Picture this. The year is 1999. The decade of the 1990s is coming to a close. Beyonce is still a child of Destiny and The Matrix is still just a blip on the radar of geek culture, all while the cool kids wear their hats sideways and embrace the baggy jeans fad. We were "sick" like that.
And in the world of video games, a war to rule the day is ongoing between Nintendo's N64 and new kid on the block; Sony's PlayStation console. It was a time when the games were grand, the consoles were simple and the stories happening behind the scenes were juicy. Everything from the birth of the ESRB to the first rumors of the PlayStation 2, it was an unpredictable era that never disappointed.
But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves, because to truly understand what made the '90s such a special time in this lovely industry, we need to go back. We need to understand what consoles had to end, what rivalries had to begin, and what games had to release in order to fully realize this most auspicious of gaming decades.
THE END OF AN ERA
As unlikely as it may have seemed, despite the continual success of Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Time Crisis, the arcades were slowly dying. It was unusual, to say the least. MK3 was the best in the series, Street Fighter 2 launched the competitive fighting game scene and NBA Jam was a runaway hit. So what happened?
The home console market, that's what. Consoles like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis had reached a point where the home versions were up to par with their arcade counterparts, but worse yet? You didn't have to plunge a quarter into your machine to play the game. It was all yours.
Technology at home was catching up, narrowing the edge that these video game parlors had over their rivals. The arcade wasn't dead and buried yet, but home business was cutting deep into the flesh of this wounded animal. This was no longer the golden age of the 1970's and 1980's. It was a time when Mortal Kombat II on the Super Nintendo was no different from going to the arcade, leaving the business in a vulnerable position.
But that wasn't the end of the arcade completely, as they showed the resiliency to survive in spite of home consoles taking over. They would never regain the rabid popularity that they enjoyed in the 1980's, but throughout the '90s, arcades managed to keep themselves afloat by adapting to the impending 3D landscape.
Virtua Fighter, Star Wars Trilogy Arcade and NFL Blitz showed the reality of what the arcade was going through; adapt or die, fight or flight, kill or be killed. It was simple, but the ability to understand the moving world was crucial for the arcade to survive, and it did so while producing some of the most incredible games you could imagine.
It was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, however, as the home console market was like a monster under the bed of every arcade in America. It was coming.
It was 1994. Video games were booming at home. Thanks to the ongoing console war between Sega's Genesis and the Big N's Super Nintendo, a cavalcade of titles surfaced that pit these two giants against one another. Each company was operating at its height, producing games that were untouchable even by today's standards. Consider this, if you will.
1994 saw the release of Super Metroid, Mega Man 6, Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles, Final Fantasy VI and Castlevania: Bloodlines. This also included faithful home versions of arcade classics like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat II. This was no ordinary year of video game releases, but a showcase of the incredible work on display in the early-mid '90s. And it wasn't without a little bit of barbs being thrown around, either.
It was really quite simple in the '90s; were you a Sega kid or a Nintendo kid? Did you like Mario or did you like Sonic? Which was better, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past or Phantasy Star III? It was war.
A war between mascots, a war between games and a war between fans. And boy, was it a thrilling time to be alive. Because no matter who emerged from the debris of this console throw down, it didn't matter. At the end of the day, the only real "winners" are the fans who lived it.
We experienced Sega and Nintendo in their prime, doing their best to one-up each other and prove that they had the superior games and system. It was healthy competition, guaranteeing that we would see their best every single year. It produced classic games, memorable ad campaigns and wonderful memories.
These days, Sonic and Mario are BFF's. They co-star in crossover games and the days of Sonic vs. Mario are long gone, but if you were around during the time it was one or the other, then you remember how exciting it was. You had your favorite, and trading blows with the opposition was another key ingredient to making the '90s a spectacular time.
But that wasn't all that was fit to print in the mid-'90s, because elsewhere, video games were in trouble.
THE BIRTH OF THE ESRB
By 1994, video games were moving beyond the simplicity of moving a sprite from right to left. They were starting to speak to the counter culture of the 1990s, the youth movement that had been sparked from this growing industry. Teenagers weren't easily swayed by Mario, but if you gave them something bloody and violent like Doom or Mortal Kombat? Count them in.
Naturally, this caught the attention of parents everywhere. Games like Mortal Kombat, Night Trap and Doom had caused some concern about the kind of content that their children were being exposed to. Arcade machines like Mortal Kombat were open to anyone with a quarter and Doom was the most installed piece of software on PC's, even more than Windows itself.
Video game violence was just as hot a topic in the '90s as it is today, with parents and politicians laying blame at the feet of the industry. They cited Doom as responsible for the decline of modern civilization and painted Mortal Kombat as no less than evil incarnate.
Something had to change.
Enter the ESRB, the Entertainent Software Ratings Board, established on September 16th, 1994. Their mission was simple; to keep parents informed, devising a rating system that ranged from the harmless Early Childhood to the much racier, and also more infrequent, Adults Only. To date, only thirty games have received an AO rating.
Today, the ESRB exists as a simple buffer between parents and what games they let their children play. And while most gamers bemoan it as censorship or claim politicians are using the ratings board as a way to demonize the industry, it's something of a necessary evil in today's market.
Games are more realistic than ever, depicting gruesome actions with frightening clarity, leaving parents with little choice but to trust this system. It may be somewhat imperfect, but it was part of what made the '90s such a fascinating time for games. And the ESRB would be needed in the years to come, because another console revolution was about to begin.
THE GREAT CONSOLE WAR BEGINS
While the discussions continued surrounding video game violence, a new player suddenly entered the fray. The Sony PlayStation launched on September 9th, 1995 and brought ten games with it on day one. This included early favorites like Ridge Racer, Rayman and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition.
The Genesis and Super Nintendo were on their way out, leaving Sony to battle with Sega and their Saturn machine. Nintendo was still a year away from their next console, pitting the old guard against the new kid in town. Sony performed well above expectations.
The PlayStation outpaced the Saturn, having sold 2.9 million units by the end of 1996 compared to the Saturn's 1.2 million. Not only that, but the PlayStation library was continuing to grow. Classic titles such as Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil, Vagrant Story and Suikoden showed that the console was a home to developers looking for variety.
The eclectic PS1 library was Sony's ace in the hole. They had system sellers like Final Fantasy locked up in large part due to Square's tenuous relationship with Nintendo, an event which forced the J-RPG giant to partner up with a new console. And Sony would need that library to continue to work for them, because a sleeping giant was about to awake.
Nintendo plowed into the end of 1996 with a vengeance, launching the Nintendo 64 on September 29th of that year. It came with perhaps the most killer app of all time; Super Mario 64. This wasn't just some little 3D platforming game, but the return of an old master who was going to show these new kids how to do it.
Following this, Nintendo would continue to hit grand slams thanks to Shadows of the Empire, Wave Race 64, Blast Corps, Mario Kart 64, 1080 Snowboarding, Star Fox 64 and even a dandy port of the PlayStation hit Resident Evil 2.
Nintendo was firing on all cylinders, perhaps feeling that this was more personal than ever due to their falling out with Sony ten years prior; an event that triggered the creation of the PlayStation in the first place. The fallout between Sony and Nintendo added an extra dimension to their ongoing rivalry, which culminated in the most magical year of the feud; 1998.
METAL GEAR SOLID: AN INSTANT CLASSIC
October 21st, 1998. Konami releases Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation, a title that would remain exclusive to the system until its eventual Nintendo GameCube remake in 2004. Along with Final Fantasy VII the previous year, Metal Gear Solid showed the raw, unprecedented power of the PlayStation.
Metal Gear Solid featured fully-voiced cutscenes, a rich storyline, immersive environments and set-pieces that looked like a Hollywood action film. A game like this should not have existed in 1998, but somehow, it did. It was a marvelous experience, one that defined the console as much as any other.
It wasn't unusual for a game of this era to have an engaging story, as games like Half-Life, Super Metroid and Chrono Trigger proved otherwise. What was unique about Metal Gear Solid was the caliber of writing and just how precise it was. These weren't just pixels on a screen, but real characters with legitimate arcs. They were flawed, they were imperfect and best of all, they were interesting to watch.
Metal Gear Solid wasn't just a fun video game that people enjoyed, it was a revolution that continues to affect the industry to this day. Video games that feel like blockbuster films owe a lot to this landmark title, but competition was waiting in the wings.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME — THE GAME OF THE '90S
While Metal Gear Solid was redefining storytelling in the industry, the latest entry in the Zelda series was getting ready to launch. There was a lot riding on this game. It was the first 3D Zelda game, becoming the largest size Nintendo 64 cartridge at the time. But that couldn't keep a good franchise down, as Ocarina of Time launched on November 23rd, 1998 to monstrous acclaim.
For the first time since the original Legend of Zelda released on the NES, players could explore Hyrule in a way they never thought possible. Suddenly, thanks to the power of the N64, the land of Hyrule was real. There was context to it, a sense of reality as you could take a stroll from Kakariko Village to Lon Lon Ranch, all in the glorious third dimension.
Of the countless games released during this decade, Ocarina of Time was the one. It touched people in unique ways, from its classic story of good vs evil to its mysterious, inviting open world. Ocarina of Time took what 2D Zelda sprites had done, which were already enough to illicit emotions from fans, and created a game that defined the '90s more than any other.
Consoles were hotter than ever, but as the 1990s came to a close, all that meant was that the war wasn't over. There were new systems on the horizon and new competitors looking to make their mark.
THE WAR HAS JUST BEGUN
As the 1990s begins to close the door on an eventful decade, things have become decidedly different. Violent video games are adhered to a strict standard, Sony has won the console war with 102 million PlayStation units sold and the industry has a new breed of protagonists.
Consoles have come and gone, with the Sega Saturn failing to catch on and old favorites like the Genesis and Super Nintendo mere memories. Sega would launch the Dreamcast, a criminally underrated console, in 1999. This head start on the next generation of consoles granted Sega the ability to sell marvelous games like Sonic Adventure, Soul Calibur and Resident Evil Code: Veronica ahead of their competitors.
Nintendo's next console, the GameCube, wouldn't be announced until 2000, with a launch on November 18th, 2001. Microsoft would also enter the console market by releasing the first XBox three days earlier, on November 15th of the same year.
But rumors of a successor to the PlayStation continued to swirl, and in 1999, Sony broke their silence and announced the PS2.
The announcement of the PS2 signaled something significant; the end of the '90s and the end of this incredible generation of games. We were about to enter the 21st century, and video games were going to have an entirely new roster of consoles to power it. This war was just beginning.
But the 1990s was about more than the war, more than the rivalries and more than the games. It was about the feeling, the emotion and the special memories that go along with this time period. Whether it was making it to the world map in Final Fantasy VII or the first zombie in Resident Evil, this era meant something.
It was an era when characters were changing, evolving from sprites into legitimate characters that could stand up to any of the icons we'd seen in books or movies. The games meant something, speaking about subjects and themes that would be considered foreign in earlier generations.
Not only that, but the games themselves had a simple charm. While it would be silly to trade in our current crop of ultra-realistic games to bring back an outdated era, it's hard to deny the charisma that these games had without even trying. They had a sense of wonder and excitement that is so unique to the era; it wasn't better or worse than modern games, it was just different.
They were filled with fantastic gameplay, endearing characters, awe-inspiring worlds and stories that have stood the test of time. And at the end of the day, that's all one can ask for in a video game. The lasting memories, the ones we'll carry with us until we've left this Earth and beyond, that's what these games and this era has created.
What was your favorite gaming era? Is it this one, or do you have another decade of gaming that tops this one? Sound off in the comments and let's hear about your favorite memories!