This story was originally published on Invisible Gamer on June 10, 2016.
1990 was a big deal. So big that it took me six months to research and write this follow up to the 1989 installment in my “Best Games of the Year” series. Mainly, Nintendo released the Super Famicom in Japan, which would herald the beginning of, what some would argue, is the greatest era of gaming history to date. And the year was started with the Nintendo World Championships, an event nostalgically held in the collective memory of ‘80s/’90s kids as something as important as the Super Bowl…for nerds…that only happens twice in 25 years. Nerds of all kinds also celebrate 1990 as the year that Tim Berners-Lee created the first web server that served as the foundation of the World Wide Web, They Might Be Giants released Flood, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took to the big screen in all their rubbery suit glory.
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.
#11 — Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers
Publisher: Disney Computer Software
Michael Burns: There’s an old adage in this business that a licensed game is a crappy game, and I’m not really sure where that myth started, because as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve been playing and loving licensed games. And for me, that all started on the NES with Capcom’s Disney games. Duck Tales; The Little Mermaid; even Darkwing Duck, which was little more than a Mega Man clone — each was fantastic in its own right and expanded on the universe of its respective property. Of all of these, though, there’s always been one that stands tall above the others in my eyes: Chip ’n Dale’s Rescue Rangers. And that really has nothing to do with the characters, who as a kid I recognized first and foremost as the little scamps living in Pluto’s Christmas Tree in the 1952 cartoon of the same name, or the Rescue Rangers cartoon, which I consumed as much as the average ’90s kid (and probably more thanks to tie-in comics in Disney Adventures magazine that started to appear the year after the show was cancelled). What made the video game version so enjoyable — and why it still gets occasional play today when I have guests over — is its fast and frenetic, sometimes antagonistic multiplayer mode. See, Rescue Rangers has a co-op mode which ostensibly allows two players to team up and take down Fat Cat and his hordes together… but it also lets players antagonize each other endlessly, by throwing crates at each other, picking each other up, throwing each other off cliffs… pretty much all the things best friends fantasize about doing to each other all day anyway. You could start a game in agreement with your player partner that this time, unlike every other time before, would be the time that you’d see the game through to the credits… that this time would be the time you’d work together to bring Fat Cat to heel. But as they say, the road to ruin is paved with good intentions, and I can’t count how many times my games quickly evolved into who could kill the other chipmunk first. To some, that might sound like poor design: who would want to waste time screwing around when there was a whole game to experience? To those people, I’d suggest checking out the multiplayer Zelda games, whose core concepts revolve around pretty much the same inter-player dynamic. For anyone who’s not down with that kind of multiplayer mayhem, Chip ’n Dale Rescue Rangers is a pretty solid single player game, too: just long enough to stay fresh throughout and leave you wanting a sequel, which would show up much later in 1993.
#10 — Gargoyle’s Quest
Austin Clark: I first played Gargoyle’s Quest about two years ago and I couldn’t believe how good it was. Here was this Game Boy title, a spin-off of the brutally difficult Ghosts ‘n Goblins featuring one of the main villains in a whole new adventure that played completely different from its predecessor. Even for the time — when it seemed like experimentation was more widely accepted — it was a strange direction for the franchise. It worked phenomenally, though. Gargoyle’s Quest loses the brutal difficulty in exchange for precise platforming, RPG mechanics, and a separate overworld that would lead into the side-scrolling sections. Basically think of something like Zelda II with a bit more focus on action and storytelling than puzzles and adventure and you have Gargoyle’s Quest. It’s a lean game that never overstays it’s welcome and is absolutely one of the most perfect games on Game Boy.
#9 — ActRaiser
Nothing like ActRaiser has been made before or since the game released more than 25 years ago. Not even ActRaiser 2 executed the first game’s strange yet brilliant synthesis of platforming and god/city simulation game. It’s a strange match, and one that was certainly ahead of its time. The game follows the battle between the forces of God (The Master in the English version) and Satan (Tanzra), as the former returns to the world to remove the evil influence of…evil. God/The Master sends an angel to clear each area of enemies (the platforming part) in order to rebuild and develop the decimated region (the god game part). What follows is an unconventional game flow in which the platforming ultimately shines. The control of God’s angel is tight and satisfying, and strange enemies and level design complement it really well. The god game aspect of ActRaiser is certainly simplistic, but it incorporates unique conditions, such as melting large drifts of snow in one area, and contributes to the overall narrative theme of “rebuilding.” Perhaps the most interesting aspect of ActRaiser is its religious implications, which were of course quickly toned down in the United States due to Nintendo of America’s uncomfortable relationship with any game with religious iconography. Regardless, ActRaiser is a good platformer and a solid god game that, combined, make up a great piece of gaming innovation.
#8 — The Secret of Monkey Island
I’m not good at adventure games. Especially old ones. The ones that everyone praises as some of the best adventure games of all time, really. And it’s not for lack of trying. The worlds, humor, and storytelling of games like King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, and Space Quest were certainly unparalleled, but ultimately, I find it hard to have fun with them due to their difficulty and vague objectives. The Secret of Monkey Island broke that trend. The collaboration between industry vets and icons Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer (and more, of course) was an attempt to make a less frustrating adventure game that was a little more clear and that rendered player death nearly impossible, allowing humor, “graphics,” and story to shine through. Ultimately, that’s what makes Monkey Island such a special game. It heralded the prolific, quality era of LucasArt’s love affair with adventure games, and stands as one of the earliest adventure games that can still be enjoyed by gamers of today.
#7 — StarTropics
StarTropics is an obscure, Nintendo-developed action-adventure game that is basically a streamlined Legend of Zelda featuring a boy with a yo-yo. To be fair, he gets a mace later. StarTropics follows Mike as he searches for his scientist uncle across multiple islands in the fictional “South Seas.” Each island is made up of an overworld area that lacks any combat, but features puzzling obstacles that must be overcome to ultimately reach one or more dungeons, where most of the action occurs. That’s where the Zelda similarity really kicks in. Mike must navigate a labyrinth of multiple screens, fighting enemies and solving puzzles along the way. Perhaps the strangest thing about StarTropics is that, while Mike is able to jump, he can only jump onto strange squares or across small gaps. This mechanic makes up the majority of the puzzles, which often involve Mike jumping around to find a switch square that opens a door or sets off some other event. It’s a strangely limiting way to control a character at first, but ultimately, StarTropics proves itself as an enjoyable, albeit very difficult, Zelda-inspired adventure.
Austin Clark: StarTropics was developed specifically for an American audience. The game was actually made in the US and to this day has never seen a Japanese release. Sounds crazy for an NES game, right? Well, it may be the exact reason StarTropics stands out among the deluge of NES titles out there. While it’s definitely not as weird as the Mother series, I think it does share a similar vibe. Aesthetically, it’s a pop song tailored to Americans, and yes, the first couple hours are very pleasing musically, visually, and even feels a bit familiar. I mean, the main character is Mike Jones! Who doesn’t know a Mike Jones? However, the game quickly takes a turn for the usual brutal difficulty that so many NES titles adhere to. Dungeons are filled with death traps that all too often need to be memorized after dying before you can make your way through, the jumping physics are a bit tough to nail down, and there’s even a code you need to use that could only be found by dipping an insert from the original packaging in water. Without that code, you’re not progressing. Thankfully, we have the internet now. Still, despite its hardships, StarTropics is a fun game that just feels unique compared to its 8-bit brethren. Oh, and that soundtrack. So good. So very, very good.
#6 — Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake for the MSX2 shouldn’t be confused for Snake’s Revenge, released for the NES the same year. That game, which had no connection with creator and director Hideo Kojima yet still serves as a serviceable follow-up, pales in comparison to Solid Snake, which wasn’t released in North America until it was included with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence 2006. It’s too bad it took it so long. Metal Gear 2 is an incredible realization of the great ideas present in its predecessor, complemented by a more meaningful, intense, and enjoyable plot influenced by real-world threats of nuclear war and espionage. Metal Gear 2 streamlines the 8-bit stealth action that the first Metal Gear defined (and basically created), and renders it in some of the best 8-bit graphics of the time. Metal Gear 2 communicates a thriller movie vibe that Kojima was most certainly targeting, and it ended up making the game stick in my brain more than many other games on this list.
#5 — Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
I love Disney. I have a lot of nostalgia for Disney. I have a lot of nostalgia for the Genesis. Therefore, I somehow have a lot of nostalgia for Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, even though I never played it as a child. I did, however, play a number of Disney Genesis games at that time, which retain a nebulous game feel established by Castle of Illusion. Ultimately, though, I think Castle of Illusion carries with it a brilliant 16-bit aesthetic that puts me into a remote, long-lost Disney short. And I loved it for that. Beyond my love for the presentation of the game, however, Castle of Illusion is an incredibly solid and fun platformer. Mickey’s “bounce,” which is the main method of removing enemies and traversing the diverse levels, is unique and controls really well. The boss sprites are great and the battles that ensue with them are even better. Castle of Illusion, in my opinion, was the Genesis’ first truly great game, and started Sega’s move to distinguish itself from Nintendo.
#4 — F-Zero
F-Zero is the fastest 16-bit game I’ve ever played. It reads like 1991 ad copy, but it’s true. The Mode 7 chip was built for F-Zero (I don’t know if that’s true, I just mean it feels like that), and allows for a sense of speed that wasn’t really rivaled in the era. Sorry, Sonic. I had adrenaline coursing through my whole body playing F-Zero, which is impressive considering the flat Mode 7 graphics and relatively simple gameplay. The futuristic theme is tied together by the otherworldly tracks and music. And the computer AI provide a huge challenge on top of the ratcheting difficulty of the tracks. F-Zero feels a little content light by today’s standards, and looks a little flat by those same standards, but the pure fun afforded by the game’s controls and the satisfaction of flawlessly making a tough turn make it a timeless experience.
#3 — Dragon Warrior IV
I’ve always preferred any one Final Fantasy game to any Dragon Warrior/Quest games…until now. Final Fantasy III and Dragon Warrior IV were released in the same year, the former never leaving Japan until 2006, but my feelings for the two of them couldn’t be more different. Final Fantasy III was the worst in the series up until that point, while Dragon Warrior, by its fourth installment, was at the top of its game. Dragon Warrior had always had relatively compelling characters and story, especially the third game, but Dragon Warrior IV is probably the first game in the series to truly elevate story. The game begins with four chapters, each following a different member of what is to become the hero’s party, and culminates in a final chapter that sees the hero come into contact with the various (and likable) characters that have made their own journeys in the previous chapters. It’s an intriguing approach, especially for 1990, but it also serves to establish a lengthy game with a sort of bite sized approach. Of course, none of the chapters feel especially snappy, but it lowers the stakes and simplifies by having the player deal with one or two party members at a time, which acts as a build up to the final chapter. Furthermore, “temporary” party members pop up in the chapters to help the characters, but players don’t have to worry about leveling or managing inventory for them. They’re usually very capable and serve as plot devices or ease the pain of certain dungeons and bosses. For all of Dragon Warrior IV’s character, plot, and structure innovation, however, it still just plays like most any Dragon Warrior before. The traditional turn-based combat, though, is of course complemented by the systems surrounding it. Ultimately, Dragon Warrior IV’s approach makes it more approachable, and sets it at the top of the Dragon Warrior/Quest series…at least, for now.
#2 — Mega Man 3
Michael Burns: A lot of people — and I mean a lot… like, all of them — will tell you that the Blue Bomber peaked with 1988’s Mega Man 2. But I’m here to tell you that’s just not the case. While it’s true that Mega Man 2 improved on the original in virtually every way, that wasn’t a hard thing to do: the original Mega Man is kind of a turd. Mega Man 3, on the other hand, took everything that made its predecessor great — cartoony graphics, instantly whistleable music, tight controls and perfectly tuned difficulty — and polished them to a diamond shine. On top of that, it introduced a pair of interesting new play mechanics — a slide dash and a transforming “canine” companion dog named Rush — that opened up the level design with a sense of playfulness that was missing from previous games. And perhaps most important of all, the new characters it introduced — the aforementioned Rush is joined by the mysterious Proto Man, who may or may not be on Mega Man’s side — hint at an expansive universe beyond the few dozen levels so far introduced in the series. Mega Man 2 might have been the classic that earned the title character his mascot status, but Mega Man 3 showed that a sequel could be much more than a re-tread.
#1 — Super Mario World
Super Mario World is probably my second favorite game of all time. So of course it’s the best of 1990. Heralding the power of 16-bit with the launch of the Super Famicom, Super Mario World stood as one of the era’s (and gaming’s) best games long past its initial release. In my opinion, artistry in games hasn’t really been able to pull off the beauty that makes up Super Mario World’s design, both aesthetically and mechanically. Amazingly catchy music and brilliant sound design accompany lush forests, dark caves, and sandy plateaus populated by beautiful sprites. And, oh yeah, Super Mario World is incredibly fun to play. It’s the ultimate evolution of the platforming set forth by Super Mario Bros. and explored in Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s tight, complemented by fun power-ups like the cape and balloon. Yoshi, in his first appearance, charms and brings a new level of depth to the moment-to-moment exploration of the numerous levels. And Super Mario World fleshes out a wrinkle that was somewhat present in 3. World’s overworld is full of secret levels and paths, which can be unlocked by finding secret exits within the levels themselves. They usually lead to the Star World, an entirely unique set of levels that themselves give way to a final set of secret levels. Super Mario World’s secret levels are some of its best examples of level design, and stand as a reason to delve even deeper into a seemingly simple sidescrolling game. Super Mario World really changed my initial interest in games as a kid into a full on love affair, and playing it today, 26 years after its release, that love hasn’t diminished in the slightest. It’s one of the all-time classics, and I believe it will hold up for as long as games are still being made and enjoyed.
Austin Clark: Best of 1990? Super Mario World is the greatest video game of all time. Period! Gauntlet thrown.
The list may have still been overwhelmingly Nintendo-based, but a Genesis game cracked the list! In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1990? Let us know!