Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Released on June 23rd 1996, in Japan, the Nintendo 64 was hyped as the most powerful games console in the world. Boasting a 64-bit processor and powerful custom hardware designed in conjunction with Silicon Graphics, the N64 was Nintendo's attempt to build on the amazing success of its NES, SNES and Game Boy systems with a world-beating fusion of cutting-edge hardware and killer software.

The console shipped with a groundbreaking analogue controller which allowed game designers to craft even more immersive experiences, and its four controller ports made multiplayer sessions a joy. Of course, a console is only as good as the games you play on it, and the N64 – despite having a relatively small library (more on that shortly) – offered some of the finest games of its generation.

It wasn't a system without issue, however; Nintendo's decision to stick with expensive cartridges over cheaper CDs meant that many third parties actively avoided releasing their games on the console; it also meant that many N64 titles felt somewhat limited when compared to those on PlayStation and Saturn, both of which could harness the storage power of CD to offer larger games.

Ultimately, Nintendo lost out to Sony, selling 32.93 million units of the N64 worldwide compared to 102.49 million PlayStations. The N64 was a step down in commercial terms when compared to its forerunners, too; the SNES sold 49.10 million units and the NES 61.91 million. Even so, there's no denying that the N64 is a classic gaming platform, and some of its titles continue to be listed among the best games ever made.

Below we've offered a selection of must-play N64 games. Please note that this list isn't presented in any kind of rank – these are simply a handful of games that you need to experience if you're looking to get into the world of the N64.

Super Mario 64 (N64)

The 3D platformer that defined what that label meant, it's remarkable just how much Shigeru Miyamoto and his team got right with its first foray into 3D platforming. It feels effortless, as if these mechanics were somehow self-evident or arrived at through natural evolution. Nintendo absolutely nailed the formula from the very beginning – so much so that the basic 3D template hasn't really changed much even today. We still control Mario much as we first did with that wonderfully odd-looking N64 controller.

Super Mario 64 is available on Switch if you nabbed a time-limited copy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars or as part of a Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscription, and we could go on endlessly about its genre-birthing mechanics, how it set the stage for 3D gaming as we know it, and blather on about the infinity of tiny details that make this a joy to fire up all these years later.

But you know about all that. Do yourself a favour and blast through a couple of dozen stars next time you're pondering what to play. It still feels almost as good as it did the very first time.

Sin and Punishment (N64)

Gamers in the West wouldn't be able to get their hands on Treasure's hectic N64 on-rails shooter (not easily, that is — there was always the option to import) until it came to the Wii U Virtual Console.

On original release it quickly became a cult classic thanks to its developer's heritage and its Japan-only status, and while it's probably not worth importing a Japanese console to enjoy this game alone (we did, but we're a bit obsessive), and its sequel Sin and Punishment: Star Successor for Wii arguably improves on this foundation in every way, this is still a very fine shooter from a very fine developer.

Cracking box art, too.

International Superstar Soccer 2000 (N64)

Known as Jikkyō J-League 1999 Perfect Striker 2 in Japan, this was (predictably) the most polished of the three ISS outings on N64, although it's also the least played thanks to its relatively late release (it launched nearly two years after ISS 98 and in the latter part of the console cycle). As a swansong to the series which sang on 64-bit hardware, ISS 2000 is a fitting send-off.

GoldenEye 007 (N64)

The best movie tie-in ever made? Not only was Rare's game (which has finally broken out of its Nintendo 64-shaped cell onto Switch and Xbox) hugely influential on the console FPS genre, but it also gave N64 owners a proper 'adult' experience to sink their teeth into. At a time when PlayStation was too cool for school, GoldenEye 007 provided some real ammo in the console wars, and its four-player deathmatches — remarkably, a last-minute addition before the game went gold — led to some of the best multiplayer memories we have, for any system. You Only Live Twice>Bunker>Power Weapons? How about Licence to Kill>Facility>Pistols?

We're easy, but whatever you do, make sure you've got 'Sight ON Auto-Aim OFF'. And no Odd Job.

Banjo-Kazooie (N64)

Rareware put out several platformers on Nintendo 64, each with their own pros and cons, but the Twycross team arguably never topped the debut of the bear and bird. There's something in the precise platforming and fairytale formula of Banjo-Kazooie that resulted in the quintessential 3D collectathon. It's big, but not sprawling; sweet, but not sickly; challenging, but never unfair (okay, a couple of those Rusty Bucket Bay jiggys walk a fine line). From the roaming grublins to Mumbo Jumbo's hilarious transformations, its colourful characters and varied worlds are shot through with humour, adorable animation, tight controls and an 'oom-pah' musical box soundtrack that nails the spirit of a cheeky storybook adventure perfectly.

Mario 64 might have the edge when it comes to prestige, invention and influence — that's the 3D platformer you vote for with your head — but Banjo steals hearts. An absolutely brilliant game.

Mario Kart 64 (N64)

While the racers themselves might not have been truly 3D (rather they were detailed Donkey Kong Country-style sprites created from 3D character renders), Mario Kart 64's huge, undulating circuits still showed off the benefits of 64-bit hardware. It added inclines, items, obstacles, and a four-player multiplayer mode to the winning formula Nintendo cooked up on Super NES. This is also the game which gave us Toad's Turnpike.

Each iteration of the Mario Kart series adds a little something new, but following on from the flat circuits of Super Mario Kart, there's arguably been nothing quite like this first jump to 3D-except-for-the-racers. Like any Mario Kart game, add three friends and you'll have an epic time in no time.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

What is there that hasn't already been said about this one? A seminal video game, Ocarina of Time brought The Legend of Zelda into the third dimension as successfully as the plumber made the leap in Super Mario 64. Yet where Nintendo could throw any playground-style idea into Mario's launch game, Ocarina had to tell a story and evoke a consistent mood throughout.

Going back these days, the frame rate and cumbersome menus may surprise you, and Hyrule Field feels decidedly smaller (more like a field, in fact) compared to the vast kingdom of Hyrule presented in Breath of the Wild, but the pure magic of the game still shines through any ageing systems. This set the template for not only every subsequent Zelda title, but also the majority of action-adventure games from the past two-and-a-half decades; no wonder it's so revered.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D on 3DS is the more streamlined version, but there are things that Grezzo's excellent remake couldn't quite recapture. Whether it's the Rumble Pak-powered Stone of Agony or the 64-bit mist hanging over Lake Hylia in the early hours, the N64 original still has that special something.

Star Fox 64 (N64)

Known as Lylat Wars in Europe, Star Fox 64 originally came in a whopping great box containing a Rumble Pak and was many a gamer's introduction to force feedback on console. It paired beautifully with the cinematic battles and derring-do of Fox McCloud and his team's cinematic dogfighting in this on-rails shooter. It's still an excellent game all these years later, with thrilling action, delicate and precise controls, stirring music, humour, spectacle, and edge-of-your-seat excitement. Sure, it's got a surplus of Slippy Toad, but you can't have everything.

Whether you're enjoying it on original hardware or playing via the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pak, a quick blast through this and it's clear to see why so many people think the Star Fox series peaked with its first sequel. It's not just the nostalgia talking — it really holds up beautifully two-and-a-half decades on.

F-Zero X (N64)

Forum wars continue to wage over whether F-Zero X or its successor on GameCube is the superior white-knuckle futuristic racer. Both are essential, of course. The 64-bit entry is metal: pure, simple, guitar-screeching, all-out metal. EAD stripped back extraneous detail to achieve the smoothest, most blistering and nail-bitingly precise racing experience. At this speed, on these dizzying tracks, even the tiniest prod on the spindly analogue stick matters, and the original N64 pad offers peak precision for micro adjustments which make the difference between gracefully sweeping through a corner with nary a pixel to spare… or catching said corner and ricocheting between barriers to an explosive, humiliating retirement.

How much more metal could this get? None. None more metal. Flaming skulls and chromed motorcycles would actually reduce the metal content of this game.

Perfect Dark (N64)

An incredible follow-up to GoldenEye which threw in every idea the developers at Rare could muster (plus a kitchen sink or two), Perfect Dark really stretched the Nintendo 64 hardware and was arguably the most ambitious game on the console. James Bond was never going to be an easy act to follow, but Joanna Dark's noir-ish sci-fi was as good a spiritual sequel as you could hope to have — close to perfect, in fact — and two decades on, it still stands as a remarkable achievement.

Blast Corps (N64)

Blast Corps involves clearing a path for a slow-moving truck carrying a malfunctioning nuclear missile to a safe detonation zone - a zone which is blocked by buildings and other structures ripe for destruction. As with many 64-bit titles, its early polygonal visuals are arguably looking a little dogged these days, but don't let its looks put you off. This incredibly silly concept makes for one of most fun games on the N64.

Paper Mario (N64)

Two decades on and Paper Mario might not look as sharp as it once did, but it holds up very well where it matters and jostles with The Thousand-Year Door for the title of Best Paper Mario Game.

The N64 original does very well to ease Mario fans into a new style of adventure while providing a depth for RPG gamers that you might not expect from the paper-thin premise. With a great supporting cast and buckets of trademark Nintendo charm, the original is up there with the best. The ability to play it on Switch is great news to anyone who missed out but still enjoys the more recent, less vital entries in the Paper Mario series.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64)

Known colloquially around these parts as Majora's Marmite, the three-day cycle added a constant pressure that turned off many players. However, that cycle is also key to the unique way Majora's Mask focuses on its cast of uncanny characters and soaks the adventure in melancholy and madness.

In fact, 'adventure' isn't quite the right word for this Zelda game. It's more of a Lynchian dreamscape in cartridge form, and one which isn't for everyone. The excellent 3DS remake is probably the best way to play these days thanks to some welcome additions for managing your limited time, although the original is conveniently available to play via Nintendo Switch Online. Wherever you play, the clockwork land of Termina offers something truly unique in the Zelda series.

Oh, and we don't really call it Majora's Marmite.

Super Smash Bros. (N64)

Bearing in mind how carefully Nintendo began managing its characters and their image after the misfire of the (first) Super Mario Bros. movie in the early '90s, it's remarkable that the original Super Smash Bros. and its inter-franchise scrapping got off the drawing board at HAL Laboratory. Fortunately, Masahiro Sakurai's crossover brawler was permitted to exist.

At the time, the idea of a 'platform' fighting game without health bars was pretty revolutionary. Instead, as you beat up your opponent, they'd become more vulnerable to knockback from your attacks, with the aim being to knock them out of the arena entirely. Catering for up to four players with a simple control scheme (especially compared to other fighting games) and the addition of weapons and power-ups to spice things up, this first Smash was a rock-solid foundation for a series that would become one of the world's biggest fighting franchises.

The number of combatants and complexity of the N64 original may pale in comparison with later rosters, which plucked from the annals of video gaming history, but we still look back fondly on the very first time we had the opportunity to open a can of whoop-ass on Pikachu.

Jet Force Gemini (N64)

An underrated entry in the Rareware library, Jet Force Gemini coupled cute design with chunky, gungy third-person blasting in a world-hopping quest to defeat insectoid overlord Mizar. Juno, Vela and trusty good boy Lupus' adventure is not without flaws, but JFG is a surprisingly deep and satisfying one that's worth investigating if you're a Rare fan looking for gems that passed you by around the turn of the millennium.

Snowboard Kids 2 (N64)

A follow-up to Racdym's cult classic, Snowboard Kids 2 predictably picks up where the previous Mario-Kart-esque downhill cartoon racer left off. With loveable characters, plenty of colour and the kind of multiplayer fun that struck a chord with those who played it, this really should have got more mainstream attention. Not that fans in the EU had much choice — Australia was the only PAL region where the sequel saw a release. Consequently, SBK 2 is one of the most expensive PAL N64 games on the retro market these days.

Diddy Kong Racing (N64)

Diddy Kong Racing did for Mario Kart 64 pretty much what Banjo-Kazooie would soon do for Super Mario 64; namely, take the template put down by Nintendo and expand on it with colour and creativity to produce far more than a mere homage. DKR expanded the single-player into an adventure and the addition of planes and hovercraft required much larger, more complex circuits to race around. The game also provided the console debuts of Banjo and Conker. What more do you want, jam on it?

Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (N64)

The N64 was notoriously underserved in a handful of genres — RPGs and fighters among them — but Ogre Battle 64 was a stellar strategy game. Following on from the series' previous appearance on SNES, it doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it's an fantastic example of the genre. It also features possibly the finest post-colon subtitle in gaming.

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil (N64)

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil was a technical showcase for the system which took the baton from the immensely popular first game and upped the ante in every possible way. Highlights include the Expansion Pak-powered 640x480 resolution visuals and the iconic Cerebral Bore, a gun that fired a brain-drilling bullet once you locked on to an enemy's melon. Acclaim's game is now available on Switch in remastered form courtesy of Night Dive Studios, although that version doesn't come on a kickass black cartridge.

WWF No Mercy (N64)

Much like every sport in video game form, the history of wrestling games is littered with plenty of lows, a mass of middling efforts and a handful of highs; WWF No Mercy is very much in the latter category. In fact, with depth and heft that's often missing from wrestling games two decades on, it's a legitimate contender for the greatest wrestling game ever made. For a system with a paucity of one-on-one combat titles, AKI's game is a extravagantly large feather in the console's cap.

Pokémon Snap (N64)

The whole concept of catching Pokémon and making them battle each other doesn't bear thinking too deeply about, but the idea of going out on a safari and shooting the critters was never going to wash. Switch a gun for a camera, though, and you've got yourself a fun little 'mon-filled rail-shooter.

Pokémon Snap might have only had 63 Pocket Monsters available, but the outpouring of love shown for the original game when the long-awaited sequel came to Switch in 2021 is testament to its charm. The act of hunting down Pokémon arguably wouldn't be bettered until years later when Niantic caught the world's attention with Pokémon GO.

Mario Party 2 (N64)

There ain't no party like a Mario Party, although he sure has thrown a lot of them over the past couple of decades.

Of the three Hudson-developed minigame bonanzas that came out on N64, Mario Party 2 is arguably the fan favourite. This is where Battle, Item, and Duel minigames got their start, and you could spend all the time in the world practising the minigames before you start, so you can ensure you're perfect for party play. Obviously, you'll need three friends to get the most out of this, but the first sequel built on the foundation of the original and steered the series on a steady course which now extends well into double figures. Even two decades later, it stands as one of the best party games ever, and it's available on Switch via the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack.

Just watch those Joy-Con analogue sticks — they're fragile at the best of times!

Conker's Bad Fur Day (N64)

Another iconic entry in the N64 catalogue from Rare, Conker's Bad Fur Day stood out proudly from the pack of cutesy platformers as a fouled-mouthed, blood-filled, scatological comedy. We're still a little blindsided that a Nintendo second party put out a game full of swears, to be honest — even the Xbox remake bleeped most of them out. Conker was a technological triumph for the ageing 64-bit system when it launched in 2001, and while the movie parodies are very much of their time and the humour won't hit the spot with everyone, the drunken squirrel still knows how to have a good time.

Mischief Makers (N64)

A side-scrolling platformer on a system with very few of those to its name, and one from the makers of Gunstar Heroes, no less! Treasure's Mischief Makers is a brilliant little 2.5D platformer that has gained a cult following over the years, but made little impact at the time. Back in the late '90s, anything that wasn't 3D was largely dismissed by the mainstream as old hat. Do yourself a favour and track this one down if it passed you by.

Pilotwings 64 (N64)

Pilotwings 64 was a brilliant launch title for the system which showcased its features and provided players with a lovely flight sim adventure — something worthy of playing alongside the mighty Super Mario 64. It proved to be a diverting companion piece for early adopters which built on the Super NES original with gameplay equal parts tense and relaxing. Cracking game.