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The 10 Absolute Best Classic Action Games of All Time

Action games have been a staple of the video game industry since its early days, captivating players with their fast-paced gameplay, challenging obstacles, and thrilling adventures. From the pixelated classics of the 8-bit era to the groundbreaking 3D experiences of the 32-bit generation, action games have constantly evolved and pushed the boundaries of what‘s possible in gaming.

In this article, we‘ll take a nostalgic trip down memory lane and explore the 10 absolute best classic action games of all time. These groundbreaking titles not only defined the action genre but also left an indelible mark on the gaming industry as a whole.

What Makes an Action Game?

Before we dive into our list, let‘s define what constitutes an action game. Action games are characterized by their emphasis on physical challenges, requiring players to use quick reflexes, precise timing, and strategic thinking to overcome obstacles and defeat enemies. These games often feature a protagonist on a mission to save the world, rescue a loved one, or achieve a specific goal.

Action games encompass a wide range of sub-genres, including:

  1. Platformers: Games like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog, where players navigate through levels by running, jumping, and avoiding enemies.

  2. Beat ‘em ups: Games like Streets of Rage and Final Fight, where players battle through hordes of enemies using martial arts and weapons.

  3. First-person shooters: Games like Doom and GoldenEye 007, where players view the action from a first-person perspective and use firearms to defeat enemies.

  4. Fighting games: Games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, where players engage in one-on-one combat using a variety of martial arts techniques and special moves.

With that in mind, let‘s count down the 10 absolute best classic action games of all time!

#10: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, released for the PlayStation in 1997, is a masterpiece that redefined the Castlevania series and inspired a new sub-genre known as "Metroidvania." Players control Alucard, the son of Dracula, as he explores a vast, interconnected castle filled with secrets, treasures, and formidable enemies.

What makes Symphony of the Night so special is its seamless blend of action, platforming, and RPG elements. As players defeat enemies and uncover new abilities, they can backtrack to previously inaccessible areas and discover new paths forward. The game‘s haunting atmosphere, gothic visuals, and unforgettable soundtrack create an immersive experience that continues to captivate players over two decades later.

Fun fact: The game‘s iconic line, "What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets!" was ad-libbed by voice actor Patrick Seitz during recording.

#9: Ninja Gaiden (1988)

Tecmo‘s Ninja Gaiden, released for the NES in 1988, set a new standard for challenging and thrilling action games. Players control Ryu Hayabusa, a skilled ninja on a quest to avenge his father‘s death and defeat the evil Jaquio.

Ninja Gaiden‘s tight controls, fluid animations, and punishing difficulty made it a hit among hardcore gamers. The game‘s cinematic cutscenes, which featured impressive graphics and storytelling for the time, helped elevate the game‘s narrative and create a more immersive experience.

Fun fact: The game‘s infamous bird enemies, which swoop down on players with little warning, have become a symbol of the game‘s brutal difficulty.

#8: Gunstar Heroes (1993)

Treasure‘s Gunstar Heroes, released for the Sega Genesis in 1993, is a run-and-gun action game that oozes with style and creativity. Players control the Gunstar twins, Red and Blue, as they battle the evil Empire and its army of robotic soldiers.

What sets Gunstar Heroes apart is its innovative gameplay mechanics and over-the-top action. Players can combine four different weapon types to create unique and devastating attacks, and the game‘s levels are filled with inventive set pieces and boss battles that keep players on their toes.

Fun fact: Treasure, the game‘s developer, was founded by former Konami employees who worked on classic games like Contra and Castlevania.

#7: Contra (1987)

Speaking of Contra, this 1987 NES classic is a must-play for any action game fan. Players control commandos Bill Rizer and Lance Bean as they battle an alien invasion in a series of challenging side-scrolling levels.

Contra‘s fast-paced gameplay, memorable bosses, and two-player co-op made it an instant classic. The game‘s iconic Konami Code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A) has become a part of gaming culture, granting players 30 extra lives to help them conquer the game‘s brutal difficulty.

Fun fact: The game‘s box art features a shirtless, muscular man holding a gun, but this character never appears in the actual game.

#6: Mega Man 2 (1988)

Capcom‘s Mega Man 2, released for the NES in 1988, is widely regarded as the best entry in the classic Mega Man series. Players control the titular blue robot as he battles Dr. Wily‘s eight Robot Masters and their themed stages.

Mega Man 2‘s tight controls, memorable soundtrack, and clever level design make it a timeless classic. The game introduced the now-iconic password system, allowing players to save their progress and tackle the stages in any order they choose.

Fun fact: Mega Man 2 was developed in just three months by a small team of six people, including the series‘ creator, Keiji Inafune.

#5: Super Metroid (1994)

Super Metroid, released for the Super Nintendo in 1994, is a masterclass in atmospheric storytelling and exploratory gameplay. Players control bounty hunter Samus Aran as she investigates a distress signal on the planet Zebes and uncovers a sinister plot involving the Space Pirates and the enigmatic Metroids.

Super Metroid‘s sprawling, interconnected world is filled with secrets and upgrades that encourage exploration and backtracking. The game‘s eerie soundtrack, detailed sprite work, and cinematic set pieces create a haunting and immersive experience that has influenced countless games in the decades since its release.

Fun fact: The game‘s opening sequence, which recaps the events of the previous Metroid games, was groundbreaking for its time and helped set the stage for the game‘s epic story.

#4: Castlevania III: Dracula‘s Curse (1990)

Konami‘s Castlevania III: Dracula‘s Curse, released for the NES in 1990, is a prequel to the original Castlevania and follows Trevor Belmont as he battles Dracula and his minions in 15th-century Europe.

What sets Dracula‘s Curse apart from its predecessors is its branching paths and multiple playable characters. Players can choose to recruit three additional characters: Sypha Belnades, Grant Danasty, and Alucard, each with their own unique abilities and storylines. This adds a layer of replayability and strategy to the classic Castlevania formula.

Fun fact: The game‘s soundtrack, composed by Hidenori Maezawa, Yukie Morimoto, and Jun Funahashi, is considered one of the best NES soundtracks of all time.

#3: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)

Sega‘s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, released for the Genesis in 1992, is the pinnacle of the classic Sonic series. Players control the speedy blue hedgehog and his new sidekick, Tails, as they race through vibrant, colorful levels and battle Dr. Robotnik‘s army of robots.

Sonic 2 improved upon the original game in every way, with larger levels, more diverse environments, and the introduction of Sonic‘s signature Spin Dash move. The game‘s two-player mode, which allowed players to race through the levels as Sonic and Tails, was a groundbreaking addition that helped cement Sonic‘s status as a gaming icon.

Fun fact: The game‘s famous Casino Night Zone was inspired by the bright lights and sounds of Las Vegas.

#2: Super Mario World (1990)

Nintendo‘s Super Mario World, released as a launch title for the Super Nintendo in 1990, is a masterpiece of platforming perfection. Players control Mario (and later, Luigi) as they explore Dinosaur Land and battle Bowser and his Koopalings to rescue Princess Toadstool.

Super Mario World‘s vibrant, colorful graphics, catchy soundtrack, and inventive level design make it a timeless classic. The game introduced Yoshi, Mario‘s lovable dinosaur companion, and featured a sprawling overworld map with secret exits and hidden levels that encouraged exploration and experimentation.

Fun fact: The game‘s development team, led by Shigeru Miyamoto, spent over a year designing and perfecting the game‘s levels.

#1: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)

Nintendo‘s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, released for the Super Nintendo in 1991, is not only the best classic action game of all time but also one of the greatest video games ever made. Players control the young hero, Link, as he embarks on a quest to rescue Princess Zelda and save the kingdom of Hyrule from the clutches of the evil wizard, Agahnim.

A Link to the Past‘s perfect blend of action, adventure, and puzzle-solving set a new standard for the series and the genre as a whole. The game‘s dual-world mechanic, which allowed players to switch between the Light and Dark Worlds, added a layer of depth and complexity to the exploration and puzzle-solving. The game‘s stunning visuals, unforgettable soundtrack, and epic storyline cemented its status as a true masterpiece.

Fun fact: The game‘s iconic Master Sword, which has become a staple of the Zelda series, was inspired by Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur.


These 10 classic action games represent the best of the best, showcasing the genre‘s evolution and the incredible talent and creativity of their developers. From the platforming perfection of Super Mario World to the atmospheric exploration of Super Metroid, these games have left an indelible mark on the gaming industry and continue to inspire and entertain players to this day.

Whether you‘re a longtime fan or a newcomer to the world of classic gaming, these action games are essential playing. They offer a timeless experience that combines challenging gameplay, unforgettable characters, and immersive worlds that will keep you coming back for more.

So, dust off your old consoles or fire up an emulator, and embark on a thrilling journey through the annals of gaming history with these 10 absolute best classic action games of all time. Happy gaming!