Five Good and Cheap NES Games

Want to collect games for the Nintendo Entertainment System? Well, bad news: you’ll need money. The NES was a fixture of many a childhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it was only a matter of time before that cocktail of nerdy nostalgia bubbled over. Games that could be had for two bucks in the early 2000s now clear ten dollars, former five-dollar games go for fifty, and I don’t even want to talk about how much people would pay for that Little Samson cartridge I passed up many years ago because Funcoland wanted an absurd $15.99 for it. When it comes to the best NES titles, bargains are rare.

All is not lost. The NES library is voluminous, and many perfectly decent and fascinatingly odd games are still cheap. They may not be classics to rank with Crystalis or Mega Man 2, but they’re all compelling in some way.

Definitions of “cheap” vary, but I stuck to games that hover around five dollars on eBay, shipping and all. I know that’s not a steal in many books, as I remember when thrift stores had stacks of NES games priced at two bucks apiece. But those days are over, and I doubt they’re coming back.

And what if people see this list and the resulting demand drives up prices for these games? Let me reassure you that will not happen, and for one simple reason: no one comes here.

I excluded most NES sports games from this list, as they’re largely mediocre and very, very common. Any place carrying old video games attracts NES sports titles like flypaper. Leave an empty box and  a sign that reads NES GAMES FOR SALE on your front porch overnight, and by next morning you’ll find it holding at least a few copies of John Elway’s Quarterback.

Super Spike V’Ball is a good buy, though. It’s the work of Technos Japan, a prolific company rumored to have been founded as a front for the Yakuza. I have no idea if that’s true, but I can’t fault them for making Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and other brawlsome games all about rescuing girlfriends from street punks. Super Spike V’ball is a volleyball sim, of course, yet it has the same brutal back-and-forth that you’ll find in bashing Abobo with a baseball bat.

As sports games go, it’s easy to figure out and great with multiple players. Hook up a FourScore or Satellite for three or four players, and plug in a Game Genie to unlock the women players who almost made it into the game! That’s an awful lot of material for the three bucks Super Spike V’ball will run, and the two-in-one cartridge with Nintendo World Cup isn’t much more.

It’s hard to match Legacy of the Wizard in sheer density for your money. The side-scroller tells of a family exploring an immensely complex underground maze in search of four crowns and a dragon. The levels are huge, and new specialties arise as you switch between two parents, their kids, and their family pet, Pochi. He’s a dog who turns into a dragon, and the monsters below can’t hurt him. He’s in my header for a reason.

Legacy of the Wizard hearkens back to a time when any game with quests and dragons pretty much demanded a map, either found in a magazine or drawn by the player one room at a time. Even today it’s hard to imagine someone blazing through Legacy of the Wizard from memory. And if you choose to wander around foolishly, the game’s still fun. Falcom’s action-RPG chops make each character unique, with multi-directional attacks and that special bounce when they plummet too great a distance.

Look at it this way: if Legacy of the Wizard runs you five bucks, you’re paying only a dollar per character. And Pochi is worth at least as twice that.

This pick is both insultingly obvious and potentially wrong, I know. Walk into any game shop and you’ll probably see a Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt combo cartridge priced upwards of fifteen bucks. There may be millions of the things out there, but just about everyone who owned an NES is nostalgic for what was most likely the first thing they ever played on the system. Dealers know this and price these commonplace cartridges accordingly.

Here’s the thing: don’t buy one in the real world. Head to eBay and you’ll see many Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridges going for well under five bucks. You’ll get an iconic platformer in Super Mario Bros., still enjoyable despite all that’s evolved from and improved upon it. You’ll also get Duck Hunt, which needs the Zapper and an old CRT television.

Anyone remotely interested in the NES knows these things already, but I feel it my duty to remind the world that Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt mix carts are still cheap somewhere. Maybe they’re not cheap enough for you to make a suit out of them anymore, but those were the excesses of the game collector golden years.

Poor ol’ Golgo 13. He’s the star of a long-running manga series that’s had him shoot everything from satellites to Al Gore’s ballots in the Florida election, and yet he’s not one-tenth as popular in North America as he is in Japan. Even today, any Westerner who recognizes the name of Golgo 13 is just as likely to think of the old NES games as they are of his recent TV series or 180 volumes of manga.

And what of those old NES games? They’re not impeccably programmed, that’s for sure, and they’re littered with cheap demises, awkward controls, and maze interludes both tedious and merciless. At their best, however, they capture the flavor of a Golgo 13 adventure, and that’s what counts.

The original NES outing, Top Secret Episode, switches up play styles quite often, moving between side-view battles, first-person shooting, helicopter rides, some sniper’s eye precision, and a romantic evening that replenishes Golgo’s health. It plays crude and looks even cruder, but there’s a strange appeal in its primitive style, as though you’re gazing upon an NES game somehow programmed in 1968.

The Mafat Conspiracy, Golgo 13’s NES sequel, is slightly more expensive, but it’s the better game. The anything-goes genre mixes of Top Secret Episode are milder here, as Mafat pares it down to side-scrolling, mazes, driving, and the occasional sniping. Even so, it plays slightly faster and looks superior, from the Ninja Gaiden-like cutscenes to the way Golgo walks with an unassuming, hands-in-pocket swagger even in the depths of a terrorist compound about to explode.

If Top Secret Episode deals in the more absurd side of Golgo 13, Mafat Conspiracy is slightly more grounded, in that Golgo battles only giant terrorist samurai and snipes a helicopter from the back of a speeding car. It also has the superior Golgo Girl in Sylvia. Golgo Girls are like Bond Girls except they’re even more likely to die tragically.

No one will rank either Golgo 13 title among excellent games, but they’re interesting in their variety and in showing just what Nintendo allowed on the allegedly kid-safe NES. And no matter how many YouTube reviewers spotlight the sex scenes and exploding skulls, both games are still inexpensive.

Yes, really. Let me explain.

I know that many of you toss Fester’s Quest into the most miserable depths of the NES library. It doesn’t deserve that. It’s not a great game, but it’s not a terrible one, either. It’s an overhead action-shooter where Uncle Fester from The Addams Family fends off an alien invasion. That in itself makes Fester’s Quest worth owning on sheer novelty, like an old box of Munsters cereal or a bootleg Elvira plush doll.

It’s a weird game with an intriguing history, and I suspect that we’d be kinder to it if the game wasn’t so cruel to us. Fester’s a big target that takes only two hits, and a design oversight robbed the game of any continue system–once you’re defeated, it’s back to the very start. Ow.

Yet the game runs with a basic competence. Sunsoft knew what they were doing on the NES by this point, and they used the top-view stages from Blaster Master as a frame for Fester’s Quest. If you take it slow and cautious, it’s actually enjoyable. It’s a pleasant surprise for a game too often lumped in with Captain Planet, Rocky & Bullwinkle, and other NES licensed offal, and I’m glad to see that public opinion of the game is taking a turn for the better.

Fester’s Quest is common at just about any spot that deals in NES games, to the point where it’s an adequate measure of just how much you’re getting gouged. The next time you peer across some old video games at a store or a flea market booth, give that seller the Fester’s Quest Test. If they’re asking more than five bucks for a dose of Uncle Fester fighting aliens, odds are that everything else there is a ripoff.


  1. Great article. I started NES collecting in 1998 at an insane pace and didn’t stop until the mid 2000s when the Funcolands became Gamestops and got rid of all their NES stock. The amount of great games that could be had for next to nothing was insane! SMB/Duck Hunt was a dime at Funcoland!

    My “Little Samson for 15 bucks” moment was seeing a copy of Bubble Bobble 2 in 2003 for like 30 bucks. I also found an NES Top Loader at a store for 30 bucks in like…2010. Both times I was unemployed so I passed them up.

    Good call on Legacy of the Wizard. While inscrutable-ass NES games can be fun, I swallowed my pride and played it with a map and enjoyed it a lot more.

  2. Cheap, yes.

    Good… umm…. err…. sure, why not.

    I honestly wonder if anyone ever finished Legacy of the Wizard completely blind. No Nintendo Power, no hints, nothing. I can’t imagine it possible. The game is just so large and complex.