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1/22/2020

21 Best Games of the Decade (1990-1999)

This was a very tough one, as there are so many fantastic and groundbreaking games from the 90s that you could ask any two people and get a completely different list of favorites.  Hell, I could probably even go all-in and make a Top 100 great games from this decade, but that'd be a touch more work than I'm prepared for, so I kept it to just 21.  As with my other lists, I'm limiting myself to just one game per franchise to keep things a bit more diverse (though I still ended up with a lot of RPGs). So, here we go.

21. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest (Rare, 1995)

Rare is a highly regarded company to any long-time gamer, producing numerous technologically impressive and challenging titles since they debuted in the 80s (as Ultimate Play The Game).  The game that truly propelled them to stardom, though, was their revival of Donkey Kong on the Super Nintendo.  With impressive 3d-rendered visuals, a fantastic soundtrack by David Wise (so much so it became one of the first to get a CD release in the west) and solidly-built platforming action with a ton of hidden secrets to find, it was the game that proved the SNES still had a ton of untapped potential in late 1994. Its sequel, released a year after, pushed the envelope even further with even greater level variety, an entire hidden world and expanding its mechanics to make its characters more distinct.  Platforming at its finest, even today.

20. Metal Slug X (SNK, 1999)

Nazca's Metal Slug was a smash hit in the arcades, taking the intense run-and-gun format of Contra and giving it an exaggerated, charming cartoon style with impressively fluid animation.  Metal Slug 2 (later re-released as X) took things in a different direction, not just putting the player into battlefields with soldiers and towers of artillery, but exotic locales with all sorts of crazy enemies - mummies, aliens, giant subway cars and so forth, and you had numerous new weapons to face them with too - bouncing drop shots, cyborg camels, jets, laser guns and a bipedal walker.  That, plus two player co-op, made it an absolute blast even as it drained your supply of quarters at a terrifying speed.

19. Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998)

Widely regarded as one of the PS1's premier games, and it certainly isn't hard to see why. Several games before it tried to feel like a movie or a serial drama, but Metal Gear is one of the first I can recall to do it well. Even with the system's obvious technical limitations, Metal Gear had well-staged, professionally acted dialog scenes, intelligent themes and amazing setpieces that effectively conveyed the high stakes of everything going on.  It was of course a fun game too, with inventive fast-paced stealth gameplay and some clever boss battles and puzzles to solve in between all those cutscenes. But even with its more outlandish and video gamey elements, it manages to portray an engrossing and credible story of the horrors of war and the military industrial complex.

18. Alien Soldier (Treasure, 1995)

Treasure were a rising star company in the 1990s; its devs split from Konami and founded their own studio with the goal of making unique, standalone games and no more sequels (though they would eventually give in and make some anyway). Alien Soldier is my pick for their best of the decade, though. You were given a large repertoire of weapons and moves to evade and position (hovering, dashing and walking on ceilings) and pitted against a gauntlet of short stages interspersed with enormous boss battles that required a lot of practice to overcome.  It's limited release and high difficulty ensured it would be a game few played and fewer enjoyed, but for those that did both, it's one of the best action games of its era.

17. Simcity 2000 (Maxis, 1993)

Maxis quickly made a name for themselves creating "software toys" - building cities, managing ant colonies, or even trying to turn lifeless planets into living ones.  All cool concepts that were stunningly well realized despite the limitations of late '80s and early' 90s hardware. Simcity 2000 is the second Simcity game, and to many, still its best entry.  Utilizing isometric graphics and numerous new features (having to build water lines, manage pollution and lay down transportation in a relatively sensible way) gave it a new level of realism, though they certainly never let that interfere with the fun factor. It retains a consistent off-kilter sense of humor with its strange, randomly generated news stories, as well as Easter eggs like Supersim, Nessie and a giant monster/escaped movie prop occasionally attacking your city, among numerous other hazards.  A sandbox that really allows your imagination to run wild.

16. Duke Nukem 3D (3D Realms, 1996)

First person shooters really took off in the 1990s, starting with Wolfenstein 3D and moving up to Doom, then Duke Nukem and Blood, and then Quake and Half-Life, and it's only gone onward and upward from there.  Duke Nukem remains a classic in my book, though, for the sheer amount of panache it brought to its design.  Doom was lauded for its realism in its time, but Duke took it to new heights, putting the player in detailed earth-born locales from bars to movie theaters to Chinese restaurants, and they all looked great.  The interactivity was staggering too, with numerous clickable objects in each stage, brilliantly-designed levels that could change around as you moved through them (such as blowing open walls with explosives or watching the San Andreas Fault shift to open up a new part of the level).  Duke himself was a memorable protagonist as well - basically every badass '80s action flick hero smashed into one, and he even has a cheesy one-liner for almost any situation.  Even the weapons were a ton of fun; in addition to the usual FPS mainstays (Pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher), you had clever elements like remote-activated pipe bombs, laser tripmines, a "freezethrower" that could freeze enemies (which could then be shattered with a kick or a bullet), and some awesome powerups like a "holoduke" to draw enemy fire, a portable medkit, scuba gear to move underwater for longer periods or a jetpack to fly around freely.  All of these just made the game a blast to play, and still one of the best shooters ever made today.  For sheer style, humor and immaculate design, few can top Duke.

15. Fallout 2 (Black Isle, 1998)

Fallout was a game-changer for computer RPGs, in no small part because it was a game that actually let you play a role - you could roam freely, design your character and allocate skills and stats however you wished, and each quest you encountered could be completed in numerous ways - whether through diplomacy, stealth, combat or any combination of the above.  2 continued i that vein, adding a lot more of everything - NPCs, Questlines to complete, plot fragments to uncover and tons of different endings for each major area one found, and much-improved design for recruitable characters. A great game and still one of the very best of its kind even today.

14. Planescape: Torment (Black Isle, 1999)

The second Black Isle game in a row on this list, but I don't mind one bit because Planescape Torment is fantastic. The game runs on the same engine as Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate, but de-emphasizes combat in favor of storytelling.  That isn't any bad thin, either, as Black Isle has repeatedly proven that they have some of the best writing chops in the industry.  Planescape is a delightfully twisted and surreal setting and every quest you encounter highlights that perfectly, taking you through a brilliantly realized universe while fleshing out your character and his companions to a staggering degree.  The fact that it's as good as it is, yet still had to cut numerous quest lines and pieces of content for time, shows the ambition behind the project too. But regardless, Torment is a classic that is well worth your time.

13. Final Fantasy Tactics (Squaresoft, 1998)

Final Fantasy VII was the game that turned Square into a household name, and while there is no arguing that it's a highly influential and very fun game, I have to go with Tactics as my favorite game to bear the name.  Helmed by Yasumi Matsuno (who also worked on the Ogre series), Tactics combines turn-based tactical combat and a grim, dark war drama with the masterfully designed class system of Final Fantasy 5, and the result is excellent.  Being able to mix-and-match abilities between numerous classes to make powerful characters quickly becomes a key strategic element, as the game starts off tough and only ramps up from there.  The game was so good that it actually spawned its own sub-series - the Ivalice Alliance - which contains two sequels and Final Fantasy XII, all of which are fantastic in their own right.

12. Illusion of Gaia (Quintet, 1994)

It was a close race between this one and Terranigma, but in the end, I had to go with one of my long-time favorites. Quintet was never a huge company - in fact, they're all but forgotten these days - but they had some magical and ambitious games in their time and were never afraid to pull punches when it came to their darker themes.  Illusion of Gaia is no different, but it tells a great story too, following the world spanning adventures of a group of friends as they uncover the secrets of the past and ultimately restore the world to prosperity. All that, plus some Zelda-caliber dungeons, a great soundtrack and some enormous and crazy bosses, make it into an unforgettable adventure.

11. Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millennium (Sega, 1995)

The conclusion to Sega's legendary RPG franchise, and it was definitely a worthwhile finale - not just showing off the best elements of the series, but one of the finest RPG experiences ever made.  With more than ten playable and distinct characters, Manga-styled panels for its cutscenes and a macro system that greatly expedited the game's combat, it was ahead of its time in a lot of ways.  It was a treat for long time fans too, calling back to numerous elements and design points from previous games, but putting enough of a fresh spin on them so that they never felt like cheap pandering.  It did plenty to distinguish itself too, expanding the series' lore in surprising, but logical fashion and tying it all together at the end in a way few other RPGs I've seen ever do. I can't really say too much without spoiling it, so instead I'll just recommend that you play the entire series through - its available on numerous formats now, and all four games are very worthy of your time.

10. Grandia (Game Arts, 1999)

Lunar is probably Game Arts' best known franchise, but one they made that never got nearly as much attention as it deserved was Grandia.  Utilizing a similar visual gimmick to Xenogears - 2D sprite characters with Dd-animated environments and spell effects - maximized it's visual appeal for the PS1 hardware and allowed for dynamic dungeon design not seen in all those games with 2d backdrops.  Traps, switches altering parts of the dungeon and wide, sprawling environments with plenty of secrets were all made possible through this.  But the combat system is what really sells the game - being able to delay or cancel turns with well-timed attacks (and have the same done to you if you're not careful) makes the experience extremely captivating, and one of the few JRPGs out there that makes large groups of enemies (even relatively weak ones) a viable threat.  To say nothing of the enormous, multi-segmented bosses the game throws your way!

9. Suikoden II (Konami, 1999)

Suikoden was a relatively late-comer to the world of 2D RPGs, debuting when the 3D era was kicking off in earnest.  As a result of that (and Konami seemingly being intent on not promoting the series at all), it went largely unnoticed in its time.  Shameful in Suikoden II's case, as it's a fantastic RPG experience.  A tale of a war between neighboring countries, divided friendships and surprising camaraderie between it all, the game's narrative is fantastic and gripping. It doesn't pull punches with its scale either, featuring over 100 recruitable characters (about 60 of which are playable), three different combat systems (turn-based small scale fights, one-on-one duels and large-scale war battles) and a ton of side content tied to recruiting th em all, or just taking part in diversions like a cooking contest or completing your library.  The game looks great as well, with beautiful sprite work and smooth animation that still looks great even today.

8. Chrono Trigger (Square, 1995)

A highly regarded and popular game from the moment it came out, Chrono Trigger is not just considered one of the best SNES games ever made, but Square's best game period.  You certainly won't hear me argue against that either, as everything about it is amazingly well done.  The animation and music give it the feel of a fast paced action anime (no surprise with Akira Toriyama providing art direction and character designs), the gameplay is consistently fast paced and inventive, allowing the player to combine spells together into Double or Triple techniques which not only look impressive, but have significantly more punch than two single moves. It's story is a great one, working in fantasy, science fiction and time travel and allowing the player to alter the past and change the future in a number of creative ways and gain power equipment they wouldn't be able to otherwise. All that, plus multiple endings that show off various different timelines that could be (or just show some silly jokes) make it a highly replayable one too.

7. Scorched Earth (Wendell Hicken, 1991)

An 8-player shareware artillery combat game for DOS, but unique among most in that just about every single element of it can be customized. From the strength of the gravity to the wind to air viscosity to scaling up (or down) the size of all the explosions generated, and even letting you play with how turns are taken, it is a game you can adapt to any play style. The registered version is even more fun, letting you take control of the triple-turret tank and even create your own custom terrain to blow each other up on.  It looks out of place on a list full of genre-defining classics and the odd hidden gem, I know, but I love it and always will.

6. Mega Man X2 (Capcom, 1995)

The Mega Man X franchise was a huge leap for the format - after six outings on the NES, it was easy to think it would just be another routine take on the format, but it ended up being so much more. Darker in substance and heavier in tone, it sported more hard-edged character designs and a hard rock/metal inspired soundtrack. Your character got a significant upgrade too, with upgrades allowing you to dash, climb up walls, absorb hits and launch a screen-clearing burst of energy, or store multiple charged shots at a time.  Even stages got some creative change ups, with some reliant on mechas or hover bikes to clear obstacles or just smash your way through enemies.  Faster, tougher and more badass, Mega Man X was a great remaining of a classic franchise.

5. Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994)

Metroid set the bar high for open-ended exploration games, but Super Metroid took it to a staggering new height in every way possible.  It took full advantage of the Super Nintendo's capabilities to up the ante for presentation, adding a whole litany of creepy new tracks and eerie boss designs.  The game was even larger than the NES game in scale, though much easier to navigate thanks to an included automap.  Your arsenal was greatly expanded upon, with armor upgrades, an aerial multi-jump and even a scope to find hidden secrets added to your repertoire of weapons, and in the latter case, you didn't even have to go back to a statue room anymore now to swap between them.  The genre owes much to Metroid, but perhaps even more to its sequel, as everything here is executed to perfection; or at least, as close to it as gaming will probably ever get.

4. Ultima VII: The Black Gate (Origin Systems, 1992)

Ultima is an undeniable classic series, practically redefining the entirety of the CRPG genre with each new entry by providing a new engine with features that ensured you weren't just playing a video game, but getting immersed in an entire virtual world.  Ultima VII is an extension of that, taking the deeply-detailed and interactive world of 6 and putting it in real-time; buckets can be filled and emptied, wild animals can be slain and cut up to make trail rations, and you can even gamble at the casino to make some extra cash.  But the main story itself is the attraction once again, with complex dungeons to explore, a massive and sprawling plot to untangle and a ton of story, both past and present, to get swept up in.  Whether you're a long-time Ultmia fan or a newcomer, this game's a classic, right along with all the rest before it.

3. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1993)

After the somewhat mixed reception of Zelda II, Nintendo decided to go back to basics with the third game in the series and just add a lot more.  While I personally enjoy Zelda II for what it is, I can't deny that I do prefer the original's style of gameplay, and it's done about as well as it's ever been here.  The visual style is simple but appealing, it has some incredible and epic music, especially for the time, and the gameplay is sublime, providing puzzles, enemies and boss battles that are all just a joy to experience and require the use of every tool at your disposal to overcome.  And you're given a lot - a whole subscreen full instead of just the 8 or so from the previous game.  From magic spells to bug nets to bottles that let you store potions, bees and fairies for later use, there's plenty to see and do in Link to the Past, and all of it is just as fun now as it was in 1993.

2. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (Nintendo, 1996)

This one will probably be a controversial pick, as it's already a somewhat divisive game and came out the same year as the groundbreaking Super Mario 64.  But for my money, Yoshi's Island holds up quite a bit better than either its predecessor or its followup.  The game was a technical marvel on the SNES, utilizing the FX2 chip for some impressively huge bosses and rotation effects, and the gameplay is varied and fun - almost no two levels feel alike.  Yoshi can aim and throw eggs in almost any direction, with tricky bank shots being required to complete some stages, and the ability to transform into various vehicles - from a helicopter to a mole tank - made some stages a ton of fun.  It was a quite replayable game too, as it challenged you to get a 100 score in every stage in a world and, if you did so, you'd unlock a super-challenging bonus level to test your skills even further.  Masterfully-executed, endlessly fun platforming action.

1. Earthbound (APE/Hal Laboratory, 1995)

Earthbound was a very overlooked game in its time for its simple graphics and unconventional design, but over the years has become a highly sought and beloved cult classic.  I loved it in the 90s, though, and still do today, considering it my favorite game of all-time even now.  And that's because every detail of its design is unique, charming and built to be memorable and distinct.  The minimal animation and overall aesthetic remind me a lot of American comic strips, and the fact that they went out of their way to include all manner of bizarre enemies - from UFOs to Enraged Fire Plugs to Abstract Art - means the game has a lot of variety.  Even moreso as all of this gets integrated into combat, with hugely varied enemy movesets and just as many bizarre battle background patterns to see.  The music is distinct and memorable, and remains my favorite game soundtrack of all time - I can listen to any song from it and memories of my adventures in the game come flooding back.  But the writing is easily its best element - a heartfelt journey with a quirky, yet lovable sense of humor and some amazing characters every step of the way.  I've played through it at least a dozen times, and I still look forward to more in the future; not just a perfect game, but a perfect experience.