Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:
- Enduring Classics
- Medium Changers
- Genre Pinnacles
- Right Place, Right Time
- Honorable Mentions
- Why Didn’t I Include…
The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.
Today, “Genre Pinnacles”. These are games that are, straight up, represent the very best of bygone eras of gaming, that are still relevant and still important even though games like them largely aren’t being made anymore. Most (all) of these are 2D-era games, mainly because I feel like claiming that a game is the pinnacle of a genre that’s still being developed is somewhat premature. They each represent a start of a thread that has moved forward and influenced the games that follow in subtle ways, not the massive shifts of the Medium Changers.
Additionally, this was an interesting list to put together, because the results weren’t what I expected. I expected to see a fairly broad spectrum of games in this category, but as I did research and double-checked my initial criteria, things started gravitating to a particular place. Here we go:
Super Mario World
Like Super Mario 64 after it, Super Mario World launched a console, and left a lasting mark on 2D platformers. It had exploration, it had secrets, it had varied environments and exciting enemies. It had a world map that felt gigantic, and entire hidden worlds to find. It demanded that other platformers keep up with its tight controls and sharp features, and only a small number could. It combined wide open levels and tight, cramped spaces, difficult platforming and fiendish enemies, and through it all still introduced new concepts to Mario games that have endured.
It also introduced Yoshi, a character so beloved he’s gotten his own spinoff series multiple times over, and who also took center stage in the one generalist platformer that managed to dethrone Super Mario World:
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Yes, it’s a sequel. No, it’s not even remotely the same game. Five years after the launch of Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island hype started circling, and it was weird. It was a Mario game where you didn’t play as Mario, where Mario was a macguffin for you to keep ahold of. Then we got to play it. The game is brilliant, with delightful music, levels that are more than just “run right until the end”, which described a majority of levels even in Super Mario World, clever bosses, and memorable mechanics. In the same way that Doom became a primer for 3D level design, Yoshi’s Island was a primer for the highest tier of 2D level design ever devised, and it largely hasn’t been topped since.
In addition, Yoshi’s Island introduced the very start of an idea that has continued to develop ever since: the minimalist UI. Yoshi’s Island’s UI appeared contextually, showing you what you had as you needed to see it, rather than all the time. Rather than a counter for ammunition, you could see your actual ammo trailing around behind you in the form of eggs, and you could see how many you had without referring to a text overlay. It proved that in-game messaging could be highly effective, and was a game that wanted you to look at IT, and not the overlay on the screen. The better our technology has gotten, the better we’ve gotten at this, and Yoshi’s Island kicked it all off.
Mega Man X
Mega Man X is a brilliant game. It’s challenging, highly complex, with lots of twitchy mechanics and a selection of usable weapons broader and more varied than even the most insane FPS, and yet it is a game that seamlessly and effectively teaches you how to play it every step of the way. It holds your hand without letting you realize it’s doing so, and as a result you learn to play it without realizing that you’re being taught. It invented the tutorial level, and while it’s been implemented inexpertly ever since, it’s also allowed deeply complex games to arise without forcing players to pore through a manual just to figure out how to play. Mega Man X taught through gameplay, and it’s no coincidence that manuals started getting slimmer and less necessary starting then.
On top of that, the game has excellent visuals, memorable music and sounds (I can still hear the blaster charge-up sound in my sleep, and the sound of getting health back), and extremely clever level design and bosses, breaking free from the boxes of previous Mega Man games and, indeed, most platformer boss battles and showcasing wide open boss stages that were playable while still being more than just a single screen. It also showed off how movement could make a huge difference, and wall-jumping is now standard in platformers, as is the dash.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
While Mario was showcasing the beauty of wide-open generalist platforming, Sonic the Hedgehog was delivering a different thing: intensity. The name of the game for Sonic was speed, and it offered a visceral satisfaction that’s hard to top. Sonic was about speedrunning before speedruns were a thing, and the game leaned heavily on its tight, responsive controls, arguably even tighter and cleaner than Mario. Really pushing the envelope for visuals and effects, Sonic attempted to make the battle about cool graphics and high skill, an angle that Mario couldn’t compete in, and thus Sonic found its niche.
Sonic 2, however, had a little detail that made it different. In the game, you ran around not as just Sonic, but as Sonic and his friend Tails, who by default ran along behind Sonic and kept pace, mimicking his moves but contributing relatively little except for the occasional ring pickup or followup hit on an enemy you missed. That is, until you plugged a second controller in. Do that, and suddenly Sonic 2 wasn’t a game you were playing by yourself, it was a co-op game. Better yet, unlike Mario with its shared lives and “I go you go” co-op, you were both playing at the same time and the second player couldn’t really interfere. You could play with a friend as good as you were and crush levels, or (if you’re me) you could play with your four year old sister. Not only could a (much) younger sibling or other unskilled player join you, it didn’t matter how bad they were at the game. They got to contribute, and you were happy to have them, no matter how awful they were.
It would be almost 20 years before we’d see this implemented so well again.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda is a really important series. It’s a style of gameplay that blends puzzles, exploration, and action-RPG mechanics in an extremely iconic way. In a lot of ways, it has struggled to differentiate itself as it’s moved to 3D, skewing towards new mechanics and more outlandish settings with classic Nintendo polish, rather than simply being an expression of the very best action-RPG out there. A Link to the Past is the last Zelda of that time, when Zelda games were the highest quality action-RPGs available, and everything tried to be like them.
From the moment you step out of your house, unarmed, into the pouring rain to look for your uncle, the entire game feels weighty, and huge. When you’ve gotten your bearings and have mastered the world map, the game shifts, revealing that no, in fact there is an entire other world map hiding in the background, with more than twice as many dungeons, and that you’ve only just started.
A Link to the Past has been the style that Zelda games have continued to return to as well, with many of the most successful releases drawing on its style, particularly for handhelds. It says a lot about the quality of Link to the Past that some of the most glowing praise for a recent entry is that it’s “just like it”. To be so good that players crave the experience more than two decades later says a lot.
Super Metroid / Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
I don’t know a lot of games that people religiously play more than once a year, but Super Metroid is on the list. It combines the open-world exploration of Super Mario World and the exciting, varied combat of Mega Man X into one big package. It advanced on its predecessor with improved graphics, more varied gameplay, more powerups, and more of, well, everything.
Castlevania is a similar design, but a totally different approach. It was one of the few successful platformers of the time where your primary attack was a melee strike, and it paved the way for a variety of similar games. Special weapons were temporary, and cycled through frequently, but the overall experience wound up being varied and almost a precursor to the limited-ammo survival horror games to succeed it.
Together, these two games make up “Metroidvania”, its own subgenre that has seen a huge resurgence recently in a variety of ways, and drove a huge amount of that style of game both while they were new and fresh and since.