The 90s proved to be a pivotal decade for video games, and one that has defined the industry ever since. The 90s saw the advent of 3D visuals in gaming, the rise of a new gaming superpower and the decline of another. As technology increased, the advances in gameplay made radical changes that would shape the way we played games in the years to come. Like the 6 Games of the 00s I talked about last week, these games have the staying power to still survive and be fun even by today's standards.
Super Mario World (1990)
A launch title, this game wowed players and showcased what the Super Nintendo could do. Like previous games, players took control of the portly plumber, but never before had he felt so lively. Introducing new gameplay elements like the deadly twirl move (instantly destroying enemies and breaking otherwise impossible to reach blocks), a new flying technique, and the ability to kick turtles or blocks in the upward direction, Super Mario World gave players entirely new ways to beat levels. Add to this a bevy of new power-ups and more than one exit and way to beat a level, and gamers were left with a lot of game to play around with.
With Yoshi's help, Mario traversed the Mushroom Kingdom, eschewing the traditional world map. Instead the game utilized a giant over-world map through which players could see all of the games different stages. What sets this game apart is the many secrets it contained. Featuring 96 different level exits, this game could keep players coming back long after Bowser had been beaten. It is still one of the best selling Mario games of all time, creating many of the features still present in current installments.
If you really want an understanding of how perfect SMW was as a game, just look to the newer games in the franchise, on both the 3DS and Wii U, both of which have gone back to the side-scrolling style of Mario World, and even bringing back the overworld map. While Mario’s 3D adventures are fun to play with as well, it’s hard to be the nostalgic fun, and difficulty, Super Mario World provided, which is why Nintendo has had so much success in going back to it’s formula.
Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
This game perfected the dungeon-adventure-RPG formula. Taking lessons learned from its previous iterations and adding in new features and abilities to keep things fresh. This entry into the series saw the birth of many features now commonplace in the franchise, and dungeon crawlers in general. The introduction of a "Dark World", Link could travel to at any point added new depth to puzzle solving along with the design of multi-level dungeons. New items like the Master Sword, Heart Pieces, the Hook Shot, Pegasus Boots, and the ever popular Spin Attack technique all came from this game.
The staples of the franchise today can find their roots in a Link to the Past, which not only created them, but implemented them in unique ways that are still copied and used in the latest Zelda games. Truly, when people talk about the best Zelda games out there, Link to the Past is pretty high on the list (normally right behind Ocarina of Time; which still owes much to the game preceding it) and remains the template used for any game in the series that comes in with a top-down view (mostly the handhelds now).
Nintendo’s newest Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds, is actually built as a sequel set within the same world as Link to the Past; and that connection alone has been their primary selling point for it. Considering how powerful the reaction has been from fans about this new entry, it’s easy to see how many people still revere the old SNES game. The fact that it’s still relevant enough to warrant a sequel over 20 years after it’s release should tell you something...
Street Fighter II (1991)
Can you believe that SF II is still Capcom's best selling consumer game? What started as a sequel to a marginally adequate game, Street Fighter II is credited with starting the fighting game boom of the 90s, which saw many companies rushing to follow suit. Unlike its predecessor this game allowed players to choose from different characters, all with unique fighting styles and differences.
Perhaps more revolutionary is its distinction of being the first fighting game to implement a combo system that allowed you to string together attacks fluidly. This addition alone was enough to turn the genre on its ear as gamers found themselves challenged to pull off the biggest combos. It's amazing that even with the release of several versions of Street Fighter IV, plus a crossover game with Tekken, Street Fighter II still holds up so well that I still don't mind going back to play it.
There’s no shortage of fighting games out there in the world today. In fact, it can sometimes be overwhelming how many are out there (both good and bad), but all of them owe a debt to Street Fight II. The ideas implemented within the game are still staples of genre today. While the mechanics may be a bit more refined and expanded upon now, they’re essentially the same as what you find when you pop in this older game. Just look at all the many updates the game has had over the years, because it was so incredible.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
The first Castlevania game to come out on the Playstation, Symphony of Night took a much needed departure away from the series' straight level-by-level platforming. Instead it featured a more open-ended design, encouraging exploration which is now such a standard in the franchise. On top of these new features, players were also treated to a heavy dose of RPG elements.
It also attempted to tie together all of the previous games' (13 of them!) storylines into one cohesive timeline, instead of a cobbled together mass of individual stories. It's still a popular game, downloaded frequently from PSN, and it's core system/design is borrowed heavily by the new portable entries to the series. The new elements it introduced to the franchise made it the first Castlevania with replayability, even today.
Pokemon Red/Blue (1998)
A veritable phenomena when it was first released, this game had both youngsters and older gamers alike clamoring to "catch 'em all". At its core, Pokemon is a simple RPG that encourages players to experiment and try new teams in order to defeat local trainers as well as Gym Leaders. Beneath the top-down view and simplistic storyline lies a surprisingly deep combat system both fun and dangerously addictive. Gamers felt almost compelled to capture all 151 Pokemon, as if the universe would somehow end if they didn't.
In order to actually capture all of the Pokemon, fans of the game would have to link their Gameboys together and trade between both Red and Blue versions. This was Nintendo's first big foray into the "friend" system they've built their most recent systems around, as the game forced you to trade your Pokemon in order to evolve certain species, or just obtain a critter not in your version. The thrill of the hunt drove this game forward and it's a testament to its design that nearly 20 sequels down the road have been released without changing the core formula.
Despite new mechanics having been introduced throughout the years (a day/night cycle, new puzzle elements, a deeper management of ‘characters’, etc) fans still continue to enjoy the original games in the series. Red and Blue started a firestorm in gaming, that continues to this day. It’s staying power is evidenced in the fact that you can look just about in any video game forum on the net and see it listed as one of the games people want most to come out in the 3DS eShop (I know, I’ve added my name to those chats plenty of times!).
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Bringing the popular Metal Gear franchise into the 3D realm, this PS1 game pushed the console to its limits. Fans and newcomers alike marveled at the attention to detail (many people didn't realize until it was too late that their footprints actually left tracks in the snow.) Knocking on walls, hiding bodies and seeing how far you could get under a box without being spotted became strange pastimes for many gamers. It took full advantage of the new Dualshock controller, vibrating when enemies were close or even giving you a "back rub" if you successfully withstood interrogation.
The game's continual use of breaking the "fourth wall" created a fun change of pace, as players had to hastily check the backs of their game cases for Codec numbers, or switch out the controller ports in order to defeat a boss. Even during Codec conversations, your allies would chastise you for not saving often enough, or tell you that you might need to take a rest. It was a great game with an engaging story filled with some of the most memorable characters in video game history.
While MGS1 is somewhat dated now, compared to newer entries in the franchise, it’s still an impressive game, featuring a gripping story that’s well worth playing. With the recent release of the MGS Legacy Collection on PS3, there’s absolutely no reason to not play this game and enjoy witnessing where the series comes from and seeing how it got where it is today.
Selling over 11 million copies around the world, this beautifully crafted RTS experience is one of the highest selling PC games in history. StarCraft redefined the RTS genre, as it moved away from the standard battle-to-battle missions, and instead weaved a complex and compelling story throughout every mission, giving players even more of a reason to keep playing, besides ridiculously fun gameplay. It introduced three distinct races all requiring vastly different strategies to master, and weakness to look out for. Playing each race made the gamer play differently in order to succeed in a campaign, making it feel more like a three games in one complete package.
StarCraft also implemented a unique AI for the enemies, utilizing a varying difficulty level based on how long gamers played and how well they did. The better the player did, the harder the AI became. Players were also treated to a dramatically increased warrior count; far larger than any previous game in the genre had allowed. Up to 200 warriors (yes, some were drones) for all races and combatants involved could be created and thrown together in satisfyingly epic battles with surprisingly little lag. It captured the essence of a massive war while keeping the players focused on the mission at hand. "Holy Crap!" became a common phrase to RTS gamers who witnessed nearly 400 fighters clash together on the computer screen for the first time. Even though we now have a couple of StarCraft II games out on the market, fans of the franchise continue to hold them to the standard originally set by the first one. StarCraft still manages to be entertaining and fun for people to play to this day.
The 90s was something of a revival of the video game industry, which was still coming back from it’s near crash during the 80s. While games have change dramatically in terms of graphics, the gameplay precedents established by these amazing titles are still in use today, and continue to provide hours of fun gameplay to newer generations. One needs only to look at the sales of retro games on PSN, Wii U’s Virtual Console, and the XBLA to see that these games still have plenty of appeal for today’s audiences.
So many great games were released during the 90s decade, so this is far from a definitive list. You’ve seen my picks, now it’s time to add yours!