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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.