Nostalgia is a powerful force in gaming, especially since the technology moves so rapidly. Game genres and design techniques can quickly be rendered obsolete in such a fast-moving industry, making it no surprise that the vast majority of games from 20+ years ago look positively archaic by today’s standards. It takes a lot of skill and luck to make a game that will stand the test of time. Luckily, while a sizable portion of old games are not even worth the cartridges (remember those?) they’re stored on, there are a good number of retro games that are still totally worth seeking out, with the following 10 titles representing some of the best of pre-3D game design.
10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
One of the most popular arcade genres from back in the day was the side-scrolling beat-em-up – they were easy to pick-up and play, and ate a lot of quarters. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property was a huge seller in the early 90s, so it’s rather fitting that one of the best beat-em-ups was a Turtles title. Turtles in Time was an arcade game released in 1991 and ported over to the SNES the next year. The console port had a few differences, but it still retained the feel of the arcade original. The great thing about Turtles in Time is that it can be easily obtained, as a remake was released on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network in 2009 with full 4 player support. The game is a bit simplistic by today’s standards, but it still plays solidly and remains arguably the best 2D beat-em-up of its era.
9. Zombies Ate My Neighbours
A cult classic created by the famous developer Lucasarts (the same group responsible for practically every awesome Star Wars game), Zombies Ate My Neighbours didn’t sell very well when it was initially released in 1993, but thanks to favourable reviews and a 2009 re-release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, the title is now considered one of the greatest, most creative top-down shooters of the 16 bit era. It’s impressive how well Zombies actually holds up, as you can tell that a lot of modern top-down shooters were inspired by this title. The game got a lot right: it had a 2 player co-operative mode, a host of creative environments, and most importantly, a slew of bizarre enemies to take out, including demonic babies and squid men. In a way, Zombies Ate My Neighbors was a precursor to the modern indie gaming scene, where unconventional concepts are allowed to flourish.
8. Earthworm Jim
While Earthworm Jim isn’t often considered in the same league as classic Mario or Zelda games, it’s one of the better 2D sidescrollers not made by Nintendo. Released on the Sega Genesis in 1994, Earthworm Jim was created by Doug TenNapel and designed by David Perry, who went on to co-found Gaikai, a streaming technology company purchased by Sony for $380 million in 2012. Earthworm Jim is still a fun game to play, particularly due to its excellent mechanics, impressive cartoon-like visuals, and a memorable soundtrack. The game also did well enough to spawn a TV series, comic book, and a line of action figures.
7. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
To get this out of the way: the water levels in Sonic the Hedghog 2 stink and you will hate them. That being said, the rest of the sequel to the Sega Genesis’s most famous game is arguably the best entry in the entire Sonic series, retro or otherwise. While the original Sonic the Hedgehog was a revelation when it was first released, it doesn’t have the refinement that Sonic 2 delivered. Sonic’s famous charge roll was introduced, and the addition of Tails as a playable character helped enrich the world of Sonic and the types of interaction that were possible. The level design (barring any level featuring water) is also considered by many to be the series’ best, making Sonic 2 the clear winner for the franchise’s retro era.
6. Final Fantasy VI
The long-running Final Fantasy series truly found mainstream success with its 1st 3D title, Final Fantasy VII, on the original PlayStation. However, many fans of the series would argue that it was that game’s predecessor, the 2D Final Fantasy VI, that represents the pinnacle of the series. FFVI (FFIII, as it was confusedly called when it was initially released in North America) is still heralded for its story and characters, which were surprisingly strong for a video game, and arguably helped solidify gaming as a legitimate narrative medium. The game’s retro style may turns off some players, but it’s an essential game for anyone who wants to see what games are capable of, story-wise, especially when the game is over 20 years old!
5. Donkey Kong Country
When the Donkey Kong Country series made its debut on the Super Nintendo in 1994, it was considered a graphical marvel. Rendered 3D models and highly detailed backgrounds were like a form of technical wizardry on the 16 bit console. Today, the graphics are more charming than impressive, but luckily the game still plays great. Developer Rare are remembered fondly by Nintendo fans for producing some of the best 3rd party titles on the company’s 90s consoles, and Donkey Kong Country was one of the 1st titles to set that legacy in stone. 2 just as excellent sequels were released on the SNES, and the nostalgia and popularity was so high for these titles that 2 new iterations have been released on the Wii and Wii U.
4. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Yoshi’s Island was released right at the end of the 16 bit era and the dawn of 3D gaming and the 32 bit console generation (think Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation). Gaming tastes were moving on from 2D platformers like Yoshi’s Island when the game was released in October 1995 in North America. Luckily, Yoshi’s Island represents the pinnacle of 2D game design and holds up extremely well (even if Baby Mario’s screaming is no less annoying). Everything about Yoshi’s Island is immaculate, from the pastel-style art design to the innovative use of Yoshi as a fully-playable character with various transformations and abilities. Yoshi’s Island has been called the greatest platformer of all time and holds up just as well in 2015 as it did in 1995.
3. Super Metroid
The game design philosophies of the Metroid series are still popular in a wide variety of titles (even if Nintendo seems content to keep Metroid fans waiting for a new game), and Super Metroid for the SNES is where those designs were arguably perfected. Super Metroid is a sci-fi side-scroller based around exploration and the gradual acquirement of various weapons and items that allow you to go back and discover previously inaccessible locations within the game world. This design is so popular that it has its own genre, “Metroidvania”, for games that borrow heavily from the Metroid and Castlevania games. More than just a curiosity from gaming’s past, Super Metroid still holds up as the one of the best in the genre it helped create.
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
If you ask most Zelda fans what title best represents the series’ retro roots, A Link to the Past will be the title they name almost 100% of the time (and some will even argue that it’s the best game in the series, period). A Link to the Past was the only Zelda title released for the SNES, but it really the only one that console needed. While each Zelda game that followed it would put their own spin on the formula, ALTTP really laid the blueprint for what The Legend of Zelda would be moving forward. Now standard features like the Master Sword, the Hookshot, and increasing health were all popularized here. More importantly, the game is simply masterfully designed, and is so revered that a direct sequel was released in 2013 on the 3DS (which definitely created renewed interest in the original game).
1. Super Mario Bros. 3
The Super Mario series really needs no introduction, as Mario and his parent company Nintendo are synonymous with video games. Mario has been in so many different game genres at this point that it would take too long to list them here, but for classic, 2D Mario platforming gameplay, there is no better title than Super Mario Bros. 3. The original Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985 and is often credited with being the title that saved gaming after the crash of 1983. Not to tarnish that game’s legacy, but SMB3 is the better game. Much like A Link to the Past did with Zelda, SMB3 introduced elements that would become standard features of future Mario titles, chief among them the over-world screen used to navigate between levels. Released in 1990, Super Mario Bros. 3 was so highly anticipated that the 1989 film The Wizard was essentially a feature-length commercial for the game; and if that wasn’t enough reason to check it out, it’s frequently cited as the best game of all time, meaning it should be at the top of every gamer’s “must play” list.