Mario is the worst plumber in the world. He spits fire, will eat any mushroom he finds laying around, and has never once been seen with a pipe wrench or a drain snake in his hand. Despite this, Nintendo has managed to build a video game empire around him. To celebrate this dubious accomplishment, and our love for bad plumbers the world over, we’ve created the definitive list of the 25 best Nintendo (NES) games ever made.
Donkey Kong Country
With graphics that seemed more at home in the Mortal Kombat world, DKC was a treat for the eyes. But beauty was just the lure. The hook came in the form of responsive controls that made this a platformer that kept the action rabid without being overwhelming. Proof positive that simple isn’t synonymous with boring.
There’s no Chrono Trigger on this list. There’s no Dragon Warrior either, because there’s better fare to be had. Golden Sun is a JRPG that feels like the early Phantasy Star games while grabbing the best from the titles already mentioned. If this slipped through the cracks in your game library, best remedy that.
Track & Field
Ages before the Wii, Nintendo was pushing the limit when it came to controllers. While Track & Field could be played by smashing standard buttons, where it shone was with the Nintendo Power Pad. With the Pad, this accomplished the impossible, it made track and field sports actually fun. You’d run, jump, and burn calories without all the pomp and irritating flash of Dance Dance Revolution. Plus, you didn’t need rhythm, which was a blessing to gamers the world over.
Perhaps the only reason to own the original Game Boy, Tetris pushed puzzle games mainstream. The gradually more frenetic gameplay made a whole generation obsessed with getting a long piece just so they could finally take a breath. Then it was time to figure out what to do with that Z.
Super Mario Bros.
Merely because a game is iconic doesn’t make it good. Look at Leisure Suit Larry. However, fire up the OG SMB and see if you don’t find yourself hopping and bopping like a fiend. Just ignore the slightly misogynistic message that women are helpless and need inept tradesmen to rescue them.
Mega Man 2
Rockman, as it’s known in Japan, found a way to add depth to a platformer. You can run and gun, but if you don’t kill the bosses in the right order to absorb their power, you’d better have some nimble fingers, grasshopper. The first iteration was fine, though we’re still trying to figure out what Gut Man’s deal was, but Mega Man II is the foundation upon which the Mega house was Mega built.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Animal Crossing has always been an adorable little life-sim that appeals to the Stardew Valley type of player. New Leaf is an entry into the core game series, rather than one of the multitude of spin-offs. In it, you’re the mayor. This means you can abuse your power, become embroiled in scandal, lie to your constituency, and leave office in disgrace. Adorable disgrace.
Super Smash Bros.
It seems Nintendo said to the game developers, “You’re not coming out of that room until you’ve made a fighting game that feels as violent as a Looney Tunes episode. Oh, and it must use a bunch of cute characters with unique abilities.” As madcap as Guilty Gear XX, yet adorable enough you can play it with your niece, the original isn’t Melee, but it’s the flake that started the avalanche.
If you can’t complete the phrase “Up, Up, Down, Down…” you’re in the wrong place, chummer. Platformers are fine, but Contra brought home the real arcade action. Grab a buddy, grab your favorite gun upgrade, and run and gun until you can’t no more.
When racing standard cars with the mundane physics of reality wasn’t engaging enough, and go-carts armed with feathers felt too juvenile, gamers turned to F-Zero. This game used Mode 7, which gave it smooth operation. That’s not the end of the story. Catty opponents, intricate tracks, and a need for testing and exploration as much as quick reflexes turned it into a timeless masterpiece.
Only the truly extraordinary will know the name “Warsong.” Advance Wars is the modernized spiritual successor to that game. It is turn-based warfare that didn’t require an immense grid to track unit weaknesses, nor a Sun-Tzu level of tactical comprehension. Thus, it balanced complexity with fun, and provided more than a few ways to win against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Street Fighter II: Turbo
There’s gamers out there who hate fighting games. Mostly because fighting games are boring, mashing, combo-happy trash. Yet, there are two fighting games that even the most jaded will pick up. One is Mortal Kombat II, but the big daddy with the big daddy pants is this Street Fighter. Enjoyable moves, lovable characters, and a low entry bar made this a constant weekend rental for many, back when there was such a thing.
Super Mario 64
Mario 64 was a technical miracle for the age. It went mano a bandicoot with the mascot of the first Playstation, and came away with the championship belt. It felt a little thrilling to jump into paintings. The exploration was gratifying in the extreme thanks to all the hidden easter eggs tucked away. Best of all, it was 3D so slick that you only rarely wanted to put the controller out of its misery.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
It took stones to put that second exclamation point on there, but the game earned it. Punch-Out!! managed to capture the nuance inherent in the sweet science, while giving you the pugilistic satisfaction of taking down the pigeon champ himself. All that’s missing is an ear-biting minigame à la Saw.
Super Mario World
The flagship game of the SNES, Super Mario World was the overshadowing offspring made from Super Mario Bros. 3. World was fun for everyone, had plenty to do, and around every corner was a new little tidbit to snack on. ‘Twas Mario all growed up, yet still speaking to the kid in all of us.
Final Fantasy III (aka VI)
The characters are what make FF III so memorable, but not only because of their personalities. Those are merely part and parcel with the highly varied skills that each one employs. Anyone can play this and be sucked into the story, but only a true technician knows how to make a team that meshes well enough to combat the dizzying array of enemies.
Super Mario Kart
There’s lots of racing games. There’s even lots of cart racing games. Yet none make the heart sing and the hands sweat like this one. You aren’t alive until you’ve done the Ghost Valley hop, or taken gold after red shelling a skilled opponent on the Rainbow Road.
Super Castlevania IV
While Simon’s Quest introduced the gameplay dynamics of crouching beside a lake until the boatman came to retrieve Simon, it’s Castlevania numero quatro that added real fun to the franchise. In it, Simon could now wield his whip in eight full directions, and use it to grapple like an archaeologist in a fedora. There’s only one other way whips and chains are more fun, and that can’t be done digitally.
Pokemon is a creepy game in which hermetic old men teach children how to trap animals in tiny balls, then release them only to do battle. Sometimes the poor beasts are allowed to breed, or painfully mutate into new horrors. Still, it’s great fun, and the Gold/Silver/Crystal versions are the best of the old and new.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
Though slow to get traction in the west, Fire Emblem is a franchise without fault. However, Awakening is the sparkling jewel in its crown. Character relationships leapt off the screen with even more gravitas than in Mass Effect. The gameplay was tight, and the ability to toggle off perma-death helped introduce the casual player to this varied and immersive tapestry.
Scroll all you want, Metroid Prime ain’t here. Instead, here’s a Metroid game that’s actually enjoyable. Well, except for the wall jumping. But, Super Metroid defined the Metroidvania genre and set the bar to which every subsequent pretender to the throne aspires.
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The same way Super Metroid took the formula of the original and sharpened it to a razor’s keenness, so too does “A Link to the Past” operate as the last worthy word in overhead Zelda games. Where else could you toss a chicken without arousing the ire of PETA?
A list of Nintendo games without Goldeneye is like eating celery. It’s not only completely unsatisfying, but also an affront to nature. Goldeneye was the first tactical shooter, complete with satisfying multiplayer and zoomed headshots. There is no CS:GO, Call of Duty, Rainbow Six, or any other espionage multiplayer FPS without it.
GoldenEye promised a new landscape in gaming. That promise came into full and fantastic fruition in Perfect Dark. It used many of the same mechanics, but packed in sci-fi weapons that would make Ripley salivate. Then, it offered bots in multiplayer so you didn’t need to only frag your friends. But, seriously, you still would.
Throwing everything against the wall often leads to naught but a messy wall. In cases like EarthBound, it leads to art like a Jackson Pollock dreamscape. This game is a cosmic horror tale filled with combat to make the most die-hard role-playing fan reach for a YouTube guide. Yet, it is peppered with humor and some heart, all paced to within an inch of its life.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
While Metroid Prime proved Samus Aran belongs only in two dimensions, Ocarina showed that Link wasn’t quite as limited. In fact, apparently his green tunic was just waiting for 3D. From the music to the combat to the time-hopping story, finding a hole in this game is like finding someone John McClane can’t annoy. Impossible. Just, don’t play the remake.