The 13 Best Games of 1996
We’ve finally reached it: the year I was born. 1996. 26 years ago (although at the time of this writing I’m still blessedly 25). It’s also been a year and a half since I wrote up my best games of 1995 piece, representative of the ever-growing scope of the video game medium. 1996 was a huge year for games, with the Nintendo 64 releasing worldwide, the PlayStation gaining ground, and 3D gaming at large taking root. Of course, there were still worthwhile holdovers from the 16-bit consoles, welcome breaths before the deluge of 3D consoles treated 2D games like box office poison (to mix art form metaphors). I vary the number of games included on my GOTY lists to encompass what I see as truly excellent from the year, and in the case of 1996, it necessitated 13 entries, a historical high mark for my own humble opinions. I couldn’t quite see INDEPENDENCE DAY (although I was apparently present [in the womb] in the theater), listen to Weezer’s PINKERTON, or fear mad cow disease in 1996, but at least I existed in this world for the final quarter of the year.
Note: Games are considered for the year they were first released, regardless of the territory in which they were released.
#13 — MARIO KART 64
MARIO KART 64 is held near and dear to many as the best (or their favorite) Mario Kart. As I’ve expressed in my own ranking of the leading kart racer franchise, I think it’s right in the middle of the pack on that scope. But on its own merits, and in the landscape of 1996, MARIO KART 64 is exceptional. It delivered a welcome upgrade to the style and template set by SUPER MARIO KART (1992) and established what the Nintendo 64 could do at an early date (although that date was later for us North Americans). The game is also still a blast to play today, even with some early 3D control hiccups that can be smoothed out with just a few races under your belt. The same can’t necessarily be said for the other leading racers of MARIO KART 64’s time.
#12 — TOMB RAIDER
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
It was actually a bit of a difficult decision to place TOMB RAIDER on this list. Compared to the 3D games to come (and even some released this very same year), Lara Croft’s debut causes a lot of consternation even in simply navigating the main character. But after learning the intricacies of the game…that is, after learning how to wrestle with the tank-like controls and stiff animations, the game’s satisfaction blooms. TOMB RAIDER is frustrating and difficult, even once you get a handle of its controls, but it also offers an outstanding adventure in a 3D space at a time when such a thing wasn’t quite as fully realized as it is here.
#11 — BLOOD OMEN: LEGACY OF KAIN
Developer: Silicon Knights
Publisher: Crystal Dynamics
BLOOD OMEN: LEGACY OF KAIN and the whole series it spawned have rumbled around my consciousness for a long time. I knew that it was a kind of a cult classic game, starting off a series that was actually pretty constant for a number of years. Thankfully, when I finally visited BLOOD OMEN, I was pleasantly surprised. Although the console manufacturers and publishers were pushing full 3D experiences, games that circumvented the growing desire for them were still offering great experiences. Oh sure, BLOOD OMEN has some real “impressive” cutscenes (I jest, but I think the low-poly look is kind of making a comeback) and 3D models in the game world, but the top-down action roleplaying the game develops is really fun. The dark fantasy world, through which player character and vampire antihero Kain stalks, supports the gameplay elements of being a vampire. The combat follows in a hack-and-slash vein, but magical spells, shapeshifting, and of course, bloodsucking liven up what could feel Gauntlet- or Diablo-like (although those are both great game series). Kain’s impactful upgrades and the exploration of the labyrinthine overworld and dungeons also serve to deepen the overall appeal of BLOOD OMEN, an action RPG with…bite. Sorry.
#10 — VANDAL HEARTS
On the whole, I’m not very good at strategy games, mostly because I don’t have the prerequisite patience. But when a strategy game resonates with me, it really resonates with me. That was the case with VANDAL HEARTS, a turn-based affair. The game’s appeal rests on its relatively limited scope. There is leveling of characters to be done, and branching class upgrade paths to decide on, but each mission is its own little puzzle-box; that comparison is solidified by the game’s blocky isometric look. The game’s “rock paper scissors” approach to classes that are strong against or weak to each other (familiar to fans of Fire Emblem) is straightforward and effective, while surrounding the whole game is an actually compelling story populated by interesting characters. The appeal of the game is that it is in fact quite similar to the Shining Force games that preceded it, another strategy series that was able to worm its way into my affections. VANDAL HEARTS is perhaps, at this time in video game history, severely underrated, but it’s fun and worth playing for “fans of the genre” and newcomers alike.
#9 — DUKE NUKEM 3D
Developer: 3D Realms
I actually wasn’t expecting DUKE NUKEM 3D to rate this highly. But this iconic game, known almost more for its ridiculous hyper-masculine humor and iconic dudebro main character than its gameplay, was an incredible rethinking of a pretty solid 2D platformer. Up until about this time, any first-person shooter was referred to as a “Doom clone,” whether it really did just use DOOM (1993) tech or not. But I think DUKE NUKEM 3D contributed to this “silver age,” if you like, of FPSes to come, mostly to PC, in the late ’90s. Its challenge is almost pitch perfect, its weapons are satisfying and/or clever, and the level design is engaging and strange but not too obtuse. But yes, DUKE NUKEM 3D’s “satire,” for all its obvious camp and self-awareness, grows a bit tired, especially in regards to the jokes about and violence towards (if the player so chooses) women. I’ll never get over drinking from the toilet bowls in DUKE NUKEM 3D, though, and if that’s not the sign of a great video game, I don’t know what is.
#8 — WILD ARMS
Developer: Media Vision
Sony’s big push for JRPGs in the States essentially began with WILD ARMS. The turn-based fantasy/steampunk game basically lifted an embargo the company had against roleplaying games in the US, and it was a good one to lead with. WILD ARMS’ basic structure isn’t radically different than the style of JRPG that had been developed during the previous generation; in fact, at first glance, it looks like it could have been released on the SNES. That is, until the battle sequences, which are rendered in 3D. It’s a style that doesn’t exactly overwhelm today, but it serves to “flavor” the feel of WILD ARMS in a different way. And when it comes to how it flavors gameplay, the battle system’s accumulation of a bar for “Force Techniques” lend another layer of strategy, augmented still further by characters’ specific special abilities. I also appreciate the game for its difficulty; it doesn’t require much grinding but presents a consistently satisfying challenge. WILD ARMS’ story enriches the experience still further, and it all coheres into a landmark JRPG in a banner era for the genre.
#7 — KING’S FIELD III
Released as KING’S FIELD II in America since the first game was never released here, KING’S FIELD III continued the first-person RPG experience that FromSoftware had developed in its earliest years. III was a definite improvement over its predecessor, but it carries the same difficult dark fantasy vibe that FromSoft is known for to this day. KING’S FIELD III offers vague story elements and oppressive environments, establishing numerous liminal spaces in which to explore and wonder about the nature of this world. Like any great RPG, the leveling and increased capabilities of your character in KING’S FIELD III are immensely satisfying, especially since the game’s learning and difficulty curve at the very beginning is relatively steep. It may be hard to control today to some extent, but the game’s relatively slow-moving combat takes on a grace of its own after some experience. I was tremendously impressed by KING’S FIELD III, a game that could have been crippled by its apparently primitive nature. Instead, it revels in it, spurring the imagination like the great tabletop and PC RPGs of old.
#6 — SUPER MARIO RPG: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN STARS
Everyone who’s played SUPER MARIO RPG: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN STARS wants a sequel to it. The groundwork that famed JRPG developer Square created with the game has however carried over into the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. That gameplay dynamic was primarily distinguished by timed inputs during the turn-based RPG combat, something that takes a little bit more getting used to in this earliest installation in the great Mario RPG tradition. But the novel gameplay that SUPER MARIO RPG brought to the platforming prince is just part of the game’s appeal. Square’s introduction of new characters and places blends with familiar figures like Yoshi and Bowser to create a truly unique interpretation of the Mario universe, (pre-)rendered a la Donkey Kong Country in an almost clay-like aesthetic, albeit in isometric form. SUPER MARIO RPG is also a tremendously funny game, setting a high bar for Mario humor to come and setting the mood for a streamlined yet satisfying turn-based experience.
#5 — CRASH BANDICOOT
Developer: Naughty Dog
There is tremendous nostalgia bundled up with CRASH BANDICOOT for me, it’s true. But in spite of retrospective criticism of the game’s simplicity, difficulty, or unfavorable controls (especially in comparison to more open 3D platformers of its time), the first game to star the iconic marsupial is a tremendous obstacle course thrill ride. My return to CRASH BANDICOOT in preparation for this piece was definitely smoothed by a muscle memory for the game, which essentially presents 2D-style level designs with 3D “complications,” as it were. It’s a hard game, but the satisfaction of getting through the levels scratches a different itch than the exploration of, say, a SUPER MARIO 64. CRASH BANDICOOT’s strange character designs and exotic aesthetic also serve to foster an appreciation for the world it creates, beyond the nitty gritty of the game’s tremendous level design. It wasn’t the best thing to come from the series, but CRASH BANDICOOT was a tremendous start and is still a satisfying fermentation of 2D platforming principles into the 3D era.
#4 — DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 3: DIXIE KONG’S DOUBLE TROUBLE!
Like SUPER MARIO RPG, DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 3: DIXIE KONG’S DOUBLE TROUBLE! was a late SNES release. Among the trilogy of the DKC games to come out on the 16-bit console, which wouldn’t continue until DONKEY KONG COUNTRY RETURNS in 2010, DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 3 is probably the least liked. That’s the case with me as well. But especially in the landscape of 1996, which was full of 3D experimentation that was often more frustrating than it was fun to play, the solid platforming of Rare’s game is so refreshing. Sure, DKC 3 follows in the template of its predecessors, but it opens up the “meta” of the level-based action by including an expanded collection and overworld exploration system. It’s a trend that would be escalated even further in the Nintendo 64 “collectathon” era and in DONKEY KONG 64 (1999) especially, but in DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 3, it’s not yet overwhelming. The initial Country trilogy’s convention of eliminating a previous player character from the action and adding a new one in continues, as Dixie from DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 2: DIDDY’S KONG QUEST (1995) is joined by the truly hilarious Kiddy Kong. I just think the big ol’ baby is actually funny. The North American-influenced world that the characters traipse through, fittingly called the Northern Kremisphere, is also an interesting and at times beautiful change from the jungle settings of the previous two games. Ultimately, DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 3 may be the weakest of the trilogy it is a part of, but it still retains the bouncy platforming of its predecessors and feels like a refined piece of classic action in the middle of a changing gaming landscape.
#3 — RESIDENT EVIL
When we’re talking about gameplay experiences that were totally invented for 3D, RESIDENT EVIL should be at the forefront of the conversation. Sure, it employs puzzle-solving and exploration techniques pioneered by point-and-click adventures of yesteryear, but the game’s integration of deliberate combat, oppressive horror atmosphere, and survival-based resource management was never really done before. Even conceived as a remake of SWEET HOME (1989), the game feels totally new. I used the word “deliberate” to describe the combat, but of course RESIDENT EVIL’s tank-like controls can cause some frustration. But then, that’s partly the point, as zombie threats become even more overwhelming. I’m usually not a proponent of bad controls to artificially increase difficulty, but the navigation of the game’s characters does become doable and in fact ends up as second nature at some point, with some frustrating mistakes arising from time to time. It’s just one gameplay element reflecting the dangerous atmosphere established by the game’s story, incredible and extensive mansion setting, and dark look. The difficulty in finding the things you need, like healing medicines and ammunition, contributes to the impending horror. There are actually significant stretches of the game where no significant threats arise, but the promise that a zombie or, later in the game, even more dangerous enemies may be around the corner is incredibly unsettling. RESIDENT EVIL’s limited save system also contributes to this feeling, but as opposed to the elements I’ve yet described, it’s more stressful than it is a welcome atmosphere-creating device. Ultimately, though, the game is the creator of a whole survival horror genre as we know it for a reason: its take on zombie stories, the gameplay representation of the feelings its cinematic inspirations instill, and emphasis on puzzle-solving as much as staying alive was and is incredible. RESIDENT EVIL, after a control learning curve and maybe some help from a walkthrough here and there, is still a deep experience today.
#2 — POKÉMON RED/BLUE/YELLOW
Developer: Game Freak
This may be the most glaring inclusion on a “1996 video games” list due to Pokémon fever not reaching America until 1998. But even still, the original Pocket Monsters craze grew, albeit with “Red and Green” versions initially, in Japan beginning in 1996. The inclusion of the North American RED and BLUE versions, as well as the more significant changes represented by YELLOW (1998), recognizes the fact that the “Generation I” Pokémon games are, collectively, one gameplay experience. YELLOW, it’s true, shook things up further with a reliance on the anime’s elements and some streamlining of RED and BLUE’s most obtuse moments, but it was also my introduction to Pokémon. The whole experience was made even easier to play with the Gen II games to come, but the gameplay systems and universe that RED, BLUE, and YELLOW introduced to the world are undoubtedly compelling to this day. It’s hard to overstate how much Pokémon meant to me in my youth, and these games were the instigator of that. It’s incredible that the sheer size and experience of RED, BLUE, and YELLOW could all be played in handheld form on the Game Boy, but seeking out, catching, and battling the 151 uniquely designed bizarro versions of animals (and objects) we know in our real life felt epic in spite of the small screen. The quaint mirror universe that Pokémon created almost feels utopian (well, except for the apparent animal abuse and Team Rocket’s bad behavior) and is a huge part of why the games are so successful, I believe. But the core of Pokémon as a sort of JRPG for beginners, with its relatively straightforward turn-based combat cemented in a “rock paper scissors” elemental framework, is endlessly satisfying. There are so many elements of the Gen I Pokémon games that I could continue to praise (for example, they introduced Snorlax, a Pokémon whose appeal has never been beat), but it may be enough to say that they didn’t just start a fad, as “Pokemans” reactions may have indicated in the late ’90s. Indeed, RED, BLUE, and YELLOW started one of the most enduring video game series of all time, and created a desire to “catch ’em all” that I feel to this day.
#1 — SUPER MARIO 64
I take some satisfaction in looking back over this list and seeing the diversity of experiences the video game industry of 1996 offered represented here. But when it comes to the game I would most likely come back to from my birth year, it has to be the agreed upon defining game of its time, and indeed one of the best and most important games of all time: SUPER MARIO 64. The introduction to the Nintendo 64, the famed developer and publisher’s vision of 3D gaming, and a truly new and accessible method of interacting with expansive spaces in a new dimension is worshipped for a reason. SUPER MARIO 64 refined the experimentation of 3D exploration and platforming into a polished and, most importantly, immensely playable experience, displaying the Nintendo attention to detail and perfection. Of course, SUPER MARIO 64 isn’t a perfect game, as many have liked to point out in some retrospective looks with the benefit of even more refined experiences. But I think it’s incredibly impressive that not only is SUPER MARIO 64 relatively easy to play today, with some slight hiccups that you can attribute to the era, but it’s also deeply satisfying and enjoyable. Unlike say CRASH BANDICOOT, SUPER MARIO 64 did not simply “3D-ify” the 2D platforming concepts the series’ predecessors had modeled, but presented a new vision of wide exploration both within segmented “levels” and a low-stakes “overworld” hub. The collection of stars, in both of these kinds of environments, is addicting, and the discovery of especially hard-to-find ones is preceded by puzzle or platforming challenges so clever that it motivates the effort to gather them. SUPER MARIO 64’s beautiful little worlds are not to be discounted in discussing the impact of the game, because the fact of the matter is that the Super Mario aesthetic was brought into 3D with charm intact. The rethinking of Mario’s abilities within this context (for example, ledge grabbing, triple jumps, etc.) was tremendously important and set the template for the 3D Mario games to follow. In fact, as with my Pokémon write up, I could go on about SUPER MARIO 64, its impact, and my own enjoyment of its numerous elements. But when I reflect on the games released in 1996, I can simply state that SUPER MARIO 64 offers the most consistently entertaining and awe-inspiring experience, even today.