New Wii U? Your Virtual Console needs these games
We don't want to panic anyone, but the Wii U has launched, meaning Nintendo has smashed all existing paradigms into so much dust and shiny black plastic. Maybe.
But whether the system ultimately proves as revolutionary as its predecessor, a new Wii U beneath your TV means access to Nintendo's Virtual Console, and innumerable classic titles vying to be downloaded on day one. Take a look at our picks of the Virtual Console titles that, if you haven't played them to death already, should be taking up storage on your new console immediately...
Not the original God-sim by any stretch, it was nonetheless Enix's 1990 genre-bender that best capitalized on the strengths and tastes of early-16-bit console gaming. Half Castlevania-style platform hack-and-slash and half realtime top-down smite-'em-up, ActRaiser's build-and-attack rhythm keeps things fresh for a challenge that's more than the sum of its parts.
Contemporary players can expect some vintage teeth-gnashing boss battles, but may also be surprised just how much warmth and character Enix manages to inject into the tale of a butt-naked cherub and his glue-huffingly dopey human charges.
Breath of Fire II (SNES)
Vintage top-down RPGs don't get much more classic than Breath of Fire II, second in the series that was Capcom's best-known contribution to the genre. You want an emotionally stunted protagonist with a mysterious past? Here you go. Fluoro-haired magical princesses? Why of course. A species-spanning party that lines up dutifully to await your command at the first sign of danger? Gotcha.
A plot that takes you over hill and under dale through an encounter-filled overworld, stopping periodically at colorful towns where folks walk on the spot and wryly observe as you loot their houses? Check, check and check. Today it's the stuff of snarky most-of lists; but with Capcom on the case back in 1994, this was the kind of thing that put JPRGs on the international map.
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (TurboGrafx-16)
How do you make a series that remains one of the best-loved in its medium, even while players agree that it's only ever truly flourished in supposedly archaic 2D form? Better make those platformers really, really freakin' good. Rondo of Blood (remade for PSP as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles) is the black sheep of the Castlevania series, a multi-pronged adventure that's less a sequel to the SNES' Castlevania IV and more a precursor to the genre-busting Symphony of the Night.
With a foot in both camps, this Turbografx-16 oddity remained scarce for years, and while it's not to everyone's tastes, it's still well worth your Virtual investigation. That said, total newcomers to the series may prefer to go all the way back to its superlative SNES predecessor first.
Chrono Trigger (SNES)
Out of all possible games on the VC, Chrono Trigger ought to be your first stop if you've never played it before. A hallucinogenic, technicolor epic, saturated with color effects and Mode 7 showboating, here's an adventure from the heyday of both Squaresoft and the SNES itself. CT's time-traveling plot and revolutionary open-endedness still put many modern titles to shame.
Released during the creative flurry that also produced Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy VI, Square's title can scarcely get through the delightful festival prologue before the surprises and innovations start flying thick and fast. It's since seen conversion to no end of platforms in various enhanced guises, but there's something about the genuine article that still shines.
Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (Genesis)
Sure, Tetris is a classic for the ages and all, but if you're looking for a different take on old school puzzle design, there's Mean Bean Machine in all its retro Sonic glory.
The English-language version of Puyo Puyo--after Columns, Sega's second attempt at improving on Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris formula--swapped out the Japan-only characters for bit-players from the 1993 iteration of the extended Sonic the Hedgehog universe. That incidental curio aside, Mean Bean's frenetic gameplay and devious, combo-heavy multiplayer lend a lasting appeal to threaten the Soviet stronghold on the genre.
(If you'd prefer the exact same game in Nintendo colors, see the SNES' Kirby's Avalanche.)
Gunstar Heroes (Genesis)
You may've noticed that it's impossible to mention Tokyo's Treasure Co. without tacking cult developer onto the front. Gunstar Heroes is the reason why; not a bad accomplishment, seeings as the 1993 shooter happened to be the company's first offering.
Gunstar Heroes' side-scrolling platform-shooter gameplay was flavor of the month on release, well-represented by Konami series like Contra and Rocket Knight. Treasure propelled the genre to new heights of ferocious, finely-tuned intensity; the developer's reward was an immediate cult following, which continues to command international sales almost 20 years later.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)
This is the Internet, so you might be able to find a few words about why Link to the Past is a good game if you look hard enough. However, just because it's a clich doesn't mean it's not true. To many this is the Star Wars of video games: huge yet intimately immersive, weighty yet full of idiosyncratic flourish.
Playing through Link to the Past on its twentieth anniversary, the game's thrilling novelty still shines through. Confidently produced by a peak-performing Shigeru Miyamoto, there's still a palpable feeling of gaming's potential as a medium expanding with your pint-sized avatar's every footstep.
Samurai Shodown II (Neo-Geo)
For new Virtual Console players, one of the most exciting areas for exploration may well be the Neo-Geo channel, granting access to arcade-perfect titles that were once only playable for a quarter-a-pop or after selling your house to invest in SNK's notoriously pricey machine. The system's crown jewel may be the 1998 version of King of Fighters--which saw Japanese VC release last month, meaning a US translation ought to be forthcoming. But in the meantime, another fighter well worth your time is SNK's Samurai Shodown II.
Developed in direct response to the then-stratospheric popularity of Street Fighter 2, the weapon-centric brawler quickly outclassed earlier attempts like Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting; these would have the last laugh when SNK rolled both series together to discover the true King of Fighters.
Shining Force II (Genesis)
Instead of wasting precious time making the case yet again to play the likes of FFVI or Ocarina, allow us to recommend a series that, back in the day, constituted one of the Sega camp's best counter-arguments against Zelda and Final Fantasy.
Like the latter, the 1993 Shining Force II was a make-or-break play by its creators: facing dissolution should the game fail to perform, developer Sonic! Software refined the tactical Shining series with a greater scope and deeper challenge than ever before, resulting in a game that's aged as well as any Square Enix title you care to name. Invigorated by the success, the devs went on (as Camelot) to create Golden Sun, and continues to produce games for Nintendo today.
Sin & Punishment (Nintendo 64)
Treasure's 2000 run-'n'-gun did a bunch of things wrong. It revived the Cabal-style, third-person rail-shooter at a time when the FPS genre was coming into its own; co-developed with Nintendo R&D1, Sin & Punishment was locked onto the increasingly-ailing Nintendo 64, and took its sweet time recording an English-language voiceover track that was a fat lot of good to the Japanese players who ended up having the title all to themselves for the next seven years.
However, you'll note that none of those errors actually pertain to gameplay at all. So when Nintendo bent to fan pressure and finally released the game on Virtual Console, its popularity was enough to revive the series--and by extension the genre itself, by then back in vogue thanks to recent on-rails shooters like Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles and House of the Dead: Overkill.
Soldier Blade (TurboGrafx-16)
You can't have much of a Virtual Console without at least one good old-fashioned shmup. There's plenty to choose from here: from Konami's Gradius to the same outfit's eye-candy SNES shooter Axelay; from Namco's uber-vintage Galaga to Natsume's excellently-named NES side-scroller, S.C.A.T. But we want to impress you with our niche tastes, so we're going to go with Soldier Blade, arguably the pick of the TurboGrafx conversions to grace the VC.
Serious shooter fans--like, stay away from that dude he crazy serious--knew Hudson's machine hosted some of the most frenetic examples of what would become known as the bullet-hell genre, and this is one of the best to be preserved for your downloading pleasure.
Star Fox 64 (N64)
Can you blame us if we still get excited whenever a new Star Fox title's announced? Blame it on the title that converted Nintendo's Super FX oddity into a cross-generational franchise: if they were all going to be this good, players reasoned in 1997, roll on the yearly updates.
With benefit of hindsight, Star Fox 64 may have been the series' high-water mark; all the more reason to keep the dream alive with a smoother-than-ever update of this fast-paced, deceptively deep shooter. Do a friend a favor and turn them onto SF64: seeing someone's face as they watch the final credits roll--and realize their infatuation with the game's only just begun--is always good for a laugh.
Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts (SNES)
Fans of Capcom's vintage side-scrolling lance-'em-up get the choice of four similar-but-distinct Virtual Console games; but if we had to pick just one, we'd say the best has to be this SNES version. Totally reworked for the SNES with different areas, weapons and enemies, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts is less a conversion of the arcade title (though there is a Genesis port available of that), and more an entirely new game: as different from its predecessor as Ghouls was from the original Ghosts 'n Goblins.
And yes, you can also download the arcade or NES versions of the latter to supplement this one; but being as any one Ghosts title is enough to induce rage and despair in weaker-willed players, it's our duty to suggest you start at the top and work your way down.
Super Mario All-Stars (SNES)
Sure, you could download all the NES Mario titles individually for that authentic 8-bit experience--but it's not like you're starved for other things to spend your download points on. So why not take advantage of the SNES-era Super Mario All-Stars, bundling together four of Nintendo's greatest hits (well, three of them and Lost Levels, but let's not quibble), lovingly remastered with a flair that dwarfs the accomplishment of most contemporary HD remakes?
Besides, it's not really 8-bit Mario unless you're playing on a joypad that reduces your thumb-pads to screaming, throbbing red nodes of pain. So if you're gonna go soft, go in some comfort.
Super Metroid (SNES)
Ever watch a movie in black-and-white then, when you're describing it to friends later, somehow find yourself remembering it in vivid full color? Today, revisiting Super Metroid is a bit like that: hit Start on this strictly 2D side-on platformer and before you know it, your adventures will be taking on the depth and immersion of a full-fledged contemporary shooter.
That's not to say most 2D games are passe, or that Super Metroid would be better in 3D; simply that, 18 years after release, Nintendo's unequaled mastery of its chosen genre still feels as fresh and relevant as ever.
What else does a new Wii U need?
These are our picks, but it's not as if anyone -- even us! -- could hope to boil the offerings of Nintendo's Virtual Console down to a mere 15 games. What'd we leave out? What titles are you looking forward to downloading when your Wii U's out of the box?