A Newcomer’s Guide to the NES

So you want to try playing NES games. Maybe you’re curious about where your favorite game series got its start, or maybe you’re interested in video game history. Maybe you’ve already tried playing a few games but you got lost or you bounced off of them. Regardless of how you got here, I’m here to help you get the most enjoyment possible out of this iconic video game console.

It’s no secret that the NES is old. Like, it’s really old. This July, the Japanese version of the console (called the Famicom) will literally turn 40 years old this year. 40 years! In the United States it’s 2 years younger, but it still means the video game industry has had nearly 4 decades since that initial release to evolve and improve.

NES games are deceptively simple. There’s more going on than what you might initially think.

By this point, it’s safe to say that NES games are an acquired taste. They can be cryptic, they can be obtuse, and they can be difficult. I know how that feels. I didn’t grow up with the NES, either. The first video game consoles I can remember were the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, but even then my most formative games were on the PlayStation, N64, Game Boy Color, and GameCube. I can empathize when I see a video game critic disregard NES games for their unintuitive design or their moments of frustration. However, some people have gone as far as to claim that games like Metroid, Kid Icarus, and even the original The Legend of Zelda are outdated and skippable. I disagree. I admit that NES games can be clunky, and they might not be an ideal starting point for someone new to video games, but I think that most NES games are worth the effort to learn and master.

As someone who was once in your exact shoes, I have 5 tips that will hopefully help you understand NES games.

Tip #1: What’s Your Motivation?

The first tip I’d like to suggest is perhaps the most important. I’m a busy person, so I understand the desire to quickly finish a game just to check it off the to-do list. However, having this sort of mindset with NES games is a guaranteed recipe for a bad time. You will miss the details, secrets, and nuances that make these games special. The enemies and platforms will feel like meaningless walls. Tip #1 is to slow down, take your time, and find a well of motivation that you can draw from when the going gets tough.

Personally, I found that learning about video game history helps me understand an NES game in the context of its original release; I can get more motivated to play a game when I can see what it contributed to the industry. I’ve also relied on the contagious enthusiasm of retro gamers to motivate me to get started. Below are some of my favorite people that can tell you why they love NES games so much:

  • NESComplex – This YouTuber specializes in all of the secrets and glitches found in NES games. He also has a fun series looking back through old Nintendo Power magazines, which help put you in the mindset of the era.
  • HPRshredder – This YouTuber does stylish and comprehensive retrospectives about NES games called Retro Odyssey. He seems to favor playing the Famicom versions, but his videos are approachable for anyone with even a passing interest.
  • Jeremy Parish Video Works – This YouTuber is embarking on covering every NES game, going in chronological order. He is creating a rich and detailed picture of the console through every year of its life. He’s doing the same thing with other retro consoles as well.

That being said, don’t force yourself to play if the motivation is not coming. Once you get your bearings, NES games can be truly fun in their own right, but I think some gamers treat the NES like doing your homework or brushing your teeth. Don’t put yourself through that. We have enough on our plates without making our free time feel like a chore, too. The fun from NES games is the kind of enjoyment that you might get from embarking on a hike or completing a creative project. When you beat an NES game, you want to tell people about it. That ending screen feels like a trophy that you earned. But if you’re not ready for the extra effort, then that’s okay. Come back later. They will still be there. Let the motivation come naturally.

If you do one thing, please, read the manual.

Tip #2: Read the Manual (and Maybe Get a Notepad?)

When it was first released, the NES was a powerful machine. Its versions of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man actually looked like their arcade counterparts, which was a heroic feat for a home console of the mid-1980s. That being said, developers for NES games still had to work under significant hardware limitations. 8-bit is only so powerful, after all, and storage sizes in particular were a tight constraint. The file size for the ROM of Super Mario Bros. is smaller than the script for this blog post. I’m not kidding. Space was cramped on those cartridges.

To compensate, most of a game’s story and tutorials were relegated to the manual. I strongly, strongly recommend that you read the manual. You may think that just because the NES only had a D-Pad and 2 face buttons that the controls would be easy to learn, but several NES games use button combos to carry out specific skills, and the games expected you to have learned those combos from the manual. A lot of what people say is “cryptic” or “doesn’t make sense” about NES games can be fixed by simply reading a few pages.

I hear so many people complain about the original The Legend of Zelda not giving the player enough information, but the manual literally tells you how to get to the first two dungeons, and on top of that, it reveals a small part of the map to help you along.

Thankfully many people have scanned these manuals and have made them available online. Nintendo themselves have uploaded several high-quality scans that you can access here. It’s not the entire library, but the list covers most of the more popular games on the console. For other games, you can access this website which organizes them in alphabetical order. Not every scan is as high-quality as Nintendo’s, but they work.

Some of these manuals recommend that you use a notebook while playing, either to record passwords, jot down secrets, or to draw a map to help you navigate. I support this recommendation. Get a notebook with grid paper and you’re set. I love playing NES games this way. The discoveries feel like my own, like I’m an expert explorer charting an unknown land. It’s not a feeling I get in even the most detailed modern open world games. It takes a bit of setup, but it’s worth it.

Zelda II: Link’s Adventure was particularly difficult for me. I used a guide and I’m not ashamed of that.

Tip #3: It’s Dangerous to Go Alone — Use a Guide!

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: many people back in the 1980s had a hard time finishing NES games, too. Nintendo literally had a hotline where people called to get help from a video game expert, and this person talked people through the part that they were stuck on (side note: how cool would that job be?). Not only that, but there were magazines and guide books that spelled out the secrets, codes, and strategies that players needed.

If those players got help, then why don’t you? Get yourself comfortable and pull up a second screen — I recommend a tablet that you can set by your lap — and play a guide that can help you learn the game’s mechanics. U Can Beat Video Games is a wholesome YouTube channel with several step-by-step playthrough guides of retro games. He not only tells you what to do, he explains the process and how the game works. His knowledge has been vital in helping me beat Zelda II: Link’s Adventure. I’ve found a stronger appreciation of almost every NES game thanks to him.

Some bosses became notorious among NES gamers for their ludicrous difficulty. The Grim Reaper makes Dark Souls enemies look like a litter of kittens.

Tip #4: Use Rewind and Save States Shamelessly

It’s all fun and games until someone boots up Mega Man and gets their thumbs burned. When people talk about “Nintendo hard,” they’re talking about a special kind of ridiculous difficulty. In these games, projectiles and enemies can easily overwhelm you. A boss moves so quickly you wonder how in the world you can ever beat it. I’ve had to throw myself at some bosses over 20 times before I could finally beat them (I’m looking at you, Grim Reaper from Castlevania). Not only that, these games might give you sudden death traps and NPCs that flat-out lie to you.

Please, by all means, give yourself some help: use Rewind and Save States. You have my permission. I’ve used them myself. I might love playing (and replaying) NES games, but you know what I love more? Not getting headaches. I still think that you’ll be challenged, even with these shortcuts. You’re just saving yourself some time by cutting out all of the Game Overs. You can always not use them the second time you play the game.

The more I invest in an NES game, the more it gives back to me.

Tip #5: The Second Playthrough is Twice as Fun

Speaking of which, NES games are always better the second time around. NES games were designed to be replayed on loop, over and over again. The moment-to-moment gameplay is filled with nuance of movement and positioning. Many of them include branching paths, alternate endings, and dozens of secrets that add depth to the gameplay.

Once you see the credits, I recommend trying the game again. Not only are there more tricks to learn and weapons to experiment with, but the game will likely become overall less frustrating. You’re more familiar with the controls, you know the techniques, and you know what enemies to expect. You may notice that the enemy that gave you trouble before is now a breeze. That second playthrough can feel like a well-deserved victory lap after all the work you put into the first one.

Many NES games offer quite a few reasons to go back and replay them.

When I play NES games, I follow this pattern: one of my playthroughs is focused on exploring on my own. It’s slow, but it’s full of discoveries. I take notes, I poke and prod. I die a lot, and it’s by no means an effective way through the game. But I enjoy myself because I came up with the solutions. Then, on another playthrough, I try to blast through it, using all the internet’s resources. I look at the secrets that I missed or the exploits I could take. In some cases (like with Metroid), I end up playing the game 6 or 7 times, exploring different routes, using different passwords, and attempting to reach different endings. My second playthrough also helps me notice design choices and visual details that I missed earlier. The game starts to become a meaningful experience rather than just a checkbox on a backlog.

Metroid (1986) is the NES game I’ve replayed the most, and the one I’ve gotten the most enjoyment out of besides Super Mario Bros. 3 or The Legend of Zelda (1986).

Final Thoughts

And there you have it! Those are the five most important pieces of advice I can give you for playing NES games. Of course, feel free to tweak and adapt these to suit your playstyle. For example, maybe you’re really itching for a challenge on one playthrough, so you try not using save states; while on another, you do use them (personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with save states, but you do you).

I hope this advice can help you find more enjoyment from NES games, and who knows, maybe one of these “old outdated games” will become one of your new favorites.

One thought on “A Newcomer’s Guide to the NES

  1. This advice seems really helpful! It never would have occurred to me to look up the original manual, but now that you’ve mentioned it, it makes a lot of sense. Makes me want to try one of these games for myself at some point!

    Liked by 1 person

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