Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 11, Mario Kart 8

The most recent Mario Kart is the best of the bunch, and that's by design.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

The Mario Kart series has come a long, long way from its inception. Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo was a lovely little racer back in 1992, a fast-paced affair with some tough turns and hazards to navigate. There were four different cups — Mushroom, Flower, Star, and Special — as well as three difficulty levels that would ramp up both in speed and AI’s ability: 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc. The game featured local, two-player multiplayer, as well as a battle mode and time trial versions of every one of the game’s 20 tracks. It’s still extremely playable to this day, albeit alien to those who didn’t grow up with this specific style of Kart.

Despite that last fact, the core gameplay of Mario Kart has remained intact since its original release, but with some tweaks along the way, both major and minor ones. The first sequel, Mario Kart 64, expanded the multiplayer to four players — good — but slowed down the experience and came off as far less technically impressive than the genre-starting Super Mario Kart, with its emphasis on Mode 7 graphics and edge-of-your-seat speeds. That result is the opposite of good, in case it wasn’t clear. The GameCube’s Mario Kart: Double Dash!! managed to blend the speed of the original with the expanded multiplayer and gameplay elements of the 64 iteration, while bringing in new features that remain unique to it to this day, features which helped make it the only other Kart game on this list.

Three games, three vastly different gameplay experiences. (A fourth game, Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance unsurprisingly played much like Super Mario Kart with track design to match, but with the kind of updated item usage and rules of its followups instead of the original game’s limited (and comparatively limiting) setup.) After Double Dash!!, though, the Kart series became a bit more focused in its design, with refinements on the central concepts of the series and brand new ideas built on top of that ever-stronger foundation. Double Dash’s blend of classic speed with the larger course design of 64 was the template to work from: each game from then on would add the wrinkles to it that would eventually lead us to its current pinnacle of Mario Kart 8.

Mario Kart DS (2005) had fantastic track design, but the gameplay was a little broken since you could, essentially, infinitely boost throughout a stage thanks to the way drifting was handled. This problem, which became most apparent in the online portions of the experience, was fixed in Mario Kart Wii (2008), which built on the style of track design Double Dash and DS, but with a focus on wider courses to accommodate more racers at once. The Wii release also added in tricks and bikes, with differing play styles for the different vehicle types. Bikes were lighter and could be pushed around by even lightweight opponents, but they could also perform speed-boosting tricks at basically any time to compensate. Unlike in the DS version, where the speed boosting could be abused by perma-drifting, the Wii version’s boost-whenever required at least somewhat of a straight path forward and careful riding to pull off, and your attempt to boost could be interrupted by an obstacle or another racer.

Mario Kart Wii also introduced the expanded cup selection [correction: Mario Kart DS had this feature first] we’re now pretty used to seeing. In addition to the slate of new tracks, Mario Kart Wii also brought on classic tracks in a new set of cups, all redesigned to be played in the style of this particular iteration of the series. The Wii release was divisive, in part because it had the option of motion controls, but there is no denying how much of an impact the changes it introduced had — tricks, classic courses, expanding the vehicle selection, online multiplayer, expanded roster and opponent numbers — on the series as a whole.

Mario Kart 7, the first numbered entry in the series, released on the 3DS in 2011. It brought along everything the Kart series had built on to that point, but found room to add in more: now your kart could drive underwater and fly through the air, too. In addition, vehicle customization became a staple of the series here. You no longer just picked whichever kart you wanted for your character, but you could also select the style of tires that would go on that kart, and what kind of hang-glider you would utilize. These tires and glider would further customize your driving experience*, so, through experimentation and unlocking of new types, you could find yourself driving the kart that most perfectly suits your own handling, speed, acceleration, and so on preferences.

*As an example, I know my own ability to effectively turn and drift a vehicle at will even in the toughest conditions means I can sacrifice said vehicle’s overall handling skill in favor of a boost to top speed, which you or I or anyone cannot physically increase on our own. So, the setup that works best for me in that scenario of balancing what I can do vs. what the vehicles can do in Mario Kart 8 is Rosalina (a heavy) on an Inkstriker (a low-handling ATV) with Triforce Tires (speed!), and the Waddle Wing hang-glider (works effectively for the kind of dive-bombing gliding I prefer to utilize, but can also go the distance when needed).

That brings us to Mario Kart 8, which allowed Mario Kart 7 three years on top before unseating it as the top Kart game ever. The Wii U release so perfectly handles every major innovation and change brought to the Kart series over the multiple decades of its existence that I really had no choice but to make the decisions I did about the series’ inclusion on this list. Mario Kart 7 is still fun to play, but there is little point in ranking both it and Mario Kart 8 on a list like this, and even less reason to rank Mario Kart Wii or Mario Kart DS as well. They’re all wonderful — well, DS a little less so, given its issues — but just mentioning Mario Kart 8 works as something of a pseudo-series ranking and, simultaneously, an acknowledgment that it is the King of Kart.

Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U was a huge success, from both a critical and a commercial standpoint. There are just over 13 million Wii U owners worldwide, and nearly 9 million of them bought Mario Kart 8. It introduced DLC to the series, but not little pitiful drips of content: sure, there were some DLC character adds included, but Nintendo added on four more cups to Mario Kart 8’s preexisting eight, as well as the first innovation in difficulty since Mirror was introduced: 200cc. So, 16 new courses for a series whose original game had 20 total, and an entire new game mode to play every single course in, to boot.

You can’t play 200cc like a faster version of 150cc, because it isn’t. It’s an engine with top speeds too fast for the courses that were designed with 150cc and slower in mind, meaning you have to actually use the brakes in order to finish in first place. Yes, I know, I forgot Mario Kart had a button for braking, too, but it’s a necessary component of the 200cc experience if you want to avoid flying into every wall or into the abyss on a given track.

All of this content was included in the base release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch, which is the version most people are familiar with. While MK8 was a success for the Wii U, it still topped out at around the sales of the SNES original since barely anyone had a Wii U to play the thing on. The massive (and constantly growing) install base of the Switch has rectified this, though, as MK8 has sold well over three times as many Switch copies as Wii U ones, making it not just the best-selling Mario Kart ever and the best-selling game on the Switch, but also number eight on the list of all-time sales. As you can imagine, it’s a little easier to make the case that Mario Kart 8 is the greatest Mario Kart ever today than it was back in 2014 when I first thought as much.

Mario Kart 8 had more to bring to the table than “just” a significantly expanded course listing, 200cc, and the introduction of non-Mario universe characters like Link, Isabelle, and Splatoon options, though. You can still drive underwater and glide through the air, but now, you also race through anti-gravity portions of tracks. It’s F-Zero meets Mario Kart, and given F-Zero seems to be dead in all but an official capacity, it’s maybe the closest we’re getting to touching that particular universe again.

The introduction of anti-gravity elements made for some serious course design changes, as suddenly you could have some karts on the ceiling, and much wilder options for choosing paths. It also introduced a new kind of speed boost, specific to these sections, and boosting off of other players who are in the anti-gravity sections with you by crashing into them. More strategic driving, fascinating new course design options, and an additional kind of racing to master? Works for me.

Mario Kart 8 might feature the most difficult Kart racing of the series, but it also has the most accessible racing, too. That’s thanks to a slew of options meant to customize the experience: want to stay on the course rather than veer off of it? There is a setting for that. Would you like the accelerator to always be depressed? It can be! Want to use motion controls instead of the analog stick? You can! For my own experience, this means I’ve got two kids four-and-under picking up Joy Cons and racing with an assist from the game. It’s a great way to let them play with me, and get used to the game until they can switch off the always-on accelerator or the guide that keeps you on course.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s online multiplayer is wonderful, and still loaded with potential opponents that keep matchmaking from taking overly long. While Nintendo’s reputation for online multiplayer being lesser is certainly deserved, they’ve got Kart down at this point. No interest in playing online, though? Don’t worry, as this is the most jam-packed edition of Kart yet when it comes to a single-player experience. Not only are there more cups and courses and difficulties than previous Karts, but you have both the time trial races against ghosts of your own making or of Nintendo’s best effort to compete against, as well as Battle mode, which is even larger in the Deluxe edition of the game than in the original.

There is just so much game here, and all of it is spectacular. Maybe Mario Kart — or kart games in general — aren’t your style of racing, but Mario Kart 8, and especially the Deluxe edition, are just wonderful. I earned three stars (the max, the result of all first-place finishes in each cups’ four tracks) on every non-200cc cup in the game on every difficulty on the Wii U edition when it first released, and had no problem doing it all again on the Switch version: I’ll be getting three stars on the pair of 200cc cups that have eluded me soon, you’ll see.

The racing is just that good, to do it all over again, and now I find myself messing with the time trial ghosts a second time, too. I’m not going to stop going to Mario Kart 8 presumably until Mario Kart 9 rolls around, as, if the last two decades of Kart have taught us anything, it’s that they’ll once again make major strides that give us all our new favorite in the series. It’s hard to imagine a Mario Kart better than this one, but that’s Nintendo’s job to figure out, not ours.

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Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 12, EarthBound

EarthBound manages to be an incredible send up of its genre and video games in general, while also being a fantastic, memorable video game in its own right.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

I struggled quite a bit with ranking EarthBound. The issue at hand was my concern that I was overrating a game that I had played dozens of times, for over 25 years now, one that I felt a close emotional attachment to. Do other people see EarthBound the same way I do? Do they recognize just how good it is? Is nostalgia powering my enjoyment of what I consider to be a classic, or is it actually as good as I tell myself it is?

Nostalgia is something I promised myself — and all of you — would not be a factor in making these rankings, so this was a real fear to me, that I’d rank EarthBound too late to go back and change my mind, that I’d give it too much credit, for where it really “belonged” among Nintendo’s greatest efforts, and lose the trust I had established in the project to this point. Kind of an overreaction, maybe, but I was very serious about the mission here, so the fear I’d let this game cloud that was understandable.

As I began a replay of the game to finalize its ranking and take the notes I’d use to write this very feature, I realized those fears were unfounded, even if they were useful for keeping me in check. I love EarthBound this much not because I played it so long ago that I rented it multiple times from Blockbuster and was eventually able to buy my own SNES cartridge at MSRP instead of six times that off eBay. I love it not because I used to replay it every single summer at a time when new video games primarily arrived at my house for birthdays and Christmas. I love it because it was the best role-playing game the company produced for a significant portion of its video game history, on its own merits. I love it because it was so good that I bought my own copy after renting it, because it was so good that I could replay it every single summer for a decade without getting bored by it, and now that it’s available in forms other than an SNES cartridge, I still go back to it pretty regularly, because it still flat-out rules.

While it doesn’t hold the title of best Nintendo RPG any longer, that’s not because it has succumbed to age, and hell, given where we are on this list, you know it’s still damn close to the top, anyway. If anything, EarthBound, like its sequel, Mother 3 (number 32), probably works better in the present than it ever did in the past, both thematically and from a gameplay perspective: the kind of experience EarthBound was trying to create didn’t set the sales world on fire, but it did help inspire a generation of developers to make their own games with their own quirks, and now, suddenly, EarthBound feels like it can be appreciated as something more than just an oddity. It feels like the kind of game that, if it were new instead of a cult classic, or if it was getting its first-ever North American release a la Famicom Detective Club, you’d be excited to play once that release date hit.

There are plenty of games I played in the 1990s — games I played again and again, just like EarthBound — that I don’t keep going back to now, or that don’t hold up like EarthBound does: Super Mario RPG is still good enough for this list, but it isn’t sitting here in the top dozen, you know. EarthBound might not have been a success at the time of its release, but it has held up over the years in a similar way to other all-time classics of the era, like Final Fantasy VI, Phantasy Star IV, or Chrono Trigger. It had that extra gear just like those titles, that extra bit of attention or to detail that made it special at the time and has kept it special since. There is a reason an entire online fandom developed around the game well before that became the norm you’re used to, to the point that unreleased games have their own communities spring up around them these days.

It’s a game with real heart, one that’s sometimes tough to pin down and explain, but it’s got that “it” factor, the you know it when you see it kind of thing. There’s something special about it, and after all this time, I feel confident that something is its ability to fully understand the world of video games: what we love about them, what’s goofy about them, why we play them. EarthBound is something of a send up of Japanese role-playing games, and the hobby in general, but it’s also a killer game in its own right. It’s not simply a fun spoof for genre diehards, but ended up being significantly better than many of the titles it was referencing with its design decisions: the best classic Dragon Quest game is EarthBound, which is a nonsense sentence unless it isn’t.

Part of the game’s success, non-sales division, might be because it was conceived and written by someone whose primary work wasn’t video games. Shigesato Itoi has had many careers over the years, but he didn’t start writing while in video games: he wrote video games because it was yet another medium for his writing. There are times, even now, where it feels like those writing video games have no real reference point for stories outside of video games, or from the same batch of comics or television shows everyone else in the industry has read or watched. Mother, which preceded EarthBound — the latter of which is Mother 2 in Japan — felt extremely different for the time even if its influence from Dragon Quest was explicit. The battle system was extremely Dragon Quest, sure, and much of the game felt like any other Japanese RPG, except instead of swords and mages, you had a modern setting and baseball bats and psychic powers. The story and the game’s characters are where Mother separated itself from the genre it was contained within and the traditional trappings that adorned it: Itoi’s writing, both in story and dialogue and even the role text played within battles, was the separator. EarthBound is similar on all of those fronts, except it is that vision realized with an exponential level of success higher than what the original game managed.

EarthBound has quite a bit to say, and even more so, to make you feel. Maybe its messaging isn’t quite as overt as that of its sequel, which goes deeper and clearer on anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism than you might have imagined a game with its art style could. Despite this, it still manages to exceed its followup, and nearly every other RPG Nintendo made before or since. Part of its strength over Mother 3 — and as I mentioned in that essay, your mileage may vary — comes from EarthBound working better as a single entry. You don’t need to play the original Mother to fully appreciate what EarthBound is offering, unlike in Mother 3, where you’ll feel even more, and more strongly, if you’re familiar with the first two games and their themes, their characters, and the journeys of those characters. EarthBound is more its own thing, even if one of its antagonists featured in the previous game, and the other antagonist features in the next one.

In spite of these shared elements and that EarthBound is part of a three-game series, it feels unique to this day, which you can attribute to its strengths in narrative, in world-building, in gameplay. The way the world is fleshed out, the kinds of interactions you can have with NPCs if you bother to interact with them instead of just flying through the world as fast as possible, help make the game as memorable as it is. There was so much more put into these NPCs, to make them characters that help make this world you’re playing in both believable and seem more complete, than in many competing RPGs of the day, where NPCs seemed to exist mostly to talk about the weather you’re having unless they were the one you needed to speak to in order to find your next progression hint. Here, you have NPCs musing on music, on art, on the end of capitalism, you have cops admitting to you that they’re corrupt and just trying to gain notoriety, you have monkeys that want pizza.

There is just so much character in everything. The characters themselves, the quests, the cities, the plot devices. The Pencil Eraser as a stand-in for whatever nonsensical MacGuffins other games in the genre would present to impede your progress cracks me up all this time later: you need to fund an inventor so that he’ll develop a Pencil Eraser, which erases any pencil-shaped object it comes into contact with. Why would you ever have a need for that? Well, it turns out your enemies are blocking your progress using statues of pencils. They eventually adapt, and switch to statues of erasers, but don’t worry: your inventor pal comes up with the Eraser Eraser just in time. There are the fives moles in the mine, who all believe they are the third-strongest one, and are each prepared to show you the power of being third. F’n, Moonside, man. It might all seem like goofiness for the sake of it on the surface, but these decisions were riffs on how these kinds of video games operated, and it ended up creating a scenario and series of items more memorable than the ones it’s poking fun at. Itoi and the rest of Ape really understood the source material they were working with, and they created a classic as worthy of your time as anything they were spoofing, if not more so.

Itoi described his design philosophy in these games as one of “reckless wildness.” There was reason behind everything, but Itoi wanted both himself and his team to feel confident in pitching off-beat ideas in order to make EarthBound (and Mother games in general) more than just standard fare. And to make the games be something they could only be in the medium he had chosen for their stories:

Some people consider MOTHER entries to be big scenario scripts rather than games. But that’s not quite right; they wouldn’t have been interesting at all if they hadn’t been in game form. That’s what they were made to be from the very start, after all. They wouldn’t have been much fun in text form only. In game form, they’re an amalgamation of the ridiculous ideas I sometimes have as a player.

For example, in the Lost Underworld area of MOTHER 2, I portray the large size of the world by making the main characters very tiny. I would give these kinds of ideas to people at the workplace, and after a while of this, other people would start chiming in with other similar ideas of their own. Those links of reckless wildness are what the MOTHER games are built on.

Being weird or goofy isn’t my only aim, though. It might not be something game creators these days go for, but more than anything I have this strong desire to make people feel distraught. I want to give them laughter and joy too, of course, but I’m always filled with the desire to make people feel ever-so slightly heartbroken. Not just in games, but all sorts of things I work on.

It’s little wonder that Ape went on to become Creatures Inc., which works on various aspects of the Pokémon franchise, or that Satoru Iwata, then of HAL —who co-developed EarthBound with Ape — went on to bigger and better things at Nintendo after his experience assisting in EarthBound development: Iwata is a legend of the industry for many reasons, ones you would easily come to understand simply by reading entries from his Iwata Asks series, where he, as President of Nintendo, probed game developers and philosophized on what makes game development work or not work. While EarthBound might not have been a success from a sales point of view, those involved were certainly positively impacted by the experience of making the thing, in a way that guided their future design decisions.

Itoi might have loved to focus on heartbreak and distress, but you can tell he also wanted to create stories filled with hope. EarthBound is no different, especially in the game’s climax, which has your foursome of Ness, Paula, Sean, and Poo fighting against intergalactic conqueror Gygas, but unable to complete the task without help from, well, everyone else. Paula, a telepath, has the ability to reach the hearts and minds of others, and she reaches out to everyone she knows from this adventure, one person or group at a time, in the hopes they can send along the prayers and strength needed to defeat Gygas. Like with Mother 3’s focus on community, EarthBound, too, emphasizes that need for connection and working together. In Mother 3, the emphasis was on what happens when community is broken, but in EarthBound, it’s on what can be achieved when you come together in a world, and against a foe, that does not want you to.

Music is one more reason that EarthBound gets the nod over Mother 3 for me. Music has always been important in the Mother series — Ape cared enough about sound and music in the original Famicom offering that drums were an integral part of the music, even though the technology of the time meant that a constant drumbeat — and in the case of Mother’s soundtrack, not just drums, but also the constant use of a high hat —could interfere with sound elsewhere, since the systems were only capable of producing so many sounds at once. This was less of an issue on the Famicom than on the NES, of course, since the Famicom had enhanced audio capabilities compared to its international sibling, but still. That audio design decision, and the sheer volume of tracks available in the first game, were not subtle hints about the importance of music to the series. And EarthBound expanded on that importance with a soundtrack that remains stellar to this day.

"Pokey Means Business!” is a standout track, of course: it’s the penultimate boss theme, when Ness finally faces off against his asshole neighbor who has been making his life hell since the game started, except now Pokey is sitting inside of a giant spider mech that, as we learn upon defeating him, can also travel through time and space. The theme begins more chiptune-y than anything, but suddenly, sounds more befitting the SNES’ hardware and instrumentation abilities kick in, and the song is then metal as hell, with driving guitars and drums that very much do the job of telling you that Pokey does mean business.

That’s far from it for this soundtrack, though. Each town and city has its own theme, and there are once again multiple battle tunes that are designed to fit certain types of foes, be they sci-fi or alien or a household gadget possessed by evil or just some annoying hippie. The tracks are layered affairs, even more so than in the original since the SNES had the ability to utilize more instruments, and more instruments at once. They sound wonderful in their native form…

…but you can really hear how fantastic some of these tunes are when YouTubers decide to play all of the instruments individually and then mix it all together:

That song, “Boy Meets Girl,” which serves as the theme of the second city, Twoson, and also as a touching tune meant to make you feel nostalgic for your first meeting with another party member, played during the break at my wedding between the ceremony and the reception, along with other renditions of video game music the two of us thought were fitting. Yes, that’s right: my wife approves of me being like this, I am unstoppable.

I could do this all day with this soundtrack, but I won’t, other than to say you should also give this metal cover of “Pokey Means Business” a try, if for no other reason than to once again give Chip Tanaka the respect he deserves for pioneering an entire goddamn genre of music and then writing songs like this one within it:

Yes, EarthBound’s gameplay is pretty standard, if you’re thinking of how battles work (like classic Dragon Quest) or how you maneuver through the world (one town at a time, earning experience points and buying stronger gear in each new town). But the care given to “reckless wildness,” to making sure this game has heart both in its narrative design and in its sound design, to ensuring there is a message at the center of it all that goes beyond, “we can do anything so long as we have friends at our side!” as is too often the case in the genre… that’s what separates EarthBound from the rest. Despite being limited to the size of an SNES game, it feels like there is always something intriguing to discover or rediscover, some new angle to home in on, some decision to appreciate. That’s impressive, a reason I’m able to go back to it again and again and again, and also the kind of thing that gets you the devoted fan base EarthBound has, as well as the ranking I’ve given it here.

EarthBound remains a stunning achievement in the genre, an exceptionally playable and engaging adventure that, sadly, just never got the support base, numbers-wise, that it deserved. At least, at this point, EarthBound has seen re-releases on the 3DS and Wii U Virtual Consoles, as well as on the SNES Classic, so experiencing it doesn’t require dusting off your SNES and shelling out $300 on the secondhand market. If you don’t have any of those devices, well, it’s time to hope Nintendo puts the thing on their SNES channel on the Switch, because it remains 20-25 hours well spent all this time later.

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Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 13, Sin & Punishment: Star Successor

This underlooked gem is one of the very best games on the Wii, Nintendo or otherwise.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Treasure has a fantastic library of games developed over a couple of decades, but their sequels are rarely the source of said library’s standouts. It’s not that their sequels are bad or anything, but there tends to be some issue or another that makes games like the Game Boy Advance’s Gunstar Super Heroes worse than the original Sega Genesis classic, Gunstar Heroes. This is not the case with the sequel to Sin & Punishment, though. Sin & Punishment: Star Successor is a noticeably better game than the original, which is saying something considering that the N64 release ranked 28th on this list. Star Successor, released for the Wii in 2010 and once again co-developed with Nintendo, is one of Treasure’s top-tier releases, one of the absolute best Wii games, and, as you can see by where we are in this project, one of the finest Nintendo games developed in their over 35 years of console history.

Sin & Punishment: Star Successor feels like a Dreamcast game, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It feels so out of place in Nintendo’s library in a way it wouldn’t have in Sega’s, but there it is: Star Successor is not just published by Nintendo, but co-developed by their SPD crew, who is at least partly responsible for more than a couple of your favorite Nintendo favorites that were decidedly not like Sin & Punishment. If not for its length, which is enormous for the genre, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Star Successor as a port of an arcade game, like so many Dreamcast classics were. It oozes arcade sensibilities in its vibes, its difficulty, in the way the story progresses, but no, it’s a home console original, its point of origin the Wii, not a port from another console or from arcades like so many of Star Successor’s cousins.

I say cousins, rather than siblings, because Star Successor is a rarity among rarities, an on-rails, bullet-heavy, never-stop-firing action game, and one that released after the industry had, for a time, seemingly moved on from putting full effort into that sort of thing. And yet, there was Nintendo, working on a sequel to a game best known as a pricey import and Virtual Console release, for a system unfairly derided by Real Gamers, who were afraid of ever seeing colors besides brown and gray, as for kids. There’s an IGN UK review from its original release that said, “Forget bullet hell — Treasure has created an awesome slice of bullet heaven,” — and while that’s corny as hell and I laugh about it whenever I remember it, it’s also absolutely spot-on. A lot of folks missed out on Star Successor,, both in its original Wii release and in its Wii U Virtual Console release, but that’s their loss. One they can, and should, still rectify.

Star Successor took every issue the harshest critics of the original on-rails arcade shooter had — game length, control scheme, graphics, difficulty, music, voice acting… well, comparatively, anyway — and tweaked them until they were in a place you couldn’t reasonably complain about them. There is no shame, even from difficulty-obsessed folks, on “only” being able to complete Star Successor on Easy, which is significantly harder than Easy in the original game, but features infinite continues to compensate. Never mind Hard mode: if you play Star Successor on Normal the first time through, you’re only hurting yourself. This is a game meant to be played again and again, but you need to learn patterns and gameplay tricks before you can start worrying about perfecting your scores. Easy should be considered Normal, Normal should be considered Advanced, Hard should be thought of as more of a “well, we warned you.”

An oddity from the original Sin & Punishment is that it was about an hour long, the length of a shoot-em-up on the longer side for the genre or something like fellow on-rails standout Star Fox 64, but it also featured saving not just in between stages, but for checkpoints mid-stage, too. Probably so that, if you were frustrated or didn’t feel like replaying a stage right then after failing, you could get back to it later without starting over, but still, as welcome as it was it felt a little out of place in the genre. In Star Successor, though, where the game is twice as long from a stage perspective and around 3-4 times as long, time-wise, to get through, the save system is not just welcome, but necessary. Less so on Easy, but on Normal and Hard, you will absolutely stand up in disgust — likely directed at yourself rather than the game, for failing to dodge or properly time a charged shot — and want to walk away for a bit. If that sounds like a nightmare, well, remember what I said about there being no shame in only being able to complete this game on Easy. Treasure is known for layered, complex, difficult arcade action, and Star Successor is among the finest examples of that style in their oeuvre.

Star Successor, like the original Sin & Punishment, is an on-rails shooter where your character moves around on a 2D plane while aiming into a 3D background full of enemies. There were lots of enemies in the original: there are more in the sequel. The jump from the N64 hardware to one with the power of two GameCubes stacked on top of each other is noticeable not just for the graphics and the nearly flawless 60 frames per second arcade action, but because Treasure and Nintendo SPD flooded the screen with enemies. Waves and waves of popcorn enemies used to goose your multiplier, scores of legitimate threats shooting lasers or bullets or missiles at you, bosses that take up the entire screen or send out attacks that’ll do that for them… your screen is very rarely empty, as there is always something to dodge, to shoot, to deflect, and, more than just sometimes, all three of those are present at once.

You no longer jump, like in Sin & Punishment, but you instead fly. You can fight on the ground if you want (or if it’s safer to do so at that moment) but your characters have jetpacks for a reason. You’ll fly around to avoid obstacles, to get closer to a specific enemy, to move through Star Successor’s version of platforming puzzles. You can also dodge, like in the original, and you end up invulverable while you’re doing it. This ability does not make the game easy, necessarily, as you have to time it just right, or you’re still going to be susceptible to damage, and after you wasted some time not shooting. You have more leeway with the timing required to deflect rockets and missiles and objects back at enemies using your gun that is also a sword than you do with the dodge, but you’ll have to master both if you expect to complete the game. Like with the original Sin & Punishment, bosses are designed to test not just what the stages themselves taught you, but they force you to apply that knowledge in new ways, on the fly, and in much more challenging circumstances.

You get to control one of two characters, or you can play with a friend in co-op and use both at once. The first, Isa Jo, is the son of the original game’s protagonists, and he fears that he’s inherited more from them than just their ability to accurately fire a gun. Kachi is more of a mystery, both in origin and in motivation, one Isa has decided to protect instead of kill as was his original mission. The group that gave him that mission now hunts them both in a story that is both less batshit and easier to understand than the original, but also just inconsequential enough that I’d rather talk about the controls instead. Just know that it’s all voice acted in a superior way to in the original game — even if the voice acting is still not necessarily what you’d call Good even by 2009 standards — and the vastly improved character models help with the look of the cutscenes, too, since they better match the lovely concept art of this game’s universe.

As for those controls, the N64 scheme made a lot of sense, but you had to be willing to let it make sense, and many people were not. It didn’t help that the game was not designed for use with the Wii’s Classic Controller, but that’s what the majority of people who were playing Sin & Punishment used for it, since it got its first international release on the Wii’s Virtual Console as an import title. Sin & Punishment: Star Successor was developed from the ground up for the Wii with its various controller options in mind, and thanks to that, it controls in an infinitely superior way, even for people who didn’t mind the setup of the original title like myself.

If you use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combination, then Sin & Punishment plays like a hardcore lightgun game that also has you dodging and flying around with the Nunchuk. This is my preferred method of playing, since the IR capabilities of the Wii really lent themselves to this kind of game, which is how it ended up with ports of House of the Dead 2 and 3, as well as an original House of the Dead title and two on-rails, lightgun-esque shooters set in the Resident Evil universe. Star Successor blows each and every one of those away, and I say that as someone who has and enjoys each game I just referenced. That the game requires so much more of you than just aiming and pulling the trigger is a large part of that, but it’s also just that Star Successor’s action and setpieces are significantly better, too.

You can use the Classic Controller (Pro or standard), or the Wii Zapper, or even a GameCube controller instead of the Remote and Nunchuk, but as well as those methods work, the one advertised on the box is the way to go. For me, the Remote and Nunchuk combo is the best combination of accuracy and speed — both in your ability to aim as well as your access to all of the buttons necessary for staying alive — of the four methods.

There are three different ways to shoot. The first two are carried over from the original S&P: you can aim freely and cause more damage, or lock on to enemies for more accurate, but less powerful, shots. There’s a new wrinkle in Star Successor, one you must familiarize yourself with, and that’s charged shots. You can shoot charged shots as many times as you want, but there is a cooldown to them. So, you will have to learn to balance firing off a charged shot and then dodging, while shooting regular shots to take down whatever the charged shot didn’t take care of, while you wait for the next opportunity to charge up and fire. The charged shot is no joke, as it does major damage to bosses and can clear an entire section of the screen of standard enemies, but you need to stay alive long enough to fire it off: you aren’t firing while you charge, and the enemies aren’t about to stop firing at you or populating the screen while you wait, so you need to move, and move, and move some more.

Scores can be absurd in their size, but you also need to stay alive long enough for that to be true. Each successful kill adds to a multiplier, which maxes out at x10: take damage, and not just your health, but your multiplier is reduced. When you die, it’s game over, and your score is reset once you continue. Like with Star Fox 64, you can complete Star Successor without doing a very good job of it. More importantly, like with Star Fox 64, you’ll be compelled to keep playing until you can do a great job of it. Whether that’s getting through the whole game without dying, completing it on the hardest difficulty, or simply posting some eye-popping scores you’re satisfied with is up to you. You’ll be hooked, though, if you let yourself slip into the mentality the game requires.

Bosses. That’s where Treasure so often shines, in the design of their bosses. Star Successor is basically a love letter to this much-heralded element of Treasure games, in that it often feels like just one boss fight after another, with the non-boss portions of the game sometimes feeling like a breather even though they themselves are action-packed. So many of these bosses are unique, with powers and environments that would be described pretty succinctly by Knives Out’s “It makes no damn sense. Compels me, though” meme. This guy? Well the battle begins with him wearing a suit while floating over the ocean without the use of a jetpack like yours, but don’t worry, then he turns into a dolphin and you have to correctly identify which murderous dolphin is him from the bunch that keep leaping out of the water. Or the side-view boss fight that isn’t about shooting so much as it is about floating in the air while deflecting attacks from their katana with your own sword, and then smashing them while they’re stunned from your defensive move. Or the boss fight you have that takes place seemingly inside of a dream dimension you’re trapped in where the pain you feel remains very tangible and real. Or that stages do not limit themselves to things like one mid-boss per stage, but instead just throw you from one boss to another sometimes rather than in-between-boss segments, with the checkpoints being in between these various bosses and sometimes their stages. Your high scores are very much in danger in these segments.

Treasure’s boss fights are historically wonderful, the designs of the bosses themselves and their transformations a glorious ode to their imagination, and Star Successor is like, 60 percent bosses. The overwhelming volume of them has not diluted their quality nor dampened the experience of facing off against one. Instead, it feels like a gauntlet within a gauntlet, and you’re going to want to fight your way through both.

Sin & Punishment: Star Successor is up there with the very best action titles Treasure has ever developed. It’s a game no one ever expected to exist in the first place, but the N64 cult classic sold enough on the Wii’s Virtual Console that Nintendo and Treasure got to work on delivering an experience that is better in every conceivable way. Star Successor is one of the very best games from its year of release, and from plenty of other years, too. It’s one of the very best Wii games, Nintendo or otherwise, and it’s right here at number 13 on this list, approaching the very top tier of anything with Nintendo’s name on it. If you have a system that can play it, then get it. If you like arcade games, if you like Treasure games, if you like shooters, you will not be disappointed by that decision.

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Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 14: Animal Crossing (series)

Each Animal Crossing entry is different, but the core concepts have survived for nearly 20 years now for a reason.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

You can’t make me pick just one Animal Crossing game to celebrate in these here rankings. On the surface, they might all seem sort of same-y, but there are some pretty vast differences in how you play these games, even if the core concepts tend to carry over from one entry to the next. Not quite different enough to merit taking up multiple spaces on the top 101, necessarily, not when there are so many other games to want to write about and spotlight, but also obviously different enough that I didn’t want to pull an F-Zero, just write up one title, and call it a day on that franchise. Series ranking it is!

Animal Crossing has very much been one of those series where either you get it or you don’t, and for two decades now. It’s a life sim, but only sort of: it’s nothing like The Sims, for instance, and not just because it runs in real-time whereas The Sims is a game you play on fast-forward until you get distracted for a moment too long and then your character pees on the floor. It simulates life in a small community, but despite this, it’s not quite like the farming-and-dating focused Harvest Moon nor Stardew Valley, and it isn’t trying to be, either.

The sharper edges of the series have vanished a bit over time, so that you have a better chance of getting along with all of your fellow villagers and sooner, but that’s in part because, as the series has grown and expanded, so to has your daily to-do list in the game. It’s a matter of balancing what you spend time on: constant letter-writing to your virtual pals to gain their approval and camaraderie isn’t as much of a priority as it was in the GameCube era, when the only way to visit an irl friend’s village was to bring your memory card to their home and pop it into their console, making the game as a whole a primarily single-player and enjoyed alone experience. Now, in the most recent entries, you spend a lot more time on customization and ease of online play and access to your friends’ living spaces. So, the villagers aren’t quite as critical of you, aren’t quite as threatening, and also don’t bail on you and your town so easily due to your missteps, because your attention is more split than it used to be.

You might have a preference for one particular kind of play over another. I have a bit of a soft spot for each iteration of the game — yes, even the comparatively derided City Folk on the Wii — because of whatever uniqueness they bring to the core Animal Crossing experience. While playing New Horizons on Switch, I was also making a new village on the original GameCube version of Animal Crossing, and that was before I had decided on doing this project, too. I just felt like it, because, even with the comparative technical limitations of the era’s Animal Crossing, it’s a fun game to play even with its awkward design choices.

For me, a vital part of the Animal Crossing experience comes from hating super capitalist Tom Nook. Trevor Strunk had me on an episode of his No Cartridge podcast following the release of New Horizons on Switch to discuss this and the series as a whole, and I went on about it for an hour, so trust me when I say that this raccoon (or tanuki, depending on your region of choice) is your enemy. He is, for all intents and purposes, the antagonist. Sure, he sets you up with a home to live in, but he also locks you into an exploitative contract, forces you into indentured servitude in the earlier releases, and pays you low wages for your work and resource collection before turning around to sell what you’ve found at a tidy profit.

Anyone who says Nook isn’t so bad because he “gives” you a house and no-interest loans is [extremely Zack de la Rocha voice] your enemy. Let me ask you this: how did this guy go from small-town, small-business salesman to person who could afford to buy whole-ass islands that he could make you strip for resources, and also force you to pay for every upgrade on said island? If anything he does seems generous to you, it’s because it benefits him more than it benefits you. The dude doesn’t even help your town grow: the hardest work he does is call a construction company to overcharge you for every upgrade. He put his aspiring-capitalist nephews to work in the store he once would have minded in the days before you exploited your work ethic, and the actual difficult management work of the town goes to poor, overworked Isabelle, while he sits in a cushy office chair and posts on landlord subreddits about how lazy you are. None of this is even subtle: he has a bag of golf clubs next to him early on in New Horizons, before any real buildings are built, while he directs you all over the place to do the work he probably should be doing as the guy who owns this island.

Trying to shape your life the way you want it to be, in spite of the oppressive capitalist overlord obsessed with squeezing you and the town’s resources for all they are worth, is part of the appeal of this game to me, though. Nook doesn’t make me dislike Animal Crossing: his presence enhances it. There is no true antagonist in this life/town sim, in the traditional sense, no endboss with multiple phases, no credits rolling once you’ve destroyed their plans and/or robot form: everything is much too laid back to need that kind of cathartic, big-moment closure. Simply putting in the kind of bosses you have to deal with in your real life, whether they be in your office or retail or housing, is more than enough. That Animal Crossing has no true end beyond making it so you, in your day-to-day, no longer need to deal with or converse with Nook or play the stalk market (ha ha, get it?) in order to find happiness, only enhances that point.

The real-time focus of the game is one of its real strengths. You can manipulate time by playing around with your system clock, sure, but the design is intended for you to play a little bit each day, at different times, to experience all that Animal Crossing has to offer, be it holidays or finding the perfect moment to sell your turnip stocks or catching a creature that will only come out during certain conditions. And all of this for months, and months, and months, if not longer. Each season of the year brings a new look, new bugs and fish to catch, and new holidays, each of which are celebrated with Animal Crossing’s take on them. New Horizons was probably played a little differently than Nintendo had planned on, since it arrived just as lockdowns for the COVID-19 pandemic did: the result was millions of people using New Horizons in place of in-person hangouts, and dedicating far more hours per day to the game than anyone had ever imagined. It still worked, because of the sheer volume of things to do in New Horizons, especially compared to past entries in the series, but still, more people likely dropped off of the game sooner than would have in non-pandemic times, since they mined the game for all that it was worth in that moment.

It’s a slow burn game, though, at least by intent. This spring is a little different than last spring, and it also represents an opportunity to catch those same bugs and fish you might have missed out on the last time. Why would you do that? For the same reason any game’s completionist-leaning task might compel you: you’re reading this, you know how it feels to scratch that itch. Your relationships with the fellow townsfolk are deeper than they were this time last year: your house much larger. There is always some measure of redecorating or rearranging to do, and the ability to craft means you’re not as restricted on these fronts as you used to be. Even making art can be a fun pastime to get lost in with these crafting settings: I spent quite a bit of time making 8- and 16-bit pixel art of Nintendo characters, which could be put on clothing or hung on a wall, but for my own purposes, I used it as an outdoor art gallery that would change up every few weeks. It was fun for me, but also for my wife, Kate, who I shared an island with, as well as any friends who stopped by to check out what we had done with the place. And you can share those designs with the New Horizons world at large, or just your own friends, adding to the desire to make more of them.

Even without all of this new customization, though, past Animal Crossing games were wonderful to play, and for significant chunks of time. I don’t know how many hours I poured into the original Animal Crossing, because the GameCube didn’t keep track of such things, but the Wii iteration of the game got about 300 hours of play on my system. I spent over 150 hours with New Leaf on the 3DS, and in just over a year’s time, I’m already at 110 hours in New Horizons, and that’s despite putting the game aside for long stretches because I needed to focus on playing just a few other games for this ranking project. Even with that, New Horizons is the most-played game on our shared Switch, ahead of even Fire Emblem: Three Houses (number 16) and Breath of the Wild, despite multiple replays and players of and for both. Kate, not held back by things like sorting out the rankings for 35-ish years of Nintendo’s history, has 340 hours of New Horizons down since its release, and is still checking in on the island even now. The game can stick with you, if you want it to. And even if I never play again, I’ve already put 110 hours into it and am satisfied with how those went.

Each AC game has some new modes and gameplay setups that separate them from the previous entry — customization, multiple turnip markets, what kind of off-site places you can visit — but the most significant changes tend to be quality of life ones. You have a larger inventory than in the original GameCube entry, and it’s a whole lot easier to work within, too. Maybe you’ve buried this memory deep, but you couldn’t even easily combine your money in the original inventory, never mind any repeats of items, which made doing basically anything a chore if it involved inventory space. You have more items and tools to work with, which in turn means more kinds of things you would need to use items and tools on. Sharing your village with a friend has come a long way from the memory card roadtrips you used to have to take, thanks to the addition (and improvements to) online play. And your off-island adventures have improved, too, as you no longer need a Game Boy Advance and cable connected to your GameCube to access the hidden island: you can just ask at the desk for a plane to bring you there while the game hangs up a “nobody’s home” sign on your own island.

It’s a little difficult to explain just what works about Animal Crossing, in the sense of why you should play it, but here goes. The characters are, well, characters, making interactions with them a joy. You’ll find yourself wanting them to like you, just like you do with real people you meet. You’ll spend tons of time customizing your home and your garden, as well as your village as a whole, and maybe even yourself depending on the game. Discovery plays a major part in your enjoyment, whether it’s in a surprise visitor, a creature you try to catch, what is in stock at the local shops, some interaction you manage to unlock between you and other townsfolk, what a given holiday is bringing to the table, gameplay-wise, or in simply discovering that a game with no hard-and-fast, concrete goals can be played at your speed, at your leisure, is freeing.

I think that’s more easily understood now that New Horizons released and became one of the best-selling video games ever — it’s currently 16th, beating out every multiplatform Call of Duty mega-release in the process — but prior to that, and especially prior to the launch of New Leaf, it was a little more difficult to find fellow Animal Crossing players who understood this game that was tough to explain the appeal of. It’s not that Animal Crossing games were ever commercial failures or anything, far from it, but there is a significant difference between the 2.3 million copies the original game sold on the GameCube, and the nearly 33 million sales of New Horizon on the Switch. This is not to take anything away from the DS’ Wild World, which did exceptionally well at under 12 million sold. Wild World, however, was followed by “just” four million City Folk sales on the Wii, in spite of that system’s also massive install base. New Leaf did much better than either, with 13 million sales on a console with roughly half as many sales as the DS had and significantly fewer than the Wii managed, but New Horizons is the moment where Animal Crossing fully crossed over from bouncing between an A-/B+ Nintendo series in terms of sales and popularity into becoming the kind of juggernaut that Mario Kart tends to be.

New Horizons was the game of its moment, which no Animal Crossing game has been before, and it’s the second-best selling game on the Switch behind Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and much closer to surpassing it than you might think, despite it only being 13 months old. Like I said: Animal Crossing is on a different playing field than it used to be.

Sales don’t necessarily equal quality, of course, but the point of citing all of this is to emphasize how much Animal Crossing has become accepted and the appeal of it understood on a larger scale than it used to be. Fairly or not, handheld gaming rarely gets the same kind of recognition as console gaming, so seeing Animal Crossing thrive on Nintendo’s hybrid console in a way it never had before, even with its past impressive successes, tells you much about its place in the gaming world these days compared to even half-a-decade ago. More people get it than used to: more people have been exposed to what Animal Crossing is trying to do. And that’s the best way to convince someone to play, really. What do you think drove sales of New Horizons, if not seeing so much of the game shared on social media platforms by people who were clearly enjoying themselves? You might have already known Animal Crossing is great, but instead of trying to explain why to your friends, you simply got to show them in a way you couldn’t have years and years before. That convinced them to give it a shot, and over a year and hundreds of hours later, they can’t imagine why they weren’t on board even sooner.

I have multiple friends who I’ve talked up Animal Crossing to for years and years that didn’t take the plunge until they saw everyone having fun with it this way, in 2020. Some have fallen off, though, after they put in loads of time, and others, per my Switch’s notifications, are still going at it strong. That’s what it takes to truly get Animal Crossing, though: not listening to me talk about it for an hour on a podcast, or even reading this explanation of what I like about the series. It’s experiencing it for yourself, and realizing that these games were missing from your life until they weren’t.

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Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 15, Star Fox 64/3D

Hey, guess what happens to one of Nintendo's all-time greats when it gets a proper update that respects the source material?

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

While writing up the feature for this project on Star Fox Zero (number 78), I emphasized that I was not a major Star Fox guy. What I meant by that is that I’m not someone who is all-in on the franchise as a whole, who is excited about every entry in the series and enjoys them all, who likes to use Star Fox characters in Smash Bros. or whatever. I like Star Fox games plenty, that’s true enough, but “like” is usually how I feel about them. Good games, some of them (significantly) better than the others.

Star Fox 64, though? And its remastered sibling, Star Fox 64 3D? Those are fantastic slices of arcade-influenced gaming. They aren’t burdened by technological limitations like the pair of Super Nintendo Star Fox games — as admittedly impressive as they were for the time — nor have they been saddled with trying to further diversify the gameplay with a plethora of vehicles and too many moments that aren’t just you flying around in an Arwing racking up kills. Star Fox 64 is one of the absolute best games Nintendo has ever created, and the 3D iteration not only helped to prove that the core gameplay of this Nintendo 64 gem still held up, but it’s also better than the original in every way.

Like with F-Zero, Wario Land, and Kid Icarus, too, Star Fox is in the bucket of Nintendo franchises that they kind of just forget about unless someone else pitches them a game. Nintendo made Star Fox 64 by themselves, and then were never again the lead developer for a Star Fox title. I would buy that they ran out of great ideas to differentiate other Star Fox titles from the zenith that 64 represents — Zero is the lone post-64 Star Fox on the list, in part because it’s the only one that includes a fundamental change to the series that I embraced even if others found it less appealing— so they’re constantly waiting around for someone else to bring something new around.

Shigeru Miyamoto’s lack of emphasis on story in his design philosophy probably plays a role in this to a degree. Zero, for all that’s different about it, acts as a reboot of Star Fox 64, which itself is a reboot of the original Star Fox, developed on hardware that could better handle the full scope of that game’s ambition. Miyamoto designed and produced Star Fox 64, just as he did the original SNES game, and he was heavily involved in Zero, too: if a Star Fox is going to head somewhere different, it might need to be fully handed off to someone willing to try to differentiate via story and all that could bring with it in terms of enemies and locations and design, because otherwise, different versions of the same core game are what we’ll continue to get.

Anyway, Star Fox Assault, the sequel to 64, was a Namco production for the GameCube. The aforementioned Star Fox Zero was a PlatinumGames’ project. Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS was developed by Q-Games, which you might know more for their PixelJunk series and maybe even a slew of wonderful DSiWare games. Q-Games was founded by Dylan Cuthbert, who had previously worked for Argonaut Games, which developed not just Star Fox and Star Fox 2 on the SNES, but also the Japan-exclusive X for the Game Boy. They were tasked with developing Star Fox alongside Nintendo back in the early 90s because of X, which was published by Nintendo, after early versions of it blew them away because of what it managed on the handheld.

X, in short, was a 3D title on the Game Boy. Yes, 3D gameplay on the 8-bit, green-tinted Game Boy: X, where you drove a starship from a first-person perspective inside of a 3D space and through tunnels, was Cuthbert’s project, and is the reason you may so closely associate him with Star Fox. The game impressed Nintendo so much that they were all-in on the idea of Argonaut developing the Super FX chip to allow the SNES to achieve a more robust 3D gameplay on its more powerful, 16-bit hardware, and that in turn resulted in Star Fox (and the canceled, then revived decades later, Star Fox 2). I bring up Argonaut and Cuthbert and Q-Games here not just as a short history lesson for the Star Fox franchise, but because it was Cuthbert’s Q-Games that got the call to port Star Fox 64 to the Nintendo 3DS, giving us Star Fox 64 3D. Since Cuthbert didn’t get a chance to work on the original version of the game, there’s something neat about Nintendo going back to the guy who allowed the series to exist in the first place to take his turn on the most celebrated entry of the bunch.

There is a real respect for the source material of Star Fox 64 in the 3D iteration, with the game playing out exactly the same way, albeit with some different button placements, if you want it to: there is a 3DS mode with some subtle-ish changes that optimize missions a bit for the handheld, and an N64 mode that exactly replicates the original. The only real difference in that mode this time around is that the game is a stunner to look at. The only Nintendo games that might benefit more from the boosted visuals of the system’s 3D slider are the pair of Legend of Zelda remakes, and more likely we’re talking about a three-way tie here.

Like with Sega’s 3DS ports of fellow rail shooters Space Harrier and Galaxy Force II, the system’s 3D effect adds depth that actively improves the Star Fox gameplay experience and your ability to aim at foes and obstacles in your path. It’s much easier to place where these foes — flying at you in a 3D space while you move on a 2D plane with your reticule partially obscured by your own ship — are with this additional depth, and if you better know where they are and will be, it’s also a lot easier to accurately fire on them. For this reason, it’s a shame the 3DS isn’t the system that got the Panzer Dragoon remakes, too, but hey, you can’t have everything. I just named three classic rail shooters whose definitive home editions are on the 3DS, don’t get greedy.

If you want to play Star Fox 64 3D using the 3DS’ gyroscopic motion controls to aim, then go for it. The circle pad (listen, it beats calling it an analog nub) is perfectly suited to flying the ship and aiming, though, and everything has been optimized in a way for the 3DS button layout that actually makes the whole thing work a bit better and more intuitively than the default N64 arrangement (and exponentially better than either Virtual Console release of Star Fox 64, which awkwardly relied on a right analog stick in place of C button presses). Don’t feel like you’re being forced into using a mode you might not want, as there are options, and good ones. There are moments in some games where gyroscopic aiming is preferable to the original, but Star Fox 64, which benefits so much from the 3D slider cranked to the max setting, is not one of those games for me, since firing dozens of shots at oncoming enemies flying at you from various locations is a lot different than trying to zero in for one good, accurate shot from a bow or hookshot.

My favorite change to the gameplay in the 3DS release of Star Fox 64 comes with the removal of the secondary first-person viewpoint in favor of one that pulls back on the camera. While the first-person view was useful enough for zeroing in on a target you were struggling to get a beat on in the original game, the added depth via the 3D slider helps replicate that utility without the need to change your viewpoint. And the camera zooming out is far more effective and useful than the first-person view ever was, as it allows you to see what’s happening around your Arwing to a greater degree in all-range mode, where you will often be dogfighting or looping around a smaller area. While Star Fox 64’s dogfighting is nowhere the level of Zero’s in quality — Zero made this list in no small part due to its best-in-series dogfighting — being able to pull back the camera like this greatly enhances the experience when compared to Star Fox 64’s version of those stages. It’s not that the N64 fights against Star Wolf and his evilly-voiced wingmates are bad or anything. It’s just that the 3DS versions are superior.

You could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to Star Fox 64. You would be wrong, but understandably so. At least back in the mid-90s when it released, we were much more used to arcade games that took 30 minutes or an hour to finish a playthrough of, and understood that seeing the credits wasn’t the same as mastering a game. In the present, well, we’ve got a bit of a shoot-em-up and arcade revival thing going on, but it’s still more fringe than the scene was in 1997, when Nintendo was confident in releasing a first-party game expected to be a system seller that would take you less than an hour to “beat,” and were right to do so: Star Fox 64 sold four million copies on a console with just 33 million lifetime sales.

Compare that to the one million copies of the undeniably superior Star Fox 64 3D, released on a system with more than twice as many consoles out in the wild: it was just a different time, and the shoot-em-up/arcade scene hadn’t come back as strongly by 2011 as it has today. The games media industry then was far too in the throes of “this game is too short to be worth your time” and “why isn’t there online multiplayer” and “where is the brand new content in this re-release of a game that came out before a number of Nintendo 3DS owners were even born” to recognize what it was they had in their hands and properly contextualize and recommend it to the rest of us.

The joy of Star Fox 64 and its 3D remaster is in the replaying. You can beat Star Fox 64 even if you outright suck at the game. You’ve got some extra lives to play with, and earning new ones isn’t particularly difficult, so your chances of defeating Andross and saving the Lylat system are pretty high. Your chances of doing it while being awarded medals for actually doing a killer job of it are low, though. You also can’t physically reach every level in the game in a single playthrough: Star Fox 64 is all about hidden bosses and hidden paths, and it takes repetition and exploration to discover them all, as well as a little bit of luck. You won’t find nearly everything the game has to offer after a dozen runs, never mind one.

Take the hidden path in the first level, for instance, which you can watch in the above embedded video. You have to successfully defeat the enemies chasing after your wingmate, Falco, and then you have to impress him with your flying, too, by making your way under a series of arches. Only after you have pulled off both of those feats — and it is very easy to not go under all of the arches, because of the lure of enemies to shoot and items to collect — will Falco suggest you follow him through a waterfall that will lead you to a different level-end boss and a different followup stage. This is one of the easier hidden paths to figure out and to then successfully reach. There are going to be hidden paths you have discovered that take much more practice to actually get to, such as the warps.

Sometimes, you’ll want those hidden paths in order to discover the non-default stages, but you also need to play the basic runs again and again, as well. Otherwise, you’re not going to earn the medals that prove you’ve actually mastered Star Fox 64’s gameplay. Each enemy you defeat is worth a certain score: defeating multiple enemies at once by charging up your guns to fire a homing explosive round can get you more than the standard one point, and certain foes and obstacles are just inherently worth more than that, too. It’ll take practice for you to be able to clear enough enemies in a single run to earn a medal in that stage, as they are not placed in such a way where you can easily get to them all. You need to make decisions on how you’ll defeat enemies, as well as which enemies you’re going to gun for. Make the right calls to maximize points, and you’ll get a medal… so long as you also didn’t lose any of your wingmen during the stage.

Each run takes under an hour to complete, which is a positive, not a negative. You want to learn the ins and outs of each stage, replay them to complete them in different ways to unlock different subsequent worlds, and if there was six hours of campaign here, you’d never finish. And not in a satisfactory way, either. Star Fox 64 has 25 possible paths for you to take, two different final levels and final boss encounters, and multiple difficulty levels. Certain paths are tougher than others, for one, as detailed at the Star Fox wiki page: one through six are considered easy, 7-19 are more of a medium difficulty, and the final six listed are the ones where the most difficult challenges all laid out in a row. Getting medals on those paths can be truly difficult, since even if you survive, your wingmen all have to make it, too: and decisions you make, about which enemies to prioritize and whether or not you successfully shoot them down, can decide whether or not Slippy, Falco, and Peppy actually make it to the end of a stage alongside you.

You get the choice of returning to a previous stage or a previously unlocked alternate path after completing a level, which helps with being able to zero in on the stages in which you don’t yet have a medal or giving it another go in order to avoid losing a wingman this time around. The former decision will cost you an extra life, but shifting where you progress to is free.

And then there is the actual more difficult version of the game, not just the more difficult paths. If you manage to get a medal on every one of the planets, you’ll unlock expert mode. The levels have the same layout on expert, but there are more enemies, tougher enemies, and smarter enemies, too. The medals on normal mean a lot more than just showing you’re pretty good at Star Fox 64: you need to earn them to even get to the stages that’ll prove you’re much, much better than that at the game.

All of this takes time. A lot of time. Much more than the hour it takes to see the credits, too much time to be complaining about how there isn’t an online multiplayer mode everyone would forget about after the servers shut down in a few years, anyway, while memories of the single-player campaign live on. You have to want to spend all of this time with Star Fox 64 (3D) in order for the game to be rated as highly as I have it, sure, but the game is also worth that time and effort. And that’s about all that matters. I played about two dozen more runs than I needed to for the purpose of ranking the game and taking notes for this feature, because I couldn’t put it down 10 years after its re-release, which came 14 years after the original. I’m probably going to publish this and then go play another run, because why wouldn’t I? I’ve still got some hard-earned medals to acquire.

Sure, Star Fox 64 doesn’t build on its narrative with each repeated play like the much more modern Hades does, but otherwise, similar concepts are in place. You play, you learn, you react on that new knowledge, and you discover more and more of the game, which in turn broadens and improves your experience with it. Each Star Fox 64 runs builds on the last, even if they’re less directly connected than in something like Hades (I should point out that there is no “something like” Hades, really, there’s just Hades). Star Fox 64 was a stunning achievement back in 1997, the rare, for Nintendo, kind of game that reminds you that they did have roots in the arcade and understand exactly what is necessary to create games that compel you like those do. The 2011 remaster is even better, and now, 10 years later, the whole thing still qualifies as one of the 15 best games Nintendo has ever produced. Where’s the online multiplayer, my ass.

If Nintendo never actually produces another Star Fox game after the critical and commercial disappointment of Zero, the series will still be worth remembering and revisiting because of Star Fox 64. They need to make sure there is always access to this game, or updates when necessary or appropriate like with the 3DS release, but that’s fine. Not every series needs to be mined to oblivion. Sometimes, you just get it right, and there isn’t always somewhere else to go or worth going. Star Fox 64 exists, whether a Star Fox Switch or whatever ever does, and that’s not such a bad thing to have to grapple with.

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