Oh my. It’s taken me over a year to write this latest installment of my historical “Best Games of the Year” series. Personal and life business increased in scope and, uh, frequency, but regardless, it’s become clear that the video game industry was a diverse and expansive art form by the early 1990s. As evidenced by me taking an actual year to run down a year of old games. As with last year’s installment, I had to leave out many notable, well beloved games in favor of not only my favorites, but also those that I believe truly hold up today, as someone who wasn’t alive in 1993 and didn’t play the vast majority of its games as a child. In 1993, the first of the sexual abuse allegations about Michael Jackson surfaced, Wu-Tang Clan’s ENTER THE WU-TANG (36 CHAMBERS) was released and, for good and bad, video games were legitimized by Hollywood with SUPER MARIO BROS. (and JURASSIC PARK came out).
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. Hence, the abridged number of games deemed “the best.”
#9 — STAR WARS: X-WING
STAR WARS: X-WING is a phenomenally overwhelming game. A pioneer in 3D polygon graphics and incredible dogfighting controls, X-WING is authentically STAR WARS. Not only does the campaign place you directly into the story of canonical STAR WARS moments (and early expanded universe content that fills in the gaps between A NEW HOPE  and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK ), but its controls are incredibly satisfying. However, X-WING is also difficult. Controlling any one of the kinds of ships (which feel distinct) is not an arcade-like experience; indeed, the game is a flight simulator. But that makes every successful downing of a TIE Fighter that much more relieving. Managing shield, speed, and laser levels compound the difficulty of the moment-to-moment gameplay, which makes the unforgiving mission objectives and timing all the more difficult to complete successfully. X-WING is incredibly frustrating, but the STAR WARS sounds, the wide expanse of an endless space, and the scale of enemy and allied ships seen through the first-person perspective of the cockpit set some of that frustration at ease. Not all of it, of course, which is what makes X-WING special. It’s immersive in its difficulty and sometime obtuseness, and since the world in which you’re being immersed is Star Wars, it’s incredibly exhilarating.
#8 — SHADOWRUN
Developer: Beam Software
Publisher: Data East
The first in a series of loosely connected, separately developed video games based on the cyberpunk/fantasy hybrid tabletop game of the same name, Beam Software’s SNES SHADOWRUN had a cinematic atmosphere that may have been unmatched at the time of its release. The premise of an alternate world in which common futuristic tropes solidified by things like BLADE RUNNER (1982) and NEUROMANCER (1984) mix with fantasy creatures and magic is incredibly novel, even today. The isometric game has incredible art design, with shadowy alleyways and decrepit buildings creating that noir feeling, supplemented by some chunky, ethereal beats. The pixel art of the humans and creatures are simple yet menacing, and the lengthy RPG takes you throughout a fairly diverse city that never truly feels safe. SHADOWRUN, which follows a man with amnesia who is trying to figure out why he was attacked by assassins, actually benefits from omitting a full explanation of its world. This setup is genius, as main character Jake Armitage also doesn’t really know what a “shadowrun” is, or that the mysterious spirit that saved him is a “totem.” When you talk with certain NPCs, dialogue options allow you to ask about the various in-universe terms, furthering the story and cluing you in to what SHADOWRUN fans would take for granted. The gameplay is a little less endearing, as the mouse-like interface renders the real-time shootouts with orc thugs and other enemies clunky. Exploration and next steps can be a little frustrating as well, but ultimately, building Jake into a capable detective of sorts smooths out the early challenge of the beginning of the game and allows you to fully enjoy the seedy world so expertly created with limited hardware and narrative explanation. SHADOWRUN is, to this day, in the upper echelon of noir video games, a genre and/or tone I’m realizing is sorely lacking in the medium. And there’s no discounting the pleasure of using magic in the game’s futuristic setting, or firing traditional guns at a vampire, troll, or dragon.
#7 — MEGA MAN X
In hindsight, with so many MEGA MAN sub-series, the impact of MEGA MAN X might be kind of lost. But the very premise of MEGA MAN X — in being a more “mature,” serious tale that reimagined tropes of a series already six installments in — is pretty incredible. It was sort of a canonical reboot, but contemporaneous to another installment in the original series and sandwiched between other revamps. This particular progression still isn’t really a common occurrence today. And it was all brought out with beautiful, vivid art and music on the new, powerful hardware of the SNES. MEGA MAN X is a smart evolution of the original NES “hexology,” bringing a slicker movement (almost quite literally with its dashes and wall jumps) to match the slicker pixel art. X’s jump animation may be a little less reliable for fans of the pixel perfect precision of the NES games, but MEGA MAN X’s controls and platforming is still miles ahead of most of its contemporaries. It’s an incredibly polished game that added more secrets and gameplay nuance (in the form of Metroidvania-style backtracking enabled by new equipment and abilities) to a series that had only dabbled in that realm and pretty much nailed down a near-perfect formula. MEGA MAN X also never diluted the moment-to-moment fun of running, gunning, and jumping. It added another layer of the perfect boss order for completionists looking for every upgrade for X, which was essentially a different order of completing the levels if you wanted to prioritize those items first. Of course, players much smarter than I would eventually be able to consolidate those approaches into a mega-efficient playthrough, but the choose-your-own-adventure magic of MEGA MAN, and the conversations and debate surrounding it, wasn’t lost with X. And as much as I missed the strange and out-of-the-box Robot Masters of the original games, the replacement with elemental animal robots was totally up my alley, and shined a light on a different kind of enemy design that is just as iconic today.
#6 — SHINING FORCE II
SHINING FORCE came out of left field when it made it onto my 1992 list. Having only been peripherally aware of the SHINING series, and having only played the underwhelming SHINING IN THE DARKNESS previously, the accessible turn-based strategy game (a genre I don’t typically fall in love with) was an addictive experience for me. The collection of a diverse cast of characters, rather than indistinguishable grunts, was a major draw for me. The relatively limited number of those player characters and enemies on screen, as well as a small scope of gameplay mechanics and abilities, also spoke to me as a novice turn-based strategy player. Thankfully, all these things hold true for SHINING FORCE II. The one drawback, however, is that all these things hold true for SHINING FORCE II. What I mean is that this sequel, which only released one year later, is supremely similar to the first game. It feels like an expansion pack, of sorts, set so many years after SHINING FORCE that its narrative connections are tenuous, in some ways like THE LEGEND OF ZELDA or even FINAL FANTASY. That’s great, mostly. I wouldn’t mind getting map packs or whatever of SHINING FORCE even today. But SHINING FORCE II doesn’t feel like a full reworking of its predecessor. Its improvements are small yet appreciated, but it isn’t super distinguishable from the first game. Ultimately, that works in its favor, as SHINING FORCE is an incredible (and probably still superior) game. Being similar to it isn’t really much of a slight against SHINING FORCE II. And, indeed, expanding the game may have very well made it lose what made it great: its simplicity. Even still, however, SHINING FORCE II is more difficult by way of a different promotion system, and its characters are less interesting and generally effective, for the most part. I found myself having to rely on a few key, strong characters rather than enjoying the rotation of my whole army as I did in the first game. This slight disappointment that I’ve been espousing, though, only speaks to the brilliance of SHINING FORCE II, since it made its way onto this year’s list regardless. It has problems, but mostly in comparison to its predecessor. It’s challenging yet satisfying, and the feeling of clearing a battle scenario still makes up some of the best strategy gameplay I’ve ever experienced.
#5 — SECRET OF MANA
You know, when I first started playing SECRET OF MANA, I wasn’t sure it would end up on my favorites/best list. That surprised me, as I had heard the game referenced as one of the greatest SNES games, and one of the greatest period. But perhaps that was the problem, as I had trouble reconciling my heightened expectations and a pervasive lukewarm feeling. I think I can attribute my mild reception to loose combat controls and a simplicity that I thought would never really expand. By the former, I mean that the power bar system — which limited powerful swings to a timer — was incredibly unsatisfying. I wanted to swing my sword around like I was in a ZELDA game, and even when I did hit an enemy, it felt like my weapon was just passing through it rather than colliding with it. And by the latter, I mean that the action-RPG mechanics didn’t seem to hold much progressive promise, even as I got past the introductory moments. But, as you might expect, I eventually got over these reservations. And in fact, the pair of problems I first had became some of the game’s greatest strengths. I found the real-time battles given a sense of rhythm and strategy by the power bar, and that also lent it a tactile feeling that I initially felt was missing. I also discovered that the introduction of two other party members, and their fairly helpful AI, gave me just enough complexity while still keeping things to the kind of light-ish action RPG that I enjoy. I can only imagine how much more fun I would have had if I had experienced the game cooperatively, a much touted feature of the game that actually allowed up to three players to play together with the SNES Super Multitap peripheral. The promise of the weapons in the game’s predecessor, known as SEIKEN DENSETSU: FINAL FANTASY GAIDEN (1991) in Japan and FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE in North America, was fully realized with SECRET OF MANA as well. That game, and SECRET OF MANA, used a weapon system that enabled the traversal of certain areas as well as changing combat situations. In spite of the first game’s FINAL FANTASY connection, the MANA or SEIKEN DENSETSU series doesn’t truly have any ties to the RPG giant, but SECRET OF MANA’s fantasy world is interesting and, perhaps more importantly, beautiful in its own right. All of these elements end up creating a game that transcends the typical trappings of an action RPG, especially the act of simply swinging a sword. It’s a novel risk that paid off brilliantly.
#4 — ILLUSION OF GAIA
Developed by ACTRAISER (1990) creators Quintet, ILLUSION OF GAIA soars above the exhilarating, unique heights of even that game. While it appears to be a much more traditional game, being a fairly straightforward RPG-ish action game (like THE LEGEND OF ZELDA, as opposed to an action RPG with true leveling and such), ILLUSION OF GAIA is almost unparalleled in its pared down approach to action games of its ilk. Stat boosts of various kinds are granted by killing all the enemies in a room, area, or screen, and there aren’t any weapons or items beyond healing herbs to collect. Instead, main character Will can transform, for most of the game, into a hulking warrior named Freedan. The transformation doesn’t only affect combat (although it certainly does in a big way) because it fits into the traversal puzzles of the game, since each have unique abilities. That traversal is very linear, meaning even the simple mechanics work within a fairly restricted world. Regardless, this creates a streamlined experience that is incredibly fun because — unlike my initial hesitancy with SECRET OF MANA’s combat — it’s fun to swing a sword in ILLUSION OF GAIA. Or, I guess, a flute, since that’s what Will wields for the entire game. Hitting an enemy is a tactile, satisfying feeling. Another Quintet strength elevates the game, that strength being the ability to create unique fantasy settings and stories. ILLUSION OF GAIA obviously contains fantasy conventions, but its alternate Earth/fantasy setting, complete with real-world landmarks like the Egyptian pyramids and the Nazca Lines is strange, unreal, and otherworldly. ILLUSION OF GAIA’s setting is a colorful yet threatening world, and its final, ambiguous moment contributes to the feeling that something is slightly off, even distant. This may just be because the translation of the story and dialogue from Japanese, as is the case somewhat in ACTRAISER, isn’t done incredibly well. Ultimately, though, the large character sprites, plot points, and expansive, globe-trotting story create an epic feeling that could have been lost in the simplicity of the gameplay, which is pure fun regardless.
#3 — MYST
I’m really bad at puzzle games. I had to use a walkthrough for MYST. I’m not really ashamed. But I’m typically not driven to do such a thing for a puzzle game; I’ll just drop it. That was, unfortunately, the case with THE WITNESS (2016), clearly a game inspired by MYST that I still appreciated quite a lot. Perhaps it was the distance of 25 years (and maybe even the fact that I could solve at least some of the puzzles of MYST on my own), but I had to see more of the world that MYST offered up. There’s a reason why the game is one of the most important and beloved of all time, and for me, it all comes down to its aesthetic and atmosphere. I have a soft spot for the 3D graphics of early ’90s PC games, and I’m not sure any other game embodies what I have in mind more than MYST. The fantasy/sci-fi setting and premise, as a whole, is unlike any other I’ve encountered, and the brilliant use of sound design and music play a large part in my appreciation of the lonely, ethereal environments. I’m getting chills just thinking about the giant, redwood-esque trees of the Channelwood Age, and the cavern in the central hill of the Stoneship Age. These impressive images are kept in my mind perhaps because of the point-and-click progression of the movement; every screen is a work of composed art. And, of course, I did find the puzzles impressive and revolutionary blah blah blah. I’m just so bad at them. But they do speak to MYST’s most impressive innovation in their ability to tell a story with the game’s environments, in lieu of a straightforward narrative. And that’s incredibly potent.
#2 — THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: LINK’S AWAKENING
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: LINK’S AWAKENING started life as a Game Boy port of A LINK TO THE PAST. What resulted is something so much more special than a shrunken facsimile of one of the greatest games of all time; it’s something that can actually be measured on the same standard. This is partly because LINK’S AWAKENING is a canonical, mainline entry in a series widely considered one of the best, but also because its gameplay is something alike, yet different. I still explored an expansive world from a top-down perspective. I still swung my sword, fought enemies in dungeons, solved puzzles, and swapped equipment to button inputs from a menu. But I also traversed sidescrolling segments, and platformed there and in the top-down segments more than in any other ZELDA game besides ZELDA II: THE ADVENTURE OF LINK (1987). I traded items with the diverse cast of incredibly fun characters strewn around the never revisited setting of Koholint Island. And I never encountered Ganon or Zelda, fought for the Triforce, or explored Hyrule. Instead, I experienced a twisted A LINK TO THE PAST model, one that was remarkably comparable to that landmark game on a handheld that contained maybe one-fourth of the power of its big brother, the SNES. The beauty of the sprite work and the massive world that was able to be packed into a Game Boy cart was unmatched until, perhaps, the POKÉMON games. But even without the context of the games that came before and after it, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: LINK’S AWAKENING is a triumphant adventure game, one with a world worth exploring for hours and characters worth remembering. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for LINK’S AWAKENING, and I think you will too if you play it.
#1 — DOOM
Developer: id Software
Publisher: GT Interactive
DOOM is a rollercoaster, a near non-stop thrill ride through Mars stations and brutal hellscapes, complete with blood, gore, demons, and lots and lots of guns and bullets. WOLFENSTEIN 3D introduced the first-person shooter to the gaming world, but DOOM solidified it into the public consciousness beyond. DOOM is simple and fast, and that’s its strength. It’s easy to play. I understand it’s become a buzzword, but the game is damn visceral. The chunky feedback of every gun is followed by chunky gore bursting from the chunky sprites of bizarre, terrifying creatures surrounded by chunky walls and rooms. “Chunky” may be a strange word to use, but DOOM feels very much like it takes place inside a cube, which makes sense considering the manipulation of 2D sprites into a 3D space. Enemies approach in straight lines, whether forward or diagonally, and levels feel like they’re divided into blocks. DOOM’s brilliance is the granting of its player with the ability to fuck up the cross-section of its carefully crafted environments viewed through a first-person perspective. The enemies are not living in this world, they are here to kill you. They are actors ready to begin their role once you step onto the stage, prepared to act out a morbid and disturbing play. The artifice of DOOM is disrupted by your ability to strafe, run, and act out against the flat surfaces of the complicated geometry of its world. DOOM’s Mars and Hell are flat, visually impressive concepts that are certainly not lived in, but their life is created by your very presence. It feels good to be powerful. There aren’t many other games that hew as close to that premise and fundamental truth as DOOM, a power trip that launched a genre that, perhaps more than any other, embodies the appeal of the power trip.
I’ve never been a massive PC gamer, but in 1993, it made its presence known with games far ahead of console offerings, at least technically. But many of those technical innovations would prove to be artistic gains as they created new experiences and entire genres that console developers eventually took notice of. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take me another year to write about more of my favorite games.