Hello, dear readers, and welcome to another installment of Top o’ the Lot. I, Taylor, shall be taking the reins this week, as we shift our focus to the realm of video games. This being my first list to showcase the topic, I may as well start big by examining one of the most prolific publishers in gaming. So join me as I count down my picks for the 5 best Nintendo franchises.
Honorable Mention: Mario Kart
Singling just one honorable mention among the range of deserving franchises was a somewhat arduous task, but at the end of the day, I can’t think of a more deserving candidate than Mario Kart. More than just a simple racing game with Nintendo’s beloved mascot slapped on the cover, Mario Kart focuses on fun first and foremost. With wild tracks and several classic Mario items re-imagined as weapons of vehicular warfare, the Mario Kart games bring all the fun and whimsy of the Mario brand to a well executed racer with surprising challenge. It’s a winning formula that has spawned a slew of imitators (that is, rip-offs) over the years, but there’s simply no beating the original.
The guy who invented Blue Shells, though? That guy’s a jerk.
Starting off the list proper, we have what is perhaps the definitive side-scrolling collect-athon, Metroid. Placing you in the role of bounty hunter and all-around badass Samus Aran, the game tasks you with exploring hostile alien environments, fighting through swarms of enemies as you collect a wide range of weapons and upgrades. These items not only make you more powerful, but also give you new ways to move about the levels, breaking down new barriers and giving you more and more to explore.
And it’s this progression and exploration, I think, that really makes Metroid stand out. There are plenty of games nowadays that allow you to progress as a character, but Metroid was one of the first to do it and do it well. Watching Samus start with a basic gun and move up to becoming a missile-firing, power-bombing, gravity-defying force of nature is visceral and satisfying, especially as the boundaries can no longer hold you back as you blast and maneuver your way into its secrets. There’s just something so addicting about finally opening that one door and getting that new goody that keeps driving you forward. And this is all on top of strong challenge, grueling bosses, and inventive platforming.
The series also deserves credit for showcasing a strong, powerful female lead. Samus Aran rises above the sort of stereotypes that so often plague female characters in video game and many other media; Samus is there to kick ass, not cry on someone’s shoulder. In this regard, she stands shoulder to shoulder with other iconic figures like Ripley from the Alien franchise.
…What about her appearance in Other M, you ask? We, uh…we don’t like to acknowledge that game’s existence. (Seriously, don’t play that one).
4) Super Smash Bros
Coming in at the fourth spot, we have Nintendo’s frantic fighting crossover, Super Smash Bros. Ever since its debut on the N64, this series has been bringing together the biggest names from Nintendo’s stable to have them duke it out. On a basic level, this appeals to the inner fanboy who just wants to see Donkey Kong punch Fox McCloud in the face. But while fanservice may be what brings you in, you’ll want to stay for what is a genuinely amazing fighting game.
Eschewing the traditional life-bar of most brawlers, Smash Bros instead challenges players to build up the damage on your opponent and send them flying out of the ring. But while this is a somewhat novel idea on its own, the thing that truly sets Smash Bros apart is the sheer insanity of it. As you battle your rivals, you’ll be dodging course hazards, picking up items from all over the Nintendo-verse, and clamoring for Smash Orbs, even as players are being launched across the screen.
Super Smash Bros is one of the best experiences you’ll have with three friends, and has become a staple at gamer gatherings across the globe. Also, you get to throw Koopa shells at Solid Snake. How could you not love that?
3) Super Mario Bros
The Number 3 position belongs to the world’s most famous video game mascot, Mario. Ever since the debut of Super Mario Bros on the NES in 1985, the Super Mario series has been entertaining countless gamers around the world, pushing the limits of what games could be and having an impact on the industry that cannot be overstated. Back in the days when games rarely consisted of more than one screen and had about as much depth as a puddle, Mario and Luigi came along and changed everything, blowing people’s minds with sprawling, inventive levels ripe with devious challenge and secrets to find.
And where many a hallowed gaming franchise of yesteryear allowed themselves to become derivative, the Mario series has never allowed itself to rest on its laurels, constantly pushing its boundaries further and further. Everything Super Mario Bros did to revolutionize the 8-bit era, Super Mario 64 did to bring gaming into the third dimension. The world of video games would be a very different place without our favorite plucky plumber, and not in good way.
Make no mistake though; Mario isn’t on this list just for historical significance. He’s here because of quality. The platforming in a Mario game, be it 2D or 3D, is simply some of the best in existence. Intricately crafted by some of the best designers in the business, these obstacle courses challenge your brain as well as your reflexes. And you know what? Mario games are just plain fun. These games have a quirky charm that is hard to quantify, but impossible to deny. The Mario world embraces its own silliness, even as it gives you a challenge that chews you up and spits you back out.
Taking the second spot is one of the most popular and addictive RPGs of all time, Pokemon. Always released in pairs, Pokemon games challenge you to capture and train a colorful cast of monsters, ranging from the awe-inspiring to the bizarre, from the adorable to the nightmarish, and everything in between. As you build up your team and battle the land’s Gym Leaders, you slowly work your way through an expansive journey on your way to becoming the Champion.
I’ve listed a lot of great gaming franchises on this list, and Pokemon is certainly that, but it is also arguably the biggest multi-media phenomenon that has ever spun out of a video game, Nintendo or otherwise, with a popular card game, a long-running anime, countless toys, and of course the wildly successful Game Boy games themselves. For many of us growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, Pokemon was a pervasive part of our free time.
And we haven’t grown out of it either; the same people who got hooked on Pokemon in Generation I continue to be addicted today. This is because Pokemon does not just rely on its kid-friendly mascots; underneath all of that is a brilliantly crafted RPG. The battle system manages to hit a sweet-spot with accessibility that allows anyone to pick it up and enjoy it, while also containing a deceptive complexity that rewards dedicated players and allows for the highest levels of customization. Pokemon is a game that can be picked up and enjoyed by anybody, but with a depth that allows dedicated gamers to play them endlessly.
1) The Legend of Zelda
How could it ever have been anything else? For me and many others, the Legend of Zelda series represents the best of what the video game world has to offer, and is one of the foremost examples of gaming as an art form. Placing you in the role of the eternally-reincarnated hero Link, Zelda games task you with saving the world from the forces of darkness, almost always involving the rescue of the eponymous Princess Zelda in the process. If that sounds like the archetypal hero’s journey, that’s because it is; in fact, I would argue that the Zelda series does the best job of any video game of capturing the epic feel and grand scope of the classic adventure story. Complete with a nuanced mythology and a vibrant collection of creatures, the world of Hyrule will draw you in and astound you with its beauty even as you sink further into its many perils.
What really makes Zelda stand out, though, is the level of craft and care that goes into seemingly every facet of your experience. From the environments, to the music, to the characters and monsters, your time playing will be filled with a variety of elements that add up to a sublime experience. And this is all on top of the series’ fabled dungeons, which offer some of the most engaging puzzles and exploration ever conceived of in gaming, followed in many cases by some of the most memorable bosses.
The Legend of Zelda is a series in rarefied company, not only Nintendo’s best franchise, but perhaps the best franchise in video games period. It all at once blends adventure, exhilaration, humor, and occasionally heart break, and will always leave you wanting to do it all over again.
So that’s my list! And this was a hard one to be sure, as I had to leave out a number of acclaimed franchises. Do you agree, or would you have found room for Star Fox, Kirby, or one of the others? Be sure to let me know, and thanks for reading!