A Nigh Impossible Task
When I found out we would each be doing our own separate Top 10 Nintendo lists, I first thought “This will be a cinch. I can easily think of 10 best ever Nintendo games.” Then Steve did his top 25 and I panicked. How can I, a guy who loves games but plays very few (especially since adulthood kicked in), make a list of the 25 best Nintendo games without basically listing every game I know?
Then I sat down to actually make my list and realized something. Limiting my list to 10 would be difficult enough, but ranking them would be nigh impossible. Whether Mario is better than Zelda or vice versa depends entirely on which game and what day it is. Then there’s the 2D/3D debate, cartoony vs. “realistic”, open-world or linear, portable or home console… Are first-party Nintendo games objectively better than third-party? Can I justify a game that may not be highly regarded? What about games that have been rereleased, or had very similar sequels?
What I finally settled on was two lists, unranked, with one list representing ten Nintendo games that I feel are objectively the pinnacles of their franchise, genre, or play style, that everyone should play at least once in their lives; and a second list of 15 games that I personally vouch for, that either provided memorable experiences for me for their time, or continue to amaze and entertain me today.
I will limit the list to only one game per franchise/genre/style (ex. one 2D Mario platformer, one 3D Mario platformer, one Mario RPG, one 2D Zelda, one 3D Zelda, one Kirby game, one Pokémon, etc.), with as few exceptions as possible. Each game will have a sentence or two explaining why it’s on the list.
My Top 10 List (again, in no particular order):
- Super Mario All-Stars (SNES, Wii, VC) — Okay, I admit it, this is a bit of a cop out, but it is still, in my opinion, the best way to experience all the original 2D Mario games with only a few modern conveniences like a save function. If I really wanted to be cheap, I’d have gone with the version that also came with Super Mario World, but that’s a lot harder to find.
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, GBA, VC) — This is the Zelda game that laid the groundwork for all future Zelda games, and is still just as playable as it was a quarter-century ago.
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, VC, 3DS) — This is the Zelda game that laid the groundwork for not only all future 3D Zelda games, but most 3D adventure games in general. Two words: Z-Targeting. Still an amazingly immersive world (especially on the 3DS).
- Super Mario 64 (N64, DS, VC) — Practically the first full-3D game ever was literally a game-changer for the industry, and still maintains all the fun and charm it launched with.
- Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS — The latest entry in the multiplayer fighting game is the biggest and best ever. Hardcore fans will always find something to whine about, but for a casual gamer, Smash fo(u)r is almost perfect.
- Conker’s Bad Fur Day (N64, Xbox) — FOR MATURE GAMERS ONLY, Conker’s reintroduction as a violent and antisocial squirrel performing increasingly ridiculous tasks for a cast of ill-mannered and foul-mouthed NPCs pulled out all the stops on the N64 in sound, graphics, story, and unique gameplay… not to mention adult humor.
- Mario Kart 8 with DLC (Wii U, Switch) — My experience with the Switch version is extremely limited, but the complete package of MK8 on the Wii U is always fun and features most of the best aspects of the franchise.
- GoldenEye 007 (N64) — For its time, RareWare’s GoldenEye was the best console FPS, the best licensed game, the best multiplayer experience, and the best way to introduce an aging and culturally irrelevant character to a new audience. It’s a little rough around the edges today, but still very playable.
- Donkey Kong (GB, VC) — The original arcade hit is still a must-play and personal favorite, but this reinvention of the (Mario vs.) Donkey Kong franchise as a series of puzzle-platformers is near-perfect, and even better on a Super Game Boy adapter.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U, Switch) — Okay, I know I’m sort of breaking a rule here, but Breath of the Wild is so different from every previous Zelda game that it deserves to be mentioned seperately, and it’s so amazing that everybody needs to try it.
Honorable Mentions and Personal Favorites:
- Dr. Mario (NES, GB, SNES, GBA, N64, GCN (JP only), Wii, DSi, Wii U (as Dr. Luigi), 3DS) — Panel de Pon may be a more challenging and cerebral puzzle game, but Dr. Mario’s accessibility, ubiquity, and multiplayer features make this the quintessential Nintendo puzzle game to have. The 3DS version adds items you can use to attack your opponent for an added twist.
- Super Mario 3D Land (3DS) — Not only did this 2½D platformer perfectly show off the visual and control advantages of the 3DS, it was also an incredibly well designed introduction to what I hope is a recurring play style for Mario. Wii U’s 3D World was a good follow-up with multiplayer, but the original is still better.
- Donkey Kong Country (SNES, GBC, GBA, VC) — Although its sequel is arguably the better game overall, the original continues to give me the warm (digitally rendered) fuzzies, and is the only Rare-made DKC game in which you actually control Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong Land on Game Boy notwithstanding).
- Wii Sports/Resort/Club (Wii, Wii U) — Part tech demo, part party game, part introduction to fun and immersive gaming. Wii Sports was a juggernaught of a game on the Wii, and is still just as enjoyable today. Resort improved on almost everything with Motion Plus controls and new game options, and Club brought the original Sports into HD with some GamePad support.
- Rush 2: Extreme Racing USA (N64) — Technically, the only third-party game on this list. What on its surface looks like just a slap-dash sequel to Midway’s San Francisco Rush port, Rush 2 did open-world racing and spectacular crashes long before Burnout Paradise. All tracks could be raced forwards or backwards, shortcuts were everywhere, and fully exploring every track’s nooks and crannies revealed items that unlocked new cars and customization options. Then there was the physics-heavy stunt arena…
- Paper Mario (N64, VC) — SquareSoft’s Super Mario RPG laid the groundwork, but Intelligent Systems’ Paper Mario innovated on almost everything for their pseudo-sequel. The flat characters in simple 3D, craft-based worlds made for a unique aesthetic, and the interactive turn-based battles evolved Square’s timed attacks into something all its own. Plus, the story was charming and humorous.
- Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal/HeartGold/SoulSilver (GB/GBC, DS, VC (soon)) — Red and Blue were a phenomenon. Gold and Silver were an achievement. As if including 100 new Pokémon, two new types, a whole new world, a real-time day/night mechanic that affected which Pokémon you were likely to encounter, as well as a day-of-the-week mechanic that opened special events on certain days weren’t enough, it also included everything from the first generation games, including all 151 original Pokémon and the entire Kanto region. Oh, and versions for both greyscale and Color Game Boys.
- Picross 3D (DS, 3DS) — Original 2D Picross puzzles are incredibly fun and challenging, but nonograms existed long before Nintendo put them on a Game Boy cartridge. 3D Picross, however, was something different. Using a similar method of numbers and elimination, you chip away at boxes to reveal increasingly large and complicated voxel-based images.
- Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (GCN (remake of a PS1 game)) — From my experience, the original Metal Gear Solid is still the best in the series. This GameCube remake, produced jointly by Nintendo and Konami, and developed by Silicon Knights under Hideo Kojima’s supervision, took everything MGS2 added to the series and applied it to the first (third?) game’s superior story.
- Super Mario Kart (SNES, VC) — Even though the latest 3D entry in Nintendo’s tentpole series is on my top 10, the original Mode 7 Mario Kart is just as fun today as it was in 1992, especially in battle mode.
- LEGO City Undercover (Wii U, Switch, Xbox One, PS4) — Originally published by Nintendo as an exclusive launch-window game for the Wii U, this non-licensed open-world LEGO sandbox game remained relatively obscure until its recent multiplatform port. I like to call it “Grand Theft LEGO”.
- Kirby’s Adventure/Nightmare in Dream Land (NES, GBA, VC) — Few platform games, even within this franchise, have captured the perfect blend of charm and challenge that Kirby’s second outing delivered. This game also marks the introduction of Kirby’s signature swallow and copy ability.
- Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA, VC) — Fond childhood memories of the NES original notwithstanding, this is the definitive version of Samus Aran’s first game. Gameplay and presentational enhancements from Super and Fusion improve on the original in every way, and they even include the NES version as an unlockable bonus.
- Star Fox 64 (N64, VC, 3DS) — It was a hard call which Star Fox game I was going to include, this or the original. Ultimately, it was the cinematic presentation and meme-worthy dialog that put the N64 sequel/remake/reimagining on the list. Also rumble.
- Yoshi’s Island (SNES, GBA, VC) — A unique, hand-drawn look and the Super FX2’s sprite scaling, stretching, and rotation were just the icing on this clever but tough-as-nails platformer starring Mario’s mount from its predecessor. Yoshi is now a platforming franchise all its own because of Island.
Finally, the one Nintendo game everyone must play:
- Donkey Kong (arcade) — This is it. The game that made Nintendo a household name around the world. Despite its somewhat creaky controls, this well-preserved relic of the pre-NES era is just as fun, charming, and challenging as it ever was. Although the original arcade ROM has never been officially released, respectable remakes have been made available on ColecoVision, NES, Virtual Console, and a near-perfect recreation as a bonus feature of Donkey Kong 64. There’s also MAME, but we’re not advocating emulation.