1996 will always be remembered as a bittersweet time for Nintendo fans. Not only did it usher in the new era of 3D gaming with the Nintendo 64, but it also marked the company’s downfall in the console space. Nintendo may have been able to weather Sega’s blows in the previous generation, but it was Sony’s PlayStation, with its newfangled disc drive, that ultimately lured developers away from its cartridge-based system. Dark times were indeed brewing for the Big N, and while it was clear that there was a new king of the console world, it’s hard to look back too harshly on the era when it produced so many great games in its wake. Here are the best of the best:
20. Donkey Kong 64 (1999)
Donkey Kong 64 may not be remembered quite as fondly as some of Rare’s other 64-bit platformers, but it was still an excellent addition to Nintendo 64’s library. Like Banjo-Kazooie before it, Donkey Kong 64 took the foundation laid down by Super Mario 64 and expanded on it in every way imaginable: the worlds were bigger, the collectibles more plentiful, and the challenges more daunting. Still, the most intriguing aspect of Donkey Kong 64 was the inclusion of five different playable Kongs, all with their own unique play styles and objectives. The game may have stumbled a bit beneath the weight of its own ambitions, but it was still one of the best adventures the N64 had to offer.
Why Michael Contino loves Donkey Kong 64…
Donkey Kong 64 is the only Donkey Kong game of its kind. The three-dimensional Donkey Kong adventure thrives on exploration. Each Kong has a set of moves to master along with a plethora of collectibles. Finding every last banana as your respective Kong is a fun feat for players who seek one-hundred percent completion. The elusive two-hundred-and-first Golden Banana is an achievement to behold. Back in 1999, playing a Donkey Kong game in three dimensions was exciting and, ultimately, very rewarding. A surprise setting for a final boss fight rounds out this gem. That yellow cartridge sure does pack a punch!
19. F-Zero X (1998)
Captain Falcon honestly has it pretty hard. After all, he’s one of the only major characters in the Nintendo pantheon who’s known specifically for being a racer, which is like saying he’s the only art major in a house full of polymaths– sure, you’ve got a talent for sketching, but everybody else can use fingerpaints, too. But Mario Kart ain’t got nothin’ on F-Zero X, the game that finally brought the F-Zero series out of “Super FX tech demo” status and into the realm of “what the heck is this please give it to me now now now now.” With more vehicles and stages than you can shake a Pokéflute at, F-Zero X taunts its players more than Mario and friends ever could– the mode “Death Race” says it all– and its velocity is all but unmatched. And while all could have been destroyed by a single misprogrammed control, F-Zero X is rivaled only by Wave Race 64 in terms of sheer controlling virtuosity. Ah, Captain Falcon– forgive us for badmouthing you. We love your game. Please love us, too.
Why Andy Hoover loves F-Zero X…
Mode 7 graphics might have given the original F-Zero an unprecedented sense of depth and speed to the SNES gamer, but the 3D powers of N64 completely redefined the experience. F-Zero X featured loops, corkscrews, jumps, tubes, and cylinders that allowed for ridiculous, borderline disorienting tracks. Topping it all off was the speed, perhaps the first game to truly capture the sensation, and they managed to deliver it with an incredibly smooth framerate.
Sure, racing around complex tracks with 29 opponents looking to beat/kill you was plenty of fun, but I’ll always remember F-Zero X for its Death Race mode. A simple, vertical loop, filled with racers, and the objective to be the last one standing made Death Race an addictive wonder. Few things could quite match the joy of smashing an opponent into oblivion at 2000 mph and then seeing how quickly you could finish off the rest.
18. Pokémon Pinball (1999)
By 1999, Pokémon had gone from a strange Japanese curiosity to a full-blown cultural phenomenon, capturing the hearts and minds of children around the world. It was only natural, then, that Nintendo would want to branch its newfound juggernaut out into other directions to capitalize on its success. Pokémon Pinball may have seemed like the most cynical of these spin-offs, a blatant cash grab to exploit the series’ popularity, but the final product proved to be anything but. Pokémon Pinball succeeded in part because of its smart use of the Pokémon license; by marrying the basics of pinball with the appeal of Pokémon (catching ’em all), the game was able to transcend the inherent limits of its genre and create an experience that was at once familiar and unique. Fans seemed to agree, and Pokémon Pinball went on to become one of the most critically and commercially successful pinball games (and Pokémon spin-offs) ever released.
Why Adam Sorice loves Pokémon Pinball…
When I was a kid, I was thoroughly enamoured with Pokémon. (Look how things don’t change!) I played the main games to the point where I’m surprised the cartridges didn’t burn out, I watched the cartoon series fanatically, I even completed the sticker collection that conveniently went well with my Pokémon-centric bedding, stationery, clothing and breakfast cereal. A lot of it was (dare I say it) regular stuff with Pokémon slapped on top but Pokémon Pinball was something quite different; a game I still play to this day.
Cleverly combining pinball-action with Pokémon catching (come on, it made more sense than Super Mario Pinball) the game offered the addictiveness of the Pokédex with the stern challenge of fighting off the game’s two challenging pinball boards. To this day, evolving a rare Pokémon into its final evolution is a serious challenge, a difficult level practically unheard of in most games connected to the series. The sheer-hardcoreness of the game was even emblemified in the Game Boy Color cartridge; twice as big as regular games and requiring a separate AAA battery to run the rumble feature.
The legacy of Pokémon Pinball carried onto Game Boy Advance with Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire, a game that built upon the original’s sheer addictiveness and tuned its pinball game perfectly. If you’ve never played it, it’s yet another jewel in the Advance’s rich catalogue that deserves your attention.
17. Mario Golf (Game Boy Color) (1999)
Camelot’s first swing at the Mario franchise, Mario Golf for Nintendo 64, was a solid take on the golf genre, but it was this GBC counterpart that really hit a hole-in-one. More than a simple downport of the N64 title, Mario Golf for Game Boy Color took the same basic gameplay as the console version and fleshed it out with a unique role-playing storyline. Strange as this marriage may have seemed, the end result was an inspired sports game that featured a lengthy single-player adventure and a staggering wealth of content to enjoy. Players could even use the Transfer Pak to upload their data to the N64 and play as their characters in full polygonal glory, marking one of Nintendo’s earliest experiments with interconsole connectivity. Perhaps most importantly, though, Mario Golf proved that a Mario spin-off can have all the depth of a proper Mario adventure, and for that it deserves a special commendation.
Why Kevin Knezevic loves Mario Golf…
As strange as this may sound, I’ve always been fond of golf games (at least those starring Mario). The first one I ever played was NES Open back in 1991, and since then I’ve had a particular affinity for the sport. My father and I spent months competing against each other in the game, trying to see who would be the first one to reach the 18th hole. Both of us were terrible, of course, but I was slightly better (despite not being able to grasp the nuances of wind speed or putting), always able to make it just a bit further than him before quitting in frustration.
When I heard about Camelot’s games, then, I was immediately excited to try them out. The Nintendo 64 version certainly looked like a lot of fun, but it was the Game Boy one, with its simpler, sprite-based graphics, that appealed to me most. I bought it hoping to relive some of the charm that I felt from NES Open, but what I got was a game that far exceeded my wildest expectations. Mario Golf towered over the NES game with its sheer wealth of content, and the single-player adventure (which I wasn’t even aware of when I purchased the game) turned out to be surprisingly engrossing. It set the bar high for all Mario spin-offs to follow, and to this day it remains one of my favorite sports games, Nintendo or otherwise.
16. Wave Race 64 (1996)
It’s simple, my friends: go to the right of the red circles, and go to the left of the yellow circles. Do this, and you will win the jet-ski racefest that is Wave Race 64. Ah, but fail, and not only will you receive a disqualification, but also the scorn of your friends. “You lost at Wave Race 64?” they’ll jeer, holding their copies of F-Zero X aloft. “That’s like the easiest game ever!” But you know better. Because beating Wave Race 64 with all that you’ve got– meaning all the way through Reverse mode, don’t just stay in Dolphin Park, you plebeian– takes skill and dedication. The kind of dedication, say, that Tomonobu Itagaki famously channeled to add a jet-ski mode on Dead or Alive Xtreme 2. The only thing we’d ever criticize this beautiful game for is its support for only two players– heck, that’s downright Playstationesque. But as a different take on the racing genre, Wave Race 64 is more than adequate. It’s a special game. It’s our special game.
Why M. Noah Ward loves Wave Race 64…
Wave Race 64 was my first $60 game. Crazily, some Nintendo 64 games actually were sold at a $60 price point all the way back in 1996, nearly a decade before that was the standard price for PS3 and Xbox 360 games. I guess that was the price you paid for the larger memory Nintendo 64 game cartridges, but I never felt buyer’s remorse. Further, my first hours and days with Wave Race 64 have even instilled a psychological response to me every U.S. Thanksgiving since, which was the weekend I bought this game on. Every Thanksgiving, I think of Wave Race 64, and I pine for the thrill of getting a new game that’s not only technically impressive and fun to play but also supports great multiplayer for friends and family members on such a family-centric holiday.
But my initial fascination with Wave Race 64 wasn’t that it supported multiplayer or featured Kawasaki-licensed jet-skis. No, it was the visually stunning oceans you raced upon. Whether placid and calm or violently undulating in a rainstorm, I could not resist the siren call of these computerized waters. And, oh, how the sunlight reflected and shone off the surface, at times tinting it to different shades depending on whether a sunset was occurring. Today’s games have even more advanced water physics and effects, but Wave Race 64 still doesn’t look too shabby today, and seeing those waters’ wakes and waves both gently and aggressively toss your jet ski around made me a true believer in the whole package.
Aside from generating an annual Thanksgiving game desire, I also developed a craving for more from the jet ski racing sub-genre. Yet Hydro Thunder, Jet Moto and even Wave Race: Blue Storm never generated the same awe or thrill in me. So perhaps some of my ongoing love for the game is nostalgia and being in the right place at the right time, but kudos to Nintendo for being the first to establish (yet again) a video game sub-genre, even if it has since, unfortunately, dried up.