20 Classic NES Games That Are So Mind-Numbingly Difficult They're Practically Unbeatable

They might be classics, but those old-school NES games are notoriously hard to beat. The original Nintendo Entertainment System was the console that brought the video game industry out of the crash that came from the previous generation and made it into a viable entertainment medium, which continues today as a multi-trillion dollar industry. There is a ton of nostalgia for games that came out on the system, which is evident if you've ever tried to grab an NES Classic before they all disappeared from store shelves around the world.

Games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Metroid, and many more began franchises, and players fondly recall mashing buttons into the wee hours of the morning while playing alongside their sibling or best pal. While it's true that the console debuted some of the best games in retro gaming history, many of those games were freaking HARD to beat. There's even a term for it called "Nintendo Hard," and people often discuss the nature of these games, and how difficult they are. That's not to say they aren't excellent games that are fun to play, but the difficulty level on some of these titles made them all but impossible to beat. Think Silver Surfer holds the title for the hardest NES game ever made? Now's your chance to vote.

Check out 20 of the hardest NES games of all time, and if you see one that caused you a great deal of stress in the 1980s and '90s, go ahead and vote it up to see which of the hardest Nintendo games is considered the most difficult of them all.


  • Ghosts'n Goblins
    Photo: Nintendo

    Ghosts 'n Goblins started life as an arcade title in 1985 and was an instant success. The game featured killer graphics and sound, as well as a fun mechanic, which saw your character lose his armor (clothes) when he was hit. That means you can only take two hits before you die, and when that happens, it's back to the beginning of the level, but that's not really what makes this game Nintendo Hard.

    What Makes It So Hard: Ghosts 'n Goblins is a platform game, and you have to make your way through several levels of zombies, demons, ogres, dragons, and undead monsters to try and rescue Princess Prin-Prin from Astaroth, king of Demon World. It's generally difficult, and it takes a lot of replays to learn the moves. When you finally do, you'll be rewarded with... PLAYING THE ENTIRE GAME ALL OVER AGAIN! Yes, it's one of those. When you beat the game, you have to replay it at an even higher difficulty. This takes you to the "real" final battle of the game, and only after beating it twice, can a player truly say they have beaten the game, which is no easy task.

    113 votes
  • 2
    93 VOTES

    Battletoads is a beat 'em up sidescrolling platformer from Rare, and it stands as one of the most difficult games in the NES library. The game was developed after the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and there are numerous similarities between the two franchises. 

    What Makes It So Hard: The level of difficulty in this game suggests it was programmed by a sadist. Every level progresses up the difficulty ladder exponentially, so it gets increasingly harder as the player progresses. The game was best played with four players at once, but because friendly fire was possible, it was incredibly easy to kill your pals (or be killed by them). Most obstacles require exact timing and precision, making the smallest mistake deadly. Despite being hailed as one of the hardest games on the NES, Battletoads won numerous awards and spawned a successful franchise, so there are plenty of fans who enjoyed playing it. 

    93 votes
  • 3
    51 VOTES
    Silver Surfer
    Photo: Arcadia

    The Silver Surfer game for the NES features an alternating side-scroller and overhead perspective gameplay with each stage divided into sections. Players control the titular superhero as he battles enemies while going after minibosses. It follows a narrative and features mechanics similar to other side-scroller shooters. It's not the best adaptation of a Marvel property, but it may be the worst.

    What Makes It So Hard: This game is brutal and hard to control. Players fly around on their surfboard firing off silver balls at enemies, and unlike his comic book counterpart, he's insanely weak. In the comics, the Surfer is one of the strongest characters in the Marvel Universe, but in this game, he's one of the easiest things to kill, making him ridiculously underpowered. Players who truly want to slog their way through the game can benefit from a password system that makes the Surfer invincible, but without it, there's a very good chance most gamers can't make their way through the whole thing.

    51 votes
  • 4
    106 VOTES
    Ninja Gaiden
    Photo: Tecmo

    Ninja Gaiden is often remembered as a difficult game, and that appears to be a universal opinion. The game features a ninja named Ryu Hayabusa, who travels to America to avenge the death of his father. While there, he uncovers a plot hatched by "the Jaquio," who plans to take over the world by unleashing an ancient demon. The only one who can stop him is Ryu, so the player battles against enemies across six acts of 20 levels.

    What Makes It So Hard: Few gamers recall this game without experiencing flashbacks over how incredibly difficult it was. The difficulty setting was insanely high and unforgiving of any errors of any kind. Players would have to time everything perfectly, or they would die a lot. One of the most annoying enemies in the game are these stupid birds that swoop down without warning, knocking you into a pit. You can barely dodge them, you can't plan for them, and they make playing the game ridiculously challenging. When you do finally get to the end level ⁠— if you can get that far ⁠— it's an unforgiving gauntlet of nightmare fuel that likely can take credit for destroying more than a few hundred controllers back in the '80s.

    106 votes
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    Photo: Palcom

    In 1989, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of the hottest properties around, so it wasn't surprising to see them show up on the NES. The game was one of the first to be based on the hit 1987 animated series, and it featured Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michaelangelo on a mission to retrieve the Life Transformer Gun from Shredder. They meet up with their allies and enemies along the way before finally coming to the Technodrome to battle Shredder.

    What Makes It So Hard: The friggin' water level! Frankly, if you ask a player why the game was so hard more than 30 years after they last played, they are probably going to go on at length about the water level. It made it almost impossible to make your way through all the obstacles, but that was hardly the only thing that was difficult about playing TMNT on the NES. Parts of the game are great examples of the franchise, but other parts are designed to torment gamers and make them hate the Turtles. The game is beatable, but it requires a great deal of repetition because you will die a lot playing through most of the levels in this game.

    104 votes
  • 6
    56 VOTES
    Top Gun
    Photo: Konami

    Top Gun was released in theaters in 1986, and the following year, a game based on it was released on the NES. There isn't a great narrative to the game, but it does center on the concept that the player is Maverick, and he has to complete four missions while piloting the F-14 Tomcat. The game featured two endings, which wasn't typical during the time period it was released, and the ending that's shown depends on the score received through playing the game. If the player received at least 50,000 points, they are presented the Top Gun plague that was given to Iceman in the movie. 

    What Makes It So Hard: Flying the Tomcat through the skies to shoot down enemies isn't any more difficult than most dogfighting games. It's not the flying that's the problem in this game; it's the landing. Specifically, it's the landing on an aircraft carrier, and it's nearly impossible. You can follow all the on-screen instructions and still find yourself slamming into the ocean or the underside of the ship. It is technically possible to do, but few people who ever played the game have honestly done it without cheating. Another impossible aspect of the game features a mid-air refueling process, and it's next to impossible to line everything up correctly.

    56 votes