Everyone had a hobby growing up. For many, it was video games. While kids today play technologically advanced titles in third or first person, using 3D maps while linked to other gamers around the world, for just a few generations older, the games were far less complex. Yet somehow even more beloved.
Every household in the 1980s had a Nintendo Entertainment System – and later, a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo. The games were simple, colorful and addicting. For a long time, game publishers released a multitude of titles, almost dumping them on the market. The best games were often the ones that didn’t have widespread impact…except to those select few who played them.
These games are the gems of the gaming world. They’re extremely hard to find. They’re often random and gave you a “who came up with this??” vibe, even when you played them as a kid. They could be obscure versions of well-known properties, and many are ridiculously hard. Unnecessarily so.
These aren’t games that you’ll find printed on an ironic t-shirt – most won’t even make a “best of” list, that’s how under the radar they were. Most didn’t spawn a sequel, and you’ll never see them remade or reduxed on a new console. Except you played them. And you loved them. There aren’t any Zeldas or Metroids here. Not even a Bubble Bobble, Techmo Bowl or Mario 2.
These are the best games you probably forgot existed. The ones you’re proud that you played, but forgot you ever did. Because most importantly, when you see one again, or even hear a few notes of the soundtrack, your eyes light up and you go “Oooh!” as a smile plasters your face and you’re instantly transported back to childhood. Here is a list of the most cult-favorite nostalgic video games of all time.
10. Bonk’s Adventure
Yes, beginning this list with a game that spawned sequels is breaking the rules. But Bonk is the forgotten character of video game console mascots. Before the TurboGrafx-16 went the way of the dodo, the company planned to turn Bonk into what Mario is to Nintendo and Sonic was to Sega. It didn’t work out, and the big-headed cave-baby slipped through the cracks. But that didn’t change the fact that he made for one insanely fun video game. A side-scroller set in the age of dinosaurs (most with hallucinogenic eggs on their heads), Bonk used his enormous cranium to “bonk” enemies into submission. The fun came in stringing together bonk-jumps, catapulting yourself into flight in normal mode or the insanely fun side games. And the powerups you got from eating meat and finding smiley-faces (unexplained) made the entire experience unparalleled in gaming entertainment.
9. Joe & Mac
Another romp through prehistoric times, this time with a twist. One of the most fun and forgotten games ever made, Joe & Mac was simple in its sidescrolling adventures. But as you fought cavemen and dinosaurs in the jungle, a volcano, and a number of wild settings, your goal was to rescue cavewomen – all inexplicably clad in bikinis. In all, the title had a sense of humor not often found in children’s games. It didn’t take itself too seriously, the enemies were almost purposely cartoonish (dinosaur necks are made of circles that don’t even touch each other??), and the whole game was just fun. Using weapons such as boomerangs, bones, fire, electricity and stone wheels, you fought your way through levels using one or two players, both of which had highlighter-colored hair and matching loin cloths. This game was a blast.
8. The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle
This game was as difficult as it was addicting. Bugs Bunny finds himself in an enormous castle guarded by Sylvester, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote. All of which come in a rainbow of colors for reasons unknown and kill you instantly when you’re touched. As a result, the game takes on a puzzle-solving atmosphere as you collect carrots and use your wits to avoid and incapacitate the enemies in each level. You can’t jump (infuriating), but can fall onto objects to pick them up, meaning you also have to outrun badguys instead of going over or around them. The whole thing gives you the feeling of using an elliptical machine dressed like a Looney Tune. Oh, and the 8-bit soundtrack is strangely catchy. This game has “cult” and “forgotten” written all over it, and it’s fantastic.
7. River City Ransom
Inclusion of this game on the list is a slight cheat, since River City Ransom finds itself high on a few “Best NES Games of All Time” lists. But the general public has long forgotten this beat ’em up classic, so it gets a spot. Modeled in the style of Double Dragon, you instead play as some sort of globular cartoon Grease Lightening, beating up everyone in sight as you attempt to save River City High and rescue your girlfriend from the clutches of the evil “Slick.” None of this matters though, as it’s just ridiculously fun to beat people up with lead pipes, metal chains, garbage cans and brass knuckles…and then throw them at enemies across the room when you’re done with them. One of the first “realistic” (grain of salt) fighting games, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously (one of the gangs is called “The Generic Dudes”) and is pure, unadulterated fun.
6. Mickey Mousecapade
This game with familiar characters everyone knows and loves is strange and wonderful at the same time. Playing as Mickey Mouse, you work your way through simple – yet somehow beautiful, in their 8-bit way – levels, shooting stars at enemies for unexplained reasons. Even more unexplained is why you drag Minnie Mouse with you wherever you go. She’s generally unhelpful, but you need her by your side to complete levels, which adds an element of difficulty you never saw coming (re: it’s impossibly hard to keep her alive). Still, it’s a unique and incredibly memorable gimmick. The best part of the game is running into pixelated versions of Disney characters like Maleficent and the Crocodile Who Ate Captain Hook’s Hand, all of which are sprinkled throughout. For a 9-year-old, this was a mind blower. The game was tough, but you were always happy to give it a whirl.
5. Yo! Noid
This is one of the strangest “product of an era” games ever made. A long time ago, Domino’s Pizza created a mascot called the Noid – a bizarre, tiny man in a red bunny suit who was somehow a successful advertising symbol. He was so pervasive in the 1980s that Capcom made a game about him. Playing as the Noid, the plot of the game makes little sense: you’re recruited by the mayor of New York to save the city in exchange for pizza. And off you go. Using a yo-yo as a weapon, you fight your way through a number of extremely difficult levels, occasionally riding a skateboard, an autogyro, and a “Pizza Crusher.” You also get to play a fun and frustrating card game against another Noid to see who gets to eat the most pizza. And the music is award-winningly addictive. On the whole, this game is so weird it’s amazing.
4. Fester’s Quest
Chalk this one up under the “obscure version of a known property” category. Released in 1990, a full year before the popular Addams Family Movie, this weird game was based on the 1960s television series…kind of. While enjoying a drink, Uncle Fester witnesses an alien invasion, and decides to save the city. That’s it. Taking your trusty blunderbuss, which inexplicably shoots green goo and an assortment of other unrecognizable powerups, you scour the city and sewers killing odd blobs and colored toads. Eventually you reach enormous aliens as you find pieces of the mothership, neither of which are ever mentioned in the TV show. But none of that matters, because the game was so impossibly hard, you could never reach any of them. Still, for some reason figuring out how became an obsession for anyone who owned this game. It might be a masochistic urge that Nintendo played upon, but somehow, you could never put this game down, no matter how frustrating it got. A true cult classic.
3. Donkey Kong Jr.
This game is a sequel that’s much more fun than the original. Which means that it belongs on this list, even though the first one is much more famous. After the events of the first Donkey Kong, Mario has now captured the great ape and placed him in a cage. This game turns your childlike brain on its head by making you play as Kong’s son who’s trying to free his imprisoned father, meaning Mario’s the evil jerk who’s sending blue crocodiles your way as you scamper up and down vines and platforms. Genius. There are four distinct stages, culminating with a race to destroy locks in an intimidating dungeon. If you complete all that, you drop Mario off a ledge (!) and save your dad, only to start again from the beginning. Only this time, it’s just a little bit harder. Rinse, complete, repeat. This game is a little-known gem.
Talk about a game that has no basis in anything. In the year 5012, the planet Abadox is eaten by a giant alien. Discovering that the Princess Maria is inside and still alive, the galactic military sends in their best fighter, Second Lieutenant Naza, to rescue her and escape. It’s a strange enough plot, without taking into account that the final stage involves a race to exit the alien through its rectal cavity. The most bizarre and awesome thing about Abadox though is just how gruesome and creepy the enemies are. From flesh-eating zombie dogs, to eye-bugging nightmare-fuel faces, to pulsing flesh at every turn, this game has a million ways to get under your skin. Even though it borders on too difficult at times, this space shooter is more than fun and unknown enough to warrant a spot on this list.
1. Little Nemo: The Dream Master
This beautiful game has everything you could want in a cult masterpiece, and immediately transports you back to childhood. Based on a Japanese animated film, which was based on a wonderful and little-known comic strip from 1905, Little Nemo: The Dream Master is the perfect mix of side-scrolling 2D gaming and nostalgic perfection. Playing as Nemo, a young boy who falls asleep and is whisked away to Slumberland, you scour the large and colorful levels looking for keys to unlock the exit. Along the way, you encounter frogs, gorillas, bees, moles and lizards, which you can ride by feeding them candy. It’s all extremely charming, while still being one of the more difficult games on the NES. Little Nemo is pure imagination, innovation and fun – and yet, almost no one remembers it. It’s the perfect cult-favorite video game.