15. Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo, 3DS, 2011)
With the 3DS fumbling at the starting line with tech demos and N64 remakes — all good stuff; great stuff, even, but an ill-advised method of padding out a six-month launch window, let alone sell people on your expensive new handheld– it was time for Nintendo’s famous plumber to successfully demonstrate its risky new hardware; after all, what better guinea pig than the series that revolutionized gaming with Super Mario 64? Super Mario 3D Land was more than up for the task, as isn’t satisfied with transparent eye candy. In wisely designing the game around the 3D effect, Mario’s first 3D handheld adventure encourages open-ended risk in levels going down, down, down, pressures us with tight-knit acrobatics in massive platforms swinging to-and-fro, and delights in occasionally tossing in left-field oddballs like, say, a top-down Zelda tribute.
With how much 3D Land hues closer to 2D Mario in flagpoles and time limits, there grew concerns of homogenization — I confess that for all of the imagination found in its sequel Super Mario 3D World, there lurked an uncomfortable familiarity beneath its smooth graphics and big-band pizazz. No such disdain’s birthed here, however — in playing tricks on our eyes in hiding world-unlocking Star Coins, reducing context to a side-story picture book, and reserving a special surprise for its post-game, there’s an appropriately humble ambition in how 3D Land inclines us to make like a Tanooki and float away again and again within its bite-sized levels. 3DS’s 3D gimmick may be old-hat, but its legacy in top-tier video games like this endure — what else can you ask from Mario?
Best Moment: I’m a sucker for nostalgic Mario references, so naturally, I gotta go with Level 2-3’s freefall among suspended pixellated sprite blocks. Do I risk it and gauge an unwise (yet ever so tempting!) jump, or just leisurely enjoy the ride with Tanooki Mario or Propeller Blocks? Either way, I’m always having a grand ol’ time.
Worst Moment: Uh, Special World Crown was prone to lost lives, I guess.
Best Song: The beach theme earns my vote for the best original new theme, although Special World 3 brought on some nostalgic feels for whatever reason. And hey, how about that subtle Flipnote Studio cameo? Even before I learned the context, that was a pacifying little thing — maybe I wasn’t expecting something so subdued for the final world?
Final Thoughts: Listening to the above music tracks brings back some good memories of my first semester of college; ah, I was so innocent…
14. Donkey Kong Country Returns (Retro Studios, Wii/3DS, 2010/2013)
With how a no-name Western studio rose to eminence by ambitiously transforming Metroid into engrossing first-person shooting adventures (that being the Metroid Prime Trilogy), Retro Studios stepping up to revive Donkey Kong Country’s side-scrolling glory may seem like a downgrade. Yet when considering the aughts’ dismal treatment of Nintendo’s famous gorilla (recall that just followed Rare’s departure), it’d take nothing less than a team known for expertly re-purposing dormant franchises to resuscitate a beloved platformer. Retro’s passion for Rare’s classic trilogy shines throughout Donkey Kong Country Returns all the while implementing their trademark flair for environmental storytelling — each stage showcases a microcosm into the Tiki-hypnotized populace of DK Island, from the community of pyromaniac miner moles terrorizing Donkey Kong’s mine-cart rides or a fiendish octopus chasing after our simian hero during a stormy typhoon.
Even as we’re arrested by the game’s attention to detail (not the least in its beautiful silhouette levels — who is that familiar shadow hammering away in the factory mists?), Returns’s dedication to weave humorous hijinks throughout daredevil set-pieces is what ultimately captivates us. Capitalizing upon what everyone loved about the SNES trilogy (exploiting muscle memory to blaze through levels), Retro Studios commits this design philosophy to heart and not merely surpasses the original game, but stands even above Donkey Kong Country 2 in its addictive blend of boppin’ enemies and It’s not perfect — as I elaborate in Worst Moment, the emphasis on motion controls was enough to turn off some — but the thrills throughout never dull. As a certain ill-conceived rap once uttered: Donkey Kong is here.
Best Moment: Uh, can you say the mine-cart world? The imagination and engagement on display is insane, what with the bombs thrown about, totaled railroads playing into makeshift circus acts, and giant icicles plunging down everywhere. Tropical Freeze certainly got imaginative with its more original environments, but I can’t even begin to recall anything as relentlessly heart-pounding as this.
Worst Moment: When you fail a Time Trial because the shaky controls wouldn’t register your hand-slap. And to rub salt in the wound, the time nonsensically carries over into your next run, so you have to pause and reset! Augh! At the least the 3DS version removed motion controls. (And hey, can’t go wrong with an exclusive world!)
Best Song: While Kenji Yamamoto and co. did come up with some new bangers (the Rocketbarrel theme, the Tiki motif), your can tell their original level compositions — often accompanied with poor MIDI and uninspired melodies — took a backseat to reviving Donkey Kong Country‘s classic soundtrack. Aquatic Ambiance, Life in the Mines, or Fear Factory, you name it — we’re back in 1994.
Final Thoughts: Might the next Donkey Kong game dare trek once more into the 3D realm? Look, we forgave Rare for Donkey Kong 64…
13. Kirby’s Epic Yarn/Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn (Good-Feel, Wii/3DS, 2010/2019)
The Golden Age of Kirby games is a run without parallel in the series, and yet while that may’ve gotten its true start with HAL’s own Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, I remain ever more captivated with the series’ pseudo-spin-off in Good-Feel’s Kirby’s Epic Yarn. An opinion surely blasphemous to those claiming it’s not a true Kirby — a sentiment born from its original conception as a new IP — and yet even still, I’m never not astounded how much it echoes the series’ mantra of “anyone can reach the ending”. For all its incessant cuteness, never once is Epic Yarn patronizing in its deathless Kirby — it’s inviting and gentle in wanting anyone to have a good time, yet remains firm towards completionists in unceremoniously depleting your score-dependent bead inventory.
Not once are we prone to contempt, however — incidental obstacles encourage us to stop and smell the flowers in swinging from trees and bouncing on drums, whereas careful applications of Metamortex transformations in dolphins and giant robots instill that familiar sugar-rush of Kirby power-ups. If I’m tired of adventuring, I head back home to Kirby’s apartment and carefully arrange my hard-earned furniture. Does this accomplish anything? No, but who cares when I can involve myself into something so therapeutic? Retro’s Donkey Kong efforts may’ve elevated standards for 2D platforming, Mario Maker unleashed our imaginations, and even HAL’s own Kirby games raised the bar for that particular franchise, but this was something new: a relaxation simulator disguised as a platformer. Humble as it is meditative, Kirby’s Epic Yarn’s invaluable therapy in handling my grief and loneliness renders this my favorite side-scroller of the ’10s.
Best Moment: I can’t supply written justice to the catharsis brought about by the opening level in Fountain Gardens; really, given how everyone loves Tankbot Kirby — its climax, for the uninitiated — I don’t think anyone could complain me putting that here.
Worst Moment: I love most of the Metamortex segments, but the train’s the one and only gameplay bust — shoehorned motion controls at its ugliest, blech.
Final Thoughts: Did anyone else play the 3DS port? I think that upped the difficulty ante with Devilish Mode, if I do say so myself.
12. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo, Switch, 2017)
With 3D Mario inching a little too close towards linear design — a process cleverly disguised back within 2007’s panoramic Super Mario Galaxy — it was high time for something like Super Mario Odyssey to sledgehammer this long-in-the-tooth assimilation and fall back upon its revolutionary roots; namely, returning to Mario 64‘s more open-ended progression. Appealing to our curiosity with the “Capture” mechanic — wherein Mario takes over the body of anyone and anything with his Cappy-powered hat — the game encourages us to poke and prod about the various kingdoms within, prone to delightful discoveries in our quest to hunt down every last moon. Playing into the best Mario controls in over a decade, we’re just as determined to completion (gaining Moons or popping player-hidden balloons in the online Balloon World) as much as we engage in mindless fun (you’re just as guilty as I am in wreaking senseless scooter-based havoc upon New Donk City).
While Odyssey‘s lower ranking here owes to its work-in-progress concept — much as I admire its passion in jamming 999 moon missions, there’s some worthwhile truth in sloppy progression) — it’s most admirable in representing Nintendo’s newfound confidence in stepping outside of their comfort zone. Mario jogging alongside New Donk City’s realistically-proportional humans should be just as blasphemous as the maligned Mario is Missing!‘s educational take on that thorny idea, yet Odyssey flawlessly situating them alongside our heroic plumber’s cartoonish antics — as if breaking the same boundaries of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? — captures that 30+ year magic of what’s made Mario endure: Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision of Mario’s everyman adapability, with the series being anything and everything it wants to be. As evidenced below, nothing illustrates this better than the incredible Photo Mode; more particularly, how adventurous Nintendo’s mascot can get with his various get-ups. Haters gonna hate!
Best Moment: The New Donk City Festival was a heartwarming journey back into time, and a perfect encapsulation of Nintendo’s reverence to its own history. Ooh, and returning to a certain location from Super Mario 64…nostalgia heaven, my paisanos!
Worst Moment: The snow level, while fun in its own right, was a little too rigid in adhering to mini-games and obstacle courses. Nothing wrong with trying something new, of course, but still…
Best Song: Much as I love Fossil Falls, can there be any other choice than Jump Up, Super Star? Yet another signature of Odyssey‘s ambition in breaking Mario conventions conventions, it’s blissfully infectious in both performance and naked optimism.
Final Thoughts: Like a certain Zelda game later on in this list, I view this game as a rough draft of how Nintendo could really pull off with what they’ve learned here.
11. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U (Namco-Bandai, 3DS and Wii U, 2014)
Given that Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U are basically the same game operating on the same engine — idiosyncratic twins, you could say– it’s sensible to situate both in the same spot. Really, let’s dispense with the nasty “argh Brawl/4 is proof Sakurai hates competitive gaming!” rhetoric that still littered Smash discourse at the time, and review the fruits of Namco-Bandai’s labor — namely in that we had two complete versions of Smash Bros. launch within the same time frame with a cast of over fifty characters, with DLC aggressively transforming Smash Bros.‘s visual identity from that of a Nintendo all-star fracas into one uniting all corners of gaming (You want some Street Fighter, Final Fantasy, and Bayonetta with your Nintendo/Sonic/Mega Man/Pac-Man combo meal?). Oh, and let’s not forget their distinct honor in being the first application of those collectible toys-to-life amiibo!
Point is, you can play either version and walk away feeling it’s not something you’d enjoy; you can’t play and pretend Masahiro Sakurai isn’t committed to his vision: a springboard from a concept anyone can play — a comically glorified sumo match hosting beloved gaming icons and operating upon simplified controls — into scrupulously picking apart the full-fledged buffet placed in front of us. From engaging in the Kirby Air Ride-inspired Smash Run to humorously posing trophies in Trophy Diorama, not once during the four-year reign I held over my virtual toy chest was I ever left wanting for more. Little did we know it was all a testing ground for the 2018 miracle to come.
Best Moment: For 3DS? The joy in playing the first Smash game in six years. (Oh, I’m already nostalgic for the hype!) For Wii U? Recognizing that nothing represents Smash’s playful “anything is possible” id more than this.
Worst Moment: For 3DS? When you recognize your countless hours of intensive play has worn away your 3DS Circle Pad into input-delayed plastic. For Wii U? When you step into Smash Tour and realize, “They spent all that time making this?”
Best Stage: For 3DS? Magicant’s immaculate love letter to the first two EarthBound games, right down to space-time continuum flashbacks reenacted in the background. For Wii U? I’m probably one of the five people on Earth who appreciate The Great Cave Offensive’s glory; c’mon, I know there’s more of you out there!
Best Arrangement: As we describe in our The Best 25 Smash Bros. For Wii U and 3DS Remixes list, Yoko Shimomura’s Magicant/Eight Melodies track from EarthBound Beginnings is nothing less than a masterclass of tear-terking nostalgia; seriously, I ain’t afraid to admit I cried hearing it the first time.
Final Thoughts: Man, I miss Smash Run.