Certain armchair sociologists will tell you that in some ways, the 1990s were a wasted decade, a lazy misama of squandered possibility where the post-Cold War world failed to recognize its potential. But when it comes to video games, the 1990s were absolutely amazing. The decade began with games mainly in their infancy, but beginning to grow up. They were still finding their form, and largely static, but ready to burst out. And by the end of the decade, as the millennium broke, they were complex, rich, and beautiful works of art.
Now, granted, there is still a rich and fascinating debate about whether games are art or not, but we wouldn’t even be having that discussion were it not for the advance of 1990s video games. We’re going to look at some of the most important games of this decade. These aren’t necessarily the top-sellers (though some are), and they might not even be the “best” of their genre. There are a lot of games you’ll get mad at me for leaving out- like Goldeneye, Resident Evil, Dungeons & Dragons, Gran Turismo– but these chosen games represent the genre growing up, leading to today’s games on our consoles, computers, and mobile tech.
Fighting your friends, incorporating multiplayer options, made games much better. Image from fightersgeneration.com
1990s Video Games- The Best of the Best
Street Fighter II- 1991
In fighting games, you used to be able to fight against a whole range of computer enemies, working your way to bigger and badder foes. Street Fighter II said, “You know what would make it better? Fighting your friends.” They were right. This game allowed for two players to battle each other in a variety of awesome backdrops with cool tricks and amazing finishing moves. Games like Mortal Kombat and other popular fighting games took that template and ran with it. Street Fighter II was insanely popular in the arcades, and became just as addictive when it came home.
I don’t know exactly what these were, but they were terrifying. Image from shacknews.com.
Doom was terrifying. A first-person shooter where your space marine went to what was essentially a hell planet surrounded by goat-monsters and cacodemons, blasting his way through level after level. Doom took the claustrophobia of Castle Wolfenstein and made it even more terrifying. This took some chances, as you could see the face of your soldier get bloodier and weaker as you got hurt, and your energy sucked dry. I’m not going to say that the (for the time) realistic graphics or the monsters gave me nightmares, but that’s only because I probably suppressed them.
NHL ‘94- 1994
Roenick was simply unstoppable. Just awesome. Image from ytimg.com.
If you’ve seen Swingers, you know the awesome power of NHL ‘94 (clip contains NSFW language). While Madden has become the dominant sports game of our time (and in the 90s it advanced leaps and bounds), everyone who played sports games knows this hockey game was the pinnacle of the decade. It was fast in a way that games hadn’t been, and the gameplay was extremely fluid–it was easy to pass, to switch from player to player, and to wind up a slapshot or to tap it in. It also featured Jeremy Roenick, who was unstoppable in the game (much more so than in real life). This showed what sports games could really be, and we never looked back.
Super Mario 64- 1996
The amazing 3D world of Super Mario 64 expanded our ideas of gaming. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
We all loved the original Mario games–Super Mario 2 is still the game I was the best at in my life (it’s all been downhill since then). But Super Mario 64 took the horizontal scrolling of the originals and exploded into 3D, creating an immersive, swirling, and beautiful world. The gameplay was great, but was almost secondary to what you saw. It took graphics to the next level, was one of the first recognizably modern games, and was one of the most influential games ever. You weren’t just playing Super Mario–you were in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Tomb Raider- 1996
Tomb Raider was popular with guys, for obvious reasons. But while it definitely attracted a more leering clientele, it was also extremely popular with girls and women. Lara Croft was strong, determined, smart, and independent. Unlike most movies, she wasn’t dependent on a man to help her, and she didn’t faint at violence. There were female characters in games before, and female fighters, but she was different. She was the star. It didn’t hurt that it was a great game. Though you can’t deny the prurient element existed, Lara showed games weren’t just for dudes anymore.
The 1990s was an incredible decade for games. They went from being a sideshow to a major part of our pop culture. By the time the decade was over, the idea of gamers being just basement-bound male nerds (which was never fair to begin with) was completely destroyed. Video games were a dominant form of our entertainment, and whether you played them on a computer or console, you knew that everyone was playing with you.