The Five Most Important Nintendo 64 Games

Henry Gilbert

September 29, 1996, was the day that the Nintendo 64 launched in the United States. That was when it officially went on sale across North America, kicking off a unique era for Nintendo and gaming in general. Just as 3D games were taking off and CD-ROM was becoming the preferred medium for games, Nintendo led the way by adapting classic franchises into 3D, even when sticking to outdated tech like cartridges. Here’s a look back at the launch of the classic console in celebration of the 20th Nintendo 64 anniversary. 

But it isn't the tech that truly defines a console -- it's the games. And Nintendo 64 had so many important titles, from a massive open-world adventure to a genre-changing FPS to the first-ever mascot brawler. When you think back to that slim system and its three-pronged controllers, these five games are the ones at the front of your mind. Happy 20th anniversary Nintendo 64!

Super Mario 64

Super Mario 64 changed gaming in so many ways with its analog controls, three-dimensional movement, stage design, and all-out fun factor. Even better, the game did all that while keeping the distinct style of the Mario series. Super Mario 64 was like a breath of fresh air back in 1996, and it still feels plenty modern in 2016. There were so many platformers that approached Super Mario 64’s greatness -- titles like Banjo-Kazooie, Conker and Donkey Kong 64 -- but none could touch the pure joy of this launch game.

Diddy Kong Racing

Mario Kart 64 might have more sequels, but Diddy Kong Racing is a prime example of what Rare did best as a developer on the N64. Rare could take a concept Nintendo created, then refine it and add their own goofy spin on it. That includes adding planes and hovercraft to a kart racer in Diddy Kong Racing. Not to mention the game’s healthy mix of multiplayer options gave it a depth that made owning four N64 controllers a necessity. Multiplayer was key to many Rare hits, including…

GoldenEye 007

Few shooters hold as cherished a place in gaming history as GoldenEye 007. The Rare adaptation of the Bond film was ahead of its time and set the norm for console shooters for years to come. It also became an iconic multiplayer FPS, with fans dumping dozens of hours playing four-player competitive matches with friends on a single television screen. GoldenEye 007 is the third highest selling N64 game for good reason. Rare would go on to make the excellent Perfect Dark for the N64, largely based on 007, though there was something extra special about this game starring the most famous Bond villains.

Super Smash Bros.

Smash Bros. games still dominate multiple generations of fighting fandom, but the franchise didn’t seem like such a big hit at the start. Nintendo almost didn’t publish Super Smash Bros. in North America, perhaps out of fear of showing kiddie favorites like Yoshi and Pikachu beating the crap out of each other. The company shouldn't have been so worried. The chaotic brawling pulled people in with its surprising depth, as did the extreme amount of fan service to please Nintendo devotees of any age. And this crossover was only the start for one of Nintendo's most popular series.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

There’s almost too much to say about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to really explain what makes this game so iconic. It pioneered open-world games like never before, creating a seemingly endless land of Hyrule to explore, with so many secrets to find and enemies to battle. Once you travel through its many dungeons across two separate timelines, you’ll never forget this tale of one boy's quest to end the evil reign of Ganondorf. There may have been a couple better Legend of Zelda titles after this one, but The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time remains the N64’s masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions:

Obviously, these just scratch the surface of what the N64 had to offer. The other Rare titles alone could fill out an entire best-of list, while Star Wars: Rogue Squadron was one of the best sci-fi flight games on a console. And no wrestling fan of the 1990s will forget N64's AKI games like WCW/nWo: Revenge and WWF: No Mercy. Not to mention that major spin-offs like Mario Party, Mario Golf, and Mario Tennis all came into their own on N64, as did Pokémon tie-ins like Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Stadium. Let us know @getfandom what games you think of first when you remember the Nintendo 64.

Henry Gilbert
Henry Gilbert is Senior Games Editor at Fandom. He's worked in the gaming press since 2008, writing for sites as diverse as GamesRadar, IGN, and Paste Magazine. He's also been known to record a podcast or two with Laser Time. Follow him on Twitter @henereyg.