After helping video games to catch fire in the West with the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo was ready to follow up with a major upgrade: the SNES. While it led to some consternation among parents who didn’t yet understand hardware iteration, the Super Nintendo was a major improvement in every way, from graphical fidelity to sound quality. And as one of the leading console manufacturers of the time, Nintendo enjoyed a golden era of instant classics released on the system. The Super NES library is so massive and high-quality that it was hard to even narrow down a list like this one. But with the insights of our GameSpot editors and the benefit of hindsight, here are some of the absolute best SNES games, listed in alphabetical order. A number of the games listed below are available to play on Nintendo Switch with a Switch Online subscription.
One of the earliest third-party games for Nintendo’s 16-bit hardware was also one of the most unique blends of genres on the platform, and has never quite been replicated since–even in its own sequel. ActRaiser put you into the winged boots of a benevolent god, looking to protect humanity from a demonic scourge and allow it to thrive. The unique hook bifurcated it into two disparate types of gameplay: an action game where you would defeat loads of demonic creatures in combat, and then, a sim game where you would oversee and guide the development of your fledgling civilization. The two would often intersect–early on, a boy goes missing in the sim portion which leads you to a demon nest to clear in the action portion. And while the story was sparse, it used the perspective of a god to show humankind’s stumbles with a tinge of theological depth. The criss-crossing nature of these two elements made for an unforgettable experience.
The Super NES was known for some all-time great RPGs, and Chrono Trigger is a frontrunner even among that prestigious company. The time-traversing RPG starred a plucky band of kids who discover that their world is facing an impending apocalypse at the hands of an ancient beast. As they journey through time they discover adventurers from a wide array of eras–a brash cave woman, a noble cursed knight, a sweet-natured robot–who all come together to save the future. Remembered for its multiple endings, indelible characters, and an incredible score, Chrono Trigger is a can’t-miss.
Donkey Kong Country
In the Super NES era, Nintendo relied largely on crisp, colorful sprite artwork afforded by the new system, but the company occasionally explored other graphical styles and techniques. One was an early attempt at polygon-based 3D (more on that later), and another was a new technique utilized by Rare for Donkey Kong Country. An updated take on one of Nintendo’s earliest characters, DKC made Donkey Kong the hero, protecting his beloved banana stash against the villainous King K. Rool. It was one of the first games to use pre-rendered models that had been transferred into high-fidelity sprites, which made for an almost claymation aesthetic. It was also notorious for being an extra-hard game, challenging platforming fans more than your average Mario game at the time.
Kirby studio HAL Laboratory’s RPG on the SNES was anything but conventional. While many RPGs of the time borrowed heavily from European fantasy tropes, Earthbound was more grounded in Americana. The characters, a bunch of kids, were the kind you’d recognize from the schoolyard, and items were mundane household objects like pencil erasers. The world was recognizable and relatable, which made the more serious story beats related to saving the world hit that much harder.
Final Fantasy VI (aka Final Fantasy III)
The Super NES’s lifetime is fondly remembered as a golden era for RPGs from Squaresoft–later renamed Square Enix. Alongside other masterpieces like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI (released at the time as Final Fantasy III) is a major reason why. The game stars a sprawling cast of beloved characters across an epic adventure centered around an evil empire bent on exploiting the powers of a magical race known as Espers. The game is perhaps most memorable for a major twist that occurs roughly halfway through, a powerful moment that still resonates in modern times. But it’s also remembered fondly for its beautiful sprite artwork and evocative score.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past brought one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises into the 16-bit generation with aplomb. Now regarded as one of the best Zelda games, Link to the Past eschewed the experimental side-scrolling Zelda 2 structure and went back to the more familiar top-down adventuring from the original game. It presented a wide open world to explore–two of them, actually–with a little more structure and guidance than the original game. The story revolved around the Dark World, a second reality hidden behind the veil of the original Hyrule. When journeying there, Link was met with twisted mirror reflections of characters and environments, and the interplay between the two created some of the most memorable moments of the era.
Mega Man X
When Capcom’s mascot character was given a new iteration for the new console generation, he got a hard-rock upgrade and a suite of new powers. Mega Man X was a new generation of the character, this time with a partner named Zero and a storyline cribbed heavily from the sci-fi film Blade Runner. X and Zero were Maverick Hunters, an elite unit of sentient robots built to destroy Mavericks–fellow robots who violated the rules of robotics by harming human beings. Mega Man was always known for its tough-as-nails action platforming, and Mega Man X made it faster and tighter, with the ability to dash and charge your shots. Like X himself, it was a huge upgrade that helped make one of the best action games of the era.
Few sports games hold up as well as NBA Jam. The arcade 2-on-2 basketball game was a successor to Arch Rivals, a wild NES game that allowed you to straight-up punch your opponents in the face. NBA Jam was a little less violent but still took a casual, street-ball approach. It featured a roster of actual NBA teams and players (with some notable absences), but it may have been even more known for its array of secret cameos like then-President Bill Clinton.
Secret of Mana
Another in Squaresoft’s impressive run of memorable RPGs, Secret of Mana had a more active combat system and co-op for up to three players. Players would choose from a Boy, Girl, or Sprite, and fight in real-time with the option to pause the action temporarily using a ring menu to call up spells, items, or other special commands. Secret of Mana was many Western fans’ first experience with the Seiken Densetsu series, which uses a more explicitly anime-inspired art style. That made Secret of Mana a high watermark for sprite artwork, which was crisp, colorful, and expressive, with many larger-than-life creatures and boss characters emphasizing the look.
The Nintendo 64 is widely considered the start of the company’s 3D era, but it had started to experiment with polygons on the Super NES with a few key titles. Star Fox was the most successful of these, a 3D shooter set in a sci-fi universe of anthropomorphic animal starfighter pilots. You took the cockpit as Fox McCloud, flanked by his three squadmates to defeat the evil monkey scientist Andross. It was a simplistic but impressive first look at the potential of 3D games. While it sporadically chugs and pushes the hardware to its limit, it’s a time capsule to another era when 3D gaming was cutting-edge. A follow-up, Star Fox 2, included free-roaming environments that we’d later see implemented in the stellar Star Fox 64. It was canceled in part due to its proximity to the release of the N64. Star Fox 2 was ultimately put out as part of the Super NES Classic Edition mini-console.
Super Street Fighter 2
If you weren’t around in the mid-1990s you may not realize what a cultural phenomenon Street Fighter 2 really was. The fighting game was the centerpiece of almost every arcade and pizza parlor, and inspired dozens of imitators. At the time, console ports of arcade hits would often make compromises or even change the nature of the game entirely, which made it all the more astounding that Street Fighter 2 survived the trip to the Super NES intact. It was almost exactly the arcade experience, at home. Capcom put out various updates and ports in the arcades, and Super Street Fighter 2 was the final version ported to Super NES. By this point the game had added eight fighters–the four previously unplayable Shadaloo bosses plus four new playable characters–the ability to set your game speed, bonus points for elements like reversals, and more. It’s one of the best versions of one of the most famous and influential fighting games of all time.
Super Castlevania IV
Before it became half of the genre naming convention for metroidvanias, Castlevania was a relatively straightforward action franchise, and Super Castlevania IV was among the best of them. The gothic horror series got even more intense on the Super NES with the inclusion of massive boss creatures, a new whip-swinging mechanic, the use of Mode 7 scrolling, and as many creepy crawlies as Konami could fit into 16 bits. It was a tough-as-nails side-scroller just like the others, but this edition gave you a little more fine-tuned control so deaths didn’t feel quite as cheap. Except for the Medusa heads; those were still and will always remain the worst.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Definitely one of the most bizarre of Squaresoft’s RPG output, Super Mario RPG took the beloved Nintendo mascot and put him in an entirely different genre for the first time. Super Mario RPG brought characters like Mario, Bowser, and Princess Toadstool (aka Peach) into an isometric perspective with a unique timing-based RPG battle system. It also riffed on Mario’s world with inventive new characters like Mallo the cloud and Geno the living doll, and introduced more world-building than typically found in a Mario game with new characters like Boshi the badass Yoshi. While this was a one-time occurrence, elements like the timing-based battles lived on in Nintendo’s own iterations of Mario RPGs like the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series.
Super Mario World
One of the best Mario games of all time is even more shocking when you realize that it came packaged for free with every Super NES at launch. The banner game for Nintendo’s new system also happened to be an incredibly successful follow-up to Super Mario Bros. 3. Super Mario World introduced fans to Yoshi, a dinosaur mount with his own set of powers like fire-breathing or a powerful ground stomp. But whenever he wasn’t hitching a ride on the green dino, Mario could fly using the new cape power-up, uncover a trove of secret passageways, and fight through an array of enemies. So much of Mario World has become iconic to the Mario brand it’s easy to forget this is where we got so many classic elements–not just Yoshi, but also characters like Chargin’ Chuck (who recently took up golf) and Magikoopa.
Metroid was always a series about exploration and discovery, but Super Metroid was a new high point for the series. The sci-fi game revolving around space adventurer Samus Aran presented a dense environment pocketed with secrets around every corner and an oppressive sense of creeping isolation. It helped inspire speedrunning with the challenge to complete it in under three hours for a special ending. And it helped establish a sophisticated form of wordless storytelling exploring Samus’ relationship with a baby Metroid she discovered at the end of Metroid 2 on Game Boy. Perhaps more than any other game, this established the metroidvania formula, which still lives on in games like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge today.