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The nineties was a decade that saw extraordinary advances and innovation in gaming, shifting the medium from cute but crude 2D screens to immersive, fully-explorable 3D environments.
Whole new genres were born and all manner of enduring mechanics formed, as games gradually moved from kids’ bedrooms into the living room – and the dawn of the PlayStation made gaming cool.
To celebrate those ten amazing years of broken ground and treasured memories, Mark Butler salutes the unforgettable video games that defined the era.
The Secret Of Monkey Island (1990)
LucasArts’ wonderfully funny and adventure classic – the first proper writing gig for industry icon Tim Schafer – sparkled with charm, wit and inventive ideas, bringing a huge dose of eccentric Monty Python esque humour to the point-and-click template. Wry protagonist Guybrush Threepwood became an instant fan favourite, while the quirky puzzles, ultra-neat presentation and focus on entertaining dialogue were nothing short of delightful. The kind of experience for which ‘remember fondly’ is an understatement.
Super Mario World (1990)
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better following the superlative Super Mario Bros 3, Nintendo gave us this beautiful treasure-trove of loveliness – and introduced us to the simply adorable Yoshi. Charging around on the back of our new dino friend, with him chomping each and every enemy in sight, was one of the purest joys of the early part of the decade. It certainly didn’t hurt that the level design maintained the high standard of previous outings, while also being more diverse and engaging than ever before.
Sonic The Hedgehog (1991)
Just hearing that title screen music brings back so many memories. Everybody’s favourite spiky blue sprinter was SEGA’s attempt to spawn a cooler, more slick answer to Mario – and they largely succeeded in that aim. The most striking thing about Sonic was quite obviously the speed of gameplay; this was a full-throttle, fast-paced rollercoaster of a platformer that really pushed your concentration and reaction times to the limit. As Sonic zipped through the gameworld, defying gravity and looping through the air, the result was nothing short of thrilling.
Street Fighter II (1991)
“Hadouken! Hadouken!” The king of 2D arcade beat-em-ups was an absolute monster of memorable, must-play characters, distinctive colourful backdrops and eye-catching special moves and combos. Whether you were a Ryu man or preferred giving your opponents a 100-hand slap, this was the kind of game made to be played with your ultra-competitive friends to see who got the final bragging rights; with endless practicing inbetween bouts to ensure the upper hand. Everything about this game now screams iconic, from the catchy music to Chun-Li’s spinning helicopter kick.
Mortal Kombat (1992)
The gleefully gory and anarchic answer to Street Fighter’s more family-friendly scrapping, Mortal Kombat was the cool kids’ cult property back when it first landed; the blood-soaked spectacle of its jaw-dropping fatalities both absurdly comic and excitingly envelope-pushing for the time. Its rogues’ gallery of eccentric humans, super-powered ninjas and horrifying monsters was a real treat too. It certainly didn’t hurt that it had superb gameplay to back up the shock value either.
Alone In The Dark (1992)
The often unsung precursor to a defining classic later in this list, Alone In The Dark was a compelling mix of point and click style puzzling and survival action, all packaged within a fully 3D haunted house aesthetic. Though the presentation may have been arguably too bright and playful, it still managed to instill a fair feeling of fear and trepidation for the time – and it was the tangible mood of mystery that made it so very intriguing and distinctive.
Indiana Jones and the Fate Of Atlantis (1992)
Taking in everything we loved about the classic Indi movie outings, from the exotic globe-trotting to the mysterious arcane excavations, LucasArts hit another terrific high with this compelling and smart adventure. Depending on your preference you could either opt for an emphasis on tricky, brain-teasing puzzles or ass-kicking desert brawls – with an admirable amount of respect and affection dealt to the beloved cinematic brand. Who could have thought a point-and-click game could be so exciting?
Arguably the most iconic and influential shooter of all time, Doom’s fiendish onslaught of frenetic, demon-slaying action, madcap level design and immensely satisfying array of weaponry to use on your hellish enemies set the standard – and template – for everything that followed in its stead. Hell, for years after FPSs were known as ‘Doom clones’, and they owed an undoubted debt to the game’s trailblazing sense of style and swagger. Its presentation and approach wowed the industry and consumers alike, and the multiplayer component also established Deathmatch as a future tour de force.
Cannon Fodder (1993)
Proof that the endearing tongue-in-cheek silliness of the homegrown 80s era had not disappeared altogether, Cannon Fodder had you guide a squad of entirely disposable squaddies through a range of ultra-deadly jungle war missions, with allies and enemies alike splattered all over the place in comically violent fashion. Those little white crosses that ended up dotting and then dominating the hillside were a testament to inevitable failures – and a surprisingly poignant touch to the farcically fun proceedings.
Another tactical squad shooter – but there the similarities end. Bullfrog’s remarkable cyberpunk strategy title saw you guide a team of battle-hardened androids through an increasingly tricky series of perilous missions in a futuristic city; slaughtering and out-manoeuvring rivals in a bid to carve out bigger and bigger slices of turf, money and influence. The half grimy, half flash vision of the future was intoxicating, as was the immense satisfaction of employing advanced cybernetic upgrades and acquiring more and more powerful, badass weapons to turn your crew into the most feared outfit around.
Alien Vs Predator (1994)
By far and away the finest game on Atari’s Jaguar system, the novelty of answering every kids’ classic playground row and finally pitting the Predator and Xenomorph against each other proved to be even more engaging than you might think. Each of the three campaigns had a vastly different feel, and some extremely cool ideas. The ability for the alien to create checkpoints by cocooning humans was just inspired; playing around with the Predator’s array of gadgets great fun; and the vastly underpowered marine’s mission was a pure, frightening onslaught of intense survival-horror.
Super Metroid (1994)
The game that partly defined what is now fondly dubbed ‘Metroid-vania’, the dizzying collection of power-ups you could collect and abilities you could use seemed virtually unparalleled at the time, helping to elevate this far above other competing platform-shooters. The thrill of a properly open-ended world – so distinct from the more linear, structured environments of its contemporaries – is perhaps its most enduring aspect, with the enjoyment of unlocking new areas from previously-explored hubs adding to the sense of freedom and excitement.
Duke Nukem 3D (1994)
Take Doom, translate it to a tongue-in-cheek version of the modern world, and then throw in heaps of toilet humour, ’80s action movie quips and the most cock-sure protagonist on the planet, and you’ve got Duke Nukem 3D. While its sense of humour may seem puerile now, it was an awful lot of fun at the time, and it was hard not to stop yourself quoting Duke’s best one-liners hours after putting the controller down. Added to that was a genuinely novel degree of environmental interaction and fun in-jokes – the kind of unabashed silliness that modern-day shooters have long since forgotten.
Theme Park (1994)
Proving the unlikely truth that building simulated rollercoasters can be more fun than riding them in real-life (particularly when you got to watch cute little animated characters puke afterwards, or even get thrown out of their carriage into the air mid-circuit), Theme Park was a tremendously fun endeavour. As moreish as a bundle of fairground candy-floss, its colourful array of rides and stalls, coupled with a genuinely challenging difficulty curve, threw up all manner of memorable highlights. Who could forget the time half your star attractions blew up? Or the occasion when all your costumed workers went out on strike?
Magic Carpet (1994)
Underlying Bullfrog’s quite extraordinary run of greats, Peter Molyneux’s triumphant exercise in mystical wish-fulfillment was as absorbing as it gets. Cast as a flying wizard capable of wielding spells both deadly and subtle, you acquired ever more powerful magic to vanquish fearsome creatures and rival sorcerers across a vivid sweep of oceans, mountains and deserts. The terrific, eerie music – together with such surreal elements as gliding, sentient balloons – gave the game’s mood a truly unique flavour – and made it the true epitome of an experience where whole hours simply evaporate away.
UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994)
The graphics and daft walking animations were dated even then, but my God what a cracking strategy experience this was. Charged with defending the world and fighting back against nefarious alien invaders, you built bases, shot down extraterrestrial ships, sent a team of soldiers to take out the monstrous survivors in surprisingly tense turn-based encounters, and then researched the tech you found back at HQ. Watching the troops you got genuinely attached to transforming from terrified rookies into deadly veterans was a true rush – as was utilising the enemy’s secrets and weaponry against them. An immensely tough game, the moment when the tide turned and your team finally went from doomed underdogs to rampaging avengers was worth all the weeks and months of nerve-jangling effort.
Remember what we said earlier about endearing tongue-in-cheek silliness? Team 17’s wonderfully charming bout of anarchic yet subtly tactical deathmatches pitted quartets of personalised, squeaky-voiced invertebrates against one another, making use of everything from bazookas to exploding sheep. The randomly-generated backdrops were great, the opportunities for extreme sneakiness many (who else used to build ludicrously elaborate tunnel systems?), and the cutesy voice-acting never got old. “Oh dear!”
The game that did more to make gaming cool in the ’90s than any other, Psygnosis’ slick, stylish futuristic hover-racer immersed itself firmly in club culture: boasting a barnstorming soundtrack featuring the likes of The Chemical Brothers and spawning controversial adverts featuring twenty-something ravers sat shell-shocked in front of their TVs, blood running from their nostrils. Fast, dynamic and armed with cutting-edge audio and visual design, this was arguably the moment when those who dismissed the hobby as a nerd’s pursuit sat up and took notice.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
Tesla Coils. Chronospheres. Tanya on the rampage. This wondrous RTS took its alternative history setting to the very furthest reaches of possibility, placing sci-fi technology alongside retro warships and pitting Allied and Soviet forces against each other across land, sea and air. The live-action cutscenes were great (it’s Stalin everybody!), while the tactical gameplay itself provided all manner of possibilities. Do you build an unstoppable division of mammoth tanks and steamroll your foe, or sneak a bunch of naval forces round the side of their base and pound them into submission? Finding out whether your chosen approach was fine or folly was what all the fun was about.
Resident Evil (1996)
The game that coined the term ‘survival horror’, Shinji Mikami’s pulp masterpiece gleefully married cheesy B-movie grisliness with a deep sense of moody, suspenseful atmosphere; ushering you into a stunning mansion populated by cryptic puzzles, fiendish traps and grotesque foes. Setting the template and standard for an entire new genre, it gripped you in its clutches from the very start. Who could forget the dogs smashing through the window, those gargantuan creepy crawlies, and Barry’s delightful repertoire of hammy, nonsensical dialogue?
Tomb Raider (1996)
With all the fuss over Lara Croft and her subsequent transformation into a fully-blown pop culture icon, it’s easy to forget that Tomb Raider was first and foremost an incredible, pioneering game. Astonishing with its presentation of epic, cavernous environments brimming with possibilities for exploration (and meeting a very sticky end), the sense of awe and acrobatic 3D action was unparalleled at that time. Certain moments sent shivers down the spine, not least the jaw-dropping T Rex encounter in the Lost Vallery, and the sheer breathtaking scale of St Francis Folly.
Super Mario 64 (1996)
We expected it to be good, but Mario’s transition into three dimensions was a genuine triumph. The joy of seeing everything we loved and treasured about the plucky plumber realised in huge, open and dynamic environments was a complete pleasure; with gorgeous level design and attention-to-detail throughout. Packed with cool places to visit, secrets to unlock and things to do, it’s arguably the finest 3D platformer ever made – pretty astonishing when you consider that it was also one of the first.
Crash Bandicoot (1996)
Naughty Dog’s attempt to give Sony their very own cartoon pin-up resulted in a game far more impressive and enduring than many predicted. Fleeing from boulders out of the screen, riding runaway hogs into the screen, and negotiating perilous climbs through jungles and rain-soaked castles, this was one of the most challenging platformers of all time – but just as rewarding with it. It had character, edge, and some very neat ideas. Many still have nightmares over ‘Road To Nowhere’, but you better bet they’re the most nostalgic nightmares around.
Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars (1996)
Armed with beautiful hand-drawn scenes, perfectly realised characters and the elegant sweep of Barrington Pheloung’s sumptuous score, this ingenious point-and-click puzzler may have seemed simple on the surface – but there were a whole host of hidden depths to be uncovered. The globe-hopping storyline moved from genteel Paris to rural Ireland and dusty Syria, drawing you further and further in along the way. It was an astonishing, attention-holding tale told with the ideal blend of grit, mystery and humour – not to mention some truly fiendish puzzles.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
The game that introduced many to the wonders of JRPGs for the first time, there’s no doubt that’s part of the reason why FFVII is so fondly remembered. But it’s also so hallowed because of its vivid, sweeping gameworld, fascinating, memorable characters, and a compelling, emotional narrative that evoked awe and horrified gasps in equal measure. One of the finest gaming stories ever told – complete with exciting mini-games, thrilling bosses and bags of secrets to uncover (Gold Chocobos and Knights Of The Round for the win). Oh, and there’s that music. Simply sensational.
Tekken 3 (1997)
Namco’s sensational fighting series didn’t really have a weak link, but the third instalment was arguably the moment when it went from great to genre-defining. The vast array of playable pugilists started to take in even more unusual and exciting characters, the combo-rich gameplay was slicker and more intuitive than ever, and new game modes like Survival and a Streets Of Rage style scrolling challenge beefed up the package even further. Probably the only beat ’em up you played for months on end – with friends, or solo.
GoldenEye 64 (1997)
Arguably the defining multiplayer experience of the 90s, this was the game you played with your mates for hours on end – four of you glued to the screen in 4-player split-screen rapture as you set elaborate traps, raced to find the best weapons, and forever cursed the etiquette-breaking one among your number who insisted on playing as diminutive Oddjob, even after they’d been told not to. The single player campaign wasn’t actually too shabby either, providing a fair few adrenaline-pumping moments to go alongside the living room party mayhem.
Ten years before the modern-day Bethesda reboot that would bring it to a whole new audience, the original isometric open world RPG was wowing gamers with its quirky, compelling vision of a post-apocalyptic US teeming with eccentric survivors, terrifying enemies and retro-future character. Tasked with taking on and defeating a Super Mutant villain and saving your people, the way in which you could explore the world in any way you wished and do things your way (whether good, bad, or the the murkily moral grey inbetween) became an influential hallmark of most future Western RPGs.
Ultima Online (1997)
Still going 18 years on from its original release, the first major MMORPG was the first polished, large-scale fantasy epic that allowed players to meet and interact within a colossal gameworld – pacing the way for juggernauts such as EVE and World Of Warcraft to follow in the ensuing years. It deserves its place here for being a trailblazer of huge online gaming communities – and it also spawned some hilarious, infamous in-game events as well.
Casting you as a young scientist on a seemingly normal work day that soon goes to hell, Half-Life was a monumental FPS for a number of reasons. The total lack of cut-scenes – with the player experiencing everything as it happened themselves, in real-time – was ingenious; making the whole experience much more immersive and the gameworld feel alive. But it was also the emphasis on brains as well as brawn to succeed that helped make it truly special, not to mention the exquisite, flawless environmental design. Even now it stands as a supreme gaming colossus.
The game so good, it became a national sport in South Korea. A superb RTS that went far beyond the call of duty with three fascinating playable factions – all with their own distinctive units, buildings, tactics and tone – StarCraft had both the immersive, absorbing tactical gameplay you’d expect from the best of the genre, as well as the kind of atmosphere that few strategy titles have mustered before or since. Pitting your wits against human opponents was the ultimate challenge – and a line of deployed siege tanks just about the most awesome sight there is.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
The first proper gaming blockbuster – in both presentation and scope – Hideo Kojima’s smart, slick and gripping action-stealth game managed to make ludicrous, over-the-top absurdity seem cool. Shuffling along in boxes; comical exclamation marks above guards’ heads; bosses with names like Psycho Mantis and Vulcan Ravan (“giant and shaman!”): it’s all just so ingrained on our collective consciousness now. Encountering the invisible ninja was a real highlight, as were the extraordinary fourth-wall breaking antics (the code being on the game case; Mantis reading your memory card). Here was a full-scale dramatic adventure with humour in spades, and original ideas galore.
Joy. Pure, pure joy. Rarely has a gameworld been as fun and as colourful – nor its protagonists more cute and lovable. The first moment you exchanged your bumbling bear’s jog for the skittering, squawking sprint of the little red bird in his backpack, you just knew this was going to be something special. Exuberant, lovingly-crafted and immensely enjoyable, there’s a reason why the original developers recently received a shedload of Kickstarter money to make a spiritual successor.
Legacy Of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999)
Blessed with a terrific story, gripping atmosphere and an extraordinary gameworld to navigate and explore, this epic 3D follow-up to the cult Blood Omen title had you assume the role of vengeful vampire Raziel, brought back to ghoulish life in an apocalyptic, dystopian fantasy kingdom to hunt down your former brothers – and dastardly father figure. What resulted was a superlative action-horror adventure that gloried in its variety of death-dealing options and cool abilities; with each boss beaten unlocking a handy new skill, and new areas to explore. The concept and architecture-shifting use of the eerie ‘spectral realm’ for puzzles, and as a back-up when slain, was particularly ingenious.
Silent Hill (1999)
It’s easy to forget just how extraordinary this felt at the time. If Resident Evil was the gory, schlocky, B-Movie pioneer of survival-horror, then Konami’s surreal and supremely dark nightmare was its twisted sister; plunging players into a seemingly-inescapable onslaught of dread and foreboding. Searching for your daughter in a deserted town – deserted, that is, save for monstrous grotesques lurking in the fog – it remains one of the greatest horror experiences of any medium. Simply recall the warped school, the pitch black alleyways, or the hellish Otherworld signaled by sinister air-raid sirens, and shiver at the memory. And that’s before we even get on to Akira Yamaoka’s nerve-shredding music…