Updated: Mar 17, 2021
50. SteamWorld Dig 2
I didn't expect the first game in this series to hit with me the way that it did. It was a pleasant surprise. But that means I didn't have that same unexpected quality going into the sequel. I had expectations now. Would it live up to them?
Not only did SteamWorld Dig 2 live up to the expectations set by the first game, but it went above and beyond the first game in every way. The exploration loop was even better and the growth curve was phenomenal. The first game felt like a mining game with exploration as a flavor; this felt much more like an exploratory game with mining as a flavor. Leaning more heavily into the Metroidvania design was perfect. Additionally, the story ramped up in a way I wasn't expecting it to. The first game's story wasn't anything to write home about, but 2's story was surprisingly intriguing. This was aided by the clever writing (see above) and enjoyable characters.
This series might have flown under your radar, but definitely check it out, especially if you are a Metroidvania fan. Be aware, though, that the other games in the SteamWorld franchise are each wildly different genres. SteamWorld Heist is a puzzler (think 2D SUPERHOT), and SteamWorld Quest is a deck-building game. I haven't played either one, but they're on my backlog. I love the fact that this studio branches out so much, but I'm also eagerly anticipating the next game in the Dig series.
49. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I set the Fire Emblem series aside after Awakening. I'm not sure what it was, but I just was not even slightly interested in Fates or Shadows of Valentia. In fact, I was pretty sure I was going to skip Three Houses, too, because it just wasn't speaking to me before its release.
Once it came out, though, my Twitter feed was going bonkers. Basically anyone I knew who owned a Switch was shouting from the rooftops how good this game is. After a few days of resisting, I got caught up in the zeitgeist and bought it. Turns out, it's great! I enjoyed it so much that I played through two different storylines, and I even watched the other two storylines in condensed form on YouTube afterward. Who knew that a game about child soldiers hanging out at War School could be so well done? The gameplay was excellent; certainly more challenging than Awakening, but still attainable. Mechanically, it's as great as Fire Emblem ever is.
The thing that I enjoyed most, though, was the stories. Although Byleth is mostly a player-insert character, I appreciate the way that you-as-Byleth have significant influence on the outcome of the world. It's not like you're seeing the same story from different perspectives; your choice of House creates four entirely different stories that are irreconcilable with each other. I'm not sure if Intelligent Systems has come out and stated which story is "canon," and I don't think they have to, nor should they feel obligated to. In the end, I see the game's story as being about the Butterfly Effect. The lesson is that choices matter and relationships matter, and those choices and relationships end up defining the outcome of every event you can think of. I started out with the Black Eagles and instantly concluded that Edelgard Did Nothing Wrong. Then I played the Golden Deer story and realized...all right, Edelgard Did A Few Things Wrong. The thing is, Edelgard is two completely different characters in those two stories, because if you don't choose her house then you don't interact with her and shape who she is as a person. Playing the different storylines doesn't give you a "full picture" of Dmitri or Claude or Edelgard or Rhea; it gives you four completely different versions of them, alternate realities that you create based on choice. (Honestly, this is the kind of extent to which I'd hoped Mass Effect 3 would go, in terms of how different the game could be based on Paragon or Renegade choices.)
I think the best way to enjoy Three Houses is to play it more than once and experience multiple stories, as outlined above. However, that's a pretty big ask, so I understand if people aren't willing to do that and end up disappointed that no individual story is as great as it could have been. For the record, if you only play the game once, I'd recommend that you play Blue Lions, which is the most complete on its own and requires the least amount of outside context to enjoy.
48. New Super Mario Bros. U
In 2017 one of my favorite games writers, Jeremy Parish, published a listicle of his favorite Mario games for Polygon. When he ranked NSMBU in the Number 1 slot, you'd have thought he'd called everyone's mother a dirty skank. People were incensed. They were outraged. Overall, it was taken way, way too seriously. I'm pretty sure he got death threats over it. I do think there was a mistake made here, but it has nothing to do with the list itself. Polygon published the list as a featured article and presented it essentially as "the definitive ranking of Marios," instead of selling it more as what it truly was: "here is one outsourced author's opinion on which Mario games he likes the best." They set Jeremy up, essentially. I hope they learned their lesson from that.
Thing is, though, NSMBU absolutely deserves to be in the conversation of best Mario games, and I'm not surprised that it tops certain people's rankings. It's accessible where it needs to be and challenging where it needs to be. It perfects the NSMB-style physics and gameplay. The level designs are the best they've ever been. Would I rank it number one? No, clearly; but I don't blame Jeremy or anyone else for seeing it ascend to that position.
To top it all off, the game is also packaged with a Challenge Mode, which is something I would absolutely love to see return. The challenge mode includes possibly the hardest level in Mario history, the bluntly-named "Don't. Touch. Anything." If you collect a single coin or bonk a single enemy, you fail the challenge. I uploaded a poor-quality gameplay video a while back that somehow still survives on YouTube. One of my proudest individual gaming achievements.
47. Golf Story
Speaking of proud gaming achievements, I got so hooked on Golf Story that I made a goal to get an Eagle or better all 72 holes in the game. I did it. Heck yeah.
Golf Story scratched the itch that I had since I played Mario Golf for the Game Boy Color: a golf game with a story. In fact, I'm pretty sure the developers have gone on record as saying they were directly influenced by the GBC versions of Mario Golf and Mario Tennis, and even if they didn't say that directly, they said it with every decision they made while making this game. The upcoming Sports Story drives the point home even further.
This game also accomplished something that very few games have been able to do consistently: it made me laugh out loud. I have high hopes for the sequel, and I hope the delay has been beneficial both personally for the developers and for the final quality of the game.
46. Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)
I first played SMB2 via the Super Mario All-Stars cartridge for Super Nintendo. Lined up side-by-side with the other Mario classics, it always seemed right at home. It wasn't until I got older and gained some perspective that I realized that this game as a followup to the original Super Mario Brothers must have been so weird. But you know what? I love when things get weird. And in the NES days you were allowed to get weird, because the concept of a video game sequel wasn't particularly set in stone yet.
SMB2 is a fantastic Mario game, and anyone who tries to use Doki Doki Panic as a means to delegitimize it is just a jerk. After all, Doki Doki Panic was so heavily influenced by Mario as it was, sharing the development DNA of Kensuke Tanabe, Shigeru Miyamoto, and even Koji Kondo. SMB2's legacy lives on in a big way in the Mario franchise, from Shy Guys and Snifits to the fact that Luigi has a kicky-legs floaty jump. The cast of SMB2 is even directly honored in Super Mario 3D World, gameplay differences and all. The fact that Super Mario Maker never introduced an SMB2 Maker model is criminal. Criminal, I say!
Nintendo absolutely made the right choice in not bringing the Japanese Mario 2 to the States. As a result, we got this gem of a game that would eventually be reverse-released in Japan as Super Mario USA. I wonder how it was received at the time? I hope it got some love over there.
45. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
I'm not sure how almost 50 list spots ended up separating Link's Awakening from its remake when they're practically the same game. Well, now that I type that out, maybe I do know: as great as the remake was, it was only just an echo of the brilliant masterpiece that was already in existence and lodged deep within my gaming soul.
The fact that a game this massive could be on the Game Boy was insane. I think we've lost sight of how amazing that would have been, since the line between handheld and console gaming has blurred so heavily and has even crossed over in the form of the Switch. But for a full-fledged Zelda game to be handheld in 1993? That was bonkers.
The game is legitimately big, it's true, but it feels even more massive because of the scope of its themes. The world is physically expansive, but not nearly as expansive as the dream you find yourself in. The people of Koholint don't understand what's going on around them, and you barely do, either. The bosses talk to you, taunt you, tell you you're making a mistake. The final boss is your own nightmare. This game extends so far beyond its cartridge, capturing the imagination in a way that I think only two other Zelda games ever managed to do. There are a few more Zelda games up ahead. Can you guess which two I might be thinking about?
44. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
When Donkey Kong Country Returned on the Wii, it was good, but not great. The mandatory waggle controls held the game back a bit, and the levels were good but not groundbreaking. The game feel wasn't quite up to par with where the series had left off on the SNES.
All of that criticism disappears with Tropical Freeze. The level design is brilliant, challening but always conveying to you what you need to know. The difficulty curve is noticeable, but never unfair. The music sees David Wise getting back to his A-Game. The partner characters have returned, bringing noticeable and welcome influence on the gameplay. I'm so thankful that this game got ported to Switch, because I don't know if I could have ever forgiven Nintendo if they let this masterpiece fade into obscurity on the forgotten Wii U. If you like platformers, DKC Tropical Freeze is required reading.
43. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
In a lot of ways, this game sees Link not only Between Worlds, but also Between Design Philosophies. On the one hand, this game wears its influence on its sleeve, billing itself as a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, sharing an almost identical world map and character design direction. On the other hand, this game pushes the envelope of the Zelda formula, allowing you to do the dungeons in any order you like, emphasizing exploration over story-based impetus. The result is a beautiful mixture of old and new. (Or, since exploration was such a heavy focus of the original Legend of Zelda, perhaps this is a mixture of old and older.)
Years down the road, one can see that LBW was sort of a trial run for the open structure that Nintendo would focus on in Breath of the Wild. For anyone who loves Zelda but found BotW to be too big of a departure, LBW still provides an exploratory experience while maintaining a classic Zelda feel that you might miss from the latest installment. Not only that, but the individual dungeons in LBW are top-notch, among the best that any 2D Zelda game has to offer. The story is OK and the wall-walking mechanic is cute, but the game simply shines best in its willingness to mess with a formula and give us fans something new to chew on.
42. Octopath Traveler
You're probably done listening to Scorch 'n' Torch by now, so now I'd like to treat you with Yasunori Nishiki's masterpiece soundtrack to Octopath. It's a great game, but the brilliance of the music alone causes it to ascend to a different level.
I see this game get a lot of flak, and it makes me very sad. The biggest criticism I see is that the eight stories didn't intersect enough. You know what? I get that, and I share that criticism. What I don't agree with is the fact that people let that one absent aspect ruin their entire experience with the game.
Maybe those people just come to JRPG's for different reasons than I do. My favorite JRPG's have strong characters; I care much, much less about the overall story. After all, even the best JRPG stories typically still end up being "Kill God." That alone isn't interesting. What's interesting is the individual journeys of your characters, and Octopath Traveler gives you eight of those!
The other thing I come to JRPG's for is a strong battle system, and this game has that in a big way. These eight individual character stories are all packaged up in one of the best, most mechanically satisfying turn-based battle systems I've ever experienced. Not only is the moment-to-moment battling engaging and deep, but the job system allows for so much customization, empowering you to seriously break the game wide open--and, in fact, requiring you to break the game wide open if you want to beat the secret boss at the end. I sat down and made a whole spreadsheet document to plan my party. When a game encourages me to go to my computer and make a spreadsheet for fun, it's gotta be doing something right.
41. Elite Beat Agents
I'm not sure what more I can say about this game that isn't conveyed by the above gameplay screenshots. It's goofy. It's campy. It's silly. And it knows exactly what it is.
I enjoy rhythm games, but at best they tend to be a fun little diversion for me. Elite Beat Agents does something with its rhythm-based gameplay that few other games are willing to do, though, and that is to inject every aspect of the experience with personality. The tapping mechanics wouldn't be nearly so fun and enjoyable if I weren't using the power of David Bowie to help a down-on-his-luck oil baron drill through Atlantis to win his wife back, or help a meteorologist mother do cultic rituals to make the weather nice enough to have a picnic with her son while you dance to "September." And in the end, the game does get to be quite the challenge, culminating in you saving the world to Jumpin' Jack Flash, the perfection of which being another one of my personal favorite gaming accomplishments. I love a charming game. EBA is charm incarnate.
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)
50. SteamWorld: Dig 2 (Switch, 2017)
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)