playing to get 30 lives and even with these copious amounts of lives it is still a tall-order to complete the game. The music and controls are great in the game, and similar to Battletoads is a game well-received and regarded even with the high difficulty level.

It can be argued that on the NES it is one of the best co-op games and certainly there is a fun time to be had but only if you write off the chances of actually completing the game in one sitting!


2. Ninja Gaiden



Now we’re getting into the games of insane difficulty. Ninja Gaiden has an issue with enemies – namely the respawning of them. When an enemy dies, it seems as though it quickly respawns and gives the player no time to react. With a game that features wall jumps then granted, some will be more difficult than others. However, some of the jumps you’re required to do are difficult beyond words. Even more where there are platforms that are smaller than the character you’re controlling and there’s enemies attacking you. All-round madness.

Most deaths seemingly occur from pitfalls, from getting knocked down mid jump, or from a tiny platform. On top of all that, then you have the boss to end all bosses at stage 6-4. The boss has three forms which need to be completed in one sitting with one life. You don’t get your health replenished before you fight him either, which is handy. If you die at all when fighting the end boss, you get sent back to stage 6-1. In essence, if at any point of this you die then you have to replay it over and over and over again until you either a. get lucky, or b. have patterns memorised and burned into your retinas.

All one can wish is the very best of luck with the game.


1. Ghosts and Goblins



It was difficult to decide between Ninja Gaiden or Ghosts and Goblins to take the coveted top spot in our list of notoriously difficult NES games, but Ghosts and Goblins takes it by a gnat’s wing.

The game throughout is insanely difficult – not due to bad controls or poor level design, just balls-to-the-wall difficult. Two hits and you’re dead, which always adds an unwelcome level of spiciness to proceedings.

The enemies which proceed to kill you may rise up from the ground or may swoop in on you with random attack patterns. It could be from projectiles and it really is a free-for-all where your reactions need to be even quicker than for Ninja Gaiden.

Should you jump and realise you’re about to land on an enemy/projectile, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Inevitably, you’ll have to take damage and/or die. On the plus side, you do get unlimited continues and keep the weapon you had when you perished (as long as it isn’t the flame weapon, you may as well start a new game if you do).

Congratulations when you defeat the final boss because when you do… (spoiler alert) you replay the entire game. On a higher difficulty of course. All to get to the genuine final battle.

Talk about making you earn that ending.




Think he’s got that list right? Or are there some more *balls hard* NES titles you feel should be in this top ten? If so, you know what to do, hit us up on Twitter or Facebook.


1 thought on “Top Ten – Notoriously Difficult NES Games!”

  1. Virtua Neptune

    I could never get past Vodka Drunk– I mean Soda Popinski in Punchout lol. I’ve tried at a lot of those games. I’ve beaten Mega Man 2 but out of your whole list, I played almost all of them, but I beat none of them. They were fun, though!

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