For over thirty years now, I have been a devout follower of the humble company known as Nintendo. Gaming has been ingrained within my very identity from a young age, and it eventually led to a career path that has walked lockstep with the industry.
2023 will mark six years since the Switch’s release, and though it is showing no signs of slowing down that would necessitate a nearby successor, it is deep enough into its lifespan to view similarly to those that came before it.
With that, I thought I would reflect upon the highlights of each home console offering (short of the Color-TV systems of the 70s) and opine on which resonated most with me. I’m deliberately excluding dedicated handhelds for now, as I am not versed on matters of Virtual Boy nuance.
Someday, perhaps. But for now, let’s get N or get out!
Nintendo Entertainment System
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (1990)
Runners-up: Super Mario Bros. 3, Ufouria
My time on this Earth came a little bit too late for the 80s sensation that was the NES, putting something of a strain on our relationship. With the SNES perfecting the formula that had been put in place, going back to most titles on this console can feel like something of a downgrade.
As such, I elected to anoint the top spot to the game I would be most likely to play today. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was the maiden voyage for a franchise that I would grow to love decades later, a bold and challenging title that whisked us to the war-torn nation of Altea.
Strategically moving units around the grid-based maps was a stressful endeavour, and a single miscalculation could mean the difference between life and death. Such steep consequences are exactly what makes its gameplay so exhilarating, and though modern entries would introduce quality-of-life features that dampened the impact, the fundamentals have remained largely true to the blueprint laid forth by Marth and his army so long ago.
It’s not without its warts, and even returning to the 2008 DS remake can be pretty brutal, but the devastating difficulty level makes every minor victory feel like a real achievement.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (1995)
Runners-up: Kirby Super Star, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
To all except the most fervent DK deniers — Kremlings in hiding, perhaps — this is an obvious choice.
In 1994, Rare would push the SNES to new heights, delivering a complete package that looked, sounded and played beautifully. For them to somehow outdo themselves in such a short period of time was a testament to the ambitious talent they had on-staff.
Boldly shedding the eponymous Donkey Kong from his own series, DKC2 instead put the focus on the diminutive Diddy Kong. Alongside his girlfriend Dixie, who functionally surpasses him in almost every way, Diddy would have to sprint, leap and clamber through 52 levels of finely crafted platforming brilliance.
The fast-twitch precision required to blaze through hordes of enemies rivalled the speed of Sega’s golden boy Sonic, while also providing rich, detailed maps that begged for deeper exploration. Even to this day, this game remains in contention for my favourite of all time, transcending time to maintain an aura of near perfection.
Super Mario 64 (1996)
Runners-up: Star Fox 64, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Another no-contest in my book. No game before Super Mario 64 had evoked my imagination so vividly, and I fear that none will manage to do so ever again.
To a generation who had only ever known gaming on a 2D plain, arriving at Peach’s castle grounds for the first time was like being unleashed. It was fun to simply exist as this flailing, bounding, kinetic plumber as he responded to the slightest tilt of the control stick. Once we had gotten into the game proper, we were treated to a veritable amusement park of grand attractions.
Sometimes it was tense, and on occasion it was even terrifying. The greatest tragedy is that those who weren’t around to experience its revolution first-hand will never quite understand how it captivated gamers so intensely.
For my money, it still plays fantastically to this day, and trying to recall the meaning behind the cryptic clues of each in-stage chapter is part of the fun. How on earth we ever figured out “Blast Away the Wall” or “Mysterious Mountainside”, I cannot say.
Animal Crossing (2001)
Runners-up: Super Smash Bros. Melee, Resident Evil
Tempted as I am to anoint my beloved Resident Evil remake with top honours, the truth is that I never once played it on the NGC, and furthermore, it lacks the nostalgia factor critical for this console generation.
With this in mind, Animal Crossing claims an unlikely victory. The cosy, sleepy real-time life simulator engrossed my life for months on end, turning daily gameplay sessions from a pastime to a necessity. After all, what if Marcie grew lonely and ended up leaving town? All of the oranges I had gifted her would be wasted!
Despite a further four titles having been released in the meantime — the latest of which became a worldwide phenomenon that pushed the brand into rarefied Nintendo air — none of them would catch my fancy in the same way this one did.
Be it my stubborn hesitance to start over from scratch, or the unique, obtuse personalities of the villagers becoming markedly toned down in the sequels, Überg would always be the place I would ultimately call home. I sure hope they won’t be shocked next time I return after years of absentia.
Wii Sports (2006)
Runners-up: Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Put simply, sometimes a game is more than the sum of its parts. Wii Sports was emblematic of the courageous statement Nintendo were hoping to make with their new console: the mythical gates of the gaming world have come crashing down, and we invite everyone to come and play.
Wii Sports is wildly inconsistent in quality across the board, and some of the sports you may only ever try once. Everything it did do well, Wii Sports Resort would improve upon. And yet, only the pack-in launch title is spoken of among the wider community in such reverential breaths.
Even elders who don’t recognise the title itself could immediately recall the bowling game. This was a perfect marriage between the user and the software, celebrating individuality with its iconic Mii characters. It represents Nintendo at its most spiritually adventurous point, tired of trying to match its competitors in the console race and pulling off at an off-ramp nobody could have ever anticipated.
I desperately long for a day when they will be oh so whimsical again, and perhaps deep down, it’s actually my own soul crying out for a life where the world felt just that little bit more special.
Nintendo Wii U
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (2014)
Runners-up: Nintendo Land, Pikmin 3
Unfortunately, the competition wasn’t nearly as fierce for this console, and after reviewing the final contenders, I had to triple check to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The fact of the matter is, the poor old Wii U didn’t really have much to miss in the first place.
Smash 4 (which I will call it henceforth, instead of its actual, creatively bankrupt title) ramped up everything that been gestating in the franchise and delivered on all fronts. Recency bias via Smash Bros Ultimate might make its 58-deep roster seem comparatively tame, but landing juggernauts like Mega Man and Cloud Strife were true landmark moments.
Throw in new features like amiibo functionality and 8-player Smash sessions, and you had a recipe for chaos that would be truly difficult to top. As obvious as it sounds, if the Wii U could have added more titles like Smash 4 to its lineup, it may have been able to avoid landing in an early grave.
It’s also worth nothing that although the nearest runner-up, Nintendo Land, fell short of the gold medal, it actually provided my favourite singular moments on the Wii U. God, this machine was just supposed to have been so much fun.
Super Mario Odyssey (2017)
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle R, Sonic Mania Plus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge
Anyone who has been keeping score will be unsurprised by this selection. As previously described, Super Mario 64 was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling for me, plonking my prepubescent mind directly into a digital sandbox and letting me roam free.
Super Mario Odyssey has been the game that came closest, and in many ways, it surpassed even the untouchable N64 classic. Odyssey’s gameplay loop is constantly rewarding you for going a little farther and digging a little deeper, yielding Power Moons for seemingly the most mundane of actions. Even with this cavalier attitude to risk/reward, their appearances never feel any less special; there is a certain delight to be found in their randomness.
With each new 3D platformer that has come out, Mario has had to embrace some new gimmick, be it the F.L.U.D.D. device or the unique gravity mechanics of the Wii titles. As conceptually invasive as Cappy might sound, its implementation is absolutely flawless. You’re not always obligated to possess a nearby enemy, and yet, you feel compelled to do so, to find out what boundaries you can push by using it.
The surprise Cappy twist at game’s end, allowing you to barrel through a collapsing kingdom with the raw strength of Bowser, is perhaps the most magnificent climax in Mario’s storied history.
A hearty thank you to Nintendo for years of unbridled joy. If you’re interested, I’m currently undertaking the 365 days of video game music challenge over on Twitter, focussing specifically on tunes that can be found on Nintendo hardware.