Top 10 Nintendo Games Before the Wii Happened
In lieu of Hiroshi Yamauchi's passing, we thought it was a poignant time to reflectively look back on the best Nintendo games produced during his tenure.
When you look around the modern video gaming landscape, it is not hard to see where gamer demand has gone over the last decade. Shooters abound in first and third person. Free roam games allow you to explore a world, and eviscerate all who occupy within via assault rifles, six shooters or assassin blades. Even the most popular RPGs now cannot escape using realistic gore and the perceived adult complexity that comes with an M rating.
However, there is still at least one hold out that insists gaming should be primarily about fun, inclusive gameplay for all ages. Nintendo, once a trading card company, still stands proud as a game publisher who defines its own hardware with its software. Even if that hardware is turning to be as much of a bust as the Wii-U currently is. Love it or hate it, the House of Mario remains an enormous pillar in a gaming world. Whether defined by the Big N’s direct influence or by an intentional escape from it, all of gaming owes something to this legacy.
Hence, when the news broke of gaming treasure Hiroshi Yamauchi's sad passing, we at Den of Geek thought it was time to take a reflective moment and look back on the former Nintendo President and Chairman's tenure at the company. In some role of leadership between 1949 and 2005, Yamauchi oversaw Nintendo's rise from trading cards to memory cards; from NES to Nintendo GameCube. Thus, we are going to count down the ten most addictive, memorable and influential of the company’s catalogue from that era before you needed to wiggle your Wii stick at the TV (insert joke here). This is a list from the generations where Nintendo was either the system or the lead competitor out of the gate. Likely there will be more than a few Hyrulian shields and suspendered plumbers on the list. But would you have it any other way?
NOTE: We are only listing games that are produced and developed by Nintendo and are based on Nintendo’s original licenses. Sorry that it means no GoldenEye or Banjo-Kazooie, folks.
10. Star Fox (1993)
Director: Katsuya Eguchi
Kicking off the list is Nintendo’s flight simulator that sent a million kids into the stratosphere. With rudimentary 3D graphics, Star Fox trail blazed a path for the industry like a cutting-edge spaceship entering a dangerous dogfight. Starring the roguish Fox McCloud (why a fox? WHY NOT?!), one player at a time entered into this single-player rollercoaster where up was down and down was lasers coming to claim your soul! There have been many great Star Fox games, but none that captured the imagination like this one.
9. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (1995)
Designers: Gregg Mayles and Andrew Collard
Okay, I know I said only First Party titles and, technically speaking, this game was developed by Rare. But first, it’s based on the Donkey Kong property, which is clearly owned by Nintendo. Second, it is a sequel to Donkey Kong (1981), the original arcade game designed by Shigeru Miyamoto (gaming’s Walt Disney). Third…well it’s my list, so there! Besides, who would want to leave off this wild platform? Donkey Kong Country 2 is that unique sequel which is superior to the original and that is still groundbreaking by modern standards. Today, it’s not unusual to hear game developers promise every third title is a protagonist’s last adventure before we see their green armored helmet rear up again a few years later. So, it is still shocking that someone would make a Donkey Kong game where you don’t play as the disheveled gorilla, which is exactly what we got for this return to his jungle. In Donkey Kong Country 2, players control the sidekick from the previous game, Diddy. Diddy and Dixie Kong are on the quest to save ol’ DK after Kaptain K. Rool kidnaps the ape. Building off the stunning visuals and bright colors of the previous 16-bit entry, Donkey Kong Country 2 is a kaleidoscopic trip through the jungles of 3D backgrounds and superb 2D platforming. With the quickly increasing difficulty, Donkey Kong Country 2 remains one of the most challenging and rewarding old school games in the Nintendo canon.
8. Metroid (1986)
Directors: Satoru Okada and Yoshio Sakamoto
“She’s a woman?” three million gamers around the world gasped en masse. Following the wild success of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo was on top of the world with its market-devouring Nintendo Entertainment System. Only a company a little drunk on its own success would have the novel idea to surprise (likely male) players with a badass hero who, as it turns out, is a heroine. Reportedly inspired by Ripley of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Samus Aran remains one of the best gaming protagonists in the industry. She may also be the only heroine who went a whole title without being objectified (though rest assured, she fills out the blue catsuit just fine in future entries). Beyond its political attributes, Metroid is a damn fine game that combines the exploration of Zelda with the platforming of Mario. It also adds the wonderful bonus of being able to shoot things. Yeah, that’s right, gaming’s first iconic shooter is a woman. And she doesn’t always hide behind her armor, MC.
7. Super Mario Bros 3 (1990)
Designers: Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka
If you asked 10 people what superpower they would wish for, nine of them would tell you flying (and that other one would mutter something about webs as he looked up from his Marvel comic book). So, when Miyamoto announced that for his third Mario adventure that the color-coded brothers could fly, with a raccoon tail no less, the gaming world was in awe. Everything about Super Mario Bros. 3 is about expanding and perfecting the engine that defined the first two Japanese games. The graphics were better, the colors were more diverse and the worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom had never been more creative. In many ways, this game is the quintessential platformer that all others try to remake or recapture. But when Mario and Luigi unveil their inner-furries, complete with raccoon ears, and fly into the wide blue wide yonder, you knew nothing would ever be quite as cool.
6. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
Directors: Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi
Majora’s Mask is a very strange game for the Zelda canon. First, it was the sequel to the wildly popular and iconic Ocarina of Time that came out (in Zelda terms) relatively recently by only a few years. It had the same engine as that epic quest, but was entirely something other and sinister. It’s also the first Zelda game not directed/designed by Miyamoto. It’s number of differences turned off some gamers during its release who wanted another Ocarina, but this game is a standalone masterpiece in its own right for the industry. On the limited N64 platform, Nintendo created a marvelous world full of richly developed NPCs for Link to interact with. They each had their own intriguing storyline and, for once, the bulk of the gameplay dealt with their Interaction. Instead of rushing off to the next dungeon, the meat and beauty of the title rested in helping them with their troubles. This could only be made possible by a time paradox in your ocarina that allowed Link (and apparently Epona and new fairy companion Tatl) to travel back in time and relive the same three days over and over again. In a premise that would make Bill Murray cringe, you’re allowed to fully take in this fatalistic world and collect masks that will transform your hero into a variety of creatures and monsters. All to stop a moon that will kill every character you meet in just three days time when it crashes into the center of Clock Town like a big fiery ball of death. The sense of nihilistic dread that approaches on that third day, which comes like clockwork, is likely the most intense and disturbing thing Nintendo ever featured in a first party game. For that and so many other reasons, this game deserves its overdue credit.
5. Super Mario 64 (1996)
Director: Shigeru Miyamoto
There are Mario games and there are Mario games. Then there’s Super Mario 64. For Nintendo’s flagship launch title that marked their first venture into 3D gaming, they pulled out all the koopa shells. Sure, Sony’s PlayStation had already been out for over a year, but Super Mario 64 is truly the game that caused everyone in the industry, and at home, to take notice of 3D rendering’s true potential. The titular chubby plumber comes to life in a way never seen prior to this game as he jumps through wall sized paintings like they’re swimming pools. He can fly, battle Bowser in an ominous netherworld and win the heart of fair Princess Peach…or at least her cake. Super Mario 64 is a revolutionary game that is still just as fun to play over 15 years later as it was the day it hit shelves. The sense of freedom and creative joy that this side-scrolling character discovers in a wondrous three-dimensional environment is still infectious, like the sound of a crying penguin after you beat it going down an ice slide by taking a short cut. Screw that guy.
4. Mario Kart…All of ‘em (1992—present)
Platform: SNES—Nintendo GameCube
Creator: Shigeru Miyamoto
Yes, I’m going to be greedy and just say all of Mario Kart for the fourth spot. I know that I should pick only one, but hey…IT’S MY LIST. Besides, this is a unique series where all the titles are so cleverly interwoven that they truly do blur. Each Mario Kart game means a chance to replay most of your favorite courses from previous entries and consoles while exploring new roadways to blow your friends up on. Even in the latest Wii entry, I can drive my buddies off the hellacious Rainbow Road while shaking my Wii stick like money’s gonna’ fall out and then go fly to my death a thousand times on SNES’s Ghost Valley. It’s arguably the greatest party game ever made and a testament to Miyamoto’s creative mind to think we’d want to see our favorite Mario characters race in wholly unsafe environments. I mean the only thing that could top it is if we were allowed to make the characters kill each other in gladiatorial fights to the death. Yep, that’d be pretty awesome.
3. Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001)
Platform: Nintendo GameCube
Director: Massahiro Sakurai
Which brings us to the ultimate Nintendo death match. Unlike Mario Kart, I wanted to pick one Smash Bros. game that best encompassed why all gamers, even the anti-Nintendo “hardcores,” can’t get enough of this franchise. The first Super Smash Bros. is obviously a classic killer app from the N64 that illustrated the concept’s potential. And I, like everyone who’s ever held a set of sticks, never tire of using Solid Snake’s grenade launcher to blow Sonic’s furry blue arse right out of Hyrule on Wii’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Yet, the one that realized that potential that transformed Smash from a diversion to a lifestyle is, of course, Melee. Perhaps the only true killer app on GameCube that was not published by Capcom, Super Smash Bros. Melee is a soul-sucking game of bright colors flying by at hyper-speed. This virtual Meth habit entices players with a simple concept and surprisingly complex gameplay: What if all the great Nintendo characters could beat the living crap out of each other? What if Link could stab Pikachu in the face and Kirby suck Donkey Kong off a ledge? Letting players fight to the death by knocking one another off inconvenient precipices, as opposed to relying on health meters, with dozens of varied and iconic characters makes for the best multiplayer experience out there. At least for gamers who actually want to be in the same room with real people.
2. Super Mario Bros. (1985)
Designers: Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka
All this Nintendo loving is nice, but it’s never complete without paying homage to the one game that really started it for an entire industry: Super Mario Bros. Prior to this title, Nintendo was a company of many morphing faces. Playing cards; taxi companies; instant rice; love hotel chains (it’s EXACTLY what it sounds like); toy lights and more. But when Miyamoto delivered this gem sequel to his arcade breakout Donkey Kong, the company forever became known as THE home console entertainment corporation. It’s also for good reason, because this sucker is amazing. Armed with only three initial lives, one or two players can set off to save the Princess from the evil King Koopa/Bowser. They will battle fire pits, deadly man-eating jellyfish and the cursed words, “The Princess is in another castle.” Whether red or green, Mario or Luigi, two friends could have a blast either in an arcade or at home as they battled Koopa’s evil Troopas and journeyed through pipes of every color. The only problem I’ve always had is: Why are the only heroes in the Mushroom Kingdom a couple of plumbers?! And what happens if a toilet gets clogged while they’re off saving their feather-brained monarch, again? Oh well, this is the one that started it all and is almost impossible to beat.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Directors: Shigeru Miyamoto, Yoichi Yamada, Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi
Yet, there is one better. The greatest Nintendo game of all time also happens to be the best video game ever made. The one that changed the way a generation of gamers viewed the medium and, in many ways, created the open world environment that is now ubiquitous in modern gaming. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a masterful achievement in every imaginable sense. A supposed prequel, though truly a remake, of the Zelda titles from NES and SNES, Ocarina of Time combines elements of Western folklore, Japanese artistry and classic Nintendo staples to create an unforgettable experience.
You’re Link, the fairy boy of the forest without a fairy. One day, you are sent on a massive quest that places the fate of the world on your childish shoulders. You must find Princess Zelda to prevent evil from destroying gaming’s first fully realized free-roaming land. However, what if your actions actually CAUSE that said devastation? What if halfway through the game, you time-jump as an adult into a post-apocalyptic future and see Nintendo’s idyllic paradise brought to ruin? A pretty predictable plot twist, even in 1998, but it is the first time a massive mainstream game with the budget to create an immersive 3D world put the player in such a predicament. It combines the epic quest with dozens of hours of optional side quests that ranges from sword fighting and archery to simply fishing in a nearby pond and gambling away your hard-stolen rupees on games of explosive chance. For we gamers who were there for its release, it was tour de force of style, animation, gameplay and compelling story. For those who weren’t, it’s still just as addictive and engrossing 15 years later on the Nintendo 3DS. Like its time traveling hero, the years don’t take away from its awesome legacy. They only enrich it, for this game is truly legendary.
Well, that’s our list! Do you agree with these 10 choices or are you outraged that 1080 Snowboarding or your favorite Metroid title didn’t make the cut? Did we pick the right Zelda titles or are we as stupidly blind as a Deku Shrub? Sound off in the comments below about this list of Nintendo games and your very own!