I'm not going to make a list clogged with Mario, Contra, Metroid, and Proto Man 2. These games have the benefit of low-prices because collectors/vendors seem to care more about brand recognition than quality. These games are often brutally difficult, thus undesirable to many gamers. Others never saw a North American release.
#12: Proto Man 3 (World 2011)
The Top 10 Underrated Non-Franchise Action Platformers for the NES
Games like Ninja Gaiden
#11: Wrath of the Black Manta (JP November 17, 1989; NA April, 1990; EU January 24, 1991)
Why is this game even on the list. Honestly I only had 10 games, but this Strider clone is fun... I think? I don't even feel like talking about it, so that should speak to the shit quality.
#10: Hokuto no Ken (JPN October 10, 1986)
If more games features awesome backdrops, cool enemy design, and exploding heads, they'd be on this list. Not nearly as good as the sequel, but it certainly has it's charm. Ken walks about as fast as Robocop, like he does in the anime. The sequel suffers from the same problem, and jumping around is much faster.
#9: Karnov (December 18, 1987; NA 1988)
Karnov feature some of the weirdest and most memorable enemy design on the NES. The NES was about to have an explosion of games around 1989, using new technologies. Karnov still uses a one-way mapper, and was a pretty big title in America. You can probably pick this up from your local used game store.
Joystiq thought the game was creepy, and maybe it is a little unsettling.
#8: Shadow of the Ninja / Blue Shadow (JP August 10, 1990; NA January 1991)
Natsume no doubt adapted the Shadow of the Ninja engine into Shatterhand (#4). It features co-op play, sadly lacking in Shatterhand. Shadow of the Ninja is almost impossible. It's ten times more difficult than Ninja Gaiden. You get 1 life and 5 continues. Be prepared to spend several solid days, if not weeks, mastering this game.
#7: Trojan (JP December 24, 1986; NA February 1987)
Another ultra-common cart, and an excellent game. It doesn't emulate properly in JNES and others, but I think NNNesterJ will probably run it, because it has proven to be the most reliable emulator in my experience. With that said, JNES uses much less system resources.
This game is like Ghosts and Goblins, and about as difficult. You get only get three lives, but if you hold UP you can continue forever. Strange programming, but effectively two difficulty settings: cheater or awesome. Thanks for making me feel like a cheater, Capcom.
It's the post-Apocalypse, and you are so angry you decide to beat the shit out of street gangs with your Ancient Greek Weapons. Trojan feels cheap at times, but the levels are varied, detailed, and once you start to learn it's quirks, Trojan becomes pretty fun for 30 minutes or until you break the controller.
#6: Fist of the North Star (Japan, April 17, 1987; NA April, 1989)
This is the real classic of all Fist of the North Star games. You play, of course, as Ken. Your mission: kill everyone (damn, these games are so violent!) by exploding them with your fists or kicking them with the force of lightning. The cart is pretty common as well, and even if it is a franchise these games don't count because exactly 100 people know what Fist of the North Star is.
#5: Karateka (Japan 1984)
Before Prince of Persia staring Jake Gillen-Something, there was Karateka. Most people will probably hate this game, and North America never saw a release on the NES. The Famicom version is my favorite, but it was also released for Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari 8-bit, Atari 7800, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, ZX Spectrum, and Nintendo Game Boy. Still, it remains pretty obscure and primitive compared to Prince of Persia, but the simple karate fighting is better than anything else the NES has to offer. Games like Kung Fu, Karate Champ, and Karate Heros just feel stupid, with nonsense obstacles and enemies. Karateka puts the player in the role of a Kung Fu movie action hero, kicking ass on his way to the final boss.
#4: Shatterhand (JP October 26, 1991; NA December 1991; EU November 19, 1992)
Ninjas had been done to death at this point in the NES's life, but action-hero stereotypes never got old. Shatter hand is the story of a cop who lost his arms and gained the ability to fight global criminal organizations.
Tokkyuu Shirei - Solbrain in Japan. America gets a much harder non-carnival stage for level C, and an overall better game, if only slightly. The NA sprites are a little cooler, and the lack of the Japanese story is a plus. The North American intro more effective and extremely awesome.
Shatterhand uses his cybernetic fists to explode people. If he picks up Alpha and Beta powerups, he can build 8 different robots. ABB is by far the best. Build it twice, and you get a near-invincible power suit for 15 seconds, usually right before the boss. You can even block bullets with your fists. The coolest gimmick is clinging on to chain link fences in many stages.
The music sounds all self-similar, but solid enough. Shatterhand is polished and well worth everyone's time.
#3: Journey to Silius (JP August 10, 1990; NA September 1990)
Originally designed to be a Terminator game, and still one of the best games on the NES. The levels are long, but there are only 5. You get a new weapon before every boss as well. Amazing music.
#2: Vice: Project Doom (JP April 26, 1991; NA November 1991)
A blatant Ninja Gaiden ripoff, and thank god because, like Ninja Gaiden, this game is awesome. This game features 2 driving, 2 shooting, and about 18 platforming levels broken up over 11 stages. A must have for any collector. Nintendo Power readers were treated to full-coverage and the cover of issue 24.
I really like the stage 11 music. Unlimited continues make this game quite beatable with a little patience.
#1: Metal Storm (JP April 1992; NA February 1991)
Another game which appeared on the cover of Nintendo Power, Metal Storm is of the highest quality. But because it's not part of a franchise, editors at IGN, Gamespot, etc. didn't play it as a kid and it gets overlooked or ranked around #50 in popular lists of NES games. Don't let the mediocre attention fool you; this is one of the best platformers of all time. You can flip gravity at any time, and choose between several weapon powerups, like most of these other games. R-Type never managed to be quite as good as Gradius, it's a shame Irem decided to turn that game into a franchise instead of this one.
Instead of annoying gimmicks, like in Ninja Gaiden 2, Metal Storm manages to keep things interesting in truly unconventional ways. Stage 1 lets the player get a feel for the controls and collect a few weapons before a pretty fun boss fight. Stage 2 starts to play with hypermazes and infinite fall tunnels, and shows how looping the top and bottom of a platforming level can be exploited to interesting effect. Stage 3 has a track with enemies through the entire level, Stage 4 takes place in a moving cage, Stage 5 has a laser beam chasing the player, and Stage 6 pushes the limits of the hypermazes and gravity flips. Stage 7 is a boss rush mode and a disappointment, but overall the game remains and classic and a personal favorite.
I remember running this on the Physics Lab computer in high school.
Hunt down the Japanese rom, several improvements were introduced. The M-308 Gunner looks more like a mobile suit thanks the the white sprites.
It also features one of the most classic NES tunes of all time, "Electric Win," as well as many other excellent tracks.
Most of the games are variations on the same genre, so I hope this list didn't become too repetitive. I can only praise the art and controls so many times before it becomes pointless space filler. Popular franchises like Batman and TMNT get plenty of attention, and likely everyone is aware of those games. Powerblade 1 and 2 technically became a franchise and I probably should have included both in this list, especially with the Fist of the North Star games. The list, however, is done, and I'm not changing it, but expect a Powerblade extravaganza in the future.
Did I forget your favorite game? Make your case for an underrated action platformer in the comments.