The Nintendo 64 came out in America 24 years ago today, so screw it: let’s rank the stuff. Let’s rank the games you could play on the thing, or at least the best of those games. We’re gonna do 10 of ‘em. We could do more but who’s got time to read all that? We know you’re just going to skim this anyway, probably scroll right to the bottom to see if you’re bummed or happy that Ocarina of Time is or isn’t number one. (We’re not dumb, we know how this stuff works.) So we’re going to cap it to a quick and easy 10, like we’re making some clickbait YouTube video countdown, or something.
The Nintendo 64 was good. After straying away from Nintendo during the 16-bit era, and into the arms of first the TurboGrafx and then the Genesis, the 64 brought me back into the Nintendo fold. With groundbreaking 3D games like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the Nintendo 64 showed that the jagged, clunky ugliness of early polygonal games was simply a first step—that, with greater technology, games would be able to build three-dimensional spaces that weren’t either barebones or painful to look at. It also had a lot of games that we very much enjoyed, some of which left a lasting influence on the medium as a whole. Some of them are even still fun to play today. Some aren’t. Time’s like that: the way things feel can (and probably should) change greatly over the years.
If you want a solid history on the genesis of the Nintendo 64, go watch the documentary Console Wars on CBS All Access. It’s much better than Netflix’s gaming documentary series, High Score, or anything I could write in this intro.
So let’s dig into it. Here are Paste’s picks for the 10 best Nintendo 64 games.
10. 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
9. Blast Corps
The Nintendo 64 was the heyday for Nintendo’s relationship with Rare, the British game studio that Nintendo was a part owner of throughout the ‘90s. Blast Corps isn’t the studio’s most famous game for the system—that would be Goldeneye or Banjo-Kazooie—but it might have the most passionate cult following of any of them. It’s essentially a puzzle game rigged up with a few megatons of explosive action—you have to blow up buildings and other obstacles to keep a nuclear missile from leveling your city. It’s a fun, weird, challenging game unlike any other.—Garrett Martin
8. 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
7. 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
6. Goldeneye 007
It’s probably safe to say that GoldenEye is the most influential console shooter of all time—the game that took first-person shotoers from being thought of exclusively as a PC gamer’s domain into one of the most common console genres. It’s a game with a massive amount of nostalgia backing it, the fuel for so many late-night four-player deathmatches in The Stacks, The Facility, and other iconic levels. It set standards for first-person shooter weapons that have been tropes ever since—tell me that the phrase “proximity mines” doesn’t immediately make you think of GoldenEye. The goodwill toward it still makes fans overlook lot of the issues the game had, and it doesn’t hold up all that well today in either single or multiplayer modes, which are crippled by the incredibly clunky controls and inability to see more than 20 feet into the distance … but none of that really matters. The memories of playing GoldenEye are perhaps the singular experience of the N64 era, and they can’t be tarnished.—Jim Vorel
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. 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, but it’s impossible to diminish this game’s significance.—Garrett Martin
3. 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
2. WWF No Mercy
No Mercy is the best wrestling game AKI ever made, with the deepest create-a-character feature, the best championship mode and the smoothest grappling and reversal systems. It also features an absurdly great roster of all-time in-ring competitors; beyond such stalwarts as Steve Austin, the Rock and Mick Foley, it’s the only AKI WWF game with Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero and (a pre-family-murdering) Chris Benoit, who are all on the short list for best all-around workers of the era. So it’s the best wrestling system combined with the best Western roster, and thus the best wrestling game of all time. Also, and this is crucial: it is easily the most playable Nintendo 64 game in the year 2020. Despite its outdated roster and archaic technology, it’s as easy to play and enjoy today as it was 20 years ago.—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
Honorable Mentions: Banjo-Kazooie; Perfect Dark; Pokémon Stadium; Super Smash Bros.; WCW/nWo Revenge.