I have so much Nintendo 64 nostalgia. It’s not my favorite console, but it’s by far the one I own the most games for. Collecting N64 cartridges and boxes is definitely a source of comfort during tough times, and just popping in a game for a few minutes is a calming experience. I’ve already looked at my favorite N64 box art, but what about the top 10 best Nintendo 64 games?
“Best” can be tricky to define when it comes to evaluating older games. Is it the impact the game had when it released? The nostalgic memories of playing it back in the day? Or is it how well it holds up now? I personally believe “best” is a combination of all three of these factors, with how well it holds up today weighted most heavily (this is why you won’t find the Star Wars games on this list)
So this my list of the top 10 best Nintendo 64 games that are still fun to play now! I’m also including a “personal highlight” of something I really cherish in each game, because why not? I’d love to hear your own in the comments below as well. Let’s a-go!
10. Wave Race 64
I am shocked at how well this game holds up today. Wave Race 64 came out in the launch window of the console, but it’s so polished! The graphics, the water physics, the track design, the responsive but fairly realistic controls-all excellent! It’s a joy to pop this game in the N64 and play through a quick championship or two. The announcer also has a lot of nostalgic charm-if you’ve played it I’m sure you can immediately hear his voice say “okay!” and “MAX-I-MUM POWER!”.
I picked up the sequel, Wave Race: Blue Storm around GameCube launch and enjoyed it for awhile, but it never fully “clicked” for me like this game did. Let’s get a new entry going on the Switch, Nintendo!
Personal highlight: Playing through the Drake Lake course. The music is so serene, and watching the fog lift to reveal the gorgeous course as the laps progress is so cool. Very calming!
9. Perfect Dark
It might be heresy not to include Goldeneye 007 on this list (rest assured, my friends and I did spend obscene amounts of time playing it). But I think Perfect Dark holds up better! The single player story may not be quite as iconic (even though Joanna Dark and Elvis ARE awesome) but the multiplayer is epic. What gives it the edge over Goldeneye? The option to include bots, known in the game as “Sims”. It was a relatively new feature when the game released and is still a blast playing with today!
Personal highlight: Getting a bunch of friends together and setting up team multiplayer against the sims! We’d set the difficulty to “Perfect” or “Dark” level to give them an absurdly lethal edge, choose Proximity Mines at the Facility, then organize a mine-laden barricade front to try and stop them. Seeing how long we could hold out before they inevitably “broke through” and annihilated us was insanely fun.
8. Super Smash Bros.
Let’s be honest. If I’m going to play Smash today, it’s probably going to be Smash Ultimate on Switch (or Melee on GameCube!). The mechanics are much more refined and balanced, there’s absurd amounts of content and characters, and the whole experience so much speedier! But the newer games owe a huge debt to the original. And though a bit slow, it’s still fun to play today! All the original fighters, stages, and items are rock solid. The concept of Nintendo characters duking it out in an “easy to pickup, hard to master” fighting game was as addictive then as it is now. Plus, this was the only time we got to see 3D Samus in action on the N64!
Personal highlight: Playing 4-player, 3-stock battles deep into the night with my friends in high school. SO MUCH FUN! (and yelling, lots of yelling).
7. Paper Mario
If I had to use one adjective to describe the first Paper Mario, I think it would be “charming”. It’s got simple but beautiful (and adorable!) graphics. The music is catchy and whimsical. The battle system is easy to learn but always interactive and fun. The story is heartwarming and the characters endearing, even if the plot is pretty familiar.
For me, Paper Mario doesn’t ever quite reach the heights of the glorious and unique Super Mario RPG. But on the RPG-starved N64 it was a delight to play, and remains one of the best games the console has to offer!
Personal highlight: Playing through Chapter 2: “The Mystery of Dry, Dry Ruins”. Parakerry is my favorite side character to join your team, and it’s chock full of Indiana Jones style fun as you solve ancient mysteries!
6. Mario Kart 64
Like Super Smash Bros, this iteration of Mario Kart definitely not my “go to” version to play with friends and family (that honor now goes to Mario Kart 8, which is Mario Kart perfected). But Mario Kart 64 remains very enjoyable, even if I prefer the single player of Diddy Kong Racing! The track design still has lots of creativity. Remember trying to hit that tunnel shortcut in Koopa Troopa beach or not fall off of the narrow bridge in Bowser’s Castle? Flying over the epic jump in Royal Raceway? Yelling at the TV when you fell off Banshee Boardwalk again? Of course you do!
The controls might feel a bit “slippery” compared to other entries but that doesn’t diminish the fun, especially when it comes to battle mode. Block Fort is just as glorious today as it was 20+ years ago! The other battle courses are good too-I love the chaos of Big Donut and ramming your friends off the side of the Skyscraper. It still holds up!
Personal highlight: Shooting as many green shells as possible down into “the pit” (AKA the ground) in 4-player Block Fort Battle Mode simply to make it even more insane during matches!
5. Starfox 64
Every Starfox game since this one has just been trying to recapture its glory. Starfox 64 is the easily the pinnacle of the franchise that has yet to be topped. The tight gameplay. The branching map with crazy amounts of replay value. The fun and meme worthy voice acting. The graphics. The story. The RUMBLE PAK! It all holds up ludicrously well. Try it out today (on the 64 or the awesome 3DS remake) and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how smooth and enjoyable an experience it is!
Personal highlight: I really enjoy the Landmaster tank level on Macbeth. Taking out the train convoy and hitting the 8 switches in time is a fun challenge, and the crash that results is the most epic use of the Rumble Pak, period. I also love the true ending-seeing Fox look around after his father vanishes and tell the team that “nothing’s wrong” is surprisingly touching.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
If you owned a Nintendo 64, it was almost a guarantee that you owned (or at least played) Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Yet most people I know skipped out on this sequel when it was released in fall 2000. Maybe it was because next gen systems were starting to take the spotlight by that point, or because Majora’s Mask was just a little too “weird”. I mean, it is! Child Link in a parallel universe world with only four dungeons? The moon crashes and annihilates everything in three days, destroying all of your progress? No Zelda or Ganon or Master Sword? Quite a turn from the traditional “hero’s journey” of Ocarina.
But you know what? I loved this game, even before it was cool to do so! Majora’s Mask is indeed a much stranger, much darker, and all around more uncomfortable game. Themes of loss and death are prevalent, as well as permeating sense that you “can’t save everyone”. But there’s beauty in it. Every inhabitant in Termina is beaming with unique personality, and some have very complex arcs over the course of three days. Clock Town is an insanely detailed hub (that doesn’t have many rivals in its depth, even to this day) with so much to discover. You truly get to know the world and its inhabitants and become driven to save them. Plus, the mask mechanics were a load of fun. Swimming as a Zora is so, so satisfying!
If you’ve given the game a try but found it to have to steep of a learning curve with its time management, I’d recommend playing with a guide. Or try the 3DS remake with quality of life upgrades! I myself still prefer the original version-it’s easily one of the top 10 best Nintendo 64 games and one of the best Zelda games ever made.
Personal highlight: Completing Anju and Kafei’s quest (the longest but most worthwhile side quest in the game). The very last scene, in the final few moments of the third day, when they tell you to take refuge while they “greet the morning together” gets me every time.
It’s really tough deciding between Banjo-Kazooie and Mario 64. They’re both truly outstanding and innovative games that I love dearly. Technically, I do think Banjo Kazooie is more polished. The camera, while not perfect, is much better than Mario 64. The controls are a little less fiddly. It’s gorgeous to look at, even today. The characters are ludicrously charming (TipTup the Turtle!). The worlds are perfect both in art design and gameplay balance-not too big, not too small, and just the right amount of challenge. Click Clock Woods in particular is one of most ingenious examples of level design I’ve ever seen.
Basically, Banjo-Kazooie is a delight from start to finish and you need to play it at some point if you haven’t! And though I love the nostalgia of playing on my original N64 cart, I can strongly recommend the remaster found on the Rare Replay and Xbox Arcade! The upgraded graphics really shine and collectible music notes STAY collected if you die in a level-a nice quality of life upgrade (especially useful in Rusty Bucket Bay-you know what I’m talking about if you’ve played the game!).
Personal highlight: Lighting up the Christmas tree in Freezeezy Peak! I’m obsessed with Christmas lights and this is easily one of the most “festive” levels in all of gaming. Climbing up into the tree once its lit is also very cozy/jolly!
2. Super Mario 64
As amazing as Banjo-Kazooie is, the nostalgia factor of Mario 64 tips the scales towards the plumber for me! The night I got Mario 64 in 7th grade ended up being the latest I had ever stayed up in my life to that point. The game was so revolutionary and fun-it was (and still is) easy to say “just one more star” again and again! I recently re-played the game to 100% completion in the Mario 3D All-Stars Collection and was taken aback by how well a lot of the design holds up. It’s just a joy to play.
The star objectives are so very creative and there’s very little “filler” (compared to Mario Sunshine, for instance). The wing cap and koopa shell are still thrilling to use and the theme for them is wonderful. Sequence breaking and using Mario’s move set in creative ways gives the game a lot of replay value, too!
Sure, the camera can be pretty frustrating, the controls a bit tricky, and some of the later courses are unnecessarily difficult. But I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. The game is still packed full of creativity and brilliance that make it a delight to play today! (also, is it even legal to have a top 10 best Nintendo 64 games list without Mario 64?)
Personal highlights: There are literally dozens. But I’ll go with the memory of beating the game for the first time as a kid. Hearing the celebratory yet somehow immediately nostalgic Staff Roll theme was the perfect way to end it:
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
I consider myself a pretty well rounded person. I love playing games but feel I’ve always balanced it with other activities and interests, and spending time with friends and family. But when this game came out I simply could not stop playing it. There was only Ocarina. It’s the only time I can remember when my parents actually came into my room and demanded I turn off a game and go outside. The immersion and sense of adventure that Ocarina of Time provided when it released in 1998 cannot be overstated. It was just that epic and engrossing.
Even though so many modern games owe a debt to Ocarina’s innovations, I absolutely understand the argument that some of its mechanics haven’t aged well. Inventory management is a bit clunky. The world seems a bit small and stiff by today’s standards. Combat isn’t really complex. But what has withstood the test of time is the presentation of its story and themes.
To me, this is the most well-told Zelda tale. Having Link start as a child, and getting to know and love the characters and world of Hyrule, then see it torn apart when he becomes an adult, is extremely powerful and effective. This is a beautifully told, perfectly paced story that’s surprisingly sad and dark for how traditionally “good triumphs over evil” it might appear at first glance. And a lot of the themes are communicated very subtly, often via the gameplay itself. I strongly recommend checking out this absolutely brilliant analysis of the games’ use of subtext if you’d like to hear more:
If Ocarina of Time is a special to you as it is me, get ready for some tears at the end.
I don’t think OoT has quite the same impact on folks who played it long after it released. And that’s okay! But to me it’s a masterpiece-the best Nintendo 64 game of all time, and one of the greatest video games ever made.
Personal highlight: There are a literal sea of them, but I’ll go with child Link drawing the Master Sword in the Temple of Time. The iconic theme, and Link and waking up seven years later as an adult in the Sacred Realm, tasked with saving a ruined world, makes the sequence legendary.
Did one of your Top 10 Best Nintendo 64 games not make my list? Do you somehow magically agree with all of my picks? What games would you include, and what are some personal highlights of each game? Let me know in the comments below-I love hearing which games still resonate with different people today!