The Best of the Third Parties

One man’s top pick for non-Nintendo greatness on each Nintendo system.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 08/01/2014 09:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

Nintendo is its own worst enemy; everyone knows that. Each Nintendo system loads up on superb first- and second-party titles, and while this makes for some awesome games, it also has the tendency to scare off third parties. We tend to think of this as a recent development, given all the high profile examples on GameCube, Wii, and Wii U. The reality is that Nintendo has made it difficult for third parties almost from the beginning, as evidenced by the way first party titles have dominated the sales figures for the likes of NES and Game Boy.

This post is a celebration of those third party games – games produced by companies not owned or operated by Nintendo – who have braved the Mario-infested waters. That means that great first party games, such as anything Mario, Zelda, or Kirby, are not to be found here. It also means that some great second party games, including Eternal Darkness, Metroid Prime or Xenoblade Chronicles, will also be left off the list. In a couple of cases, however, I did choose to include games that were developed independently by third parties but then were published by Nintendo for one reason or another.

A few other notes. One, I’ve tried to pick out an exemplar for each console and handheld. It’s an imperfect science, but I’ve tried to look at critical and, to a lesser extent, commercial success; I’ve also tried to consider gaming impact if appropriate. Two, I’ve left off Wii U and 3DS / 2DS as they probably still have most of their life cycle still ahead of them. Finally, I opted to leave off Virtual Boy, given its short life and very scarce collection of third party titles.

As with any list, my choices will be subject to debate. (I debated myself plenty in making this list, so I fully understand.) Feel free to offer your own picks in the comments.

Nintendo Entertainment System: Mega Man 2

Not an easy choice here, as so many great franchises got their start on NES: Castlevania, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior), Contra… you get the picture. Also worth considering are top-tier NES titles DuckTales and Bionic Commando.

Although the list is crowded, I lean toward Mega Man 2. Fixing many of the shortcomings of its predecessor (including the lack of a password save), Mega Man 2 was a true labor of love. It was quite innovative for its time, with a certain degree of open-endedness, some really entertaining levels, and a game that was not only a critical favorite, but remains the best-selling Mega Man game of all time. Capcom would use much of what it learned making Mega Man 2 to design other games, including future Mega Man games and DuckTales.

Honorable mention: DuckTales, Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest)

Game Boy (including Color and Pocket): Gargoyle’s Quest

I also had a lot of trouble with this one. Moreso than on NES, the top-selling and top-reviewed segments were dominated by Nintendo. Many of the better third party games on the handheld were either continuations of existing series (Mega Man V, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, Bionic Commando, the Final Fantasy spinoffs) or straight ports of NES titles (DuckTales). Game Boy Color also opened the doors for some interesting games, including Metal Gear Solid.

My choice is a spinoff game of the Ghosts ‘n Goblins series, putting players in the role of one of the villains of the NES game rather than its protagonist. But where Ghosts ‘n Goblins and its successors are straight-up platformers with limited depth, Gargoyle’s Quest is a full-on adventure that marries platforming, storytelling, some exploration, and a decent quantity of RPG elements. There are elements to this game that were well ahead of its time, including a well-designed flight ability that increases during the course of the game. True to the series, the game is very difficult, but the last levels and the final boss are a great payoff.

Honorable mention: Mega Man V, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge

Super Nintendo: Street Fighter II: The World Warrior

street fighter ii screenshot

I know, I know… Chrono Trigger, right? After all, Chrono Trigger is a legendary game; some would consider it the best RPG ever. With a brilliant story, unforgettable music, and novel gameplay, it received critical praise and maintains a cult status among many gamers. I get all that; I’ve played the game more times than I can count.

But Chrono Trigger’s true impact– the game came out very late in the SNES life cycle– was largely felt down the road. In the heyday of the SNES, was there really a third party game more awesome than Street Fighter II? An ambitious port of an arcade masterpiece, the game was easily the best-selling third party game on SNES, pushing more than 6 million copies (it still stands as Capcom’s best-selling game), and when you factor in the game’s SNES sequels, no franchise on the console did better save pack-in game Super Mario World. Speaking of sequels, the game spawned no fewer than four of them on SNES alone: Street Fighter II Champion Edition, Street Fighter II Turbo, Super Street Fighter II, and Street Fighter II Alpha.

Street Fighter II was surprisingly deep, especially for its time. The character balance wasn’t perfect, but all of the characters were a blast to play. There were a variety of different ways to approach the game, whether it involved trying to run the gauntlet undefeated on the highest difficulty level, squaring off against friends in multiplayer, or trying to master the difficult motions for Zangief’s Spinning Piledriver or Ryu’s Shoryuken. Few showdowns were more epic than trying to unleash a Shoryuken on Vega in the boss stages. The settings and music were awesome, and the game had a long learning curve and tremendous replay value. Street Fighter II set the standard for console fighters, and nowhere was it more popular than on SNES.

Honorable mention: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy II and III

Nintendo 64: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater

In contrast to earlier home systems, third party pickings seemed unusually small on Nintendo 64. It seems likely that a lot of developers simply jumped ship to the upstart PlayStation and its CD drive rather than mess with the expensive cartridges. Nintendo published the vast majority of good games on this console, including popular titles like Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, which LucasArts and Nintendo co-developed. What’s more, very, very few third party titles were original franchises; most were either ports or continuations of a series.

The game I chose, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, was a port of PlayStation game, but it was a good port despite the space limitations of the cartridge, and it proved both to be one of N64’s critical favorites as well as its better-selling games. The controls worked decently on Nintendo’s controller and the gameplay was addictive. One of those games that always pushed you to do better, it was so realistic in its physics that a player was liable to think they could actually do those moves in real life, which probably contributed to plenty of injuries to 1990s adolescents. It was followed up by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, also an outstanding Nintendo 64 game.

Honorable mention: Resident Evil 2, Rayman 2: The Great Escape

Game Boy Advance (including SP and Micro): Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Game Boy Advance had a pretty good showing of third parties. Some of them were ports of SNES games, like Final Fantasy VI. Others were built ground-up for GBA, such as the outstanding Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. I also have to give a nod to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which took the basic gameplay of a PlayStation title and spun a new and emotional story around it.

My personal choice, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, wasn’t particularly revelatory– it was basically a “Metroidvania” game in the vein of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night-– but it was awfully good on its own right and was a better product in most ways over its GBA predecessor, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. Aria of Sorrow was deep, fun, complicated, and with one of those brooding Castlevania stories that we’ve come to know and love.

Honorable mention: Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

GameCube: Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 Screen

This is probably the easiest selection on the list. Part of the ambitious but troubled “Capcom Five,” Resident Evil 4 was a regular Game of the Year contender in 2005 and was one of the very few instances where the best game on a given Nintendo console might have been a non-Nintendo game. I think you could make a good case for Resident Evil 4 being the best third party game on any Nintendo console.

In addition to its critical praise, it was relatively successful commercially despite GameCube’s more modest userbase, and in fact would have probably sold more on the Cube had Capcom not announced a PlayStation 2 port shortly after its release. Made even better in its port to Wii, Resident Evil 4 redefined the series with its epic storytelling, deep gameplay, and white-knuckle tension.

There are other decent third party games on GameCube, including a few good ports (Beyond Good and Evil, Soul Calibur II) and a reasonable collection of quality original titles (Viewtiful Joe, Tales of Symphonia). None of them, though, holds a candle to Resident Evil 4.

Honorable mention: Soul Calibur II, Tales of Symphonia

Nintendo DS (including Lite and DSi): Professor Layton and the Curious Village*

Professor Layton and the Curious Village Art

Nintendo completely dominated the software market for DS, developing nearly all of the top games on the system. In addition, several third party games were published overseas by Nintendo. More than any other system or handheld I know of, Nintendo raked in the money with DS.

Level 5 is an independent house best known for its RPGs (Dark Cloud, Rogue Galaxy, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch) but what it brought to DS was something entirely different. One part Sherlock Holmes-style adventure and one part brain teaser-style puzzler, Professor Layton and the Curious Village was a brand-new franchise that put DS and its touch screen to brilliant use. Critics liked it and so did gamers, pushing sales over 3 million worldwide and spawning several DS sequels. Typically, Nintendo scored a lot of that money, as it has been the Western publisher for every Layton game to date.

I do have to give nods to the two runners-up, both of which I think are worthy competitors for the top choice. The World Ends With You is a real work of art and a fabulous game, while Dragon Quest IX is one of the system’s longest and most customizable games. The latter also, notably, was also developed by Level-5, the team behind Professor Layton.

Honorable mention: The World Ends With You, Dragon Quest IX**

* Developed by Level-5; published by Level-5 in Japan and Nintendo overseas

** Developed by Level-5 and Square Enix; published by Square Enix in Japan and Nintendo overseas

Wii: Monster Hunter Tri

Monster Hunter Tri Screenshot

Wii gets a bad rap for third party titles, in part because the quantity of good third party games wasn’t as good as on other systems. There were some quality titles, though, including some that managed to make pretty good use of Wii’s unique controls. Capcom’s Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition was a refined version of the epic survival horror game, and EA’s Dead Space Extraction is one of the best on-rails shooters you’ll ever play. I also have to give props to the niche-but-awesome Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, and the one third party game in the Operation Rainfall trio, The Last Story, an excellent RPG developed by the Final Fantasy alums at Mistwalker Studios.

In my view, though, no third party game was as ambitious, deep, or addictive as Monster Hunter Tri. Trust me, I know; I poured over 150 hours into that game before I had to quit to save my own soul. It was cool to play offline, but the real success of the game came when players took it online with others. And with a robust, stable online infrastructure, it was far and away the best thing going in multiplayer on Wii. The sheer volume of stuff to do was absolutely ridiculous, whether it was hunting for materials, squaring off against massive dinosaurs, surviving on a boat skimming across a desert, swimming in the depths of the ocean, or crafting new equipment. Coming back to town was just as interesting, as there always seemed to be people to talk to and things to get done. RPG, action, MMO, even text chat… Tri had everything. Although Tri’s servers are no longer up and running, the series is, as of right now, alive and well on 3DS and Wii U.

Honorable mention: Dead Space Extraction, Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition

2 Responses to “The Best of the Third Parties”

  • 285 points
    Kyle England says...

    You’re quite the fan of Capcom! These are all some great games, Josh. Well, I never could get into the Monster Hunter. But allow me to share some of my favorites!

    Game Boy Game Boy Color – Dragon Warrior I-III

    SNES – Final Fantasy II (aka IV), Mega Man X

    Nintendo 64 – Harvest Moon 64, Body Harvest (I will never stop pimping these games as often as I can)

    Game Boy Advance – Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Mega Man Battle Network

    Nintendo DS – The World Ends With You

    GameCube – Tales of Symphonia, MGS: The Twin Snakes

    Wii – Okami, MadWorld, Klonoa

  • 258 points
    Joshua A. Johnston says...

    I didn’t go into it expecting it to turn out so Capcom-dominated; it essentially just evolved that way. I think it speaks to just how strong Capcom’s support has been for Nintendo systems over the years. You even mentioned one of theirs I did not in Mega Man X.

    All of your choices are solid; obviously a few of them made my honorable mentions (i.e. FF2, TWEWY, ToS) but not my top choice. Twin Snakes is a fun choice — a very nice revisioning of a classic; I still own it. As for Okami… I really, really wanted to like it but I found the brush controls a lot more wonky in practice than I thought they would be; sadly, I found the PS2 version more enjoyable.

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