I was born in the ‘90s so a lot of my gaming identity was defined by the games of this era. It’s a time that is beginning to explore 3D space in all genres but was obsessed with its platformers and mascots. It was a simpler time where it seemed like every game had a decent chance of being an innovative masterpiece.
While some of the games of that time might not hold up as well today (looking at you Golden Eye) there are a number that I believe can still be really enjoyable if you are able to find a way to play them. So let’s take a walk down memory lane and see what the ‘90s gave us besides Beanie Babies, All That, and Tamagotchi.
Some might say this is a glorified tech demo for the dual-shock controller but if that’s the case it’s the best tech demo ever. Ape Escape has varied levels with music to match that will require the player to utilize a wide array of tools to hunt and capture the apes that have escaped there. Whether you are in the land of dinosaurs or deep in the jungle, you will be using a surprisingly diverse set of mechanics to catch the apes.
This may lie more in nostalgia than anything else since this was the first platformer that I ever owned, but I truly think there is something special here. The diverse worlds, earworm soundtrack, and diverse mechanics set the bar early for me when it came to platformers. While it’s not the most difficult, it has everything I like in a game, especially one where catching apes is the main objective.
Pokemon Red and Blue
My early childhood was defined by Pokemania. I have distinct memories of opening cards and slotting them into binders in perfect order so I could walk around my neighborhood looking for kids to trade with. And it all stemmed from the success of this game.
Everyone had at least one Pokemon game if they had a Gameboy, and we all had our own teams that we were ready to die for. The world was full of secrets (many of them false) that helped to lend a sense of mystery and kept us all talking about the ghost of Marowak at recess. I have continued to dabble in the series since the original Red and Blue versions were released but nothing has come close to the magic of bonding with friends over the secret of Mew and who chose the best starter.
There are those games that we think back on fondly for how good they were at the time and then there are those that defined a genre. Mario 64 might be a little frustrating to play in today’s age but the worlds, music, and characters are so etched into my memory that most other Mario games remind me of his first evolution into 3D.
However, this being one of the earliest 3D platformers, it has a few issues that make it less than desirable to return to compare to later entries. Clunky camera controls and star navigation are just some of the things that bother me after replaying recently, but it’s still a game that can bring a smile to my face 25 years later, and that in itself is magical enough.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Ocarina of Time embodies the idea of embarking on a grand journey. From the opening theme of the game with Link riding across Hyrule’s fields in the twilight, it promises an adventure with no clear end in sight but one that will capture your imagination. It might seem a little tricky for some newer players as it can be difficult to understand where to go next, but when you are able to find the thread to the next destination, you get such a rush.
You are in your own fantasy world, figuring out the secrets of the past in order to save the present. Every section of the game has personality with a soundtrack to match. Many of the characters that were introduced in this entry can be seen later in the franchise, and I associate every single one to this game. Since this was the first 3D Zelda, it can feel like the genesis of the franchise going forward in a lot of ways (not referring to the convoluted timeline of the franchise as a whole), and that level of innovation needs to be recognized and rewarded.
With so many great point-and-click adventures during the ‘90s, I was tempted to place a few of them here instead of Grim Fandango. However, Tim Schafer’s mature, style-shifting, detective story with a Day of the Dead aesthetic I thought was the best choice to include. This story is one of the most mature and the most intriguing of any during this time period.
While the gameplay might seem archaic to some, it really helps to get you into the headspace of the mystery as you physically write down clues and ideas to help progress the story along. By the end of the game, my hand looked like the walls of an asylum patient, but it was worth it to ensure that I could make it through the game, and that really is part of the charm of Grim Fandango for me at this point. It challenges me in a way so few other games do now: to think outside the box.
The game that birthed a series and made people make uncalled-for comments regarding the fog around your high school as if it was Silent Hill incarnate. Silent Hill is one of the best horror games in gaming because of its story, terrifying enemies, and delivery. The environments will have you death gripping your controller as you wait for the next enemy to slink out of the darkness or the fog.
Playing Silent Hill on a dark rainy day is the epitome of terrifying as you wander through Silent Hill’s quiet streets and see the dark clouds just outside your own window, waiting for the monsters to come, whether they be on screen or outside.
Super Metroid signaled a step for Nintendo that no one thought they were capable of: a creepy aesthetic. The Metroid series is famous for helping to define an entire genre, but it’s Super Metroid that cemented that place while at the same time incorporating a layer of mild fear into the mix.
Learning both the mechanics of Samus, the environments, and how the two intertwine is one of the most rewarding aspects of the series. Super Metroid takes the formula introduced in the original, polishes it, and makes it even more interesting to explore its worlds by using the graphical superiority of the SNES. It’s an adventure that everyone interested in video games should try at least once in their life.
Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back
I don’t think Crash got the respect he deserved until quite recently with the N. Sane Trilogy. While Mario and Banjo were difficult because of camera angles or poor design choices, Crash was difficult because it WAS difficult. In fact, the original might have been a little too difficult for people, so Naughty Dog found the sweet spot in the sequel and made one of the most refined follow-ups in Sony’s catalog at the time.
The hub map from the first game is replaced by a series of rooms in a temple with warp portals to take the player to the next level. While there isn’t a ton of diversity in the aesthetics of these levels, the design can be soul-crushing in the best way. This game is best enjoyed on a Friday night with your beverage of choice while you curse out your defeats to your friends on or offline.
Banjo and Kazooie
I am going to say it: Banjo and Kazooie is the best 3D platformer of its generation. It beats Mario 64 in practically every category from its unique worlds, characters, music, and skill progression. The game evolves over time where Mario stays pretty much the same throughout the game. Banjo and Kazooie take the 3D platforming genre to the next level with more abilities, more unique worlds, and a cast of characters that make the worlds feel more lived in compared to Mario’s robotic penguins and Toads.
Throughout the game, you’ll learn to fly, run super fast, and battle tons of mini-bosses in order to acquire jiggies. Banjo and Kazooie’s greatest strength is that it is able to vary these worlds and their objectives enough where the core collect-athon doesn’t get stale over the course of the game, making it very replayable.
People are still using the Half-Life formula to design their narrative structure in their games. The slow beginning that introduces the hero and world before everything hits the fan with an emphasis on environmental storytelling was defined here.
I played this only a few years ago, and it’s honestly amazing how well the gunplay holds up, and while the platforming made me want to punt a headcrab, the overall game felt so fast and immersive. From zombies to the G Man, there is a sense of something bigger than a failed experiment going on, and that only fuels our intrigue. Half-Life was ahead of its time, and I’m hopeful that one day we will be able to experience a game that is as groundbreaking from Valve again one day.