Hey folks! Transparency Disclosure- Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. That means I’ll receive a small commission if you decide to click on it and buy something. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything extra!
Retro Games are my favorite. I love playing the old school Mario games or revisiting my childhood favorites like Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Bubble Bobble.
There are a few retro games that are so iconic that they’ve become household names. These old video games have held up through the ages and were often groundbreaking for their time. Many have rightly taken their place as pop culture icons and are easily recognizable even to non-gamers. They are household names and made gaming what it is today.
Other retro games may not be as popular or iconic, but they developed a cult-like following and are favorites among gamers. Here we explore the most popular retro games, but we also asked gamers and streamers for their favorite older games. Enjoy the wide variety of classic video games you can check out!
Must Play Retro Games
We can’t talk about retro video games without talking about the most iconic video games of the period. While these games might have poor graphics, they stand the test of time. These four video game series have made gaming what it is today.
Although you’ve probably heard of these and more than likely at least played a later version, the originals still hold up and are worth a playthrough if you are interested in retro gaming.
The Super Mario Brothers Series
The most iconic video game character of all time is, of course, Mario. The Super Mario Brothers Franchise made gaming a household activity and thrust gaming into the 21st century.
Although the original game was a simple platformer where you just run and jump, it spawned a massive gaming empire. Super Mario Brothers 3 opened the door to flying and storing objects, Super Mario World introduced Yoshi and secret endings, and Super Mario 64 was one of the first 3D games ever made. The franchise expanded into racing games, sports games, party games, and everything else you can think of.
If you’re going to try retro gaming, you need to start with Mario. But skip Mario 2 – it’s a weird game that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the series. It’s not horrible, but you probably won’t enjoy it if you aren’t a serious gamer.
The Legend of Zelda Series
The Legend of Zelda Franchise is another video game series that spawned an empire. Although not as well known as Mario, everyone recognizes the main character, Link (though many non-gamers mistake him for the title character, Zelda, who is a princess.)
The original game, The Legend of Zelda, was a top-down open-world exploration game that was ahead of its time. Nintendo did the best they could to create an open-world game on a 16-bit system, and an icon was born.
The Ocarina of Time, the first release for the Nintendo 64 system, was truly a masterpiece. As one of the earliest 3D open-world games, it ushered in a new era of gaming. Although it wasn’t truly open world (you had to complete quests in a certain order to unlock new areas), it was a forerunner to the open-world games we see today. The Ocarina of Time is one of my all-time favorite video games and definitely worth a playthrough.
The Donkey Kong Series
Although Donkey Kong isn’t celebrated as much as the other two classic Nintendo Games, it deserves a mention. Mario was first featured in the original Donkey Kong before getting his own game series, but the gorilla and his clan are icons themselves.
Although Donkey Kong has his own series of video games, he’s always included in Nintendo classics like Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers. He was the original Mario villain, and although they parted ways early in their gaming history, he will always have a special place in our hearts.
The original Donkey Kong arcade classic became a classic Nintendo game and spawned a series that includes the Super Nintendo hit Donkey Kong Country. Most iterations of Nintendo gaming consoles have their own versions of Donkey Kong, and although they aren’t as popular as the Mario and Zelda series, they are classics in their own right.
The Sonic the Hedgehog Series
Sonic the Hedgehog is the most iconic retro game franchise that didn’t appear on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The first game in the series was released by Sega for the Sega Genesis Console in 1991 as Sega’s response to the popular Mario games.
As Sega’s answer to Mario, the franchise spawned competitors in many niches, from Sonic Racing to Sonic Sports and Sonic Fighting games. It was Sega’s most popular franchise throughout its console run, but now that Sega gave up making consoles, the newest games are available for every system.
There are tons of classic video games that were classic and iconic. Although these franchises may not be as famous as the four listed above, they all led to industry changes, pop culture movements, or movies. These games inspired generations of gamers and developers and helped change not only the gaming industry but the face of pop culture.
Castlevania is a side-scrolling platformer that was originally released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. As the series progressed and technology advanced, the developers added new gameplay techniques, including RPG elements and the ability to explore the world more openly.
Although not a household name, this game was well-received and spawned a huge franchise. It also led to an animation series, which is currently in its fourth season on Netflix.
Tomb Raider is more iconic now because of the movies that it spawned, but it made its debut as a video game. In the game, archaeologist Laura Croft (known largely for her horrible, outrageously sized chest, unfortunately) goes on an adventure to find sacred artifacts and fight enemies and solve puzzles to advance.
The game was first released on the Sega Saturn in 1996 and has spawned numerous sequels, movies, and imaginative artworks.
As far as fighting games go, Street Fighter has always been my favorite. So, it’s with a heavy heart that I acknowledge that Mortal Kombat is probably the more iconic of the fighting games. Although both games are on Wikipedia’s list of best-selling video games, the Mortal Kombat franchise outsold the Street Fighter franchise by nearly 10 million.
Mortal Kombat is a retro fighting game. Choose your character and learn the right button combinations to defeat your enemies. The fun thing about Mortal Kombat in that it was one of the first games to implement the iconic “finishing move” – the final blow at the end of a match that shows how dead your opponent actually is. If you’re into retro fighting games, this is a great choice.
The FIFA series is the precursor of the beloved E-Sports industry. The original game was released in 1993, and there have been tons of upgrades throughout the last thirty years. It’s one of the top-selling E-Sports franchises in history, with over 300 million copies sold.
Although the game has some glitches, it still holds up and is one of the best games ever released for the Sega system. Current iterations of the game are available on every console.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater
Tony Hawk Pro Skater brought skateboarding and Ska into their glory days. It’s also one of the most recent games on this list, but as it was still released in the ‘90s (1999), it’s over 20 years old and counts as a retro classic.
The game featured cool skateboard tricks and an amazing soundtrack, making Ska bands like Goldfinger more recognizable to the public. The early 200s were the heyday of Ska and skaters, and this game is a huge reason why they blasted into pop culture.
The original Final Fantasy debuted in 1987 on the NES and was one of the first role-playing games (RPG) ever made. The original game was a huge hit and inspired a franchise that is still going strong today.
It also was instrumental in the advancement of the RPG genre. It was one of the first turn-based battle games where building your character and learning skills in battle was an important part of gaming, rather than just button mashing to kill enemies.
The series is still going strong – the 16th installment of the game was just released in 2020. It has also spawned a manga series, numerous anime series, and it was recently announced that a live-action adaption was in the works.
Pac-Man is the original arcade icon. It predates most of the games on this list but was a precursor to all of them.
Pac-Man was released for arcades in 1980, and although not the first video game ever created (the first one was actually made in the 1950s!), it was one of the first popular games (beaten by Pong, which came out in the early 1970s).
It was hard to decide which early arcade classic to put on this list and call the most iconic. Space Invaders came out two years before Pac-Man and might be as commonly known. Donkey Kong was originally an arcade classic, but it is more rightfully classified as one of the must-play retro classics. Frogger, Asteroid, and Centipede were all classics of the era, but in my opinion, Pac-Man stands out as the most recognizable in pop culture.
Gamers Speak Out: The Best Retro Games
While compiling a list of the best and most iconic retro games in history, I realized that I should expand my research to experts in the field. Therefore, I decided to ask gaming bloggers and streamers what their favorite retro games are.
Here, you will see a small sampling of their responses. Some of the specific games they mentioned are part of the must-play series we mentioned above, but that just illustrates how important and iconic those franchises really are. Others gave examples of lesser-known games that they grew to love.
All of the responses are filled with love of that particular game, giving you a sense of how important gaming really is to our identity. Games that we loved as children tend to hold special places in our hearts.
Jeff, Set Ready Game – Paper Mario
As I grew up begging my older brothers to let me play our Nintendo 64, my favorite retro game of all time is Paper Mario. Paper Mario was my first introduction to RPGs, and the turn-based battle system was something I’d never experienced before. I remember renting it for 3 weeks straight from my local Blockbuster as I would play it day after day whenever I got home from school.
The art style, the characters, and the goofy writing really just caught me, and the creative blend of 2D and 3D formats was something very new but also was kind of a great callback to older titles like Mario Bros on the SNES. Paper Mario for the N64 remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time over two decades on.
Tetris – Petar, Diamond Lobby
Tetris is a Russian-made tile-matching video game developed by the software engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984. It was first released on the Electronika 60 computer before becoming widely available on PC and other console platforms such as Nintendo.
The game itself is based on moving differently shaped pieces called tetrominoes, which slowly descend onto the playing field. Your goal is to fit as many of those differently shaped pieces together to form a complete line as a player. Once you do that, the line will disappear and grant you points.
The game itself ends once the playing field is completely filled up. To win, you need to delay the inevitable outcome of filling up the field. The player with the most points wins.
In multiplayer, to win, players must last longer than their opponents. In some versions of the game, players can inflict penalties on opponents by completing a certain amount of lines.
Since 2011, Tetris has sold 202 million copies, 70 million of which physical, and 132 mobile downloads, making it one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time.
Star Fox – Douglas, Favor for Gamer (Youtuber)
My favorite retro game is Star Fox 64. It is a rail shooter where you play as Star Fox with other animal humanized companions like Falco the bird, Slippy the Toad, and Peppy Hare. You have to fly your spaceship with your squadron fighting enemies of the evil warlord Andross.
The game was ahead of its time, with actual in-voice dialogue and choices that affected the game’s outcome. It also used the rumble pack, which brought vibration to controllers. For the first time, while playing a game in your home, you could *feel* the explosions in the palm of your hand. Truly an experience that made owning a Nintendo 64 a no-brainer.
Donkey Kong Country Series – TwoTall4UFool
If you are looking to get into some retro games you have never played, you should definitely give the entire Donkey Kong Country trilogy a try.
The first Donkey Kong Country game come out in 1994 on the SNES. It was definitely something new that had never been done before during that time. With its awesome graphics and great platformer play, it really pushed the power of the Super Nintendo. Every level gives a unique challenge, from rope swinging to mine cart racing, barrel jumping to avoiding giant rats in wheels. These challenges and the little secrets you can find along the way keep the series fresh to this day. As Donkey Kong, and with his little buddy Diddy Kong, you go through six worlds ultimately leading up to the game’s main antagonist King K. Rool. It’s a game you’ll have fun playing by yourself or with a friend.
If you run to the end of the line in that game, defeating Rool and thirsting for more, you’re in luck. You can play two more of them – Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3. Donkey Kong Country 2, in my opinion, is the best game of the original three. It brings even more unique challenges, bonuses, and secret worlds for you to discover. Donkey Kong Country 3 offered more the same but not nearly on the level as the second game. But overall, if you play all three games consecutively, you won’t be disappointed.
Crash Bandicoot, Hrvoje from Fiction Horizon
In 1996, PlayStation owners got the chance to play Crash Bandicoot. Naughty Dog developed this platform video game, and although the studio certainly had high hopes for it, we are not certain that they knew that the titular protagonist would become such an important piece of video game
history. Sony even had doubts about the game initially but agreed to publish it after a demonstration by Naughty Dog.
Several aspects made Crash Bandicoot so successful. One of them was certainly the game’s protagonist, Crash Bandicoot, whose goofy character was so likable that practically no one could resist him. Younger and older players alike, everyone loved Crash, who became a very atypical hero of a video game. He was an animal, he was absolutely whacky, couldn’t speak, and had no common heroic traits. In that aspect, he was most similar to Sir Daniel from the MediEvil series, which came out about the same time; characters like Spyro, Kingsley, or even Flint from Alundra 2 had a lot of heroic traits on them.
The other thing that made this game so great is the gameplay itself. Crash Bandicoot had a simple mechanism – you control Crash, and you go through different levels to obtain some rewards and ultimately face several bosses along the way. This was the mechanism for all the major Crash games that
came out later. The levels were colorful, and the difficulty of each level varied, which gave the players a brilliant gaming experience in which they could test their skills, enjoy their successes and lose their minds.
Ultimately, Crash Bandicoot offered a lot for the players in many different aspects. It was a great game back then that helped cement the console’s popularity, and that evolved into one of the most beloved and best video gaming franchises ever.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Genesis) – Games With Coffee
November 21, 1992, was a day that would live in infamy. That was the day when the sequel to the critically acclaimed Sonic the Hedgehog, which graced the screens back on June 23, 1991, was released. Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s launch would be known as Sonic 2sday and was the catalyst that allowed the hedgehog to truly overcome his rival Mario and sparked the Console Wars. But what is it about Sonic the Hedgehog 2 that makes it one of the best retro video games of all time?
Many factors facilitated the creation of this game, and its development was nothing short of extraordinary. Development started in November of 1991, with the dream team of Yuji Naka, Hirokazu Yasuhara, and Masato Nakamura working at the newly formed SEGA Technical Institute on the behest of Mark Cerny, the now-legendary video game designer. With SEGA of Japan’s hands-off of its development, Sonic 2 had the opportunity to cut loose with the juice.
Naka-san and Yasuhara-san took what they learned from Sonic the Hedgehog and, with the STI team, expanded upon it by bringing more gameplay elements to the fore. They added more levels, which were bigger than the ones in the first game. They squeezed every bit of power from the Genesis to increase Sonic’s speed, making him blaze through these new environments, which were vibrant, beautiful, varied, and awe-inspiring.
In Nakamura-san’s case, the freedom of working with the SEGA Technical Institute allowed him and his band, “Dreams Come True,” to put together a soundtrack that was not only vastly different and experimental than the first game’s but would also define the series in its entirety.
However, all of that pales in comparison to the greatest and most important contribution to the game, to the series, and to the industry as a whole: the creation and inclusion of Miles “Tails” Prower by one Yasushi Yamaguchi. Tails was instrumental both from a character and gameplay standpoint. Character-wise, the two-tailed fox wasn’t a second banana, like Luigi was; his genius rivals that of Dr. Robotnik’s, and he looked up to and admired Sonic for his heroism, bravery, and sense of justice.
In terms of gameplay, the Sonic Team did something almost unheard of at the time – they introduced a 1.5 player mode. Thanks to some clever programming, Tails would always follow about a half-second behind Sonic during single-player mode. However, a second person could drop in and immediately take control of the nigh-invincible Tails and become an active participant in the war against Robotnik. This change provided a level of cooperation between players that had previously existed only in arcade beat-em-up games. Even then, a competitive versus mode was included where players could pit themselves against each other to see who was the more superior Sonic player.
Why This Game Holds Up
As for why this game is still great almost thirty years later? Well, it’s the slick presentation of the game that allows anyone of any age to pick up, play, and get into the adventure. It’s the challenge of collecting all the Chaos Emeralds, followed by the joy of turning into Super Sonic, that fueled players’ imaginations. And the simple story of a dynamic duo taking on an evil despot and thwarting his bid for complete world domination is a classic and familiar one, yet it still manages to be fresh and exciting. Above all, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 invokes both a feeling of freedom and a sense of teamwork, which is why people keep coming back over and over again.
While Sonic the Hedgehog introduced the character to the world, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 cemented his place as an icon amongst titans like Mario and Mickey Mouse and introduced players to one of the most celebrated dynamic duos ever created. With everything that I mentioned above, it’s no wonder why Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is considered one of the best retro games of all time.
Zoid’s Legacy – Akura Blaze (Streamer)
Zoid’s Legacy is an old television series turned video game. It was only released to western audiences on the Gameboy Advance system (GBA), but serious gamers could get a special adapter to play their Gameboys on the Nintendo GameCube system.
In this game, players get to customize animal-shaped robots (or Zoids) with weapons and use lore from various characters to build their perfect Zoid. There are over 100 Zoids available for customization and 30 pilots which are used to battle them.
The turn-based battle system allows you to make choices in battle and forces players to consider strategy. Every choice, from what weapon you equip to who you choose to be in your party, has important implications to the outcome of the battle.
Zoid’s Legacy is a nostalgic trip down memory lane for those that watched it on tv. This gives people a chance to relive that experience in turn-based combat with a compelling new story. The game brings characters from past iterations and the television show together in a captivating new adventure.
Where Can I Play Retro Video Games?
The Nintendo Company makes playing the best retro games easy. They have both the Nintendo and Super Nintendo Classics available for free on the Nintendo Switch; all you need to do is pay the $20 yearly online fee to access them.
This allows you to play the original Super Mario Brothers and the greatest game in the franchise, Super Mario Brothers 3, the original Zelda and Donkey Kong games, and many other old-school classics.
The New “Classic Consoles”
If you don’t have a switch or can’t play online, you can also purchase either a Nintendo Classic console or a Super Nintendo Classic console. These consoles hook up to your television just like the old ones did. However, they don’t use cartridges, they come pre-loaded with 30 of the most iconic games for each system.
The Sega Genesis also has a mini console, which you can use to play some of the original Sonic games. It comes pre-loaded with 40 retro classics from Sega, including Mega Man, Sonic, and a Castlevania title.
Another option for replaying your favorite retro classics is to purchase an original console. You can usually find any of the consoles on eBay or at second-hand gaming shops, along with a multitude of older games.
A problem with the older consoles and cartridges is that they don’t always work. Usually, you can fix a cartridge by blowing in it. If that fails, you can clean it off with a q-tip, but sometimes they are beyond repair. Unfortunately, as they age, it will get harder and harder to find systems and games in working condition.
If all else fails, you can find an emulator for most of your favorite games online. An emulator is a downloadable package that allows you to play these games on your computer.
Although you can find them for free online, be wary of downloading things from sites you don’t know and trust. Ensure that the download is legal and virus-free before proceeding.
What is Your Favorite Retro Video Game?
There are thousands of retro classics, some that I’ve probably never even heard of! Did your favorite make the list? Which ones should we have included?
I want to hear from you!
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.