Ranking Super Nintendo games is basically an impossible task. Go through any “best-of” list around the interwebs and you’ll see an absolutely loaded selection of games, featuring some of the true all-time greats.
Looking through the selection of games for other video game systems, I have little doubt this was the greatest console of all time. There’s just so much depth.
So how do you sift through all of that?
After making my own list, I still don’t know.
I do know my inspiration came about in part because of the release of the Super NES Classic, a retro system release (featuring 20 games from the original lineup … and one new one) which I recently read has been outselling “new” consoles like the Switch and Playstation 4.
That it’s resonating in a major way is no surprise to me. I bought one myself!
Read on for a list of 30 reasons why Super Nintendo nostalgia is at an all-time high.
30. Super Ghouls and Ghosts — It’s a fun game, and it remains beautiful to look at, but good lord it’s stupidly difficult. Like, to the point that you’ll probably beef it on the first level. Repeatedly. And that is its legacy (I suppose there are worse legacies to have). Even with that, it’s certainly a well put-together game with plenty to recommend it. Just prepare to die.
29. NCAA Basketball — Anyone remember this one? It was a third-person, over the shoulder view of a slow-motion basketball game taking place in what I estimate to be some kind of Star Trek: The Next Generation wormhole. This is absolutely where personal bias enters the list, as my brother and I played this a ton as teenagers. It is sloooooooowwwwwww, but I kind of like that, and I liked the blue wormhole and the general oddity of it all. There was also a forward on North Carolina who hit something like 80 percent from 3. Good times.
28. Super Empire Strikes Back — Much like the other games in the “Super Star Wars” series, it’s difficult, but the design of the game is such that you keep coming back to it. The presentation makes a big difference here, but so does nostalgia (as you might expect). I’d call it the second best of the series, which is good enough to make this list.
27. Star Fox — I’m not one of these “the graphics have dated horribly” people; I was just never a huge fan of the game to begin with. The game involves you piloting a blocky-looking spaceship through a series of enemies and obstacles. Now, it belongs on the list due to a killer soundtrack and its importance as a piece of video game history (polygons!), but the frame rate makes it a somewhat difficult play. Still fun, and worth checking out.
26. Kirby’s Dream Course — Alright, so this game has gotten some static for being included on the Super NES Classic over some other games critics have deemed more deserving, and while I can see why this game isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, spending an hour or two with it was enough to convince me of its worthiness. I seriously had a hard time putting it down, and I’m not some golf freak or anything. The game takes a fun, quirky approach to golf. Don’t write it off before trying it … you might be as surprised as I was.
25. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars — This is probably the ultimate starter RPG (that’s a compliment). From the very beginning, you’re given cool story hooks, a forgiving learning curve, a satisfying battle structure, and familiar characters and setting. It all adds up to be a kind of hand-holding experience for people new to genre, but it does it so well, it’s welcome and super enjoyable (even for vets).
24. Killer Instinct — Rare was a developer that gained a huge following thanks to its work on a few popular series (such as Donkey Kong Country). So much so, that calling something a “Rare game” at the time was a way of identifying something cutting edge or of high quality. Killer Instinct married stunning (for the time) visuals with an excellent combo system to make for a tremendous arcade fighting game. The Super NES port sacrificed some on the visuals, but not the gameplay.
23. Contra III: The Alien Wars — Holy. Crap. If you want a rude awakening as to how much harder games were back in the day, this is a fine option for you (Super Ghouls & Ghosts tops it, but that game is maybe too sadistic). If you can manage the learning curve, you’ll be rewarded with cool visuals and fun gameplay in this shoot ’em up, and bonus: this is a game you can play with a friend. It deserves inclusion in any SNES classics list.
22. Secret of Mana — I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, so I suspect it will rank higher on this list eventually. What I can tell from my limited time with it is that this RPG has a unique and enjoyable battle system. It is also special within the RPG category by encouraging multi-player. And it has a soundtrack that is basically second to none. Eager to play more.
21. Super Punch-Out!! — It wasn’t my jam upon first release, and neither was its precursor. Oddly, I held against this game its lack of Mike Tyson (even though I hadn’t been a particular devotee to the original game), and dismissed it quickly. Revisiting it now, I am a fan of the play mechanics, which demand careful study and memorization to advance past any of the boxers you’re tasked with defeating. Also, the graphics and music are great. It’s fun.
20. EarthBound — This is a tough game to properly slot. In the grand tradition of such humorous point-and-click adventures as Maniac Mansion and Zak McKrackin (courtesy of one LucusArts), this game is about exploration, talking to people, examining inanimate objects, and on occasion, engaging in battle. That it’s set in modern-ish times and is heavy on the humor are other similarities. But this game differs by embracing more traditional RPG elements (especially as it relates to combat) and is an absolute nostalgia bomb. If you don’t get warm fuzzies thinking about your own childhood while playing, I don’t know what to tell you. So why is it tough to slot? Well, I haven’t finished it yet. Also, this game — until its SNES Classic release — has been exceedingly rare/expensive/difficult to obtain, so opinions of the title have grown exponentially over time. Valued the same as any other game without taking rarity into account, it probably drops some. But myself and many others are extremely happy for its inclusion on the SNES Classic, regardless.
19. Final Fantasy IV — Harder and more involved than many gamers probably wanted to invest in at the time, I can see why it had trouble gaining a foothold here in the States. Indeed, it was called “Final Fantasy II” in this country because Squaresoft didn’t want to bother porting these games over … there just wasn’t enough interest (this was the second port to the States, but the fourth game in the series). But it’s a damn fine game, one of the very best role-playing games of its era.
18. Super Castlevania IV — Compare this game to pretty much any other Castlevania game, and you’re going to find some serious warts here. I’m not even sure it’s in my top five within its own series. But here’s the counterpoint to that: Castlevania games are some of the best games in existence, so grading on that curve is pretty brutal. Judged on its own merits as a SNES game, it’s a great adventurer with cool mechanics (manipulating that whip remains seriously cool), an excellent/underrated soundtrack, and trippy visuals.
17. Tecmo Super Bowl III: Final Edition — There’s probably one sports franchise on this system everyone can agree deserves mention on a list of this kind (and more on that one later), but for the most part, opinions diverge widely on SNES sports games. For my money, it was a series better known for its impact on 8-bit gaming that stands above most of the rest on this system. Imagine your NES Tecmo Bowl experience with more bells and whistles (such as free agency and create a player modes) and that’s what you get here. Nothing mind blowing, but good, solid fun. More fun even than all of the various EA Sports offerings (which pretty much all landed in the honorable mentions; solid, but nothing worth revisiting). Plus, any game that lets you play as Jim Brown deserves some love, right?
16. Mortal Kombat II — Finish him! Now this was Mortal Kombat done right. The SNES port of the original game was basically a joke, with all blood removed and only so-so controls. This 2D fighter was a massive improvement and tailor-made for a hormone-filled teenage boy (as I myself was during release). Yeah, some of this stuff is pretty juvenile and silly, but it was a blast to play at the time. And let us also not forget how popular and influential this series ultimately was. This is a game that has a lasting legacy.
15. F-Zero — This was essentially a hardware showcase game for when the SNES was released, and this futuristic racer did its job well. One would like a two-player mode, certainly. But there’s a strange kind of hold this game retains to this day, as I find myself periodically Jones-ing for a quick play. And justifiably: It’s fun.
14. Donkey Kong Country — More Rare! Firing up my SNES Classic for the first time, the muscle memory in my hands was most intense for this game, a graphically polished (for the time), tight-playing platformer. The controls still feel easy and natural to this day, and while some of the graphical elements are dated, the music and gameplay are still outstanding and worthy of praise.
13. Super Star Wars — I wouldn’t call the Star Wars brand “toxic” when it came to video game licensing prior to this release, but the track record was definitely spotty. That all changed with this action platformer, which was smart enough to take some liberties with the story in favor of inserting more action, but doing it within the structure of great gameplay (and not brutalizing the original story in the process). If it played like ass, it would have sucked. It didn’t, and it doesn’t.
12. Mega Man X — Is it better than Mega Man 2 or 3? Eh… I don’t think I’d go that far, but it did a smart job of reinventing the character to make him feel fresh. The search of the various levels for additional upgrades was a wise inclusion, as were the design choices to change the main character and 8 evil robot bosses (not to mention the main villain and inclusion of side character Zero). It’s a highly enjoyable play and in my view the best of the “X” games. That’s still high praise.
11. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island — At least it was different. The name is misleading; this game has very little to do with Super Mario World in terms of design and play mechanics. But that’s not a knock; this game is wonderfully addictive and innovative in it’s own unique way. It’s also gorgeous and sounds great. If you go in not expecting to be able to sprint around ala Sonic or SMW, you’re going to have a great time here.
10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time — This is a huge glaring omission on the SNES Classic, a true gem that deserved inclusion. I understand why it probably wasn’t included (licensing), but I don’t have to like it either. Hack ’em up games like this were all over the arcade scene in the early ’90s, and the turtles were consistently some of my favorites. This port may well have improved on the original in many respects. And it was a true joy to play, representing a dramatic step up in graphics and fun factor from the NES games (which suffered from hardware limitations).
9. NBA Jam — You know what? The Super Nintendo was fabulous at porting over arcade games (as you might have noticed by now). An NBA Jam game absolutely belongs on this list thanks to its incredibly basic yet super fun controls and its over-the-top hilarious presentation. It’s the most important sports series on the system, though I’ll take the original game for breaking new ground; the sequel(s) just didn’t offer enough new.
8. Super Mario Kart — Building off of the previously established F-Zero engine, it added the natural next step of multi-player, but did it within an entirely new shell … and created a subset of racing games in the process. This was game-changing from a historical perspective, and more importantly, the original game in the kart racing genre still holds up as a fun experience today. (And this STILL has the best battle mode.)
7. Donkey Kong Country: Diddy Kong’s Quest — Building off of what its precursor achieved, this sequel really ramped up the “completionist” aspect of a gorgeous, tight platformer (it controls like a dream), with tons of hidden secrets and mini-games to complete. I got sucked into this game back in the mid ’90s to the point that I sought out every single item … and achieved it. That’s a rarity in a game (at least for me), so here it sits.
6. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past — This doesn’t even make the Top 5? The depth of the SNES library is incredible. But as to reasons why this game isn’t higher, Zelda has never been my cup of tea, exactly, and it’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why. I’ll rave over the quality same as anyone, but while playing, I generally have an internal conversation along these lines: “Wow, this is a quality game. I think I’d rather be playing something else.” Because of this, I feel like the comparative brevity of this adventure might actually elevate it above Link’s adventures on later systems. Maybe? Either way, this is a classic that just misses my Top 5.
5. Chrono Trigger — There’s no way to look at this as anything less than a masterpiece … but it has a lot of company in the SNES library in that regard. When splitting hairs, I just enjoyed the games above it on the list a little bit more. But I recommend this role-playing game (inexplicably left off the SNES Classic) for a multitude of reasons, from the great story to the awesome battle system to the fabulous art direction and music. Seriously, play this game if you somehow haven’t.
4. Super Mario World — Here’s a fun question: What’s the best Super Mario game? At varying points of my life, I would have provided different answers. Certainly at launch, I was opposed to this particular entry in the series because Team Sonic. I was also already firmly devoted to Super Mario Bros. 2 & 3. Maybe there are only so many platformers a person can truly love? Regardless, it took me a half decade to circle back around and learn to appreciate this masterpiece. This was dumb of me, but I was young. Also, I rectify it here: This is one of the best games of all time. Best Super Mario game ever? Quite possibly. (Boom.)
3. Super Metroid — I had never played this before playing it on the SNES Classic, and while this might disqualify me from honorary geek membership, I feel I must be truthful. Given my appreciation for “Metroid-vania” style games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I knew this game would appeal to me once I got the controls down … and it certainly did that. The controls are fabulous (once you get used to them), the level design is impeccable, and the adventure-like hunt for solutions to your problems (and the accompanying power-ups) is a true joy to experience. This is basically as good as games come.
2. Final Fantasy VI — For many people, this was the golden age of Squaresoft games in general and Final Fantasy games in particular, and this one is absolutely a part of that discussion. It was “easier” as these games go, but it certainly had a great deal of depth to it, and while the debate over best Super Nintendo RPG includes several contenders, this is the one I enjoyed most. FF6’s storyline (and music and overall presentation for that matter) takes a backseat to no one.
1. Street Fighter II: Turbo — This game’s precursor was the very reason my brother and I co-purchased a Super Nintendo in the first place. It was soul-shaking to have a perfect arcade port of this amazing 2D fighter at home. Then, Capcom one-upped (pun!) themselves with this upgrade, which was an even more amazing technological achievement. I still kind of marvel in retrospect that they were able to do this. Regardless, this semi-sequel is a better game than the original in every way and has defined itself for many as the pinnacle of the Street Fighter series. Street Fighter II is the reason I got a Super Nintendo. Street Fighter II: Turbo is the reason I purchased a Super Nintendo Classic. Time is a flat circle.
Honorable Mention: Street Fighter II; Super Return of the Jedi; Star Fox 2; Madden ’94; NHL ’94; NBA Live ’95; Final Fight; Mega Man X 2; NBA Jam Tournament Edition; Super Mario All-Stars; Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, Kirby Super Star