September 29, 1996 remains forever etched in stone as one of the video game industry’s most defining moments, for some people anyway. The sun rose that Sunday morning and people all over America flocked to the closest electronics store in hopes of securing the Nintendo 64 console for themselves. But even those who rushed out to buy the system that first day might not have guessed just how iconic and influential the system would become, releasing a steady stream of top-tier titles. By the time Nintendo moved on from the N64 and released the Gamecube, a total of 387 games called the N64 home. From company mainstays like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda, to newcomers like the dinosaur-hunter named Turok, the N64’s game library was vast and varied.
On the occasion of Nintendo’s announcement that N64 games are finally coming to the Wii U Virtual Console, we’ve sifted through the console’s catalog to pick the absolute best. We took into account everything from a game’s lasting appeal, to how revolutionary it was when released, to its overall fun factor. Trust us, it’s no easy task picking just 30; so many other titles were close to making the final cut. So for all you N64 lovers, here are the 30 games we feel most deserve a playthrough (or five).
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Though this list is in no particular order, how could we start without first mentioning Ocarina of Time? Following Super Mario 64’s lead in transitioning from 2D to 3D, Nintendo blew the doors off the Zelda franchise with its N64 installment. Set in the mythical land of Hyrule, players control the iconic Link as he sets out to rescue princess Zelda and thwart the evil plans of Ganondorf. Though the plot sounds familiar, the game was anything but when it was first released back in 1998. From its revolutionary Z-targeting system to its context-specific button configurations, the title introduced a bevy of features which became standard for 3D games moving forward.
Heralded by many as one of the best — if not the best — video games of all time, Ocarina of Time set gamers on a sprawling epic not previously seen in three dimensions. Ocarina of Time featured incredible dungeon design, an unforgettable cast of characters, and a storyline rife with adventure that stands the test of time.
2. Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64 not only saw Nintendo’s frontman Mario dive in to a 3D landscape for the first time, but it also established the Nintendo 64 as a powerhouse console from day one. Players control Mario as he collects the 120 Gold Stars strewn about Princess Peach’s enormous castle. Like previous games in the franchise, it featured a slew of power-ups, unique baddies, and several iconic Bowser battles spanning various environments. The game introduced several new maneuvers for Mario as well, such as the ability to backflip, triple jump, and the ever-so-useful wall jump.
Aside from the revolutionary level design and enthralling gameplay, Super Mario 64 also changed the gaming landscape with the introduction of the 3D, free roaming mode. Not only did this style go on to define the Mario franchise, but it set the bar for future 3D platformers. Plain and simple, Super Mario 64 is puzzle platforming at its finest and remains one of gaming’s greatest titles of all time. It is also, appropriately, the first N64 game available for the Wii U Virtual Console.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
A follow-up to Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask flipped the Zelda franchise on its head once again. Having benefited from an upgraded version of its predecessor’s game engine, Nintendo released Majora’s Mask a mere two years after Ocarina of Time. Although players once again took the control of Link, absent are pivotal characters such as Zelda and Ganondorf. Furthermore, the game takes place in the land of Termina instead of Hyrule, yet it still manages to excel without the familiar setting and cast of characters.
The story finds Link in search of his — spoiler alert — departed fairy Navi, who left him at the conclusion of Ocarina of Time. After getting ambushed by Skull Kid and robbed of his horse and the Ocarina of Time, Link teams up with the fairy Tatl to seek revenge against Skull Kid. The duo travels to Clock Town in search of Skull Kid and sees the town facing impending doom in just three days from a falling moon. Link only achieves so much during the three days before needing to travel back in time and begin again from Day 1 or else see the town destroyed. This timer gave the game a unique and challenging rhythm.
4. GoldenEye 007
Though PC gamers had enjoyed 3D, first-person shooters for some time, console gamers were relatively unaware of them before GoldenEye 007 burst on the scene in 1997. It was released nearly two years after the Pierce Brosnan film of the same name hit theaters, but that did little to hinder its success. Players assumed the role of the iconic James Bond as he thwarted a criminal gang from using the weaponized GoldenEye satellite upon the city of London. It was one of the first games of its kind to feature open, 3D levels which players could explore on their own and complete objectives in any order they chose.
While the single-player campaign was fun for a play-through or two, multiplayer gave it staying power. Capable of swallowing whole weekends in the blink of an eye, GoldenEye’s split-screen deathmatches were as fun as anything on the N64. The game allowed up to four players to compete at once, on any of its 20 levels. Several gameplay modes kept it fresh, such as The Man with the Golden Gun, You Only Live Twice, or the one-shot kill mode, License To Kill. No matter which you played, there was nothing quite like roaming around Facility with three of your friends and blowing one another to smithereens.
5. Perfect Dark
The spiritual successor to GoldenEye, Perfect Dark took everything good about its predecessor and made it even better. It operated on a modified version of GoldenEye’s game engine and anybody who’s played both recognizes the similarities. Where Perfect Dark stood out from Rare’s original shooter was its engrossing storyline, increased functionality of the game’s weapons, and the introduction of combat “Simulants” in multiplayer. Players assume the role of Joanna Dark, an agent working for a research and development center called the Carrington Institute. After a series of events leads her down a rabbit hole of conspiracy, science fiction, and peculiar Scandinavians, Dark finds herself in the middle of an interstellar battle.
Like GoldenEye, the single player experience of Perfect Dark is a rousing good time, but its multiplayer is where the game truly shined. You and up to three friends could participate in a split-screen deathmatch using an array of weapons and characters from the main game. Where Perfect Dark raised the bar was with its inclusion of what it called “Simulants,” which functioned as computer-controlled bots. Players could load up to eight per match and set their skill level, team affiliation, and a wide range of configurable behaviors, like targeting the player in the lead.