Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by Nintendo
Nintendo has built a cottage industry out of reselling its classics over and over again. The company’s Virtual Console service, which was available on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS, hosted an impressive cross-section of old games, but it would also charge you like 5 bucks for the privilege of playing Galaga. That never felt like a great deal. Surely we don’t need to be doling out the archive piecemeal, right? Why would anyone spend real money on a 30-year-old game? Thankfully, Nintendo has addressed those qualms beautifully on the Switch. Anyone who owns the console and subscribes to its $3.99-per-month Switch Online service automatically gains access to a trove of NES and SNES titles. Nintendo has been dutifully adding to that catalogue every month, and today, 86 games live on the client. To put that in perspective, there are only 50 games available on the NES Classic and SNES Classic retro mini-consoles combined.
It feels like pretty much everyone has purchased a Switch during quarantine. The Animal Crossing mania was difficult to ignore. So if you’re a newcomer to Nintendo, you might not know that the handheld lying on your coffee table hosts multiple decades of gaming history. Some of the titles on the service have been decimated by the passage of time, but there are a handful of icons from the ’80s and ’90s that hold up surprisingly well in 2021. So we’re highlighting 20 old games on Switch Online that are worth checking out today. Our criteria is twofold; obviously, we wanted to single out some of the indisputable classics of the era, but we also paid attention to games that pack rock-solid multiplayer experiences and don’t require much of a learning curve. We’re not expecting you to jump headfirst into an impenetrable RPG from the Reagan administration, okay? Enjoy the list and the trip down memory lane.
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There are other, older Zelda games on Switch Online, but the first two entries in the series — and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in particular — are buoyed by some prehistoric jank that will likely turn off any newcomers from the jump. (It was the mid ’80s. You had to be there.) Instead, if you’re up for some Triforce hunting, give A Link to the Past a spin. The SNES interpretation of Nintendo’s timeless saga holds up surprisingly well by modern standards. The level design remains inventive and airtight, and the everlasting charm of Hyrule burns bright through the sparkling 16-bit graphics. If you’ve been weaned exclusively on 3-D Zelda and are looking to broaden your horizons, A Link to the Past is good medicine. Just don’t go in expecting something similar to Breath of the Wild. This is a very different video game.
We will get to some of the other Mario games in a later entry, but we need to take a moment to single out Super Mario Bros. 2. Its baffling history alone makes it worth booting up. Nintendo, high off of the seismic success of the NES launch in America, was hard at work producing a sequel to the first Super Mario Bros. game that shipped with the console. It came up with a natural iteration on the original design — with a light sprinkling of new mechanics — but deemed it too difficult for the soft, doltish Western audience. (Why Nintendo once perceived nascent American gamers that way, we may never know.) So, that version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was only released in Japan, and instead Nintendo grabbed an entirely unrelated video game called Doki Doki Panic, reskinned it with Mario characters, and shipped it overseas.
The Americanized Super Mario Bros. 2 is a fever dream. Mario spends most of his time rooting up turnips and tossing them at mimelike pygmies. All of the canonical archvillains are swapped out with an entirely different rogues’ gallery. (Bowser is nowhere to be found!) And the narrative designers wash their hands of the whole ordeal by claiming that the game’s events take place entirely in a weird dream Mario had, probably after one too many mushrooms. If you ever want a snapshot of just how wildly deregulated the games industry was in the ’80s, Super Mario Bros. 2 is waiting and ready.
First, the bad news. This isn’t Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Somewhere along the way, Nintendo lost the licensing rights to the universe’s foremost macho boxer turned actor. Tyson served as the final boss of the original title released in 1987, and frankly it’s kinda fitting that he’d be the villain in one of the few video games to ever bear his name. But Nintendo has since swapped in a generic, vaguely Tyson-shaped stand-in named Mr. Dream, who just so happens to share the champ’s animations and movesets. Anything to skirt past copyright law, I suppose.
But who cares about retcons? Punch-Out!! remains one of the greatest NES games of all time. On the surface, you’re looking at an extremely stripped-down boxing sim featuring a questionably racially coded suite of opponents guarding the bracket. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll realize that Punch-Out!! is effectively a game about rhythm. All of your dodges, jabs, and uppercuts pulsate to an understated beat between the ropes. Baiting out a left hook and countering with a devastating haymaker is still one of the most satisfying sensations in video-game history. Always bet on Little Mac.
The WWE is incapable of making a good pro-wrestling game. Every year, it wheels out an annualized new edition that explores profound new dimensions of baffling ineptitude. The latest, WWE 2K20, is so thoroughly riddled with bugs that it could legitimately be rated M for body horror. And yet, literally 30 years ago, Nintendo basically had it all figured out. 1987’s Pro Wrestling might be a little stiffer than what you can find on modern consoles, but it is professionally functional. You can reliably climb the turnbuckle without clipping into the skybox, and all the buttons do what they’re supposed to do. That actually counts as an improvement!
Is Metroid the most influential video-game series of all time? The game’s fundamental premise — explore a gigantic, nonlinear, initially overwhelming map that slowly becomes more traversable due to an array of power-ups and good old-fashioned muscle memory — has been co-opted by everything from Hollow Knight to Batman: Arkham Asylum. Where would we be without Samus Aran? Some die-hards still swear by the first-person Prime trilogy on GameCube and Wii, but for my money, Super Metroid will always be the franchise’s North Star. Enjoy a vivid, squirming alien world filled to the brim with some of the most monstrous sprites ever rendered on a 2-D machine. Nintendo rarely goes dark, but when it does, the results can be glorious.
Donkey Kong Country is one-of-a-kind. On the surface, this is just another platformer starring one of Nintendo’s more tertiary mascots. But then you sink in to the sedate, ethereal soundtrack, and take in a burning sunset over the verdant tree canopy, or marvel at the strange, Magic Eye depth to the character models that seem to split the difference between 2-D and 3-D. The gameplay chops are here — these monkeys control well — but I most frequently dip back in to Donkey Kong Country for another taste of its indelible atmosphere, which has never truly been re-created by any studio since. A chill-out classic, now and forever. The same goes for its two sequels that are also available on Switch Online.
Gradius was originally an old-school Konami arcade game, and like most software that was shipped in a cabinet, it is really, really hard. That remains true for the 1986 NES port, which does a surprisingly good job of preserving the pulpy, star-fighting action on limited specs. Honestly, it’s maybe the best-looking NES game of all time, but you won’t have the capacity to appreciate those visuals while simultaneously dodging about 2 billion bullets per screen. That’s the tao of Gradius; gamer euphoria can only be achieved through an army of turrets, mother ships, and asteroids that all want you dead.
Honestly, if Switch Online granted access to Super Mario All-Stars and nothing else, it would still be a pretty good deal. In 1993, Nintendo put out a cartridge containing four stone-cold NES classics, beautified and upscaled for the beefier Super Nintendo. Included are Super Mario Bros., the aforementioned Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, and an oddity called Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, which was the original sequel to the first game that was only released in Japan. (We talked about that earlier.) Altogether, All-Stars stands as one of the greatest packages ever released for a console; a perfect distillation of Nintendo’s golden years, dusted with the tender love and care that the company always emphasizes when it’s handling the crown jewels. You could call any one of these games your favorite of all time and nobody would blink an eye.
Of course, the one game that All-Stars doesn’t possess is the indomitable Super Mario World. But that’s okay, because World is available on Switch Online, too. It’s difficult to generate an original take on what has long been a consensus Greatest Game Ever, but let me put it this way: Everything society has come to love about Mario — the ersatz haunted houses, Bowser’s rebrand as an insecure fop, the very existence of Yoshi — got its start in World. The platforming is tight, demanding, and full of momentum, and as always, Nintendo is able to inject a huge amount of character into the Mushroom Kingdom with no real narrative, dialogue, or emotional stakes. You will trudge through a fiefdom called Chocolate Island and discover a bounty of imagination-expanding secrets. Mario comes upon Bowser’s sanctum and sees that he’s turned his castle into the site of an all-night rager. If you’ve never played a Mario game — hell, if you’ve never played a video game — this is a great place to start.
Before Madden, and EA, and a never-ending pipeline of football simulators with marginal iterations around the edges, there was only Tecmo Bowl. Pick one of 12 NFL teams loosely adapted into the NES and open a playbook consisting of exactly four plays. (Run 1, Run 2, Pass 1, Pass 2.) Tecmo Bowl obviously doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the football extravaganzas on modern machines, but honestly, couch games of Madden usually distill into two friends running the same plays over and over again. Tecmo Bowl nailed that same sensation almost 35 years ago.
The ’80s were the golden age for video-game difficulty, and the NES boasted an oppressive gauntlet of Battletoads, Contra, and the early Mega Man games. But for my money, nothing comes close to the original Ninja Gaiden. Death is everywhere across these 20 levels — balaclava-donned psychopaths are constantly gunning at your rear and always seem to appear at the exact moment you’re calculating yet another dicey jump onto a tiny platform. But what makes Ninja Gaiden stand out the most in retrospect is how well it tells its story. It’s one of the first games to incorporate comic-book-like interludes in between its chapters — rudimentary cutscenes, essentially — which would be co-opted by every designer searching for the ideal way to spool out a narrative in a video game. Return to it for both the history lesson and a snapshot of the mechanical precision we once demanded of our 8-year-olds.
Poor Balloon Fight. The game has all the credentials of some of Nintendo’s legendary franchises — releasing on American consoles the same year as the original Metroid — but it never quite rode the Zeitgeist of its more famous peers. Instead, revisiting Balloon Fight is a bit like peering into the vastness of the Nintendo laboratory and gazing upon all the experiments that didn’t make landfall. The game is still good; you play as a hapless boy floating around by a triad of party balloons, dodging lightning rods and the sea monster lurking in the depths below — similar to the cabinet classic Joust. But we did not end up inheriting a timeline where Balloon Fight eclipsed Mario as Nintendo’s premier calling card. What a world that would be.
We have to include Donkey Kong Jr. for exactly one reason: It’s the only time Mario has been cast as the villain. Yes, after the events of the very, very old Donkey Kong arcade game, Mario has the ape cruelly imprisoned like the villain from King Kong. Donkey Kong’s son scales the vines, dodges some strange crocodile monsters, and frees Daddy from the grip of the evil plumber. The game itself isn’t anything special, but it’s worth booting up to witness Heel Mario nonetheless.
Crystalis was a late entry to the NES catalogue. It came out in 1990, one year before the SNES made its way to the United States, and it’s clear that developers SNK had absorbed countless lessons from the previous five years of 8-bit trailblazing. You’re looking at a standard, top-down RPG here complete with an appetizing open world that immediately brings to mind the first Zelda. Some rudimentary D&D tropes — leveling up with experience points, a gradient system of magic schools — are right in place, and the crispness of the animation pushes the console’s two kilobits of RAM to its outer limits. Crystalis even takes a swing at a weird, postmodern story, involving cryogenic sleep and a nuclear war in the distant year of 1997, like a capstone of every narrative trope that emblematized the ’80s. That makes it a perfect send-off for the NES, so long as you ignore the fact that developers were releasing new games for the console through, like, 1994.
Blaster Master blew minds in 1988 with a single innovation; the ability to exit a vehicle. That sounds mild by modern standards, but on the NES, it was downright revolutionary. A kid named Jason pilots a chunky tank equipped with a bunker-busting turret, and at any moment, he can slip out the side door and explore the crevices that his ride can’t fit inside. Boom, video-game structure sundered forever. That’s all it took in the early days.
I’m not even being completely hyperbolic. Blaster Master is a genuine landmark in the Nintendo legacy. Developers Sunsoft go as far as to shift the camera angle entirely when you’re exploring certain parts of the world solo — changing from a standard side-scroller to a top-down, Zelda-ish perspective. One of the most fascinating things about Switch Online is to witness the risks that studios were willing to take on ancient tech. In that sense, Blaster Master will only keep getting more impressive with time.
You will receive no argument from me, or anyone else, that Star Fox looks a little janky on a big-screen TV today. But consider the audacity of its origin story. The Super Nintendo was designed as a 2-D machine, and developers around the world used it to create some indelible 2-D classics. But a small team at Argonaut Software wasn’t satisfied with those limitations and ground away at a specialized cartridge chip that allowed them to make an intergalactic dogfighting shooter where you could fly a spaceship in three dimensions.
Star Fox chugs. It drags its feet around 15 frames per second, and compared to the glistening environments available elsewhere on the console, the levels are bland, bare, and frequently monochromatic. (All of that performance juice was diverted to the flying tech, I suppose.) But it’s still a hell of a relic. For one shining moment, the SNES could do a reasonable Nintendo 64 impression.
Tetris Attack isn’t a Tetris game. This is one of Nintendo’s ancient indiscretions. The company got its hands on the license and pumped out a match-three puzzle cartridge that had precisely nothing in common with Tetris. If you own a Switch and are looking to dig into some wholesome four-row clears, look elsewhere. (Tetris 99 is a good option.) But if you want a wonderfully hectic puzzle game in its own right, the heretical Tetris Attack has what you need. You’ve played countless versions of this core design in mobile games like Bejeweled and Candy Crush. But what makes Tetris Attack superior is its two-player mode, where clearing your board drops massive payloads of insoluble junk on your rival. There are no numbers on this, but I have to imagine that Tetris Attack has resulted in more heated ragequits and friend breakups than any other game on the SNES. Nothing is more cutthroat on the service.
Nintendo has been reluctant to import the Nintendo 64 library onto Switch Online in the way it’s cannibalized its NES and SNES offerings, and that means Mario Kart 64 isn’t available on the platform. That isn’t a problem, though, because true Mario Kart elitists understand that the first game in the series, Super Mario Kart, remains Nintendo’s pinnacle. No, it’s not in 3-D, yes, the roster is limited to eight characters, but the handling on the SNES is preternaturally smooth — something the blocky 64 controller could never approach. It also doesn’t possess any of the aggravating cheese that’s beleaguered the franchise in recent entries. That blue shell, which hunts down whoever is in first place and punishes them for winning, is nowhere to be found. All hail Super Mario Kart; it was all downhill from here.
Kirby peaked early. All due respect to the adorable Epic Yarn, the inventive Canvas Curse, and the facile Air Ride, but nothing after 1996 has supplanted the highs of Kirby Super Star. The SNES game captures the malleable pink shape-shifter in his foundational form: gobbling up enemies, stealing their hats, and progressing through a series of levels that seem to emphasize creativity and kawaii-ness over difficulty. Kirby will never be remembered as a member of Nintendo’s high pantheon, but his prime directive — absorbing new powers and blasting off on a shooting star — never got old. Boot it up on Switch Online and witness how joyous Peak Kirby can be.
It’s billed as a sequel to Super Mario World, but like Super Mario Bros. 2 before it, Yoshi’s Island is a baffling departure. Yoshi quickly became one of Nintendo’s most cherished mascots during the SNES era, so it put out a Mario game that removed Mario from the proceedings entirely. Instead, you play as an entity known as Baby Mario — raising all sorts of canonical questions — who is lost on a nation populated entirely by Yoshis. They put Baby Mario on their backs and resolve to bring the baby home.
So yes, Super Mario World 2 is a bit of an outlier, but it also sports gorgeous watercolor environments, some disorienting difficulty spikes, and a sharpshooting egg-toss mechanic which has led to more speed-run highlights than any other game on this list. It’s certainly worth a look if you’ve never touched it before, if only to ask yourself provocative questions about the genealogy of the Mario family.