Since launching in 2018, the Nintendo Switch Online service has been a crucial part of the Switch ecosphere. Without it you couldn’t visit your friends’ islands in Animal Crossing, hurl blue shells at them in Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, or bash their brains in while playing Super Smash Bros.
Nintendo Switch Online is more than just an online multiplayer connection, though. Subscribers also get access to two downloadable apps that feature dozens of games originally released on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. These 8- and 16-bit classics include some of the greatest videogames of all time—including the original Super Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games—as well as a number of quirky Nintendo curiosities that remain just as fun and playable today as they were back in the ‘80s. And through the magic of modern technology, they all now have save states and the ability to rewind play, and any games with multiplayer can now be played online, as well.
We’ve taken a look at the best games on these apps before. Last summer we broke down the 20 best NES games and the 12 best SNES games on Nintendo Switch Online. Those lists are mostly still accurate today, even though both apps have seen more games added to them in the months since. Those lists include several games that weren’t designed or published by Nintendo—including such classics as the Ninja Gaiden series, Gradius, and River City Ransom.
Here’s something a little different, then. Instead of highlighting the best overall games on Nintendo Switch Online’s NES and SNES apps, we’re going to look exclusively at those games made by Nintendo—the games that have defined Nintendo’s legacy. If you’re a longtime Nintendo fan, somebody who has bought these same classics again and again on different Nintendo consoles, you’re probably relieved that they now come bundled with a Switch Online subscription instead of being sold separately through a Virtual Console. Here are the 20 best Nintendo games from the NES and SNES that are available at no extra charge through Nintendo Switch Online, listed in alphabetical order. The ones listed as being on the NES can be found in the NES Nintendo Switch Online app, and the SNES games are similarly in the SNES Nintendo Switch Online app. Both apps can be downloaded for free through the Nintendo Switch eShop if you subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, the original Star Fox is available for the Switch, too. It didn’t crack our top 20, but you can find it in the SNES app.
Donkey Kong Country
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 Nintendo Switch Online, 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.
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.
Parts of this game are great. It certainly deserves respect for its unique and envelope-pushing design decisions, like how it bounces between scrolling platforming and room-based dungeon crawling. It’s not necessarily a fun game to play, but it’s still a game that should be played, at least once.
A weird fact about Kirby: Nintendo’s little ball of pink fluff debuted after the Super Nintendo’s launch, but took his time to make it to Nintendo’s 16-bit machine. Kirby jumped from the Game Boy to the NES in 1993 with one of the last true NES classics, Kirby’s Adventure. It reinforced that Kirby was essentially a platformer for beginning or younger players, something to cut your teeth on before trying out a Super Mario game. Despite the natural limitations of 8-bit tech, Kirby’s Adventure is still a small-scale fantasia of adorable visuals and whimsical play.
Link’s original adventure is the first console game that felt like a true epic, with a sprawling overworld, several dangerous dungeons to explore, and special skills and secrets hiding throughout. For its time, it was as flawless as games got, and even today it’s easy to disappear within this version of Hyrule for hours without even realizing it.—
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
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.
Metroid was instantly iconic in 1987 for a number of reasons, from its backtracking-heavy level design, to its dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, to the surprising revelation of Samus Aran’s true nature at the end of the game. With its multitude of secrets and power-ups, and the freedom to explore as you see fit, it was one of the first games to feel like a genuine adventure.
Flight simulators were big business in the computer software world in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but weren’t really translatable to the consoles of the day. So Nintendo took the general concept and made something light, fun, and traditionally Nintendo with Pilotwings. Structured as a series of trials using four different aerial vehicles, Pilotwings provides the thrill of flying in a streamlined, easy-to-understand package. It’s also a killer showcase for the Super Nintendo’s then-groundbreaking Mode 7 graphics system.
Sure, the unquestioned champ of the NES Sports Series is repetitive, but Pro Wrestling was groundbreaking in its day. With a roster of grapplers with defined characters and subtly different movesets, and the ability to fight outside the ring and even do dives, it resembled real pro wrestling more than many games that came afterward
Whether with or without Mike Tyson, the iconic boxing game is a classic of patience and pattern recognition. It’s effectively a puzzle game built around memory and reflexes, with some of the best graphics and most memorable characters found on the NES.
StarTropics was heavily promoted by Nintendo upon its release in 1990, but has been curiously abandoned by the company in the 27 years since its first and only sequel. Part of that has to do with the driving concept behind its design: after building its U.S. success on translating its Japanese designed games for the American audience, Nintendo wanted to make a game specifically for the Western market, with no intention of ever releasing it in Japan. StarTropics was the result, an adventure with a slight resemblance to the original Zelda and a tropical island theme. It wasn’t a smash in the States, and never had any presence in Nintendo’s home country, and so it’s the rare Nintendo IP that hasn’t been revisited since the NES.
Obviously the game that made the NES is going to be a part of the Switch’s retro library. Super Mario Bros. is one of the 10 or so most important, most influential, and most copied games of all time, with the topography of World 1-1 imprinted on the minds of countless game fans. It’s part of the basic language of gaming, and it’s always ready to be picked up again through Nintendo Switch Online.
Super Mario Bros. 2 felt really confusing when it came out in the States back in 1988; it had little in common with the original, beyond the four lead heroes and the basic concept of moving from left to right. That’s because the Super Mario Bros. 2 we got over here was a different and unrelated game in Japan. Nintendo believed Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2—eventually released in the U.S. as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels—was entirely too hard for American audiences, and so the company converted a game called Yume K?j?: Doki Doki Panic, which was built around a Japanese TV license unknown in America, into a new Mario adventure. The result is still the biggest outlier in the “main” Mario canon, but one that did introduce some enemies and concepts that have continued to pop up in the series to this day.
This is the best Mario game, right? I mean, it might be the best game, period, ever, so that would clearly make it the best Mario game. It took everything great about the original, imported a touch of the apocryphal weirdness of the unrelated second game, and created a massive universe that constantly reveals unexpected new angles and facets without ever dipping in quality. If you only play one game in your entire life, it might as well be this one.
Super Mario Kart
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.
Super Mario World
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.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
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.
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 subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online. You know, outside of playing games online, and whatnot.
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 when it came out, but it’s still hopelessly stuck in the shadow of its forebear.
The second Zelda games remain the biggest anomaly in the series. It leans more heavily into traditional role-playing game turf—you actually have to collect experience points and level Link up throughout the game, the kind of overtly numbers-based style of progression typically seen in RPGs but never seen in a main Zelda game again. Its oddity isn’t a detriment, though; it stands out not just among the Zelda series, but among other action-adventures released for the NES back at the time.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.