Ever since Nintendo announced Switch Online in November 2019, the library of classic and obscure retro games has expanded to a formidable size. For subscribers of the Nintendo Switch Online service, many NES and SNES titles are there for the taking. All that’s for you to do is download the software and try the games out. Those with the expanded subscription even have access to the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis for all you North Americans out there).
The collection is pretty dazzling. Many of these retro games have received praise as being some of the best Nintendo ever made, like Ocarina of Time, Super Mario Bros., and Super Metroid. And the library constantly expands! So which game should you pick up? To save you time and liberate you from the intense burden of choice, I’ve compiled a list of the best Nintendo retro games you should certainly try. And disclaimer: when I say Nintendo, I mean Nintendo consoles. You’ll get your time to shine later, Sega Mega Drive.
Super Metroid (SNES)
Alright, no surprise here. When talking about Nintendo retro games, Super Metroid consistently ranks as one of the best games created. The game’s story builds on the previous two games, but there’s no need to have played them to make this game enjoyable. However, this game draws a lot of appeal from its general atmosphere and story. Briefly summarized, Samus is a bounty hunter who helps the Galactic Federation, essentially the government, against the so-called Space Pirates. In the first game, the Space Pirates try to harness the power of the Metroid creatures as bio-weapons. Samus defeats their operation, after which she travels to the homeworld of the Metroids to exterminate them, save for a single larva. After she delivers the larva to a space station, the events of Super Metroid begin.
The game nails the themes and vibes it’s trying to establish. When Samus has to return to the space station, there’s no heroic Metroid music to accompany her. In fact, no music plays at all, except some lab noises. Something’s wrong, but what remains a mystery as you travel through the research facility, anticipating what will happen. The graphics and sound effects are central to the immersion of this game. Compared to the NES and the Game Boy, the SNES makes Metroid’s sound more engaging, its bosses more intimidating, and most importantly, its themes much, much more sinister.
While Samus travels through the world, the game’s eeriness meets its sense of exploration. As one of the games that define the Metroidvania genre, you unlock new abilities all the time, with which you gain access to new areas of the map. The mysterious planet Zebes is your playground, and exploration feels satisfying with the responsive and fun controls. This game is a challenge, but it’s one well worth overcoming.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
Again, hardly surprising, but I couldn’t keep it off this list. Super Mario Bros. 3 is arguably one of the most fun games I’ve had the pleasure of playing with two – but we’ll get to that. Compared with the game released just 3 years before it, it’s hard to overstate how much of an upgrade the third installment is in the Mario Bros. series. At its core, it’s the same game as always. Collect coins, jump on bad guys, save the princess. Easy as pie. However, the game adds new mechanics, like sliding and free-climbing vines. It also adds new power-ups that make the levels more interactive and explorable. With the Super Leaf, you can run and fly through levels to reach new areas. And that’s not to mention unique power-ups like the Frog, the Tanuki’s Suit, and the Goomba’s Shoe.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is particularly remarkable for the diversity throughout the game. The different power-ups make each level a different experience, and every world uses its theme well to make each one feel unique. The desert world feels like an actual desert. It features fire snakes, quicksand, and the infamous Angry Sun. There’s a world in which all the enemies are enormous, making the game different again. There are many different kinds of levels in each world. With its mini-boss stages, Toad houses, fortresses, and pyramids, repetition does not describe this game.
Switch Online also lets you play the game in multiplayer. Mario and Luigi take turns after one another, either if someone clears a level or if they lose a life. If either Mario brother goes game over, you’ll have to complete levels again as some stages (like airships) move around the map. This interaction with the overworld makes for the kind of chaos that yields entertaining gameplay.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)
I know what you’re thinking. Yet another frequently seen guest on top Nintendo retro games lists. And yes, while I will get more creative with my picks, I couldn’t keep myself from including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on this list. When you open the game, it won’t take long before you’re in the actual game. Although there are plenty of story elements, the game doesn’t keep you long before you can get started on your quest. Within minutes, you’ll find yourself deep within Hyrule Castle, looking for Princess Zelda, crawling through sewers, and having your relative murdered. Once you’re already well into your quest, you can pause a sec to ask what on earth just happened.
The pacing in this game is excellent. Furthermore, Hyrule is a fascinating and diverse area to travel through, with plenty to see and explore. Whenever you think you’ve found it all, A Link to the Past shows you more. That’s not to mention the engaging music that plays throughout the adventure, making it way more atmospherical. The combat in this game is smooth and varied, with plenty of items throughout the map to diversify your combat style. The game essentially serves as the peak of the 2D-Zelda Formula, and thus it’s all the more worth playing.
So why is A Link to the Past on this list, and not Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask? In contrast to those two, A Link to the Past never got a remake. There’s some fun in playing the original versions of the Nintendo 64 titles, but compared to their 3D remakes, it’s mostly the same game with downgraded graphics and more tedious controls. Take this assessment with a bit of nuance – although that goes way beyond this article.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (SNES)
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island looks nothing like Super Mario World. Instead, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island took a radically different approach to the concept of ‘platform game with Yoshi.’ In Yoshi’s Island, your journey with the beloved dinosaur through six unique worlds. Each of these worlds looks like it comes straight out of a comic book with bountiful visual appeal. The goal of the game is similar to any Mario game. Run and jump through all the levels, beat up the bosses at the end of each world, defeat Bowser, and save the Princess. Or well, in this case, Baby Luigi.
Of course, what makes Yoshi’s Island unique are the Yoshi-centered mechanics. You can eat most of your enemies and turn them into eggs, which you can throw at other enemies. You can flutter jump across pits. If you take damage, Yoshi will lose Baby Mario, who it’s carrying through the levels. Spend too long to get him back, and it’s back to the drawing board! There are also various power-ups to get everywhere, like turning Yoshi into a helicopter.
The levels themselves aren’t just a straight line ahead. There are secrets and collectibles everywhere, to the point that you can get a perfect score on each level. This unique take on the Mario franchise is well worth checking out!
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest (SNES)
Of all the games I’ve mentioned so far, the one that gave me the harshest challenge was Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest. Timing jumps and latching on to ropes and nets is pretty tricky. However, this game is not unfair in its trickiness – building skill is rewarding. And when you finally complete a level you’ve been struggling with, it feels ridiculously rewarding. In contrast to the name, Donkey Kong barely plays any role in this game. After the events of the first Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong has been kidnapped by King K. Rool. Or in this game, Kaptain K. Rool (that’s not a typo). It’s up to Diddy Kong and his childhood friend Dixie Kong to save the big monkey.
Although they’re tricky to get down, the controls and animations in this game are excellent. Although I prefer to control Dixie over Diddy, both monkeys have smooth controls. Like Donkey Kong Country, the sequel uses pre-rendered 3D models in a 2D setting. The art style gives the games a very distinctive and immersive atmosphere. Combined with the music, it’s certainly no punishment to spend quite some time on each level. The levels have many different collectibles, so it’s highly rewarding to go out of your way and explore around a little.
The world of Donkey Kong is a strange but fascinating one. There are all kinds of Kongs and Animal Buddies around to help you wherever you least expect it. Like on the mast of a galleon, for instance. This game finds a way of drawing its players in with its charming and diverse levels and world. It’s hardly surprising that we recommended it as one of the many retro games that are still amazing today!
Mario Tennis 64 (N64)
Ah, finally, a less apparent pick for a top 10 list of retro Nintendo games! Yes, I could not leave the debut game of Waluigi just sitting there, untouched. Mario Tennis is already the essence of the game – it’s Mario and Tennis. Oh, yes, it’s also highly addictive. The game has various modes, characters, and courts to play.
The controls of the game take some getting used to. This game has an easy-to-play, hard-to-master element, which thankfully allows you to train up and develop your skills to get better. In the first few games, you’ll mostly just be serving and returning fire. But then the tricks come. Curve your shots with effects, charge it or lob it – tactics are abundant!
Mario Tennis wouldn’t be a Mario game without a fair amount of chaos. The game introduces this in the form of power-ups. Throw banana shells to trip the other team or stun them with Koopa shells, essentially Mario Kart in tennis. Aside from the power-ups, you can also use the special properties of the courts to your advantage. For instance, the ball is more bouncy on a hard court than on an open court. All playable characters have unique advantages that you can exploit as well. And oh boy, will you need those advantages. The lower-difficulty AI is fairly manageable. However, once you reach hard difficulty, the enemy will be merciless.
But the main appeal of this game doesn’t come from beating the AI. It comes from beating your friends! The Switch Online menu makes it easy to set up a match with 2 to 4 players and go crazy. Given what I’ve described just now, it shouldn’t be challenging to see the chaos unfold before your eyes already.
Kirby Super Star (SNES)
8 games in one – that’s how Kirby Super Star presents itself, and it nails the game. Kirby Super Star is essentially a series of minigames that takes the very best of Dream Land. For example, it adds the entirety of the first Kirby game – albeit in condensed form – as the minigame Spring Time. It’s up to Kirby to defeat the evil King Dedede, who took all the food in Dream Land. In Gourmet Race, Kirby and Dedede race to see who can eat the most food. It’s not all candy never-never land – in Meta Knight’s Revenge, Kirby has to stop the swordsman Meta Knight who wants to take over Dream Land and stop its lazy lifestyle.
And that’s just 3 of the 8 minigames. Kirby Super Star is not only diverse in its content, but the games are also fun and new themselves. Spring Breeze is an improvement over the original Kirby’s Dream Land. It uses the same mechanics like sucking up enemies and using their ability – but it improves on it massively. First and foremost, it adds hats. Now Kirby can devour his enemies’ powers and look fabulous doing so. You can also give up your copy ability to create a custom helper. If you get the Beam Ability, Kirby can now manifest it into his very own Waddle-Doo ally!
And of course, I can’t go a single entry without mentioning the art style and the music, which both slap. Both are uplifting and happy, perfectly fitting in the Kirby theme. If you ever feel like some careless fun, Kirby Super Star should be one of your go-to’s.
Panel de Pon (SNES)
I wrote about Panel de Pon before as one of the games that you should play to get into the spring vibe. If that didn’t convince you, then I’m here now to tell you to try it out as one of the best retro Nintendo games the Switch has to offer. I didn’t know much about this game’s existence before I started playing it. I’d seen some references in Super Smash Bros. games, but that’s about it. Its obscurity might be due to the game not releasing outside of Japan. Well, not as Panel de Pon. In the West, it became known as Tetris Attack.
The basics of Panel de Pon are simple. You switch patterns around to match them in lines of three or more. The other player does the same. The more combos you make, the more challenging your opponent’s field will become. The first player who can no longer fit place their blocks loses, much like Tetris. This simple mechanic makes the game very intense to play against other players online – it’s mastering simple mechanics to a ridiculous extent. Pulling off a crazy combo to finally defeat your friend could hardly be more satisfying.
Panel de Pon also sports a cute art style that makes the game nice and atmospherical. But don’t get me wrong – the atmosphere is sweet, but this game is fun to play thanks to the superb competitive puzzle solving.
Wild Guns (SNES)
There’s no shortage of shooting galleries on the early Nintendo consoles. Some of the bigger games even have shooting gallery minigames inside of them. Nonetheless, most, if not all of them pale compared to Wild Guns. And although it’s technically not a retro Nintendo game, it was released exclusively on the SNES so close enough. The premise of this game is very simple. You face a scene filled with bad guys, who you have to shoot before they shoot you. Easy, right?
Simplicity can be a game’s greatest strength. This certainly holds true for Wild Guns. Shooting in this game with just the console feels good and organic, and it doesn’t take a lot of time to learn the ropes. It’s not all shooting though – you have a wide array of weapons at your disposal to get rid of all the bad guys. For example, there is a lasso that lets you stun enemies, as well as enormous screen-clearing missiles. And bad guys there will be, plenty of them. The game blends traditional wild west elements with steampunk elements, so while at one moment you’ll be shooting in a saloon, the next you’ll be fighting an enormous robot on the roofs of a frontier town.
This game had much to gain from its presence in the Switch virtual library. Copies of the original game are to this day very difficult and expensive to find, and you’d also need a SNES to play the game. With Switch Online, it’s easier than ever to call a friend and shoot some bad guys. The multiplayer mode works very well, and if you manage to cooperate, the fights can be both astounding and rewarding. If not, the bickering will be fun as well.
Paper Mario (N64)
By now, it won’t be a surprise that I love games with a strong worldbuilding element. Games in which I can explore and interact to see what the world is like. Paper Mario is a phenomenal game in this category. The Mushroom Kingdom is a lively world, full of Toads, Goombas, Koopas, and plenty of other classic Mario characters. However, these characters don’t just serve as assistants or antagonists. They have their own lives, occupations, families, and friends. Most of them aren’t clearly good or evil. In Paper Mario, Mario has to travel through a wonderful world to liberate all the Star Spirits and save Peach.
During the 8-chapter adventure, Mario goes through all kinds of mini-story-arcs with various characters who frequently decide to join his team. The game features allies, badges, items, and star spirits that help you in Paper Mario‘s turn-based combat. This game is very varied and diverse, which makes you feel lost in the world of Mario. Lost in a good way, that is.
Of course, I can hardly talk about Paper Mario without discussing the unique style. The Nintendo 64 was an impressive console with its 3D, but it has some issues. For all its brilliance, Super Mario 64 didn’t have the loveliest of graphics. Its controls are also pretty tricky at times. Paper Mario avoids both these issues due to its style choices. The paper aesthetic works miracles on the Nintendo 64, as it mostly avoids the tricky 3D modeling. Paper Mario is a timeless adventure loaded with content and exploration. It builds a world in which I’m excited to spend many of my free hours trying to collect all the ingredients for one of the many stat-boosting and stat-recovering recipes.
That’s all, my take on the 10 Nintendo Retro Games you should definitely try with Switch Online and its expansion pack! Do you agree with my picks? Did you play any of these games already? Let me know in the comments!