If anyone can find me a more innovative decade in gaming history, I’d be all ears. The 90s set the ball rolling for all of the games that we play today, no matter what the genre, and it’ll likely be remembered for that reason. Let’s review the best video game genres of the 1990s.
The first Resident Evil game released in 1996, and two sequels followed in the next three years. They weren’t immensely recognized at the time, but the second installment was recently remastered and is held in high regard today.
In contrast to Resident Evil’s pre-rendered graphics, the Silent Hill franchise got off to a strong start in 1999. The developers utilized real time 3D graphics to enhance the game’s environments, and featured more psychologically disturbing elements of horror than any game before it.
8. Real Time Strategy
The genre had been around in the eighties, Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty in 1992 is what reinvigorated real time strategy games. It featured all of the components found in the genre today, starting the trend of 90s innovation.
The alluring fantasy setting of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans in 1994 and the perennial favorite Command and Conquer in ’95 are what sealed the deal for audiences, ushering in the most seminal titles that came toward the end of the decade.
With Age of Empires and Total Annihilation in 1997, StarCraft in ‘98, and Age of Empires II in ‘99, RTS was a staple genre by the turn of the century. The most popular of all of these titles— Blizzard’s fan-favorite StarCraft—is still being played in competitive scenes today, twenty-two years later. If that isn’t impactful, I’m not sure what is.
One of the biggest years in gaming history, 1998 breathed new life into the industry as a whole with releases like Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, and Thief. While stealth games had been around for a little over a decade prior to this climacteric, Metal Gear Solid is credited with popularizing the genre. And albeit that’s true, Thief is the title that raised the bar.
The first stealth game to utilize first-person perspective, Thief: The Dark Project also introduced gameplay mechanics that involved listening to the in-game surroundings. It forced the player to remain cognizant of the sounds the protagonist made, and to keep an ear out for nearby guards.
If they were more consistently released throughout the decade, I’d have no qualms pushing stealth to number five, perhaps even four, but these three releases weren’t enough to warrant a spot any higher than number six, despite how revered Metal Gear Solid is these days.
Between F-Zero, Road Rash, Diddy Kong Racing, two Mario Karts, two Gran Turismos and three Need for Speeds, racing games were a force to be reckoned with in the 1990s. And although it might appear difficult to enliven the concept of driving around in a circle, several of these games excelled at doing just that—spicing up the age-old game of racing.
Why watch NASCAR when you can throw heat-seeking turtle shells at your friends? Why run track when you can beat a hasty retreat from the police in Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit?
All of these games were a blast to play, alone or with friends, and a few of them undoubtedly inspired developers to incorporate cooperative and multiplayer elements into future endeavors.
Frankly, this genre is poorly defined and rather ambiguous, but here’s the thing: there’s no other way to categorize either The Legend of Zelda or Tomb Raider—two of the most popular, lucrative, and innovative franchises of the decade. It would have been heresy to omit them.
The Tomb Raider franchise pioneered the mechanics and techniques necessary to create games like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed. Plus, the first film adaptation put Angelina Jolie on the map. Only Lara Croft— the most popular female protagonist in video games, bar none—can garner that sort of stardom.
When it comes to The Legend of Zelda, there’s not a lot I need to say. Breath of the Wild is one of the most discussed games in recent memory, so clearly the franchise’s popularity is still palpable today, but before 2017, the consensus best titles all released in the 1990s.
A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time have Metacritic scores of 95 and 98 respectively, and are still remarkably revered. Without Zelda in the 90s, who knows where gaming would be today.
Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Goldeneye 007—these were the projects that inclined future developers to render first-person shooters the most popular genre of the subsequent decade, and they were phenomenal games in their own right.
Add titles like Star Wars: Dark Forces, Quake, Duke Nukem, Half-Life, and Counterstrike, and that’s the only case that needs to be made. Just a listing of the titles.
Whether it’s a calculated 360 no-scope or a glorious victory after a grueling gunfight, shooters have provided players around the world with the most gratifying moments in all of gaming, and that wouldn’t be the case without these prestigious 90s titles.
Released in 1991, Street Fighter II is regarded as the most influential fighting game of all time—it sold like hot cakes upon release, and has since been remastered multiple times. Capcom also produced games like Street Fighter III and X-Men vs Street Fighter, but they weren’t the only company to dip their toe in the fighting genre during this illustrious decade.
Mortal Kombat released in 1992, marking Street Fighter’s first indication of competition, and just five years later, Mortal Kombat 4 released—i.e., they put out four games in just six years.
Capcom countered in 1993 with Virtua Fighter, marking the first use of fully 3D polygon graphics. Then came the Killer Instinct games in ‘94 and ’96, and of course after that, we got the Tekken franchise. Probably my favorite fighting game of the decade, Tekken Tag Tournament brought seriously smooth mechanics and vastly interesting characters to the table, and it was the fourth installment of the decade.
However, it was in 1999 that Nintendo threw their hat in the ring, producing literally one of the most ambitious crossovers in history: Super Smash Bros, more popular now than ever before, and with good reason. Even amid the prime time of fighting games, Super Smash Bros 64 stood out as a particular treat. We’d be lost today without it.
Pokémon and Final Fantasy. That’s all I need to say. Moving on.
I’m kidding of course, but at once, I’m really not. Since the release of Red and Blue in 1996, Pokémon has become the highest-grossing media franchise ever, over juggernaut properties like Star Wars and Marvel. Players everywhere remember the first Pokémon they chose in Professor Oak’s Lab—Squirtle Squad for life—and the games are of course still going strong today.
Final Fantasy VII is regarded by many as the greatest of all time, and though I disagree, Cloud Strife and crew are still very much in vogue all these years later. Six of the fifteen mainline Final Fantasy games came out in the 90s, contributing greatly to over 150 million copies sold worldwide, ensuring a franchise legacy that will go down amongst the all-time bests.
Other games such as EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, Diablo, Baldur’s Gate and System Shock prove the prevalence of role-playing games at the time, solidifying their spot at number two.
Though they’ve waned in popularity as of late, platformers drove the industry in the 90s with games like Super Mario World and Super Mario 64—two of the highest selling games of the decade. Nintendo’s marquee franchise was as popular as ever, and Mario wasn’t all they offered—throw in franchises like Metroid, Kirby, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and Banjo Kazooie, and it’s hardly close JUST with Nintendo’s catalog.
Capcom competed with Nintendo in valiant fashion, releasing literally too many Mega Man titles to list in a single sentence, but Sega honorably put their dukes up as they released Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, with sequels in ‘92 and ‘94.
But honestly, I’d say it was PlayStation that produced the most quality content capable of competing with Nintendo. Starting in 1996, they released six platformers—three Crash Bandicoots, two Spyros, and Ape Escape. All of those games in just four years.
It’s clear that platformers were dominant, though I’d be remiss to forget games like Castlevania, Oddworld, and Rayman. The genre ran console sales, and if those three companies—Sega, PlayStation and Capcom—never offered games to counteract the Nintendo monopoly, it’s likely that “console wars” wouldn’t even be a topic of debate these two decades later.
That’s all She Wrote!
Which genre produced your favorite games from the 1990s? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading!