The Super Nintendo Entertainment System is widely considered one of the greatest consoles ever made. The “Golden Era” of Nintendo produced some of the most influential games of all time, and many of them still hold up as great games, more than 20 years later.
These are 10 of the best games you can find from what is arguably Nintendo’s greatest era of game development. As with any top 10 list, this is subjective, and your favorite game may not appear on it. Maybe it would show up on a Top 11 list, but that’s not what this is.
Some basic ground rules on the list are that we’re only taking one game per franchise, and we’re only including games that got a Western release – so sorry, Tales of Phantasia, we’ll talk about you some other time.
We’ll start the list with the only game in this list that never truly got a franchise.
Chrono Trigger was an absolute dream project. In fact, it’s code name was actually “the Dream Project,” based on it undergoing development with some of the titans of the anime and game industries at the time. The game was developed by a team-up of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii, the creators of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest – the two most popular RPG series in the world at the time. Meanwhile, art and character design were handled by Akira Toriyama, the creator of Dragon Ball Z.
Frequently lauded as one of the greatest RPGs of its era, Chrono Trigger took the unique visions of its genius creators to create a completely unique experience. Using an active-time battle system, Chrono Trigger did away with the “random battle” conventions of most RPGs of the era for a map where you can see most of your enemies before you engage them.
Chrono Trigger boasts a fluid battle system with dynamic movement and unique team-up attacks, and some of the most beloved characters and best music of the era. If you’ve ever carried a torch for an RPG of any kind, you owe it to yourself to give Chrono Trigger a good, long look.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
It’s a tough call deciding whether to include this game or the original Super Mario World on this list. Both are great, influential games, and they’re distinctly different in their mechanics. Super Mario World is one of the most solid platformers you’ll ever play, and Yoshi’s Island is distinctly different.
But Yoshi’s Island takes everything about Super Mario World and throws a coat of creativity over the top. The platforming is still top-notch, and the boss battles are incredibly clever. But the whole environment feels alive and artistic compared to Super Mario World’s more static feel.
Again, both games are great, and are highly recommended. The gameplay between the two games is so different, they may as well be different franchises, yet both are absolutely masterpieces. But the creativity and graphical fidelity of Yoshi’s Island puts it over the top, even though Crying Baby Mario remains one of the most hated escort missions imaginable.
Super Metroid is basically the reason we have the term “Metroidvania” to describe map-exploration games that are heavy on movement-based powerups and backtracking.
Super Metroid is, in addition to being perhaps the very best action-based game on the SNES, the progenitor for an entire genre. Sure, you could argue that the original Metroid for NES was the true origin, but Super Metroid took everything that was great about the original and turned it up to 11.
Better graphics, smoother movement, a more atmospheric feel, and memorable boss fights are the highlights of this game, which is a favorite in the speedrunning community. If you’re looking for a dangerous, creepy sci-fi world to explore at your own pace, Super Metroid is the best you’re going to get.
Mega Man X
Mega Man got 6 games in the NES era, with 2 and 3 sitting in hearts as the best of the crop. But when the franchise made the jump to 16 bits, we got Mega Man 7 first… which was disappointing in a lot of ways. But shortly after, we got Mega Man X – a reboot of the series with a similar, yet totally new protagonist.
Mega Man X is still a Mega Man game in its feel, with the core mechanics of shooting and platforming fully in place. But an upgrade to visual design, and wildly new movement mechanics like dashing and wall-jumping, give it a totally new feel.
The level design in Mega Man X is revolutionary, and really demands full mastery of the new mechanics the game introduces. Even the story, while a bit tired by today’s standards, has more meat to it than most Mega Man games up to that point in time. Mega Man X is stage-based, not exploration-based like Super Metroid. But both stand tall as the best side-scrolling, shooting-based action games on the console.
Final Fantasy 6 (Final Fantasy 3 in the US)
This is the entry that always generates debate. We’re only choosing one Final Fantasy, and some will argue that Final Fantasy 4/2 (U.S.) deserves this spot. Both are great, but there are a few things that put FF6 over the top.
People will debate the merits of active time battle systems vs. turn-based systems forever, but Final Fantasy 6’s battle system does have a lot more intrigue to it than most. Between using fighting-game inputs for Sabin’s Blitz moves to a fluid, flexible system for summoning and magic, Final Fantasy 6 really broke the mold before FF7 broke the series into the mainstream on the Playstation.
But let’s get real here, the star of the show when it comes to FF6 is the story. A great cast of characters, the Final Fantasy series’ best villain, the opera scene, the mid-game plot twist, there is just so much to love about Final Fantasy 6. Loving Final Fantasy 6 today does require a willingness to go back to some classic RPG systems that might feel old and clunky today, but the journey is well worth it.
Donkey Kong Country
With an honorable mention for its sequels, Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3, the original Donkey Kong Country is a stylish, unique platformer that is very possibly the best-looking game on the SNES. And it has co-op play, too!
But Donkey Kong Country is more than just a pretty face. It brings smooth, fluid gameplay with two playable characters that feel different, yet are similar enough to both get through each stage. Solid platforming action, clever puzzles, and actual water levels that everyone doesn’t hate with great music are the most memorable elements of this revolutionary title.
Donkey Kong Country is responsible for bringing Donkey Kong into the forefront as a mainline Nintendo character, and was the true arrival of Rare as a premium Nintendo developer for the next decade.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Anyone who doesn’t include this on a list of the best SNES games of all time is either lying or has never owned a SNES.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the quintessential Zelda game, even two decades after its release. It is effectively an upgrade over the original Legend of Zelda, which was the first home console game to sell over 1 million copies. It maintains the same top-down perspective, but adds a fully-developed story, more dungeons, smoother action, and a greatly expanded inventory.
More importantly, A Link to the Past set the stage for most of the series’ long-standing lore. The Master Sword, Hookshot, Ocarina, and the use of magic spells all originate with a Link to the Past, and they all continue through the franchise for years to follow. A Link to the Past is the origin of many of the conventions we now know to be Zelda staples.
Kirby Super Star
Kirby Super Star is an odd game, and you could argue that Kirby’s Dreamland 3 is more deserving of this slot on account of it have a single, continuous campaign. By contrast, Kirby Super Star is like a collection of minigames and tiny little self-contained adventures.
All the games have the same basic mechanics – Kirby eats enemies and copies their abilities. But there are slight differences between the campaigns – one is a simple stage-based adventure, but there is also one that is based on treasure hunting and exploration. Later still, a stage allows you to collect and keep powers and call them up as desired throughout the game.
It feels like a compilation of greatest hits, only it isn’t. It’s just the best way to experience a Kirby game. Even today, if you wanted to introduce someone to the Kirby franchise, Super Star would be a good place to start.
Star Fox looks like almost nothing else on the SNES, and for good reason. The Super FX Chip allows the game to process vector-based graphics, making this one of the only games on the SNES able to truly simulate a 3D feeling.
Ultimately, Star Fox is a scrolling shooter with branching paths, giving it phenomenal replay value and a strong “high score” mentality. While the action may seem repetitive on the surface, there is a lot of depth to the game and secrets to uncover. This is one of those games that requires competence to finish, but rewards you for absolute mastery.
If you want a taste of one of the most unique shoot-em-ups of the early 1990s, this is your game. The music to the first stage is still iconic, and while the game does show its age in some places, it plays like a dream.
Super Mario RPG
Super Mario RPG was a silly idea that probably shouldn’t have worked. Getting RPG masters Squaresoft to cram Mario into an RPG could have turned out to be very silly. And actually, it is very silly. But it works, and it makes Super Mario RPG one of the most charming, and capable RPGs on the console.
Like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG’s is based on engaging enemies you see, not random invisible enemies on the world map. But it also manages to incorporate uniquely Mario-like elements like platforming and power-ups. The game’s battle system is turn-based, but is dynamic by requiring timed inputs to deal or prevent additional damage during battle.
It isn’t the longest or most involved RPGs you’ll ever play, but it’s easily one of the most fun, and can be enjoyed even by people who aren’t huge RPG fans. It truly feels like a masterful culmination of the close partnership between Squaresoft and Nintendo in the early 1990s.