The 14 best retro games for Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack subscribers

Polygon Essentials is a collection of persistently updated lists of the best of the best games for each platform — from the hardware’s launch to its end of production — as well as the best entertainment across virtually every medium. For folks new to a platform, think of this as a starter kit. For long-term fans, consider it a list of what to play or watch next. We’ll be updating these lists often, with entries listed in reverse chronological order. To see a collection of other titles we recommend that might not have made the Essentials lists, check out Polygon Recommends.

For a few years now, Nintendo Switch Online has allowed players to run emulated versions of their favorite Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System games. But with the addition of the Expansion Pack this fall, players are also able to check out a small collection of Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis titles from the late 90s and early 2000s.

We’ve looked through all the libraries and compiled a list of the top 14 games available across all four retro consoles. Some of these games are historically significant, while others may be hidden gems you’ve never played.

Here are the must-play retro games available on Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.

Donkey Kong (NES)

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The original Donkey Kong is the definition of a classic. It’s the Mario origin story and, unlike many of the other NES games on the Nintendo Switch online service, not in a curated pack like Super Mario All-Stars or Super Mario 3D All-Stars. It’s a tone-downed look from the Mario you know, trading side-scrolling levels for a single climb toward Donkey Kong and the lady he’s kidnapped, Pauline (whom you may recognize from Super Mario Odyssey).

Donkey Kong emphasizes timing and sound, giving you simple controls and a pile of stress. Even on Switch, your hands tighten around the controller just before you leap over one of Donkey Kong’s barrels. And it’s that feeling — the sigh of relief as you wipe your sweaty palms on your jeans the second you reach Donkey Kong — that’s kept us coming back for decades.

Blaster Master (NES)

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Blaster Master is one of the few games in the NES Nintendo Switch Online collection that still feels somewhat modern. The whole hook of the 2D side-scroller is that you’ve got a high tech, super powerful car at your disposal that you can jump in and out of at will. While you’re in the car, you’ve got outstanding mobility and firepower, but you’ll frequently have to leave it behind to explore smaller caves and underground dungeons filled with monsters (whereupon the game turns into a top-down shooter).

This back-and-forth, with a touch of gear-gating for good measure, makes Blaster Master feel way ahead of its time. As an added bonus, if you find yourself smitten by the game, it’s worth noting that a new trilogy, starting with 2017’s Blaster Master Zero, has successfully reimagined the series over the last few years. —Russ Frushtick

Super Mario All-Stars (SNES)

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Super Mario All-Stars is a bit of a cheat for this list, because it compiles some of the best NES games of all time in a single SNES collection. All-Stars remasters the NES classics and features versions of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Super Mario Bros. 3.

Some of the versions look and sound a bit different — and Lost Levels even received some difficulty tuning — but the spirit and the levels are the same. It’s the perfect way to experience the Mario classics in a slightly more modern package, with 16-bit instead of 8-bit graphics. And because all of the games are available outside of Super Mario All-Stars on the NES emulator, you can always compare for yourself after you’ve run left to right through this Super Mario Bros. history.

Super Mario World (SNES)

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Super Mario World is arguably the best Mario game ever made, built to harness the power of the Super Nintendo. Its colorful art style pops, even decades later, and gives fans their best look at the Mushroom Kingdom.

Super Mario World is instantly recognizable and packed with personality. It’s got secrets hidden around the map, and unique boss fights like Bowser’s clown car. It trades out the Tanooki Suit for World’s famous cape, allowing skilled players to fly about levels and reach new areas. What’s more, Mario gets a second life with Yoshi’s help, adding new dimensions to each level. It’s set the standard for every 2D Mario game that followed.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is widely regarded as one of the best video games ever made. It built the modern Zelda formula that Zelda followed for decades, asking Link to move from dungeon to dungeon collecting new items and rescuing sages. It’s possibly the most influential game on a list full of influential games.

Of everything in the SNES collection, A Link to the Past holds up not just as the genesis for what Zelda would become, but as a difficult, well-designed masterpiece for a modern player. Everyone with a Switch Online membership should check it out.

Super Metroid (SNES)

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Super Metroid helped spawn one of the world’s most popular genres: the Metroidvania. This is Samus’ Super Nintendo turn, which takes her into the bowels of a new planet to find a host of new upgrades.

Super Metroid is arguably Samus’ most iconic adventure, and the one that secured the Metroid legacy. It added plenty of new tools for players to experiment with, but it’s the game’s emphasis on exploring a sprawling world — the Super Bomb through the glass hallway, the animals teaching you to wall jump — that makes the entry so innovative, and keeps it fresh in players’ minds.

Kirby Super Star (SNES)

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Kirby Super Star is the perfect Kirby game. Or rather, it’s nine perfect Kirby games. Instead of being a singular, contained adventure, Super Star has multiple game types, story campaigns, and multiplayer modes. They can play through a remake of the first game, take on the villain known as Marx, battle against Meta Knight, or just race King Dedede to eat some food.

Super Star highlights the best part of Kirby — that he’s an everyman. All of these modes are different, but Kirby’s mechanics rarely change. He’s still the same puffball with copycat powers, and he just does what he does best through almost every game mode here. It’s an endlessly playable delight filled with a wide variety of content.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (SNES)

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest is the best of the Donkey Kong Country games for a couple of reasons. First, it has a ridiculous name that you have to read five times to truly wrap your head around. Second, it introduces Dixie Kong, whose ponytail lets her hover through levels, providing a finer level of control.

The Donkey Kong Country series boasts a variety of delightful platformers with unique art styles, animal vehicles, and creative environments. But Donkey Kong Country 2 does it better than the rest, and that makes it the one to play on the Nintendo Switch Online service — even if it is missing the titular Donkey Kong.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64)

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Is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the best game on the Nintendo 64? Is it the best 3D Zelda game? The answer to both of those questions is yes. Ocarina of Time did for Zelda what Mario 64’s 3D outing did for Mario, but in a far more complex package — and one that holds up better in 2021.

Ocarina of Time sees Link jump through different timelines to claim the Triforce and defeat Ganondorf. It offers an incredible collection of dungeons, iconic gadgets, and a meticulously crafted world. While the Nintendo 64 version isn’t as user-friendly as the 3DS release from 2011, this game is still a must play for every Switch owner.

Star Fox 64 (Nintendo 64)

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Star Fox 64 sees Fox McCloud and his party of animal pilots battle through the galaxy to defeat a giant, animatronic space monkey. Players take their Arwings and battle through different courses, shooting down enemy ships and dog-fighting in 3D spaces.

But what makes Star Fox 64 so special and creative is the multiple routes players can take. A quick puzzle in the first course spins players off to new levels that offer tanks, submarines, and more. It’s easy to replay over and over again, looking for a new level or boss fight each time. And it’s filled with enough secrets and routes to keep any player busy for a Saturday afternoon.

Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo 64)

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Mario Kart 64 is the first game in the series to let players drive with an analogue stick, and it’s better for it. It’s fast-paced, easy to control, and houses some fan-favorite courses. But the real reason to pick up Mario Kart 64 on Switch Online is the battle mode.

The battle modes in Mario Kart 64 are brutal, giving each player a group of balloons that signify hit points. By driving around the special arena maps and chucking shells and other weapons at one another, players can eventually emerge victorious. It’s an excellent party mode, and pairs well with the stellar racing.

Sin and Punishment (Nintendo 64)

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Unlike its peers on this list, Sin & Punishment lacks the crutch of nostalgia. To newcomers without rose-tinted glasses, it’ll look like a blocky shooter and, when compared to modern shooters, will feel fussy. Loving this game takes work, so catch a beat and consider when Sin & Punishment appeared on store shelves in Japan.

In 2000, co-developer Treasure was arguably the most talented creator of action on video game consoles, having shipped classics like Gunstar Heroes, Guardians Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, and Bagai-O within a seven year span. At this point, they’d partnered with Nintendo to create a 3D on-rails shooter (think Rez crossed with Star Fox) that would capture the spectacle of an anime blockbuster. They did just that — within the limitations of the N64 hardware. Perhaps that’s the best way to appreciate Sin & Punishment in 2021: it plays like a modern game with all the ambition and art and style stuffed into an N64 cartridge incapable of fully containing it. —Chris Plante

Streets of Rage 2 (Sega Genesis)

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Streets of Rage 2 is a side-scrolling beat-’em-up where players dress up in jeans and roll through the streets crushing dudes with their rage. There are a variety of characters in Streets of Rage 2, from the original Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding to the newly added Max Thunder and Eddie “Skate” Hunter.

Streets of Rage has always been beloved, but the sequel is often thought of as the series’ high point. From new mechanics to better graphics, it’s one of the definitive games for the Genesis, and a great starting point for Nintendo kids to get their feet wet with Sega.

Gunstar Heroes (Sega Genesis)

Image: Treasure/Sega via Polygon

Gunstar Heroes is the first game from Treasure, a developer name you might recognize from the Sin & Punishment entry above. It’s a side-scrolling shooter, similar to Contra or Metal Slug, where players control a duo called the Gunstars, combining weapons to make their way through the story.

This is a game many players — whether they owned a Genesis or not — may not have heard of. But it highlights one of the best parts about the Expansion Pack and Nintendo Switch Online. Through curation, Nintendo is able to bring a wide variety of old games to a completely new audience, and Gunstar Heroes is a great Genesis grab for anyone, regardless of whether they’re new to the platform.

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