Break out the cake and bunting and then put them on ice, or something: Nintendo's Virtual Console is almost two years old. There are currently over 250 emulated retro games available in Europe, drawn from eight different gaming platforms and covering a span of two decades. It's a daunting tombola of choice, so here's our rundown - in no particular order - of the Virtual Console games that you really should download.
The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo)
While it took Final Fantasy several sequels to refine its formula, Link's epic world arrived pretty much fully formed in 1987. Even today, look past the dinky sprites and this remains a staggeringly impressive piece of videogame design and precisely the sort of classic title that deserves the renewed exposure the VC offers.
Mega Man (Capcom)
With Mega Man 9 currently reminding gamers what it's like to feel real pain, it's a good excuse to re-rewind back to 1987 and see just how faithfully retro the new sequel really is. The original is every bit as tough as you'd expect, and perhaps a tad clunky compared to later sequels, but for a few quid it's a real slice of history.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (Nintendo)
This is the game that changed everything, at least as far as platform games were concerned. Goodbye forced scrolling, hello free-roaming non-linear levels and secrets galore. As different to the original Super Mario Bros as GTA IV was from Grand Theft Auto, SMB3 is one of the greatest - and most important - games ever made. Well worth a few quid, then.
Street Gangs (Technos)
Or River City Ransom, to use the more famous US title. This cult gem is not only a fine beat-em-up in the Renegade style, it also mixes things up with what we'd now call RPG overtones. Shops where you can stock up on items, characters who develop over the game... for anyone who enjoys games that do things a little bit differently, this is highly recommended.
This oddity is strictly for fans of esoteric gaming, but most people should at least be intrigued by a game that combines shooting, city-building and platforming. Only Nintendo's squeamish content policy stopped this from essentially being marketed as God Kicks Ass: The Game, and for that alone it's well worth investigating.
Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting (Capcom)
No "essential games" list can be complete without at least one entry from arguably the best - and best known - 2D fighting game in history. Always barmy but balanced, there are four Street Fighter II versions currently on the VC, but for argument's sake we've chosen Hyper Fighting, because we like it fast. Ooh baby. Whichever you choose, though, you're guaranteed to be in punchy-kick heaven.
The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past (Nintendo)
As with Mario, the Virtual Console is home to many Zelda classics - and it's a testament to Miyamoto's perfectionist design work that an essentials list would feel half-baked if we only included one of them. For all its tonal similarities to the NES original, Link to the Past is where the series really took flight with more complex dungeons, more flexible control and a more varied inventory system. It's another game worthy of its place in the all-time Hall of Fame, and any whippersnappers yet to sample its awesome might should hit the download button right now.
Breath of Fire 2 (Capcom)
If the Virtual Console has one huge advantage over rival services from Sony and Microsoft, it's the vast library of Japanese classics to which it has exclusive access. RPGs are a particular benefit and the Breath of Fire series, so often overlooked in the rush to praise Final Fantasy, deserves more exposure to gamers over here. All the tropes of the JRPG genre can be found here, along with some of the first examples of peripheral activities like hunting and fishing. Large and lush, you'll get your 800 Points worth.
Super Metroid (Nintendo)
Another game that can lay claim to being one of the best ever? Yep. Hard to deny that for all its shovelware, the best of the SNES crop has endured better than most platforms. GameBoy creator Gunpei Yokoi's genre-hopping series may baffle those who approach it as a straight platform game, but once you realise it's actually an openworld platform-shooter-adventure hybrid you'll recognise just what a stunning piece of game design it is.
Harvest Moon (Natsume)
If you fancy a break from saving the world, then Harvest Moon is where you should point your download stick. It borrows much of its visual style from the familiar world of JRPG, but its laidback gameplay focuses instead on day to day agricultural management and the social life of your cheery farmer. A charming precursor to games such as The Sims and Animal Crossing, it's a game that was a good decade ahead of its time.
Super Castlevania IV (Konami)
Metroid's gothic cousin, the Castlevania series has had many highs and lows over its prolific history, but this beefed up SNES sequel is the best currently available on the VC. It retells the story of the original game, but uses a vastly more complex castle layout for its spooky amusements. All sexy with its Mode 7 graphics, it gave Simon Belmont the ability to whip and swing his way around and is still one of the more impressive 2D adventures you'll find.
Super Mario RPG (Square)
Apologies to anyone sick of the fat plumber, but you've not seen the last of him yet. This entry is especially notable, since it marked Mario's first foray outside the comfortable world of platform jumping and into something with a more developed storyline. Developed by Square, it's a canny mash-up between Mario and Final Fantasy, with a clever combat system which plays to the strengths of both series.
Nintendo 64 Essentials
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo)
Yes, more Mario, but there's no way a list of VC essentials can fail to mention Super Mario 64, the game that did more to usher in the true 3D age than anything on the PlayStation. The graphics aren't as mind-blowing as they seemed ten years ago but the gameplay is still absolutely phenomenal, leaving all those other 2D-to-3D platform copycats in the dust.
Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo)
While the Mario Kart series has never quite managed to top the SNES original, this 64-bit sequel is a more than adequate replacement on the Virtual Console. There are balancing issues, as always, but they pale alongside the boundless fun to be found in the wonderful track designs and fun weapons. Not the best kart racing game of all time, but absolutely the best one currently on the VC.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo)
The fact that you can pick up Legend of Zelda, Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time for less than a full-priced boxed game pretty much justifies the existence of the Virtual Console by itself. The move from top-down to third-person 3D was arguably even more beneficial to Link than Mario, allowing people to see that his series always had as much in common with classic adventure games as the role-players the early games superficially resembled. Another charming must-have Nintendo winner.
Paper Mario (Intelligent Systems)
This is the last entry for Mario. Honest. Doing for Mario RPG what Mario 64 did for the 2D platformers of old, this is the traditional role-playing template turned inside-out. The paper-thin cut-out characters not only helped make familiar features look fresh, they also signified a more accessible style of play. If you think Nintendo has only just gone casual, this game begs to differ.
F-Zero X (Nintendo)
Racing games are surprisingly few and far between on the Virtual Console, or at least good racing games are. Luckily, while F-Zero X features nippy hovercars rather than Ferraris, it is undeniably a very good racing game. Critically overshadowed by the lifestyle cool of WipEout on its 1998 release, this N64 update is well worth a revisit.
Sin & Punishment (Treasure)
Nintendo's sporadic Hanabi festivals have been something of a mixed bag, but one definite highlight was finally getting an official western release for this on-rails shooter from eclectic and certifiably insane Japanese developer, Treasure. A long overdue Wii sequel was announced in early October, so you'd do well to acquaint yourself with this cult classic.
Mega Drive Essentials
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sonic Team)
For many seasoned gamers, the very sight of Sonic on a Nintendo platform still feels like one of the signs of the apocalypse. Plumbers and hedgehogs, living together. Mass hysteria. Still, it makes a certain kind of sense - with the system wars of 1992 behind us, the velocity and razzmatazz of Sonic complements Mario's more measured gameplay very nicely. This sequel is superior to the original, not least for the addition of the dash attack, so it gets the spot on our list.
Gunstar Heroes (Treasure)
Gunstar Heroes, a pitch perfect side-scrolling run and gun shooter from those lovable barmpots at Treasure, is one of those games that is beloved by those who've played it, yet not widely known. Perfect, in other words, for the broader audience of the Virtual Console.
Streets of Rage 2 (SEGA)
In the 90s, the beat-'em-up was king and so the VC is typically home to far too many horizontal brawlers. Most of them are average, at best. You can cut through the chaff by simply heading straight for Streets of Rage 2, possibly the best example of its genre, and the sort of solid arcade experience you'll want to dip into over and over.
Wonder Boy in Monster World (SEGA)
Poor old Wonder Boy was just too twee to survive into the modern era of gaming, but if you've got kids then you won't go far wrong with this - the best of the numerous adventures starring the warrior tyke. As well as the expected platform jumping, the game adds depth with NPC conversations and a variety of weapons and armour to buy and equip.
Bomberman '93 (Hudson Soft)
You can't have a games collection without Bomberman. That's legal fact. This TurboGrafx version is one of the best, with the arcade-friendly console code providing a slick, fast blast. Easily one of the greatest multiplayer games ever devised, this is truly timeless gaming fun.
Galaga '88 (Namco)
Just to prove that classic arcade games were receiving great makeovers long before Xbox Live Arcade was around, here's Galaga '88. Much like the 1981 original, it's a single screen shooter - Space Invaders evolved, if you like. The additions are both subtle and beneficial, making this a real treat for vintage shoot-'em-up addicts.
Art of Fighting 2 (SNK)
For most people, Street Fighter II will more than cover their pugilistic needs, but for those with a more refined fighting game palette you need NeoGeo. There are loads of NeoGeo fighting games on the VC, but if we had to pick an absolute favourite (and we do) then Art of Fighting 2 offers everything a seasoned 2D brawler could want.
Metal Slug (SNK)
If Gunstar Heroes tickled you, then Metal Slug will pin you to the floor and go to work on your armpits with a feather duster like a crazed banshee. It's the pinnacle of the scrolling shooter genre, and thanks to its bombastic cartoon visuals, it's a game that doesn't show its decade-old vintage.
Neo Turf Masters (SNK)
Perhaps its because of the ubiquity of Wii Sports, but there aren't that many sporty games on the Virtual Console. One wonderful exception is this impressively detailed golf game, which still holds up fantastically well today - provided you're only interested in a solid fairway game and not all the peripheral features that Tiger Woods promises.
Commodore 64 Essentials
IK+ (Archer Maclean)
Like so many Commodore classics the reputation of IK+ has endured because, twenty years on, there's still been nothing like it. Forget special moves, boss fights and health bars - it's just a three-way karate showdown, with realistic moves and a knock-down scoring system. Simple, graceful and absolutely brilliant.
Uridium (Andrew Braybrook)
And much as IK+ tackled the fighting game from an original angle, so to does Andrew Braybrook's Uridium, a fiendishly tough shoot-'em-up that reinvented the horizontal blaster. Instead of escalating firepower, it's all about speed and agility, as you race to destroy the defences of giant dreadnought spaceships, scooting over their surfaces and dodging fatal collisions by a few pixels.
Paradroid (Andrew Braybrook)
Another Braybrook classic, and a game that really warrants a respectful modern makeover. You're a humble robot, sent to tackle an infestation of rogue droids. You do this not through violence - well, most of the time - but by hacking into your enemies and jumping from one form to another, getting stronger as you go. Don't let the minimalist graphics may put some off - this is one of the greatest action strategy games ever created.