Lines are undoubtedly being drawn between gamers who prefer the newest, most technologically advanced games on the market and those who insist that video game design has long since seen its peak. A quick glance at the ebay market reveals that many gamers nowadays would sooner snatch up an original copy of games like Final Fantasy II for the Super Nintendo than get their hands on the newest installment of the series for PS2, and who could blame them? High-tech or no, some games simply can’t be topped. To help fuel the fire of the whole modern vs. retro debate, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list of games that after a decade or more have yet to be surpassed in terms of overall quality in their respective genres. These not-very-modern masterpieces remain staples of the gaming world even on the technologically advanced playing field of today’s consoles. All you designers out there, consider this a challenge. I present the list of the top 10 ‘retro’ games that can't be topped:

Castlevania games have always been great (the 2D ones, anyway), but Symphony of the Night is the cream of the crop. By incorporating RPG elements into the gameplay and borrowing heavily from the tried-and-true Metroid formula, SOTN took the Castlevania series to a new level, prompting players to explore and uncover the largest and most beautiful looking castle ever seen in the Castlevania series. Players took the role of Alucard, Dracula’s own son and easily the coolest protagonist ever to grace the series, and proceeded to hack their way through a seemingly endless castle that literally grows once you think you’ve made it all the way through. Classic Castlevania platforming, some fairly deep RPG elements, and a beautiful, haunting orchestrated soundtrack combined to make this game a winner among fans everywhere and revitalize the once floundering Castlevania franchise, seemingly for good. Fans have been clamoring for another 2-D Castlevania game on a home console, but for now we’re relegated to keeping our holy water close by and praying for a sequel.

Another game that won its merits by perfecting a classic formula, Rock n’ Roll racing took everything players loved about RC Pro Am, threw in some classic Black Sabbath and Deep Purple tunes, and came up with a winner. While this game unfortunately never rose to the level of fame it deserves, gamers who have played Rock n’ Roll racing know that it may well be the best racing game ever. The ability to customize vehicles and purchase weapons like rockets and landmines added a strategic angle and gave the game an unprecedented sense of excitement. There’s nothing like smoking your buddy’s vehicle with a laser blast just before he crosses the finish line ahead of you. Another great feature in Rock n’ Roll racing is the inclusion of a distinctly novel and hilarious announcer who sounds like he’s straight out of a monster truck rally commercial. While there’s no specific element that makes Rock n’ Roll Racing stand out among other racing games, a combination of several things done right makes it shine. If you haven’t played this one, seek it out at all costs.

If you’re surprised that this game made the list, you probably haven’t played it. To borrow a catch phrase from Brett ‘the Hitman’ Hart, WCW/NWO: Revenge is the best four player brawler there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be. The classic THQ/AKI engine that can now be found in such games as Def Jam: Vendetta was birthed with the N64 WCW/NWO games, and it’s never been better. The amount of grapples and power moves crammed into this game is absolutely mind boggling, the play control is seamless and the fighting engine is deep and balanced to perfection. The available roster is nothing to sneeze at, either. It’s got classic WCW mainstays like Sting and the Steiner Brothers alongside wrestling legends like Hulk Hogan and Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage. Yeah, the sound could have been better, but you’ll never find a more addictive wrestling-style game out there, even ten years after Revenge made its debut. While its N64 follow up, Wrestlemania 2000, is a great game in its own right, neither it nor any subsequent brawler has been able to match Revenge in terms of depth, balance, or sheer fun factor. The 3-D graphics may look dated by today’s standards, but Revenge still plays like it’s fresh out of the box.

Created by an upstart company by the name of Treasure just before the decline of the 16 bit era, Gunstar Heroes was quickly hailed by gamers in the know as a sidescrolling shoot-em-up masterpiece. It put Treasure on the map, and many would say that to this day the development studio has yet to top the monumental effort that is Gunstar Heroes. Taking on the role of Gunstars Blue and Red, players team up to battle an onslaught of wonderfully animated, comical bad guys and some unforgettable (and very familiar looking) bosses. Aside from graphics and an onscreen sprite count that are probably the greatest the Genesis ever realized, Gunstar Heroes is filled with unique elements that set this game leagues apart from your average side scrolling shooter. The ability to grab and throw enemies in close proximity, or throw your partner at enemies for a wicked-fast attack, added a minor but very cool dimension not previously seen in the genre. Levels like the dice board and the final battle where you’re being watched by villains on a monitor demonstrate the creative genius behind this game. The fact that I played this game for the first time less than a year ago may be a travesty, but it is also a testament to its timelessness. It is a rare but fantastic experience when a gamer as seasoned as myself can dig up a gem like this and experience it for the first time no less than twelve years after the demise of 2-D gaming. Gunstar Heroes will always hold a special place in my heart not only because it’s a great game, but also because for one memorable evening in 2005 when I popped this gem into my Genesis for the first time, it brought me and a friend back, if only fleetingly, to the best era of video gaming ever.

Easily one of the most anticipated games ever, Metal Gear Solid delivered everything gamers could hope for and then some. The best game ever released for the PS1 blew us away with its stylized graphics, terrific storyline, and groundbreaking game mechanics. The spoken dialogue raised the bar for voice acting in video games and the stealth-action game play set the standard for the flurry of stealth-oriented titles that would follow in the wake of MGS’ tremendous success. Perhaps most notable about MGS are the boss battles, each of which was unique and epic in its own right. Spraying the Ninja with uzi fire and watching him deflect every last bullet with his sword was one of many jaw-dropping moments that MGS offered. The Psycho Mantis battle stands as one of the most perplexing and ingenious moments in video game history. Aside from the awe-inspiring confrontations and nerve-shattering gameplay, cool in-game secrets and unlockables like the stealth outfit provide for excellent replay value. While MGS 3 on the PS2 came close, no other game of its kind has been able to dethrone the original MGS as the best stealth action game ever.

I cannot profess to having played every RPG that has been released since FF III, but I’ve played enough current-gen RPGs to know that FF III was without a doubt the pinnacle of the genre. With the release of FF VII for Playstation in 1997, Squaresoft forever changed the face of RPGs, moving them into a 3D realm and introducing features such as full motion video. As such, FF III is considered by many to be among the last of the old school RPGs. Contrarily, FF III did a number of things to push the genre forward. It featured engaging side quests, a ton of characters to acquire (each of whom had unique abilities), a complex and compelling storyline that focused on several individuals, and numerous secrets for players to unlock. The sheer mass of game play offered in FF III is unbelievable. The graphics were some of the best ever seen on the SNES, and the soundtrack is easily one of the best in video game history. Every RPG worth its salt since has been following the template that FF III laid out. Yeah, there have been some great RPGs since, but none have been able to topple this giant.

True to Piston Honda’s word, MT’s Punch Out! was indeed a TKO from Tokyo. A vague translation of the arcade hit by the same name, the home version of Punch Out! performed a rare feat for a home port by eclipsing the arcade version it was translated from. Adding a host of new characters including the now infamous Mike Tyson himself, Punch Out! simultaneously charmed and frustrated gamers everywhere with its comedic content and fit-causing final ‘dream bout’ against Iron Mike. While the game play was as rock solid as can be, the lion’s share of MT Punch Out’s charm lay in its hilarious characters, whose between round taunts and outrageous victory poses are the stuff of legend among gaming veterans. Many a gamer fondly recalls spending hours analyzing the strategies of opponents like King Hippo, Soda Popinski, and the Great Tiger, and internalizing the sage-like advice of Mac’s trainer Doc, who when all hope seemed lost would coach us to ‘Join the Nintendo Fun Club’! For those who understand that the feat of beating Mike Tyson in the dream bout is one of the greatest accomplishments in life, there is no doubt that Punch Out is pure gold in the realm of classic Nintendo lore.

Probably the most influential and important video game of the 90’s, Street Fighter 2 single-handedly defined an era. No one can debate the impact this game had when Capcom unleashed it upon the masses. Without it, there would be no Mortal Kombat, no Tekken, no Virtua Fighter, and certainly no Fatal Fury or King of Fighters. Before SF II, the best the fighting genre had to offer was games like Karate Champ, which while good, were leagues away from what fighting games would become in terms of game play as a result of SF II. Amazingly, even after the hordes of fighting games that followed in its wake, SF II remains one of, if not the most balanced and enjoyable fighting games available. Approximately ninety-two point six percent of video gamers across the globe can pull off the 'hadoken fireball' joypad motion in their sleep, and this game is the reason why.

Super Mario Bros 3 is and may forever be the most beloved side-scrolling platformer ever made. There’s not much to be said about Miyamoto’s masterpiece that hasn’t already been said a million times over, but the amount of fanfare this game still generates stands as a testament to its timelessness. SMB 3 bursts at the seams with ingenuity yet to be matched by its successors. Chock full of worlds to explore and secrets to uncover, and delivering the best graphics seen on the NES, SMB 3 delighted and charmed all who experienced its wonders. Who can forget the desert level where the sun comes alive and chases Mario through the entire stage, or the world where everything but Mario is absolutely gigantic? Even the marketing strategy for this game ruled. Super Mario Bros 3 was first revealed to fans through its appearance in the video game-based movie ‘The Wizard’, causing fans to froth at the mouth in anticipation. The television commercial for Super Mario 3 similarly went on to become a staple of retro-gaming fanfare: As fans chanting ‘Ma-ri-o! Ma-ri-o!’ gather together, the camera pans out to reveal the conglomerate of individuals forming a huge Mario face on the globe. Where such hugely anticipated games often fail to live up to the hype they generate, Super Mario Bros. 3 actually surpassed it.

A masterpiece in game design, Super Metroid expanded upon the groundbreaking ‘free exploration platforming’ formula used in the original Metroid, and the result is as close to perfection as video games have come. While the original Metroid was a fantastic game in its own right, many gamers found it frustrating due to issues such as a lack of save points and its insanely complicated password system. Super Metriod streamlines and makes perfect what was already a great game by correcting these issues and offering a larger world to explore with a ton of new items like the grappling beam and x ray visor, and an incredible amount of secrets to uncover. Super Metroid’s combination of platforming and free-roaming exploration combine with an epic atmosphere, from the opening sequence where Ridley kidnaps the hatchling Metroid creature right down to the final confrontation with Mother Brain, considered by many to be the greatest boss battle ever. Super Metroid never for a moment failed to provide a satisfying thrill ride, and fans soaked up every second of it. The graphics dazzled, the music resonated, and both the play control and learning curve were spot-on. The formula utilized in this game became the template for several hit games that would follow, including most notably Symphony of the Night and all subsequent Castlevania games, all of which went on to become bonafide hits in their own right. If there is one game that I’d be hard pressed to find a flaw in, it’s this one. In nearly every way, Super Metroid represents the pinnacle of 2-D gaming, and maybe even the peak of console gaming as a whole. In sum, Super Metroid is everything a great video game should be, and it rightfully stands as the greatest retro console game ever.

While I'm sure not everyone will agree with the choices on this list, I hope everyone can agree with at least a few of them. If anything, maybe this will inspire a designer or two out there to reflect on what makes games like these, without all the bells and whistles of modern graphical technology, timeless wonders that are as fun to play now as they were when they were released. Hopefully, we'll start seeing a few more games that ten years from now will be worthy of making a list like this one. (Honorable Mention:) GoldenEye (N64) Guardian Heroes (Saturn) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) Mega Man 2 (NES) Ninja Gaiden (NES) Tetris (NES)


List by desantis007 (10/30/2006)

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