The Hardest NES Games: 5 Classic Nintendo Games I Never Beat

Old Nintendo Games Were Hard ... Really Hard!

I grew up in the Golden Age of video games, the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Nintendo NES console reigned supreme over all video game systems.

At that time, Pong was ancient, the Atari was becoming yesterday's news and PlayStation, XBOX and Wii were still many years away. Almost every one of my friends owned a Nintendo NES system.

We would spend hours every night and every weekend playing classic Nintendo games like Rampage, Contra, Super Mario Bros., NARC, Double Dragon and Zelda, much to our parent's dismay.

"Turn that thing off! Go outside! Get some fresh air!"

We would simply ignore them and start up a new game and try to beat it. Man, oh man, let me tell you, those old Nintendo games were hard! Each one required so much time, so much effort. Most required nights without sleep. Days without sunlight. Not like nowadays. No sir. Everything is so easy these days, even video games. Everyone has to be a winner.

Video Games Today are Easy!

Konami Contra for the Nintendo NES Console - Game On! Everyone knows the Contra cheat code - Classic Nintendo Game Insanity!
Konami Contra for the Nintendo NES Console - Game On! Everyone knows the Contra cheat code - Classic Nintendo Game Insanity! | Source

Nowadays video games take almost no skill to complete. Really it's more a matter of time than talent and a question of when you will beat a PlayStation or XBOX video game rather than if you will complete a game. Most current video games take somewhere between 10 to 15 hours to complete while classic Nintendo games required months to years of repetition, practice and devotion often with no success in sight.

Nintendo games were so difficult that they came with dozens of cheat codes built-in and eventually products were released to help enter those cheat codes, such as The Game Genie. Often the cheat codes were your only lifeline in your fight for survival against the electronic enemies on-screen.

Perhaps the most popular of all classic Nintendo game cheat codes was the infamous Contra "30 Lives" cheat code, otherwise known as:

up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start

But, let me ask you this, did you ever beat Contra without that code? Of course you didn't. It was impossible. Without it you only had three lives and everything killed you in one shot.

In Contra, one wrong press of a button cost you a life. Three mistakes and, well, to quote Bill Paxton (or is it Bill Pullman, who really knows?) from Alien, "Game Over, man! Game Over"

But, because I did cheat from time to time and I most certainly used the infamous Contra cheat code, I can say that I have beat that Nintendo game. However, there are some hard Nintendo games, cheat code or not, that I simply could not beat. Video games that I question if there even was a final level or boss battle. Games so challenging the thought of playing them causes a cold sweat. They don't make video games like these bad boys anymore. Kids simply don't have what it takes.

These are the five classic Nintendo games I never beat.

5.Back to the Future

Back to the Future Nintendo Game Box Cover
Back to the Future Nintendo Game Box Cover | Source

Most classic Nintendo games, and really all video games, inspired by Hollywood movies are typically terrible. Back to the Future for the NES does not break the mold.

Released in 1989, four years after the film debuted in theatres, Back to the Future thrusts gamers into the role of Marty McFly who is stuck in 1955.

Players must collect clocks strewn about Hill Valley (which appears very similar to the neighborhood in Paperboy) in order to prevent Marty from vanishing from his family photo that appears in the bottom of the screen. Of course bullies and bees are standing in his way. Yes, bees. Luckily you have bowling balls and skateboards to fend them off.

The end of each stage prompts a mini game. The first mini game requires Marty to fend off Biff and his cronies with milkshakes. In the second mini game, Marty must block kisses from Lorraine and in the third mini game Marty has to play "Johnny Be Good" with his guitar ala the Guitar Hero Games popular today.

This Nintendo game is hard thanks to the end. If you complete each stage and mini game you end up in the DeLorean time machine where you have to avoid lightning bolts and obstacles in an attempt to reach 88 mph and return safely to present day.

The kicker here is that regardless of how many lives you have accumulated when you enter the DeLorean stage (whether its 1 or 10), you only get one attempt to reach 88 mph and win the game. If a lightning bolt hits you or an obstacle slows you down, the game comes to an abrupt end and you have officially wasted an hour or two of your life.

I was never able to successfully complete the DeLorean stage of Back to the Future and became all too familiar with the Game Over screen, which read, "Tough luck, Marty! It looks like you are stuck here!"

Just trust me, the movies were better. Well, except for the cowboy one. That was a little lame.

Back to the Future NES Gameplay - Stage 1

4. Elevator Action

Elevator Action for the NES
Elevator Action for the NES | Source

In Elevator Action for the NES, players control a secret agent named Otto, who strangely resembles Conan O'Brien. As Otto, players must acquire (steal) Top Secret Files located throughout an enemy-infested building that Otto enters from the roof. Top Secret Files can be found in red doors strategically placed throughout all 30 floors of the building.

Using elevators and escalators, players must descend through all 30 floors of the building while acquiring the Top Secret Files and avoiding the flying bullets of the enemy agents guarding the files (the enemy agents look an awful lot like the Black Spy from "Spy vs. Spy" in Mad Magazine).

You can dodge the bullets by ducking, jumping or shooting the enemy agent before he shoots you first. It isn't terribly difficult early in the game, but as you progress, pulling off all these evasion techniques becomes next to impossible, especially considering the slow response time from pressing the button to the action on screen, as was typical in many classic Nintendo NES games.

There are times where three bullets will be flying at you, each at a different height, preventing any possibility of jumping or ducking to avoid them. Unless Otto is able to pull off some Keanu Reeves Matrix moves ...

If you are able to reach the bottom floor, a getaway car is waiting for you and you will have successfully completed the stage. What's next? You start over at the top of the building and do it all over again, only there are more enemy agents and their bullets are much, much faster.

To be honest, I'm not sure that you even can beat Elevator Action. I typically died at least once in the first stage during each play through and never made it past the fourth stage. Was there a fifth stage? I don't even know. An eighth stage? Beats me.

Elevator Action Gameplay

3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT)

TMNT for NES Console
TMNT for NES Console | Source

If you were a kid in the '80s, you loved two things:

- Nintendo
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Therefore, what could be better than a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game? Maybe Bagel Bites, but little else. OK, definitely Bagel Bites.

If not the most frustrating of all classic Nintendo games, it certainly ranks near the top and considering its potential, TMNT for the NES could be the worst Nintendo game of all time.

Author's Note: Fortunately Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade would come along not much later and completely redeem the franchise.

The game starts with an over-head view a lot like say Zelda or most RPG Nintendo games, where players control their favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle character (all four characters are available to start the game) and dodge enemy vehicles as they travel to different buildings and manholes.

Once the turtle would enter the manhole or building, the screen would change to a side view where players would encounter various enemies, including foot soldiers, mousers, bugs and all kinds of crazy crap. Each setting had its own unique design and goal, ranging from flipping a switch to boss battle.

If a turtle runs out of health, gets caught in a trap or run over by an enemy vehicle in the over-head view (all are likely to happen often), the character isn't actually killed, but rather captured and can then be rescued starting in Mission 3.

The problem here is that I never reached Mission 3. Why is that? Because Mission 2 is F@%! impossible.

In Mission 2, after various stages filled with hoards of enemies, players have to disarm eight bombs attached to the Hudson River dam in less than 2 minutes 20 seconds while dodging electric eels and currents. Much like the DeLorean stage in Back to the Future, a player only gets one attempt at this. If all eight bombs aren't disarmed by the time the clock runs out, the game abrubtly ends and returns you to the start screen.

According to many sources, there are a total of six missions with the final battle between Shredder and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the Technodrome. That sounds cool, but ...

Personally I find it hard to believe as I have never met anyone or heard of anyone getting past the Hudson River Mission. As far as I know, Mission 3 in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is as real as Big Foot, Flying Saucers and The Loch Ness Monster.

TMNT Gameplay - Stage 1

TMNT - Ending

2. Bart vs. the Space Mutants

The First Simpsons Video Game for the Nintendo NES
The First Simpsons Video Game for the Nintendo NES | Source

It's no coincidence that three of the hardest Nintendo games of all-time were inspired by TV shows and movies. As mentioned above, such games were just plain awful.

Author's Note: I also recall Battle Toads being an incredibly terrible/difficult game, but I couldn't remember enough of it to justify a place on the list.

As the title would suggest, players control Bart Simpson in his quest to defeat Space Mutants that threaten to take over Earth once they complete the construction of a machine able to turn humans into aliens ... or space mutants, if you will.

Each level centers around one of the pieces the Space Mutants need to build their machine and requires that Bart collect or destroy the piece as it appears throughout the level.

For example, the Space Mutants need purple-colored items, so the player must spray paint all purple items red. In the second level, players collect hats, in the third level players pop balloons and in the fourth level players destroy EXIT signs (it's hard to imagine a fully functioning machine made entirely of purple stuff, balloons, hats and EXIT signs taking over the human race, but what do I know about world domination).

There is a fifth and final level, but I have no idea what the machine piece is because, as you can probably guess, I never made it to the fifth level.

What made Bart vs. the Space Mutants so hard were the controls. For whatever reason, the game designers decided it would be a good idea to make the "run" and "jump" button be the same button on the NES controller. Most levels require extremely precise jumps, sometimes onto and from moving targets, and too often you would find yourself running off a platform falling to your death rather than jumping ... Doh!

While sporadic moments of The Simpsons brand of humor gave the game a little charm, the poor game design was simply too much to overcome.

Gameplay Video for NES

1. Paperboy

The Hardest Nintendo Game - Paperboy
The Hardest Nintendo Game - Paperboy | Source

NES Game Poll

What's the Hardest Nintendo Game?

  • Paperboy
  • Bart vs. the Space Mutants
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Elevator Action
  • Back to the Future
  • Contra
  • Battle Toads
  • Other
See results without voting

Odds are if you played video games in the 1980s and 1990s, you are familiar with the arcade and NES game, Paperboy, and odds are you aren't surprised to see it in the #1 spot on this list.

The concept of Paperboy is very simple while the gameplay is anything but. In Paperboy, players control a paperboy with a delivery route on what appears to be a typical suburban street.

Players must deliver newspapers to the subscriber's house (indicated by bright homes as opposed to dark homes for non-subscribers) and can do so by tossing the paper into the mailbox or onto the door step. Every successful delivery results in points added to the players cumulative score and increases the odds of adding more subscribers during the next day's delivery.

What makes the game difficult are the many obstacles, both moving and stationary, the paperboy must avoid to successfully deliver the newspapers. Some of the obstacles are mundane, such as fire hydrants, parked cars, skateboarders and storm drains whereas others are whacky and bizarre, including tornadoes and the Grim Reaper. If the player crashes into any obstacle, they lose a life and start either at the beginning of the route or the middle depending on where the crash occurred.

The obstacles are even more infuriating due to the fact that you can never actually stop the paperboy. He, along with the screen, is always moving ahead which can result in some very close calls and more often than not, an inevitable crash.

If the player makes it through Monday without crashing or losing all subscribers, the player will advance to Tuesday, where there will be even more obstacles moving at an even faster rate. To win the game, the player must advance all the way to Sunday.

Author's Note: At the end of each day you would advance to a Paperboy Training Grounds facility at the end of the street where you could toss newspapers at moving targets and jump over obstacles to earn bonus points. The end of the Training Ground session feature bleachers filled with your admiring fans. I have two questions: 1) What city uses tax dollars to fund an Olympic style paperboy training ground facility? 2) Who spends their afternoons in the bleachers cheering on paperboys?

I can't remember for sure, but I don't recall making it past Wednesday. I'm sure the most-talented of gamers may have been able to make it to Thursday, maybe even Friday. But Saturday? Sunday? You have to be kidding me!

If you ever made it to Sunday, please tell me how. You should be elected to the Video Game Hall of Fame or maybe even have a wing named after you.

Did you ever beat any of these classic Nintendo games? What are the hardest NES games in your opinion? Comment below:

Paperboy Gameplay/Ending

Comments 19 comments

LaniseBrown profile image

LaniseBrown 5 years ago from United States

Yeah, the old NES games were super hard but one of my favorites was Paperboy. That obstacle course at the end was so difficult to beat! Why on earth would any paperboy have to run that? Lol and I don't know of anyone who has played the game and made it pass Wednesday. To me it seemed as hard as those games were, playing them made it all the more rewarding once you beat a level.

Jack Burton 5 years ago

Crystalis was the hardest game. I actually called the Nintendo hot-line (several times) that was listed in Nintendo Power magazine, just so I could beat the damn game.

Christian H. profile image

Christian H. 5 years ago from College Station, Texas

I could never beat the River Dam stage on Ninja Turtles. I always got electrified by the seaweed or ran out of time.

My personal NES game bane was Burger Time, though. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get past level 2.

jrsonza profile image

jrsonza 5 years ago from San Diego, CA

Elevator action was one of my favorites along with Mike Tyson's Punch Out.

TripleP profile image

TripleP 5 years ago from Iowa

I love going back to the old classics. Obviously, nowadays I end up playing mostly modern titles, but when they release a classic here or there on playstaion network I usually pick it up. Mega Man? Pits of doom! Couldn't believe how hard it was again at first, but I notice I pick up pattern recognition much faster now, so I eventually get through them.

DavitosanX profile image

DavitosanX 5 years ago

Oh, come on! I beat Mission 2 in Ninja Turtles. It took time and effort, but was perfectly feasible. Never got past Mission 3, though :D

In the end, if you didn't own lots of NES games (I know I didn't) you got really good at the ones you did have. Take my word for it: When the only game you have for the NES for 2 months is Paper Boy, you get pretty damn good at it!

jason12901 profile image

jason12901 5 years ago from Plattsburgh, NY

TMNT I never beat. II, III, and IV (SNES) was a piece of cake. TMNT was a big challenge and I could never get past level 3.

Paperboy I never had on the NES. Back to the Future was a challenge in of itself. I never had Elevator Action...Battletoads I got almost to the end and died. Contra I never played. Bart vs the Space Mutants...I rented it and after the first five minutes I was sick of it.

mj_daye profile image

mj_daye 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

Paperboy was a uber difficult.

Rocco B 5 years ago


I don't understand how you guys couldn't beat stage 2. I was barely 10 years old when I played it and beat it without losing a single turtle. Beat all the stages except for the last one, it was impossible to get down to Shredder. I wanna play it again :(

will345davis 5 years ago

I love your list. There's nothing like diving into those games that I grew up on. I would've had Kid Icarus and Who Framed Roger Rabbit on there as well. Keep writing these interesting articles. I'll keep reading.

Marcus Teague profile image

Marcus Teague 5 years ago

First and Third Person shooters today are a joke; you hide for a little while until you regain health? Nowadays, games are all about graphics, unique game play, and multi-player, not the difficulty (with several settings but all very doable).

But I consider the list more of a group of poorly designed games, but that's my understanding of video games. I believe I had the best video game experience: the mid-late 90s. I enjoyed having extremely tough video games that didn't always rewind you all the way back to the start. I had the computer and Sega.

Games of my childhood era of video gaming were tough, with few if any levels to choose from. They would take months to beat, but could be saved (so I could get some "fresh air" or do the dishes, etc).

I never beat any of the Road Rash games. It took me I think over a year to beat Sonic the Hedgehog. Taz-Mania was awful, but I remember the day I beat it very clearly.

I had to do Oddworld several years later to get that one. Starcraft Brood Wars takes a great deal of multi-tasking skills to beat the last level, you'd have to know how to play against multiple humans to get that one.

Earthworm Jim took me years to overcome, but I beat it.

Rat Attack was fairly challenging; I enjoyed that one.

Then the PlayStation and Game Cube came out and I was going through games three times faster than I was before, which was frustrating since my parents never made much then.

Mikeydoes profile image

Mikeydoes 5 years ago from Fl,IL,IND

Never saw this until now. Great idea and hub.

I was going to say this list is no good if TMNT wasn't on here, but GJ you passed with flying colors!!

johndnathan profile image

johndnathan 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas. USA

Nice hub!

I've actually beaten Contra without the 30 lives code. Of course it took a good year of furious playing, but I did it.

some other ridiculously hard games I'd like to mention are Ghosts N' Goblins, and Ninja Gaiden.

Mikeydoes profile image

Mikeydoes 3 years ago from Fl,IL,IND

I've played all 4 of those and have never beaten them! Good job on Contra. I know I beat it cheating, but there was no game like it back in the day!

Willsummerdreamer profile image

Willsummerdreamer 3 years ago from Marietta, Georgia.

Contra was from the devil, yet it was so awesome. Heck the Nes was a great system. I still have mine and play it from time to time....but its games sure haven't gotten any easier *glares at BattleToads, Ninja Gaiden and others*

CYong74 profile image

CYong74 3 months ago from Singapore

I've never cleared any of this. :( Never got past the darn waterfalls in Contra without the ... code.

Dan 3 months ago

Once you understand the patterns paperboy is super easy, I can beat the game without a single death.

Steven 7 weeks ago

I beat Paperboy several times, but the others no way, I got so frustrated with TMNT as a kid I would start to cry, lol. Never stopped playing though. BattleToads was another near impossible one to beat. Nice list.

Knightrdrx 3 weeks ago

Anything found in your subscription to Nintendo Power I felt was fair. Not cheating. Not cheating if you made a fair attempt without a code. I remember being stuck on Level 7 of Zelda. I bought TMNT one day and in the box was a nintendo power ad card with a free tip. A map of level 7! I ran upstairs to find I had left the game on all day and when I reset my saved game was lost. I was so sad but happy I now knew what to do....sometimes it appeared the computer cheated like rhe all girl team in dusty diamond softball. They kicked my butt all the time

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