This piece originally ran in August 2016.
With the gushing enthusiasm that greeted Nintendo’s announcement of its NES Classic, a mini replica of the original containing 30 pre-installed classics from an 8-bit era long past, it’s hard to imagine that an SNES equivalent isn’t in the works for the near future. With that in mind, here are 30 games from that era that would be perfect to have pre-installed on a mini SNES.
Before Super Smash Bros. cemented his status as a Nintendo icon, Captain Falcon got his start in a futuristic racing game. Mixing the mechanics of Formula One with the aesthetic sensibility of Judge Dredd, F-Zero showed console racing games could compete with what was on offer in the arcades. Its neon colors and deafening speed transformed racing to a colosseum fight for survival.
Don’t let its plain skyboxes and simple polygons fool you, the original Star Fox remains a crucible of sharp reflexes and quick thinking. Despite being on-rails, the third-person shooter allowed players to slow down or speed up, as well as sustain limited damage to their ship without instantly dying. Add to that a diverse cast of charismatic, anthropomorphized animal pilots and Star Fox still captures the thrill of scraping through a space fight like few others.
LucasArts’ top-down action adventure game was an homage to the throw-away sci-fi and paranormal movies of the 50s, but with a modern edge. And like many of those movies, Zombies Ate My Neighbors didn’t find the following it deserved until long after the sun had set on the SNES. Witty and vibrant, the game worth revisiting as much for its level design and challenge as the pop culture references littered throughout.
Released during the same year that Monday Night Raw debuted, which helped usher in a new phase of pro-wrestling’s cultural dominance, WWF Royal Rumble is as 90s as it gets. Relying on a simple set of inputs to produce uncanny moments of violent absurdity, it captures the glory days of lo-res, local multiplayer like few others can. Button-mashing has rarely been so sublime.
A successor of sorts to R.C. Pro-Am, Rock N’ Roll Racing sported a clean, isometric view and car on car combat that hasn’t been explored in such beautiful detail since. An in-game economy also let players upgrade and customize vehicles, making it as much an RPG as a fighting game. A testament to SNES-era rule breaking , Rock N’ Roll Racing showed there was more than one way to make a racing game.
There’s nothing quite like shredding legions of foot ninjas with a few of your closest friends. Unfortunately, each new attempt at a Turtles game has fallen short as developers tried to foist modern conceits onto an aging genre. That’s what makes revisiting Turtles in Time so refreshing. It’s short and repetitive, but not gratingly so. More like zen meditation than a quarter-eating grind, Turtles in Time proved a well that was always worth returning to.
What Tetris was for the NES, Super Bomberman was for the SNES. By adding explosives to the traditional mix of logic puzzles and spatial reasoning, Super Bomberman made hyper-rationalism interactive. Like if Pac-Man were given a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook, the game invited players to traverse mazes not by managing the chaos but by learning how to exploit it.
Few games on the SNES experimented with grand ambitions as unflinchingly as Actraiser. Set to a beautiful score composed by Yuzo Koshiro, Quintet’s RPG combined a world building simulation with side-scrolling dungeons that played out in real-time. Connecting these disparate elements was a religious allegory so trippy it left ActRaiser etched into the memory of anyone who played it.
Punch-Out on the NES succeeded not by trying to recreate boxing but by deconstructing it. What resulted was direct, uncluttered, and mesmerizing. Which is why the sequel, Super Punch-Out!!, changed so little. With a slew of new, and in some cases more complex, opponents, the series’ second outing was a welcome remix of an all too rare formula.
Doug TenNapel and David Perry’s idea to put a worm in a mech suit and have it gun its way across surrealist locales seemed completely at home in the decade of Ren & Stimpy and Beavis and Butt-Head. Its mind-melting visuals and unusual mix of platforming and shoot-em up won over hearts and minds despite the occasional sloppiness.
This game was perhaps the only good thing to come out of DC Comics’ decision to fake-kill Superman. While seemingly just as rote and uninspired as the comics on which it was based, The Death and Return of Superman’s undivided attention to imposter Supermen punching one another helped it soar above its source material. Anything worth preserving about that period of comic excess and decadence can be found here rendered in exquisite, rippling detail.
Before sports videogames aspired to the clinal realism of NBA 2K or managerial minutia of Madden NFL, they were content just to recklessly fun. No game quite captured this sentiment like NBA Jam. Disregarding fouls and free throws and focusing instead on exaggerating the prowess of its superstar players, NBA Jam channeled the no-holds-barred spirit of a street game into your neighbor’s basement.
Nintendo got a lot of things right on the first try, and Super Mario Kart is no exception. While each new iteration has added feature and looked better, everything that made these improvements possible can be found in the original. And with the best battle mode the series has ever had, Super Mario Kart is one of the console’s proto-party games that can’t be missed.
One of the few spin-off series to rival its predecessor in popularity and acclaim, Mega Man X didn’t just remake the Mega Man series for a new console, it completely transformed it. Adding a dash option and wall climbing, as well as a new blaster that allowed players to power up their shots, Mega Man X felt less oblique and more intuitive. Its quick pace and more sinister tone made it a true evolution of the concept which had originated five years earlier.
While hardly the most sophisticated 2D fighter of its time, what Midway’s classic lacked in nuance it made up for with sheer brutality. A clear improvement on the first, Mortal Kombat II offered a true, pseudo-mature alternative to the more cartoonish Street Fighter. It was also one of the most faithful ports ever of an arcade experience to the living room.
Fairly or not, Street Fighter II more closely approximates the platonic ideal of a fighting game more than any other, and Street Fighter II Turbo was hands down the best version of it. Renowned for the sophistication it achieved within the relatively narrow bounds of a 16-bit cartridge, the game remains an excellent showcase of why everyone fell in love with Street Fighter in the first place, even if exploits that will leave your opponents howling in frustration abound.
It’s difficult to imagine that at one point in time, the name “Donkey Kong” merely conjured the image of an 8-bit sprite throwing barrels at a tenacious plumber. That’s because Donkey Kong Country, with its 2.5D aesthetic, richly pre-rendered backgrounds, and deeply layered ambient soundtrack, fundamentally altered the character’s trajectory. Despite the uneven platforming, nothing will ever top the game’s brilliant barrel puzzles.
A man suffering from amnesia, assassins chasing after him, and a foreboding cyberpunk-noir landscape made Shadowrun a revelation to console owners who had never touched a PC. Its cumbersome UI and knotty, tabletop roots couldn’t overshadow the game’s strong narrative arc and lived-in world. Criminally underplayed, Shadowrun was ahead of its time and would benefit more than most from being revisited without the baggage of 20 years ago.
None of Nintendo’s mascots has had a more checkered past than Kirby. A series of platformers, the little pink ball often gets maligned when the Mario games are used as a yardstick. The Kirby games are something different entirely, however, with Kirby Super Star showcasing why. A precursor to games like WarioWare, it let players experience Kirby in all his breezy perfection with eight different modes starring different characters and objectives.
While lots of SNES games catered to low-attention spans and instant-gratification, Flashback was different. The port of a plodding, sci-fi epic originally created for the Amiga, Flashback expected players to be patient and think before they leap. The game’s convoluted plot doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny, but fortunately an emphasis on silent cutscenes and ambient puzzle solving means it doesn’t have to.
The explosion in management games on PC means there’s no shortage of simulations for people to meddle with. Yet while something like City Skylines helps push the limits of what the SimCity series once aspired to, it’s also quick to overwhelm. The SNES version of the original SimCity found unlikely mix between urban planning exuberance and bureaucratic detail.
If the conceit of the 2D Mario side-scroller was to run from left to right as quickly and elegantly as possible, Yoshi’s Island was an experiment in upending that paradigm. Littering whimsical collectibles throughout every level, burring secrets underground as well as hiding them far, far above, the soft sequel to Super Mario World showed that turning the formula on its side could be equal parts dizzying and delightful.
Earthbound will always be one of a kind. Remarkable for its ordinariness, charmingly confounding for its bizarre alchemy of RPG tropes. pop culture nods, and modern flourishes, no other game on the SNES has ignited such ferocious devotion in so many different people. One of those games that’s truly more than the sum of its parts, Earthbound is a bundle of hyper-saturated nerves that only gets better when you share it with others.
While Donkey Kong Country catapulted the titular character into the big time, Donkey Kong Country 2 showed just how strong the underlying game design was by consigning its main protagonist to the background. With more exotic levels and an even wider array of soundscapes, Donkey Kong Country 2 isn’t a replacement for its predecessor, so much as an extension of those ambitions into an even stranger, deeper world.
Called the third in the series for the benefit of a Western audience unfamiliar with the three it had missed out on, Final Fantasy VI on the SNES remains for many its pinnacle. For the first time Square let its characters truly steal the show, letting their complicated and tragic motivations drive the game’s action while a rewarding system for learning spells and assigning stat bonuses made each a unique asset in battle.
Though it’s a retelling of the original Castlevania, the similarities end there. Super Castlevania IV distills the former to an intoxicating degree, with the small team Konami assigned to make it able to push every tendency embedded in the series DNA to the limits of the new 16-bit hardware. To this day Super Castlevania IV is dense, weighty, and uncompromising.
It’s difficult to find a serious list of the best RPGs of all time, or videogames in general, that doesn’t have Chrono Trigger on it. The child born of an unlikely marriage between Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Dragon Ball, its lush environments, large sprites, and fast-paced, cinematic combat pushed the game’s appeal well beyond the traditional limits of its genre.
Everyone has their favorite Zelda, but A Link to the Past was the first to show people just how much a cosmic reworking of the original blueprint could surprise and astound them. Whether it has the best pacing between dungeons, or the best items for unlocking them, is debatable, but that it stitched each of these things together with exceptional grace and precision is not.
Super Metroid’s larger proportions and brighter colors offered something of a break with the muddier, more unsettling proto-survival horror elements of the original. What it lost in this respect, however, it made up for with a fully-fleshed out labyrinth more harrowing in its detail than anything in the series previous. Its haunting, alien soundtrack and finely tuned progression made it as difficult to put down as it was unsettling to play on.
Super Mario World proved an inflexion point for the series, indicating that Miyamoto and Co. had finally fully realized the vision originally laid out in Super Mario Bros. Light on its feet and full of surprises, the game pulled together elements from each prior NES entry to form something so cohesive it wasn’t clear where the player stopped and the little plumber flying across the screen began. One of the first games on the SNES, it in many ways fulfilled the promise of that platform right at the beginning. Everything else was just gravy.
Ethan Gach is a freelance writer preparing for the end times. His work has appeared at Kill Screen, Forbes, and elsewhere. You can follow him @ethangach.