The word “Nintendo” is synonymous with video games. From early arcade hits like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. (not to be confused with Super Mario Bros. for the NES) to legendary home consoles like the Super Nintendo and Wii, to the recent launch of the console/handheld hybrid, the Switch, Nintendo is one of the most recognizable companies in modern pop culture. Entire generations have been raised on the works of the House of Mario. While it’s hard to characterize the Wii U as anything other than a colossal misstep, the early success of the Switch, combined with the promise of upcoming titles like Super Mario Odyssey, Arms, Splatoon 2, and a new version of Pokèmon proves that Nintendo still has a lot of gas left in its engine.
Over the decades, the teams at Nintendo have created some of the most important and innovative video games of all time, as well as some of the most memorable characters in interactive entertainment. This list is all about the colorful cast of heroes, villains, and iconic mascots of the most venerated video game pantheon ever assembled. Here are The 15 Greatest Nintendo Characters Of All Time… And no, Tingle is not on the list.
Luigi started life as “Player 2,” a palette-swapped version of his big brother, but he eventually became distinguished by his higher jump, which gave him an edge in the hands of skilled players. He also utterly broke Super Mario 64 DS, in which his jumping ability made certain challenges, which were meticulously balanced for the red-capped brother, a total cakewalk for the lankier of the twins.
Luigi’s shining moment came in 2001’s Luigi’s Mansion, which was not a traditional run-and-jump platformer, but rather a unique, child-friendly take on the survival horror genre. Luigi’s endearing cowardice was put to the test in the Gamecube launch title, which placed the sheepish and jittery plumber in charge of ridding a haunted estate of its pervasive ghost problem.
14. The Elite Beat Agents
In 2006, Elite Beat Agents released for the Nintendo DS, and the game can only be described as “bizarre and uplifting.” The lead characters, the titular Elite Beat Agents, are dispatched whenever someone’s stress level reaches a breaking point; the Agents then dance to a pop song, encouraging the stressed-out subject to persevere and accomplish their tasks.
It’s a charming and addictive rhythm game which requires some serious dexterity, but it’s incredibly rewarding. The songs include covers of “Highway Star” by Deep Purple and “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie, among many others, and the scenarios are all a whimsical combination of outrageous and sincere. The real show-stopper, though, is “You’re The Inspiration” by Chicago, in which the Agents use the power of dance to reunite a family torn apart by tragedy. It’s saccharine and over-the-top, but the message is sincere and important: music, dance, and good vibes are the most powerful tools to help people overcome their toughest trials and tribulations.
Every hero has their trusty steed. Zorro has Tornado, The Lone Ranger has Silver, and Mario has Yoshi, a dinosaur species which made its debut in Super Mario World, a launch title for the Super Nintendo. After valiantly helping Mario to save Dinosaur Land from Bowser’s fiendish plans, Yoshi took center stage in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. The candy-colored prequel had Yoshi helping Baby Mario in a world that looked like it was ripped straight out of a coloring book. It was here that Yoshi first showed off their ground-pound and egg-throwing skills.
Yoshi are famous for their long tongues, ravenous appetites, and sheer dedication to their friend, Mario. Yoshi appeared in Super Mario Sunshine, Galaxy 2, and practically every spin-off title, from kart racers to party games. Even in Super Mario 64, in which nearly all of Mario’s supporting cast were conspicuously absent, Yoshi still managed to sneak in a cameo on the roof of the castle, accessible after the player obtained all 120 Power Stars.
Kirby, the plucky pink puffball, can use his tremendous vacuum of a mouth to devour enemies and take their powers, while also adopting their look. When Kirby joined the roster of the Nintendo all-star brawler, Super Smash Brothers, this ability remained intact — to spectacular effect.
While the first Smash title had a roster of only a dozen characters, the most recent entry features a whopping 58 characters (including the seven DLC fighters), which means that, over the years, Kirby has been able to look like characters as varied as Mario, Ganondorf, Cloud Strife, Bayonetta, and even Metal Gear‘s Solid Snake. For this reason alone, Kirby will forever be remembered as one of the most entertaining video game characters ever created, to say nothing of the fact that he has headlined some awesomely adorable games over the years, from classics like Kirby Superstar and Kirby 64, to more recent titles like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and the underappreciated Kirby and the Rainbow Curse.
One has to admire Bowser’s perseverance; he always gets his butt kicked, his plans are inevitably foiled, and his schemes ultimately come to naught. But he’s always game to come back and try again, kidnapping Princess Peach, stealing Stars, and otherwise doing his best to make Mario’s life more difficult.
His character gets fleshed out a bit in the RPG spin-offs of the main series, like Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Mario & Luigi. In Super Mario RPG, he even joins the cast as a playable character, and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is predominantly set within King Koopa’s body, Fantastic Voyage-style.
It’s also nice to know that, when the occasion arises, Mario and Bowser are willing to set aside their differences and enjoy leisurely activities like golf, kart racing, and tennis. On the other hand, may heaven help the unfortunate player who lands on a Bowser Space in Mario Party. Friendships have been ruined forever by the luck-based antics of Mario Party.
10. Fox McCloud
The courageous head of the Star Fox mercenary force, Fox McCloud has a big pair of boots to fill; his father, James, was killed in combat with Andross, a giant floating monkey head in space… Or something. One just has to accept the weird, animal-based characters who inhabit the universe of Star Fox.
Anyway, between the original SNES title and the remake/reboot for the Nintendo 64 (the aptly-titled Star Fox 64), Fox exhibits a surprising amount of character development and interactions with other figures in the game, from his rivalry with his wingman, Falco Lombardi, to his hatred of Pigma Dengar of Star Wolf (who was formerly a member of Star Fox and betrayed Fox’s father, leading to his death). There’s actually a lot to unpack in these games, in addition to all the screen-filling explosions and Top Gun-esque action you could ask for. Fox gets an even better opportunity to strut his stuff in Star Fox Adventures for the Gamecube, in which McCloud leaves his Arwing and explores a dinosaur-inhabited planet in a quest which borrows heavily from the Legend of Zelda formula.
9. Princess Peach
Mario’s special lady friend has an uncanny knack for getting kidnapped by Bowser, but when she’s not the target of the Koopa King’s evil plans, she’s more than capable of kicking butt on her own. In Super Mario Bros. 2, she had the impressive ability to float at the top of her jump, an ability which she retained in the fantastic Wii U multiplayer title, Super Mario 3D World.
Outside of the mainline titles, Peach is a regular in virtually all of the Mario spin-off titles, and she is a definite fan-favorite in Super Smash Brothers. In addition to the ability to pull vegetables from the ground and throw them at opponents, Peach has a powerful “side-A” smash attack, in which she whacks her opponent with one of several objects, including a frying pan, which delivers a satisfyingly metallic sound effect that would make Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled proud.
8. Princess Zelda
Nintendo’s other famous princess is Zelda, the title character of The Legend of Zelda series, one of the most revered action/adventures games of all time. For proof of the power of the Zelda brand, look no further than the recent launch of the Nintendo Switch. The latest title in the series, Breath of the Wild continues to dominate any conversation about video games, even more than two months after its initial release. Without Zelda, the Switch would not be enjoying the same level of success that it currently is.
Like Peach, Zelda spends much of her time in games either imprisoned or unconscious, but when she takes a more proactive role, she does so with righteous bravado. In Ocarina of Time, she secretly aids protagonist Link by using magic to disguise herself as the warrior Sheik, and Wind Waker sees the princess as captain of a band of pirates on the high seas. Zelda may sometimes find herself stuck being a damsel in distress, but she’s usually much more involved than that.
7. Baby Metroid
Detractors of Nintendo’s games like to accuse the company of being “for kids.” Those people are not only stupid idiots, they’re also wrong. Few games can match the dark atmosphere, emotional investment, and gritty science fiction aesthetics of Metroid. The series debuted on the NES, and featured galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran on a quest to eradicate the dangerous space parasites, the Metroids.
Metroid II: The Return of Samus launched on the Game Boy in 1991 and introduced players to one of Nintendo’s most surprisingly endearing characters, the Baby Metroid. Immediately after hatching, the Baby imprints on Samus, identifying the armor-clad space warrior as its mother and helping her escape planet SR388.
In Super Metroid, the baby is captured by Ridley of the Space Pirates, and mutated into a mindless weapon. However, during the final battle with Mother Brain, leader of the band of thugs, the Baby breaks free of her mind control and turns the tables on her captors. It costs the Baby Metroid its life, but it saves Samus, who goes on to take down Mother Brain in a cathartic final battle. Metroid Fusion sees a critically-injured Samus saved once more by the Baby, this time through a serum comprised of its DNA, effectively making Samus, a renowned hunter of the parasitic creatures, part Metroid herself.
The arch-villain of The Legend of Zelda series is Ganon, the pig-like demonic creature who seeks to lay waste to Hyrule and control the Triforce, the ultimate power of the universe. In the original games (and Breath of the Wild), Ganon was an apocalyptic force, but Ocarina of Time gave the character more depth by showing him, not as a pig demon – at least, not at first – but as a man, Ganondorf, who seeks to steal the throne of Hyrule by any means necessary.
Skyward Sword further elaborates upon Ganon’s origins, revealing that his very existence is the result of a curse on Link and Zelda and their eternal bloodlines, that Ganon always returns to challenge them forever. Some fans enjoyed the gravitas of this revelation, while others felt it diminished Ganondorf’s own motivations. Either way, Ganon remains one of the most iconic video game villains of all time.
Who’s the greatest Pocket Monster of them all? Some people might say Mewtwo, Charizard, or Lucario (there are, after all, hundreds to choose from!), but there’s really only one correct answer: Pikachu. Nobody ever evolves their Pikachu into Riachu, and for good reason: Pikachu is simply the cutest!
The yellow electric mouse was #25 in the original Kanto Pokedex, but after appearing in the anime series as the sidekick to protagonist Ash Ketchum, Pikachu’s popularity took off like a bolt of lightning, and he’s become the de facto mascot of the Pokèmon franchise. Pikachu went on to star in many of his own titles (such as Hey You, Pikachu), as well as the upcoming film adaptation of the Japan-exclusive adventure game, Detective Pikachu. Unfortunately, despite the internet’s best efforts, it appears as if Danny DeVito will not be voicing the hard-boiled Pokè-Cop.
4. Donkey Kong
The first half of DK’s name makes no sense; he’s an ape in a necktie, not a donkey! Regardless, Donkey Kong is one of Nintendo’s longest-running characters, having made his debut in his self-titled 1981 arcade cabinet. In Donkey Kong, players took control of “Jumpman” on a quest to rescue the fair maiden Pauline from the clutches of the King Kong-esque giant ape.
In a weird twist, the necktie-wearing Donkey Kong with which most fans are familiar is not the “original” Donkey Kong; he’s actually Donkey Kong Junior. The original DK, as revealed in the Super Nintendo classic, Donkey Kong Country, is the old and gray Cranky Kong, who incessantly breaks the fourth wall and pokes fun at video game conventions.
After Donkey Kong 64, DK mostly stayed out of starring roles, but he returned with aplomb in the appropriately-titled Donkey Kong Country Returns and its sequel, Tropical Freeze.
3. Samus Aran
Spoiler alert: Samus is a girl!
The heavily-armed space bounty hunter spends the original Metroid game blasting aliens and tearing apart Space Pirates, only to remove her helmet and reveal her true gender. It’s common knowledge by now, but it was a pretty big twist back in the day.
In Metroid II, Samus adopts a Baby Metroid (see entry #7), giving her a maternal edge which is rare among video game protagonists. The Metroid series is inspired by the Alien movies, and Samus is the clear successor to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley character.
Beyond her remarkable character development over the course of 25 years worth of games, Samus is also reputed as one of the all-time tough-as-nails science fiction heroes in video games. She has a Mega Man-esque arm cannon, she flies a cool spaceship, and she can transform into Morph Ball mode, in which she scoffs at the laws of physics and shrinks her body down to the size of a basketball and rolls around like a nimble, spherical gymnast.
The game may be called The Legend of Zelda, but the hero of the franchise is Link, the green-clad elf boy who always finds himself on a quest to tame the horse, Epona, find the Master Sword, slay Ganon, and save the kingdom of Hyrule.
Whether he’s the pint-sized pre-teen in titles like the original Legend of Zelda or The Wind Waker, or a teenage dreamboat like in Twilight Princess and Breath of the Wild, Link is one of the most legendary heroes of all time, video game or otherwise. It also doesn’t hurt that Link is one of the most powerful characters in Super Smash Brothers. He was rebalanced in later titles, which also included Young Link, based on his appearance in Majora’s Mask, and Toon Link, based on his eye-popping cel-shaded turn in The Wind Waker.
Without Mario, the world of video games would be a far different place than it is today. While Mario made his debut in 1981’s Donkey Kong (as the aforementioned “Jumpman”), and starred in 1983’s Mario Bros. arcade machine, it was 1985’s Super Mario Brothers which truly revolutionized the gaming industry.
Ever since then, Mario has been on the forefront of innovation in games, from side-scrolling titles like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, to revolutionary 3D platformers like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, the Mario series is the most consistently groundbreaking and excellent franchise in the industry.
As far as characterization goes, he’s just a regular blue collar worker who will literally jump any gap to see his princess again, and that’s been more than enough to fuel new Mario games for over 30 years. The plumber’s next adventure, Super Mario Odyssey, is scheduled for release in late 2017.
Which of these titans of the gaming industry stand as your Nintendo character of choice? Did we leave out any of your all-time favorites? Sound off in the comments!
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