Everyone knows that video gaming reached its formal and technical peak during the 1990s. While this may enrage some aging arcade-loving nihilists, it’s hard to look the truth right in the face and own it. After all, truth is to video game reviewing as falsehood is to political reportage.
So let’s talk about the truth. If I were to list every great video game released after 1989 (video game historians record this as the year that officially begins the decade—plus, it’s also generally accepted that the 1980s were totally rad) this list would fill up that iPad of yours in a heartbeat, with no room left to spare. So we’re keeping it short, sassy, and a little bit sexy (Chun Li’s epic thighs do make an appearance) as we talk about the five greatest games of the 90s:
5. Toejam and Earl
Yes, Toejam and Earl for the Sega Genesis. You wanna make somethin’ of it? Sure, the game may not have epic battles between the forces of good and evil, but there are high-fives, funk music, and presents all over the place. Add in a randomly generated map, amazingly retro high-contrast 90s graphics, and a pair of heroes that really stick out, and you have a cult classic on your hands.
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Toejam and Earl are alien rappers. Yeah, they come from outer space and they love Snoop Dogg and Kanye. Their spaceship has been totally wrecked and they have to re-assemble it while navigating “Earth” (a bunch of crazy floating soil platforms). Drugs were definitely involved in the creative process of this game, raising the score a few full points at the very least. The complete “strange” factor of the game has no doubt led to its continued success.
Thankfully, Toejam and Earl spawned a sequel, so it continues to circulate in discussion whenever people talk about the best games for the Sega Genesis. But to be fair, there aren’t very many of them.
4. Final Fantasy VII
Cloud. Sephiroth. Aeris (spoiler: she dies, and you can’t bring her back, no matter what the nerds at GameFAQs might have led you to believe over these past 15 years). The foul-mouthed Barrett. A mutated talking dog. Eco-terrorists fighting against corporatism and environmental destruction. Add in a decidedly kick-ass cyberpunk theme and walk away from the tedious tropes of yesterday’s JRPG.
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The reasons for its success are innumerable: amazingly detailed background graphics (pity about the horrible character textures, a tell-tale sign of earlier days on the original Playstation), soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu, and a story that transcends more simplistic themes common to RPGs up until this point, pressing beyond into matters of politics, economics, and philosophy.
Notably, Final Fantasy VII moved the genre towards adopting a more mature outlook that saw the first stirrings in Final Fantasy II (IV in Japan) on the SNES and Super Famicom systems, respectively. No longer relegated to a niche audience, Final Fantasy VII popularized the epic-narrative RPG in North America and is largely responsible for the decade of dominance amongst RPG fans, only recently succumbing to the strength of the Western RPG in the most recent console generation.
3. Super Mario Kart
Super Mario Kart is the best racing game of all time. It’s better than Test Drive 2. It’s better than Rad Racer (even with the 3D glasses). It’s better than Forza. It’s better than Grid. Forget about Gran Turismo. It’s better than Wipeout.
It’s as good as Wave Race. I don’t say that lightly.
None of the sequels to Super Mario Kart were able to quite match the level of the first version’s pure competition, as they introduced a much more obvious “levelling” system which only increases, meaning that if you play Mario Kart Wii, you’ll note that at times it’s best to be in last place in order to get better items during the final laps. While this balancing can be turned off, most players remain blissfully unaware, thinking that their mediocre karting skills are actually competent. The nerve.
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Also, let’s not forget about Battle Mode. That’s right, the mode that pitted brother against brother and sister against sister and grandchild against grandma for the last undercooked pork chop. Red shells careening across the dust and grass seeking a balloon to pop. Banana peels artfully placed in corners and hairpin turns on Battle Course 3 (ice) or 4 (walls and walls and more walls) lead to instant death (or, really, the loss of a balloon).
Battle Mode was freakin’ awesome and still is today. Go play. Thank me later.
The game that started it all. While there’s no doubt that Wolfenstein 3D and Doom would also be on this list were it any longer (props to both games and an honorable mention for each), the modern multiplayer shooter owes a great deal more to Goldeneye. It’s the ancestor of Halo, TF2, Resistance, Crysis, Far Cry, and more.
Yes, you’re James Bond. Yes, you have all sorts of cool weapons (laser watch, anyone?). Who doesn’t remember the sweat forming all over your body when you had to CHARGE THOSE LAZORS and cut your way out of the train trapped by the evil backstabbing Trevelyan. Sheesh, I hate that guy. Still do. And that’s testament to how damned good this game is.
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The multiplayer was out of this world. Let’s be honest, if you were born between 1980 and 1989, you were spending nights at a friend’s houses (unless you didn’t have any friends, then you desperately tried to rope your pitying siblings or even Mom or Dad to play with you) whining about Oddjob.
Levels like Facility and Jungle made the experience that much more interesting. Trainyards, libraries, secret installations—all with various ways to navigate and to create hideouts and traps. Add some proximity mines, rocket launchers, and a round of Slappers Only to the mix and you had so many late nights that evolved into the n00b-owning, smack-talking Xbox Live-fest we all know and love today
1. Street Fighter II
Tigerr! Tigerr Uppercut! Yea, we’re not all Sagat fans (though he was very Suave-ay in the movie with his keen wit and impeccable truth-to-character), but we can appreciate the fact that Street Fighter II was a revolution both in the dimly lit arcades of our youth (and adulthood, for some of the greybeards out there) but also at home. You could finally kick butt with nearly arcade-perfect representation. Finally.
Street Fighter II nailed the fighting game formula: big, bold graphics blended with killer music and characters that actually seemed enjoyable to use, and well-balanced. Of course, nobody used Zangief until he got his upgrade later on in the series, and lots of people just picked Chun Li.
Overall, the game itself reigned supreme over competitors such as Mortal Kombat because, well, not only did it not play like a clunky, random piece of trash, but the graphics continue to hold up in a manner which cannot be said of the competition. There was nothing like the rush of walking up to that big, tatted up, rat-tailed greaser in the local dust mall and slapping your quarters down next to the buttons.
This was an age when you had to go toe-to-toe, mano-a-mano with your competition. If you wanted to talk trash, you had to do it less than a foot away from one another, often with just a look of triumph in superiority, or else shame. It was a gentlemanly, ancient time in which quarters slipped into coin mechs from salty, sweaty palms.
You slotted the coins, picked Ryu, and became one with the machine. You ground your enemy under your heel like dirt with endless, cheap streams of hadouken and fierce jumpkick/ fierce sweep combos. You laughed with a pirate’s gleam in your eye as the big thug next to you tried to hide hot tears, turning away to hide his shame. Now, the arcades are long-gone and legions of high-voiced imitators go through the same motions without understanding the difference.
With your hand on the stick or thumbing the buttons, beating the pixilated tar out of your nearest and dearest on the battlefield, you lived like a warrior.
I still do to this very instant.