What is the best Super Nintendo game ever made? Which Xbox 360 title is already the definitive classic? What Atari, Dreamcast and PlayStation experiences are most worth remembering?
Growing tired of the internet’s countless, wishy-washy attempts to answer such questions, we decided to make the tough decisions ourselves. You’ll find no Top 5s, Top 7s, Top 15s or Top 100s here - just a single winner and runner up for each platform. We didn’t stop at only the obvious systems, either, but declared champions on everything from the Wii, Genesis and PSP to the Virtual Boy, Jaguar and Apple II. That’s three decades worth of potential controversy!
Before you disagree with our final choices, however, take note of our criteria. To win, a title had to be more than “good.” Adjectives like “important,” “essential,” “groundbreaking” and “acclaimed” must also apply. The following games are not merely the best... they’re the greatest.
The Greatest Game: Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
No other game perfectly captures the NES (and Nintendo’s playful spirit) than Mario’s third romp through the Mushroom Kingdom. Released in 1990 at the height of the system’s popularity, Mario 3 improved on the original in not just every conceivable way, but also ways that the general gaming populace hadn’t even considered.
No more trudging through levels head-on – now you chose your path on an overworld map, complete with enemy encounters, games of chance and a unified theme that made each world feel totally unique. Forget eating flowers and tossing fireballs – now Mario could grow a raccoon tail and fly. Simply put, there was an abundance of absolutely everything, to the point where it seemed more a work of beautiful magic than plastic game cartridge.
It all sounds basic and unimportant now, but there was nothing that came close to the hysteria Mario 3 caused. Do we need to remind anyone that an entire movie focused on premiering Mario 3 in the final act? The crowd reaction in The Wizard is pretty damn close to reality. Every kid wanted Mario 3, and they wanted it now.
The last report we saw put Mario 3’s sales in the 15-18 million range. That’s more than any Halo, any GTA or any Final Fantasy. The only other games that come close to matching the NES’s crowning achievement are also by Nintendo, and this was the company at peak performance. We’re not sure if they’ll ever top this one.
The second greatest: Mega Man 2 (1989)
Perhaps the first non-Nintendo sequel that stirred up an insurmountable amount of hype… and then came through on every single promise it made. From unbreakable gameplay to one of the best goddamn soundtracks ever, this is the best Mega Man of all time, hands down.
The Greatest Game: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992)
OK, all that stuff we just said about Mario 3, about how it changed the entire franchise and enhanced the core experience immeasurably, that’s what Link to the Past did for Zelda. The basic “overhead RPG” idea remained the same, but now there were more dank labyrinths to explore, more items to collect and more screen-filling bosses to fell than in either previous Zelda game. Then, right when you think you’re about to take on the final battle, you discover there’s an entirely different realm to scour, complete with its own set of treasures and baddies. The massively huge game suddenly becomes impossibly vast, and you’re beside yourself with joy because the adventure is far from over.
We expect better graphics and more stuff to do in a sequel, though, so what propels Link to the Past to the top of the heap? The presentation and story - for the first time there’s something at stake, and you’re treated to an epic tale that involves prophecies, gods and a whole lotta captured princesses. Up to this point, the series was fairly straightforward and somewhat barren – this was the first time Hyrule truly felt alive.
On a system inundated with top-notch RPGs, arcade-quality fighting games and unbeatable exclusives, it’s agonizingly difficult to choose just one. But when the dust cleared, there was no doubt in our eyes that Link to the Past was groundbreaking then, and still a hell of a lot of fun in 2009.
The second greatest: Super Metroid (1994)
Nope, not Super Mario World folks, cuz it merely followed a template set by Mario 3. Super Metroid on the other hand turned a good series into a phenomenal one with its unprecedented atmosphere, immensely memorable music and tear-jerking plot twist. EGM ranked it as the best game of all time in issue 150, and we (almost) wholeheartedly agree.
The Greatest Game: Super Mario 64 (1996)
There was never any doubt as to which of Nintendo’s gems would win the N64’s prime spot. The entire system, from its technical specs to the controller itself, was built around this one game, and it shows. Look how every other developer struggled to map controls on to the bafflingly ugly N64 pad, yet Mario can elegantly hop, skip and flip his way through the world with remarkable ease. The controller’s analog stick made 3D Mario an instant success, revolutionizing gaming and defining an entire console generation in the span of one game. How many other developers can say that?
Not surprisingly, Mario 64 went on to be the system’s biggest seller and to this day remains a favorite in the GR offices. Everyone can agree that most 3D games of the 32/64-bit era aged poorly (mostly the geo-nightmaric graphics), but Mario 64 remains as endearingly addictive as it was in 1996.
Every single keyword we used to build this feature applies to Mario 64. Is it beloved? Yes. Was it groundbreaking? Yes. Did it define the system for years to come? Yes. Is it still fun today? Of course, yes. And even though Ocarina fits that mold perfectly too, it’s safe to say that without Mario’s industry-changing test run in 3D, Link’s time-tested adventure might not have been the milestone achievement it turned out to be.
The second greatest: GoldenEye 007 (1997)
Before the world caves in on itself because Ocarina isn’t here, realize that GoldenEye embodied everything Nintendo said the N64 should be. It used all four controller ports and delivered the deepest, bad-assiest solo and multiplayer experience on the system, and became the dorm-room-standard shooter for years. And by the way, it did outsell Ocarina by a slim margin.
The Greatest Game: Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001)
From its release less than a month after the GameCube's launch, until the console's sad and lonely death five years later, Super Smash Bros. Melee was consistently Nintendo's best-selling and most popular title. Still a favorite on the competitive gamer circuit, this joyously twitchy, button-mashing, happy free-for-all of a mascot fighter has stolen millions of players' hearts. The hardcore may moan about imbalance, but what they never seem to understand is that that imbalance - the often ludicrous changes in fortune during battle - are half the fun.
The other half comes from Melee's nearly suffocating amount of Nintendo nostalgia, with huge numbers of secret items and unlockable characters waiting for discovery by the truly devoted. Even before the game's release, message boards were buzzing about who would feature in the roster. The anticipation was warranted and rewarded. Once all the combatants and trophies have been won, you're left with a virtual museum, as well as an instantly entertaining pick-up-and-play experience.
The second greatest: Metroid Prime (2002)
Despite Super Metroid’s many accolades, there wasn’t another game in the series until 2002’s Prime, which flawlessly revamped the 2D franchise as a stunning first-person adventure. One of the biggest gambles in Nintendo franchise history paid off wonderfully and set the stage for the next four Metroid entries. Looking forward to that Wii remake, guys.
The Greatest Game (so far): Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
No surprise here. Twilight Princess is a GameCube holdover, Prime 3 was great but didn’t bring much beyond improved controls, and Smash Bros. Brawl is so unapologetically “Nintendo” it’s hard to say it encapsulates the typical Wii experience. Galaxy on the other hand, gets everything just right. For example, the motion controls are helpful instead of a frustrating nuisance and the gameplay itself is accessible enough for anyone to jump in and have some fun.
But as serious gamers who tore through Galaxy’s deepest secrets, we know how profoundly challenging the game can be. We know how much raw skill is required to beat Luigi’s Purple Coins and how furiously aggressive the final Bowser level is. This was a hardcore game in “fun for everyone” paint, and we salute Nintendo’s adherence to quality over quantity (Mario platformers have been a one-per-console affair since the N64).
We also want to call attention to something most Wii titles will never receive any notice for – the visuals. We firmly believe that parts of this game look on par with a lower-end 360 run-and-jumper, with dazzling colors and brilliant lighting effects that shame everything else on the system. Why, dear developers, can’t every game look and play as good as Mario Galaxy?
The second greatest: Wii Sports (2007)
Loathe it all you want, Wii Sports does embody everything about the Wii and does it quite well. The motion controls aren’t without their faults, but an entire planet of family-night gamers ate it up and we have to say we did too… for a little while. We’re over the experience now, but it’s still hard to resist when a group of people turn it on and start waggling away. Hardcore/casual arguments aside, Wii Sports is just plain fun.
Next up: The champions on Sony and Microsoft consoles...