This is going to be one of the most exciting lists I have had the privilege to rank: it’s the best 2D video games of all time!
Like, no limits on that? Wow. That has huge implications.
The criteria of 2D does eliminate some of my favorite video games of all time (Breath of the Wild, Eastward, The Last of Us, etc).
And, it surprised me to see how many of my favorite games were 3D or used isometric and top-down perspectives, taking them out of the possibilities (for this exercise, we do not consider those to be 2D).
There have been thousands of classic video games in two dimensions, and it is now my important responsibility to determine some of the best.
I think I speak for everyone here at Retro Dodo when I say that 2D video games make up a gigantic portion of my gaming memories, starting back on the NES and Game Boy and continuing even now on the Switch, PS5, and PC.
I’m honored to give you guys and gals my list of bests, and hopefully you’ll find a classic game to revisit or maybe even be inspired to check out one you never played before.
So here goes… this is RetroDodo’s best 2D video games of all time!
10. Mega Man 2 (1988)
Like many games that will appear on this list, Mega Man 2 was a giant piece of my childhood.
It was one of the first games that I owned for the NES, and I remember spending many hours progressing through the unique stages.
While the original Mega Man title certainly laid the groundwork for the series, it was Mega Man 2 that really solidified its legacy.
And Mega Man 2 is still the best selling Mega Man video game of all time, at over 1.5 million units.
What makes the original Mega Man video games so great was the diversity in the stages and how the player could choose their own order to tackle them.
Mega Man 2 featured an awesome collection of baddies: Metal Man, Air Man, Bubble Man, Quick Man, Crash Man, Flash Man, Heat Man, and Wood Man.
Each antagonist had their own unique environment, battle style, and power-up rewarded in their defeat.
It becomes an interesting point of strategy to determine the order of attack so that you have the best power-up to defeat the next boss.
Mega Man became an iconic character that makes an appearance in Super Smash Bros, which is certainly a distinguished stamp of approval.
This is the first game by Capcom to make an appearance on this list, but not the last. So stay tuned to see what other awesome titles they brought to 2d game history!
9. Donkey Kong Jr. (1982)
Donkey Kong Jr. was released for arcades in 1982, the year of my birth, and was developed by Nintendo. Maybe you’ve heard of them?
The game saw the roles reversed… this time Mario taking the part of antagonist, and a young gorilla thrust into an adventure to rescue his papa.
The game was designed by legendary Nintendo masters Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi.
Surely you’ve heard of these legends by now.. but if you have not, it makes for an incredibly awesome discovery to read of their contributions to retro gaming history.
Google their names ASAP.
Donkey Kong Jr. featured improved graphics from the original, new game play mechanics, and iconic sound effects and music.
Donkey Kong Jr. was perhaps the very first video game that I ever encountered. It certainly is the first that I remember playing. So it holds a special place in my heart.
I assert that Donkey Kong Jr. is perhaps one of the most iconic 2D arcade games, and it is still one of the highest selling arcade cabinets.
There were many ports made for Donkey Kong Jr., including on the NES, Atari 2600 and Intellivision.
But it was the original 1982 arcade title that is one of our favorite retro video games, and takes a spot on our list of the best 2D video games of all time.
8. Street Fighter II Turbo (1994)
Is there a more important 2D fighting game than Street Fighter II Turbo?
I think not!
Street Fighter surely made one of the biggest impacts on the fighting genre of video games, and is perhaps one of the first 2D fighting games most of us had experienced.
Of course, there are many ports and iterations of Street Fighter II.
But it is the SNES “Turbo” port that introduced more playable characters, new special moves, and boasts that iconic speed boost that was made popular by modified arcade cabinets.
Whether it was in those arcade halls or at home on an SNES, Street Fighter II Turbo was one of the most exciting gaming experiences one could have had back in the golden era of retro video games: the 1990s.
I was lucky enough to have spent many hours with a controller in hand battling my friends in Street Fighter II Turbo, and it is one of my favorite childhood memories.
Over 4.1 million players around the world picked up their copy and finally had the opportunity to sharpen their skills in the comfort of their own home.
It’s one of the Best Selling SNES Games as well as the number one on the list of the Best 2D Fighting Games Of All Time.
We would not be very good at our job at ranking video games if we didn’t include it here on the list of the best 2D video games of all time. So… here it is!
7. Tetris (1989)
I don’t think there would be many people who would deny that Tetris is one of the best puzzle games ever created.
It is a perfect example of simple game play that keeps you coming back over and over and over and over and over.
It’s easy enough for a child to play, and cerebral enough for adults to be intrigued as well.
Tetris appeared on early computer systems and it had ports on the NES, Sega Mega Drive and Arcade as well.
But by my own measure… it is the 1989 Game Boy port of Tetris that really perfected the formula and delivered a package that was perfection. I used “perfect” twice there… that should tell you a lot.
Every Tetris game plays slightly different, presents it in a slightly different way, has different music.
It’s Tetris for the Game Boy that has the most iconic music, plays super smooth, and pairs well with the stage and piece size on the Game Boy console.
Tetris is the second highest selling Game Boy title of all time with over 35 million copies. And I would argue that because Nintendo grouped Pokemon Red, Green, Blue AND Yellow’s sales to be the number one highest selling… Tetris likely is the actual highest seller.
It certainly is one of my favorite video games of all time, one of the absolute best 2D video games, and took a spot on our list of the 20 Best Retro Games Of All Time.
Tetris is incredible. We are happy to celebrate it here.
6. Hollow Knight (2017)
If ever there were an iconic 2D video game hit from the modern era, surely Hollow Knight is one.
The game features incredible art direction, character design, animation, mechanics, level design, music.. it has really got it all.
Making its debut on Kickstarter and eventually becoming one of the biggest must-play titles for PC and the Nintendo Switch, Hollow Knight has been a smash hit in the 2D MetroidVania genre.
With words like “masterpiece” and “perfect” being used to describe it, Hollow Knight has been very well received by both players and critics.
It scored pretty high on our list of the Best Nintendo Switch Games, and was even the number one Best Indie Games On Switch.
There is certainly a gigantic cult following that will tell you that Hollow Knight is one of the best video games of all time. And we would not argue its position on many top lists.
So we are happy to include it on this list of the best 2D video games, it is certainly a well deserving title.
With the sequel Hollow Knight: Silksong incoming, now is a great time to check out Hollow Knight for the 1st or 100th time.
5. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
We could argue for nearly any Castlevania title to be a contender for a best 2D game, but it’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that really masters everything we love about the franchise.
When you think of some of the best Castlevania games, you would likely imagine the early NES or Game Boy Advance entries. And you wouldn’t be wrong for that.
It was those titles, such as Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, that really hit hard for most fans of the game franchise that helped establish a whole genre: MetroidVania.
But in this particular case, it’s really interesting to see how the advance in technology allows for a classic gaming formula to be expanded and improved without sacrificing everything we loved about the original games.
In an era of an explosion of 3D video games, Konami had the imagination and brilliance to leverage the power of the PS1 to deliver one of the coolest 2D platforming titles.
Of course, some psuedo-3D elements were at play here. And Symphony of the Night could even be classified as 2.5D (as well as a few other titles on this list).
But at its core, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a 2D platformer, through and through.
Symphony of the Night was the number one game on our list of the 10 Best Castlevania Games, and we still hold to that decision.
It has been described as a “sleeper hit” that had a slow start in its popularity.
But surely, by now, you know Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as one of the best Castlevania titles, one of the best Metroidvania games, and certainly one of the best 2D video games of all time.
4. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Sonic the Hedgehog is surely the most iconic 2D game not made by Nintendo.
If you’ve browsed any of our previous articles or watched any of our videos, you know that we are in love with Sonic here at Retro Dodo.
And it was the original Sonic the Hedgehog video game from 1991 that exploded into the video game world and gave platforming a whole new perspective.
The game really impressed with its use of parallax backgrounds, dynamic multi-level stages, fast-paced running, and something that became iconic for the franchise… those 360 loops!
Sonic the Hedgehog was a very important milestone in 2D platforming history.
It saw Sega’s new iconic mascot standing head-to-head with the likes of Mario, and it was the start of the Sega Vs Nintendo console war.
And the only reason there was ever a war (we’d like to think of it as a friendly rivalry) was because Sonic helped established some true competition for Nintendo’s Mario at that time.
I was team Mario as a kid. But as an adult I live in the best times for video games and I do not have to choose. I can have both.
And I know my Dodo brothers would submit their votes for Sonic to make a high appearance on our list of the best 2D video games.
The original Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most important 2D games, and I salute it here today.
If you love Sonic as much as we do, surely you might be interested in the Best Sonic The Hedgehog Gifts.
There were even some Sonic Scented Candles, which finally answers the age old question: “What does Sonic smell like?!”
3. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)
So what makes Super Mario Bros. 3 so special and one of the best 2D video games ever?
Do I even have break it down for you? Surely you’d agree that it is one of the greatest video games of all time. And it’s a wonderful example of 2d platforming at its best.
Besides taking one of the most iconic video game franchises to entirely new levels, both literally and figuratively… the third entry in the Super Mario Bros. franchise delivers an entirely new aesthetic for the series.
(Not counting the western release of Super Mario Bros. 2, as we eventually learned that this was simply a last minute reskin of an existing game.)
Super Mario Bros. 3 gave players an expanded arsenal of mechanics & abilities, a wide variety of new zones to explore, and an iconic soundtrack… as we should expect from the Mario franchise.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is easily one of the most recognizable video games to come from that golden era of NES games, when Nintendo was at its height of home console superiority.
And if you were lucky enough to have picked up one of the 17 million copies, you know just how special the experience was.
It’s a truly one of a kind gaming experience that stands the test of time and remains one of our favorite 2D video games.
Super Mario Bros. 3 took an easy spot on the list of the 25 Best NES Games Of All Time, and it is hard to imagine a better 2d Mario game… unless you continue reading this article.
2. Cuphead (2017)
I think I speak for pretty much everybody in the gaming community: when previews of Cuphead started coming out, I was incredibly excited.
And the concept of mixing classic cartoon aesthetics with 2D platforming video games is something I’m surprised we haven’t seen sooner.
But perhaps we are lucky that such a perfect concept took its time to make an appearance… and that it was done so well.
StudioMDHR managed to create absolutely perfect graphics, reminiscent of early Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons.
And the whole package comes together by pairing those graphics with a wonderful story, an iconic original character, smooth game play, and a polished overall experience.
The entire game experience has a heavy focus on boss battles and a surprising level of difficulty.
For those who are gluttons for pain… fans of notoriously difficult games likes of Bloodborne or Ghosts ‘n Goblins… this game is for you!
Of course, the introduction of a “Simple Mode” helps those who just want to experience the entire game without a struggle.
Besides just looking cool and playing great… Cuphead is also an incredible achievement for 2D video games.
Perfect platforming that offers a wide range of movement. You’re gonna be ducking, dodging, going over, under, left, right… you’ll be all over the screen.
With the recent release of The Cuphead Show! on Netflix, and a new expansion for the game, “The Delicious Last Course”… the Cuphead universe is alive and well. We can only hope to get a followup in the future.
We included Cuphead on our list of the 10 Best Retro Games On Steam, and I’m happy to include it on this list of the best 2d video games of all time.
A well deserved position.
1. Super Mario World (1990)
There is probably no game that could better represent “retro gaming” than Super Mario World.
It is difficult to express my love of this game in writing, but just imagine me with a giant smile on my face and my hands shaking with excitement.
Everything about Super Mario world is incredible: The graphics, the colors, the sounds, the music, the level design, the mechanics. I don’t think I would change anything.
Where Super Mario Bros. 3 took the Mario franchise to a new level, Super Mario World really just launched things way beyond our wildest imagination.
And perhaps that is a good way to describe what the SNES did in general.
Super Mario World remains the number one Best Selling SNES Games Of All Time at over 20.6 million copies.
And obviously, it took a spot on our list of the 35 Best SNES Games Of All Time. (Not top 3, Seb?!)
To this date, Super Mario World is still one of my favorite video games of all time. And I play it often to get a boost of retro gaming happiness.
I consider this to be one of the most incredible achievements in 2D platforming with its incredibly smooth mechanics, clever use of parallax and layer depths.
Nintendo really went all in with the use of mechanics and effects to make Super Mario World something very special.
And I am happy to give credit where credit is due. Super Mario World is the absolute best 2D video game of all time. And I don’t see that ever changing.
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Anthony has been a video game lover ever since he can remember. He became a fulltime nomad in 2018, living throughout most of Asia. He focused his passion in retro gaming and began creating a game for the Game Boy Color while living in Nara, Japan during the 2020 pandemic. He is now in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he spends most of his time gaming, going on long walks and meeting as many stray dogs as possible.