5: Super Mario 3D World
Fun fact: The idea for the Double Cherry power-up came from one of the developers accidentally placing two Marios in the same level.
Super Mario 3D World may not match the perfection of the Galaxy series, or even boast their sense of newness. But it is a perfect marriage of the old and new. Nintendo has strived to make a 3D Mario title reminiscent of the 2D games for a while now, but with 3D World they really nailed it. Playing Super Mario 3D World feels closer to playing Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World than it does 64 or Sunshine. It even feels closer to Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World than any New Super Mario Bros. ever did.
Simply put, if you ever wondered what the Mario series might have been like if the gameplay of the 2D games were more literally translated when the series made the jump to 3D, Super Mario 3D World is the answer.
The levels are more linear than past 3D Marios, but that’s not a bad thing, despite what gamers on the internet like to think. But these levels are full of secrets that rival the 2D games. And nearly every stage showcases a new idea or a twist on the gameplay. Plus, you get to play as not only Mario, but Luigi, Toad and Peach as well! Each character comes with the abilities they had in Super Mario Bros. 2, and you can even unlock Rosalina as a fifth character, with Galaxy abilities in tow.
Combine all that with mini-games, Captain Toad levels, some fun boss fights and some of the best power-ups in the series (Cat Suits!), and Super Mario 3D World is an absolute winner.
4: Mario Kart 8
Fun fact: The “Luigi Death Stare” meme was featured on a number of mainstream news outlets.
The best-selling Wii U game of all time is also one of the console’s very best games. I will even say it’s the best Mario Kart yet made due to its intricate balance that focuses more on racing and less on the items. It also has the best (and most) tracks of any game in the series, with brilliant original tracks and the smartest selection of retro stages yet. And the online couldn’t be any smoother.
So why is Mario Kart 8 only number four? Only because the Balloon Battle Mode is somehow the worst in the series. Ironic that the Mario Kart that does so much right is the one entry that gets the Battle mode wrong of all things. If it had a proper Battle Mode, it would probably top this list (some better character selection wouldn’t hurt either. Baby Daisy and Pink Gold Peach are as bad as it gets… Next to regular Daisy, of course).
Even with that said, Mario Kart 8 is one of the most fun games Nintendo has ever made. Let me say that again. One of the most fun games Nintendo has ever made. If that doesn’t say it all I don’t know what does.
Win or lose, Mario Kart 8 exudes fun. It’s local and online multiplayer modes are insanely entertaining and addictive, and the game as a whole has nearly endless replay value. The visuals are drop-dead gorgeous and the orchestrated soundtrack is, bar none, the best of any Mario Kart. The DLC has only made the game better, with crossover characters and tracks from The Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing, F-Zero and Excite Bike adding some versatile Nintendo goodness into the mix.
Why am I not playing this right now?
3: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
Fun fact: Takamura from The Mysterious Murasame Castle was originally going to be a playable fighter before being demoted to an Assist Trophy.
Speaking of games with seemingly endless replayability, it’s Super Smash Bros!
Despite what silly competitive kids stuck in the early 2000s would have you believe, this is the best, most balanced, and fully-realized Smash Bros. to date. The roster is bigger and more creative than ever, the stages are more fun, and the game does a wonderful job at catering to both its more casual and hardcore fanbases. You can play stages with gimmicks and items attached, or turn the stages into a level playing field and rely solely on your skills.
Yes, the excess amount of Kid Icarus characters and references are an annoying piece of self-aggrandizement on Masahiro Sakurai’s part, but they’re ultimately a small price to pay when the whole game is this enjoyable. It’s Smash Bros. made more fun, more addictive, and deeper than ever before.
It looks great, sounds even better, and is filled with countless modes and secrets. But at the heart of it all is the core gameplay, which is refined from previous installments to make this the best Smash Bros. to date. The 3DS version was released first, but by comparison that version feels like the appetizer to the Wii U’s main course.
2: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Fun fact: Tropical Freeze marked the first appearance of Dixie Kong in six years, and the first time Cranky Kong became a playable character.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze quickly became tragically underrated. Seemingly because it’s a Nintendo game that doesn’t star Mario, Link or Samus, the game was quickly forgotten after initially receiving high critical praise at its release. I named it my favorite video game of 2014, but good luck finding anyone else who even put it in the running. Even its phenomenal soundtrack – the best in recent years – failed to get its due.
But I’m here to say this: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the best sidescrolling platformer in a decade’s time. I say that with full confidence, because Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is as brilliant as its title is silly.
Every stage, every stage, presents a new set of ideas, with no level being lazy enough to even repeat one. The HD visuals are beautiful, and the game recaptures the sense of atmosphere of the DKC series that Returns strangely lacked. And the soundtrack, by original series composer David Wise, is sublime.
Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky add meaningful variety to the gameplay, and the boss fights, though few, are among the most challenging in the genre. And the difficulty… Good heavens, the difficulty. Tropical Freeze is more or less Nintendo’s equivalent of Dark Souls. Let’s leave it at that.
2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns was an excellent platformer, but it fell back on nostalgia for the old DKC games so much that it failed to develop much of its own identity, despite its often-great ideas. With Tropical Freeze, however, Retro Studios seems to have made DKC their own beast. It’s not merely a tribute to the DKCs of old, but a more than worthy successor to them.
Admittedly, the Gamepad has no use in this game other than off-TV play, and the bonus stages still lack variety. But those are small prices to pay for a platformer that plays so well and provides so much reward.