Retro Gaming: Top 21 Nintendo 64 Games
While I started video gaming on the Nintendo Entertainment System and also played a lot of games on the Super NES, the Nintendo 64 is the system I truly grew up with and therefore the one with the most nostalgia associated with it. It might not have been as successful as Sony’s PlayStation, and there were certain technical limitations that hampered the N64’s potential (primarily Nintendo’s choice to go with cartridges rather than optical discs for games, as well as the console’s paltry four-kilobyte texture cache which forced developers to use extremely low-resolution textures and stretch them over large areas, leading to decidedly blurry visuals), but it is nevertheless a widely beloved system to this day and features some of the greatest games Nintendo has ever released.
In this article, I will be listing 21 of my personal favorite games on the N64. This is not meant to be an objective ranking, and I also haven’t played every single game in the console’s library so please don’t yell at me if your favorite game (say, Mischief Makers or Sin & Punishment) is missing. Got it? Good! On with the show, then!
21. Cruis’n USA (Williams/Nintendo, 1996)
All right, this might be a controversial one, but don’t throw those tomatoes at me just yet and allow me to explain. Yes, I’m perfectly aware that Cruis’n USA is commonly considered a bad game and a lackluster port of an already questionable arcade racer, and by most objective metrics that is exactly what it is.
That said, I find this to be one of those “so bad it’s good” titles – while the presentation is all kinds of awful and the gameplay is shallow, it manages to play just well enough to be entertaining, and the presentation (especially the soundtrack) is actually so awful that it rolls right back around to cool. The sequel, Cruis’n World, is objectively a far better game and the port by Eurocom is nearly arcade-perfect, but that just makes it more boring in comparison.
20. Pokémon Stadium (Nintendo, 2000)
It might seem laughable these days, but “Pokémon battles on your TV, in 3D!” was huge at the time of Stadium’s release. This was the height of the Pokémon craze, after all, and the fact you could actually use your Game Boy critters on the N64 with the Transfer Pak was a major selling point. Oh, and you could even play the Game Boy games in Stadium via the Transfer Pak, so you didn’t need to own a Game Boy to get into the action! The emulation wasn't perfect, but this was still a great way to play Pokémon at the time and you could even unlock a double or triple speed mode to speed up grinding.
If, for whatever reason, you're playing the game without your own Game Boy Pokémon, you can still take part in the various tournaments by using rental monsters. These guys are weaker than player-trained ones, but especially in the level 100 Prime Cup they can often come in handy. Interestingly enough, the Prime Cup is not the hardest cup in the game, the low-level ones are because the AI opponents tend to have Pokémon with skills nobody would normally have on low-level critters, so if you haven't been optimizing like a Dark Souls Undead Burg invader on crack, you'll get wrecked.
Pokémon Stadium has plenty of content to keep players busy. Besides the tournaments, you can fight all the gym leaders at the Gym Leader Castle, and if you win you earn a rare Pokémon for your Game Boy game. There's also a handful of forgettable minigames, but the battles are obviously the main draw here and Stadium does those very well, with nice graphics and animations for the N64.
19. Diddy Kong Racing (Rare/Nintendo, 1997)
Rare combined the Mario Kart formula with a 3D platformer adventure for this one, and also added planes and hovercraft to the mix. Some N64 fans swear by Diddy Kong Racing and think it’s the best kart racer ever made, but I much prefer Mario Kart. Still, DKR is a solid Rare release and worth checking out, even if the racing gameplay and track design fall short of Mario Kart 64 and the difficulty gets utterly sadistic very quickly.
This was also the first appearance of Banjo the bear and Conker the squirrel, who would later star in Banjo-Kazooie and Conker's Bad Fur Day respectively. If the latter game (which, by the way, is not on this list because I'm not a fan. The fact I didn't play it until Rare Replay's release may have something to do with that) is anything to go by, I'm not entirely sure if Conker should be allowed to operate any vehicles. It's also possible that Diddy Kong Racing's silver coin challenges and boss battles were what drove him into alcoholism.
18. Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey (Midway, 1996)
This is basically NHL Hitz ’97. If you’ve played the Hitz series, that is all that needs to be said. If not, well, this is a fast-paced arcade style hockey game with plenty of fights, big hits, and even bigger laughs to be had.
Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey didn't get a whole lot of attention when it came out, because it was a simple arcade game without a whole lot of meat around its bones. Yeah, I probably would've felt ripped off if I had paid full price for this back in 1997 (which is when the N64 came out in Europe), but it's extremely affordable nowadays and definitely worth checking out.
By the way, why does Wayne Gretzky always put his name on these silly arcade hockey games instead of more realistic ones? I'm guessing the answer is "money", but you'd think The Great One would rather endorse something a bit less reminiscent of the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers.
17. Star Fox 64 (Nintendo, 1997)
Or Lylat Wars, as it was known in our part of the world back in the day. I’ve never been a huge Star Fox fan, but the 64-bit iteration is widely regarded as a classic and is still fun to return to today. The spaceship combat is as enjoyable as it was in 1997, but the same can't be said for the levels with the Landmaster tank.
Star Fox 64 was the first N64 game to support the Rumble Pak accessory, and actually came bundled with one in this nice, big box. Nowadays, rumble functionality is something you don't even think about because it's been such a basic feature on every controller in the last couple of console generations now (except Sony's Sixaxis back in 2006, but that got replaced with the DualShock 3 pretty quickly), but back in 1997 it was something completely new in the console space. PC gamers already had various force feedback peripherals at that point, but the Rumble Pak was the first time we had something similar on consoles.
This game also spawned an internet meme or two, as you may know. I'm sure you all know the big one.
16. Perfect Dark (Rare/Nintendo, 2000)
The sci-fi themed spiritual successor to GoldenEye 007 improved on just about every aspect of the classic James Bond title, and would rank much higher on this list if it wasn’t for one major problem – the performance. Perfect Dark runs at an abysmally low frame rate on the N64 and is practically unplayable these days, and frankly I thought it was quite painful even in 2000.
Perfect Dark is one of the three N64 games to require the 4MB Memory Expansion Pak – while it technically works without the accessory, you can only play a handful of weapons training challenges. To access the campaign or the multiplayer modes, you need to plug in the Expansion Pak. With the Pak installed, you can choose between normal or hi-res video mode, both of which struggle to hit 15 frames per second at the best of times and especially the hi-res mode gets extremely choppy whenever anything happens.
Again, the actual game is excellent, but you should play this one on the Xbox 360 or Xbox One instead. That port runs at 1080p/60 fps, and the controls have been tweaked to work better on a modern controller.
15. Killer Instinct Gold (Rare/Nintendo, 1996)
"Available in your home in 1995, only on the Nintendo Ultra 64!" roared the ever-bombastic Killer Instinct announcer during the original 1994 arcade game's attract mode. However, as the system got delayed to late 1996, Rare decided to base the Nintendo 64 port on the Killer Instinct 2 arcade game instead of the original.
Killer Instinct Gold is probably the best traditional fighting game on the N64, for whatever that’s worth. If you were a fan of the genre, you probably owned a PlayStation and/or a Saturn, both of which feature far more extensive fighting game libraries than the N64. Still, you could do much worse than this on the N64, and while certain cutbacks had to be made to fit the game on a cartridge (mainly replacing the prerendered video cutscenes with static images, and the video backgrounds of the stages with real-time 3D ones), it still plays quite well. The excellent music is intact too, which is a nice bonus.
While Killer Instinct Gold is still very playable, you may want to pick up the original Killer Instinct 2 instead as it's included with the Ultra Edition of Killer Instinct: Season 2 on the Xbox One. Or, if you really want to play KI Gold for some reason, grab the Rare Replay compilation for the Xbox One. That compilation includes an emulated version of the N64 game, with upscaled graphics and achievements and all that stuff.
14. Vigilante 8 (Luxoflux/Activision, 1999)
Vehicular combat is one of those genres that has sadly fallen by the wayside over the years, and this is one of the classics of the genre along with Carmageddon (whose N64 version should be avoided like the plague), Twisted Metal and Interstate ’76. Vigilante 8 is in fact a spinoff of the latter, but plays more like Twisted Metal with a 1970s theme. Since it’s the 70s, we’ve got awesome muscle cars and dodgy hairstyles aplenty, not to forget one of the best soundtracks on the N64.
The frame rate is a bit too low to be enjoyable by today’s standards, especially in multiplayer, but back in the day this was good stuff and in many ways superior to the original PlayStation release. This, by the way, is the only PlayStation port on this list, although it's certainly not the only impressive one on the system.
13. Super Smash Bros. (HAL/Nintendo, 1999)
The single player mode in HAL's first foray into Smashing is utterly banal, but the multiplayer mode is a lot of fun and one of the finest four-player experiences on the system. Nintendo releasing a fighting game seemed like a strange choice back when Super Smash Bros. came out, but the game turned out to be very unique and enjoyable and started a franchise that is wildly popular even today.
Like most people, I’m more familiar with the sequels, but the original N64 release is a solid addition to your library if you can find it at a reasonable price. Which you probably won’t if you’re looking for a legit cart, since those cost a fortune nowadays. You still have a couple of weeks to buy the Virtual Console version on the Wii shop before Nintendo shuts that down, so you may want to get on that.
12. Banjo-Kazooie (Rare/Nintendo, 1998)
One of Rare’s many collect-a-thon type platformers on the N64, starring Banjo the slightly dim-witted bear and Kazooie the loudmouthed bird on a quest to save Banjo's little sister from a witch who always speaks in rhymes. Personally, I’m not a massive fan of platform games that focus on collectibles so heavily, but Banjo-Kazooie is so charming and funny that I can overlook that fact to an extent. This is nowhere near as much of a chore to play as something like Donkey Kong 64, the most infamous example of Rare's 64-bit excess.
I recommend the Xbox 360 rerelease, which has a few quality-of-life improvements that make the game more enjoyable.
11. Paper Mario (Intelligent Systems/Nintendo, 2001)
Initially known as Super Mario RPG 2 and then as Mario Story (which was kept as the Japanese title), until Nintendo decided to base the game’s Western name on its distinctive visual style. Paper Mario is a spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG for the SNES, but this time Squaresoft was not involved in any capacity.
Regardless, this is the best turn-based RPG on the system (not that there's a whole lot of competition), and features some genuinely funny writing and plenty of charm. As a late N64 release, the original cartridge is now very rare and expensive, but fortunately the game is available for the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console services.
10. Blast Corps (Rare/Nintendo, 1997)
A puzzle game where your job is to destroy a bunch of buildings to clear a path for a runaway nuclear missile carrier, a task which is accomplished using bulldozers, trucks and giant mechs. Oh yeah, sign me up!
Blast Corps is one of Rare's most original titles and remains a highly enjoyable experience, at least until the difficulty curve starts to resemble a cliff face. There really isn't anything else like this game on the market, so I recommend checking it out. Blast Corps can also be found on the Xbox One, as part of the Rare Replay compilation.
9. Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (Factor 5/LucasArts, 1998)
While it lacked the depth of the X-Wing and TIE Fighter games for the PC, Rogue Squadron provided an accessible way for Star Wars fans to fly their favorite ships from the trilogy (as well as the Naboo Starfighter, if you entered the correct cheat code) and blow up some Imperial scum.
Strangely, Rogue Squadron didn’t have any actual space combat missions aside from the rather half-baked Death Star trench run bonus level, and all operations in the main campaign took place on planets, but that was a minor nitpick at best. Rogue Squadron is also extremely challenging, and I never ended up beating some of the missions without cheats. The GameCube sequel, Rogue Leader, is a major improvement in every way, but the original Rogue Squadron is still a fun game and a technical showcase from Factor 5.
8. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 2000)
In the bizarre sequel to Ocarina of Time, Link finds himself in the strange land of Termina which just so happens to be 72 hours away from an apocalypse, courtesy of the moon coming crashing down. Your job as the Hero of Time is to repeat these three days over and over until you manage to prevent the disaster.
Some Zelda fans prefer Majora’s Mask to its illustrious predecessor, but I’m not one of those people because I don’t get along that well with time limits in games. However, Majora’s Mask is still an amazing game and a very unique release in the Zelda series thanks to its time-travel concept. It’s surprisingly dark and creepy for a Nintendo game as well, in case that wasn't already evident from the plot synopsis.
The 3DS remake changes a few things, some of the for the better and others for the worse. It does look better and play smoother, and comes out on top as the definitive version despite some questionable changes, but the N64 original definitely has its charm.
7. Wave Race 64 (Nintendo, 1996)
A jet-ski racing game based around realistic water physics might sound like an extremely ill-advised concept for the N64 considering the system’s limitations, but Wave Race 64 somehow pulled it off. This was not just a racing game where the track happened to look like water, you really had to master the waves and deal with different weather conditions to succeed.
For me, the defining moment of Wave Race 64 is the thick mist at Drake Lake slowly clearing up over the course of the race, eventually dissipating completely and giving you a proper look at the reflections on the lake’s tranquil surface. Fog was used in many N64 games to obscure draw distance issues, but that was not the case here and it was used purely as an atmospheric effect.
6. F-Zero X (Nintendo, 1998)
The original F-Zero was a launch title for the SNES, intended to show off the Mode 7 pseudo-3D capabilities of the system. F-Zero was a fun and challenging – very challenging – game with one of the most memorable soundtracks on the system, but as it was made primarily as a tech demo there wasn’t all that much to it in the end.
F-Zero X was a massive leap forward, taking the series’ brand of futuristic death sled racing to full 3D and cranking the speeds up to ridiculous levels. Races would now feature 30 cars on the grid, and the tracks were more like rollercoasters than anything else. All of this ran at 60 frames per second, which easily makes up for the lackluster graphics. And of course, we can't forget the rocking soundtrack either.
5. WCW/nWo Revenge (AKI/THQ, 1998)
Professional wrestling was huge in the late 1990s, and many games based on the sport (for lack of a better term) were released in that era for different systems. Of course, every wrestling fan worth their salt knew that the N64 was the console to own, thanks to AKI’s efforts on the platform.
While Acclaim’s WWF War Zone and WWF Attitude might have looked nicer in screenshots and had an extensive create-a-wrestler mode for the time, their quasi-fighting game approach to gameplay felt clunky and the animations were laughable. AKI’s World Championship Wrestling titles had a more robust gameplay engine based around a deceptively in-depth grappling system, which made the moves easy to pull off and gave you all the tools to work a proper match in (and around) the ring.
As WCW began its spectacular implosion in 1999, publisher THQ picked up the WWF license from Acclaim, and AKI went on to develop WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and the beloved WWF No Mercy. Both are excellent games (as is the Japan-only, All Japan Pro Wrestling-licensed Virtual Pro Wrestling 2: Oudou Keishou, but sadly I've only played that on an emulator and as such it's not eligible for the list), but Revenge is my personal favorite due to its more varied roster.
4. Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo, 1996)
I love the Mario Kart series, and this is where that love truly began. While I played plenty of Super Mario Kart on the SNES and enjoyed it well enough, the Mode 7 racer was never very accessible to newcomers and the difficulty would get downright brutal.
The first true 3D title in the series, Mario Kart 64 was tailored for multiplayer shenanigans and featured a far more forgiving difficulty curve than its predecessor, along with a more varied track selection. The game is a bit infamous for its rubberbanding and especially its introduction of the blue shell, but it remains one of the finest multiplayer experiences on the N64.
3. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996)
Super Mario 64 was not the first 3D platformer, but it was the first one to do it right. There were so many things that Nintendo’s first attempt at creating a 3D platform game excels in, but the most important aspect they had to get right was the controls. Tying Mario’s movement to the full range of the analog stick was a masterstroke and ensured that the N64’s flagship launch title would not suffer from the clunky controls of many of its contemporaries. Only the occasionally wonky camera detracts from the experience.
Super Mario 64 spawned myriad imitators in the 32/64-bit era, and 3D action games are influenced by its design even today.
2. GoldenEye 007 (Rare/Nintendo, 1997)
The game that revolutionized console first-person shooters and brought multiplayer FPS gaming to the masses. No, it’s not the smoothest experience these days and never ran as well as PC shooters such as Quake in the first place, but GoldenEye’s mission and level design has aged remarkably well.
The missions had more and harder objectives on tougher difficulties, while the maps were created as environments first and video game levels second. This helped give them a real sense of place that many FPS levels lack even today, and Rare also crammed them full of small details and interactivity. Most importantly, the shooting was fun, and that’s what's kept us coming back to this classic all these years.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998)
It was always going to be either GoldenEye or this at the top of the list. Ocarina of Time ended up getting the nod because its gameplay (which, just like Mario 64, continues to influence 3D action games to this day) has aged far more gracefully than Rare’s legendary shooter.
Indeed, while the graphics are a blocky and blurry mess these days, the core gameplay remains incredibly solid – Ocarina of Time could easily be (re)released today with updated graphics and no other major changes, and would still be considered a masterpiece even though its mechanics have been improved upon by later games in the series. In fact, that is exactly what happened with the 2011 remake on the 3DS, which only improved the graphics and fixed a few glitches, and remains one of the greatest games on the system.
And there we go, those are my top 21 Nintendo 64 games! The list was surprisingly tough to put together and there are still several great games on the system that didn't quite make the cut. I hope you enjoyed the article, and if you're looking for even more gaming content, feel free to visit Three Voices Gaming!