The Super Nintendo was special to me. It wasn’t the first console I owned, as that was the NES, but along with my Game Boys the Super Nintendo helped form my childhood love of video games. Unfortunately, I don’t have that original console anymore thanks to my mom’s never ending quest to give all my childhood stuff away. I’m a grown man now and the days of sitting in front of an old CRT TV playing my SNES are long gone, but the memories of the games I played are still very present. Luckily, nowadays we have a huge selection of handhelds that can play these awesome games.
So today I want to share with you the 10 Super Nintendo games I think everyone needs to play. Limiting this list to 10 is hard because the Super Nintendo library is awesome and expansive. So for the sake of brevity, I am keeping it to 10. The first 8 are in no particular order so don’t think just because one game is further up the list its necessarily better! #1 and #2 are in my opinion the two best games on the system. So with that being said, let’s get started!
Secret of Mana – 1993 (Main story: ~22hrs)
Secret of Mana is an action RPG, which means real time combat mixed with traditional RPG elements. It’s a sequel to Final Fantasy Adventures for the Game Boy and it’s the first game in the series to stray from the Final Fantasy name.
On the surface the plot sounds like a traditional JRPG story; it starts with some village kids playing somewhere they shouldn’t be, one of them finds an ancient sword and pulls it from a stone, a huge monster shows up and of course the young child has to save them. They then respond by kicking the poor orphan out of the village and that’s when your grand adventure to save the world begins. Of course this is a huge simplification of the games actual plot, but I would say the story isn’t the main selling point here. Like all great games, it’s the combination of elements that makes it an adventure worth experiencing: great music, a gorgeous, colorful world, and a fast albeit not always smooth combat system. The combat system revolves around a stamina bar that depletes as you attack, so you can’t just swing away or you’ll end up un-alive real fast. Moving around is crucial to letting that bar fill up and landing maximum damage. Oh and you travel the over-world by being shot out of a cannon…
I was late to the party on this one and I wish I had found it when I was a kid because I know I would have loved it. This is exactly the type of game is was looking for growing up.
If you want to experience one of the best action RPGs on the system you have to give Secret of Mana a try.
Dragon Quest 3: The Seeds of Salvation – 1996 (Main story: ~28hrs)
Known as Dragon Warrior III in North America and Europe, we never actually got the SNES version in the west. But the impact of Dragon Quest was global and is still felt in modern JRPGs. Luckily there’s a fan translation so language won’t be a barrier to enjoying this great classic.
Dragon Quest basically created JRPG’s and laid the blueprint for what epic adventures should be on a home console. Simply put Dragon Quest 3 is one of the best JRPGs ever made. To really appreciate all the details you should probably play the first 2 which also have translations available, although I feel this game is good enough to stand on its own. Usually Dragon Quest games come in sets of 3 but I’ve found that even if you don’t play them in order, you can still enjoy the story. Speaking of story, this one is epic, the world is huge, the music is iconic and the art style is beautiful thanks to Akira Toriyama being the lead designer for the series.
As far as game play goes, it is classic turn-based combat. You build up your party from a selection of characters with different classes you recruit at a tavern, level them up, buy weapons and armor and explore a huge world made up a different continents and islands, battling monsters along the way all to save the world.
I didn’t actually get to play this game as a kid, though I did play the original Dragon Warrior on my Game Boy. I never knew there was a remake for the SNES until I was older and had access to the internet. So for me emulation was the way I first experienced this game and in my opinion, it’s the best way to play it thanks to the ability to fast forward and use XP cheats. I know that’s not the “traditional” experience but Dragon Quest games are very grind-heavy, and being able to cut that down really lets you enjoy the story. Just because we couldn’t do that back in the day doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it now!
Earthbound – 1994/95 (Main story: ~28hrs)
Earthbound is an insane adventure in the most wonderful sense; it’s a traditional JRPG all the way, but at the same time it does its own thing. The story is completely crazy! Set in the year 199X, it starts with a magic bee from the future telling you that you’re the chosen one and have to save the world from an evil alien along with 3 other kids. The bee then gets killed shortly after. From there, you go on an adventure where you’ll meet new friends and see crazy cults, obvious references to extremely shady things, zombies, and so much more. Overall Earthbound is a hard game to explain if don’t have the context for what its doing.
The game play can be summarized as over-world exploration with turn based combat, but that’s seriously selling it short. As you progress you build up a party of awesome characters, you level them up, upgrade their equipment, and use psychic abilities to battle enemies – you know, the usual. But don’t mistake it for just an other run-of-the-mill role-playing game because the experience and style of Earthbound is something games are still trying to recreate. My favorite mechanics are insta-kill for lower level enemies and auto-fighting, both of which basically eliminate the tedious grinding process that a lot of RPGs suffer from. Enemies are also visible in the over-world so avoiding them when you have things to get done is easier, but some enemies will chase you so escaping isn’t always an option.
The mechanics are solid, the art style is unique and the characters are memorable; the game is a mixture of The Goonies, The Explorers and Dragon Quest. I’m glad I played this as an adult because I feel like I was able to appreciate it more than I did when I was young. It is just a wonderful collection of elements that any gamer should try at least once.
Final Fantasy 6/3 – 1994 (Main story: ~34½ hrs)
To a lot of fans, Final Fantasy 6 is the best installment in the series, and that’s saying a lot considering there are 16 main line titles and 136 total games. The characters, mature tone, and unforgettable villain paired with some of the best art work on the Super Nintendo makes this more than a game – it’s a story that needs to be experienced.
The game uses an active turn-based system with a gauge that measures when a party member can attack. You have a total of 14 characters you can build your party from and you can interchange them at almost any time. Besides character selection, you can also change how your party functions by equipping characters with different Magicite and gear. While each character has a specific talent, you can stick to the ones you like the most since the game lets you keep things fairly even between party members. Just remember to equip the right gear. While the gameplay is great, it’s the story that really makes this game stand out and continue to be spoken of in high regard; the individual development and mature tone really lets you get invested in many of the characters you meet.
The story takes place in a world that was rebuilt after a magical war destroyed everything. 1000 years later, magic has been forgotten and technology has taken its place. Now someone wants to awaken that magic and take over the world.
Final Fantasy is a name even people who don’t play video games have heard. Arguably the best game in the series is on the Super Nintendo, so if you’ve been waiting for the right time to play this legendary game consider this your wake up call. The Ted Woolsey translation is widely considered the best version for the Super Nintendo so I would recommend “tracking” that one down.
Chrono Trigger – 1995 (Main story: ~23hrs)
If you only play one RPG on this list – or maybe ever – then play Chrono Trigger. This isn’t just one of the best RPGs ever made, it’s one of the best SNES games…period. I think almost anyone who has played this game can agree on that.
Chrono Trigger just gets everything right: the combat system, game pace, character development, the story telling, multiple endings. It’s all balanced and flows in a natural way. The game was made by a dream team of RPG developers: Hironobu Sakaguchi who created Final Fantasy, Yuji Horii who created Dragon Quest, Akira Toriyama did the character design and both Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu composed the soundtrack. Few games can say they had a development team with that much talent and experience in the genre.
Chrono Trigger is a MASTERPIECE. It actually gets time travel right which alone is a massive accomplishment, but it’s the characters and the way hours just melt away when you turn the game on that makes this such a great experience. World exploration consists of a huge over area that changes depending on the time period, and smaller more detailed areas or dungeons with visible enemies. The game uses an active turn-based combat system that allows you to combine party members attacks into more powerful moves called “Techs.” You can equip different items and weapons to power them up. There are 6 characters to choose from to build a party of 4, but even characters that aren’t in your party gain experience points so switching them rarely feels like a bad move. It never seems like the solution to an enemy is just to grind and level up, it’s more about strategy and attack combinations, allowing the story flow and makes me wish more RPGs did this back in the day.
The story is epic and takes you across time. You’ll meet lovable characters, battle memorable villains and make unlikely allies. This is one of those games I keep wanting to go back to and I know I’m going to be playing it over and over again for years to come. If you haven’t done so, now is the time to go play Chrono Trigger.
Super Mario World – 1990-91 (Main story: ~5hrs)
You just can’t have a Nintendo list without a Mario game. Like, legally. Up until Mario Wonder, some people were actually arguing that Super Mario World was the best 2D Mario game ever made. I guess some of people still do, but I’m not saying I’m one of them. You know how retro gamers are…
Super Mario World introduced Yoshi, the cape-feather, and the ability to store a power up, 2 of which became permanent staples in the series. If somehow you still haven’t played Super Mario World you really owe it to yourself to give this game a go. The idea is very simple and I’m sure everyone knows what a 2D Mario game is like, but if you don’t ill explain: you run from point A to point B, collect power ups, ride Yoshi and jump on enemies along the way all while you try and find the princess. Very straightforward idea, but it’s the way Nintendo changes things up on you and keeps things feeling fresh that makes this game special. Whether you’re trying to dodge hammer brothers, storming a castle to stomp another koopa, getting lost in a haunted house, or finding a key to a special world you’re guaranteed to have a good time. No one thing ever overstays its welcome and the difficulty curb in my opinion is great for anyone of any age. The game is just a joy to play from level one to the final showdown with Bowser.
It’s simple, fun, and challenging; a perfect game to just pick up and enjoy with out having to worry about inventories or story plots. Just a classic good time.
Super Castlevania IV – 1991 (Main story: ~4 hrs)
As crazy as it sounds, there was a time when Castlevania was a very linear game. This is probably the best non-Metroidvania Castlevania game.
Super Castlevania 4 is a spiritual remake of the first Castlevania game for the NES. Originally the game was supposed to take place in modern times but that idea was abandoned in development. If Super Mario World isn’t really your thing then maybe Super Castlevania 4 will be more your style. It’s basically the complete opposite of SMW while still being a side scrolling platformer.
The setting is dark, movement in slow, and Simon (the main character) feels about as heavy as a bag of bricks, but somehow it feels good to play. The lack of fluid movement doesn’t feel like a limitation; it’s more like a tank slowly mowing down enemies. It is very similar to Doom in the sense that it feels like enemies are trapped in that castle with you, instead of you with them. Your main weapon is a whip that can attack in 8 directions, block projectiles, and be used as a rope to swing across areas that are too far to jump to. The game has 11 levels and you get 5 lives to make it to the end. Definitely an old school mechanic but that just makes it feel more rewarding when you actually finish it…or just cheat and use save-states, but who am I to judge?
Additionally, the art style is great and the use of mode 7 really makes the levels feel alive. There is an uncensored SNES rom-hack that I would recommend you play since it restores a lot of what the original team had in mind for this game. It’s ok, you can play spooky, grown-up games now.
Contra 3: The Alien Wars – 1992 (Main story: ~1½ hrs)
If you grew up watching the Terminator, Rambo, Predator, or any of those cinematic masterpieces in the ’80s and ’90s and you still haven’t played Contra 3, I need you to do 2 things: first, don’t forget to get your yearly physical, and second, go play Contra 3 right now and keep this article pulled up in the background.
Contra 3 is non-stop action from the minute the game starts. Projectiles will fly at you from every direction, swarms of enemies will fill the screen, things will constantly be exploding everywhere, and you’re going to fight giant aliens. The game is a mixture of side scrolling levels mixed with over-head stages where you’ll be able to pick up different weapons along the way, anything from spread guns to lasers and flamethrowers. The only goals are to make it from point A to point B, survive, and destroying everything in your way.
You’re going die a lot. Like, seriously a lot, and that’s ok. It wouldn’t be a Contra game if you didn’t, so don’t be afraid to use the Konami code up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A at the title screen to get those 30 lives. And if you’re really bad, you can also use some other “exploits” and save states. There is no shame in that; chances are before you know it you’ll be clearing stages like a pro. The game is short but the feeling of satisfaction lasts forever.
-Super Mario RPG: I haven’t finished this game myself, so I can’t put it in this list, but it’ll probably be on here soon. I know for a lot of people this is their favorite game, and we got the Paper Mario series thanks to it, but I haven’t finished it so it doesn’t make the cut. Sorry!
-Donkey Kong Country: This is a game I like, but can be infuriating thanks to its “screw you, you’re dead, so rent it again from Blockbuster” mechanics. It’s still one I go back to regularly and I think everyone should give it a shot, but it’s hard to put it in a must play list because of how difficult the game can be. The soundtrack is top-tier, though!
The Top Two
Ok now we move on to the top 2 games! Like I said at the start, these are the only ones I actually put in order.
Super Metroid – 1994 (Main story: ~7½ hrs)
I love 2D Metroid. There is just something special about this franchise. Super Metroid is a game that has to be experienced to be understood: the feeling of isolation, the exploration, the music, and the way Samus powers up as you dive deeper into the planet; it’s almost a perfect game.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have flaws of course. Some of the mechanics have been improved in later games, as the movement is almost floaty and some areas can be a pain to navigate. But the high points are so good that it’s easy to forgive those shortcomings. The setting gives you a feeling of loneliness on a dark, dangerous, alien planet full of things that want to kill you. The mixture of music and silence makes every area feel cavernous and huge, the colors are somehow dark but vibrant, and every area has a distinct look. It is as close as an SNES game can get to being scary. You never feel powerless, enemies are just an obstacle that needs to be dealt with as you blast everything in your way to finish the mission.
The defining element of Super Metroid is exploration. As you gain more power-ups, the map reveals itself to you and you advance further into the solitary planet. You’re going to get lost, you’re going to backtrack and you’re going to get frustrated. Just when you start feeling like you want to quit, the way to advance pops up and the game pulls you right back in, giving you a sense of accomplishment. It’s not a particularly long game and even for a first play you can knock it out in under 8 hours, but it’s one that really sticks with you.
If you’ve never played a 2D Metroid game, don’t put it off. I promise you it will be worth the time you put into it. If you decide to emulate this game make sure you use run-ahead to help with the tricky wall jumps, and check out the Metroid Redux hack for some quality of live stuff – or play the original, either way you cannot go wrong.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – 1991 (Main story: ~15hrs)
Zelda is my favorite video game franchise. There, I said it. I’ve played every game in the series and have loved most of them. This game became the blue print for both 2D and 3D Zelda titles all the way up to Breath of The Wild; it took the series in a more story driven direction and introduced the iconic Master Sword.
ALTTP was the first Super Nintendo game I remember owning and the feeling of exploration was amazing. The world felt huge and the story was epic. The art style was beautiful and colorful, movement feels fluid and exploration of the over-world always feels rewarding. Zelda is an action adventure game so you won’t see a traditional level up system, but the sense of powering up is very much present as you feel Link become stronger after every dungeon. While combat can be a little frustrating at times due to the limitation of the sword swing, the variety in which you can approach it keeps it feeling engaging. Zelda games are known for great dungeons and puzzles, and this one doesn’t disappoint. With a total of 13 dungeons, it actually has the most in the series. Between those dungeons and two over-worlds, the game has a lot to see, but it never feels like its dragging, and there is always something to find behind a rock or under a bridge.
Just like other games on the list, there’s a group of fans that say this is their favorite game in the franchise. While that is not the case for me, I still hold it in high regard and can see why someone would say that. It’s one of the most influential games ever made, and while I might be bias, I think this is the best game on the system. There are a few hacks of this game with quality of life improvements and color corrections but there is really no wrong way to play this game. So do yourself a favor and dive into this journey through Hyrule.
Hopefully this gave you some inspiration to play some awesome retro games! We’ll be making more of these list in the future, but I think for now this should keep you busy. If there are any games on the SNES you think people simply must play, leave them down in the comments. I would love to see what you all recommend! And if you already played these games: what do you think of this list?
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