Growing up playing the NES, I would’ve never guessed that in the future there would be value attached to these games let alone the cardboard boxes that they came in. It’s the same with any collectible I suppose, no one knows it’s valuable until years later when nostalgia becomes coupled with demand. As I got deeper and deeper into collecting the NES library, the rare games made themselves known: Nintendo World Championships, Bubble Bath Babes, Myriad 6 in 1; y’know the kinds of games CNN is doing reports on these days (and if you don’t know by now, those cartridges go for shit tons of money.) Well those are certainly very rare but this site is only dedicated to official games released in North America, so not only have I not collected the aforementioned titles but at this point I have zero interest in doing so. Maybe one day.
Why are the games in this Top 10 list so rare and expensive? Most of them are rare because they were released after 1991, the year the Super Nintendo was released, and so a lot of these games went completely unnoticed at the time. Why are they so expensive? Because in recent years collecting these games has become increasingly popular as the kids that grew up on them are now in their nostalgic 30’s with disposable income to burn. According to Nintendo Age, in 2007 you could grab a copy of Zombie Nation for $10 whereas in 2017 that same game goes for over $300. That’s wild!
Anyway, when I started getting heavy into collecting NES games, the list below were all titles I never thought I’d own. After a lot of Ebay diligence, I’ve finally acquired them all and the first thing I did was put them in hard plastic cases to protect my stupid, stupid, obsessions. After that, straight onto the shelf with the other artifacts. Seriously, what the fuck is the point of that?
These are games not the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re meant to be played, not handled with gloves and shelved away from natural sunlight. So I decided to give each of them a whirl in the old top-loader and see what all the fuss is about. Let’s…begin.
1. LITTLE SAMSON
North American Release Date: November 1992
Little Samson has become pretty well known in the retro-collecting community because unlike most rare games it’s pretty damn good. It ranked #48 on the aggregate list, even going as far as #9 on Satoshi Matrix’s Top 100 list (if you want to read in detail about LS check out those links.)
There’s absolutely more copies of Little Samson then there are copies of Flintsones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, but the overwhelming acclaim for Samson made it more sought after and currently I see it selling for just a bit more overall. Is it worth the $1000 you’re going to spend on it? Of course not, go invest in a mutual fund or something. Is it one of the best games made on the NES? Naw, not really.
Even discarding my own nostalgia and attempting to remain objective, I can easily think of 50 games better than Little Samson. I’m not trying to dog it entirely, it’s a fun game with good controls, great graphics, and catchy music. It’s just that those qualifiers describe many superior classic NES games and you don’t have to shell out a month’s rent to get Super Mario 3 or Kirby’s Adventure. There are a lot of great hidden gems for the NES worth checking out. In fact I made a list!
2. FLINTSTONES: SURPRISE AT DINOSAUR PEAK
North American Release Date: August 1994
Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak was allegedly a Blockbuster exclusive and was never actually sold in stores. Before Little Samson got a bunch of attention as the ultimate hidden gem game, Dinosaur Peak was the yearly reigning champion of rare NES games because there just weren’t that many copies available to the public. Every time I pass a boarded up Blockbuster Video I’m not going to lie I contemplate breaking in to search for this game. Every time.
In this platformer you can play as either Fred or Barney, each of whom have their own specific set of moves that you’ll need to use in various points throughout the game: Fred can pull himself up ledges and Barney can hang on wires. The controls for both moves are very awkward and un-intuitive leading to a lot of annoying accidental deaths. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll jump to grab a wire or cliff and you know in your heart of hearts that you pressed the buttons right, but your dumb dumb caveman ass cannot pull himself up.
And honestly that pretty well defines the game as a whole. Between the clunky, stiff character movements and the boring level designs your only hope is to accidentally have fun. Personally I like pressing down which doesn’t make you duck like in a normal game but instead makes your head disappear, or jumping on alligator mouths which makes you fly upwards like a trampoline. It’s a silly enjoyment, and I guess alternately I could just not play this game and go ride a bike or something. Oh well, duty calls!
The plot is pretty simple, Fred and Barney are terrible, shitty parents who just realized they haven’t seen their kids in awhile. Whoops! Oh, there goes Pebbles and Bam Bam, playing unsupervised next to that active volcano. It says “The two children are excited by the lava”. Word? Yeah they’re definitely gonna get heavy into Slipnot and start burning down black churches in their teen years. I’m guessing Wilma and Betty are at the casino where an armadillo is a roulette table or something.
Wait this music sounds familiar…isn’t that part of the melody for Rainbow Islands?!? Hmmm these diamonds you get at the end of the level look just like the diamonds from RI as well. I know they’re both made by the same company, but this isn’t a sly homage it’s just lazy!
After the first stage you go to an overhead map a la Super Mario 3, but more linear. You can do a sidegame which is Fred and Barney 1-1 vs some guy (I don’t know his name, it just says “ENEMY” on the screen) in what has to be the worst version of video game hockey ever. You take turns trying to hit a turtle shell into a dinosaurs mouth and your only attack is this awkward mid-air belly bump. It’s incredibly frustrating, and while the Enemy promises you a prize for beating him, I beat him and I cannot for the life of me figure out what the reward was.
You can collect letters that spell out Yabba-Dabba-Doo, but I have no idea what the end result of this is either. I mean damn, does it really have to be that long? I thought EXTEND in Bubble Bobble was tedious! After a yabba or two, I decided to call it quits on this ho-hum platformer and move on to another.
3. PANIC RESTAURANT
North American Release Date: October 1992
Dayum! The plot of Panic Restaurant is that this Snidely Whiplash looking guy named Ohdove (surely a common name where he’s from) drops a bunch of food on your head and takes your restaurant. Well shit, I have a restaurant and if I knew opening one was that easy I would’ve been dropping turnips all over this town! Just racking up Chipotles left and right! After he jacks your ‘straunt, you navigate a bunch of kitchen levels named after the 6 courses of a meal beginning with “appetizer”.
The aesthetic and cohesive look of the game is actually really nice: all the levels look like restaurants and all the power-ups and enemies are kitchen related as well. You’d be surprised how out of place a lot of game sprites and backgrounds are with the theme of their game. For instance, Bonk’s Adventure takes place in the Stone Age except with dinosaurs for extreme scientific inaccuracy (or extreme Christian Fundamentalist accuracy), but at one point there’s a fucking robot hanging out. A robot? Where the hell did that guy come from?!?
Back to Panic, the enemies are all anthropomorphized food items including walking turkeys, a hopping baguette, and a surprisingly sexy carrot (hubba hubba!) If you beat them you get coins which you can use to play the slot machine game I see at casinos but I never understand. Y’know, it’s not the standard “BAR” three picture one, but the machine that uses “lines” along with the spinning pictures. I still don’t get why it takes my money, but maybe that’s the point.
How do you beat enemies? With a frying pan of course! You can also use a giant spoon, but when you get hit you lose it and I always seem to get hit immediately after getting it. I’m gonna assume it’s world crushing in it’s destructive power and thus I’m unworthy of wielding it for prolonged lengths of time. There’s also a giant fork that you pogo around on like Scrooge McDuck and plates you throw like the discus and both of those are pretty badass.
I really like the bonus game “Catch the Fish” where you use a spring loaded glove hand to catch jumping fish out of the water. There’s another called “Take the Egg” which is similar but instead of grabbing fish you catch eggs while avoiding bombs. They’re both surprisingly entertaining and a great example of how to integrate variety into 8-bit games.
Overall Panic Restaurant is not terribly difficult, especially if you’ve played games like Mega Man or Duck Tales. But if you’ve played those games and understand what makes them awesome, you’ll likely find Panic Restaurant a little lackluster. As an overall package it looks and sounds great and there’s a bit of gameplay diversity to keep it interesting, but not enough to make it memorable. I guess that coupled with the late release date is why it’s such a pricy title these days.
4. BONK’S ADVENTURE
North American Release Date: December 1993
Developer: Red Company / Atlus
Publisher: Hudson Soft
I first played Bonk’s Adventure on a Turbo Graphx16 twenty five years ago now at a mall, and I don’t think I’ve played it since. I don’t own a TG16 now, but from what I can see from videos online, the NES game is actually pretty damn good considering the limitations of the system. Clearly by 1993 this port was a little late to the party and as such probably went completely ignored. That’s the only comparison I’ll make to the more famous TG16 game and I’ll instead just give this version a whirl and see what’s up.
The sprites and overall design are pretty good if a little boring. Each board is pretty quick and each stage is made up of 4 levels which remind me a lot of those in Adventure Island, especially II and III. Everything is bright and well defined and all the animals, especially the giant dinos, look hilariously goofy. They’re so early 90’s edgy cool; wearing human items like hats and goggles. Like, I haven’t seem any of them skateboarding yet, but this motherfucker over here is wearing spring shoes. Damn. Then there’s these weird red anthropomorphic vagina monsters that you find conspicuously sleeping everywhere and when you head butt them they give you carrots. I’m not really sure what else to say about that.
For sure the game looks amazing for an NES game, but the gameplay itself is pretty dull. There are three bonus games that pop up in every level and while they help to break things up a little, they’re all pretty tedious. Also, the smiley face orbs you get for completing them have no value that I can figure out. Eventually I just skipped them altogether which is a bad sign if your bonus games are so wack that they are no longer a “bonus” to play.
Bonk has two attacks, headbanging and a jump attack where he dives headfirst back to the ground. Both are a little awkward to use and there’s a good chance you’ll be missing your target most of the time. He can also climb on walls which looks and sounds like he’s having wild sex with a box of sandpaper. I don’t have a GIF currently at the ready, but trust me my description is accurate. If you eat some meat, Bonk goes nuts like Daffy Duck just ate a jalapeno and becomes both cartoonishly angry and totally invincible. Once this wears off, he’s still kind of angry but it looks more like he got woken up unexpectedly; his eyes all half open and his mouth slightly agape. Like if he had parents he’d be all “yeah Mom I know we’re out of Frosted Corn Flakes, but YOU said you were going to the store so I thought they’d be here when I woke up. I guess not, YEESH!” In disgruntled teen mode, for another 15 seconds or so Bonk’s dive bomb attack makes the ground shake which is actually pretty helpful. I’ve never really seen a mechanic like that in an 8-bit game. It’d be like if Mario got the star and when it wore off he could shoot lasers for another few seconds before returning to normal.
One cool thing that stands out about Bonk’s Adventure is that the level-1 castle is found by jumping on a giant beanie-wearing dinosaur and then climbing into his mouth. After that, you have to navigate his guts in a strange swimming level that looks like a lot like Monster Party. Then you jump in this creepy skeleton elevator down to the dinosaur’s hell anus to fight a slightly less giant dinosaur who shoots snot bubbles at you. OKAY, moving on.
5. BUBBLE BOBBLE 2
North American Release Date: August 1993
Genre: Arcade / Platformer
There are actually four Bubble Bobble games on the NES: Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands: The Story of Bubble Bobble 2, Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III, and Bubble Bobble 2. Confusing huh? Well it’s worth the confusion, because who really gives a shit, they’re all great!
Bubble Bobble is the jam, my absolute favorite 2-player game of all time. Rainbow Islands is also really rad, a bizarre psychedelic game that’s unlike any other on the NES. I’ve never played Parasol Stars as it was only released in Europe, but I think it’s more like Rainbow Islands than Bubble Bobble. And then there’s Bubble Bobble 2.
First of all, it’s one player which to me immediately makes me not want to play it. Sure Rainbow Islands was 1-player, but that wasn’t the true sequel of the greatest 2-player game of all time damn it! Bubble Bobble is to me the most fun game to play with a friend and making a sequel that isn’t 2-player just seems pointless. That’s not to say it’s a total wash, but it immediately starts at a deficit. Also there’s no infinite continues, so unlike the original you’ll have to start over from the beginning fairly frequently and that’s extremely tedious for an Arcade style game with 100 levels.
But honestly, if they’d corrected those terrible flaws this game would actually be better than it’s predecessor. The graphics are much improved with better animated sprites, and the levels have much more definition and color. There are moving platforms on the screen that add a little more challenge to the gameplay and there are new power ups like the tornado that make the action more fun.
There’s also a ton more variation in the bad guys. There are now enemies that take multiple hits rather than one bubble shot catching and popping them. Every 10 levels there are boss fights which change up in design and format each time. There’s also bonus games, but I only made it to the volleyball one and I got trounced.
Music is one theme on repeat at first, but then it changes every 20 levels which is a huge improvement. I love the original Bubble Bobble theme, but in a truly Stockholm Syndrome kind of way.
Controls are the same as the original except now you can charge up by holding down B. You can either shoot 3 bubbles at once or float in the air awkwardly which is really amusing. Your dragon buddy looks super bloated like he ate too much Thanksgiving pie, but his eyes look dilated like he just dropped a bunch of peyote. It’s great because now you don’t have to attempt the awkward “works half the time bubble jump” from the original just to get out of a pit.
Why’s it so rare? I mean the quality is totally there, but they should’ve just upped the graphics, added a second player, and thrown this on the Super Nintendo. Sadly that system got no bubble spurting dragon cuteness and as such all the children of the world cried and cried. FOREVER.
6. POWER BLADE 2
North American Release Date: September 1992
I owned the original Power Blade as a kid and was way into it. I didn’t know anyone else who owned it, so I was pretty surprised to find out that they made a sequel. If Duck Tales 2 couldn’t sell a bunch of units this late, then you better believe Power Blade 2 sure as hell wasn’t going to. Now those units are flying on Ebay!
Taito (along with Capcom) published lots of the games on this list but the developer, Natsume, is responsible for a gaggle of the better overlooked NES games like Shatterhand, S.C.A.T, Abadox, Shadow of the Ninja, and of course Power Blade 1 and 2. All those games are pretty damn good rip-offs of other more famous games, kind of like the Go-Bots or Digimons of their time; good but not great.
Power Blade 2 takes the Mega Man inspired gameplay of the first game and adds a few extra features. You can still upgrade your boomerang so that you can throw it further or hurl more at a time, but instead of eventually getting the “Power Blade” armor suit, now you can fight optional mini bosses to get various abilities like swimming, flight, climbing on walls, etc. While these are cool in theory, they’re honestly not very useful in any of the stages and thus kind of useless.
Other than the extra suits, I’d say that PB2 is overall a big downgrade over the original which is disappointing considering the other sequels on this list really do try to up the ante. While the controls are largely the same, the graphics just aren’t as good, the music isn’t anywhere near as catchy, and there’s fewer stages to choose from. Also, while the original game has branching paths in each level that force you to explore the whole stage, PB2 is now completely linear. Not just that, but each stage feels exactly the same. You’re largely zig-zagging back and forth as you ascend or descend a stage, and then sometimes the screen moves for you. Oftentimes it’s moving so fucking slow that you’ll accidentally kill yourself because you’re so bored of waiting for the next platform to appear that you jump too early.
Also, the enemies are setup to be completely unavoidable without full boomerang upgrade so you end up just running into everything in sight. On top of that, most of the levels are either sliding (where you can’t use your weapon) or you’re on a slow moving tiny platform where enemies shoot inescapable projectiles at you. It’s extremely obnoxious. You know how games like Life Force get really hard when you die and lose all your cool lasers and shit? Well playing Power Blade 2 is like that, but with slow platforming thrown in for extra frustration!
7. ZOMBIE NATION
North American Release Date: January 1991
Developer: KAZe / Live Planning
I cover this game pretty extensively in the Hidden Gems section of the site. So check that out for more details on gameplay and whatnot.
In regard to it’s collectibility, it’s a really weird, Japanesey, disturbing, and incredibly difficult shooter so I’m actually surprised it was released in the US at all. Those games are almost always Japan-only where their populace can seemingly handle the freaky challenge of a game like Zombie Nation. Also, I’ve never heard of either the developers or the publishers and outside of this game I don’t think they made any other US releases. And no, I didn’t forget to capitalize the “e” in “KAZe”. That’s just the stupid, stupid name for their company. With the combination of all those factors, I have to assume it didn’t get much promotion in the US and thus became one of the rarer titles.
8. SNOW BROTHERS
North American Release Date: November 1991
Snow Brothers, also known as Snow Bros. for maximum street cred, is an arcade style platform game similar in style and gameplay to the great Bubble Bobble. And it’s pretty much a straight clone of Bubble Bobble. But like other ripoffish games like Tiny Toon Adventures [Super Mario 3], Abadox [Life Force], or Whomp Em’ [Mega Man] – none of which made the top 100 – it’s a damn good ripoff that adds just enough to the formula to make it it’s own unique game.
You play as the protagonists, Nick and Tom, who look more like the illegitimate sons of the Stay Puft marshmallow man than snowmen. You shoot snow at the enemies and if you hit them enough times they turn into snowballs which you can roll downward. If the snowball hits other enemies, you get candy or potions or points or something, none of which seems to be too useful. The enemies are actually pretty cool looking though. They’re very flat and goofy, usually with vaguely ethnic big noses or a giant mouth. They look like they’d be the enemies of the Smurfs, but like kind of racist caricatures masquerading as imaginary imps or whatever.
The stages look like 80’s Miami psychedelic backgrounds for pinball machines, which is definitely in-line with the rolling action of pushing the snowballs. Since the max damage you can do is to hit everyone with one snowball, my general strategy is to jump to the top of the stage and work my way down. You could also just attack each enemy from bottom to top, but it takes longer and if you wait too long a pumpkin ghost chases you a la those terrifying ghost whales from Bubble Bobble. Every 10 levels there’s a boss fight (just like Rainbow Islands or BB2), and they’re pretty clever interruptions to the scrolling level formula.
If you can’t tell by my descriptions of the game by now, it’s almost exactly like an amalgam of all the Bubble Bobble games. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as the game is actually pretty fun, but since Bubble Bobble was a port of a much more popular arcade game it makes since that the port of an inferior arcade like Snow Brothers was largely overlooked.
I’ve been wanting to do a Best 2-Player Coop section since the beginning of this site, but I just can never get my friends together to play these games when we’re not just a little bit drunk and thus under-motivated. Soon though, and when I do I’m sure Snow Brothers will make the cut. Maybe.
9. CHIP AND DALE: RESCUE RANGERS 2
North American Release Date: January 1994
Geez, my copy of this is fucccccckked up! Jesus. Whatever little kid or blockbuster employee spilled soda on this surely had no idea that years later it’d be a collectors item. Oddly enough this game came out in the heyday of 90s collectibles where every toy, comic, and baseball card was foil wrapped and suggested to be worth tons to exploit the greediness of young children. All of us bought tons of stupid shit at the time because we thought it would have some crazy value. Later the whole Beanie Baby / Pog period of even more intentional collectible exploitation kinda killed the whole thing, which really makes you appreciate that either of those fads ever existed.
1994 is the the last year they released games for the NES – officially at least – so I can’t imagine that Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers 2 was anything more than a video store rental at best.
If you’ve played the first Chip and Dale game, you won’t find any surprises in the sequel. You jump around while avoiding enemies and picking up an excessive amount of boxes. I mean seriously, excessive. Then you fight a boss at the end of each level. The graphics and sound/music are pretty good, it’s just that this game is kind of whatever. While Duck Tales 2 feels like you’re playing the lost levels of the first game, Chip and Dale 2 just feels like an uninspired rehash of the first game which was itself no competition for the aforementioned Duck Tales.
10. DUCK TALES 2
North American Release Date: June 1993
I was a huge fan of Duck Tales as a kid, both the show and the game. Years later when I learned there was a sequel, I couldn’t believe it! I also couldn’t believe how much it cost! My girlfriend at the time was surprisingly supportive of my strange hoarding and one Christmas she gave me this bad boy, my first truly rare game.
Of all these uncommon games this is the one I’ve played the most and that’s because, just like it’s predecessor, Duck Tales 2 is awesome. The gameplay is exactly the same as the original, the graphics and level design are top notch Capcom, and while the music isn’t quite as catchy as the first one it is pretty damn good. The main thing that sets this game apart from the original is that the programmers added extras moves and secrets which in turn give it more replay value. On top of Scrooge’s cane being able to pogo and hockey slap objects, it can be upgraded in various levels by finding Gyro Gearloose. The cane now allows Scrooge to hang from hooks, pull various objects and levers, and break through stronger blocks. These new additions force you to backtrack to previous locations and explore new areas. I’m not saying you’re going to find the meaning of life there or anything but it’ll add an extra 20 minutes of fun to your life, you joyless robot!
The show “Duck Tales” ended in 1990, and even though the first licensed game was a huge hit, I guess three years later and with new consoles already available most consumers passed on this great game. Which is a shame because aside from being the most affordable game on this list, I’d confidently say it’s also the most fun. Go out and grab you one if there’s still any left!
11-20: THE REST OF THE MONEY SUCKERS
After compiling the Top 10 list, I realized I actually hadn’t checked to see which games were currently most expensive; I was just going off of my memory of which were hardest to acquire. So, I decided to add on a little section that covers the next 10 most valuable NES games, some of which are currently going for prices that place them at least 7th on this list. Check out that list in the More Rare Games Section.