When Nintendo fans think about the NES, games like Super Mario Bros. and Metroid might be the first to spring to mind. But one of the 8-bit console’s best titles is a lesser-known Pac-Man knockoff that’s secretly wormed its way into some of Nintendo’s most iconic franchises.
Released as an NES launch title in North America, Clu Clu Land is a quirky puzzle game developed by the same Nintendo R&D team responsible for Donkey Kong and Tetris. At a glance, it doesn’t look much different than Pac-Man. Players move a red blob around a grid, avoiding enemies and grabbing bonus fruit along the way.
The difference is that Clu Clu Land is more akin to something like Picross. The goal is to uncover a secret picture on the grid by weaving through goalposts and finding gold ingots. The grid is filled with hidden obstacles like invisible bounce pads, which constantly keep players looking for a new route to form the full picture. It’s a unique mix of top-down navigation and logic puzzle gameplay that creates a hybrid game that felt ahead of its time.
If you're a paid Nintendo Switch Online subscriber, you can play Clu Clu Land right now for free by downloading the Nintendo Entertainment System app.
Despite being relatively unknown in Nintendo’s catalog today, Clu Clu Land pops up in some truly unexpected places. My first exposure to the game was in the original Animal Crossing. Before the days of Virtual Console or Switch Online, players could collect and play NES classics within the GameCube title. When I found Clu Clu Land in my village, I had no idea what it was, but I found myself playing it for hours while barely touching old favorites like Excitebike.
Even if you’ve never heard of it, there’s still a chance you’ve come across its DNA elsewhere. The Japanese manual for the original Legend of Zelda says that the game’s one-eyed digdogger enemy is actually a large version of Clu Clu Land’s urchin-like Uniras.
Uniras haven’t just appeared in Zelda. Ever wonder what exactly the grey, spiky ball in the Super Smash Bros. series is? That’s actually an Unira, straight out of Clu Clu Land. The game's protagonist, Bubbles, even appears in Super Smash Bros. Melee as a trophy. The cameos don’t stop there. Bubbles was a playable character in Game Boy Advance game DK: King of Swing, multiple WarioWare games feature Clu Clu Land minigames, and it makes an appearance in Nintendo’s NES Remix series.
Considering how heavily referenced it still is, it’s surprising that Nintendo hasn’t done much with the franchise outside of the original NES game. Even revisiting the game today, it’s clear that Clu Clu Land is a special puzzler that’s a distinct piece of Nintendo’s storied history. That gives it a sort of eternal hidden gem status that reminds us just how many great games there are on the NES that fans might not know about. It feels like there’s always something new to discover over two decades later.