The 1990s were full of games with style. Each major company had its own attitude — Sony was the maverick; Sega was the rebel; and Nintendo was the mainstream and approachable one. But the Nintendo 64 (N64) — released in North America on September 29, 1996 — might’ve won the Console Wars, at least by some measures. With a seemingly endless list of hit games, the N64 was — and still is — the defining home game console of the era.
Even if you’re a Sony loyalist — and a fan of classic PlayStation exclusives, like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII — there’s no denying that N64-only games like Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye 007, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64 and more were among the games to have back in the day. So, as the N64 turns 26 years old, let’s take a look back at some of the console’s most enduring titles.
(And we really mean some — there are so many hits worth covering!)
Nintendo 64 Games That Redefined a Whole Genre
The James Bond classic is probably the first-person shooter that made the world fall in love with first-person shooters. Sure, PC gamers had been playing Doom for four years, and Wolfenstein 3D was a hit too, but console gamers didn’t get FPS before Goldeneye 007. Once the game hit — complete with its big-budget movie backing — you couldn’t go anywhere as a teenager without someone suggesting you play a few rounds.
Goldeneye was the first FPS to introduce non-gamers to the gameplay style, too. It was easy enough for new players to have fun with, but deep enough to provide an endless challenge for veterans and multiplayer fiends alike. Much like the later Halo, it provided balance.
Plus, Goldeneye was the genesis of many tropes that serve as mainstays of the FPS genre today. Sniper rifles, completion challenges, split-screen battle mode — all of these features, and more, gained popularity with this 007-starring hit.
Super Mario 64
If we’re talking about pure gameplay, Super Mario 64 could be up there with the greatest games of all time. Why? Because if you can get past the dated graphics, the game itself is pure joy even 25 years after its initial run. The pretty tight controls, the gradual increase in challenge, and all the exploration on offer make this game a masterpiece.
Super Mario 64 was arguably the game that started the whole third-person point of view 3D graphics craze. In this era of hardware that could technically handle 3D graphics, many developers went for the gimmick of just using 3D without really implementing 3D gameplay. Not Mario. The plumber’s franchise is known for top-notch gameplay that pushes the envelope, and that spirit is what made Super Mario 64 such a classic. (Despite his speed, it took Sonic years to catch up!)
Nintendo 64 Games Redefined Multiplayer
Mario Kart 64
Mario Kart 64 really kicked off one of the greatest party franchises in the history of video games. While it wasn’t the first game in the series — there was a Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo (SNES), the console just before the N64 — the N64 Mario Kart took both the franchise and racing genre to new heights. Like, high above everything and on Rainbow Road-level heights.
With four different difficulty levels; four cups, each complete with four unique tracks; and eight of your favorite Nintendo characters to choose from, Mario Kart 64 made for a great party game. At the same time, it was something of a marketing vehicle for Nintendo.
While the core gameplay wasn’t the most polished — and while it was certainly more fun to play with friends than solo — Mario Kart 64 introduced a new generation of gamers to the ins-and-outs of the Super Mario Bros. characters and lore in an accessible way. Diehards and casual gamers alike still bond over Mario Kart to this day.
Super Smash Bros.
Choose your character! What would an N64 best game list be without the game that started perhaps the greatest party fighter of all time? You can’t imagine the excitement of playing as your favorite Nintendo character squared up against your other favorite Nintendo character as a kid. Well, maybe you can, because the franchise has endured for 25 years, and made some incredible innovations.
Still, back in the ‘90s sending Link out to fight Kirby was not only a blast but a novelty. The Nintendo 64 version of Super Smash Bros. looks tame in comparison to its more recent counterparts, but the limited roster and blocky graphics were next-gen innovations for gamers in the ‘90s.
And let’s not forget the dynamic stages, which would throw obstacles in your way mid-fight, as well as the unique move-sets, items and more. All of this was scored to some of Nintendo’s best-known compositions, making it a rather epic brawl. In a way, Super Smash is like a Nintendo greatest hits collection, showcasing all the characters and lore we love.
Nintendo 64 Games That Redefined Beloved Series
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The N64 library had plenty of range. Birthdays and weekends were the time for multiplayer madness, but if you were playing solo the console was stacked with single-player adventures that could easily consume hours of your time. Of all the titles, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time easily stands out as one of the best and most transportive N64 games to hit shelves.
Featuring one of the most complex and beautiful storylines of any Zelda game (and that’s saying a lot…), Ocarina draws the player completely into the lore and impressively nuanced world of Hyrule. Link, the player character, embarks on the ultimate coming-of-age-meets-save-the-world quest, and the creators made sure to take the series’ greatest elements and meld them seamlessly into this new — 3D! — world.
With a time-travel element and plenty of memorable moments, sidequests, items and characters, Ocarina of Time is truly epic.
Donkey Kong 64
Single-player adventure Donkey Kong games first gained popularity on the Super Nintendo (SNES). But, much like Mario Kart 64, the N64 version of the SNES hits (namely, Donkey Kong Country) really leveled things up. While some players may hold a soft spot for side-scrolling, 2D platformer DK games, there’s no denying that the expansive and immersive 3D worlds of DK64 were something to marvel at.
Levels boasted interactive elements and, with five playable Kong characters — Donkey, Diddy, Tiny, Lanky and Chunky — there was a lot to discover. Although Donkey Kong 64 isn’t quite on the same level as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64 in terms of notoriety, Nintendo understands the importance of the Kong series to its fanbase. (We still can’t get the “DK Rap” out of our heads!)
Plus, Donkey Kong 64 was the lead game for the introduction of the company’s N64 expansion pack — and it came bundled with the see-through green version of the N64, which was one of the coolest models, honestly.