Before we get into it, I just wanted to thank everyone who's been reading along this whole time. I compiled this list and did these write-ups as a personal project for myself, and any additional readers are just icing on the cake. Turns out, there was a decent amount of icing! Love you all.
5. Super Mario World
Super Mario World has qualitative, "objective" markers of quality. It builds on the genius of Super Mario Bros. 3 by adding more secrets, a brighter and more diverse color palette, and more expansive levels. The music is another fantastic score from Koji Kondo, this time employing a theme-and-variations approach that permeates the whole game, even though the common melody didn't occur to me until way, way later than I'd like to admit. (By the way, those uncompressed samples that leaked earlier this year are an affront to God and man.) As Nintendo moved on from NES to SNES, the Mario franchise made a proportional leap. Even if people prefer SMB3 to SMW, there are just apparent differences between the two that everyone can agree on. For myself and others, they're the kinds of "review score" reasons why SMW could be considered the peak of the Mario series.
But those apparent reasons aren't the main reasons why SMW rests at #5 on my list. This is a much more personal placement, which is a common theme for all the remaining games. SMW is a brilliant Mario game, but more than that, it's my favorite Mario game.
There's no way I can be sure what my first video game was, unless my older siblings specifically remember what time toddler Jared ended up grabbing the controller from one of them. That said, I'm fairly confident in saying that Super Mario World was my first video game ever; and if it wasn't the first I played, it was certainly the first I beat. It's one of those games that I not only know everything about, but that I also never remember a time when I didn't know everything about it. All 96 Exits of SMW are deeply embedded into the core of my being.
My Dad was actually the one that got my family into video games. He was an early adopter of the NES and a big fan of Super Mario Bros. and SMB3. (He maintains that SMB2 was "too weird" for him.) After getting my three siblings a SNES in 1991 the year before I was born, Dad played through SMW and then sorta checked out from video games indefinitely. "There are too many buttons now," he claims. Maybe he's got a point there. But even though he was mostly done with video games, I still have some memories of Dad indulging me in some two-player SMW. There are a lot of games I remember playing with my siblings, SMW certainly among them; but this is the only game I associate with my Dad, and that means a lot.
This is also one of the nine games I've speedrun. (DKC, SMW, BotW, MMX, MM, Celeste, LttP, WLII, SM64.) Like Mario 64, it was a game I started tinkering with and trying to play fast even before I knew what "speedrunning" really was. I've completed a run in the now-defunct category "All Castles, No Cape," clocking in at 58:25. When I was at a wedding two years ago, the AirBnB my friends stayed at had an SNES Classic available to play, and I did a 13-minute 11-exit run for the group as something of a party trick. (Again, not impressive, but great for norms.)
I play SMW at least once a year, if not more. It's my comfort food. It's my fifth favorite game.
4. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
For a while, Squaresoft was hyper timid about localizing RPG's for Western territories. In so many words, they basically thought that Americans were too dumb to understand the intricacies of the more mechanically deep Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. The RPG's they did choose to localize were either easily digestible, or they cost so much money to produce that they probably needed all the sales they could possibly get to recoup costs. With the benefit of hindsight, we mock this attitude; but at the time, I think they were justified. At the very least, I'm thankful that this is how this is how things played out, because in some instances they even made brand new games that were more accessible (in some cases, maybe even dumbed down) for the West, like the oddball Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, as well as my number 4 favorite game ever, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
SMRPG was designed as an "introductory" role-playing game, even though it was released just half a year before the release of the N64 and followed on the heels of plenty of much more complicated RPG's that did get localized. The main character was recognizable and beloved, the damage/HP numbers were smaller and more easily math-able for kids, and there were platforming elements between turn-based battles to keep our puny little American attention spans more engaged. They even implemented an active element to the turn-based battles called Timed Hits. Again, we might mock Square for their lack of trust in their Western consumers. However...I'd go to bat for Square on this one. I think they were right. They did exactly what they accomplished, and more. Not only did they make an RPG that was more palatable for kids, Americans, and American Kids, but they also innovated in the RPG space and created a game that could be picked up and loved by just about anyone. All of those decisions could have been pandering and condescending; but because they were done earnestly and with a high standard of quality, they ended up amounting to a brilliant design that would set the tone for all Mario RPG's to come.
Also, it worked on me. Mario RPG was my first RPG and got me into the genre as a whole. So I guess I'm proof of concept, here.
I used the word "earnest" to describe the development decisions, and I think that's a word that best describes SMRPG as a whole. The writing for this game is hilarious and heartfelt without being campy. The enemy designs and bosses are unique and impressive, both utilizing existing enemy designs from the Mario series and introducing all sorts of mechanical creations of the Smithy Gang. The party is iconic, including a playable Peach (for the first time since SMB2, not counting Mario Kart), playable Bowser (for the first time ever, with the same qualifier), and two beloved newcomers Mallow and Geno. The music is an incredible Yoko Shimomura score that's both jaunty and moody. The game looks fantastic, boasting a faux-3D isometric look that truly bridges the SNES to N64 gap, even more than Donkey Kong Country attempted to do. Finally, the game actually has some really great platforming, especially considering the fact that this is Mario's first and only time traversing an isometric space.
This game was a great introductory RPG in 1996. It still remains one of the best games I can think of to introduce someone to the genre. More than that, though, this game is just downright great.
3. Seiken Densetsu 3 / Trials of Mana
My child-sized mind was blown every time I heard of a game that was only released in Japan and never made it to America. What's up with these "Lost Levels" in my Super Mario All-Stars cartridge? How did Final Fantasy jump from III to VII, was there a glitch in the Matrix or something? And who the heck is this blue-haired sword guy in my Smash Brothers?
What was even more mind-blowing is when I got to play games that were only released in Japan. When I got my hands on emulated Japanese ROMs, it was like I was tasting forbidden fruit. The standouts for me were Bahamut Lagoon, Terranigma (which, to be fair, was in Europe as well), Rockman and Forte, the aforementioned Final Fantasy V, and most importantly, Seiken Densetsu 3.
Weirdly enough, I got into SD3 before I ever played Secret of Mana. Most people who discovered this game approached it from the angle of "Whoa! Secret of Mana TWO?!" For me, it was a brand new, fresh, and unattached experience. But I still just absolutely latched onto it. Right from the opening screen, I was hooked--the fact that there were 6 playable characters and you could only choose 3 was already a deeply enticing prospect. When I discovered that each character had their own, entirely unique story, I knew right away that I was going to play this game at least twice. That number has since quintupled, at least.
This game looks incredible. It's pushing the SNES (well, Super Famicom) to its absolute limit. If you think the above screenshot looks nice, it looks even better in motion. The battle system is active and exciting, though I'll admit that the radial menus and screen freezes make it more fun to play than to spectate. The characters are all unique and valuable, bringing different things to the table and making every run with every team composition special. There's a danger of being uneven with so many options, but the game is actually amazingly well balanced. No team composition is going to be weak or unplayable. I ate this game up as a kid, even downloading virtual LAN software to play multiplayer with friends online with ZSNES.
I had basically given up on getting a localization of this game, so I was extremely shocked when a full 3D remake was announced two years ago. What floored me even more was the release of Collection of Mana and its inclusion of the brand new, never-before-seen official localization of SD3, christened in English for the first time as Trials of Mana. It took 20 years, but the Super Famicom gem finally got released in America--and not only that, it was coming in both its original and remade forms. Although I was ultimately disappointed in the 3D remake for not quite capturing the magic of the original (mostly because I'm a stubborn old man now), I still feel like a proud father watching his kid graduate from high school or something. This game is available now and you should play it!
2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
My family had a huge, old, perpetually out-of-tune upright piano in our family room. For a long time, it was situated diagonally in the corner of the room, creating a triangular space behind it. Across time, I welcome you to step behind the piano with me and peek into my secret fort. We've got a bean bag chair, we've got a candy stash, we've got my Game Boy Color, we've got a lamp so I can actually see my Game Boy Color, and we've got video game posters on the walls and on the back of the piano. It's a kid dream back here. Prominently featured on the back of the piano was this magazine ad for The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. (Looking back at that ad, I just noticed the Twin Towers prominently featured. That's...even more unsettling now than it was back then.)
I was so absolutely bought into the press cycle for this sequel to Ocarina of Time. It took me a few years to muster up the courage to beat the final boss of OoT, but once I did, here was this brand-new Zelda game just around the corner. At the time I didn't see the re-use of assets as laziness like some people say; at the time, I didn't know what "re-using assets" meant. I just saw a new Zelda game that looked like the one I absolutely loved. I saw new environments, new dungeons, new masks, new versions of Link to play as, and a new giant friggin' Moon of Impending Doom. This game looked incredible, and I ate it up instantly.
Over time, my love for Majora's Mask has only deepened. The game has so many emotional moments that were maybe head-tilting as a kid but tear-jerking even as an adolescent. This game allows you, even encourages you, to get so invested and intimately familiar with its spaces that it feels like home--and your home is about to be crushed by the weight of an angry moon in the sky.
I absolutely love the Three Day Cycle structure of the game. People have told me that they feel like it's oppressive, and that they feel rushed by it. I feel the exact opposite. If I can rewind time an infinite amount of times, that means that I have infinite time to explore, investigate, and get deeper and deeper into the world. The time cycle isn't limiting for me; it's liberating. If I want to spend an entire three days following the Postman around and seeing what his schedule is, I can do that. If I want to waste an entire cycle in the shooting gallery, I can do that too. I have control over time, so there is no pressure.
I can talk about how much I love Termina and the dungeons and the characters and the minigames, but to close this write-up I want to express a thought that I think encapsulates everything I love about this game: You don't have to have a perfect 3 days. When you are ready to do so, you can jump right to the final boss and take him down. Once you've collected all the necessary items and done all the prerequisites, you can just go to the end. You don't have to wrap up everyone's storylines in one three-day cycle. You don't have to save the ranch from aliens, you don't have to reunite Anju and Kafei, you don't have to give the mysterious hand his toilet paper, you don't have to give the invisible soldier a red potion. None of that is required. In fact, a "perfect" three days is impossible--you can't help everyone, because in order to reunite Anju and Kafei, the bomb shop lady still has to get mugged. Still, everyone will ultimately be fine when you stop the moon from falling.
Yet with all of that being entirely optional, every time I play this game--every single time--I make sure that my final three days are as perfect as they can be and that I've helped everyone I possibly can help with their individual stories.
I don't have to.
I just want to.
1. Chrono Trigger
I first played Chrono Trigger because it's my brother's favorite game.
I played Chrono Trigger again because it became one of my favorite games.
I continue to play Chrono trigger because it has solidified its position as my own favorite game.
Chrono Trigger was developed by the "Dream Team" combination of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest developers, even boasting Akiro Toriyama as the character designer. Square put so many eggs into this basket, gathering all of their best resources to create a game that was visually stunning, mechanically deep, and narratively compelling. Newcomer Yasunori Mitsuda was given a chance to score one of the most important RPG's ever developed, and he smashed a grand slam with one of the most perfect video game soundtracks to ever be composed (unfortunately, at the expense of his own well being). The developer stars--as well as the literal, celestial stars--aligned just right to produce a masterpiece that is still, somehow, more than the sum of its parts.
The time travel premise for the game allows for rich diversity in environments, character designs, and aesthetics. Your party has a prehistoric cavewoman, a medival anthropomorphic frog knight, and a postapocalyptic droid. You travel to 5 different versions of the exact same world, growing familiar with the geography across time and seeing how things have grown and changed. Looming over it all is the monolithic Lavos, whose motivation is simple: he eats planets, and he's hungry. Everything is stacked against you, but you've got spiky hair, friends, and a really, really cool sword.
The mechanics of this game remain my favorite set of RPG systems out there. The lack of random battles is awesome, giving you more influence over your exploration and pacing--and yet, somehow, not greatly affecting your growth curve and never making grinding a necessity. The battles are active and involved, taking into account how your party's powers combine, and also factoring enemy positioning along the way. There are no special battle screens, and instead every battle takes place in the exact same world you've been exploring, giving a sense of cohesion that you just don't find in other games. Each encounter was meticulously and painstakingly designed to result in a beautiful, continuous flow.
The broad strokes of this game are amazing and impressive, but where Chrono Trigger really shines is in its little moments. You send rations from the castle to the front lines of the war, which causes two estranged brothers to reconcile their differences. You help a woman re-plant a tree in the desert and spend four centuries cultivating it into a vast forest. You teach a village elder the value of kindness. You help a proud king see the world from his daughter's eyes. You help a disgraced squire grow into a knight of legend, in spite of--actually, maybe thanks to--his amphibian form. You save a girl's mom from being the victim of a science experiment disaster. You hug a friend you thought you lost. You sit around a campfire with your friends and contemplate the existence of God.
Chrono Trigger is one of the most high-scope, epic games ever made, and in that way it certainly is special. But it wouldn't be nearly as special as it is if it weren't so sincere and heartwarming moment-to-moment. Saving the world doesn't mean much if the world you're saving doesn't mean much. What this game gets so right is making you care about the world. Every character, every group of people, and even every time period has become important to you. By the end of the game when you confront Lavos, you're not just "killing God" like so many RPG's end up doing; you're fighting for the entire world's past, its present, and its future. And you care.
Thanks for reading, everyone.
99. Mass Effect 3 (XBox 360, 2012)
98. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Switch, 2019)
97. Yoku's Island Express (Switch, 2018)
96. Slay the Spire (Switch, 2017)
95. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987)
94. Mega Man 11 (Switch, 2018)
93. Baba is You (Switch, 2019)
92. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii, 2006)
91. Tetris & Dr. Mario (SNES, 1994)
89. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (NES, 1989)
88. Mega Man 3 (NES, 1990)
87. Mighty Switch Force (3DS, 2011)
86. Ori and the Blind Forest (PC, 2015)
85. WarioWare Gold (3DS, 2018)
84. Mega Man X3 (SNES, 1995)
83. The Legend of Zelda: Oracles of Ages and Seasons (GBC, 2001)
82. Gris (Switch, 2018)
81. Sonic Mania (Switch, 2017)
79. AM2R: Another Metroid 2 Remake (PC, 2016)
78. SteamWorld: Dig (3DS, 2013)
77. WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ (GBA, 2003)
76. Rayman Legends (Wii U, 2013)
75. Mega Man X2 (SNES, 1994)
74. Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow (Game Boy, 1998)
73. F-Zero GX (GameCube, 2003)
72. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour (GameCube, 2003)
71. Donkey Kong Country 3 (SNES, 1996)
69. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (GameCube, 2004)
68. Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Project M (Wii, 2008)
67. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)
66. Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (GameCube, 2001)
65. Pokemon FireRed/LeafGreen (GBA, 2004)
64. Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)
63. Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald (GBA, 2002)
62. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (Wii U, 2014)
61. Super Meat Boy (PC, 2010)
59. Yoshi's Island (SNES, 1995)
58. Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS, 2012)
57. Banjo-Kazooie (N64, 1998)
56. Tetris 99 (Switch, 2019)
55. Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994)
54. Mole Mania (Game Boy, 1996)
53. Luigi's Mansion (GameCube, 2001)
52. Stardew Valley (PC, 2016)
51. Paper Mario (N64, 2000)
49. Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch, 2019)
48. New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U, 2012)
47. Golf Story (Switch, 2017)
46. Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) (NES, 1988)
45. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy, 1993)
44. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U, 2014)
43. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS, 2013)
42. Octopath Traveler (Switch, 2017)
41. Elite Beat Agents (DS, 2006)
39. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS, 2012)
38. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, 2014)
37. Kirby's Adventure (NES, 1993)
36. Tales of Symphonia (GameCube, 2003)
35. Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017)
34. Mega Man 2 (NES, 1988)
33. Diddy Kong Racing (N64, 1997)
32. Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, 2013)
31. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, 1991)
29. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, 2017)
28. Mother 3 (GBA, 2006)
27. Tetris Effect (PS4, 2018)
26. Final Fantasy V (Super Famicom, 1992)
25. Golden Sun (GBA, 2001)
24. Star Fox 64 (N64, 1997)
23. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (GameCube, 2004)
22. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1988)
21. Donkey Kong Country 2 (SNES, 1995)
19. Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube, 2001)
18. TMNT IV: Turtles in Time (SNES, 1991)
17. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2002)
16. EarthBound (SNES, 1994)
15. Super Metroid (SNES, 1994)
14. Mega Man X (SNES, 1993)
13. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
12. Final Fantasy VI (SNES, 1994)
11. Undertale (PC, 2015)
9. Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove (Wii U, 2014)
8. Super Mario 64 (N64, 1996)
7. Hades (Switch, 2020)
6. Celeste (Switch, 2018)
5. Super Mario World (SNES, 1991)
4. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (N64, 1996)
3. Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom, 1995)
2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64, 2000)
1. Chrono Trigger (SNES, 1995)