Gaming pundits love to gather around the warmth of a fireplace app and speak in hushed tones of glory years gone by. The year 1998 comes up a lot, as it should; it gave us The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, Unreal, StarCraft, Baldur's Gate, Grim Fandango, Thief: The Dark Project, Resident Evil 2, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6—just to name a few.
There's no denying that 1998 pumped out the jams, but 1996 was no slouch, either. Several landmark games and technologies rang or will ring in their 20th birthday this year. This article celebrates 10 classics from the bygone days of screeching modems and AOL demo discs.
Release Date: September 9
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PlayStation One
Not since the days of "Sega Does What Nintendon't" had players witnessed an advertising campaign so irreverent and audacious. Scene: an actor dressed head to toe as Naughty Dog's genetically modified eastern bandicoot, standing outside Nintendo HQ and blaring insults through a bullhorn. The gauntlet had been thrown. Crash and his cadre of mutated furries were making a bid for the 3D platforming crown.
Although the consensus says that Crash Bandicoot fell short in terms of platforming innovation, its graphical pedigree was fresh and laudable. The game featured a colorful and sharp visual direction, especially considering the early period in 3D graphics. In particular, Crash garnered recognition for its detailed backgrounds, fluid animations, and authorial camera angles to show unique perspectives on the action.
Release Date: December 31
Developer: Blizzard North
Platform: PC (Windows 95)
Diablo barely made the 1996 calendar year. Blizzard North's small team of 15 developers pressed the gold master disc at midnight on December 27, flew it to Southern California to hand-deliver it to their colleagues at Blizzard "South" Entertainment who had access to assembly lines used by parent company Davidson & Associates, and shipped it off to retailers. Some stores got it before New Year's Day 1997. Some didn't, making pinpointing Diablo's exact release date a little sketchy.
Regardless of when Blizzard's gothic-fantasy climbed out of hell and onto your hard drive, Diablo's impact is immeasurable. From the quests your character would undertake to the monster and items encountered on each of the game's 16 dungeon levels, Diablo procedurally generated almost every aspect of play to ensure that no two forays through hell were exactly alike.
Duke Nukem 3D
Release Date: January 29
Developer: 3D Realms
Platform: PC (DOS)
Hail to the king, baby. One of the first FPS games to perform a lateral step away from Doom's prodigious template, Duke Nukem 3D's gameplay revolved around interactivity. Environments could be destroyed, creative weapons like the Shrink Ray gave players inventive and gory new ways to maul aliens and deathmatch opponents, and some objects rewarded players for interacting with them, such as restoring health by drinking from shattered toilets or making a pit stop at a urinal.
There's a laundry list of reasons why players still enjoy Duke 3D today, but two rank above the rest. The game's nonlinear level design encouraged new modalities of exploration. Ventilation shafts, manhole covers, and cracks in walls led to secret areas. Likewise, few FPS protagonists uttered more than grunts and gasps of pain. Duke cracked one-liners as he blasted enemies and caught his dashing reflection in mirrors, forming a kinship between him and players that did not exist in previous games, and many since.
Mario Kart 64
Release Date: December 14 (JP) February 10, 1997 (US)
Developer: Nintendo EAD (Entertainment Analysis and Design)
Platform: Nintendo 64
Another title that just made it over 1996's finish line (in some regions), Mario Kart 64 did more than recreate the SNES original in the third dimension. Building 3D tracks afforded Nintendo EAD's design team to litter them with features not possible in 2D, such as bridges spanning pits, walls, and changes in elevation. Fan-favorite course Yoshi's Canyon is a veritable maze of twists, turns, and routes—so many that the standings can't be trusted until all the paths converge near the end of a lap.
Moreover, Mario Kart 64 transformed the N64 into the premiere party-game console by supporting up to four players via split-screen. Social interaction has been and continues to be a staple of Nintendo's approach to development, and Mario Kart 64 ranks among its finest proofs of concept.
Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64
Release Date: June 23 (JP), September 29 (US)
Developer: Nintendo EAD
What really blew minds was Mario's range of movement. Tilting the stick forward just a bit caused him to tiptoe; a little more pressure, and he'd speed up to a walk. Going full tilt sent the mustachioed mascot into a sprint. Whether sidling against walls to sneak past sleeping piranha plants or dashing across the sunny fields that comprised the bulk of Super Mario 64's zones, Mario responded instantly and effortlessly to player input. Spending hours running, leaping, flipping, and climbing in the Princess Peach's garden outside her castle was just as enjoyable as completing objectives in levels.
(For more on N64 and Mario, check out our retrospective.)
Pokémon Red and Green
Release Date: February 27 (JP), September 28 (US)
Developer: Game Freak
Platform: Game Boy
Credit where credit is due: by the time the Game Boy turned seven in '96, it had outlasted technologically superior competitors like Sega's Game Gear and Atari's Lynx thanks to a panoply of games so inventive they made you forget you were playing black-and-white software on a portable console nearly as bulky as a brick. By 1996, Game Boy was ailing; the little monochrome handheld that could was no longer getting by on personality alone.
Enter Pokémon Red and Green. (Blue made its way to Japan as a special edition, and launched in the US alongside Red.) Two versions of the same game, each containing 150 collectible critters divided between an overlap found on both cartridges as well as unique beasties that could only be found by connecting your Game Boy to a friend's using a link cable and negotiating trades. Not only were Pokémon fun to collect, the games were legitimately fun RPGs boasting a deep paper-rock-scissors style of turn-based combat and a training system to evolve Pokémon into stronger types.
Nintendo sold millions of Red and Blue cartridges, simultaneously revivifying interest in Game Boy and launching a multi-billion-dollar media monster.
Release Date: June 22
Developer: id Software
Platform: PC (DOS)
Quake also bridged the gap between id's style of FPS—shoot all the things en route to collecting keycards and heading toward the exit—and Valve's Half-Life, the next chapter in FPS design: cohesive environments, scripted events, and narrative- rather than goal-driven directives. Valve, a scrappy company in the mid-90s, used Quake's engine as a springboard for their ideas, drastically overhauling the engine to accommodate larger environments, smarter enemy AI, and other innovative tech considered run-of-the-mill in today's games.
(For more on Quake, check out our retrospective.)
Release Date: March 22
Platform: PlayStation One
Horror games existed before Resident Evil, but Capcom and director Shinji Mikami coined the term "survival horror." The genre is predicated on five pillars: exploration, resource management, combat, solving (often inane) puzzles, and pure, unadulterated fear. Those pillars have been built on shaky ground as of late, or forgotten entirely. But the original game set a foreboding tone by way of static camera angles that let you hear zombies chewing and shambling toward you before you could see them.
Equally as important, Resident Evil shunned the widespread belief that everything you saw should be shot by limiting the healing items and ammunition at your fingertips to force you into fight-or-flight scenarios. Do you chance squeezing past the zombies crowding the hall on 2F West, or use a half-dozen bullets to put one down, facilitating smoother passage the next time you pass that way at the expense of precious ammo? The decision was yours to make, and it very likely would come back to bite you later.
Sid Meier's Civilization II
Release Date: February 29
Platform: PC (DOS)
Developed under the working title Civilization 2000, Sid Meier's Civilization II took the "bigger and better" approach to creating sequels by sanding down the first game's keystones. An isometric perspective replaced Civ I's top-down view, letting designers piece together resource tiles in new ways. The AI received a drastic overhaul: no longer able to get by on randomized behavior, computer-controlled opponents had to go through the same research and building processes that you did. You also had a multitude of ways to win, such as through military might or building a spaceship to rocket off to Alpha Centauri.
Civilization II's systems were so complex that Reddit user Lycerius plugged away at the same session for over 10 years with results ranging from hilarious to sobering. "There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands," he wrote in his Reddit post from 2012.
Release Date: October 25 (EU) November 14 (US)
Developer: Core Design
Platform: PC (DOS), PlayStation One
Forget, for a moment, the embarrassing marketing campaigns that leaned so heavily on using to Lara to titillate, it's a wonder those magazine pages didn't moan at you. Lara's debut adventure Tomb Raider's exploration through cavernous environments evoked shades of Prince of Persia and Super Mario Bros. while adding in action and puzzle-solving sequences to create a unique blend of puzzles imitated by the likes of Uncharted.
Yes, Lara Croft was and is the apotheosis of feminine beauty. She's also intelligent, powerful, autonomous—an industry icon, and the prototypical female lead all others in the medium aspire to be.