Do they really matter? Well, they can! A great game that comes out at the same time as a new system can help give that console an early head start. To prove that point, I went and looked back at the launch lineups for every major home and portable system since the NES.
But I also discovered that many of the best-selling consoles of all time, like the PlayStation 2 or Nintendo DS, had pretty weak launch releases. So it’s clear that you don’t need to have killer app on Day 1 in order to have a successful console.
Having said that, it’s still fun to pick out the 10 best launch games of all time. You can find my list, which I’ve put in chronological order, below.
Super Mario Bros. — NES
It’s hard to mention the NES without thinking about Super Mario Bros. I feel kind of silly even writing about it. I mean, you know that Super Mario Bros. is an important game. I think it may have been illegal to buy an NES without Super Mario Bros. or one of those multi-game carts that also included Duck Hunt and/or World Class Track Meet. This classic sidescroller brought gaming back from the dead and established Nintendo as a powerhouse.
Tetris — Game Boy
Speaking of games that you associate with a specific console, here’s Tetris for Game Boy. The puzzle game has had ports to just about every platform imaginable, but there’s still something so simplistically pure and perfect about this gray-toned Game Boy version. Even though Game Boy launched with a Mario sidescroller of its own, Tetris is what really showed everyone how much fun portable gaming could be.
Super Mario World — SNES
Super Mario Bros. did so much to help the NES be a hit in the U.S., it was no surprise that Nintendo had Super Mario World ready for the SNES’s launch. Super Mario World is still my favorite 2D entry in the franchise. I love the vibrant levels, branching overworld, and the debuting Yoshi. More than anything, knowing that you could get the next big Mario game made the SNES an easy purchase on its first day.
Super Mario 64 — Nintendo 64
You’re probably noticing a trend here. At this point, it seemed sacrilege to even imagine Nintendo launching a console without a new Mario game. But none of those Mario launch titles, with maybe the exception of the first, matter as much as Super Mario 64. This classic is a pioneer for 3D gaming, still serving as inspiration for developers everywhere.
Soulcalibur — Dreamcast
Man, the Dreamcast had such a good launch lineup. Sonic Adventure finally gave us that 3D Sonic platformer fans had been craving since we played Super Mario 64, NFL 2K was an amazing football experience, and we had a bunch of great fighting games with Ready 2 Rumble Boxing and Power Stone. But Soulcalibur is the best of the bunch, showing us that arcades no longer had a monopoly on amazing 3D graphics.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon — Game Boy Advance
Game Boy Advance is another system with an all-time great selection of launch titles! But Circle of the Moon is easily the best of the bunch. Castlevania fans had been craving a successor to Symphony of the Night’s focus on 2D exploration blended with RPG mechanics. Circle of the Moon finally delivered that, and it was portable. The game’s success would spawn a bunch of other portable Castlevania hits.
Halo: Combat Evolved — Xbox
Here’s another game that deserves a lot of credit for making the console it launched on a hit. When it comes to Halo, it’s easy to imagine that the Xbox brand wouldn’t have survived beyond a couple of years without it. Instead, Halo became a must-own game, easily becoming the best first-person shooter to ever release on a home console and inspiring LAN parties across the country thanks to its addictive multiplayer.
Super Monkey Ball — GameCube
The GameCube, surprisingly, did not have a mainline Mario game ready for its launch, but it still debuted in the U.S. with an awesome lineup. Luigi’s Mansion finally gave the unfortunate sibling his own adventure, Rogue Leader is still one of my favorite Star Wars games, and just thinking about Wave Race: Blue Storm makes me furious that Nintendo killed that franchise. Super Monkey Ball, however, stood out as the most fun with its challenging, tilting-based levels and fun-with-friends minigames. Monkey Billiards for life.
Wii Sports — Wii
We all thought that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess would be the most important game for the Wii at its launch, but the pack-in Wii Sports became something of a sensation. Its easy-to-use motion controls made it fun to play virtual tennis and bowling with anyone, even with your grandparents who never played a video game before. It showed the appeal of the Wii and opened up the eyes of game creators everywhere to untapped audiences.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — Switch
Breath of the Wild did for the Switch what Twilight Princess could not. It reinvented the franchise with a new focus on exploration and discovery, becoming a must-play title. And since it was a giant, new Zelda game, it impressed many when they could instantly switch between playing it on their TV or via the console’s portable display.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.