4. Super Mario World (SNES)
Arguably one of the best games of all time for arguably one of the best consoles of all time, Super Mario World spiked the ball Super Mario Bros 3 had set for it and blew the damn roof off of what a Mario game looks like, what a platformer looks like, and what a video game looks like in general. Let's talk about the controls: beautiful, buttery-smooth, flowing from your brain to your fingers to the screen like you're Mario's spinal cord. Let's talk about the physics: Sir Isaac Newton would kneel and weep after a hot minute with our boy the plumber. Let's talk about the fact that you hop on the back of a dinosaur like that's not something worth taking a minute to thank God and the Devil both for. Let's talk about how Super Mario World conveys a fully realized artistic vision, one you can play, and how incredible that is in and of itself. And then let's stop talking so we can both find an emulator and play it.
3. Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox)
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2. Super Mario Bros (NES)
Super Mario Bros is the Plato, Marx, or Freud of video games; take your pick. It's the Odyssey or Beowulf. It's in the subconscious of all gaming, shaping the language, shaping how we think about games, shaping what games are and can be. There's a very good reason why Braid, one of the most critically acclaimed "art games" of all time, is built on top of deconstructing Super Mario Bros. It doesn't even matter whether you've ever even played Super Mario Bros: you know it, you know how it feels, you know what it looks and sounds like, that the Princess is in another castle, how to use a warp pipe. As gamers, it's in our blood and bones. How cool is that?
1. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)
When I was young and owned no video game consoles, I had a dream that I received a Nintendo 64 for Chanukkah. In that dream, I set up the console, turned it on, and played Super Mario 64 for the rest of the night. This dream was so vivid that when I woke abruptly, early in the morning, I had to go downstairs and confirm that I did not, in fact, have an N64, a realization as crushing as the dream was fantastic. It matters very, very much whether you've ever played Super Mario 64, because it is joy, and it will never quite leave you. Holding the distinct status of having infinite replay value, Super Mario 64 is simultaneously a whole huge explorable world, a journey of discovery, a master class in truly great game design, a feast for the eyes and a banquet for the ears, any number of fantasies made experienceable, and just indescribably, deeply, capital-f Fun. And though there are hundreds and hundreds of games like it, there isn't a single game like it.