You’ve heard of the games on this list. You’ve probably played at least a couple of them. But have you played them recently? In this millennium?
If not, you should! The three retro gems profiled below deserve a replay, so dust off your cartridges, blow into your NES, and let’s talk retro video games.
3. Street Fighter II
I should preface this entry by noting that I’m not a big fan of fighting games. I’m not arguing that it’s a bad genre; it’s just not one I often choose to play. THIS game, on the other hand, was responsible for a marathon New Year’s Eve/Day session at a friend’s house that had me returning home so addled from non-stop gaming and lack of sleep that the next morning I wandered around the house half-dreaming that I was in the game and mumbling incoherent to the point that my parents thought I was doing hard drugs at the age of 12. Don’t worry, mom, it’s just Street Fighter II. Like the other two games on this list, SFII is so well designed that it will never not be fun. Newer games will have more impressive graphics and more complex control schemes and combos, but Street Fighter II remains in a control sweet spot where it’s kind to newcomers while rewarding the attention of dedicated gamers. Also, its animated art style remains fun to look at, unlike early attempts at realistic graphics. The game at #1 on this list remains terrific fun for many reasons, but the only ones that graphics still offer are nostalgia and humor. SFII, on the other hand still looks a little pixilated, but good.
Street Fighter II innovated upon the original Street Fighter through the addition of multiple playable characters (an innovation further popularized by Mortal Kombat, whose arcade and console versions each followed Street Fighter II by about a year). As anyone who’s played a modern fighter knows, it’s enormous fun to get really good with a character (or many characters) and to learn to tweak strategies (or even characters) based on the character your opponent picks. Like the diversifying innovations in the next game on this list, Street Fighter II took a simple genre and helped it mature into something worth playing over and over—and worth returning to decades after release.
2. Super Mario Bros. 3
I picked this game over the original Super Mario Bros. primarily because, at this point, you’d probably have to have been living under a rock to be reading this article and never have played Super Mario Bros., but I think there are probably a lot of gamers who missed SMB3 the first time around and are in for a treat if they give it a try today. The Raccoon (Tanooki), Frog, and Hammer suits add tremendous gameplay variety that every Super Mario game since has done well to imitate and further develop. Also, when released (in North America) in 1990, SMB3 seemed almost epic in scope (for a platformer)—being about three times larger and longer than the original Super Mario Bros., it offered variety and scope unlike any previous major release. That scope helps the game feel surprisingly substantial even today. The original SMB is unlikely to take much longer than a movie and its easily into single-session gaming. The first time I played SMB3, I borrowed it from a friend and was staggered, at the end of my first night of popping it in, to realize that I was less than halfway done and—with save games still a thing of the future for consoles—I was going to have to leave my NES on overnight with the TV off so I could pick up where I’d left off the next day. It felt awesome.
A gamer turning to SMB3 for the first time will have a ridiculously smooth experience. It’s a game that still looks good and plays well. Just about 3 decades or more after its original (Japanese) release, the game doesn’t feel dated so much as classic, which is a testament to Nintendo’s excellent design. SMB3 does side-scrolling platforming extremely well, offering fun, challenge, sharp aesthetics, and impressive variety that keeps things from getting old over the game’s 5-6 hour runtime. The world map that has been a hallmark of later Super Mario releases was introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3 and remains a testament to how ahead-of-its-time this game was for the 8-bit era. When you play Super Mario Bros. 3, you may know you’re playing a an old school game, but you never feel the game’s age in a negative way. It’s five hours well spent for any retro gamer.
1. GoldenEye 007
For over two decades and still running, Goldeneye 007 for the N64 has been a potent force for bringing people together…and for tearing them apart. In today’s world of highly sophisticated games, Goldeneye has a simplicity that allows just about anyone to pick up a (stupidly designed N64) controller and jump right in. Which is not to say that newbies and grizzled veterans will be equally competitive in a multiplayer match, but that the gameplay won’t be overwhelming for a very casual gamer. And as an innovator in team-based multiplayer modes, Goldeneye allows for even games with skill mismatches to not be total slaughterfests. Also, anyone above the age of, say, four when the game was released will probably have a soft spot for it that makes it great fun to return to.
But when you do, it will tear you and your friends apart all over again. Trying to overcome a Golden Gun advantage is one of the most maddening (and rewarding) challenges in multiplayer. And prepare to disagree on which levels and weapons and settings to play (especially if some offer a clear competitive advantage to one of your players). But disagreeing and trash talking is half the fun of playing a local coop shooter, so this is more of a perk than a weakness of returning to Goldeneye.
Finally, the single-player campaign remains surprisingly fun. The old school controls offer their own kind of challenge (and nostalgia) without being terribly annoying, and on the higher difficulty levels, the game is still tough sometimes, and unlocking the cheats with speedruns can be incredibly difficult (the infamous Facility run for the Invincibility cheat must have taken me around 100 tries).
What would you add to the list and why?