Sony and Microsoft super fans will have a hard time admitting it, but Nintendo has created the most incredible catalog of properties in the history of gaming. They may get made fun of for their slow development time and occasionally repetitive entries within their biggest franchises, but people just can’t get enough of that feeling they get when they re-discover Mario jumping on Goombas or Kirby transforming into his nemeses.
With nearly four decades of game creation to explore, it’s hard to rank the absolute best franchises from Nintendo’s considerable history, but that’s exactly what we’ve set out to do. To clear up any confusion, this isn’t a list of the best characters in Nintendo’s history, so you may see Mario starring in multiple entries in this hierarchy (he’s dipped his gloves into just about everything). This also isn’t a ranking of individual Nintendo games, though the overall quality of the individual games within these franchises obviously influenced their ranking.
From sci-fi foxes and pink puffs to mascot brawlers and pocket monsters, these are the 15 best Nintendo franchises ever:
15. Mario Party
Board games have sometimes struggled to battle the popular perception that they’re an outdated form of entertainment. People (sometimes falsely) believe kids don’t have the attention span required to sit still and enjoy them for more than a few minutes, and adults sometimes get tired of trying to get enough people together to play one. Of course, before Mario Party, few people realized how strong the relationship between video games and board games could be.
For over two decades, Mario Party has been delighting families (and driving them crazy) with its wild hijinks, creative minigames, and whimsical board designs associated with the Mushroom Kingdom and its colorful inhabitants. Some entries are obviously more memorable than others (Mario Party 2 is the arguable high point of the franchise), but all of them have the same objective: to encourage in-person multiplayer gaming with people you care about.
Before he was known as a Super Smash Bros. staple, Captain Falcon and his iconic Blue Falcon racer led a franchise that many racing fans still call one of the most intense ever. The franchise combines strong gameplay with revolutionary characterization and world-building in a genre that typically isn’t known for either of those qualities.
Sadly, it’s hard to talk about F-Zero without eventually addressing the fact that it is a mostly defunct relic from Nintendo’s past. There still hasn’t been a mainstream series release since the critically acclaimed F-Zero GX for the Gamecube in 2003, but the fire that fans have for this series’ unique futuristic environments, blazing speed, and racer backstories still burns bright in 2021.
Humor is sometimes severely lacking in gaming, especially at a time when so many violent and cinematic franchises command the attention of the masses. Thankfully, Wario has always had enough fart jokes, snarky comments, and crude companions to make up for the dearth of humor on the gaming market. Of course, WarioWare is so much more than a few laughs and the five-second microgames that compose the core gameplay of the series.
The franchise has been a pioneer in creative character building, multiplayer functionality, and innovative game design since 2003. Up until the Wii U, audiences could expect Wario, Jimmy T, Mona, and Dr. Crygor to showcase the technological potential of a new Nintendo console. We’ll all be treated to that zaniness again when WarioWare: Get It Together! launches on September 10 for the Switch.
12. Star Fox
It’s hard to emulate the sci-fi/fantasy mix of Star Wars with anthropomorphic animals and not have the whole thing feel corny, but Shigeru Miyamoto pulled it off when he created the Star Fox franchise in the early 1990s. Fox McCloud and his ragtag cohort of pilots introduced sharp-as-nails on-rails shooting to the Nintendo universe, and the gameplay of the first two (officially released) titles in this series has been hard to beat in the decades since.
This franchise briefly attempted to explore third-person action gameplay with Star Fox Adventure and Star Fox Assault, but the series sadly fell into the abyss in the 2010s. Despite those recent shortcomings, the furry friends that fly through space will always hold a special place in Nintendo gamers’ hearts for as long as people can access a SNES and Nintendo 64. Do a barrel roll!
The Pikmin series is one of Nintendo’s most daring ventures. It’s essentially a mish-mash of genres that ultimately feels like a strategy/adventure/platform/puzzle/collect-a-thon game. Against all odds, the series combines all of those unique elements rather well and even adds a surprising amount of emotional baggage to the equation. There’s nothing quite like the horror of watching the nickel-sized Captain Olimar and his resilient Pikmin soldiers get snuffed out in a second by a Red Bulborb (shudders).
The franchise has only had four true entries (three on consoles, one on handheld), but that just keeps everyone hungry for more. The third title was also re-released for the Switch in 2020, and there have been rumors of a fourth console entry in the works since 2015. Hopefully, that sequel becomes a reality soon, because few games in the Big N canon offer so much variety.
10. Donkey Kong
This franchise essentially gave birth to the entire Nintendo empire as we know it today. After all, the original Donkey Kong arcade game gave Nintendo the financial resources it needed to go on to do even bigger and better things. Better yet, DK became a charismatic fan-favorite character in his own right who has been severely disrespected and forgotten about in recent years.
Always in the shadow of the Mario platformers, and even occasionally demoted to sports and party game fodder, the Donkey Kong franchise still features some of the best games in Nintendo history. Donkey Kong Country and its sequels on the SNES revolutionized 2.5-dimensional graphics, Donkey Kong 64 was a peak 3D experience on the Nintendo 64, and Donkey Konga forced millions of parents to buy plastic bongo drums for their living rooms. It’s too bad we didn’t get anything good for this series’ 40th anniversary this past summer.
The “Super Tuff Pink Puff” and his large library of games have an enormous following largely because they can lay claim to being the ultimate representation of what gaming should be: flat-out fun. Kirby’s joyful exterior pairs with a fierce interior to create the perfect balance of a cuddly badass. His trademark mechanic (acquiring the abilities of his enemies on the fly) was revolutionary in the 1990s though it admittedly grew a little stale in the three decades since.
Nintendo seemed to eventually realize that the franchise was growing repetitive and has since tried to spice things up with entries like 2010’s Kirby’s Epic Yarn (an artsy alternative to the typical platforming in the series) and several brawling-style games (i.e. Kirby Fighters Deluxe and Kirby Fighters 2). No matter the genre, this franchise remains one of the most accessible properties in Nintendo’s portfolio.
8. Animal Crossing
There’s no way Nintendo could have known that was initially seen as their spin on The Sims would turn into such a phenomenon. That title effectively introduced many of the hallmark traits of this series that both casual and hardcore fans have come to adore, such as a real-time internal clock and the ability to interact with animals of all kinds as a curious villager in a town that you get to mold and watch grow.
Most recently, Animal Crossing: New Horizons demonstrated gaming’s ability to bring the world together even when they’re separated by thousands of miles and incredible circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic destroyed lives, careers, and economies, but 32 million copies of that title circulated the planet and even provided a little bit of carefree immersion amongst some very dark days. There’s really no greater feat that a video game can possibly accomplish.
7. Mario Kart
The racing genre is hard to get right, but sticking Mario and all of his friends into some wonky karts and letting the items fly has been simultaneously fun and infuriating for decades now. The franchise has brilliantly found ways to tweak and improve a tried and true formula with each new installment, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe may just be the perfect racing game.
We all know that Nintendo has had a difficult time competing with the other major players in the industry when it comes to online play, but Mario Kart 8 is one of the only examples of the Big N creating a truly great experience in that department. Ruining someone’s morning with a blue shell halfway across the world right before you go to bed is something that can’t be replicated in any other game series.
6. Fire Emblem
Long before Marth and Roy joined the Super Smash Bros roster, the Fire Emblem franchise became the pinnacle of tough-as-nails strategy gaming in Japan. As the strategy series started to trickle into the homes of more gamers, the entire Western world finally got to experience its brilliantly designed character development, storytelling, and tactical game boards set in visually creative fantasy lands.
Fire Emblem Awakening essentially saved the entire property when it exploded in sales for the 3DS in 2013, and it’s only been up from there. Fire Emblem: Three Houses expanded the series’ secondary and tertiary elements to great success, but we all know that the foundational reason for the fun is always the chess match between the gamer’s army and the CPU’s enemy faction. This franchise has one of the brightest futures in the industry.
5. Super Smash Bros.
When Masahiro Sakurai led development on the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 he probably had no idea he was working on the ultimate fighting event in gaming history. Every sequel that has followed has expanded on the original’s revolutionary mechanics and style that quickly broke the boundaries of what many believed multiplayer fighting games could be.
By the time we got to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it became clear to everyone that this series is now a celebration of not only Nintendo as a company but characters previously outside of the conglomerate’s giant grasp. The franchise’s inclusion of Sonic the Hedgehog, Solid Snake, Cloud Strife, and many others demonstrate the power of Smash‘s orbit to bring the entire industry together for one very special gaming experience.
Nintendo’s incredible catalog lacks atmospheric, dark, science-fiction properties. Thankfully, Samus Aran’s three-decade-long struggle to take down Space Pirates and battle Ridley has always filled the void. There’s nothing else in gaming that quite challenges Metroid’s ability to combine adventuring, platforming, and puzzle-solving into one incredible entity.
The series features multiple games that are in the running for the best of their generation, and the anticipation for Metroid Dread shows that fans desperately want to explore the moody depths of Brinstar, Zebes, and Tallon IV for as long as Nintendo will allow them to.
We’ve finally hit the big three Nintendo properties. If you account for all the Pokémon apparel, TV series, movies, trading cards, and more that have spawned from the video games, it’s certainly easy to argue that this franchise is worthy of the top spot on the list. Honestly, though, this series is worthy of at least the third spot on this list based purely on the brilliance of its original adventure.
Pokémon is special because it focuses on the relationship between humans and animals. Even though the pocket monsters you capture aren’t technically your pets, they sure feel like it after you’ve formed a connection with them after hours and hours of play. This franchise will continue to flourish for as long as Nintendo can think of new types of Pokémon for us to catch in each new generation of games.
2. Super Mario
Nintendo’s mascot has expanded into so many different waters that we sometimes forget just how brilliant his main franchise is. The Super Mario platformers have grown gaming’s potential with nearly every new release, and they have made millions fall in love with the medium for 35 years now.
It would be easy for Nintendo to rest on Super Mario’s laurels and pump out the same thing year after year, but that almost feels sacrilegious. Instead, every new entry has its own signature style that is ultimately duplicated and admired for years to come. Super Mario continues to open up countless possibilities for platforming and the rest of the gaming industry.
1. The Legend of Zelda
Link’s adventures in Hyrule get the slight edge over Mario’s adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom because no other franchise in gaming has demonstrated that videogames are art on the same level as literature, film, or television as consistently or for as long as much of The Legend of Zelda has. This franchise is more than a game; it’s an experience.
Boss battles, weapon upgrades, niche characters you meet along the way, and complex dungeons that double as playgrounds for the mind are all trademarks of this series that will never grow old. With this series’ recent evolution into an open-world experience that is changing the ways we think of that genre, there’s no telling how many more incredible gaming experiences we will ultimately owe this franchise in the coming years.