Photo by SuperSparkster
Celebrating 30 years of “Super” gaming with 30 classic titles!
With the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s 30th Anniversary falling today it seems like the perfect opportunity for me to share some of my nostalgia for what is arguably the greatest home video game console ever made. And what better way to do so than craft a list of the 30 SNES games that every gamer should try at least once in their lifetime. To be clear this is NOT a ranking of the 30 greatest games on the SNES, but rather a selection that I believe best represent the console’s capabilities and the enduring legacy it has developed over the past 30 years. You’ll see many familiar titles that could arguably be in a “Top 30” list, but I am presenting them in no particular order. Also worth noting, if you’re a stickler for playing physical retro games like me know that a few of these are extremely expensive or notoriously difficult to find in the resale market. With all of that out of the way, let’s get started!
Genre: RPG – Developer: Squaresoft – Release: Aug 1995
Chrono Trigger is undeniably an amazing game and one of the SNES’s best titles. It’s a standout among JRPGs for its innovative combat design, engaging narrative, charming characters, and moving score. The purist in me would argue that the SNES version is the best, but since loose cartridges can run over $200 that’s likely not a viable option for many gamers. Try the Final Fantasy Chronicles (PlayStation) or Steam ports to save some cash.
U. N. Squadron
Genre: Shooter – Developer: Capcom – Release: Sept 1991
The SNES had no shortage of incredible shmups. One that is too often overlooked is Capcom’s U. N. Squadron, known as Area 88 in Japan and based on the manga of the same name. Three unique playable pilots with an arsenal of fighters, power-ups, and sub-weapons, non-linear progression, nail-biting difficulty, gorgeous graphics, and a killer soundtrack make this a must play for any serious SNES fan and lover of shooters.
Super Mario World
Genre: Platformer – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Aug 1991
Of course a list of 30 must play SNES games had to include this classic. I would bet most of you have played Super Mario World at some point or another. The game has been available on every Nintendo virtual console (Wii, Wii U, New 3DS, SNES Classic, and SNES Online) and was touched up for Game Boy Advance as Super Mario Advance 2. But if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years then give Super Mario World a try. It’s an age old gem that never disappoints.
Genre: Fighting – Developer: Rare/Nintendo – Release: Aug 1995
Competing with the likes of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct had to offer something new to the fighting market to stand out. While the story is laughably bad and the characters a bit generic, KI offered frenetic combat with Ultra Combos, No Mercies, and C-c-c-c-combo Breakers. On top of that SNES owners were able to rock out to the amazing techno and EDM inspired soundtrack with the pack-in CD Killer Cuts! Supreme Victory!
Super Castlevania IV
Genre: Action/Platformer – Developer: Konami – Release: Dec 1991
Don’t be fooled by the name. Super Castlevania IV is not the fourth chronological entry in the Castlevania timeline. It’s actually a remake of the NES original. But what Super Castlevania IV doesn’t deliver on plot development it more than makes up for with its precision control, spooky visuals, epic boss battles, and incredible score. Some would say that the other SNES entry, Dracula X, is superior, but I’ll choose the fine-tuned gameplay of this classic any day of the week.
Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past
Genre: Action RPG – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Apr 1992
Fans of the first two NES games had to endure for several months after the SNES’ launch before they could once again adventure in Hyrule, but it was well worth the wait. Boasting two overworlds to explore, A Link To The Past served up devious puzzles, eleven devilish dungeons, and memorable bosses along with new optional side quests/collectibles that have since become a staple for the series. For an early SNES game it looks and sounds amazing as well. A Link To The Past is an all time classic!
Genre: Action/Shooter – Developer: Natsume – Release: July 1995
I almost put Sunset Riders on this list but felt Wild Guns deserved more attention and praise. Wild Guns is a Sci-Fi/Steampunk third-person shooting gallery that demands focus, precision, and expert timing. Strafe, dodge, and lasso your way to victory in single player or two player co-op across six stages and enact vengeance on the dastardly Kid family and its entourage of thugs, goons, and robo-desperados. Tough as nails and boasting a kick-ass soundtrack this one is sure to fine tune your trigger finger.
Mega Man X
Genre: Action/Platformer – Developer: Capcom – Release: Jan 1994
Mega Man was a well beloved series on the NES but had been showing its age by its fifth installment. Capcom took note and revitalized the series for the SNES with a new protagonist in a new era. Mega Man X was the angsty, edgier older brother to the NES’s blue bomber. The story was cliched and some of the robot master’s designs were questionable, but there was no denying that X was a solid title with tight controls, clever level design, and bombastic boss fights, not to mention a killer score. I still rock out to Spark Mandrill’s theme today!
Genre: Beat ’em Up – Developer: Konami – Release: Jan 1993
I tried to make this entire list SNES exclusives, but couldn’t overlook the near perfect beat ’em up that is Konami’s Batman Returns. While the SEGA variants focused more on non-linear platforming, Konami took a different approach by focusing on intense combat, stunning level backdrops, and a soundtrack ripped straight from the theatrical release. Batman Returns is a shockingly good licensed game that stands toe to toe with hallmark SNES brawlers like Final Fight and TMNT IV: Turtles In Time.
Final Fantasy III
Genre: RPG – Developer: Squaresoft – Release: Oct 1994
You’re probably wondering if the other SNES Final Fantasy is somewhere on this list. The simple answer…No. While many claim Final Fantasy II (IV) is the better 16-bit entry I would argue that III (VI) does everything one hundred times better. Stunning graphics, a much more compelling story and characters, and some of the most epic tunes that have ever graced a Final Fantasy are all right here in one neat, little package. Cecil who? I’d rather party with Terra and friends.
Genre: Shooter – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Mar 1993
Rail shooters were usually simple affairs: straight forward levels with hordes of enemies to blast. But Star Fox wanted to give players a reason to replay it so it offered up a range of difficulty options and branching story paths that would further affect the challenge by pitting the player against a myriad of new enemies and boss encounters. Combined with a quirky cast of characters and a stellar soundtrack (HA! Get it?) this fox had only one thing to say: Mission Accomplished!
Super Mario Kart
Genre: Racing – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Sept 1992
The game that literally created the kart racer sub-genre is still an enjoyable romp nearly 30 years later. A multitude of demanding tracks across three different speed settings, acting in place of difficulty, along with a colorful cast of eight racers split into three weight classes give this kart racer plenty of replay value and added challenge. Mastered all of the Grand Prixs and time trials? Take your skills into competitive multiplayer in Battle Mode for some no holds barred kart karnage!
Genre: Action – Developer: LucasArts – Release: Apr 1995
Many confuse this game with Cybernator, known as Assault Suits Valken in Japan, and the comparison is easy to forgive. Both are mecha action games in the same vein as Front Mission: Gun Hazard with impeccable visuals and satisfying combat. However, Metal Warriors was exclusive to the North American market and offers more variety and complexity to its levels with some mission objectives even requiring the pilot to exit their mech and proceed on foot. But a quick heads up, retro purists. This game is very rare with loose copies fetching nearly $300.
Kirby Super Star
Genre: Action – Developer: HAL Laboratory – Release: Sept 1996
It was a difficult decision on which Kirby game to add to this list: Super Star or Dream Land 3. While Dream Land 3 is a great Kirby game that faithfully follows in its predecessors footsteps, Super Star was a bit of an oddity for its many and varied gameplay types including a racing game and a boss rush arena. In the end Super Star won out as the standout SNES Kirby game simply because it’s so darn fun. Completing every scenario is a delight and the final boss arena offers up a surprising level of challenge for a Kirby adventure.
Genre: Action/Platformer – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Apr 1994
Another game on the list that I’m sure was almost entirely expected, Super Metroid is a MUST play. One half of the creative inspiration behind the “Metroidvania” category, Super Metroid thrust players into a labyrinth of levels deep below the surface of the planet Zebes with only their wit and grit to see them through. The combat, exploration, and atmosphere of the original NES game were all back in 16-bit glory. It was a stunning experience back in the day and without question remains my favorite SNES game to date.
Earthworm Jim 2
Genre: Action/Platformer – Developer: Shiny Entertainment – Release: Nov 1995
The second of two multi-platform releases to appear on this list, Earthworm Jim 2 edged out the original because of its varied gameplay and absolutely gut-busting sense of humor. The game does a tremendous job of never taking itself seriously. Launching cows from see-saws? Check. Exploring a giant set of intestines as a blind salamander? Check. Fighting evil filing cabinets on the planet of tedious paperwork? Check. Additonally, Jim was accompanied on this outing by his new friend Snot the living booger who helps him traverse certain levels! Whoopee!
Breath Of Fire
Genre: RPG – Developer: Capcom – Release: Aug 1994
The SNES saw two entries of this vaunted series of RPGs from developer Capcom, but its the original that holds up better than its 1995 sequel. The first entry in the repeating tale of Ryu and Nina, Breath of Fire gave players plenty of bang for their buck with a rich story with plenty of twists, an eclectic cast of party members with varied skills, and a charming visual and auditory presentation. While not to the caliber of Final Fantasy III, it was a refreshing new entry in the RPG genre that did well enough to spawn four direct home console sequels.
Battletoads In Battlemaniacs
Genre: Beat ’em Up – Developer: Rare – Release: June 1993
If you grew up with the NES odds are good that you played a game called Battletoads. It was a brutally difficult yet hilarious beat ’em up where co-op competitiveness was encouraged. Fast forward to the SNES era and players were given not one but two new Battletoads games! Battletoads/Double Dragon didn’t quite hit the mark with gamers but Battlemaniacs was exactly what fans were looking for: crazy levels, huge boss battles, and plenty of bone crunching action but now in one of the best 16-bit performances the SNES could muster.
Secret Of Mana
Genre: Action RPG – Developer: Squaresoft – Release: Oct 1993
Much like its predecessor, Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana allowed the player to roam freely and engage enemies at their discretion rather than utilize traditional turn-based encounters. Players could also equip each of the three protagonists with a variety of weapons that could be mastered to unlock their true potential, and when combined with Secret’s intuitive yet robust magic system made each encounter feel truly dynamic. Paired with an emotional story and soundtrack and you’ve got yourself an instant classic.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
Genre: Platformer – Developer: Rare – Release: Nov 1995
When Donkey Kong Country came out the year before, SNES owners delighted in not only the impressive pre-rendered visuals but the stiff level of platforming challenge and hidden secrets. So when a sequel was announced gamers were both overjoyed and skeptical at the prospect. How could it get any better than DKC? Apparently, in every way imaginable! Not only did Diddy’s Kong Quest up the ante on visuals, sound, and level design but it also offered completionists an even steeper challenge to find every secret and unlock the game’s true ending.
Super Mario RPG
Genre: RPG – Developer: Squaresoft – Release: May 1996
When asked today what the greatest Squaresoft collaboration is gamers will likely say the Kingdom Hearts series, but that wasn’t the case back in 1996. When news first broke of a Super Mario game being developed by the masters of the RPG rumors spread like wildfire. When gamers finally got their hands on Super Mario RPG it blew all expectations away with its clever combat mechanics, challenging bosses, quirky story and characters, and a suitably impressive score. Who knew Mario could role-play with the best of them?
Genre: Action/Platformer – Developer: Capcom – Release: Nov 1994
Did you ever want to play as the Red Devil from Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts in a surprisingly engaging action platforming romp with mild RPG elements? If the answer is yes then Demon’s Crest is for you! A sleeper hit from Capcom, Demon’s Crest was met with praise for its detailed environments and sprites, and complex gameplay. The soundtrack is a bit lack luster and repetitive but it’s a small knock against an otherwise amazing game. However, it’s become increasingly hard to find at resale and loose cartridges can go as high as $150.
Genre: Racing – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Aug 1991
When most SNES veterans hear the phrase “Mode 7” this is the game they think of first. A graphical marvel for the time, F-Zero recreated blistering speeds with a trick of scaling and perspective. Technical jargon aside, F-Zero was still a thrilling racing game that tested player’s reflexes and execution, as well as their mastery of each of the game’s hovercraft. While the series hasn’t seen a new entry in quite some time there was a period in the 90s/00s when you couldn’t imagine a Nintendo console without a F-Zero title in its library.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Genre: Platformer – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Oct 1995
What’s this? A direct sequel on this list? Say what you will, there’s just something so remarkable about Yoshi’s Island that it almost defies description. Its childish hand-drawn art style, whimsical soundtrack, and ridiculous premise belie the challenging platformer that lurks beneath the surface. Yoshi’s Island is very much its own game and stands tall as one of the best in the genre. It’s also responsible for cementing Yoshi’s personality and abilities as well as introducing several enemies and tropes that have become standard for Super Mario games since.
TMNT IV: Turtles In Time
Genre: Beat ’em Up – Developer: Konami – Release: Aug 1992
In late 1992 fans of the second TMNT arcade game could keep the fun going at home on the SNES! Similar to the NES conversion of the first TMNT arcade game, the SNES port was a compromise of sorts. Visuals and audio took a dip but to compensate new levels and bosses were added as well as a Time Trial mode for one and two players. Even still it’s a visually impressive game, and the levels are varied, chaotic, and thrilling. There’s also something so intensely satisfying about throwing Foot Soldiers straight into Shredder’s face!
The Legend Of The Mystical Ninja
Genre: Action/Adventrue – Developer: Konami – Release: Feb 1992
Take one Japanese folkhero, add a mix of side scrolling platforming and RPG elements, and finally a hefty does of lighthearted humor and you get The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, or Ganbare Goemon in Japan. A relative unknown in the SNES’s library Mystical Ninja is a entertaining and playful action adventure with plenty of charm and activities to keep you invested all the way through to the credits. For even more fun try playing the entire game in 2 player co-op which adds even more zaniness to an already over the top game!
Genre: Shooter – Developer: Konami – Release: Sept 1992
So many seasoned shmups were considered for this list: Gradius III, Super R-Type, Phalanx, and Darius Twin just to name a few. But in my book it’s Axelay that takes home the prize. While a bit on the short side with only six stages, Axelay provides a staggering degree of replayability. Completing each level offers one of three weapon upgrades so player’s can experience the game with a myriad of weapon builds. Visually stunning and with a matching soundtrack, Axelay was an early example of the technical prowess of the SNES.
Contra III: The Alien Wars
Genre: Action/Platformer – Developer: Konami – Release: Apr 1992
While we’re on the subject of showing just what the SNES was capable of we have to mention Contra III. This game took advantage of nearly every graphics mode the SNES had at its disposal and dialed them all up to 11. In true Contra fashion the game is also relentlessly difficult from Stage 1 and boasts some of the craziest boss fights in the series. It also has a rockin’ soundtrack packed with plenty of orchestral sweeps and heavy metal riffs that pitches perfectly with the on screen carnage.
Genre: Sports – Developer: Nintendo – Release: Sept 1994
The NES boxing classic Punch-Out!! made its way to the 16-bit stage with Super Punch-Out!! late in the SNES’s lifespan. Better late than never I suppose. Super Punch-Out!! was easy to play but difficult to master. The added mechanics of roping, ducking, and well-timed “Knockout” punches made all sixteen fights feel unique. Its art style can be a bit garish at times, but the game has plenty of redeeming qualities, from its sound design to responsive controls, that make it one of the SNES’s best sports titles and one of the best boxing games overall.
Genre: Puzzle – Developer: Intelligent Systems – Release: Aug 1996
What do you get when you take a Tetris-like puzzle game called Panel de Pon and slap Super Mario characters on it? Apparently one of the best puzzlers on the SNES. The Tetris moniker was used to make the game feel more familiar to Western gamers but the similarities end there. Tetris Attack sports several different game modes including Story, Endless, Stage Clear, and my favorite Puzzle mode where the player is tasked with clearing a screen in a certain number of moves. An incredibly addictive puzzler, Tetris Attack is definitely worth a look.
Whew! That’s a lot of classic games in one post! If you’re a relative newcomer to the SNES then the above list will give you a solid primer on the system’s library, but there are so many more amazing games that I could prattle off. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System still stands today as one of the most prolific home consoles in gaming history, and its game library simply can’t be beat. So what are you waiting for? Go celebrate this iconic console’s 30th anniversary and get to gamin’!
Think I missed some SNES gems? Leave a comment with the game(s) you believe deserve a play! Until next time, Geeks!