Since the Nintendo Switch Online subscription service launched in 2018, it’s included a collection of classic games from the NES and SNES. Think of it as Nintendo’s old Virtual Console concept, but reborn as something sort of like Xbox Game Pass. Not all of the emulation is perfect, and some of the games that have been added to the lineup over the years have been unusual selections, but overall it’s added a lot of value to a service that exists mostly to let people play each other online. So when Nintendo added a number of Nintendo 64 games to an upcharged version of the service in 2021, you’d think fans would have been excited.
Well, that’s not really the case. Between a slim roster of Nintendo 64 games, the extra cost (Nintendo Switch Online is $20 a year, whereas the new Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack costs $50), and the inconsistent quality of the emulation, the general reaction to this move has been less than positive. It even inspired another wave of online discourse about the ethics of illegal emulation in a medium that puts little effort in accurately preserving its history. What Nintendo probably assumed was a fan-friendly move to make its classics playable today instead left a lot of people feeling angry or disappointed.
It’s true that the Nintendo 64 emulation on Nintendo Switch Online isn’t the best. Part of that is because of the unusual layout of the Nintendo 64 controller, with a single analogue joystick, four small yellow directional buttons next to the traditional A and B face buttons, and a gun-style trigger button on the bottom. There’s no easy or graceful way to map control schemes built for that layout onto the standard Switch controller, and although Nintendo has released a Nintendo 64 controller for the Switch, it’s a limited edition novelty that sold out quickly. As great as some of these Nintendo 64 games are, it can be hard to properly enjoy them on a Switch controller.
That doesn’t make the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack a total bust. It also comes with a bunch of Sega Genesis games, as well as an Animal Crossing: New Horizons DLC pack. If you’re only in it for the old Nintendo 64 games, though, you might be a little bummed about the whole thing.
If you can get used to the occasional emulation hiccup or the new control scheme (or were lucky enough to get a Nintendo 64 Switch controller), you’ll find that some of these games from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s hold up remarkably well today. Nintendo is fastidious about play-testing their games and making them as polished as they can be before hitting stores, and that helps their best games age better than almost any other developer’s. Even if you didn’t play Paper Mario or Super Mario 64 at the time, and have no nostalgia for ‘em, you’re still likely to enjoy them today.
So with the caveats about the varying quality of the emulation and the awkward controls out of the way, let’s look at the core games themselves, and pick out the best of the bunch. None of the versions on Nintendo Switch Online are perfect, but all five are still fundamentally strong enough to remain fun and charming today, and this remains the only way to officially play them on the Switch.
7. Pokémon Snap
Leave it to Nintendo to scrub the murderous intentions from your typical Big Game Safari and hunt instead for high-quality photographs of their famous pocket monsters. At the time, the novelty of waiting for creatures to appear to take their photo was seen as a shallow, quick cash-in on the growing Pokémon craze, but seeing Pikachu and Bulbasaur in full color polygons for the first time was magic. Its cult status has only grown with time.—Jon Irwin
6. Paper Mario
The strangeness of Mario’s forays into the role-playing genre only grow with this, the first sequel to Super Mario RPG and the first time we see Mario reduced to a single slip of wood pulp. Consider the time: This was the era of polygonal wastelands and ambitious three-dimensional movement. Nintendo already played that game with Super Mario 64; in their inimitable fashion, they zagged while the industry kept trying to zig, pressing their hero into a flat plane and making the Mushroom Kingdom a giant set of pop-up book dioramas.
The result? A clean, refreshing style that still holds up today. Bonus points for the introduction of Chuck Quizmo, a floating worm who wears a top hat and hosts a game show. The world needs more game shows.—Jon Irwin
5. Mario Kart 64
This is the one that changed it all. Mario Kart 64 introduced 3D tracks, four-player multiplayer and redefined the roster of power-ups. Not only did players get to equip a ring of shells for the first time—letting you roll three red or green shells deep at once—but this was the first appearance of the now iconic blue shell. The courses themselves were so massive, so much bigger than Super Mario Kart’s courses, that the number of laps in a race had to be cut down from 5 to 3. Like most games on the Nintendo 64, Mario Kart 64 took a beloved game into the 3D age, avoiding disaster and defining the direction of the series for close to two decades.—Casey Malone
4. Sin & Punishment
Treasure’s rail shooter was never released for the Nintendo 64 in America; our first chance to blast through its shooting galleries came through the Nintendo 64 channel on the Wii’s Virtual Console, almost a decade after it was originally released. Even with the passage of time and two different gaming generations the sheer quality of Sin & Punishment still stood out. This was a smooth, fluid, gorgeous game that was overwhelming in the best possible way, and proved just because a shooter was on rails didn’t mean it had to feel archaic or boring. The original’s better than the Wii sequel.—Garrett Martin
3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Often called the greatest game of all time (at least until Breath of the Wild came out…), Link’s first adventure in 3D is about as crucial as videogames get. It translated the massive world and enchanting mysteries of the Zelda series into a state-of-the-art immersive world, proving that 3D was the future for all action games, and not just first-person shooters. It also amplified the already powerful Zelda series into a kind of modern mythology, with its own recurring archetypes and increasingly torturous lore. It hasn’t aged as well as other games on this list, and it’s especially impacted by the Switch’s emulation and controller issues, but it’s impossible to diminish this game’s significance.—Garrett Martin
2. Super Mario 64
It’s not an understatement to say that Super Mario 64 is one of the most important videogames of all time. In the annals of Mario, it’s at worst second in that regard, right after the original Super Mario Bros., and is potentially tied with it. Both games held titanic influence over their respective genres, with Super Mario 64 in particular also representing a huge technological advancement for videogames. It’s still as fantastic today as it was 24 years ago, and remains a must play for anybody interested in the history of the medium, but it comes in at number three on this list because importance alone doesn’t make it a more impressive or enjoyable game than two that have come since.—Garrett Martin
1. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
There are probably many reasons why Majora’s Mask commanded my attention as it did; it was bizarre, and dark, and in many ways embraced the completionism that would come to drive game design in the following decades. In Majora’s Mask, not only did you need to visit an area or dungeon over and over (like many games with Easter Eggs, special items, or collectibles), in fact, that was the entire point. Link is trapped in a repeating 3-day cycle that allows him to piece together key information that logistics and time constraints would have otherwise made him miss. With his journal, he’s able to keep track of these details and use them to solve puzzles and gain whatever tool is needed to access the next part of his journey. If the player missed something or needed to witness a certain conversation, it wasn’t truly gone. They could always play the Song of Time and give it another go. At a time when not nearly as many games had a save system that allowed the player to correct any mistakes or early game mishaps, Majora’s Mask let you rewind, go back, and try again. Majora’s Mask gave you a do-over.—Holly Green