Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: Wrapping Up the top 101

The top 101 Nintendo games have been ranked, so now let's take a look at what's been learned.

I’ve finished 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 also find the entire, completed rankings through this link.

Sure, I’ve completed ranking the top 101 Nintendo games ever, but now we’ve got a minute to look at the list from a big picture point of view before moving on to what this newsletter will do next.* Let’s start with a correction. Everyone loves a correction, especially the person who has to make it. The truth is, though, I’ve got one actual mistake I made while putting together this list, and one… well, not a mistake, but pendulum-swing-esque regret that continues to haunt me even after publication.

*The project that launched Retro XP might be completed, but the goal was always to use that as a starting point: I’ve got lots of columns and future project ideas to publish here, too, so stick around.

Super Mario Bros. 3 ended up ranking at number 48. That was considered too low by some readers, which wasn’t an uncommon thing, necessarily, but the difference here is that it also was considered too low by me. At least, by the version of me who left myself a note that said, and I am quoting directly from my sheet here, “This needs to be bumped up a little more. I do have some Kirbys up pretty high, after all. Just not ranked ahead of the remaining Warios, that's for sure.” The next Wario on the list was at number 27, so… yeah. SMB3 probably should have been in the 30s somewhere, if not ranked right around Wario Land 4. I had forgotten about my note and just went about my business that morning, tackling the next game on the sheet, and then regretted it basically that same day when I noticed my own forgetfulness. Whoops.

This is less of an issue, because who knows how I’ll feel about it a few months from now, but in the write-up for Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, I wrote that, “this pair, always linked together, made it as high as nearly cracking the top half, and as low as sitting somewhere in the 90s — almost entirely based on how aggravated I was with their faults at that moment in time, or after playing something better or worse with similar-ish systems.” Spending additional time with the Mario games ranked ahead of these, as I returned to them once more for additional notes (and played the entirety of the Switch edition of Super Mario 3D World) has me back at the “somewhere in the 90s” feeling. As I said, that opinion could change once again, because I am doomed to be haunted by these two games, but at the least I’m less comfortable with their placement at 73 and 72 than I was at publication time.

All things considered, though, one whoops and one “I’m still not so sure about that” is a pretty good batting average for something this size. I’ll remember these problems in 2031 when I have to revise this list to account for all of the Switch U releases.

Here is some reading music for you: covers of songs from old-school Zelda games, performed by Bit Brigade:

Let’s dive in to some [puts on glasses] list data, to see about the actual makeup of the rankings from more than just a 101-through-1 glance.

There were a ton of developers included in this list — Nintendo’s primary studios past and present, Nintendo subsidiaries, third-party devs, and even a Sega-developed game published by their former rivals — so I wanted to take a look at which of them had the most games on the list. Here are the top six, which seems like an arbitrary figure, but the accomplishment managed by number six felt worth mentioning:

6. Retro Studios: Five games (Metroid Prime, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze)

Retro has developed or co-developed exactly five games for Nintendo — I’m not counting the Metroid Prime Trilogy release, nor their assist development for something like Mario Kart 7, just original games — and all five made the list. That’s an accomplishment worth noting, especially since all five were in the top 57, with the peak of those Metroid Prime, the second-ranked game on the list.

5. Nintendo R&D1: Six games (Wario Land 3, Metroid: Zero Mission, Metroid Fusion, Wario Land 4, Wario Land II, Super Metroid)

Nintendo R&D1 isn’t on here more solely because the studio became defunct in 2004 as Nintendo transitioned from the Game Boy family to the DS one, but what’s here is an incredible display. The lowest-ranked game on the list is Wario Land II, which came in at number 63: the other five are scattered across the top 27, with Super Metroid (number 6) at the head of that class.

4. HAL Laboratory: Six games (Kirby Super Star (Ultra), Kirby's Epic Yarn, Kirby's Return to Dream Land, Pokémon Snap, Kirby's Dream Course, Kirby's Mass Attack) and two series (BoxBoy!, Super Smash Bros.)

HAL is most famous for its association with Kirby, which got plenty of representation on the top 101, but they also developed the first Pokémon Snap, created the BoxBoy! series which has four quality games within it, and originated the Super Smash Bros. series. I’m not giving them credit for it in this spot, but they also co-developed EarthBound, with former Nintendo president and HAL dev Satoru Iwata being credited as saving it from “development hell.”

3. Nintendo EAD Tokyo: Seven games (Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Super Mario 3D Land, NES Remix 1+2)

EAD Tokyo had a pretty brief life as its own studio before another round of internal Nintendo reshuffling, but they made some of the very best games in the company in those years. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat earned them a shot at Mario, and all they did with that was create the greatest Mario game ever, as well as Super Mario 3D World and its nearly as wonderful offshoot, Captain Toad, and also figured out how to make games that predated their own existence sing once more with the two NES Remix titles.

2. Intelligent Systems: 10 games (Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Fire Emblem: Thracia 776, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Fire Emblem: Fates, WarioWare Gold, Paper Mario, Fire Emblem: Blazing Blade) and three series (Advance Wars, Puzzle League, Pushmo)

What’s fun about Intelligent Systems getting 10 games and three whole series on here is that it doesn’t even fully account for what they’ve managed in their decades as an internal Nintendo studio. For one, there have been four Advance Wars games just in North America, but additional ones exclusive to Japan before that. Puzzle League has appeared on almost every Nintendo console and handheld since its introduction on the SNES. Pushmo had a short lifespan, but managed four releases within it. WarioWare Gold got on the list as something of a stand-in for a series ranking: there would have been more WarioWare on the list if I had felt comfortable pushing other games off of it. Second, I’m not even giving Intelligent Systems credit for their work on Super Metroid here. And third, Intelligent Systems was initially in the business of porting over Famicom disks to the ROM-cartridge format used on the NES: they went from that to, well, what you see above.

1. Nintendo EAD: 18 games (Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Mario Kart 8 (Deluxe), Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, Pikmin 3, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario Bros. 3, Pikmin 2, Donkey Kong '94, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Pikmin, Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds, New Super Mario Bros. U + New Super Luigi U, Mario Kart: Double Dash, Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, Star Fox 64/3D) one series (Animal Crossing)

It’s kind of hard to outnumber the studio that had the reins on Mario from Super Mario Bros. 3 through Sunshine, originated The Legend of Zelda series and didn’t give it up while the studio yet lived, created Pikmin, made the best Star Fox ever, was responsible for Mario Kart, etc. etc. Nintendo EAD is no more, thanks to the same internal reshuffling that eliminated the Tokyo side of things as well, but like with the transition from the numbered R&D studio days into the era of EAD and SPD, the folks who made these games live on in EPD, which is based in both Kyoto and Tokyo, and is responsible for, among other things, a little game you might know as the top-ranking title on this list.

Here’s the system breakdown for the rankings. There is a little bit of double counting here, since this is a bit informal — only for instances where it is possible a game that was remade could have made the list in its original form — but otherwise, I only counted the original system. So, the Switch doesn’t get credit for all of those Wii U ports, for instance, but I’m comfortable throwing the NES a bone for Metroid. I’m not counting the start of a series ranking as a “game” here, but I did note the occurrences for posterity/as a tiebreaker.

12. NES: Two games (Super Mario Bros. 3, Metroid) one series (Punch-Out!!)

I promise I have good things to say about many an NES game, Nintendo’s or otherwise, just not good enough for the scope of this project.

11. Game Boy Color: Three games, or four, depending on how you want to count the Oracle titles (Mario Tennis, Wario Land 3, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons)

There were more great games on the GBC than just these three, of course, but I wrapped up the entirety of Pokémon in a series entry, so no Gold/Silver on its own, and game’s like Link’s Awakening and Wario Land II didn’t get their start on the diminutive and colorized cousin of the original Game Boy.

10. Game Boy: Four games (Donkey Kong ‘94, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Wario Land II, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening) one series (Pokémon)

9. Switch: Seven games (Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Luigi's Mansion 3, Super Mario Odyssey, Super Mario Maker 2, Splatoon 2, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild)

It’s worth pointing out that, if you include the Wii U ports as well as the remasters of Link’s Awakening and Xenoblade Chronicles, the Switch has 18 games on the list, which would easily top it. That’s a good way to count if you’re considering getting the system or analyzing it for its library as a whole, but for our purposes, you sit at number nine and deal with it, Switch. This is all actually pretty impressive considering that the Switch is still going strong with years to go, with the eventual Switch Pro likely more of a New 3DS XL “successor” that stretches out the system’s lifespan than the jump to the next generation for Nintendo.

8. DS: Eight games (Kirby's Mass Attack, Elite Beat Agents, Dragon Quest IX, Rhythm Heaven, Pokémon Conquest, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, Art Style: PiCTOBiTS, Kirby Super Star Ultra)

7. Game Boy Advance: Nine games (Mother 3, Golden Sun, The Lost Age, The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap, Drill Dozer, Fire Emblem: Blazing Blade, Metroid Fusion, Wario Land 4, Metroid: Zero Mission) one series (Advance Wars)

6. 3DS: Nine games (Fire Emblem: Awakening, Fire Emblem: Fates, WarioWare Gold, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball, The Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds, Super Mario 3D Land, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Metroid: Samus Returns, Star Fox 64 3D) two series (BoxBoy!, Pushmo)

The 3DS also has a version of NES Remix 1+2, if you’re keeping count of that sort of thing, but they originated on the Wii U, so I did not.

5. Nintendo 64: 10 games (Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Pokémon Snap, Paper Mario, Super Mario 64, Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber, Blast Corps, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Star Fox 64, Sin & Punishment) one series (Super Smash Bros.)

4. Wii: 11 games (Kirby's Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Xenoblade Chronicles, Excitebike: World Rally, Kirby's Return to Dream Land, Excitebots: Trick Racing, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Sin & Punishment: Star Successor, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess)

3. SNES: 11 games (EarthBound, Kirby's Dream Course, Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, Fire Emblem: Thracia 776, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Terranigma, Illusion of Gaia, Donkey Kong Country 2, Super Mario RPG, Kirby Super Star) one series (Puzzle League)

2. Wii U: 12 games (Xenoblade Chronicles X, Star Fox Zero, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Mario Kart 8, New Super Mario Bros. U + New Super Luigi U, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, NES Remix 1+2, Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World, Bayonetta 2)

Third-party offerings were sometimes hard to come by on the Wii U unless you were an avid eShopper, but it’s hard to argue with the first-party ones, considering. Double dipping on Breath of the Wild here since it got a simultaneous release with the Switch and they’re both the system of origin, a la Twilight Princess on the GameCube and Wii.

1. GameCube: 14 games (F-Zero GX, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Kart: Double Dash, Eternal Darkness, Chibi-Robo, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Metroid Prime, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Pikmin, Pikmin 2) one series (Animal Crossing)

The two worst-selling Nintendo consoles have the most original games on this list. I’m unclear what that says about me, but I do know it means Nintendo’s marketing had some real issues and hurdles they didn’t quite clear. At least my faith in the Wii U’s library has been vindicated by the success of the Switch ports, and I guess history has proven my love for the GameCube was pure and right. As always, the lesson here is to listen to me.

The year with the most new releases on this list was 2001, with seven: Wario Land 4, Mario Tennis, The Legend of Zelda: Oracles of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, Paper Mario, Golden Sun, and Pikmin. The runner-up was 2014, with six: Rusty's Real Deal Baseball, NES Remix 1+2, Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. If you want to split NES Remix up into two releases for counting purposes, be my guest, have a tie at the top.

There are also six years with five games a piece (1996, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2010), and four years with four each (1994, 2012, 2013, 2017). Not every year was a winner, but there were very few of them that didn’t have at least one of the top 101 released within it.

Of the 20 Super Mario games — I’m talking the Bros. series as well as the 3D entries — 10 made the list. That’s tied with The Legend of Zelda for the most entries, though, Zelda’s percentage is ever-so-slightly better with 10 of 19. I’m not counting Link’s Crossbow Training here, but I’m also not counting like, Mario is Missing or whatever, so it’s fine.

Metroid has the highest percentage of series releases on the list, at 7 of 11, for 64 percent. Fire Emblem is close by, with 7 of 13 (54 percent: I did not double count remakes in this, nor count Heroes), while Kirby scored the worst, rate-wise, of any series with at least five entries, at five of 28, or 18 percent. I could have narrowed that down to just the Kirby platformers, but all of the others were eligible for the list, too, you know, so that wouldn’t be fair, would it?

These series didn’t have enough to “qualify,” but Xenoblade was three-for-three, Wario Land/World was three for six, Pikmin was three for four, and Mother was two for three.

Not a single shoot-em-up is on this list, which is kind of stunning in a way, given that Nintendo has given me so much to enjoy over the years, and yet, has not contributed much when it comes to the genre of game I probably have the most of in my own library. Granted, Nintendo has a number of fine on-rails shooters, many of which made the list — Star Fox 64/3D and Zero, both Sin & Punishment games, Pokémon Snap — but something like a vertical-scrolling arcade shooter or a horizontal-scrolling one, well, the releases are few and far between, never mind anything great.

Solar Striker on the Game Boy isn’t a bad game, necessarily, but it just kind of… is. Even by 1990 standards, there wasn’t a whole lot going on there: there were certainly already shooters with far more depth than your average shooter at that time, and Solar Striker leaned a lot closer to the average. It hasn’t aged particularly well, since there isn’t some wild concept that keeps it unique and intriguing despite general changes to the genre over the years. Summer Carnival ‘92 Recca it is not. Like I said: it just kind of is.

Nintendo R&D1 developed this game alongside Minakuchi Engineering, a studio you might know from their work on the Game Boy’s line of Mega Man games, as well as the lone Sega Genesis entry, The Wily Wars. I have to give it some credit for helping get me into the whole concept of arcade-y shooters, especially at a time when I just didn’t have access to many of them — it was basically this and Galaga and whatever I could find at an arcade until the days of Ikaruga rolled around a decade later — but yeah. It is definitely a game that you could play, or not play, with little change in your life regardless of your decision other than being able to say “I played the shoot-em-up designed by Gunpei Yokoi.”

More recent, and far more playable these days, is Metal Torrent. It didn’t receive particularly loving reviews at the time of its release on the Nintendo DS eShop, but it was worth the $4.99. Maybe less so now that the online features like leaderboards have been removed, but if all you care about is besting your own scores, like it’s an older game from a pre-online leaderboard era, you can still find five bucks worth of satisfaction.

This game, developed by Arika and published by Nintendo, has two difficulty modes: Easy, and Insane. Easy is, well, easy enough, but it’s a good first playthrough to get a sense of how the game’s mechanics work. It won’t take long, either, as a playthrough of the eight stages takes 15-20 minutes or so. Insane is much more difficult, obviously, and where the challenge of the game is: the pulse cannon that automatically fired and protected you from enemy fire on Easy is manual in this mode, and your weapon range is a lot narrower, too. There are eight stages to work through, but it’s basically one long stage you’re trying to avoid dying in, and you can make that stage use repeated enemy patterns, or random attacks, depending on which school of shmup enemy you happen to prefer.

So, yeah, neither of these made the top 101 or even came close, even if there isn’t really anything wrong with them. The project aimed just a little higher than “hey that’s kind of neat,” you know? Nintendo systems, at least its early ones, certainly did not lack for shoot-em-ups, but you just weren’t going to find Nintendo’s name on them. That was more of a Sega thing. Or a Hudson thing. Or an anyone but Nintendo thing. Those on-rails games, though? Chef’s kiss shit, so at least Nintendo wasn’t averse to putting their name on that genre of arcade game.

That’s a wrap, yeah? On the top 101, anyway. Next week, I’ll roll out the next phase of this newsletter, which will include a number of columns I’ll dive in and out of as makes sense, space for additional projects focusing on one thing or another, and the occasional one-off idea. Thanks for reading along over the last [counts] Jesus, many months: there is going to be a whole lot more of this to read soon.

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