Gameological Q&A

Nintendo World Championships gold cartridge

Hell Of A Year

What’s your favorite year in video game history?

By The Gameological Society Staff • April 11, 2013

Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.

As you may have heard, The Gameological Society just finished up its first year of existence, so we’ve been thinking in annual terms lately. This Gameological Q&A is a simple question: What’s your favorite year in video game history? Our answers follow below; make a case for your year in the comments.

Anthony John Agnello
Jenova, Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII

If the history of video games were an enormous map, a physical thing you could hold, 1997 is likely the spot where it would balance. This is the year when the extremes of blockbuster games and weird indie games took root, and that binary still dominates today. It’s also the year when crazy cartoon experimentation saw its peak. On the blockbuster end, you have sprawling adventures like Final Fantasy VII, the game that burned so bright it practically broke Squaresoft. Its peers were gigantic sequels like Tomb Raider 2, groundbreaking playgrounds like GoldenEye, and technological feats of magic like Star Wars: X-Wing Vs. Tie Fighter. At the same time, developers were gleefully reimagining the cartoon fantasies from the preceding 15 years. There were games with cartoon dogs prior to that year, but did they rap like PaRappa The Rapper? The nuclear wasteland was already well mapped, but was it ever as funny or fascinating as in Fallout? Plenty of games had cars, but how many let you steal them and wreak havoc like in Grand Theft Auto? It felt like the past was ramming into the future and the friction was producing wonders. For me, it will always be the year I played Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night, Mega Man X4, and the Sega Saturn version of X-Men Vs. Street Fighter. Not even the rise of Jamiroquai could sully that year.

Derrick Sanskrit
Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead

There was a whole lot to love about video games in 2008, especially for former indie punks like myself. While the clerks at my local Trader Joe’s were gushing about the destruction in Grand Theft Auto IV, Super Smash Bros Brawl, and Left 4 Dead, I got to rebuild luscious landscapes rich with sound and color in both PixelJunk Eden and de Blob. The iPhone suddenly became a viable and unique platform thanks to the trip-hop-informed platformer Rolando and the disco-ball arcade puzzler Newtonica (in which I held the No. 8 global high score for a few months). My friends got in on the offbeat fun, coming over every weekend to smash towers in Boom Blox until our Wiimote arms were sore. We sat in circles with four Nintendo DSes for rounds of LOL, the local multiplayer-only game that was like Pictionary for improv comedians. (Many drinking games were informed by our drawings of Shia LaBoeuf riding dinosaurs.) And when I felt the need to get serious and think about life and relationships, I had two of the best role-playing games about feelings, The World Ends With You and Persona 4. On the flipside, No More Heroes reminded me that not growing up can be pretty all right, too. Braid and Space Invaders Extreme both hurt my brain in wonderful ways. Rock Band 2 and WiiFit each gave me a solid workout, enough to make me not really mind the bulky plastic accessories. More than any year before or since, 2008 felt like the time to explore, when games could be anything for anybody, a now-common idea that only breached the mainstream with LittleBigPlanet, another thought-provoking title from 2008.

Joe Keiser
Grim Fandango

Grim Fandango

The year that probably comes up most frequently in conversations like this is 1998, and I don’t see a reason to break with convention. Here we have Half-Life, a genre-defining shooter that was one of the first to tell its story without taking control from the player. There’s Metal Gear Solid, which pushed the earlier static style of storytelling to the level of a summer action film. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time became the blueprint for 3D environmental design and traversal. StarCraft defined e-sports and became a cultural landmark for an entire nation, South Korea. Pokémon was introduced to the United States. And Baldur’s Gate revived the PC role-playing game, starting its developer, BioWare, on an odyssey to the top of the industry. And yet, even without these, I would have picked this year anyway, for the witty, poignant adventure game Grim Fandango, the last space simulation that mattered (until its sequel) Descent: FreeSpace, and the ambitious Japanese RPG Suikoden II. These are canonical works that developers still think about when they sit down to a blank screen, and they all came out this year.

Adam Volk
Super Mario Bros. 3

Super Mario Bros. 3

1990 was a pretty terrible year for pop culture. Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli ruled the airwaves, Blossom was a hit television series, and people were sporting some questionably “rad” hairdos and clothing. But it was arguably the best year of all time when it comes to video games. The reason? I’ll give you two: Final Fantasy and Super Mario Bros. 3. The former would launch one of the greatest series of all time, the latter would set a new benchmark not only for Mario Bros. but also for all games of the run-and-jump variety. 1990 was a banner year for PC gaming, too, with the release of Sierra’s King’s Quest V and the first game in Origin’s Wing Commander series. The result is a year so groundbreaking, it’s almost enough to make you forget about Milli Vanilli.

Drew Toal
X-Wing

X-Wing

I remember playing Rebel Assault at my friend Tom’s house. This was 1993, years before the prequel nonsense, and we were therefore starved for anything Star Wars related. Well, strictly speaking, we were starved for girls, and also anything Star Wars related. Nothing doing on the former. But it didn’t matter, because we were actually at that very second strafing the hell out of a Star Destroyer, and it was incredible. (That the two joys were mutually exclusive didn’t occur to us until some time later.) But Rebel Assault wasn’t even the best Star Wars game that came out that year—that honor belonged to X-Wing. This is all to say that 1993 was an embarrassment of riches. For the first time, my brother and I got a new system—the Panasonic 3DO—right as it came out. The system had its problems, sure, but we were supremely geeked, as only a 13-year-old and his annoying little brother can be when given an expensive piece of soon-to-be obsolete game hardware. There was so much available that I didn’t get a chance to play many of the year’s best games until much later—Day Of The Tentacle, Sam And Max Hit The Road, Doom, Myst, at least 20 games starting with the word “Super.” 1993 also saw two of the finest sports games ever made—NHL ’94 and NBA Jam. All you late-period Gen Xers, do yourself a favor and scroll down the list. 1993 was too beautiful for this world.

John Teti
Dragon Warrior

Dragon Quest

At first I was a little miffed that Drew Toal answered 1993, because I wanted that one! It was a killer year even for stuff outside the periphery of video games—Magic: The Gathering came out that year, and Williams released some of its greatest late-era pinball machines, including Twilight Zone and White Water. But the ’80s need a hell of a lot more love here, so I’m going to sing the virtues of 1986. After the collapse of Atari—and with it the U.S. home video game market—1986 is the year that games planted the seeds for a recovery and a more stable existence. The NES saw nationwide release in the United States, building momentum over the course of the year as Super Mario Bros. blossomed into a breakout hit. Meanwhile, back in Japan, developers were bringing a new level of complexity to console games: Metroid, The Legend Of Zelda, and Dragon Quest all made their debut in 1986. So did Castlevania, somehow enshrining a grunting dude with a whip into the cultural pantheon. And if you’ll permit me one more pinball indulgence, Williams’ PIN•BOT also was born in 1986. It featured a moving robot head that opened up so that you could install pinballs as its “eyes.” It’s the kind of thing I find awesome and that someday, my kids will find incredibly lame.

Steve Heisler
Warcraft 2

Warcraft 2

The year was 1995, and the number of interesting releases, at least to me, was staggeringly small. But what stands out about that year is the sheer quantity of hours I sunk into my mini-gaming empire. Chrono Trigger made its way to the Super Nintendo, a game that I played through at least a dozen times to get every ending. Later in the year came Twisted Metal, a game that satiated my desire to blow up cars—and my desire to make friends who enjoyed blowing up cars. But the real 1995 champ was Warcraft II. I don’t even think I played the game until a few years later, but I was immediately hooked and wished my home internet connection were faster so I could share my fondness with others. In college, my dorm mates spent hundreds of hours procrastinating with Warcraft II, bonding over match recounts and marveling at the mad skills of the one quiet kid on the floor who joined us that one time. For the first time, and definitely not the last, playing games wasn’t something I did in solitude or silence. It struck out from the console and transformed into social currency.

Samantha Nelson
Sony PlayStation

Sony PlayStation

No matter what type of games you like to play or how you like to play them, 1994 delivered. Nintendo and Sega duked it out with kid-friendly games in Sonic 3 and Donkey Kong Country, while Tekken’s appearance in arcades marked the start of a new fighting game dynasty that would rival Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. It would be a while before most Americans would get a crack at Final Fantasy VI, but it was worth the wait, as the title turned out to be one of the best releases in Final Fantasy history. Blizzard Entertainment released Warcraft, kicking off a series that would come to define massive multiplayer games and turn Blizzard into an industry powerhouse. Then there’s Earthworm Jim, Daytona USA, Wing Commander 3, and a little game called Super Metroid. It also ended with a bang so big its ripples would be felt for more than a decade: the release of Sony’s PlayStation. It dramatically changed the market, marking the beginning of the end for Sega and paving the way for Microsoft’s Xbox by showing that superior technology can turn an upstart into a hardware leader.

Cory Casciato
Grand Theft Auto III

Grand Theft Auto III

2001 was the year that brought me back to gaming in a big way. After years of a nearly games-free life—as a single father who was too busy and too poor—I finally had a lucrative job, and my daughter was getting to the age where she didn’t require my constant attention. I was working in software quality assurance at the time, and most of my colleagues were avid game players. (I worked on the business applications side, but we actually tested games, too.) Hearing them talk about all the cool stuff that was going on that year convinced me to go buy a PlayStation 2. I picked up three games: Grand Theft Auto III, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, and Devil May Cry. Not a bad way to restart my love affair with console games. Within months, I had added an Xbox to my collection, and games had became my major pastime once again. Looking back at the panoply of classics that came out that year—I didn’t even get around to playing stuff like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Gran Turismo 3 until months later—I don’t think I could have picked a better year to get back in the saddle. Hell, I’m not sure gaming has had a better year since.

Matt Gerardi
Beyond Good & Evil

Beyond Good & Evil

I have to go with 2003. It was perhaps the last banner year for Nintendo, which released a string of fascinating games developed both internally and with superstar partners. There was F-Zero GX, a reimagining of the Super Nintendo classic that was obnoxiously hard but tuned to perfection. Capcom chipped in Viewtiful Joe, a masterful modern take on the beat-’em-up of yore. Sparring with my friends in Soul Calibur II—which, yes, I played on the GameCube because Link was in it—ate up months of my life. Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance SP, the finest version of the Game Boy to ever exist. To go along with it was WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgame$—a manic, punk rock-infused revision of the mini-game compilation concept—and Mario And Luigi: Superstar Saga, which set a new standard for video game localization. And, of course, 2003 saw the release of The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Elsewhere in the industry, Ubisoft cemented its place as the thoughtful mega-publisher with a pair of classic titles—Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time and Beyond Good And Evil—and BioWare exposed an entire generation (myself included) to the trappings of classic computer RPGs with Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. It’s a heck of a year, and it’s one of the last times when it seems big game makers were willing to step away from the safe and toward the weird.

Ryan Smith
Sonic The Hedgehog

Sonic The Hedgehog

As someone who once enjoyed playing games in the comforts of home and the neighborhood arcade in equal measure, 1991 felt like a perfect storm. Just when it looked as if the sweaty, dark, punk-rock cool arcade with snaking lines of teens waiting to play Galaga or Ms. Pac Man might go the way of disco, Street Fighter II arrived in 1991. Coin-op machines enjoyed a Dragon Punch-sized renaissance. Meanwhile, the second wave of consoles was just hitting its stride. Now in year three of its lifespan, the Sega Genesis made the 16-bit era finally feel essential with Sonic The Hedgehog, Road Rash and the best John Madden Football game to date. The year was bookended by the U.S. release of the beloved Super Nintendo and high-quality launch titles like Super Mario World and Super Castlevania IV. I managed to snag the Super NES and a copy of Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in Japan) by sheer luck at the end of 1991, as my brother and I found a roll of cash off a curb near a Walgreens while riding bikes. We did what any sensible preteen boys would have done. We pedaled immediately to Toys “R” Us and went on a video game shopping spree. I’m going to hell now, but my sins were well worth it.

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  • caspiancomic

    This is a tough one for me, since basically every year from 1996 to about 2000 was pretty seminal for me. I think 1997 wins by a hair, though. It brought the aforementioned Final Fantasy VII and Castlevania: SOTN, in addition to the North American releases of Wild Arms, Vandal Hearts, and Mega Man 8 (a game that most people seem not to like, but which I personally love, famously dreadful voice acting and all.) Every year from around this period brings with it at least one game that I love with all my heart, but I think 1997 had the highest density of gaming joy for me. If Metal Gear Solid and Suikoden II had come out in the same year in North America, that would have cinched it, but as it is, 1997 is the year to beat.

    (Also potential runner up: 1987. First introduction of Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and Mega Man- pretty strong lineup.)

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    I’m going to be a loser and say that my favourite year in video game history was 2012. I’ve always been sort of into gaming, but I never owned a console or a powerful computer, so I was always behind the curve. Last year, I finally bought myself a gaming PC and was able to enjoy new releases as they came out.

    Sure, some of those new releases were your typical festivals of violence, like the very entertaining Dishonored and Sleeping Dogs. But some of those festivals of violence were landmark games. Say what you will about Mass Effect 3, but it concluded one of the biggest, most important video game trilogies ever. Additionally, Max Payne 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown revived long-dormant, iconic series.

    But beyond all that AAA hoopla, two of the year’s most lauded games were an episodic adventure game (The Walking Dead) and a combat-free art game (Journey). It was the first year when critics collectively recognized that smaller games could stand alongside blockbusters in the critical conversation.

    Finally, 2012 was the year when the games industry and gaming enthusiasts really started confronting the industry’s “-isms” and making strides towards getting rid of them. Gaming is a thriving, vital medium, and the more people who feel welcome experiencing it, the better.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    1994 is my most beloved of video game years due to Super Metroid and Final Fantasy III, née VI.  I feel covetous of that year in gaming because of how important those two games remain to me.  But just as the Bokononists teach in Cat’s Cradle, you can’t keep love to yourself.
       So I’ll say 1989.  That was the apex of the Arcade beat ‘em up -seeing the release of Golden Axe, Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Plus a strange experiment in arcade action RPG’s, Cadash.
       I remain shitty at beat ‘em ups, and don’t even have a lot of sentimentality for the genre, but that sure didn’t stop me from transmuting every rare five dollar bill I earned or pleaded into a mound of quarters to be fed into each one of those games at the time.    

  • Citric

    The year 2000! It’s mostly because I was – and still am, to an extent – a JRPG fan, and 2000 was kind of amazing for the genre. Square still was a good company run by competent people, and we got Vagrant Story, Front Mission 3, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy IX, games I still count among my favorite games ever. Wild Arms 2 was pretty good, Legend of Dragoon was a fun because of its woeful translation, 

    I miss that bredth and depth of JRPGs. Ni no Kuni was pretty good, but nowhere near my 2000 favorites.

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    For me, the biggest year for gaming was probably 1989.  It was the year I finally started finishing games instead of leaving them incomplete.

    It was a big year personally as well.  For part of the year I was stuck in a step-family I didn’t get along well with, with my mother and father both out of state, so I spent a lot of time retreating to video games.

    I finally beat Below the Root, a Windham Classics adventure game for the C64 which I’d had for four years.
    I managed to beat The Legend of Zelda before my step-brothers.  When I got the killing blow on Ganon, I paused the game, ran two or three blocks to find them, and ran back with them to watch the ending.

    In the summer my father and I moved to California.  I discovered the Simpsons arcade game along the way, and played it wherever I saw it, managing to beat it solo at a hotel arcade somewhere between Sacramento and Reno.

    In California I also beat Alice in Wonderland for the C64, one of the other great Windham Classics games.

    Either in 1989 or 1990, I beat both Altered Beast and the TMNT Arcade game while visiting my mother in Alaska.

  • forbidden_donut

    2005 gave so many of my all-time favorites: Resident Evil 4, Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney, Advance Wars DS, and Civilization IV. I also enjoyed Shadow of the Colossus, Kirby Canvas Curse, and Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow. As someone who regularly uses public transportation, the DS was pretty much a godsend.

    • DrFlimFlam

       I still regret selling Advance Wars DS in favor of Days of Ruin. That was the apex of Advancing Wars.

  • http://www.olympicartichoke.podbean.com/ The Warfreak

    Yeah! 1995!

    Warcraft II was probably the best gaming experience of my life. Plus: FULL THROTTLE, baby!

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      Full Throttle – The only point-and-click adventure game I beat in less than three hours but still felt like I got my full money’s worth.

  • zgberg

    All the one’s who claimed a year in the 90′s were all prolly right, at least for me. Xwing Alliance will always be the epitome of space sims. The whole stretch from the original Xwing to Alliance is the golden era for me

  • Tiako

    Really, no 2004? half Life 2, World of Warcraft, Rome: Total war, Far Cry, Painkiller, Halo 2, Ninja Gaiden, UT 2004, Katamari Damacy and, of course, the immortal JFY Reloaded. Even if you don’t like some of the particulars 2004 was the year modern gaming arrived.

  • Jackbert

    Seems to me like we got that brilliance in 2010 and 2011. 1991 to 1995, four years. 1995 to 2000, five years. 2000 to 2005, five years. 2005 to 2013, eight years. This year and last year, “big” console games have been slipping. The generation has ran longer, to the detriment of these last years. 

  • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

    The general rule in the last few years has been that launch titles are mediocre* at best, so I wouldn’t hold out high hopes for the next gen. But, as @Citric:disqus said, the best games for a console tend to come out in its latter years, especially in the generational overlap. (My favourite games of 2006 were on PS2 and not PS3. I suspect that my favourite games of 2013 will be on PS3 and not PS4)

    *Notable exceptions to this rule include Super Mario World, Mario 64, and Dark Cloud. Feel free to suggest your personal favourite launch games.

  • Fluka

    The year is still young!  A ton of last years’ best games came out in the latter half of the year, some of them by surprise!  And there are still plenty of games to look forward this year, like…hm.  (Okay, I admit there’s nothing I’m really looking forward to this year, damn it.)

    A cute anecdote about BioShock Infinite, though.  A few nights ago, I was talking to my mother on the phone when she asked me a completely unexpected question.  She’s a 60-year old Renaissance and classical literature scholar who has never touched a game in her life.  (Beyond maybe pinball.)  ”Oh, by the way, have you heard of a game named, uh, BioShock Infinite?”  ”…Yes.”  Apparently she had read a piece on NPR which assesses the game, and its use of choice, in the context of Aristotelian tragedy.  After years of studying literature and film she was wondering if she should now be paying attention to videogames as well.

    It’s finally happening, guys! Whether or not you think Infinite deserves the praise, people outside “gaming culture” are starting to think of games as serious texts!  So there’s one small thing going for 2013.

  • PaganPoet

    I’d recommend the PSP remake. No terrible dated polygons, just crisp, clean, updated sprites and a rearranged soundtrack. Original game + new interlude + The After Years; everything you need in a neat package.

  • Citric

    FFIV DS was done by Matrix Software, wasn’t it? All of their games look exactly the same, this weirdo big headed low poly thing, even if I found myself loving Nostalgia.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    Those snowboarding levels were agonizing! MegaMan 8 is still a solid platform shooter (is IS Megaman, after all), but it always felt a little “off,” a little “chintzy” or something. I actually think I enjoyed the Rockman & Forte SNES rehash game better – no voice acting, no snowboarding, and I remember enjoying the levels a bit more.

  • Fluka

    You’re forgetting Skyrim and Deus Ex: HR in 2011!  A year with those, plus Portal 2, is a good year indeed!

    Otherwise, agreed.  There’ve been tons of good games since 2007, but that year strikes me as the beginning of the “modern” gaming era.  (Though damn, that’s a lot of 2,3, and 4s on one list…)

  • Cloks

    I think Kickstarter has helped to revitalize the concept of next year for me more than the mainstream gaming industry – it’s a perpetual “next year” where you can pledge for the games you want to be made. I’m waiting for the Double Fine Game, Wasteland 2, Project Eternity and the new Torment game; they all look like a pretty great “next year” to me.

    The concept of “last year” also seems like a pretty good nominee for favorite year – I’m looking forward to playing Far Cry 3, a significantly cheaper Bioshock Infinite and whatever games strike my fancy that I didn’t have a console for or didn’t want to pay full price to get.

  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

     That’s an interesting argument, but its kind of like saying that the best literature was the development of writing itself.  I’m not making light of it.  Writing was a hell of an invention.  But the first thing someone does with a new technology is usually not the best thing ever done with it (a notable exception being Wii Sports).

  • http://warren-peace.blogspot.com/ WarrenPeace

    Was the original Super Mario Brothers a launch title for the NES? I’m not super-knowledgeable about this sort of thing, but I’d also throw in Lumines for the PSP, and maybe Halo for the Xbox.

  • Enkidum

    “A black pudding has appeared!”

  • The Otter White Meat

    Why does the year 2000 get to lay claim to FF8?

  • Citric

    My family never had an NES – early gaming was the Tandy CoCo line and later an Amiga before finally getting a SNES – but my brother had a friend with a brother in Japan. So that guy got a Famicom and Mario 3 before everyone else in school and was the coolest kid around, and my brother would tell stories of playing Mario 3 with Japanese text long before the US release.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    Use your Ocarina to travel back and find out what they were.

       But yeah.  I have great love for Link to the Past.

  • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

    This guy gets my vote. Super Smash Bros Melee for greatest multiplayer game eva!

  • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

    Bravo, I just googled the somefield website and the shojo manga/ukiyo-e prints are great, as well as pretty much everything else. Muchas thank you for the heads-up.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

    Aw, sweet remembrance.  Broderbund’s 1 of those companies that people always forget.  And they DID do consumer software where Infocom failed right?  Not until Stardock was the crossover so potent.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

    Man, really?  2006, 2007, and 2008 were all I needed to have the marrow of hope drained from me, and I still had to go through 2009…and 2010, 2011, and 2012.  That’s from someone who considers them his favorite artform.  When the limitations companies have created for themselves are so apparent, I can’t be a video game mark.  The limitations are still there!

  • Scott Herbert

    Good counter argument. *tips hat*

  • DrFlimFlam

    High school for me was all about Computer Class. Our teacher never liked to act like we were all buddies, but we got to play a lot of Duke 3D and WarCraft II, and I’ll always look back on him fondly for that.

  • neodocT

     @Fluka:disqus I’m totally going to use your mom as an example to make my mom start playing.

    “All the other cool literary-minded moms are doing it!”