The Nintendo 64 recently celebrated its 25th anniversary! So I figured now was as good of a time as any to commemorate the trailblazing retro console’s best games.
There are a few ways one could acknowledge what constitutes the “best” games on a console, such as its biggest milestone releases or its most influential titles. Or you could go with what games were best in their day. In the end, I decided to go with my usual method of which games are simply the most fun to play today.
Because of this reason, you may see some notable omissions. Case in point: I won’t be including Goldeneye 007. Even though that title was a landmark for first-person shooters (especially on home consoles) and multiplayer games in general, the games it inspired definitely improved on its foundations, which leaves Goldeneye 007 to feel kind of clunky by today’s standards.
But that doesn’t mean that every N64 great is a thing of the past, and the Nintendo 64 games that do hold up, do so pretty swimmingly. The following ten games are the ones I would recommend if someone wanted to play a great game on the N64 today. Not recommending games based on historical purposes to someone who didn’t grow up with the N64, and not selections for someone who did grow up with the N64 looking for some nostalgia. These are games I would recommend simply as great games to play, that just happen to be from the Nintendo 64’s library.
Oh, and to save myself the hassle of ranking this list, I didn’t! I just listed all ten games in alphabetical order and I recommend them as is! Some are colorful platforming romps, some are epic adventures, and some are full of the multiplayer goodness the N64 made famous!
Before we get to the top 10 proper, however, here are some honorable mentions:
Diddy Kong Racing: A Mario Kart-style racing game combined with a Super Mario 64-style adventure! That’s one amazing combination that inspired many other kart racers to follow. Not to mention it introduced us to both Banjo and Conker! It also boasts great multiplayer that is somewhat hindered by the fact that there’s no music when playing with more than two players. To this day, people are waiting for Mario Kart to emulate its adventure mode.
Donkey Kong 64: The biggest Nintendo 64 game in the literal sense of the term. DK64, while still a fun collect-a-thon platformer, is sometimes too big for its own good. With five playable characters, each with their own collectibles, DK64 certainly has variety in gameplay and a lot of things to do. Though for those same reasons, it can become a little tedious having to switch back and forth between characters. But in typical Rare fashion, DK64 also includes a host of multiplayer modes at your disposal. Why on Earth did the idea of single-player adventure games having such great multiplayer options fall out of style?
Mario Kart 64: A beloved, nostalgic favorite today, but Mario Kart 64 actually wasn’t so fondly received critically in its time, being considered a disappointing follow-up to the SNES original upon its release. It admittedly isn’t the best Mario Kart: There are only a few memorable racetracks, the graphics are ugly, and like Diddy Kong Racing, there’s no music when playing with three or four people. But the core gameplay holds up, and Mario Kart 64 has some of the best balloon battle courses in the series (Block Fort!). A fun time, but not the go-to Mario Kart experience today, nor the best example of Mario multiplayer on the N64.
Mario Tennis: The origins of Waluigi, a character destined to… fill out the roster in Mario spinoffs (What can I say? Not every character addition is going to end up having the impact of Yoshi). Mario Golf is also fun, but it’s Mario Tennis that I think is the better go-to Mario sports title of yesteryear. A solid tennis game with a Mario twist. Oh, and while it may have debuted Waluigi, it also served as the last time we saw Donkey Kong Jr., who’s been MIA ever since.
Super Smash Bros.: Ah, the good ol’ days. Back when Super Smash Bros. was actually about Nintendo characters. I miss that. Sure, the N64 original may not have the same depth and polish of later entries in the series, but Super Smash Bros. remains a fun multiplayer romp. And it’s fun just to revisit and see the series in its purest state, before its Nintendo-ness was diluted and it catered too heavily to the Esports crowd. Just pure Nintendo fun.
And now, finally, the Top 10 Nintendo 64 Games to Play Today!
Let’s be frank: The N64 was Rare’s console. While many of Nintendo’s key franchises made appearances, they could be pretty spread out. In between Nintendo’s big releases, Rare was pumping out one game after another to keep it all afloat. But Rare’s N64 output didn’t just fill in the gaps, they released a number of genuine winners during the era, some of which even outshined Nintendo’s own efforts.
Though the Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the Super Nintendo and Goldeneye 007 were Rare’s biggest sellers, it was Banjo-Kazooie who proved to be Rare’s homegrown hero(es). Simply the most “Rare” of all of Rare’s creations.
A 3D platformer modeled after none other than Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie replaced Nintendo’s iconic plumber with Banjo the bear from Diddy Kong Racing, and the bird Kazooie who lived in his backpack. Replacing Mario’s coins were music notes, and in place of the elusive Power Stars we had Jiggies; magical, golden jigsaw pieces.
Banjo-Kazooie isn’t just Super Mario 64 with a new coat of paint though. Whereas Mario had all of his moves right out of the gate, Banjo and Kazooie learn different abilities as they go, which gave each subsequent level new means for our titular duo to obtain Jiggies. There’s the witch doctor, Mumbo Jumbo, who could transform Banjo and Kazooie into various different forms. There are mini-games abound. And to change up video game traditions, for the game’s finale, Banjo and Kazooie find themselves in the middle of a board game/quiz show (though we do also get a proper final boss, proving that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too).
All of this, in addition to Banjo-Kazooie’s unique personality (those garbled jibberish voices are just wonderful), meant Banjo-Kazooie was no mere copycat. It took what Super Mario 64 started, and made it entirely its own.
It may seem like a smaller adventure by today’s standards, there are still a few camera issues, and some Jiggies are unceremoniously just lying around, but make no mistake, Banjo-Kazooie is still as fun as it ever was.
While Banjo-Kazooie took a page from Super Mario 64, its sequel, Banjo-Tooie, was like a combination of Mario’s N64 outing and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Tooie is a much bigger game than Kazooie, but seemingly learning from Donkey Kong 64, it never feels too bloated. Late N64 graphics aside, Banjo-Tooie still holds up over two decades later.
Though Kazooie’s name is sadly no longer in the title, she may be even more present here than she was in the first game, as Banjo and Kazooie can now go their separate ways and claim their own Jiggies. There are now more prominent boss fights in every stage. There are first-person shooter segments that hold up better than the actual first-person shooters on the N64. You can now play as Mumbo Jumbo. The level themes are more unique (the fire world and ice world are one and the same, there’s a dilapidated theme park, and a dinosaur world). And there’s now a host of multiplayer modes to enjoy!
On the downside, there are eight stages here compared to Kazooie’s nine (and ten less Jiggies as a result). One of these stages, Grunty Industries, is pointlessly convoluted. And Mumbo should really have more to do when you play as him. These are ultimately small prices to pay, considering just how good Banjo-Tooie is otherwise.
Twenty-one years on, fans still debate which is the superior game between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. While the original seems to have the slight majority vote, I think I’m on the side of Banjo-Tooie. Despite the aforementioned reduction in stage numbers, I feel like Tooie otherwise builds on and improves just about everything from the original. We may all still be waiting for a third Banjo-Kazooie entry (a real third entry), but Banjo-Tooie was such a hefty adventure in its day, and so well executed, that it feels right at home among today’s games.
3: Conker’s Bad Fur Day
Oh look, it’s Rare again! But of course it’s Rare again. They carried the N64!
Released in 2001 – the same year the GameCube would later debut – Conker’s Bad Fur Day was one of the N64’s last hoorahs (along with a few other games on this list). Though it was planned to be released much, much sooner in the console’s lifespan, under a very different guise.
Originally envisioned as “Twelve Tales” and “Conker 64,” the game was to be a cute, cartoony platformer in a similar vein to Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64. But a troublesome production meant Conker kept getting delayed, to the point that, after Rare released a series of colorful platformers on the N64, interest in Conker waned. So designer Chris Seavor took over the project and gave Conker a complete overhaul.
Raunchy, violent, and riddled with swear words and poop jokes, Conker’s Bad Fur Day seemed to both address the concerns of “too many kids’ games” on the N64 while simultaneously making fun of the people who made those complaints by going to such extremes. Though you have to see the irony in how, these days, people crave more colorful, kid-friendly platformers. Different times.
Some aspects of Conker’s former life remained: the game was still a story-driven platformer, as Twelve Tales was always planned to be. It realized the vision of the original game to feel like an interactive cartoon (the animations and lip syncing were so far ahead of their time, they still rank as some of the medium’s best). And true to Conker’s humble origins in Diddy Kong Racing, Conker himself never actually swears. It’s everyone else who’s foulmouthed.
More important than the “adult” humor, however, is how the gameplay is always changing whenever Conker finds himself somewhere new. Sometimes it’s a platformer, sometimes it’s a shooter, sometimes it’s a racer. Conker’s Bad Fur Day is that rare kind of game that’s always finding something new. And in typical Rare fashion, Conker’s Bad Fur Day features seven different multiplayer modes. No one overdelivered like Rare did back in the day.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day isn’t perfect, however. Like so many N64 games, the camera and some of the controls can get a little iffy, not all of the movie parodies work (ugh, The Matrix), and not all the multiplayer modes are equals. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day is as unique today as it was twenty years ago.
4: Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards
Masahiro Sakurai may have created Kirby, but I think Shinichi Shimomura – Nintendo’s most elusive, mysterious game designer – best understands how to represent the character and his world. Sadly, Shimomura only directed three Kirby games before seemingly vanishing: Kirby’s Dreamland 2, Kirby’s Dreamland 3, and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.
Though Kirby 64 foregoes the Animal Friends of Dreamlands 2 and 3, it (almost) makes up for it with a new twist on Kirby’s trademark copy abilities: Kirby can now combine two powers to make new ones! Even though Kirby 64 treads a lot of familiar ground elsewhere, the ability to combine powers keeps things fresh and exciting. Sometimes you may realize you need to revisit a stage with a different power combination in order to obtain one of the titular crystal shards.
While Sakurai’s Kirby games later adopted something of an of edge, Shimomura’s Kirby titles really doubled down on the cuteness of the series (sans the final bosses, giving them an appropriate contrast to everything else). There’s a softness to the visuals that have held up incredibly well since the game’s 2000 release, the music is energetic and infectious (in that very specific, late-90s/early-2000s Kirby way). It’s just an all-around comforting video game.
Some may lament that Kirby 64 is a pretty easy game. But not every game needs to be Dark Souls. Sometimes it’s nice to just be able to experience an adventure, and Kirby 64 provides just that. It takes a simple, straightforward platforming romp and turns it into something memorable with its little touches. Along with the aforementioned visuals, music and personality, Kirby 64 also has some fun level themes (the snow world is also the robot-themed world!), and the levels even manage to tell their own little stories as you progress through them, which was pretty unique at the time. Oh, and there are moments where the player takes control of King Dedede. That’s always a huge bonus.
To top it all off, Kirby 64 even features a multiplayer mode. Though it may not be as gloriously excessive as those from Rare, Kirby 64’s multiplayer provides three mini-games that are addictively fun with friends. One of these mini-games, Checkerboard Chase, even feels like a precursor to today’s wildly popular battle royal genre.
I still hope we one day see the combined copy abilities return to the series in their full glory (Kirby Star Allies featured a watered down version of it). But if Kirby 64 is the only game to feature them, at least it’s an easy game to get sucked back into even today.
5: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
For all its acclaim, Ocarina of Time is actually a pretty conservative game, as it’s structurally following A Link to the Past nearly beat for beat, albeit in a 3D environment. Ocarina’s follow-up, Majora’s Mask, is conversely one of the most “different” games in the entire Zelda canon.
Using many of the same assets as Ocarina, Majora’s Mask repurposes them to craft a new world and adventure that’s uniquely its own. The Happy Mask Salesman, for example, was merely a shopkeeper in Ocarina. But here in Majora’s Mask he’s a key player in the story. The same goes for the Skull Kid, who has been promoted to tragic antagonist.
Similarly, while Ocarina of Time featured masks as items for the occasional sidequest (or just for the giggles), here they play a much larger role in gameplay. Three masks in particular completely change things up, allowing series protagonist Link to transform into different species from the series: a plant-like Deku, a powerful Goron and an aquatic Zora. These transformations only add that much more variety and depth to Majora’s Mask, and it’s kind of weird how Nintendo hasn’t revisited a similar idea since.
This is all before we even get into the game’s time travel motif, which sees Link travel between the same three days over and over again in order to prevent the moon from crashing into the land of Termina. There are different things to do, different people to talk to, and different events occurring between the three days, so Link will have to use that trusty Ocarina of Time to revisit and relive certain situations in order to complete the adventure (insert mandatory Groundhog Day comparison here).
Admittedly, the time travel setup isn’t for everyone, and having to redo an entire game-day over because you may have missed one thing can grow a little tedious. It’s also one of the shorter Zelda titles, with only four dungeons to complete before you unlock the final area of the game. So it may be easy at times to see why Ocarina of Time’s more straightforward, more epic adventure may continue to steal the spotlight.
Still, Majora’s Mask remains one of Nintendo’s most beloved games, and one of the most acclaimed video games of all time, for a reason. It’s not only different from any other Zelda title, it’s unlike anything else Nintendo has ever made. With a pedigree like The Legend of Zelda’s, it may be easy to hold things so sacred that it fears to branch out. Yet Majora’s Mask – coming off the heels of Ocarina of Time, no less – decided to take the series in a daring new direction. One that still holds up to this day.
6: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Yes, I may have just said Ocarina of Time is a conservative game, but when it’s sticking to a formula as great as A Link to the Past’s, you can’t complain too much.
For a good while, Ocarina of Time was almost unanimously held sacrosanct as the “greatest video game of all time.” While in more recent years, that debate has grown more open-minded – sometimes for the good (Super Mario Galaxy), sometimes for the not too good (The Last of Us) – for its time, it’s easy to see why Ocarina of Time garnered such praise. A Link to the Past and Super Mario 64 were probably the most acclaimed games up to that point, and Ocarina of Time was essentially a combination of the two. The “best of both worlds” if you will.
Following in its SNES predecessor’s footsteps, Ocarina of Time sees Link partake on an epic adventure to save the land of Hyrule from the evil Ganondorf. Link will travel the land, meet new people (and species), and brave dark and dreary dungeons to become the hero Hyrule needs. Ocarina perfectly translated the Zelda series’ combination of action, exploration and puzzle solving into a 3D environment. And its lock-on combat was a revelation for 3D games.
Sure, the graphics definitely show their age, but the gameplay of Ocarina of Time hasn’t really lost a step. While most series may show obvious improvements with each subsequent entry, Ocarina of Time had refined its gameplay so strongly in 1998 that it still feels surprisingly close to the Zelda titles that have arrived since.
On the downside of things (and this is a hugely unpopular opinion on my part), the soundtrack to Ocarina of Time is one of the weaker ones in the Zelda canon. I know, we all love the obvious ones like Saria’s Song/Lost Woods and the Song of Storms, but they’re in the minority of what is largely an adequate soundtrack for the time. It didn’t even feature the main Legend of Zelda theme until the 3DS remake! And even in Zelda, that N64 camerawork can still be a bit of a problem.
So maybe Ocarina of Time isn’t absolutely flawless, as we once so readily accepted. But it’s still an unforgettable adventure in gaming. One that still feels deep and rewarding even by the standards of today.
7: Mario Party 3
Not every great game has to be some grand adventure. Sometimes, fun is all you need to stand the test of time. And that’s where Mario Party 3 comes into this list: it may not be the deepest game here, and it even contains some questionable design choices. But damn it all if Mario Party 3 isn’t fun!
We’re talking about a very specific type of fun here. That unique type of fun that Nintendo seems to have mastered (but that they’ll never fully admit to): the kind of multiplayer game you play with your friends for some good times, only for it to slowly unravel and make all the players involved out for each other’s blood by the end of it all. You can get some of this “friends turned enemies” fun from Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. But Mario Party personifies it.
From friends stealing each other’s stars and coins, to screwing each other over when they’re supposed to be teamed up in mini-games, Mario Party is designed to make you hate your friends! Okay, maybe not literally, but imagine how Dark Souls makes you feel towards its bosses. Mario Party makes you feel that towards your friends! It’s all in good fun, of course.
Honestly, you can go ahead and lump Mario Party 1 and 2 here as well and call it a tie. But I think that, being released in 2001 at the tail-end of the N64 (it was the last Nintendo-published title on the system), Mario Party 3 had refined the formula a bit. Each game board has some fun gimmicks, the mini-games are more plentiful and varied, and you have more items than ever to sabotage your friends with. Perhaps best of all, Mario Party 3 is the only entry in the series to include “Duel Mode,” which sees two players travel across the board trying to deplete each other’s hit points with the aide of partners. These partners are Mario series enemies that could be placed both in front of (attack) and behind (defense) the player, making Duel Mode something like Mario Party meets Paper Mario. Why Nintendo hasn’t revisited the Duel Mode concept in the many, many Mario Parties since, I’ll never know.
Yes, many of Mario Party’s elements are based on luck, not skill. In just about any other type of game, that would be a huge drawback. But Mario Party is all about chaotic fun with friends. The first two Mario Party entries also provide a great time, but the third is where the series really hit its high point (making it all the weirder that Nintendo has only ever re-released the second entry). On a console known for its madcap four-person multiplayer, Mario Party 3 reigns king.
8: Paper Mario
Yet another late-game entry in the N64’s library, Paper Mario was released in 2001 after years of delays in production.
Originally conceived as a sequel to Super Mario RPG, the game that would become Paper Mario had to make countless changes early on, as Square retained the rights to the original elements of Super Mario RPG. With Square moving away from Nintendo at the time, the big N turned to one of its own studios, Intelligent Systems, to pick up the pieces.
Paper Mario ended up being its own kind of Mario RPG. Mario is equipped with hammer and jump attacks, is joined on his adventure by a parade of cute partners (each inspired by different enemies from the series’ history), and gains new bonuses and abilities based on the badges he wears. These make the battles more simplified than those of Super Mario RPG, but because the game retains its spiritual predecessor’s action commands, they’re no less fun.
Bowser has stolen a magical artifact, the Star Rod, to grant his every wish. The King Koopa has granted himself invincibility, as well as absconded with Princess Peach’s entire castle, and taking it into the sky. So Mario is off on an adventure to rescue seven Star Spirits (held captive by Bowser’s forces) so they can help him undo Bowser’s magic and save the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s every bit as epic as Link’s Nintendo 64 adventures.
Of course, we have to talk about the visuals. It is called Paper Mario for a reason. Originally planned to use SNES-style sprites (prototype screenshots even showed Yoshi ripped directly from Super Mario World), this quickly evolved into making the characters literally flat amidst a 3D environment. It’s kind of fitting, really. Super Mario RPG pushed for 3D at the tail-end of the two-dimensional Super Nintendo, and Paper Mario, towards the end of the Nintendo 64, did the opposite for the 3D console. And while Paper Mario’s soundtrack could never hope to reach the heights of Super Mario RPG’s (still Yoko Shimomura’s best work by far), it still created a fun, fittingly cute soundtrack that ranks among the best on the N64.
Whereas the SNES was full of great RPGs, Paper Mario was really the only notable one to speak of for the N64. But man, is it ever a good one! Its engaging battle system, epic storyline, and insurmountable charm ascend Paper Mario into being one of the genre’s true greats.
Paper Mario’s distinct art direction means it hasn’t really aged visually, and there’s no fussy camera to wrestle with, either. And the gameplay is every bit as fun today as it was twenty years ago. Of all the games on this list, Paper Mario may just be the most timeless.
9: Star Fox 64
Star Fox is something of the one-hit wonder of Nintendo’s franchises. Some of its installments sit at the edge of greatness (others a bit further away), but only one managed to claim it: Star Fox 64.
In a bit of a turnaround from the norm, Star Fox is that rare series (the only series?) where the SNES entry is the headache-inducing eyesore, while the N64 follow-up is a timeless classic.
Originally released in 1997, Star Fox 64 is a remake of the SNES original story-wise. But its gameplay is a refinement of the rail-shooter that builds on every aspect of its predecessor. Such a refinement, in fact, that it has rarely been approached in the genre in all the years since.
Players take control of Fox McCloud, as he pilots his flying Arwing, the Landmaster Tank and (in one level) the underwater Blue-Marine. He’s accompanied by his crewmates: Grizzled veteran Peppy Hare, inventive rookie Slippy Toad, and obnoxious jerk Falco Lombardi. Fox must blast his way through the armies of the evil Andross to save the Lylat System.
Simply destroying the bad guys and making it to the end of a stage aren’t all there is to Star Fox 64, however. Certain actions will unlock branching pathways and new routes through the game. Some alternate routes are easier to find, others not so much. You’ll only go through a handful of stages on any given playthrough, but finding different paths and trying different combinations of stages give the single player mode tremendous replay value (which it already would have from the gameplay alone).
Oh, and just in case the timeless single player campaign isn’t enough, there are also multiplayer modes to keep you coming back for more.
Different vehicles. Teammates with their own benefits (Peppy gives advice, Slippy displays the bosses’ health, Falco helps find some alternate paths). Free-roaming “All-range mode” stages. Multiplayer. A strangely memorable (if corny) storyline… There’s just so much to it. Aside from the obvious 1997 visuals, Star Fox 64 has aged like a fine wine.
10: Super Mario 64
A good chunk of this list is comprised of games released towards the end of the Nintendo 64’s timeframe (Banjo-Tooie, Kirby 64 and Majora’s Mask from 2000; Conker, Mario Party 3 and Paper Mario from 2001). Given the N64’s pioneering of 3D gaming, it makes sense that it would take time for developers to hit their stride and create something that holds up down the road.
But Super Mario 64 was there from day one, and is still an adventure worth taking all these years later. It’s easy to talk about how revolutionary and influential Super Mario 64 was, but this list is meant to discuss how much fun it still is.
What’s amazing is how Super Mario 64 translated the key elements of Mario’s 2D platformer adventures so seamlessly into 3D, while also establishing a new set of rules for 3D platformers. I mentioned how Ocarina of Time follows the same blueprint as A Link to the Past, only in 3D. But Super Mario 64 is structurally a very different game than Super Mario World, though it retains enough key elements of Mario’s past (jumping is important) to still make it feel like a proper follow-up. And just like the 2D Mario games before it, Super Mario 64 has stood the test of time.
Okay, okay. So obviously the visuals scream 1996 (compared to Super Mario World’s sprites, which look just as colorful as they ever did), and the camera can be a pain at times. And like Ocarina of Time, I don’t think Super Mario 64 boasts one of the better soundtracks in its series, despite a few standouts (Dire, Dire Docks comes to mind). So maybe Super Mario 64 isn’t the most timeless Mario game, but for a launch game on the Nintendo 64 to still be this much fun to play? That’s got to be some kind of small miracle.
The camera may be a bit tricky to handle, but Mario himself controls just as he should. It’s hard to describe, but the sense of control Mario has just feels right. Then we have fifteen big levels to explore, a host of bonus stages, and the best hub world in gaming history (don’t even argue). Mario must explore every nook and cranny of these locations; fighting monsters, racing penguins, flying through clouds, swimming with dinosaurs, and a plethora of other objectives to claim those elusive power stars that can break Bowser’s curse on Peach’s castle and its occupants.
Sure, the graphical and mechanical limitations are present. But Super Mario 64 was so forward-thinking in its ideas and so polished in its execution, that this 1996 Nintendo 64 launch title can still claim to be one of gaming’s greats. Proof that fun knows no age.
There you go, my top 10 Nintendo 64 titles to play today! Although I suppose I haven’t played every Nintendo 64 game (I recently purchased the two Goemon N64 games, which I’ve heard good things about, so I guess I’ll see if those deserved a spot here soon). But I think I’ve played so many of them over the years, that my experience on the subject has some merit. I like to think so, anyway.
It’s hard to believe the Nintendo 64 is over twenty-five years old now. It’s as old as the movie Twister, and the Tickle Me Elmo!
Thanks for reading, and I hope this list could bring back some fond memories, or inspire you to pick up one of these games again, or even help you discover them (okay, that last one is a lie. No one is discovering these games from my blog). At any rate, I hope you enjoyed!
Happy Nintendo 64, everybody!