Last week Nintendo dug up the ‘90s and smeared them all over your HD TVs with the Super Nintendo Classic Edition. The collection of 21 SNES games is a paean not just to nostalgia (and easy money) but to a golden era of game design. As we wrote last week, Nintendo’s explosion of brilliant gaming ideas in the 1980s reached full flower on the SNES, as the more powerful technology allowed its designers to explore their ideas more deeply than before. Basically what we’re trying to say is that the best SNES games are pretty dang great.
If you need us to break it down even more, and point out which games out of these 21 are the best, well, here you go. Keep reading. It’s all below. We did this for you.
This polygonal mess tries to inject life into its awkward 3D shooting by introducing a generic cast of characters that feel like they’re ripped straight out of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon from 1989. Barely tolerable at the time, Star Fox is now almost unplayable.
We dig the chutzpah of slapping that word “super” onto this one. While Nintendo was busy exploring the concepts behind their NES classics and expanding them into brilliantly designed labors of love, Capcom basically just remade an old arcade game that was always frustrating without ever being fun. It’s not a straight rip of the original, but it doesn’t do much to change the formula, making players churn through unforgivable exercises in jumping, killing and dying (over and over and over). If you think Cuphead is brutally hard, good luck getting past the first level of this thing.
This previously unreleased sequel tries to salvage the original with a more open-ended structure built around a galactic map. It adds a touch of sci-fi fizz but can’t make up for the awkward action. These outer space dogfights (sometimes starring actual dogs, or at least dog cartoon characters) were expected to wow players with their simple three-dimensional nature, in the kind of technological gamesmanship that burns out fast as more powerful chips roll off the line. It’s tough to play today.
Kirby saw mission drift almost as early as Mario, with this minigolf-based spin-off coming out only two years after the little pink fluff debuted. (Nintendo seriously wasted no time stretching Kirby out—within two years he had a Game Boy game, an NES follow-up, and two different spinoffs built around minigolf and pinball.) It’s cute, it’s charming—it’s Kirby—but it’s about as inessential as any minigolf game based around a platforming mascot could be.
Part of the appeal of racing games, historically, is their ability to show off a system’s graphical capabilities. Forza and Gran Turismo today pride themselves on their photorealism. F-Zero blew players away when it launched alongside the SNES because it was basically a demo for the system’s vaunted Mode 7 graphics, which simulated a 3D perspective by creating a background layer that could rotate and change in size. The actual game underneath the graphics is a barebones racer gussied up with a slick sci-fi aesthetic and technology that hasn’t broken any ground in over 25 years. There’s nothing terribly bad about F-Zero, there’s just not much to it.
Here’s more Kirby—lots more Kirby, in fact. Or at least many different iterations of possible Kirbys past and present, a panoply of platforming minigames that place Kirby in a variety of different situations. It’s actually a pretty great little micro-gaming collection, but somehow the whole feels less than its parts. Ranking in at #16 on a list like this isn’t much of a slight: pretty much every game from here on down is worth at least some amount of your time.
Not nearly as iconic as the NES original, this boxing game is still an addictive rush of pattern recognition and colorful racial stereotypes. It’s a simple formula, one that’s hard to mess up, but also one done so perfectly on the NES that every subsequent version was bound to feel a touch unnecessary. That’s the rub with Super Punch-Out!!: it’s well-designed and exactly as good today as it was 23 years ago, but it’s still hopelessly stuck in the shadow of its forebear.
Meanwhile here’s a well-made game that’s pretty much exactly equal to its predecessor. Contra III packs everything that made the NES classic great into a more beautiful (and equally punishing) package. If you want to use the SNES Classic to relive your couch co-op glory days, this is one of your best bets.
The classic Japanese role-playing game took off in the early ‘90s, so it makes sense that the SNES Classic would have a handful of ‘em. Secret of Mana might not stack up to Earthbound or Final Fantasy VI, but it’s a clever and inventive example of the genre, and shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of the bigger names in this lineup.
Nintendo pumped these monkey games out on the SNES, releasing Donkey Kong Country in 1994 and then two sequels over the next two years. Only the first of Rare’s platformers are on the Classic, though, which is a smart call—they’re all pretty similar. The original’s still a tough, tricky run-and-jump game, with then-groundbreaking 3D graphics and a great musical score. You can see why this wound up being the second-best-selling game on the entire system.
Street Fighter II is a timeless classic of the era, and the version picked for the SNES Classic is probably the best version that was made for the system. You can say they maybe should’ve gone for Super Street Fighter II, which includes the four new challengers that gave that game its subtitle, but unless you absolutely refuse to play as anybody but Cammy or Fei Long there’s little to quibble about here.
The basic story of the Super Nintendo was expanding on what made the most beloved NES games work. Super Castlevania IV does exactly that with Konami’s excellent series of gothic whip-crackers, not just upgrading the graphics and sound but altering the fundamental mechanics in ways that streamlined and modernized how it’s played. IV might lose a few points for being one of the more straight-forward Castlevania games, but it’s hard to fault the game’s action or level design.
This game’s absolutely gorgeous, with an art style that still stands out today. It’s less of a true sequel than a stealth pilot for a new gaming concept built around Yoshi. It’s like when a sitcom would introduce a new character and then have an episode entirely about them and their wacky family and then four months later suddenly they have their own show. Yoshi’s Island is the Just the Ten of Us of Nintendo games. That little bit of bait-and-switch might not rest well with those expecting a traditional Mario game, but this unique little number remains a true gem.
Remember what we said about Super Castlevania IV? It all goes double for Mega Man X. It’s a vital, exhaustive translation of a titanic 8-bit classic, still as thrilling (and tough) as ever.
The first Mario Kart can be hard to go back to after all the additions and expansions of the last two decades. If you can look past what’s not here, you’ll find a compulsively playable competitive racing game that transcends mere nostalgia. Mario Kart won the checkered flag on its very first attempt, and only got better from there.
Here’s a role-playing game for those who can’t get into the anime-inspired clichés of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. The first in the family of games that eventually gave us the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi jams, Super Mario RPG is an accessible and surprisingly funny jaunt that won’t take as much time as the other RPGs on this list.
In which the former Jumpman and notorious dinosaur abuser goes on his biggest adventure ever at the time. The flagship SNES game might not stack up to the near-perfection of Super Mario Bros. 3, but it’s an amazingly crafted delight with just the right amount of challenge.
This oddball RPG eschews the fantasy trappings normally seen in the genre and sets itself in a whimsical parody of America as filtered through a Japanese perspective. Smart, funny and at times poignant, there’s a reason this once hard-to-find game has long been a favorite among Nintendo and RPG enthusiasts.
Originally known as Final Fantasy III when it was released on the SNES in 1994, Final Fantasy VI remains the high water mark for Square’s venerable RPG juggernaut. It didn’t just create a world for you to explore and level up in; it let you interact with that world in audacious new ways, pointing towards the open-ended future that RPGs would spiral into.
Before Link went 3D on the Nintendo 64, he marched throughout Hyrule with a camera pointing down at him from above. A Link to the Past returned to that original perspective after the side-scrolling detour of Zelda II, while also introducing concepts that have recurred in almost every Zelda since, from parallel timelines / dimensions to the Master Sword itself. Many consider this Link’s greatest adventure, and it holds up better today than most of the 3D Zelda games.
The big theme with the Super Nintendo was that it did what the NES did but better. Super Metroid summarizes that more than any other single game. Metroid was a revelation in 1987, but 1994’s sequel remains the best example of how to improve an already great game in every possible way. Its drip-feed of progress and waves of initially unattainable goals mastered the balance between temptation and reward that drives all games. If you’ve never played it, it’s the best single reason to own an SNES Classic.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.