Remembering the brutal charm of old school Nintendo games

Nes Hero
Nes Hero (Image credit: Jennifer Locke / iMore)

Nes Hero

Nes Hero (Image credit: Jennifer Locke / iMore)

Okay, Nintendo has been around for a while; we're talking 1889. The company has come a long way since then, still staying strong in the industry with the Nintendo Switch. I love my Switch, especially when you consider the best Nintendo Switch games that have released so far. But honestly, I sometimes miss the hay-days of Nintendo.

I was born during an era that was about to experience a resurgence of video game love. Following the boom of arcades and dominance of Atari, there were a fair amount of terrible consoles and even worse games flooding the market. With oversaturating and lackluster games, the video game market crashed in the early 1980s. In fact, the industry nearly died altogether. Then came Nintendo with the ultimate 1up.

The year was 1985, and the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in the US. Of course, little baby me couldn't manage to do much but bite the controller, but as soon as I figured out how thumbs work, that controller was in my hand, and I reveled in the 8-bit glory.

This is the era that established classics like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, and so many more. These are games that people still lose their minds over. If you need some proof, look how fast the NES Classic Edition console sold.

Nes And Super Mario

Nes And Super Mario (Image credit: Jennifer Locke / iMore)

But the excitement wasn't just in playing these loveable games. There were plenty of different games available for the console, but whether you were schooled by the control like me or you're just picking it up for some nostalgia, be careful what you are getting yourself into. While these old school games are a wonderful nostalgia trip, they can be brutal. There's a reason the phrase "Nintendo hard" exists. The games for the NES were soul-crushingly difficult at times. Don't believe me? Try to pick up Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts 'n Goblins, or Battletoads, and you'll change your tune. These games are considered some of the hardest ever made.

Still, these are the games that whipped us into shape! There's something about struggling against and eventually beating them that just gives you the euphoria of triumph and satisfaction, even if some of the endings were less than stellar.

There were no guides back in this era unless you count the tip-hotline (they actually resurrected it for the NES Classic for a short time) or the Nintendo Power. You pretty much had to figure out how to get past Death Mountain in Legend of Zelda 2: Link's Adventure or find out how to defeat King Hippo in Punch-Out! all on your own. Sorry, no Googling it.

Nes Gun Hero

Nes Gun Hero (Image credit: Jennifer Locke / iMore)

Plus, there was no fancy auto-save to help hold your place or save you if you got murdered by the multitude of respawning enemies or sticky controls. Most games didn't even have a save feature. If you wanted to beat the game, you either had to do it in one sitting or remember some cryptic code you got at the end of a level. But, on the other hand, games were short enough that you could beat them in one or two sittings. Those you couldn't, like Dragon Quest, had a save feature. That didn't make it any easier.

Maybe it's not the tear-inducing difficulty I miss; I mean, I could get that with Dark Souls or Sekiro if I wanted to. Maybe the sad fact of the matter is that I don't have time to pour into the games of today, which is terrible since I love them so. I love when games strike that perfect balance: challenge, well-made, and not time-consuming. Don't get me wrong; pouring time into a game is great — just not when I'm doing 100 fetch quests. Maybe that's why the next era of Nintendo is my favorite.

As the NES ended with a high note with Super Mario 3, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System released in 1990, and aside from the PS2 era, I don't think many console eras come close to this one. As much as the NES shaped my gaming skills, the SNES gave me a love of RPGs and took my platforming skills to a new level. It took the impossible difficulty down a few notches, added a few conveniences, and tweaked a lot of the issues. Respawning enemies and clunky controls were no longer a crippling issue.

Unlike the Atari and video games before the crash, the SNES evolved into something better than it's predecessor. It gave us amazing classics and built upon well-loved series, giving some of the best in franchise history! I'm looking at you Final Fantasy VI (or 3 for the US), Chrono Trigger, Mario Kart, Turtles in Time, and Link to the Past.

N64 And Games Hero

N64 And Games Hero (Image credit: Rebecca Spear / iMore)

The SNES gave us the option to save and graphics better than players have ever experienced on a game console. It tempered the game experience to be both challenging and rewarding. Nintendo took everything good from the NES and just brought it up to the next level.

And they managed to do it again with the Nintendo 64 release. If you don't recall the Christmas of 1996, it's the year Tickle-Me Elmo was on the shelves, and my grandmother had to carry out the N64 she found by accident out of the Toys-R-Us in a discreet black bag. That's the legacy the NES and the SNES established. Though Nintendo played with the new graphic innovations, the formula remained the same. Simple stories, challenging gameplay, and just good ol' fun.

While there have been so many great games since, there's just something about the budding generations that stick with me today. The NES was punishing, and the SNES polished away the tarnish to a fine shine. Sure, the games were frustrating at times, but it wasn't about gimmicks...mostly (though they sure as hell tried with a whole bunch of whacky add-ons. Remember the Power Glove?)

Games didn't have to be 100 hours plus with a million useless quests, ultra-realistic stories, and the best graphics. They also didn't have hand-holding tutorials, achievements, or a need for a data log to explain what was going on. Beating them was the achievement and you had to do it on your own.

Neither console was perfect, but there's a reason why so many look on the NES/SNES so fondly...and demand that the games come to the Nintendo Switch Online.

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Sara Gitkos

Sara is the Freelance Coordinator, writer, and editor at iMore. When not editing or writing away, she's glued to her Nintendo Switch, Xbox, or PS5, though she's a retro gamer at heart.