DESERT ISLAND DISC! These are the ten games I would take if all other qualifiers were forever destroyed. That means there is a strong preference to take only one game per series/creative unit; however, this is not a strict rule. I may find myself unable to dispose of either Highway 61 (Revisited) or John Wesley Harding.
NO RANKING! The ten are presented arbitrarily ordered unless otherwise noted.
NO COLLECTIONS! Re-releases and remakes are okay, but no anthologies. Games must be originally intended as a standalone work.
WHAT I SAY GOES! These are my choices. They aren't the games considered the best, or that were the most influential or successful. They are my subjective preferences. I will provide as much objective reasoning as I can, but at the end of the day, I like what I like and am always right, and you like whatever stupid things you like, because you're an idiot.
Yes, you've read the introduction, now read the list. Special criteria: only looking at games that are more 2D than not (gameplay, not graphics: New Super Mario Bros. is in but Super Mario Galaxy is out), only looking at games that are more platformer than not (Legend of the Mystical Ninja is probably the cutoff there, being exactly half-and-half), and not necessarily judging by which has the best raw platforming - just which is the best platformer.
For the sake of brevity, I'm going to focus on one or two elements that make each game great, rather than giving you a broad overview that you could get from Wikipedia.
1.) Sparkster (SNES)
Ah, Sparkster, ye long forgotten god in the pantheon of '90s animal mascots. Not to be mistaken for Sonic, Socket, or Sbubsy, Sparkster is a uniquely action-heavy platformer featuring the original Rocket Knight. All four Rocket Knight games have their virtues, but RKA and the SNES Sparkster (note: from here, I'm going to be using "Sparkster" exclusively to refer to the SNES game) are in a league above the other two, and most other platformers for that matter. RKA is known for its unique bosses and uh kind of gimmicky levels, while Sparkster has more expansive environments and paced obstacles. What's particularly great about Sparkster is how well it nails these broad environments.
See, most linear 2D games suck at encouraging exploration. They degenerate into collectathons (Plok, Bubsy, DKC), dilute the level design (Sonic), or make you explore every last inch of the stage to find a needle in the haystack (Sonic again, Genesis Sparkster). Sparkster succeeds though, because of Sparkster's own abilities moreso than the landscape itself. Sparkster has a jetpack which can blast him screens ahead or can be carefully used to eradicate enemies. This allows the designers to decompress the stages and also introduces an element of surprise and randomness. Sparkster doesn't have to lurch at a snail's pace (Sonic AGAIN) or make awkward unintuitive leaps of faith, because he can be launched wherever you want.
The boss battles also shine as they did in Rocket Knight Adventures, the hybrid shooter/melee combat tends to be fun, and there's a SHMUP LEVEL!!!!!!!!!! Sparkster's one downfall is that a few bosses are TOO hard, halting the game's pace.
2.) Super Mario World
Dinosaur Land will tout the virtues of free-form navigation, its individual areas each offering countless forms of transport, from direct speedy bullet-trains to meandering hot-air balloons suited for methodical exploration. Airliners and underground metros will allow visitors to visit exotic locales in any order they please, such that more welcoming regions can be used as a base of operations in approaching those less forgiving.
Visitors to Mushroom Kingdom will find themselves surprised by the lack of this freedom of travel; stuck on maze-like and jammed surface roads, only the occasional one-way highway bypass will allow point to point transport. Worse yet, on entering each province tourists will find themselves forced onto a predetermined guide-path covering virtually every inch of ground, and when they've left they'll be unwelcome to return.
Did you get it? It was a metaphor. That's what a pet is for. Point is, SMB3 sucks, SMW rules.
3.) Abe's Exoddus
Cinematic platformers are a beast I've discussed before. They rely on methodical progress, trial-and-error, and thinking. Abe's Exoddus is just about the thinkingest among them. The game is littered with all kinds of puzzles of both the adventure game and Zelda variety, constantly having you slam your head against the keyboard asking why. But as I covered in my previous article, a lot of what makes these games fun, especially in the case of the hilarious Abe, is that fucking around with the tools given to you. I can't tell you how many times I've grabbed control of a Slig just to hear them babble at each other and then shot Abe and all the other Mudokons anyway. This gameplay is familiar from Oddysee, but what sells it this time around is the quicksave feature, allowing and encouraging experimentation.
That's a start for you, I'll be back tomorrow with the next couple top ten!