It was 1991 on a Sunday and I was in some kind of retail store…it could have been Target or Sears, I forget. But I do remember vividly when I first saw it: a Super Mario game in vibrant 16-bit visuals. It wasn’t the first time I’ve witnessed the new technology. Both the Turbo Grafx-16 and the Sega Genesis have already come out, but since I was solidly a Nintendo fanboy, the Super Nintendo is what I’ve been waiting for.
Without hesitation I picked up the controller and said to myself: “Wow, look at all the buttons!” Not only were there the A and B buttons, but also X and Y buttons too! And then I noticed shoulder buttons! But I didn’t call them shoulder buttons because I was unaware of that terminology at the time, they were called L and R buttons and they shifted the screen. I was awestruck and I wanted one. Could I beg for a Super Nintendo after pleading with my dad for the original NES just three short years prior? No. Thankfully I was old enough to start looking for a job.
The NES revived the video game industry after the infamous crash of 1983, and the emergence of the 16 bit systems: the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo, and to a lesser extent the Turbo Grafx-16 solidified its return. In celebration of the Super Nintendo’s 20th anniversary, I decided to list my top 20 best SNES games of all time. Let the heated arguments of why something is #16 and another is at #8 when it clearly should be #5 begin!
20. Super Return of the Jedi
The Super Star Wars Trilogy took your favorite scenes from the movies and made them into shooter/platform and on-rails shooter segments. Super Return of the Jedi was the least controller-bustingly hard of the three, and that made it the best. Even the Ewok levels were fun, though not as awesome as flying the Millennium Flacon through the Death Star.
19. Final Fight
Capcom pretty much took the side scrolling beat ‘em up and refined it into this gem of an arcade port. I’ll vote for any politician like the muscle-bound mayor Mike Haggar who can take matters in his own hands to rescue his daughter from spandex wearing thugs. But that Poison chick is pretty hot…wha- she’s a dude!? Ghaah!
18. Mega Man X
Mega Man X played like classic Mega Man, with the platforming and weapon upgrades and whatnot, but also added new features like the ability to dash and jump to propel forward rapidly, as well as the ability to scale and jump from nearly any wall. These in turn made this Mega Man game even more kick-ass.
17. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Mario has been in multiple genres: sports, racing, puzzles and of course platforming. But an RPG? Co-developed by Square, it contains a lot of Final Fantasy-style turn based battles as well as Mario-style action. It’s also one of those rare times where Bowser is an ally.
16. Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts
The Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts (or Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins) series is super friggin’ hard. Capcom’s third entry into the series is no exception. The challenge is all the more motivation to fight through to the maelstrom of monsters to rescue the princess. A double jump, armor upgrades, magical weapons…this has to make it a bit easier, right?
15. Donkey Kong Country
The most striking feature of Donkey Kong Country is its eye-popping, pre-rendered 3D graphics. But underneath it all is a solid platformer starring Mario’s one time nemesis, Donkey Kong (actually the titular character is Donkey Kong Jr.), and his monkey sidekick Diddy Kong.
The first game to use Nintendo’s pseudo 3D technique, “Mode 7”, F-Zero paved the way for futuristic racers that use hovercars. With speeds reaching over 500 km/h (311 mph), F-Zero makes it hard to go back to more realistic racing games.
13. Super Punch-Out!!
The Punch-Out!! games are less about boxing and more of a series third person boss fights, with pattern recognition and exploitation as trademarks of the action. Super Punch-Out!! boasts a larger variety of ethnic stereotypes-I mean “characters” to KO than previous iterations. That is what makes it super.
12. Contra 3: Alien Wars
Back in the day, there was no cover, no training mode, and definitely no “healing by standing in one place for a few seconds”. Contra 3: Alien Wars exemplifies this with its pure, intense, run ’n’ gun action against alien hordes. The screen would be filled with bullets…one hit-you’re dead. That’s how we played games, kids.
11. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Yet another platforming gem, Yoshi’s Island takes some superficial elements from past Mario games but differentiates it with more Yoshi-centered gameplay. Gobbling up enemies and more puzzle solving, along with its whimsical visuals make Yoshi’s Island a fan favorite. If you think about, it is really just a long escort mission with a squealing Italian baby in tow.
10. Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
No Ultra Combos or Focus Attacks or Dash Cancels here. This was old-school Street Fighter at its simplest and most elegant, where it takes pure, unadulterated skill to win. This was the sped up version of Street Fighter II: Championship Edition and going back to those older versions felt like molasses after Hyper Fighting. I played this throughout the early nineties, and I think I still have the calluses on my thumb.
The SNES’ “Mode 7” feature is the star once again in this fun on-rails shooter starring fuzzy animals. But the gameplay is no joke, since the dogfighting action never lets up for a second. Due to the limitations of the system, the chatter between your wingmen amounted to nothing more than gibberish, but it still doesn’t take away from the excitement of the space battles.
8. Final Fantasy III (6)
Yes, we all know that Final Fantasy III is actually part VI. The story of Terra and friends who set out to save the world from the madness of the Joker, I mean Kefka, stands as one of the franchise’s very best as well as the “other” must own JRPG on the SNES. The mechanics are straightforward and concise, the characters are endearing, the music is beautiful, and the story epic. Yup, all the ingredients for a great RPG are there.
7. Super Mario Kart
Super Mario Kart spawned a slew of imitators, but none can compare to the quality and charm of the series. The original Kart racer was a blast to play and it introduced game changing power ups like turtle shells and speed boosts that we’re so familiar with today. There’s nothing like knocking out the guy in first place and stealing away his victory. In spite of its cutesy exterior, Mario Kart can be pretty brutal.
6. Chrono Trigger
A dream team collaboration between the creators and artists of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Dragon Ball Z, Chrono Trigger remains one of the best JRPGs ever. Featuring non-random, more tactical battles, engaging story and characters, and of course the time travel element that affects the game’s ending, it’s no wonder fanboys jump for joy whenever it is re-released.
5. Super Mario World
Well of course the new Nintendo system would have a brand new Mario game announcing its arrival. Super Mario World ushered in the plumber’s latest platforming adventure through seven vast worlds. It introduced the feather cape power up that allowed Mario to fly and glide. And who can forget gobbling up enemies astride the dinosaur Yoshi in his debut as a Nintendo mascot? Not quite as good to me as Super Mario Bros. 3, but a stellar Mario game nonetheless.
4. Super Castlevania IV
It was the snazzy rotating corridor showing off the “Mode 7” effects that caught my attention during commercials, but it didn’t matter. I knew I wanted to play this 16-bit upgrade of the Castlevania series. This was back when Castlevania was a straightforward action-platformer as opposed to the “Metroidvania” style that is more common today (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But it was Simon’s versatile whip that could strike from every direction that put this title among the series’ best, not to mention among the best in the SNES library. And my GOD, the music!
3. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
A Link to the Past retains what made the original Zelda great: a quest through a vast overworld, lots of secrets, and incredible multi-tiered dungeons to explore. It introduced the concept of the Light/Dark parallel dimensions that are recurring features in current Zelda games, making for some head scratching puzzles that make you feel super smart once you solve them. As awesome as Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess are, A Link to the Past remains my personal favorite. Yes, call it nostalgia.
2. Super Mario All-Stars
Technically all the games here are NES games, just enhanced with 16-bit graphics and sound. Still, Super Mario All-Stars is a must-have for any Nintendo enthusiast. The original Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 are timeless, but the enhanced Super Mario Bros. 3 is very near gaming perfection. All-Stars also includes Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels, which is the real Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan that was deemed too hard for American players. Poisoned mushrooms that shrink Super Mario? That’s just pure evil!
1. Super Metroid
Could the top spot really be held by any other? The best of the Metroid series is also the best SNES game by far. It took what made the original great into gaming joy, a 16-bit space adventure in which bounty hunter Samus Aran is once again plunged into the labyrinth that is the planet Zebes, exploring its secrets and upgrading her weapons along the way. Its core gameplay of finding items to reach previously inaccessible areas is further enhanced with new abilities. Its gorgeous graphics and haunting music are just icing on the cake. I can play Super Metroid now or 20 years from now and it will never feel dated. That is the definition of a classic.
So happy 20th, Super Nintendo, I’m so glad you found new life on the Virtual Console!