The Super Nintendo, or SNES, is my favorite video game console of all time. It's home to such an expansive library of incredible, timeless games that I wouldn't even hesitate to call it the greatest video game console. I think part of what makes it so great is its place in time. It was the pinnacle of sprite-based, 2D gaming. While the following generation had sprite-based games as well, they were too busy experimenting with primitive 3D graphics to give the kind of sophisticated polish the SNES gave to all its games.
This is going to be difficult, as there are so many great games, but I'm going to try my best to list the top ten SNES games of all time. The games I chose were at the top of their genres when they came out, and are still worthy of picking up and playing to this very day. As usual, note that these are just my opinions, so if you want to share your own top ten list, go ahead and let me know in the comments!
10. Star Fox
Star Fox is one of a small handful of games I had for my SNES when I was a kid. I absolutely loved it at the time, and found myself playing it every single day (though that was mainly due to a lack of other games). I figured my love for the game was mostly nostalgia-based, but after over a decade of gaming, I can confidently say that this is in fact one of the best games for the SNES.
It was a 3D flight simulator before 3D flight simulators were even a thing. The state-of-the-art polygonal graphics are owed to the Super FX chip, which allowed the SNES to display next-generation visuals near the end of its run. The frame-rate and flight controls may feel a bit slow now, but I think they still hold up amazingly well considering the time at which they came out. The soundtrack is, of course, fantastic (Nintendo polish at its best) and the bosses are brilliant and original. Star Fox gets a ticket to the top ten list for being a one-of-a-kind game on a timeless console, and for being the best of its kind at the same time.
9. Turtles in Time
Some may think this entry is unconventional, but one simply cannot leave out the most joyous experience you can have with a friend on the SNES. I think I may even go ahead and call this the greatest side-scrolling beat-em-up of all time. In terms of its genre, it does everything right. The moves are ridiculous, the music is catchy, the theming is wacky, and the various stages present all sorts of crazy gameplay mix-ups.
The turtles will find themselves surfing in the sewers, gliding across a futuristic highway, fighting dinosaurs, and throwing foot ninjas at Shredder in a space station. My point is...dang there's so much color! While some of the other games on this list may have better gameplay, better graphics, or a better story, nothing beats out Turtles in Time in terms of pure, unabashed fun.
8. Mega Man X
There are a whole lot of Mega Man games on the SNES so it took awhile for me to choose, but I had to give the nod to the first game in the Mega Man X series. Simply put: it had the best level designs out of all the games, and that's really all in comes down to when you're comparing such similar games.
Mega Man X is an explosive breath of fresh air. Its fast-paced gameplay and stellar stage designs fuse together to form such a smooth and invigorating experience; it's like racing down a highway. Dashing and wall-jumping with X is pixel-perfect, and you can find power-ups and armor pieces by re-visiting levels with certain abilities to make your ride even smoother.
The boss battles are difficult yet elegant in their designs. They used to infuriate as a kid, but now I just revel at how quickly I can dispose of them with my ninja skills. Did I mention the soundtrack kicks ass too? I absolutely love Mega Man, and I can think of no better game to represent the series in the 16-bit era.
7. Super Mario World
Here's an absolute classic. There's a short list of games that fans consider the "best" Mario game (Mario 64, Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3, etc) and this is my choice from that list. In terms of 2D Mario platforming, this was definitely the peak. Every level (including its soundtrack) was memorable enough that I was able to recognize the level designs after 11 years of not playing it. The controls are perfect, and the power-ups, which include Yoshi, give this game the most charm and flair of any classic Mario.
My favorite aspect of this game is definitely how full of content it is. There are dozens of secret exits and levels scattered throughout this game that will likely take players ages to find if they don't look carefully. I mean, the first time I stumbled upon the Special World? My jaw just dropped. There were secrets inside of secrets. And then when I found every secret door and the world changed completely? I had to ask my friends to make sure my game wasn't broken. There will likely never be a 2D Mario game of this caliber ever again, though that's mainly a testament to just how great this game is.
6. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island
Oh boy, this game is good. Yoshi's Island is definitely the most colorful, vibrant, and crisp looking game from the 16-bit era. Part of that is owed to the aforementioned Super FX chip, which allows enemies to stretch into gigantic bosses. Everything in this game has charm, from the completely original art, to the overly happy smiley-face flowers in the background.
I could go on and on about the graphics, but the game is near-perfect in every other department as well. Controlling Yoshi is a joy, as you do more than just run and jump. You can air-walk for a short duration, swallow enemies with your tongue, and shoot precisely-aimed eggs. All of these gameplay elements play into the unique game design, which is laden with carefully placed bonuses. The game itself is very lengthy, and there's even a completionist aspect to it as you have a list of things (coins, flowers, stars) to collect in every level.
Note that I'm not considering this a traditional Mario game as it's much too unique in its own right. Instead of calling this the best Mario game, I'd have to call it one of the greatest 16-bit platformers in gaming history. There's only one platformer I consider to be better, but we'll get to that in a minute.
5. Super Metroid
I lament all the time I wasted not playing Super Metroid. I didn't really pay attention to Metroid as a child, so it took me until my adulthood to realize how amazing this game is. To describe it in a few short words, Super Metroid is a titantic sprawling labyrinth with expertly crafted design, fine-tuned gameplay, and endless hidden content. This was an unfathomable standard of game for its time, and it holds up even compared to today's triple-a titles.
As any fan would know, Metroid's main strength is in its exploration. It's basically one gigantic level separated into sections that you unlock every time Samus gains a new ability. There's this amazing feeling of awe and accomplishment every time you enter a room with a new ability. A curious alien statue holds your new toy in its hands, and eerie music plays to set the mysterious atmosphere. It's just...god I love it.
The overall design is absolutely genius. The game basically plops you on a foreign planet without any narrative or direction, but it manages to place just the right signs near specific abilities in order to aid you in progressing without having to use words. I was flabbergasted when I realized that my first blind run of the game was unknowingly following the exact steps the game intended me to take. All this, in a completely open world.
Nothing really beats that feeling of finding a secret passageway while rolling around bombing random rocks. Every time you think you're just following the standard route, Super Metroid hits you with an "oh, there's more." This game takes patience to fully appreciate, but if you're a serious gamer in search of something deeply rewarding and of the utmost quality for the SNES, you would have to look no further than this old gem.
4. Final Fantasy III (VI)
I previously named Final Fantasy VI (III in the U.S.) the best Final Fantasy in the series, and I still stand by that decision. It's another example of how the Super Nintendo was the pinnacle of sprite-based games. There are so many more advanced games in the Final Fantasy series, and yet, this 16-bit gem manages to stand out as the best of them all.
I don't want to repeat myself (click the link above for the article) so I'll keep it simple. FFVI oozes charm in every area of its design. The cast is lovable, the villains are memorable, the story is engaging, the music is spectacular, and the graphics are sprite-art at its finest. I'll always remember being impressed with the wealth of end-game side-quests and the variety of character combinations you could make. Oh, and that final boss? Don't get the RPG nerd in me started.
FFVI's deep and addictive RPG elements really put the icing on the cake. I wish I could just go ahead and end the list here, but there are a few more games that really capture the true essence of the SNES. Just note that the top four aren't that far off from each other. A list just needs an order.
3. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
Remember when I said there's only one platformer better than Yoshi's Island? Like 2 minutes ago? Yeah, this is that game. Diddy's Kong Quest is the best 2D platformer ever. Running, cartwheeling, and jumping with the monkeys is like wiping your ass with silk. It's so smooth. I've sincerely never felt more precise platforming in any other game. I really feel like I'm in control and that the game is going at my pace. I think part of that feeling is owed to the incredible pseudo-3D graphics, which lends to the pixel-perfect jumping.
The visuals are absolutely gorgeous. There was definitely no better example of aesthetic immersion on the SNES. Looking beyond the level and into the backgrounds of the ship, beehive, and bramble stages gave somewhat of a surreal feeling. And the soundtrack? I'd put it up there as one of the greatest video game soundtracks, and I'm not just saying that. Just listen to "Stickerbush Symphony":
DKC 2 isn't just about its presentation, however. I mentioned the flawless controls before, but that can only be realized by playing through the incredibly memorable stages and worlds. You'll be jumping through swamps on crocodiles, flying over lava on hot-air balloons, racing crocs on roller coasters, and running from giant bees in beehives. You'll even get to transform into your animal buddies at various points. All the while, you'll be collecting hidden coins and beating bonus levels in order to complete the game fully.
This is as complete a game as you can get on the SNES. It perfects gameplay and surrounds it with so much flair that you'll find yourself playing through the game over and over again. It gets beat on the list by games that transcended gameplay with story elements, but DKC 2 represents the very best of what gaming used to be before story-telling brought gaming to a whole new level.
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
I still remember the feeling of starting A Link to the Past for the first time. I was so enamored by it considering the other games I had in my possession (Super Off Road, Cybernator, Top Gear). The story awoke me on a dark and stormy night, and it was my job to find out why my uncle had disappeared. Then, as I left my house, I realized that I had free rein over where I could go in this expansive game. After I finished my initial quest, I decided to venture off for a bit. I bombed walls to find secret caves, waded in shallow waters to get some flippers, and cut grass for an hour so I could buy a bottle.
It seemed tedious at first, but I slowly realized how absorbed I was in this open fantasy world. Such is the charm of Zelda games. Great level design, great story, and great visual style are all constants in the series, and it's my belief that A Link to the Past did it best (sorry Ocarina of Time fans). It's hard to compare a 16-bit top-down game to fully fleshed-out 3D games like Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time, but A Link to the Past made the most of its hardware to deliver an experience that equals (and surpasses) all of its sequels.
The game's best feature is definitely the ability to switch between two dimensions of the same world. The alternate "dark" world features a completely new portion of the game, and it's connected to the "light" world, so whatever you do in one world affects the other. You could drain a lake in the light world, then switch over to the dark world to find that a path had opened for you. I loved the depth this provided to Zelda's traditional puzzle-solving.
Putting a game of this caliber near the top of this list was simply a no-brainer for me. It's the best Zelda, and just an amazing game in general. Only a game with more charm and more story-telling prowess could top a game like this on a list of greats. Speaking of which...
1. Chrono Trigger
Here it is, the best 16-bit RPG and SNES game of all time. Have you noticed how many times I've said "of all time"? It's truly a testament to how great the Super Nintendo's game library is. Chrono Trigger is one of a handful of amazing RPG's on the SNES, but it manages to stand out as the purest, most enjoyable and charming adventure. It's a tale of time travel, and of saving the world from an inevitable fate. Through mysterious acts of fate, the heroes are thrown across different time periods in order to stop the rise of an alien entity called Lavos that is destined to destroy the world in 1999.
Time traveling is Chrono Trigger's theme and main gameplay element. You'll be able to travel from present day (1000 AD) to medieval, and even prehistoric times. You'll eventually end up in the future (2300 AD) as well. I really enjoyed this segment in particular because the game managed to capture the feel of a post-apocalyptic world within the context of the game perfectly, and it made you that much more motivated to complete the task at hand. The theming is excellent in every time period. It never tries to take itself too seriously, and allows the player to appreciate the game's charm without asking too many questions.
The time traveling aspect gets really creative once you're able to do side quests with the Epoch (a time traveling ship). Many quests involve doing one thing in the past, and seeing how it affects the present. You can leave a legendary rock in prehistoric times, then jump thousands of year forward to find that it has changed completely. You can even access a portal that takes you directly to Lavos, which brings us to the numerous endings. There are twelve endings in total, with each being unlocked by defeating Lavos at specific points throughout the game. Every ending is unique and well worth the effort of beating the final boss over and over again. Replay value in an RPG? This is the way to do it.
I've said this several times before (in several different posts) but Chrono Trigger truly is one of the most endearing and memorable games in history. It's not too sophisticated, and yet, you can remember it past all the Zelda's and Final Fantasy's. Maybe it's the simplicity and light-hearted approach to story-telling that makes it so much fun as well. When someone brings up the Super Nintendo, this is the game I remember. This, is the best game on the SNES.
Honorable Mentions: Earthbound, Final Fantasy II, Super Mario All-Stars, Mario Kart, Super Street Fighter II Turbo