It was the year of the Tamagotchi. Trainspotting, Scream, and Independence Day saw their cinema releases. Dolly the cloned sheep greeted the world. The year was 1996.
As significant as these historic moments were, this was also a big year for games. Nintendo would take their leap from the popular Super Nintendo to their third console, the Nintendo 64. Their old rivals Sega were floundering like a fish on dry land, but the Saturn would still see some decent flourishes of games. Meanwhile, the newborn PlayStation started to make its first steps towards becoming the real competition for Nintendo. The Neo-Geo sat in the corner trickling forth a tiny stream of quality. The wrinkling Game Boy got itself a mini cohort, aptly named the Game Boy Pocket.
Across all these platforms there were beginnings of series that have come and past, beginnings of developers who would evolve or die, and remnants of how games would cope with the shiny new developmental tools they could twist and mold. Here are 20 classics, listed in chronological order, that are turning 20 in 2016.
Guardian Heroes (Sega Saturn, January 26)
Golden Axe and Streets of Rage were two classics that Mega Drive fans were able to brag about, and this 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up was basically a spiritual sequel to those games. It was developed for the Saturn by Treasure Co. Ltd, who worked previously on the hit Gunstar Heroes, and later on the breathtakingly beautiful Ikaruga.
What made Guardian Heroes great was that it did more than just enhance arbitrary things such as the graphics from its beat-em-up predecessors; it had some exciting new gameplay features. Firstly, the RPG elements mixed in allowed characters to level-up statistics such as strength, health, and magic strength. Though, what was truly intriguing about this title was the multiple pathways and endings available, which varied greatly and offered a tremendous amount of replayability.
The game was praised by critics and would then go on to get itself a 2004 Game Boy Advance sequel. The original was HDified and released on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2011.
Duke Nukem 3D (PC, January 29)
Duke Nukem 3D, along with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, is considered to be one of the key games that popularized first-person shooters. However, unlike its peers, which had evil archetypes such as Nazis and demons as enemies, Duke’s world had some 90’s attitude.
The protagonist was a parody of your typical McBain-esque macho man who went around kicking aliens, rescuing strippers, zipping around in a jetpack, and taking toilet breaks “Uh, that’s better”. It faced some deserved criticism because of its uneasy portrayal of women (Duke always seemed to come across an overabundance of strippers), but this didn’t stop it from becoming a classic.
Tonnes of expansion packs were released for the title, including one where you have to rescue President Bill Clinton. There have been several re-releases and updates, but the widely available Megaton Edition is probably the definitive way to play the game. It would take 15 years before the nauseating sequel Duke Nukem Forever came out, but that won’t taint fans’ memories of its amazing predecessor.
Pokemon Red and Green (Game Boy, February 27)
It’s hard to measure the effect the original Pokemon titles have had. Pokemon Red and Green are the origin point of the behemoth franchise that would eventually swarm across shop shelves, TV screens, and school playgrounds. It all started with a simple idea captured in the game’s tagline: “Gotta catch ‘em all!”. This appealed to the human desire of finding small creatures and cramming them into surprisingly compact balls.
However, before you could enslave these pocket monsters, you have to beat them down in a battle with one of your own. Essentially Pokemon was, and still is, a very basic RPG. Different Pokemon have different attacks and weaknesses, and exploiting these in battle is essential. It’s basically rock, paper, scissors with a host of tricks thrown in, but, as with the tagline, the simplicity is what made the game so appealing.
There have been countless sequels, spin-offs and remastered versions over the years, but this year the attention will undoubtedly be on the 20th anniversary of the original’s release. Rereleases of Red, Blue (which came out later in 1996) and Yellow (which was released in 1998) will be hitting online stores in Europe and the US, and there will be a limited edition 2DS in Europe and 3DS in the US. It’s certainly a worthwhile excuse to catch ‘em all again.
Terra Nova: Strike Force Centuari (DOS, February 29)
From the creators of System Shock and Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, Terra Nova was one of Looking Glass Studios biggest financial disasters; it didn’t sell well, and it had a long and costly development cycle that was difficult to recover from.
Nevertheless, it received a huge amount of praise from critics. Terra Nova was an innovative title in that it was one of the first 3D games with squad-oriented gameplay, and was unlike anything else at the time. It’s a sci-fi game set on an alien planet that you are helping to colonize, and everything you are seeing is through the point of view of inside power armor. As well as controlling yourself, you can also give tactical orders to your other artificially controlled squad members.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1998 that the tactical-shooter genre really took off with series like Rainbow 6 and SWAT, and Looking Glass understandably never returned to the genre. They did go on to create Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2, which are both highly regarded within the gaming community, and the latter led on to the exceptional Bioshock series.
Civilization 2 (PC, February 29)
The first Civilization was a massive hit, and many fans were unsure whether the sequel would run the series into the ground, or just give it a fresh coat of paint. Released 5 years after its predecessor, Civilization 2 managed to improve the series’ turn-based strategy style in almost every way. The new elements enhanced what was already a sturdy foundation, and this would turn out to be possibly the best strategy game released in 1996.
Moving from a top-down flat view, Civilization 2 showed off its polished graphics with an isometric view that’s now commonplace for modern RTSs. There were a huge amount of new playable civs, along with some customization features, and some cultural differences shown by varying city growth patterns. Combat was polished, the AI was improved, more combat units were added, and all of this made for a tremendous amount of replayability. There was also an injection of humour with the ‘High Council’, played by real actors, that could be gone to for advice. They generally argue and insult one another, just like your typical government.
Two expansion packs added new scenarios, including one based on colonizing Mars, and another with Goblins and Mermen. In 1997, Civilization II: Multiplayer Gold Edition was released, which added network play, but had some poorly tweaked AI. We’ve seen many more sequels in the years since, and the series is running strong right now with the recently released Civilization V.
Super Mario RPG (Super Nintendo, March 9)
With the N64 coming out later in the year, it would have been understandable for Nintendo to just bide their time with a few mediocre games, but instead they paired up with Square and released Super Mario RPG. It was an attempt for Square to breach the western market in which Final Fantasy games were failing to sell successfully, and the hope was that players would warm to the game thanks to the presence of Nintendo’s portly plumber.
Super Mario RPG was an innovative mixture of platformer and RPG, with platforming taking place outside of turn-based battles. Another inventive attribute was that during combat you were able to use precise button presses to enhance your attacks. The story provided a shake up for the series seeing Mario teamed up with both Princess Peach and Bowser. The music was also given special treatment, and was composed by Yoko Shimomura (who worked on Street Fighter 2). She incorporated music by Koji Kondo from Super Mario Bros, and music by Nobuo Uematsu from the Final Fantasy series; a potent mixture.
The hard work paid off and the title was received well by critics and fans alike. Mario would go on to continue down the RPG route, which is still going strongly with Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam having been released just late last year. You can easily pick up the original on the Wii U store.
Resident Evil (PlayStation, March 22)
Drawing heavily on the 1992 horror game Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil was the first title to bear the term “survival horror”. It brought the genre staggering zombified into the spotlight, and began one of gaming’s longest running horror series (especially since we won’t be seeing Silent Hills any time soon).
Stuck in a mansion after being chased by unfriendly dogs, the rock-punching Redfield and co decide to wander around, looking for their buddies that have gone missing. They inevitably start to run into zombies. Unlike later games where you often face down zombies with little fear, Resident Evil gave its foes a menacing presence. Ammo was in short supply and the controls were clunky, so prolonged fights were far from ideal.
The title was critically acclaimed for its gameplay, while it was also laughed at for its story cinematics and voice acting; I shouldn’t need to refer to the infamous Jill sandwich incident. Needless to say, it sold extremely well, especially in the west, with the original being remade for the Gamecube, then later for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (Sega Saturn, March 22)
This on-rails shooter was a prequel to the original Panzer Dragoon and was taken up by Andromeda, an internal studio for Sega. It managed to improve on the original in most aspects, except perhaps the soundtrack, which, unlike the original, didn’t feature any orchestral tracks.
Taking control of Jean-Luc Lundi, you fly atop a dragon known as Lagi and chase down a huge ship that destroyed Lundi’s village. Multiple routes were available to you, and there were multiple dragon transformations which gave the game some much needed replayability (since it wasn’t very difficult). The game was also highly praised for its graphics which look superior to any shooters that the PlayStation had at the time.
While Zwei would never see a re-release, it did help to update the series, and the original was re-released in Japan on the PS2 and PSN. Also of note, designer Katsuhiko Yamada, along with other former members of Team Andromeda, would go on to design and create Rez for the Dreamcast, a contemporary rail shooter that’s soon to be re-released on the PS4 later this year.
Tekken 2 (PlayStation, March 29)
Much like the original Tekken, it took one year until Tekken 2 moved away from arcades and into people’s homes. Taking everything from its predecessor, Tekken 2 enhanced the already successful formula, while taking the time to polish every area and become the best fighting game of the year.
Tekken 2 pushed up its character roster to a total of 25, each with their own ending. It continued on the story of Kazuya Mishima, adding some more complexity to the tale of the man’s inner conflict of good and evil, and introduced series staples such as Jun Kazama. The combat was more intricate, characters had additional combos, and ‘counter throws’ were introduced. The graphics were also improved significantly with detailed characters and stunning backgrounds.
Critically and commercially, the game was a huge success and took a further step toward polishing the fighting franchise’s formula. Tekken 3 would go on to be released the following year in arcades and in 1998 on PlayStation, and Tekken 2 was re-released in 2006 on the PSN. Sequels have continued to be regularly produced and Tekken 7 arrived in Japanese arcades in 2015; it should be in our homes later in 2016.
Metal Slug (Neo-Geo, May 24)
If there is one game the ill-fated Neo-Geo console will be known for it’s Metal Slug. Along with Contra, Metal Slug is one of the most popular run-and-gun games to ever be released.
Known for its incredible visual style, over-the-top enemies, ridiculous weapon options, and most of all, for its comic sense of humor, the main thing I remember Metal Slug for is that it was insanely fun to play co-op. The game has a Smash Bros type of flavor; it’s easy to pick up, fun to play as a beginner or pro, and is completely chaotic. Sure there is a story in here (something about fighting Nazi-like soldiers) but when you’re trying, with a flamethrower, to melt away the violent swarms of metal and flesh in your face, there isn’t too much time to dwell on it.
Metal Slug’s infectious gameplay led to the game being a success in living rooms as well as arcades, and it’s not surprising to hear that a countless number of sequels, spin-offs, and anthologies have since been released.
Quake (Dos, June 22)
So, if id had stopped working on Doom, what were they doing? Well, they were jumping into the freshly formed world of 3D shooting, with the launch of what would become a household name in several respects.
Quake debuted the aptly named Quake Engine, the second in a series of engines that would become known as id tech, and the first 3D engine by the company. To put this into perspective, id tech 5 was used in the recently released Wolfenstein: The New Order and The Evil Within.
As a game, the graphics were a definite leap forward for what was a spiritual successor to Doom. The gameplay was solid, but on paper the levels played out similarly to those of its predecessor: play through spooky levels, which are essentially mazes filled with enemies and locked doors. Nevertheless, the unrealistic way your character moved was a definite shift in direction. Turning drastically in midair, rocket jumping, and strafe jumping were all unorthodox maneuvers used to gain an advantage; a necessity in online multiplayer.
Quake was groundbreaking with its online multiplayer, and became one of the first games to be known as an esport title. This was the beginning of the path to the arena shooter Quake 3 and its successor Quake Live, which has an annual tournament held at Quakecon. Quake 2 and 4 developed a story and universe for the franchise, but the series has remained dormant since the multiplayer-based 2007 title Enemy Territory: Quake Wars.
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, June 23)
This may be the most important game on this list. Super Mario 64 is one of the most groundbreaking games ever made. It brought the most recognised mascot of video games from his familiar 2D environment into full 3D, and it did so with ease. It set-up a 3D Mario formula as well as the groundwork that other 3D platformers still emulate today.
Super Mario 64 managed to be innovative and original while still maintaining the charm and playability of its 2D predecessors. As ever, Mario has to go through a series of levels in order to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser. Levels involve performing a variety of tasks, such as finding red coins, crushing a bomb monarch, and swinging bowser around like a rag doll. Mario 64 had large open expanses to explore, along with more linear areas. The graphics and camera controls were revolutionary, proving the concept of 3D platforming while other games were still experimenting.
It was well received by critics and fans alike and is a frequent entry in ‘best games of all time’ lists. It was also the best-selling game on the Nintendo 64 and received a remake on the Nintendo DS, which was rereleased on the Wii U shop recently. It’s still affecting titles today. In particular, Mario Galaxy and Mario 3D World have both built a large amount of their framework upon the standard that this 20-year-old game created.
Pilot Wings 64 (Nintendo 64, June 23)
Nintendo always like to dip a toe in different genres, such as the recently released online-shooter Splatoon, but few seem as obscure as Nintendo’s relationship with flight simulators, a genre that typically flies high only on PC. Nevertheless, Pilotwings 64 was, along with Mario 64 (and some bizarre Japanese chess game), given an important position as a launch title for the N64.
As with its Super Nintendo predecessor, Pilotwings 64 was built to show off the its console’s graphical capabilities. Levels were full of wonderful details, with boats drifting by coasts, and gliders swirling around mountain peaks. Exploring the broad landscape was a joy, and the game felt like an easy way to relax. The graphics were as real as they got, and small touches like mist on the waves really added to the title. Add to this wonderfully diverse gameplay, with multiple crafts and pilots, and you’ve got a truly exceptional flight simulator.
Critically and commercially it was a success, and it complimented Mario 64 as a title to lure people to the new console. Unfortunately, despite constant rumors, a sequel didn’t arrive for a long time. Pilotwings Resort allowed the series to spread its wings once again, this time as a launch title for the 3DS. Unfortunately, there has been no sequel on a home console, but maybe Pilotwings NX would be a good way to show off Nintendo’s new console?
NiGHTS into Dreams (Sega Saturn, July 5)
This was the next big title for Sonic Team after the amazing Sonic & Knuckles, although the idea originated during the development of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. NiGHTS is an action game that is essentially about dreams, taking inspiration from the works of psychoanalysts such as Freud and Jung; the team even did some research on REM sleep.
The story focuses on two teens who escape from the humiliations of real life into a surreal dream world named Nightopia. The world of Nightopia is colorful and beautiful, resonating with a dream-like aesthetic. The two protagonists transform into the wonderfully designed jester-like Nights’ who must fly through levels known as ‘dreams’. This involves soaring through rings, defeating enemies, and building combos in order to get a high score. It also tried some interesting new ideas, such as the side game called A-Life which made use of the Saturn’s internal clock, and many copies of the game were packaged with an uncomfortable-looking analogue controller.
There were sequels to the title, ports, and remasters that were widely released on other consoles and on PC. Having created such a wonderful world, Sega would be worse than foolish to let go of the series, but, judging by the amount of NiGHTs themed levels in their games, this is unlikely to happen. A VR version of the game sounds like a spell-blinding concept, but most would be happy with just another sequel.
Star Ocean (Super Nintendo, July 19)
This classic 16-bit RPG was developed by Tri-Ace, a group of several developers who broke off from Namco after being disappointed with the development process of their past hit Tales of Phantasia.
Technologically the game was very advanced. It required a special compression chip in its cartridge to store save data, which allowed it to unleash graphics that are among the finest seen on the Super Nintendo. It also bolstered its universe by using voice acting during the opening cutscene and battle sequences. The battle system took chances as well, providing an odd mixture between action-style and turn-based. Attacks play out in real time, but you select an attack command to swing your sword. There was also a vast variety of environments, some exceptional music, and an affection system that allows you to bond with certain characters in order to get different endings.
Unfortunately, the SNES version never saw a release outside of Japan, but a remake was released on the PSP in 2007 in Japan and 2008 in America and Europe. The series itself is still going strong, and the latest entry Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is slated to come out on March 31 2016 in Japan, and later this year everywhere else.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (MS-DOS, August 31)
Daggerfall’s development began immediately after the release of its predecessor, Arena, in 1994, and is part of a gradual process that would see the game polishing its graphics, gameplay, and world-building. Similarly to many games of the era, The Elder Scrolls made the leap to polygons and started creating worlds in a 3D environment.
What Daggerfall did well was build a tremendously gargantuan world. It’s the second biggest world in the series, surpassed only by Arena, and is 161,000 square kilometers with 15,000 towns, cities, villages, and dungeons to explore. There’s a main quest to complete which offers multiple endings, and then there are your typical side quests, but exploring the massive world seems a lot more inviting than going down these well-trodden paths. Joining factions, buying a house, a boat (a boat!), defending yourself in court, observing the dynamic political system, sitting around reading books, and blushing profusely when you come across a nude NPC.
Of course getting to these saucy pixels relies on the game actually working, and it will be no surprise for Bethesda fans to hear that this title was riddled with bugs, which needed to be fixed with patches, which were distributed on floppy discs. It was probably a bit too ambitious for its time, and the later Elder Scrolls games did a lot of shrinking and polishing. Morrowind, its sequel, came out in 2002 with a much smaller world and much less content, but with much more grace. The series achieved tremendous mainstream success in 2011 with Skyrim.
Crash Bandicoot (PlayStation, August 31)
I like to think that both The Last of Us and Uncharted were gradual developments from Naughty Dog’s bandicoot-oriented series. This was a time when every console needed a mascot. Sega had Sonic, Nintendo had Mario, and Sony had Crash.
Though as a platformer Crash was pretty standard, collecting 100 wumpa fruits gave you an extra life, enemies could be defeated by jumping on them, and you needed to avoid pits. However, unlike your other platformers, Crash was in 3D! This was a big deal for the time, and not only did Crash take that jump to 3D it also looked good doing it. The levels were bright and colourful, the protagonist and antagonists are well-designed, and there were plenty of amusing death animations for Crash.
It may have been a safe, linear 3D game, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Mario 64, but Crash Bandicoot did its job. What job was that? Give the PlayStation a platformer, cart racer, and a mascot (not to mention producing some bizarre TV ads). Plus, it gave the good folks of Naughty Dog jobs until they could make some of the greatest games of all time. Yeah, thanks Crash.
Revelations: Persona (PlayStation, September 20)
Shin Megami Tensei is a highly successful Japanese media franchise that had its first video game entry released in in 1987 in Japan, but there wouldn’t be an entry in the franchise’s main series until 2004. However, this wasn’t the case with Persona, a spin-off series that saw its first entry come out in 1996 in Japan and North America. Revelations: Persona centered around one of the school settings from another spin-off from the main series known as ‘Shin Megami Tensei if’ (it’s a spin-off of a spin-off, confusing right?).
It tells the story of a group of high school students who learn how to control their multiple selves, known as Personas, and use them to take on demons. Battles took place on a grid, and were full of occasions to strategize. Personas had different abilities, could be levelled up, and demon foes could even be spoken to in order to elicit different responses. Think of it as a mix of Disgaea and Pokemon with a sprinkling of Undertale.
Critically, it was praised for its story, gameplay, and settings, and was one of the best early-RPGs for the PlayStation. However, it was criticized for its poor localization, which cut a major part of the game known as the ‘Snow Queen’ route, and made some drastic changes to the dialogue in order to try and make the game appeal to Western audiences. This was mainly due to the small North American team that worked on the title, but the 2009 PSP version remedied many of the unnecessary changes. The sequel wouldn’t make it to Western shores, but the third game which come out in 2000, saw Atlus put a lot more manpower into its localization. The series still continues today and Persona 4 just came out last year.
Tomb Raider (PlayStation, November 15)
Much like movies, video games have a tendency to relegate female characters to side roles, and this was especially true during the entertainment medium’s early years. Mario rescues Peach, Sonic rescues Amy, and Duke rescues strippers. While there may be some exceptions, such as Samus in Metroid (who was hidden behind her armor), there was still a real lack of strong female characters. Cue the entry of Lara Croft and her two pistols, ready to raid temples filled with horrific traps, vicious animals, and human foes, all in order to plunder some rare artefacts. She would quickly establish herself as the face of women in video games, a face that would evolve over time.
As a game, Tomb Raider could be seen as a template for 3D action-adventure titles. While it did have some camera issues and the controls are clunky by today’s standards, Tomb Raider brought combat and puzzles into a fully 3D environment. Precisely timed movement was required as Lara needed to climb up treacherous ledges and solve complex puzzles. The environments themselves were beautifully constructed and music was cleverly used only at certain points to evoke different emotions.
Critically and commercially Tomb Raider was an astounding success, and the wait for Tomb Raider 2, which was released in 1997, was palpable. Lara was simultaneously held as the face of feminism in gaming and as a sex object. However, time would go on to mature the character, and the unrealistic early appearance of Lara was later shed for something more relatable. Today she is probably still the strongest female character in gaming, evidenced in the recent release of Rise Of The Tomb Raider.
Diablo (PC, December 31)
If Mario 64 introduced us to 3D platformers, and Tomb Raider gave us 3D action-adventure, then Diablo birthed the action role-playing genre. Diablo was developed and published by Blizzard, kicking off one of their most popular series that stands up there next to Warcraft, Starcraft, and Hearthstone. Much like Warcraft, what made Diablo such a hit was that it sucked players in. It was damn addictive.
This isn’t a title to be playing if you’re looking for an enriching story. The main quest here is simply to go through a series of randomly-generated dungeons and continue down to the depths of hell, all in order to kill a demon suitably named Diablo. You could choose one of three classes: sorcerer, warrior, and rogue. Each had unique attacks, but the main way to attack and interact with the environment was simply to click. The environments were dark and broody, the musical score was moody, and there was a vast variety in items, quests, and levels.
It was enough to keep players replaying the title over and over, and even after several playthroughs it was still likely you’d come across something new. You could also pillage dungeons with a friend or stranger through online multiplayer, and there was even a matchmaking service in the form of battle.net. Much like several of the games above, Diablo features frequently on many “best of” lists. The series is still running strongly today, even though Diablo 3 managed to irritate fans with its rocky launch.
Well, there you have it, 20 games that will make you feel like a dinosaur, or maybe 20 games that will help you relate to your dad. 1996 was another stellar year for gaming that would mark the beginning of the new console war between Nintendo and Sony, which is now starting to fade away like a dream that’s taking the whimpering Wii U with it. The seeds of the modern industry were being sown. Sony were starting to grasp onto third parties as Nintendo let them slip through their fingers. Sega were making poor marketing decisions. Pokemon was selling like crazy. Independence Day was released. So, a lot has stayed the same, but a lot has also changed. Thankfully the quality of games is something that has stayed fairly consistent.