Gaming 2

Flashback Friday: Game of the Decade – 1990s

The 1990s was a decade of breakthroughs for video gaming. It is the decade in which serious, immersive games were born thanks to technological advancement. Some of the greatest games of all time were released in the 1990s, especially when it comes to role-playing games (RPGs) which were generally far more advanced and complex back then compared to now. 1998 stands out as one of the best years in gaming history, with a plethora of amazing releases.

In this article we will look at the greatest games of the 1990s (1990-1999 specifically), giving out awards similar to our Game of the Year awards and our previous Game of the Decade article. This will be the last Game of the Decade article until the 2010s are over, so you don’t want to miss this one! You may notice some awards were excluded, including an overall Game of the Decade award. Some awards were excluded because gaming was very young at this time and some genres were underdeveloped, while an overall Game of the Decade award was not chosen because it’s too subjective as there are so many different games belonging to different genres.

Best Sound Effects

Game Title: Thief: The Dark Project
Release Date: 1998
Developed By: Looking Glass Studios
Published By: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PC
Genre: Stealth

Many 1990s PC games had surprisingly advanced sound processing, beyond what most games today have. Our winner is of course one of such games, and that game is Thief: The Dark Project (1998) and of course its re-release Thief Gold (1999, we only count original releases for awards).

This advanced sound processing comes from the use of DirectSound3D and EAX, bringing things like 3D HRTF with realistic rendering of dynamic echoes and reverb, environmental occlusion, and more. Thief showcases this better than any other 1990s game, and it’s a magnificent feature for this type of game. Doors and walls and floors/ceilings dynamically block out some but not all noise (environmental occlusion), the dynamic reverb is actually better than most modern day games thanks to EAX (you can really hear echoes traveling down hallways for example), footsteps make different sounds on different terrain surfaces, and the developers made sure all sounds are loud enough. Ambient sounds are amazingly atmospheric in this game. Modern stealth games can really learn from the first two Thief games.

Other Nominees

  • Unreal Tournament (1999)
  • Unreal (1998)
  • System Shock 2 (1999)

 

Best Graphics (3D)

Game Title: Unreal Tournament
Release Date: 1999
Developed By: Epic Games / Digital Extremes
Published By: GT Interactive / Infogrames / Secret Level
Platforms: PC / Linux / Mac / PlayStation 2 / Dreamcast
Genre: FPS

Since the difference between 2D graphics usually boiled down to artistic preferences at the time, we decided to focus this award exclusively on 3D games for a more objective approach. We look at technical graphics first and foremost as always. The best looking 3D game of the 1990s had to be Unreal Tournament (1999). It was ahead of its time and showed better texture quality as well as more advanced shading and lighting than other 3D games from that time period.

Best Multiplayer

Game Title: Unreal Tournament
Release Date: 1999
Developed By: Epic Games / Digital Extremes
Published By: GT Interactive / Infogrames / Secret Level
Platforms: PC / Linux / Mac / PlayStation 2 / Dreamcast
Genre: FPS

For the 1990s, we are only doing one multiplayer award because there really weren’t that many co-op games available. Versus games dominated the multiplayer landscape. It was a difficult decision between several excellent games that far surpass most of today’s multiplayer shooters, but we went with Unreal Tournament, a Sci-Fi arena shooter known for both its quantity and quality of content, numerous game modes (an area where this franchise has always excelled above the competition), competitive nature, and moddability.

Other Nominees

  • Quake III Arena (1999)
  • Counter-Strike (1999, mod for Half-Life)

 

Best Story, Writing

Game Title: Planescape: Torment
Release Date: 1999
Developed By: Black Isle Studios
Published By: Interplay Entertainment
Platforms: PC / Linux / Mac
Genre: RPG

Planescape: Torment (1999) had not only the best story/writing of the 1990s, but also the best of all time in video gaming. It really is on a different level than every other game, even our #2 pick in the aforementioned article, when it comes to overall writing quality. It is a PC exclusive RPG utilizing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, and is set in the Planescape setting as the name implies. It’s truly a once in a lifetime game.

The story is deep with many layers, yet it makes sense, adheres to logic, and doesn’t leave gaping plot holes. But perhaps the most impressive part is despite its scale, being a 40-60 hour RPG with a branching plot and dialogue that react greatly to player choice, there probably isn’t a conversation or dialogue in the entire game that doesn’t make you stop and say “Wow, this is really well written!” Certainly the best dialogue overall in gaming, with numerous entries on our list of best quotes. It has its own distinct language and vocabulary right from the get go.

Planescape: Torment also makes everyone a character, even NPCs involved only in side quests and even NPCs involved in no quests at all! Anyone you can exchange words with is uniquely written, and through descriptive writing in conversations which describe these characters and their behavior and traits, it makes every single person a unique character. Other games have NPCs that are nothing more than quest-giving robots, but not here. Everyone who you can speak to, important or not, is their own person. And remember that this is a vast 40-60 hour non-linear RPG we’re talking about that lets you interact with hundreds of characters.

Best Publisher

This award is not dedicated to a specific game, but to a game publishing studio. What we look for with this award is the publisher who helped release great games and had strong pro-consumer practices. We give this award to Electronic Arts, better known as EA. This might be surprising to many, but EA used to be the gold standard for quality games. Fun fact: the logo above is the one they used from 1982 – 2000.

Noteworthy titles EA published during the 1990s include the Need for Speed series, Wing Commander series, Dungeon Keeper series, Ultima Online which popularized the MMO genre, Command & Conquer series, Medal of Honor, Madden series, and FIFA series. No doubt EA was a major contributor to the growth of gaming on all platforms. A very, very different company than the EA today.

Other Nominees

  • Valve Corporation
  • Interplay
  • Sierra Studios

 

Best Racing Game

Game Title: Gran Turismo 2
Release Date: 1999
Developed By: Polyphony Digital
Published By: Sony
Platforms: PlayStation
Genre: Racing

This was one of the easiest genres to pick a winner for, since Gran Turismo 2 was far ahead of its time. Featuring a whopping 650 cars which was hard to fathom at the time, strong variety in cars and tracks, and some of the finest driving physics in the world at the time seeking a middle ground between driving simulation and more casual racing. Gran Turismo 2 had very little in the way of competition.

We also saw the first Hot Pursuit title in the Need for Speed franchise in the 1990s, and Diddy Kong Racing is an excellent mix of adventure and racing in which you race not only carts but also hovercrafts and planes in a plot focused adventure environment—a unique take on racing plus adventure that may not have been attempted since.

Other Nominees

  • Diddy Kong Racing (1997)
  • Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit (1998)

 

Best Shooter Game

Game Title: Half Life
Release Date: 1998
Developed By: Valve Corporation (Valve L.L.C at the time)
Published By: Sierra Studios / Valve Corporation
Platforms: PC / Linux / Mac / PlayStation 2
Genre: FPS

You can’t talk about 1990s PC gaming and not talk about shooter games. The winner for Best Shooter of the 1990s is Half-Life. It is a first-person shooter that really ties physics into its gameplay in a smart way. This along with the interactivity and attention to detail make it stand out among all shooters.

For those who somehow don’t know, Half-Life has been remade on Source engine. The remake is called Black Mesa and it is on Steam as well as on ModDB. Everyone should play it. It is a 99% authentic remake, maybe 100% with the use of Surface Tension Uncut and On a Rail Uncut mods. Black Mesa is not yet complete however; Xen, the location of the last few chapters, is not yet included. Hardly anyone enjoyed these chapters in Half-Life so perhaps not much is lost, and the Black Mesa team says they are redesigning Xen to some extent to make it more enjoyable.

Other Nominees

  • Turok 2: Seeds of Evil (1998)
  • Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1997)
  • System Shock 2 (1999)
  • Unreal (1998)
  • Unreal Tournament (1999)

 

Best Stealth Game

 

Game Title: Thief: The Dark Project
Release Date: 1998
Developed By: Looking Glass Studios
Published By: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PC
Genre: Stealth

We only had one clear cut nominee and thus winner for Best Stealth Game of the 1990s, and it’s Thief: The Dark Project (1998). We don’t count re-releases for these awards so Thief Gold was not eligible. Some may find this surprising given the fact that Metal Gear Solid also released this decade, but the truth is Thief is on a much higher level than any Metal Gear Solid game. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain does free that franchise of many shackles that held it back, but it is such a different kind of game that’s only really noteworthy for some of the AI features. But I digress.

Every stealth game needs to take from the first two Thief games. The best ones do, like Dishonored, which along with the first two Thief games are the only pure stealth games we consider satisfactory (granted they are more than satisfactory, all three are excellent). There’s such a big gap between these games and the rest. Thief: The Dark Project starts simple; you play as Garrett, a highly skilled thief for hire, but when one employer hires you to steal something very special and when it’s discovered he’s not all that he appears, things change.

It is a Steampunk world with some of the most distinct atmosphere of any game. Thief has you sneaking past city guards even within official buildings, mages even within a magic school, undead in massive and creepy crypts, demons and elementals in haunted places, and more. Every level is non-linear and very complex, often maze-like. See this comparison picture of Thief II: The Metal Age level 2 versus the first real level of the latest Thief game in 2014. Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II are on the same level with regard to level design, and Thief (2014) is on the same level as most modern stealth games.

So like its successor, Thief: The Dark Project (and of course its nearly identical re-release) humiliate most other stealth games. All but Dishonored and Metal Gear Solid V really, and the latter avoids humiliation just by being too different for many direct comparisons to be made. Note we aren’t counting the Hitman games in these comparisons, as Hitman is a completely different kind of stealth.

Thief: The Dark Project includes mostly dynamic light sources which the player can put out or ignite, and it has very advanced gameplay mechanics. Different surface types like grass floor, wood floor, tile floor, and far more each make different levels of sound (and of course different sounds to begin with) greatly influencing sneaking. Doors and walls and ceilings and the like actually block out a lot of noise. You can interact with essentially any object, having the ability to pick them up and throw them to create distractions. Your bow is your best friend not to mention a multi-purpose tool, letting you shoot water arrows to put out fire-based light sources or fire arrows to light them or ignite foes, or holy water arrows to fight off the undead, rope arrows to climb to places you can’t normally reach, noisemaker arrows to create distractions, moss arrows to create a quiet surface to sneak on, and more. Furthermore you can climb any ledge, to make it as open ended as possible. It even has different and unique quests based on the difficulty setting you’re playing on.

Thief was truly so far ahead of its time. Aside from Thief II and to a lesser extent Thief: Deadly Shadows, Dishonored is the only game that can compare and it came out 14 years later. So this was a clear cut, easy win for Thief: The Dark Project, as it was for its successor for the equivalent award for the following decade (2000-2009).

Best Horror Game

Game Title: Silent Hill
Release Date: 1999
Developed By: Konami
Published By: Konami
Platforms: PlayStation
Genre: Psychological Horror / Survival Horror

The 1990s was the birth of the horror genre. We have named Silent Hill (1999) the greatest horror game of the 1990s. It doesn’t really compare well to the best horror game of the 2000s or 2010s, but it still manages to make the player feel uneasy through its thematic material and disturbing symbolism. It was a great start to the franchise, even if we feel that the sequel perfected it.

Silent Hill is both a psychological horror game and a survival horror game. We don’t find the survival horror aspect, like the monster encounters, to be scary or very intense, but the psychological horror is intriguing (but again the sequel took this to another level) and succeeds in making the player feel disturbed and uneasy. It has a very memorable setting and both its storytelling and gameplay inspired practically every horror game since its release.

Other Nominees

  • Resident Evil 2 (1998)

 

Best RPG

Game Title: Planescape: Torment
Release Date: 1999
Developed By: Black Isle Studios
Published By: Interplay Entertainment
Platforms: PC / Linux / Mac
Genre: RPG

1990s PC gaming is known for its RPGs about as much as it’s known for its shooters. This was by far the hardest decision as it came down to two phenomenal RPGs, both industry leading in their own way. Either one is perhaps equally worthy but we had to choose one, so we chose Planescape: Torment (1999) because we consider it a bigger stepping stone for general RPG design.

This award boiled down to Fallout 2 versus Planescape: Torment which were both made by the same studio (Black Isle Studios, who had to be the most talented studio of all time). While Fallout 2, our runner up, does in fact have the most role-playing of any video game RPG, it still has less role-playing than pen and paper RPGs. So we had to ask, what does Fallout 2 do for RPGs as a whole? It brings video game RPGs closer to the level of role-playing that pen and paper RPGs have, in a single player only context. An ambitious goal that the game lives up to, but then consider Planescape: Torment; it doesn’t have quite as much role-playing as Fallout 2, but it comes rather close, but its storytelling is revolutionary for RPGs. Planescape: Torment is some sort of merge between video gaming, RPGs, and literature for its text heavy emphasis. This is an unparalleled accomplishment to this day, it is one of the absolute biggest statements for video gaming/video game role-playing as a serious storytelling medium, certainly a bigger statement than Fallout 2 and any other RPG.

Planescape: Torment and the first two Fallout games are so unlike modern games. Even Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, two open world RPGs, consists of quests in which the player is told to go somewhere specific, do something, and return. This is how pretty much all marked quests are designed in these games and all others. But Planescape: Torment and the first two Fallout games? No unrealistic hand holding, they encourage logical thinking and player creativity to pursue objectives without a magical hand guiding you. As a result, the quests have more ways to approach them and complete them.

Planescape: Torment is one of those games that raised the bar so high for its respective genre/subgenre that it has never again been reached.

Other Nominees

  • Fallout 2 (1998)

 

Dark Horse of the Decade

Game Title: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter
Release Date: 1997
Developed By: Iguana Entertainment
Published By: Acclaim Entertainment
Platforms: PC / Nintendo 64
Genre: FPS

Before moving onto Game of the Decade, we must first name our Dark Horse of the Decade. This award goes to a game that was not hyped by the industry, but turned out to be great anyway. This was honestly a difficult award to choose, as most of our favorite games of the 1990s were hyped and anticipated by many, including every other winner in this entire award ceremony. The winner of this award is Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (1997). Nobody knew what to expect from this relatively unknown studio, yet it resulted in a popular shooter that was recently remade.

Turok had numerous innovations for its genre, like the thorough platforming involved. Like other shooters it has many hidden areas on the levels, but some of Turok’s stand out for being massive, like the one shown in this video below starting at 4:09; a sprawling dungeon that’s out of the way and not required to finish the game. Note the video is of the remaster, but hardly anything is different.

Of course Turok is most known for two things: its setting, namely the jungle themed setting with dinosaurs, although it also extends to ancient cities with temples and even highly futuristic Sci-Fi atmosphere. The other thing it is most known for is its very unique weapons, which got even better in the first sequel.

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Half Life was my go-to FPS back in the 90’s. Lots of time spent on multiplayer as well. “Crossfire” map was the best.

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strudinox

Half Life was my go-to FPS back in the 90’s. Lots of time spent on multiplayer as well. “Crossfire” map was the best.