We like sports and we don’t care who knows
When it comes to the development and publishing of sports simulators, there are no two bigger names in the game than EA Sports and 2K Sports. These companies are behind the best-selling football, basketball, hockey, and soccer games every year. There is just no competition when it comes to creating authentic, microtransaction-laden sports titles. Of course, not everyone cares about sports games for their realism. Some people just want to pick up a ball and have some good ol’ fashioned arcade fun. And in that arena, Nintendo sports games are king.
Or at least it used to be. For 30 years, Nintendo was responsible for the best sports arcade experiences on console and handheld devices. The company had its duds, sure, but when it struck gold, it hit the motherlode. Sadly, recent Nintendo sports games just haven’t been able to capture the greatness of the past. Whether it’s because features are purposely withheld until after launch or Camelot can’t make the hits it once did, long-time Nintendo sports fans have been waiting and hoping for a return to the golden years of the genre. And that’s what we’re celebrating with this list. So grab a foam finger and paint a letter on your belly because we’re about to mark the best Nintendo sports games ever made.
10. Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr.
Not to be confused with Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is the terribly named but incredibly fun arcade baseball game that debuted on the Nintendo 64 in 1998. You see, in 1992, a group of investors led by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, purchased the Seattle Mariners following a terrible season that had their previous owner threatening to move the team. At the time, superstar slugger Ken Griffey Jr. was arguably the most exciting player in the league who was stuck on a bad team (the Shohei Ohtani of his era). So it only made sense for Nintendo, as the owners of this sports team, to make a game starring its most notable player. And that’s what Nintendo did with its Ken Griffey Jr. series of baseball games.
Four games in total were developed for the SNES, Nintendo 64, and Game Boy. While I have many great memories of playing the SNES original, it wasn’t until the series made the jump to the Nintendo 64 with Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. that the game actually started to deserve all the acclaim we Mariners fans in Washington mindlessly heaped upon it. With outstanding graphics (for the time) and stellar gameplay, Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. was easily the first title from Nintendo to actually stand toe-to-toe with the more serious All-Star Baseball franchise. And why wouldn’t it be? The game was developed by Angel Studios, better known today as Rockstar San Diego. Nintendo would go on to produce one more Ken Griffey Jr. title, Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest, before retiring the series when Griffey left the Mariners for the Cincinnati Reds.
9. Super Mario Strikers
Sports games featuring Mario have long been a part of Nintendo’s history, from the early days of the NES when he served as the referee in Tennis. While Mario and company stuck to sports like tennis and golf during their early years, Nintendo allowed the mascot to branch out on the GameCube and DS with new sports titles like Mario Hoops 3-on-3, Mario Superstar Baseball, and the best of the bunch, Super Mario Strikers. Strikers simplified the sport of soccer/football into an easy-to-grasp 5-vs.-5 format that eliminated nuisances like penalties and out-of-bounds and emphasized big hits, items, and high scores. Like other Mario sports games of the era, characters in Strikers had a unique Super Strike that would net players two points when pulled off successfully. It was a great game and the only new Mario sports title of the era to continue on the Nintendo Switch.
8. Pro Wrestling
The earliest days of video gaming were something of a wild west for sports simulators. Anyone could make one, which led to some amazing titles like Tecmo Bowl as well as some not-amazing titles like NES Play Action Football. Nintendo itself developed a slew of early 8-bit titles for its NES, including Hockey, Golf, and Soccer. It also took a swing as the world’s growing fascination with professional wrestling when it released Pro Wrestling in 1986. You might think a console with such little power and limited button inputs would be unable to produce a quality wrestling game, but you would be wrong. Pro Wrestling set the standard for future wrestling titles with an eclectic roster of wrestlers, simple-to-grasp mechanics, and some of the best music of its era. This is the only NES sports title I still play today, both because I love it so much and because I hope that one day Starman will make it into Smash.
7. Excitebike 64
Developed by Left Field Productions, who were also responsible for Nintendo’s trio of NBA Courtside games, Excitebike 64 took the fun and color arcade races of the NES original and modernized it for those looking for a more serious racing experience. With fantastic 64-bit graphics, sound effects, and some of the most realistic physics of the time, Excitebike 64 wasn’t just the best dirt bike racer on the Nintendo 64; it was the best across all consoles at the time. While the main game strived for realism, there was still plenty of arcade fun to be found, including a soccer minigame, 3D recreation of the original Excitebike, an endless desert mode, and a secret cheats menu to discover. When the game reappears in 2023 on the Expansion Pass for Nintendo Switch Online, remember to hold L as you press C right, C down, and the A button at the main menu.
6. Wii Sports Resort
The original Wii Sports was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon when Nintendo of America made the smart decision to pack it in with every Nintendo Wii it sold. There was no better way to showcase the Wiimote motion technology than the five games included in the collection. The game was a huge hit, and for many people, it was one of the only Wii games they bothered playing. A few years later, when Nintendo introduced the Wii MotionPlus accessory, it went back to the Wii Sports well to sell it. Wii Sports Resort went bigger and better than its predecessor, introducing nine new sports to go along with returning favorites bowling and golf. It also introduced players to Wuhu Island, a location that would pop up in future games like Pilotwings Resort and Wii Fit.
With the Wii MotionPlus accessory, movement tracking was more accurate than before, allowing for more intricate sports like swordplay, table tennis, and archery. If you wanted more casual fun, the game had a variety of watersports like wakeboarding and power cruising. Or you could take to the sky for a little dogfighting. All-in-all, it’s one of the best sports collections ever assembled.
5. Mario Golf: Advance Tour
Nintendo produced its very first golf game in 1984 for the Famicom. Simply titled Golf, the game was the work of Satoru Iwata and it laid the groundwork for future golf titles by featuring a bar that illustrated the power and accuracy of a shot. Twenty years later, the genre would arguably be perfected with Mario Golf: Advance Tour. Developed by Camelot Software Planning, the game was a follow-up to the Game Boy Color title Mario Golf, also developed by Camelot. That game introduced RPG elements to the Mario Golf franchise, elements that would be carried over and expanded in Advance Tour.
Dubbed “Role-Playing Golf,” the game went all-in on its RPG mechanics, putting players on a path to take on the number one golfer in the Mushroom Kingdom. Sadly, this was the last time such an RPG mode would make its way into a Mario Golf title, and while subsequent games certainly had their own charms, Nintendo and Camelot have yet to match the single-player excellence of Advance Tour.
4. 1080° Snowboarding
In 1997, ESPN broadcast the very first Winter X Games from Big Bear Lake California. At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, snowboarding would make its Olympic debut. That same year, Nintendo would get in on the growing fascination with the sport with 1080° Snowboarding for the Nintendo 64. While it had a small number of available riders, the game was one of the most advanced games to hit the console, with outstanding graphics, buttery smooth controls, and an amazing depiction of snow.
At the time, it was the most realistic snowboarding game on the market, even if realism went right out the door in the game’s Trick Attack Mode. This was a game my friends and I would pop in during every weekend sleepover, challenging each other to see who could nail the highest score. If you missed out on 1080° Snowboarding, you can check it out when it lands on the Expansion Pass for Nintendo Switch Online in 2023.
3. Punch-Out!! (Wii)
Punch-Out!! has long been one of Nintendo’s greatest neglected franchises. Since it first appeared in arcades and on the NES, it’s absolutely captivated audiences with its unique set of fighters and simplistic, puzzle-like gameplay that could make anyone a champion as long as they had fast enough reflexes. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is easily one of the best games on the NES, and it was followed up by an even better Super Punch-Out!! on the SNES. For whatever reason, Nintendo stuck the series on the backburner after that, eventually reviving it 15 years later on the Nintendo Wii with the help of Next Level Games.
Punch-Out!! (Wii) took the formula established back on the Wii and polished it even further, creating the best boxing game Nintendo has ever produced. With outstanding cell-shaded graphics, superb controls, immense challenge, and just the right amount of light stereotypes, the game gave long-time fans everything they could possibly want into a new Punch-Out!! title. Well, everything except a roster full of new characters. Outside of Disco Kid and Donkey Kong, everyone in the game was a returning boxer.
2. Wave Race 64
Wave Race: Blue Storm may have the wonderful annoyed announcer Easter Egg, but Wave Race 64 was an absolute game changer. As one of the first games made available for the Nintendo 64, it was a showcase title for the power and possibilities of the N64 hardware. Anyone expecting it to be a light and simple racing game quickly found themselves battling waves and carefully planning their turns through races that featured the most realistic water physics of its time. Like with 1080° Snowboarding, Nintendo sought to rewrite the book on this genre of sports game by producing the best jetski racer the world had ever seen. To this day, this is still one of the best, if not the best, jetski racers you can play. But don’t take my word for it. You can see for yourself as the game is now available on the Expansion Pass for Nintendo Switch Online.
1. Mario Tennis (GBC)
The number one spot on this list was either going to go to Mario Tennis (N64) or Mario Tennis (GBC). Developed by Camelot Software Planning during its most fruitful decade of production, both games were released to critical acclaim, with reviewers and players praising the gameplay, roster, and sense of speed. Either title does more than enough to earn this spot, but for my money, I think the Game Boy Color version is the better of the two.
Arriving not long before the launch of the Game Boy Advance, Mario Tennis on the GBC got about as much as you could possibly get out of that weak hardware, creating a seamless and full-featured tennis experience. Following in the footsteps of 1999’s Mario Golf for the Game Boy Color, Mario Tennis also featured an extensive single-player RPG mode that had players working up the ranks of the Royal Academy. Some might argue the GBA sequel did everything this game did but better, but I’m sticking with my guns on this one. Mario Tennis for the Game Boy Color is an endlessly enjoyable game and my pick for the best Nintendo sports game of all time.