10 Best Games of the Year…1991
This story was originally published on Invisible Gamer on October 9, 2016.
1991 provided a challenge unique to this series so far: I could include 20+ games that I loved! At some point, however, I had to pare down and decide what were the truly “best” games. Although this series doesn’t rely on the traditional “top 10” format, 1991’s best amounted to ten, so here we are. The Super Nintendo came to American shores in 1991, as did an uneasy peace as the Cold War was unofficially concluded, just as it had unofficially begun. Nirvana released their landmark album Nevermind, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day hit the top of the box office charts. And these 10 games delighted audiences, even 25 years later.
Note: Previous entries in this series were built with North American release dates in mind. From now on, games will be considered for the year they were first released, regardless of territory. Thankfully, there weren’t any major games lost in this translation. Additionally, due to the increasingly complex nature of this idea, it’s going to be difficult to write at length about every game I played. Some help will come in the form of fellow Invisible Gamer writers, however.
#10 — Sonic the Hedgehog
A lot of people look back on Sonic the Hedgehog with mixed feelings. Sonic’s ‘tude and speed made his games attractive all on their own when we, as a collective gaming fan base, were younger. But at the end of the day, Sonic games, at their core, have a fundamental design flaw: Sonic’s speed is never allowed to showcase itself beyond early levels. Because, ultimately, video games need obstacles and conflict, which put a stop to Sonic’s breezy and admittedly breathtaking sprint. And that speed isn’t great for precision platforming, which the game asks of the player relatively quickly. You may be asking yourself: “If he thinks every Sonic game is flawed, why is the first on this list?” Well, in spite of my critical and analytical feelings for the series (and, by extension, this relatively simple and basic installment), Sonic the Hedgehog is just incredibly fun to play. That speed does feel palpable, the art direction is vibrant and imaginative, and the soundtrack is among the best gaming has to offer. Sonic the Hedgehog established a brilliant world and had a smart and new gameplay hook that ultimately didn’t age so gracefully as it could have, but that doesn’t invalidate all the fun it has to offer.
#9 — Duke Nukem
Developer/Publisher: Apogee Software
Before he was in 3D, Duke Nukem was the star of a couple DOS platformers. I specify “DOS platformers” because you know platformers on DOS had their own special kind of feel. Floaty jumps, slightly delayed screen movements, and pretty basic colors and shapes defined the genre on the platform, but that afforded them their own special kind of charm. Duke isn’t quite the crass personality he came to be known as, but what the game lacks in unique presentation, it makes up for in sheer fun. Navigating Duke Nukem’s world, finding keys and their corresponding doors, and firing his incredibly satisfying ray gun make for a not-too-difficult, breezy platformer.
#8 — Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom
Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom is by far the best installment in the NES trilogy. The game is much easier than its predecessors (if you’re playing the Japanese/Virtual Console version that doesn’t have limited continues), which may irritate some “hard game” purists. But it’s easier because of its design, one that is smarter and less reliant on cheap kills. Don’t get me wrong, the game isn’t easy, by any means; just more tolerable than its siblings. Throw in a relatively interesting plot, the same tight Ninja Gaiden gameplay, new power ups, and cool and challenging boss fights, and you have the most evolved and comprehensive Ninja Gaiden NES experience.
#7 — Street Fighter II: The World Warrior
Street Fighter II is still considered one of, if not the, best fighting games for a reason. The incredibly different sequel to the now-obscure and simplistic Street Fighter, Street Fighter II introduced an almost entirely new, much more interesting cast of characters, a more complex and satisfying combo system, and an actual versus mode that came to define video game competition at large. The game has been iterated upon numerous times, but the base game that started it all released in 1991, and still serves as a perfect example of tight, brilliant design that’s fun and easy to play, yet incredibly hard to master.
#6 — Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy IV’s biggest innovation isn’t necessarily gameplay-related, although it certainly did make major strides in that regard. Its active time battle system has been the star of many Final Fantasy games, and other RPGs for that matter, since it debuted in 1991. Essentially, player character and enemy actions are dependent on a sliding scale of time that, once filled, allows action to take place. But knowing what to do once you get your window of opportunity is essential, because the enemies are similarly progressing towards taking action. It was a novel twist on the traditional turn-based format, but Final Fantasy IV indicated the power of story and character that Square could and would continue to impart in its 16-bit games. The story of Cecil and his various party members is full of twists and turns, sacrifices big and small, and emotional moments that translate in spite of the now-simplistic, yet beautiful, aesthetic. It forsook Final Fantasy III’s job system in favor of characterizing the players in this story further, a decision that I actually preferred. It allows the player to focus more on story and moment-to-moment gameplay rather than stats or equipment, albeit until the series could successfully synthesize both approaches. Final Fantasy IV was certainly the best game in the series up until that point, and (almost) 11 main installments later, it’s still one of the best.
#5 — Super Castlevania IV
Gabe Gurwin: If you ask the passionate Castlevania fanbase (may God help them) for the best game in the series, the consensus will likely be for the open-ended Symphony of the Night, but before the move to experience points and item management, there was Super Castlevania IV. It didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. The simple story of Simon Belmont versus Dracula and his minions remains unchanged, but it has never been this much fun. The platforming is smooth, the combat is intense, and with the Super Nintendo’s power, it’s the first game in the series to truly provide the spooky atmosphere we want in a vampire game. Medusa heads and skeletons strike fear into your soul, both because of their brilliant design and the thought of having to start the level over again. And the music — sweet baby Dracula, the music. The organs and bass lines bounce inside my head even after I’ve long turned off my console, and whenever I’m asked for my favorite soundtrack, Super Castlevania IV is always near the top of my list. Super Castlevania IV is the perfect proof of concept for the transition from the 8-bit to 16-bit generations. It does everything its predecessors could do, but it does it all a hell of a lot better.
#4 — Wonder Boy in Monster World
I was incredibly surprised by Wonder Boy in Monster World. I had played every previous installment in the series, and enjoyed the games as I witnessed their increasing evolution from a simple scrolling platformer (which would lead into the Adventure Island series) into a more involved, yet still simplistic, action RPG. But I didn’t think they were especially great enough to be among the “best.” However, Wonder Boy in Monster World (up until that point) was the ultimate culmination of the promising trend the series had been heading towards. A sidescrolling action platformer at its core, Monster World carries with it pretty basic yet incredibly satisfying RPG and upgrade mechanics that perfectly complement the game’s cute art design. It definitely took a page out of the Zelda book, with heart pieces and various equipment upgrades strewn throughout the world; its sidescrolling nature, and magic system, definitely make it feel like a game inspired by Zelda II, specifically. But there’s no overworld in Monster World. Instead, the game flows from one area into the next in a natural and satisfying manner, with shortcuts made available to backtrack to necessary hub areas. Ultimately, Wonder Boy in Monster World is an especially charming game that’s sure to impress those not familiar with it. The moment-to-moment gameplay is tight and fun and the meta game gives it all the more complexity. Shout out to the beautiful and huge boss sprites, too.
#3 — Metroid II: Return of Samus
Metroid II: Return of Samus has some flaws, most notably the lack of a map in spite of the fact it’s hard to distinguish many of the grey and simple corridors of its world and Samus’ massive sprite that welcomes any and all contact with it. But its main premise implements an incredibly addictive gameplay loop that supplements the great Metroid feel established by the first game, and on the go too. Samus infiltrates the Metroid home planet, SR388, to destroy the remaining Metroids. The game keeps track of the remaining Metroids, as you can see in the image above, and progress can be made not only by finding various equipment upgrades, but by also finding and eliminating all the Metroids in any given area. This allows for just enough direction to mitigate the lack of a much-needed map and a mechanic that creates a “just one more Metroid” addiction, the best kind of addiction. That addiction, the core Metroid running, gunning, and jumping, and the fun new power ups that includes one that allows Samus to jump to incredible heights place Metroid II: Return of Samus so high on this list. It’s just too fun.
#2 — Mega Man 4
Mega Man 3 may be many people’s favorite Mega Man game, but 4 is a serious contender for me so far. At this point, Mega Man was a known quantity by many (myself included), but it still refuses to not delight and entertain. Its core platforming and shooting is so tight and perfected, as it was from the first installment, but the brilliant level and scenario designs, in addition to new gameplay additions and Robot Masters, keep everything fresh. Mega Man’s new Mega Buster, which can charge to unleash a more powerful blast, is a significant enough change to add a new layer of strategy to the game. Rush’s abilities and new “adaptor” equipment, similar to other items that facilitated traversal in previous games, also allow for some intelligent level design. And some could argue Mega Man 4 was the point where the Robot Masters started to take on strange forms (“Toad Man and Pharaoh Man, really?” they might say), but I actually really enjoyed the off-beat nature of this game’s cast of villains. Speaking of villains, Mega Man 4’s antagonist, Dr. Cossack, represents a shift towards some more investing storytelling that the series would take on, something that fleshes out the world of Mega Man and allows for some smart misdirects away from “Dr. Wily is back again!” Although, ultimately, that’s always what it’s all about.
#1 — The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a masterpiece, pure and simple. It still stands as one of the best games of all time. A Link to the Past was the perfect evolution of the original Zelda to 16-bit, but it was even more than we could have ever dreamed. Hyrule is rendered in beautiful, 16-bit glory, complete with amazingly catchy tunes and brilliant sprite work. The game introduced an investing story to the series for the first time, one that made the world feel lived in and gave it a history. But its main draw, of course, is how fun it is. It allows for the same kind of wondrous exploration the first game introduced to the gaming world, but with a little more direction yet even more possibilities. Various equipment, characters, and heart pieces lay hidden in all the caves, towns, springs, forests, deserts, and swamps of Hyrule, and getting to them requires some knowledge of the world and puzzle solving acumen. Once you get into the dungeons and face evil foes, those same skills need to be implemented in conjunction with fast combat reflexes; A Link to the Past’s combat may be simple by today’s standards, but hacking and slashing your way through a fantasy world has never felt so good. At the end of the day, I love A Link to the Past not only because of the incredibly unique fantasy world it created, one that would set itself apart from the likes of Tolkien-esque or other European fantasy derivatives, but also because it allowed us to experience and explore it in such a fun and satisfying way.
I think these lists are taking on a more diverse shape, an indication of the changing gaming landscape in 1991. In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1991? Let us know!