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.