In lieu of a traditional review I’m going to do something a bit different with the SNES Classic Edition. I’m going to rank all 21 games included in the retro 90s emulator.
The SNES Classic Edition is a great little product that nails the original design of the console and controllers. It’s not without flaws: the short cord range (about 5 ft) can be a big annoyance, and in order to change games and use the rewind and save-state features, you have to physically push a button on the console. But those features also add a lot of modern convenience to classic games, greatly improving accessibility.
As the front-runner for greatest console of all time, the Super Nintendo had some pretty good games. The SNES Classic Edition does a near-perfect job of drawing from a wide variety of genres and gameplay styles to represent some (though not all) of the best games of the era.
Nostalgia can always play a major role. It’s impossible to ignore if you grew up as an impressionable gaming kid in the early 90s, as I did. I played almost all of these titles over two decades ago. Now I’m ranking these games based on how well they hold up today. Intuitive gameplay and controls, aging graphics, and integrated multiplayer will all be a factor.
21) Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts plays exactly like its NES predecessor, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and in no way is that a compliment. At best it’s a simplistic arcade-like platformer where a knight moves from left to right fighting demons and avoiding pitfalls. It does an incredibly poor job of doing anything we didn’t already see in arcades or the old 8-bit NES console.
Frustratingly sluggish controls, constantly spawning enemies, and the series trademark frustrating difficulty level makes Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts the worst game of the bunch. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get the vastly superior spin-off, Demon’s Crest, instead.
20) Star Fox 2
There’s a reason this game was canceled: the terrible framerate renders it nearly unplayable by today’s standards.
Star Fox 2 is the bonus game included in the SNES Classic Edition, a never-before-released sequel. Unfortunately the first Star Fox game aged terribly, and while the sequel does some neat things with a planetary overworld map, the low-res polygons and stuttering framerate sour the experience for any but the most hardcore Star Fox fans.
19) Star Fox
All praise and kudos to Star Fox 64, but the original SNES game just doesn’t hold up very well. Your anthropomorphic squadron is fun, but the 3D rail shooter looks horrendous as you fly through fields of large blocky polygons. It also has some major frame rate hiccups, making it one of the poorest running games on the SNES Classic.
Star Fox was a technical marvel back in the early 90s but today it’s more suited to a museum than a gaming console.
18) Kirby’s Dream Course
I’d never even heard of this Kirby spin-off game before the SNES Classic Edition. It’s basically minigolf starring the cute little pink puffball. You have a limited number of shots to hit enemies and get Kirby into the hole by banking him off walls and chipping him over gaps. The controls and gameplay are not terribly intuitive. There’s an extensive tutorial to teach you how to execute various shots.
If you have the time and commitment it’s a surprisingly enjoyable puzzle game, and one of the few sports games included in the console.
17) Super Castlevania IV
You know you’ve got a venerable series when you’re already on number 4 when the SNES hit (see also the Megan Man series further up on the list). The fourth Castlevania didn’t alter the classic formula much. It plays like a 16-bit remake of the first game, as the whip-wielding vampire hunter Simon Belmont makes his way through the outskirts and dungeons of Dracula’s castle.
Simon’s sluggish controls emphasize fighting over platforming. The analog-controlled whip is unique and bizarre. It allows for some interesting tactics but definitely takes some getting used to. And yes, those flying medusa heads are just as awful as you remember.
16) Street Fighter II Turbo
Street Fighter and Moral Kombat’s insane popularity ushered in a giant fighting game craze throughout the early and mid 90s. I was always more of an MK kid, but Street Fighter was definitely the faster game, and that goes double for the Turbo edition.
Street Fighter 2 is rightfully beloved by fighting game purists for its tight controls and depth of style, but it can be a difficult game for novices to play against a merciless AI. Two player is still a riot, however.
15) Kirby Super Star
Oddly Kirby never received a full-fledged 16-bit platformer on the SNES. Instead he starred in this 8-in-1 game pack, which included a remake of the original Game Boy game Kirby’s Dream Land, along with a bunch of mini-games.
Kirby’s flight and enemy-stealing powers still make for a fun and unique platforming experience. There’s a lot of content included here, from a challenging boss run mode to a more open-ended treasure hunt. A second player can also join in with most of the modes.
Earthbound was a weird game that’s since become a cult favorite. It looks and plays like a traditional 16-bit Japanese RPG, but with the twist of a modern-day setting. You wield baseball bats and fight crows and wild dogs. You save your game by calling your dad on the phone.
The highlight is definitely the writing, which remains witty and funny, and I love that you can see enemies directly on the screen. But the menus are simplistic and unattractive, and I’ve never been a big fan of first-person RPG combat.
13) Contra III: The Alien Wars
Contra 3 is a love-letter to muscle-bound action heroes of the 80s and 90s. It’s a simple sidescrolling run and gun shooter where two players hold down the shoot button and mow down rows of enemies while avoiding bullets. It’s easy to jump into and immediately start having fun, though the new top-down levels have jarring controls and maze-like designs.
If you’re looking to cooperatively shoot things together with an SNES controller, it doesn’t get much better than Contra 3.
12) Secret of Mana
Secret of Mana is an odd RPG. It looks like Chrono Trigger, plays like Zelda, but it’s set within a Final Fantasy-like world and story. It even features cooperative multiplayer once you gain the other two party members.
Secret of Mana features a prototypical real-time-with-pause combat system, letting you unleash abilities or switch weapons. It might be the most user-friendly RPG of the bunch, and certainly the most brightly colored and kid-friendly.
11) Mega Man X
I was never any good at the notoriously difficult Mega Man games but Mega Man X shines proudly on the SNES Classic Edition thanks to that fantastic rewind feature.
Although technically a spin-off story-wise, Mega Man X still featured a series of classic platforming levels, each ending in a major boss battle. You’ll earn a new ability upon defeating each one. But the best ability is the SNES Classic Edition’s rewind feature, letting you jump back about 10 seconds. It lets you learn the patterns of the bosses much more quickly. The solid gameplay is bolstered by the great art design and colorful levels.
10) Super Punch Out!!
Super Punch Out was a unique first-person fighting game that recreated the thrill of a boxing match (and the arcade game) quite effectively. You had to dodge incoming hits and block blows while unleashing your own flurries and uppercuts. Each opponent was like a rhythm puzzle you had to figure out, from nimble dancers to fat stalwarts. The fun, cartoony character designs and intuitive controls make Super Punch Out one of the most gracefully aged games on the SNES Classic Edition.
As one of the first games to use the new 3D-like Mode-7 graphics, F-Zero helped usher in the era of 16-bit games. While it lacks Mario Kart’s art and charm it still boasts fantastic level designs and simple but effective controls that let you bank around corners or boost through straightaways. It also has a killer soundtrack.
Without F-Zero there is no Mario Kart, which went on to become the much more beloved, popular Nintendo racing series. But do yourself a favor and play F-Zero, Nintendo’s talented but forgotten child.
8) Donkey Kong Country
I played so much Donkey Kong Country when it came out in 1994 I still have some of the levels memorized. It was hyped to a ridiculous degree thanks to the then-astonishing 3D sprites. The graphics don’t quite hold up as well but the gameplay absolutely does.
The large characters give DKC an exciting aesthetic, along with a finger-snapping jazzy soundtrack, colorful levels filled with secrets, and an overland map that let you easily replay any level. It also expanded the Kong lore, introducing a whole family of Kongs along with two good SNES sequels, but the original is still a great game.
7) Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Yoshi’s Island’s biggest problem was that it was billed as a direct sequel to Super Mario World. While it is a 2D platformer, it makes some drastic gameplay changes that should’ve been considered a spin-off if not a whole new game series (which it later became). You play as dozens of colorful Yoshis who Shepard baby Mario throughout a whimsical world. Yoshi retains its trademark tongue-swallowing, earning you eggs you can use as projectiles.
As a huge fan of Super Mario World I had balked at this drastically different, somewhat kiddie-fied sequel. But two decades later I can appreciate the clever, more open level designs and Yoshi’s unique tactics for solving puzzles and defeating enemies. Nintendo has always made quality platformers and if you can ignore the SMW2 part, Yoshi’s Island is a solid game in its own right.
6) Super Mario Kart
Like Homer Simpson, Mario has long been donning various hats and profession outside of his main series, but none have reached the popularity as his kart racing career. Super Mario Kart infuses all the classic charm of Mario games, including power-ups and hazards into an effective racing game with lots of varied tracks and difficulty levels. Split-screen multiplayer alone makes it one of the best multiplayer titles on the SNES Classic Edition, both with the racing mode and the silly but fun Battle Mode.
5) Super Mario RPG
I must’ve rented Super Mario RPG half a dozen times from Blockbuster before I finally received it as a gift later that year. It was one of the last big releases for the Super Nintendo, uniquely taking the characters and world of Mario into a turn-based RPG. The results were incredible, though like Donkey Kong Country the 3D sprites don’t hold up quite as well today.
Battles used timed action presses to deliver more powerful (or more defensive) moves, resulting in a satisfying and engaging combat system. Levels and enemies were all pulled from classic Mario games, including plenty of platforming and secrets, while also adding new elements and characters that fit right in. You could even get Bowser and the Princess on your team as you combat a new global threat to the Mushroom Kingdom. The series later spun-off into the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi RPG series, but the original is an absolute 16-bit classic.
4) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
After the divisive side-scrolling NES sequel, the third Zelda game returned to the overhead gameplay of the original. By building upon the successful formula of the original game, A Link to the Past is widely considered one of the greatest games of all time.
The open-world design let you explore Hyrule and discover new paths and secrets as you acquired new items and abilities from the challenging dungeon crawls. The story involves parallel Light and Dark worlds, essentially doubling the amount of content. The action gameplay is as intuitive as it was in 1991, and the pixelated art and classic story are easily digestible for a modern audience.
The Nintendo 3DS’ The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds did fantastic way of recreating A Link to the Past in 2013, but the original game hold ups nearly as well on its own. A must play for the SNES Classic Edition.
3) Super Metroid
Super Metroid was the third game in the series that started on the NES, but it’s the benchmark on which the series, and the entire metroidvania genre it helped spawn, is judged. Space bounty hunter Samus Aran explores the hostile Planet Zebes, acquiring new weapons and abilities to uncover new paths and secrets along the labyrinthine tunnels.
Featuring an on-screen mini-map, non-linear designs, and a world dripping in Aliens-esque science fiction action-horror, Super Metroid still deserves all its accolades for a near perfect gameplay experience. Its design structure would help usher in a new subgenre of action-platforming games. Countless indies have since lovingly take up the mantle, from Ori and the Blind Forest to Sundered. Even big games like Batman: Arkham Asylum could trace their genus back to Super Metroid’s steady pacing and variety of abilities.
2) Super Mario World
The Super Nintendo launched with a new 16-bit Mario game, and Nintendo quickly proved that they would remain the kings of gaming throughout the 90s. Super Mario World is a natural evolution of Super Mario Bros. 3, featuring an overland map with multiple paths, powerups that drastically changed the way you could tackle a level, and an insane amount of fun new enemies and secrets.
The Super Nintendo introduced a host of new genres and gameplay styles, but Super Mario World showed us that the 2D platformer was very much alive and well. Mario games are notoriously accessible and user-friendly and Super Mario World is no different, featuring a steady ramp of gameplay challenges amid colorful worlds. As the first game for the Super Nintendo, its high inclusion on this list is a testament to the special era of fantastic gaming that would follow.
1) Final Fantasy III
There is no universe in which Final Fantasy III isn’t the best game on the SNES Classic Edition. FF3 (technically FF6) is the quintessential 16-bit RPG. It features the active-time battle system, beautiful (and well aged) pixel art, a sweeping story of love, loss, destruction, and hope, memorable heroes and villains, and a gigantic 40+ hour run-time. It was the most epic gaming experience I had as kid.
I’m continually vindicated whenever Final Fantasy rankings are brought up; FF3/6 is often considered one of the best, if not the best of the venerable series that now includes 15 main titles and dozens of spin-offs. If you have any affinity at all for classic RPGs and phenomenal writing and story-telling, you owe it to yourself (and your kids) to play through Final Fantasy 3 and experience the magic of one of the greatest games of all time.