March 30, 2020 at 6:16 am #73854
This is an almost impossible question given just how many great games Nintendo have created, and for that matter how many genres that owe their existences and tropes to Nintendo’s own development studios. If you were to ask about the best games ever published by EA or Activision Blizzard you’d have a challenge (even Blizzard on its own has Starcraft, World of Warcraft, Diablo 3, and Overwatch that are all amazing and impossible to compare). If we just go by Metacritic scores then four of the top seven games ever are by Nintendo and a further four in the top twenty were Nintendo exclusives. And Metacritic misses a lot of Nintendo games that are older than Metacritic.
So to answer about the best Nintendo games ever I’m going to have to go with influence and depth, starting with the genres Nintendo basically defined and own and moving through the ones it merely has a very distinctive take on. In the below breakdown I’ve marked great Nintendo games in bold, and where they are available on the Switch or 3DS (Nintendo’s current two consoles) I’ve mentioned them.
The 3d Action/Adventure genre
It’s only the biggest genre of single player games on the planet, including games from Dark Souls to Dragon Age to Skyrim to Horizon: Zero Dawn to Assassin’s Creed to Uncharted, and almost all the conventions of the genre were laid down in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time from contextual buttons to lock-on targeting. Metacritic considers it the best game of all time – and given when it came out it has a strong case.
That said, fans often consider its immediate sequel The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask even better, and the Switch entry, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best 3d open world games ever made. BotW is available on Switch, while the other two were given HD remakes for the 3DS.
The 2d Platforming genre
Nothing is more associated with Nintendo than the 2d platforming genre. Donkey Kong might have put the jump into the platform navigation, and Jump Bug! might have had scrolling on arcades while Pitfall introduced it to home console on the Atari 2600, but Super Mario Bros is the game the entire genre is based on, introducing … just about everything including jumping on enemies. It’s also a game that quite literally saved the home gaming console market.
I would however argue that its NES successor Super Mario Bros. 3 is a better game in literally every way and has almost as heavy an influence over the platform genre including the multi-hit bosses, autoscrollers, multiple rival power-ups, and a set of themed overworlds you can wander around to pick your levels. (Although Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, and Donkey Kong Country 2 are amazing games and definitely in the same league as SMB3, we can all think of actual rivals they had from the time – Sonic). Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros 3 are available included with Nintendo’s online subscription service.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a great modern 3d platformer on the Switch and worth an honourable mention. Also Super Mario Maker an outstanding shared level creator building on the visual language and level design of Mario; Super Mario Maker 2 is out on the Switch in June and may have a case for best platformer of all time (don’t get Mario Maker for the 3ds).
The 3d Platforming genre
Once again, although Nintendo weren’t technically the first to make a 3d platformer, every single 3d Platform game since basically traces back to one Nintendo game. Super Mario 64 – which among other things lead to the popularisation of the analogue stick, and with forward being away from the camera. It also was an exploration focused game (unlike its main rival Crash Bandicoot on the playstation). In terms of the actual best 3d platformer, Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch is in my opinion the best in genre, although it’s nowhere near as influential as Mario 64 as no one makes that sort of game any more.
The 2d tile based and isometric RPG genres
The original The Legend of Zelda wasn’t the first top down exploration focused RPG ever – but it was one of the first significant ones and had shops, item swapping puzzle solving, and dungeons – both of which would become genre staples. The follow up games The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy built on everything done by the original Legend of Zelda and add a whole lot more character. Link to the Past is on the 3DS Virtual Console, the original Legend of Zelda is one of the games for Nintendo Switch Online, and Link’s Awakening is being remade for the Switch and due out later in 2019.
Subgenre: The Kart Racer
Having produced a far ahead of its time racing game in F-Zero, Nintendo wanted to create a couch multiplayer racing game – but they couldn’t make it as fast as F-Zero because nothing was. Instead they came up with a Mario spinoff that had the players pick up items from the road and throw the shells at each other or get mushrooms to get speed boosts.
Although Super Mario Kart has some great ideas I really can’t recommend it; the 2d tracks lack something, and the Mario Kart 64 sequel was the first that really looked like a racing game. However each one is better than the last (because, like most Nintendo franchises, they bring out one per console). The latest and greatest is Mario Kart 8 DX on the Nintendo Switch and there’s a good reason why there have been fifteen million copies sold, making it the bestselling game on the Switch to date.
Subgenre: The Platform Fighter
Fighting games are a thing, but Nintendo came up with their own spin on the genre in the platform fighter where the objective is not to grind your opponent’s health bar to zero at which point they fall over, but to smash your opponent off the stage using platforming mascot characters. Super Smash Bros. was a fine game but they’ve built on the foundation and, although nowhere near as revolutionary, the latest version, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Switch is the best. (I’ve written more about the series elsewhere on Quora).
Subgenre: The Metroidvania
Metroid on the NES (and part of the Switch online) was a groundbreaking exploration-platform game where the Nintendo protagonist actually fired a gun (and was female under her battle armour). You found power-ups that allowed you to get to new parts of the map and then doubled back to places where you could use them. Amazing if you liked the exploration style – but Super Metroid on the SNES added something the game desperately needed – a map. (And a whole lot of other updates over Metroid and Samus Returns).
Super Metroid is of course on the 3ds Virtual Console, and still arguably the best in its genre – but some claim the 3d incarnation Metroid Prime is better; Metroid Prime 4 is due out at some point in the next few years. It is however a Retro Studios game not an actually Nintendo developed game.
Genre: The Party Game
Nintendo’s classic entries here are Smash and Mario Kart, but there’s also a Mario Party series full of minigames and Wario Ware that does the same thing on mobile. To be good any party game needs a lot of luck, and a cussed nature that means anyone can win and you sympathise with each other when you fail and blame the console whoever wins.
That said, there’s one outright winner in the party game stakes – one of the best selling games in history – Wii Sports. The weak motion controls are where the blame lies, of course, but the intuitive nature of the games also helps.
OK, so Pokemon may simply be the best selling JRPG series ever – but it’s its own thing in its own right and a Nintendo exclusive. I’m not going to even try to claim I know which the best Pokemon game is – but the best Pokemon game for someone who hasn’t played one before is Pokemon Let’s Go (Pikachu/Eevee) on the Switch. I’ve been into the appeal of the series elsewhere.
I’ve had to leave a lot of excellent but more niche games off this list like Pikmin, Animal Crossing, Luigi’s Mansion, Splatoon, and many other great series, any of which would have been enough to make a game studio.
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