Hey, why not?
I don’t know if the 1990s were the best decade for video games, but they were certainly the most transformative. The transition from 2D to 3D was full of trials and tribulations, but it was a necessary one. Some of the former games are the pinnacle of their craft, and while some of the latter are pale versions of what would eventually be industry classics, others are still among the best ever made, despite looking like shit.
I put some grades on these games, but they’re not super important, and really just represent letter grades translated to numbers (9.5 = A+, 9.0 = A, on so on).
#50) Donkey Kong Country. Rare, 1994 (6.8)
One of the best platformers of its day has not held up very well by contemporary standards, but it’s still a fun enough diversion. Donkey Kong is a weird series, man.
#49) Mortal Kombat. Midway Games, 1992. (6.9)
If the 90s were the Golden Age of fighting games, the first few Mortal Kombat releases were their Punk phase. Loud, offensive and staggeringly controversial (it’s hard to conceive of a game receiving the kind of backlash today that MKI did 25 years ago), it’s also maybe not as good of a game as you remember.
#48) Another World. Delphine Software, 1991. (7.0)
Known as “Out of This World” in the States and “Outer World” in Japan, Another World is weird, sparse, imaginative and highly influential — even outside its genre, where young developers such as Hideo Kojima and Fumito Ueda latched onto its austere aesthetic vision and cinematic cutscenes. A curious and sometimes beautiful game.
#47) F-Zero X. Nintendo, 1998. (7.2)
The second, and in my opinion, best F-Zero game stands as the epitome of everything the series should be. Extremely fast and challenging, F-Zero X is more sensory overload than precise gaming experience. Who cares about the horrible textures when you’re flying by them at a thousand miles per hour?
#46) Mortal Kombat II. Midway Games, 1993. (7.2)
Just look at MKII in comparison to the first one. It’s much better looking, plays better, generally feels better. Probably the pinnacle of the series to this day.
#45) Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. Capcom, 1991. (7.3)
I’d wager there isn’t another game on this list still being played professionally all over the world. For everything else SF2 is (including kind of weirdly racist at times), that’s all you really need to remember about it. It has a strong claim on being the best fighting game ever made.
#44) Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. KCEJ, 1990 (7.4)
The first real inkling of Kojima’s future insanity is found in what appears on the surface to be a relatively straightforward third-person stealth game. It’s weird, byzantine plotting was pretty radical by the standards of the day, but it seems positively quaint compared to what was would come a mere eight years later. Also this game definitely used Sean Connery’s face without permission, and anything that makes Sean Connery mad is OK in my book.
#43) Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. Factor 5, 1998 (7.4)
If the 90s were the golden age of fighting games, then they were certainly also the golden age of Flying Sims, and the Star Wars license was right at the peak of that wave. Rogue Squadron is hurt by some generational graphical limitations, but it’s surprisingly expansive and fast, even today.
#42) Star Wars: X-Wing. LucasArts, 1993 (7.4)
And yet, X-Wing is the better game. It’s slower, more thoughtfully paced, and more complex. It also probably looks better these days than Rogue Squadron, which is more the fault of the Nintendo 64 than anything else. Anyway, X-Wing is still good.
#41) Diablo. Blizzard Entertainment, 1996. (7.4)
They’re called “Rogue likes” because of Rogue, but for a few years a couple decades ago, they were called “Diablo clones.” Perhaps the forgotten link in Blizzard’s nigh-invulnerable run from the early 90s to 2003 or so, D1 is an excellent game — the first time you play it. I don’t really think it has any replay value, especially not compared to its direct successor, one of my favorite games of all time.
#40) Roller Coaster Tycoon. Chris Sawyer Productions, 1999 (7.5)
If this list were based on how much I’d played these games, RCT would easily be the top dog. Just in the summer of 2000, I probably put 200 hours into it, mainly late at night when I couldn’t sleep (the optimal hour for gaming, in my opinion). It ends up being a little hamstrung by its steep learning curve, but I’ve never played a more quirkily enjoyable sim game. Also you can throw people hundreds of feet to their fiery doom.
#39) NBA Jam. Midway Games, 1994 (7.6)
It’s NBA Jam. You know what it is. Maybe it’s not the best sports arcade game ever made, but it is certainly the most influential.
#38) Quake III: Arena. id Software, 1999 (7.6)
Is it bad that I don’t love the Quake games? I think they’re excellent, but pale shadows of the Doom and Unreal series. Regardless, Arena is one of the most important and influential PC multiplayer shooters of all time.
#37) Final Fantasy V. Square, 1992 (7.7)
Square’s run in the 90s is, without hyperbole, the stuff of legend. Most of that run is comprised of the core period of the Final Fantasy series. I don’t LOVE FFV, but it still looks great and it still probably has the best job system of any game in the series.
#36) Mario Kart 64. Nintendo, 1996 (7.7)
The best Mario Kart, only rivaled by 2014’s Mario Kart 8. It’s also the game most likely to cause otherwise normal, upstanding members of society to want to brutally murder everyone in their immediate vicinity. Not that I’ve done that. Not since high school, at least.
#35) Banjo-Kazooie. Rare, 1998 (7.8)
I’ve already called the 90s the Golden Age of Flying Combat Sims, JRPGs and Fighting Games. While it’s not the Golden Age of platformers, it does feature one of the best in the history of the genre. Which just so happens to be one of Rare’s best games. Banjo-Kazooie is really good, is what I’m saying.
#34) Super Smash Brothers. HAL Labs, 1999 (7.8)
In retrospect, Super Smash Brothers is a pretty insane concept for a game. Only a company like Nintendo, in arguably the prime of its game-making career, would even think of attempting something like it. How insane, then, that it actually worked. The original Smash works almost in spite of itself. It’s such a strange and brazen conceit that it gets away with not really being a full game. As a proof of concept, it’s pretty great, though.
#33) Duke Nukem 3D. 3D Realms, 1996 (8.0)
It might surprise you that, for all the things you might know Duke Nukem for, it’s their level design that always stands out most to me. DN3D is a masterwork of the genre, with the impossible architecture of Doom and the spatial acuity and sense of place of Wolfenstein — yet somehow more than both of those. Duke Nukem the character, may have aged poorly, but Duke Nukem the series remains one of the most weirdly brilliant and inventive shooters of all time.
#32) StarFox 64. Nintendo, 1997 (8.1)
The undisputed king of rail shooters, StarFox 64 is, along with being a legitimately great and challenging game, perhaps the best indicator of just how on-fire Nintendo was in the latter half of the 1990s. They were putting out so many classics that people actually went out of their way to buy the Nintendo 64, one of the least reliable and shoddily made consoles in history. S64 is pretty great, though.
#31) Unreal Tournament. Epic Games, 1999 (8.1)
I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be able to articulate why Unreal Tournament 2000 is a better game than Quake III, but if I had to, I’d start with the level design. Q3’s levels are all fun to traverse, but sort of uninteresting. Just a lot of average looking arenas and industrial areas. Unreal‘s are, as pictured above, weird repositories of untold lore and wonderful skyboxes. If two games were exactly the same in every way, I’d always pick the one with more interesting scenery.
#30) Sonic the Hedgehog 3/Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic Team, 1994 (8.2)
I’m not saying Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are the same game. I’m saying they were intended be the same game and had to be split apart for storage reasons. They play the same, and are generally considered to be two halves of one story, for as much story matters in a Sonic game. They’re also the last two “classic” Sonic games, the end of what, in retrospect, was a surprisingly short stint at the top. More to come on that later.
#29) Resident Evil 2. Capcom, 1998. (8.2)
It’s kind of hard to remember how important Resident Evil was in the late 90s. 1998 was one of the best years in the history of the medium, and RE2 was arguably the biggest release of the year (only competing with another monolithic Japanese game that we’ll get to). I don’t know how well it has held up, even compared to its direct predecessor, but all my memories of RE2 are good ones.
#28) Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic Team, 1991 (8.2)
For all intents and purposes, gaming in the 90s started here with this dumb blue hedgehog. A lot of gaming companies tried to usurp the Mario series with cool, edgy anthropomorphic animals, but none of them did so with the wit, visual brilliance, speed and clarity of purpose as Sonic the Hedgehog did in 1991. It was a relatively short reign at the top of the heap for these games, but they set a tone that games today are still trying in vain to emulate.
#27) Half-Life: Opposing Force. Gearbox Software, 1999 (8.3)
Without spoiling, it’s safe to say that you’ll see the original Half-Life further on down this list, and while Opposing Force is an admirable follow up (made by famed gaming mercenaries Gearbox), there’s something about it that feels…off compared to its more venerable cousin. The guns aren’t very well balanced, and pretty much all of the new enemies vary from unmemorable to achingly un-fun to fight. The basic premise, putting players in the shoes of HECU Marine Adrian Shephard, was a good one, but it veered the tone of the game closer to those of the generic military shooter, a genre even then over-saturated.
Still a very good game, though.
#26) WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness. Blizzard, 1995 (8.3)
While they would go on to perfect this form with two later titles, WarCraft II (and its expansion, Beyond the Dark Portal) was for many people, myself included, a bold thesis statement for what was then still a fledgling Blizzard Entertainment. The reason WCII is lower on this list than, say, StarCraft, is that the balance is still not quite perfect (and the source material probably still too derivative of Warhammer and a dozen-odd other fantasy stories). While I’d say WarCraft’s storytelling and general tone have improved, I still pretty easily think it’s the least interesting of Blizzard’s core IPs.
#25) Resident Evil. Capcom, 1996 (8.4)
There were horror games before Resident Evil (or the much radder sounding BioHazard in Japan), and there have been horror games since, but none of them have fully captured the essence of that classic horror trope of being trapped in one remote location with an army of monsters. I’m just old enough to remember what the reaction was like when this game hit, and it hit like a tidal wave. Probably one of the first non-Nintendo Japanese games to really get over in America, which made it one of the most infamously poorly localized games of all time, and if for no other reason than that, it places in the upper half of this list.
#24) Final Fantasy VIII. Square, 1999 (8.4)
Final Fantasy VIII is a game of extremes. On one hand, it’s got some of the most wondrous locations and art design in the entire series. On the other, a good many of its core characters are every bit the worst sort of JRPG characters there are. It’s simultaneously the best and worst of Final Fantasy, and it had to follow the biggest hit in the entire history of the series, and for that I feel bad for it. The Junction system is nothing if not ambitious. But also I hate Squall with my life and if I never have to think about or look at him ever again, I’ll die happy.
So it’s a pretty good game.
#23) Star Wars: Dark Forces. LucasArts, 1995 (8.4)
If you are a Star Wars fan who plays video games and you’re of a certain age, Dark Forces was like water to a man dying of thirst in the desert to you. It was, without question, one of the best Star Wars games ever made to that point, and it was by far the most Star Wars game ever made to that point. That it also quietly revolutionized the first-person shooter from a level design standpoint is an added bonus.
#22) Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Team Sonic, 1992 (8.5)
I’m not sure how exactly to describe what makes Sonic 2 the best of the first four games, but I know that if you’ve played it, you know exactly what I mean. It’s the brightest, most colorful, most coherent of the original games. It’s also sounds the best. As the pinnacle of the most 90s game series there is, it’s also one of the most important games of the decade, and certainly one of the best.
#21) Final Fantasy Tactics. Square, 1997 (8.5)
Strategy games come in all shapes and sizes. There are ones as expansive and longform as Age of Empires (which didn’t make this list because I legitimately don’t remember playing it, even though I know I did). On the other end of the spectrum, you have strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which are smaller in scale and razor-sharp in focus. In many ways, this game is the most complex and difficult of the series, and that technical distance, along with a vastly less melodramatic tone and a more stereotypical fantasy setting, really help Tactics stand out. The art style also really helps it look fresh, even by today’s standards. This makes it sound like Tactics is perfect. It is not, but it is very, very good.
#20) Thief: the Dark Project. Looking Glass Studios, 1998 (8.5)
The subtlety of Thief is something that I think the industry didn’t learn the correct lessons from. There are games released today, very good games, that don’t put half the effort or care into making sure different surfaces make different sounding footsteps. It’s more than a stealth game. It’s a game where passing guards say “what’s up” to you, as long as you aren’t in a restricted area. A game where major plot points are revealed levels in advance if you’re smart and patient enough to find the letters and correspondence that incriminates them.
It’s also the first Great stealth game, and still one of the greatest ever made.
#19) Final Fantasy IV. Square, 1991 (8.6)
At the risk of over-simplifying what is one of the industry’s most important franchises, before Final Fantasy IV, the FF games were on the forefront of strong RPG design. After IV, the series was on the forefront of strong storytelling design. The strong character work, precise plotting, and expansive scope of IV made it something new for the JRPG, and made it one of the best games on the Super Nintendo.
#18) GoldenEye 007. Rare, 1997 (8.7)
The Granddaddy of all console shooters hasn’t aged quite as well as you might think. That being said, it’s still the Granddaddy of all console shooters. It proved that not only could you make a good FPS on a controller (even a controller as terrible as the Nintendo 64’s), but you could make a good multiplayer shooter, too. I had three stepbrothers growing up, so four player split-screen GoldenEye was one of the cornerstones of that part of my childhood. Anyway, I have it relatively low on this list simply because as revolutionary and impactful as it was, GoldenEye still plays fairly wonkily by modern standards. On one hand, it’s the only good James Bond game. On the other, it’s the only good James Bond game. Sometimes, that feels like it was an accident.
#17) Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. LucasArts, 1997 (8.7)
Of all the things I love about this game, the one that stands out most critically is how smoothly it transitions from first- to third-person action. It’s one of the better FPS games of the time, and one of the few truly enjoyable hack-and-slash games too, and that is no easy feat. While it definitely bears some of the more annoying hallmarks of the genre from the late 90s (namely too many platforming sequences), it stands as one of the best of its time, and perhaps more importantly to me, the best Star Wars game of the 90s.
#16) Super Mario Bros 3. Nintendo, 1990 (8.8)
It’s kind of hard to overstate how important all three of the original Super Mario Bros games are. It’s been over 35 years since the Red Plumber first appeared in Donkey Kong, and nearly 34 since he and his brother Luigi first arrived in a game of their own. Since then, gaming has changed immeasurably, but Mario is still here.
The biggest reason for that is that Mario games, like most first-party Nintendo games, are incredibly coherent in both design and overall philosophy. They’re often beautiful, sometimes poignant, generally easy to play, and always, always fun. Mario is basically the definition of what a fun feedback loop in gaming represents.
Anyway, SMB 3 was the first to utilize the concept of an overworld in these games, and it is immensely good.
#15) Grim Fandango. LucasArts, 1998 (8.8)
Another genre which was in its heyday in the 1990s was the Point and Click Adventure game. King’s Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle. All good games that I haven’t played enough of to feel confident in judging here. The reason Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango stands at the apex of the genre is simple: it’s the most wildly imaginative game of all time. There are other adventure games with more complex puzzles, funnier dialogue, and more intricate plots. There aren’t any other adventure games that spread a single aesthetic across an entire premise so well. No other games that go to the places Grim Fandango does, and with anywhere near the care put into them. It’s Tim Schafer’s masterpiece, and that is not a low bar to clear.
#14) System Shock 2. Irrational Games, 1999 (8.8)
Maybe the most surprising thing about playing System Shock 2 again a few years ago was how frightening it still is. In the annals of gaming history as they would be written today, the first two Shock games are most notable for being the primary antecedents for the BioShock games, but the truth is that they’re similar in structure only. Ken Levine and his team made a stripped-down and re-purposed version of System Shock 2 in 2007, and while they took the respawn chambers, persistent enemies and level structure of the original series, what they left alone or couldn’t capture was the fear SS2 inspires. BioShock is often creepy or nervy, but rarely actually scary. SS2 is often so, through a combination of immaculate sound design, a confusing visual style, and some old-school body horror. BioShock is an adventure shooter with a great setting. System Shock 2 is a horror game with a great setting. Neither is inherently better, but they’re more different than one might assume at first glance.
#13) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Nintendo, 1991 (8.9)
Most people’s conception of what a Zelda game is starts with this one. The basic structure of dungeons, bosses, overworlds and plot that came to define the series until earlier this year was founded and in many ways perfected here. It’s actually such an archetypal game that I don’t really have a lot to say about it. If you like Zelda, you like A Link to the Past.
#12) Final Fantasy VI. Square, 1994 (9.0)
I don’t want to call them the same game, because they’re not, but FFVI is in a lot of ways a bigger and better version of what made FFIV great. More than likely the best and most impactful plot of all the FF games happens here, including several of the best characters. That the two closest things we have to classical protagonists in this game are both women (women with vastly different personalities and arcs) would be remarkable today, so it was downright radical twenty years ago, and it’s the biggest reason why I gave Final Fantasy XV some leeway with its admittedly pretty poor female characterizations.
Anyway, VI is an excellent game, probably the most objectively well made and enjoyable in the entire series. Of course, I am nothing if not objective when it comes to these things.
#11) StarCraft. Blizzard, 1997 (9.0)
Why is StarCraft still the king of the Real Time Strategy genre? Balance, baby. Generally, in this sort of game, different factions just mean slightly differently colored armies fighting the same way. StarCraft is different. The Zerg, Terran and Protoss factions fight so differently that they don’t even seem like they’re from the same genre, let alone the same game. And yet it somehow comes together, and combined with what is still to me a genre high point in voice acting, art design, music and overall tone, StarCraft is still easily my favorite RTS game.
#10) Chrono Trigger. Square, 1995. (9.0)
The craziest thing about Chrono Trigger is that it might be the best thing Akira Toriyama was ever involved with. That’s crazy. He made Dragon Ball. The good one.
Anyway, you either know what this is, and you don’t need me explaining why it’s probably the best story ever told in a video game, or you don’t know it, and you won’t care about some weird-looking game with garish colors and very Japanese character designs. Your choice. It’s still here for a reason.
#9) The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Nintendo, 1993 (9.1)
Link’s Awakening is the only hand-held game on this list, despite the 90s probably being the pinnacle of hand-held gaming. I didn’t even put Pokemon Red & Blue on here, not because I don’t think it’s good enough, but because I sometimes feel like hand-held games are something different entirely from console or PC titles.
Link’s Awakening is an exception. Notably based at least somewhat on Twin Peaks, Awakening is still probably the weirdest Zelda, surreal and dreamlike, a confusing sequence of non-sequiturs piled on top of one another. Majora’s Mask tried a similar, Hyrule-less conceit a decade or so later, but did so with more focus and conceptual drive, leaving it less driven by dream logic and at least sort of closer to a traditional Zelda. I haven’t played Link’s Awakening in probably 15 years, and yet it’s still a game I think about fairly often.
#8) Super Mario World. Nintendo, 1990 (9.3)
It’s Super Mario World. You’ve played it. Your parents have played it. Your dog knows where the warp tunnels in World 1-1 are. Does that mean it’s actually good?
Yes, yes it does. This game introduced Yoshi, and independent of that, it’s the best 2D platformer ever made. It sold 20 million copies, at least. You know it’s great.
#7) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo, 1998 (9.3)
I’ve gotta be honest, I wasn’t sure where to rank Ocarina of Time. Regardless of what you think about the Zelda games, this is one of titles from the 90s that irrevocably changed gaming. Structurally, Ocarina is the same game as A Link to the Past, but in actuality, it’s something more. Anyone my age remembers exactly where they were when they first saw that intro. It really opened your eyes to the kinds of adventures 3D gaming could bring you, riding free and unbridled across an endless open field.
It’s a beautiful game, with one of the truly great soundtracks not just of the 90s, but of all time. That being said, Ocarina does suffer a bit from what we would eventually come to know as linearity. It’s a much simpler game than pretty much any earlier Zelda (and most later ones), but the fact remains that the entries that came after Ocarina were almost universally beholden to its lineage. Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword were all at least in some way direct responses to Ocarina of Time, and those are all good games. Some of them are great ones. None of them were this one. It’s a game whose plot structure, locations and overall design are nothing short of mythic. Legendary, even.
#6) Super Mario 64. Nintendo, 1996 (9.3)
The other end of the mid-late 90s 3D Nintendo spectrum lies here, in Super Mario 64, inarguably the first great 3D game. What separates it slightly from Ocarina of Time is that, while it was definitely great in 1996, it’s maybe greater now. It’s not a simple game, not a game that aged poorly or seemingly at all. What it is is the purest distillation of platform gaming maybe ever. It still handles like a dream, an incredible feat given it was developed and played exclusively for the Nintendo 64 controller, the greatest danger to the collective thumbs of pre-teens ever created.
What Mario 64 tried to do was really conceptualize the allure of 3D gaming to the world. What it ended up doing was define that concept, and nearly perfect it. To come so close on your first try is a remarkable feat, and results in one of the very best games of the 1990s.
#5) Super Metroid. Nintendo, 1994 (9.5)
Behold, the best platformer of all time. Or at least the most aligned with my taste. I like platformers, don’t get me wrong. If this is the only experience with my gaming taste you’ve ever had, you’d be forgiven for thinking I love them. Metroid games, in a way, aren’t even platformers. Samus’ primary method of interacting with her environment (i.e., the levels) is shooting, where a traditional platformer in a character’s main method of interactivity is jumping.
Still, there are platforms and you can jump onto them. Super Metroid is a platformer. Let’s not overthink this. But why is it my favorite? The Metroid games were some of the first games to really embrace exploration as a major mechanic. Of all the 2D games (it’s wild to think that this, the third Metroid game, came nearly a decade after the first, and only two decades later we’ve gotten nearly a dozen more games), Super Metroid is the one that embraces this philosophy to the fullest. There are secrets everywhere. You only have to look. Look through some of the most vibrant, colorful and interesting backdrops in the whole of gaming while fighting for your life against weird, grotesque foes on strange worlds as some of the best music in the history of the medium leads you on and on, deeper and deeper.
#4) Metal Gear Solid. KCEJ, 1998 (9.5)
I’d like to talk about what the limits of storytelling in gaming were before Metal Gear Solid, but to be honest, I don’t really remember. I played games before 1998, sure, but narrative structure wasn’t really something I was paying any attention to as a nine-yearold. As much as I can reckon, Metal Gear-style storytelling has always been a thing in gaming. It’s one of those things that seems as though it must have always existed. Surely, one game can’t be so important as to have invented an entire genre of storytelling on its own.
Sure, Hideo Kojima’s games are sometimes dense to the point of infuriating. Sure, he sometimes designs and writes female characters with the mindset of a 13 year old boy. Sure, his particular style is particularly resistant to the language barrier. All of that seems to not matter as much when you realize that this game — almost single handedly — pollinated popular gaming with deeper themes like the dangers of nuclear proliferation, post-traumatic stress in action heroes, the gluttony of the Military Industrial Complex, hell, even the entire concept of the meta-narrative; all can be at least somewhat traced back here, to Shadow Moses. To Snake. To Kojima.
Also, it’s still a pretty slick actioner. Metal Gear Solid did not invent the stealth genre, Thief did, but MGS is still fun and strange and full to the brim of that specific Kojima-style detail and quirk that I still enjoyed the last time I played it in 2012.
#3) DOOM/DOOM II: Hell on Earth. id Software, 1993/1994 (9.5)
I’ve written briefly on what made the original DOOM games (I’m counting them as the same game, despite some significant differences), but I could probably write 10,000 words here and still not quite come close to explaining how important, impactful and influential these games were, and how great they still are.
So I won’t really try. What I will do is try and write out some of the stupid, brilliant things this game does. I love the sound design of the monsters, the little behavioral ticks that set them apart. I love how clean their designs are, allowing you to figure out exactly what you’re fighting almost immediately. I love the fluidity and speed of the combat, but I also love how it’s not universal. Some enemies are slower, with projectile attacks, which a smart player can use to their advantage.
I love how complex — almost needlessly so– the maps can be, sometimes making playing with a friend a necessity. This, like Halo after it, is vastly improved in co-op play. Similarly, the strong design of the enemies, guns, and levels make the original DOOM games at least slightly systemic. You can predict what each individual component of the game is going to do, but not how they will mesh together (Halo, especially the first few games, is particularly adept at this). I love the music. Dear God, the music.
Mostly, I love the half-serious vibe of these games. Fan mods of DOOM and its sequel were sometimes far too self-serious. The original games understand that the best way to make fighting demons from Hell fun is to treat it like an Evil Dead movie, bright and colorful and at least partly dumb as shit. These games caused no small amount of hand-wringing in the press and among stuffy parents, but anyone who actually played DOOM understood that these games are not meant to be anything resembling a realistic portrayal of anything. They’re kinetic, bouncy, and vibrant like few games before and none since. Besides, who deserves to get shot in the face more than literal demons?
#2) Final Fantasy VII. Square, 1997 (9.6)
There are other Final Fantasy games with better characters than this. There are other Final Fantasy games with more coherent stories. There are other Final Fantasy games with tighter battle systems.
There are not better Final Fantasy games than this.
Part is that it was my first one, the first one that I ever beat. Part is that it’s one of the landmark titles in the history of the genre. The biggest reason is that it’s one of the single weirdest and most memorably strange games of all time.
What I worry about with the upcoming Ps4 remake is that contemporary sensibilities will deem a lot of the weirdest interludes in FF7 unnecessary. I don’t just mean the cross-dressing bit. I mean all the off-kilter camera angles. Everything to do with Don Corneo, from his goons trying to bang cross-dressed Cloud to Aerith and Tifa threatening to smash his genitals. The Play. Pretty much everything else to do with the Gold Saucer. That part where Red XIII has to dress up like a human. The parade at Junon. All of it. I have no idea how it translates, and I suspect it won’t.
So in that way, at least, FF7 is very much a part of its era, singularly and unapologetically 1997.
Also, it’s a great game. It is. The entire first act in Midgar is probably the single strongest section in RPG history. The rest of the first disc plays like a really excellent and weird TV show, with brief sections focused on the backstory of everyone in the party. Sephiroth is a great villain. It has great music. It’s great.
But it’s also really fucking weird, in ways we don’t really allow games to be anymore.
#1) Half-Life. Valve, 1998 (9.8)
Full disclosure: I took at least three days in between writing the last few entries and even starting this one. Half-Life being the best game of the 90s is such an obvious conceit, the game’s greatness so self-evident, that trying to describe it is actually kind of daunting.
From the very start, Half-Life aimed to be something thoroughly different from other 90s FPS games. Something more cerebral and atmospheric than DOOM or Wolfenstein, but without sacrificing any of those games’ complexity or challenge. Half-Life is one of the titles that very clearly stands as a demarcation in game design, which leaves it with one foot in the future and one in the past. Example: there are still a lot of platforming sections, especially in the first few hours, which feel almost alien to modern shooter sensibilities.
If I had to nail down the one thing Half-Life did that made it feel like it came from the future, it’s the presentation. It’s the first FPS game to really take advantage of the whole “first-person” thing. Everything in the game, all the cutscenes and vignettes and expository sections, takes place entirely from the first-person perspective. You see everything through Gordon Freeman’s eyes. There are load screens, but not in the traditional way. There are levels, but without breaks between them. Everything feels seamless, like one small part of a whole, that by the end is almost overwhelming to look back on. This is why, despite having no character at all, Freeman has become such a beloved character. There’s a real sense of personal achievement and belonging to a game where you, personally, make every single step, push every single event forward
As an actual game, Half-Life still towers over its more modern counterparts. No has ever made a more well-paced shooter, and the only one that’s even close came out six years later. It’s the rare shooter than understands you don’t have to be shooting all the time. Every conceivable type of shooter gameplay can be found here, from platforming to exploration, from methodical sniper battles to all out tank assault. From lonely, horror-based creeping to bombastic last stands. It’s a master class in design, even without taking into account the wonderful look and sounds of each enemy. The Xen creatures, particularly the headcrab, are iconic for a reason. The HECU marines less so, but no one who has played Half-Life has ever forgotten them.
This brings me to the last thing Half-Life does that only the great shooters do: Orthogonal Unit Differentiation (put simply, the idea that each enemy behaves and functions statistically independent of the others). Like DOOM and Halo, the enemies in Black Mesa are all programmed differently. They behave like individuals, with different skillsets. The Xen monsters have their own ecosystem, one that Freeman can take advantage of, making them fight one another or even the HECU Marines to escape. It’s that little bit of systemic gameplay that brings just enough unpredictability to these kinds of shooters that make them my favorite games of whatever decade they find themselves in.
If you haven’t played Half-Life and are the sort of person who can’t stomach blockier graphics, Black Mesa, the fan remake of the first game, is still on Steam and is pretty good, all things considered.
Thank you for reading, for whatever reason you did. This took me way too long to do.