The 9 Best Games of the Year…1995

Well, it’s been nearly two years since I wrote my 1994 GOTY piece. At this rate, I’ll be dead before I get to modern times. But I expected that. Honestly, the lull was probably due to the plethora of lengthy JRPGs that have invaded my running lists. And there were quite a few good ones in 1995, as you shall see, and a whole host of decent ones. I don’t feel it was a particularly tremendous year, even though it was the final full year of the SNES, the PlayStation was starting to really get off the ground, and PC gaming was becoming more accessible. If I had been alive in 1995, maybe I would have been playing the following nine games, listening to JAGGED LITTLE PILL by Alanis Morissette, watching TOY STORY in theaters, or becoming one of the first to browse the interweb with AOL.

Note: Games are considered for the year they were first released, regardless of the territory in which they were released.

Developer/Publisher: LucasArts

The first game in the complicated web of a series that is STAR WARS: JEDI KNIGHT, STAR WARS: DARK FORCES doesn’t necessarily foreshadow the gameplay of its successors. There are no lightsabers here; DARK FORCES is a straight-up first person shooter, or maybe a DOOM (1993) clone as it was then known. But DARK FORCES was made in its own engine, which notably offered vertical look, jumping, and crouching. Otherwise, though, it follows the template set by DOOM. STAR WARS: DARK FORCES is an incredibly fun, careening ride through a new STAR WARS setting, an expansion on the canon that would reside as a soft spot in the hearts of many fans (Kyle Katarn has his admirers).

Developer/Publisher: Capcom

The third game in the MEGA MAN X series, a somehow more futuristic and revisionist continuation of the classic MEGA MAN series, was maybe technically the best in the series up to that point. Besides the reimaginings that each of the disparate MEGA MAN subseries represent, it’s not exactly like each game really reinvents the wheel. But MEGA MAN X3 just did what its predecessors did really well. Collecting weapons from various animal-themed Robot Masters (sorry, Mavericks) by running, jumping, and shooting through their beautiful 16-bit stages is sidescrolling action at its finest. The upgrade system of the X games is still present, and besides the continued stronger emphasis on story, the most unique element of X3 is the playability of Zero. It’s not revolutionary, but MEGA MAN X3 is great fun.

Developer/Publisher: Capcom

And yet in a twist of fate, the unfairly maligned MEGA MAN 7 is better than its peer. The first evidence that Capcom would be running multiple MEGA MAN series concurrently for some time to come, MEGA MAN 7 was the first and only SNES installment in the classic series. And while it’s not as disgusted as 8, 7 probably stands as the second-worst game in that original run by many. That may still be true, but MEGA MAN 7 is still competent, even great fun. I don’t think that the X series is complicated by any means, but the return to the chunkier Mega Man character design and absolute simplicity of the NES series, just updated to cute 16-bit graphics, is so satisfying. Some slight “metagame strategy” is added in the form of a shop between stages, and it’s a welcome addition. Other than that, I can’t see anyone who doesn’t like MEGA MAN taking real issue with MEGA MAN 7, and I think it goes above and beyond many of the sidescrolling platformers and action games of its time.

Developer/Publisher: Square

As with that other highly lauded JRPG of the time, FINAL FANTASY VI (1994), I think I was let down by CHRONO TRIGGER; its name is uttered in similar hushed tones and it is also praised as one of the greatest games of all time. My expectations and the reality of the game, mismatched as they turned out to be, nevertheless do not obscure the fact that CHRONO TRIGGER is in fact incredible. Its story and characters are delightful, the artwork from Akira Toriyama is comfortable yet phenomenal, and the on-the-map enemy battles that can be avoided (as opposed to random encounters) launch into a fun, refined version of the “Active Time Battle” system that was introduced in FINAL FANTASY IV (1991). The progression of CHRONO TRIGGER didn’t necessarily leave me feeling like I was experiencing something out-of-the-ordinary. But once my experience was done, I realized I had experienced a towering achievement that, while not reaching the heights I expected, was great fun.

Developer/Publisher: Konami

My experience with SUIKODEN, on the other hand, could be described as the reverse of CHRONO TRIGGER. It’s not that I expected it to be bad, not at all; I knew SUIKODEN was revered. But its ubiquity in JRPG discussions is not nearly at the level of CHRONO TRIGGER, and I was expecting an interesting game. What I found was more than that. SUIKODEN is a deeply satisfying game that, at its turn-based combat core, is like most JRPGs you could name. But its ambitious recruitment system, which can ultimately allow you to bring along any five of a total 108 characters into your party, can not be discounted as a key part of the game’s appeal. It’s almost as if the developers made up for the complexity of the party arrangements by streamlining the equipment process; thankfully, you don’t need to account for new weapons for every potential combination…well, you just have to worry about armor and upgrading those weapons the characters already have. But by representing a diverse array of attack styles and abilities, the host of characters you can recruit end up giving the game much of its flavor. And that extends past combat, as many provide new, essential services in your home base. I don’t know how truly revolutionary SUIKODEN was, but the refinements of a few different systems that may have popped up in other games, built on its solid JRPG base, make it a deeply entertaining game.

Developer: Heartbeat
Publisher: Enix

But what has become the gold standard series for classic JRPGs pulled out another hit in 1995. DRAGON QUEST VI, after the constantly increasing quality of each game, took a slight step back in relation to IV and V, but it still carries the sheer joy of Enix’s long-running series. Like many other series, DRAGON QUEST VI is yet another iteration, not super out-of-step with its SNES predecessors, especially. Its story is a little weaker, and its scenarios and flow are as well as a result. But at the end of the day, the characters of DRAGON QUEST VI are still likable and the turn-based combat is as simple yet nuanced as ever. One major addition, actually a return from DRAGON QUEST III, is also welcome: the class system. I had a lot of fun maximizing class levels, switching characters’ classes to something else, then maximizing that one to gain access to new, cool classes. It’s a great system, and although it caused me some frustration from time to time, the “dark world-light world” conceit of the game’s exploration is interesting. It was not the best in the series up to that point, as every one of its predecessors had been, but DRAGON QUEST VI was still the crowning JRPG of its year.

Developer/Publisher: Bungie

Meanwhile, first-person shooters were coming into their own. In the years following DOOM, slight variations on its theme were trying new things. The aforementioned DARK FORCES took the combat to a fitting setting, the HEXEN series made a dark fantasy pass at it, and Bungie’s MARATHON games evolved first-person combat in a “high” sci-fi setting. The developer’s attention to story in the first MARATHON game was an immediate distinguishing factor from its contemporaries, an attention that would make HALO resonate some years later. But the attention paid to “game feel,” as was also apparent in HALO, also drew a distinction. Navigating MARATHON’s world and shooting within it are deeply satisfying, and with its sequel, Bungie doubled down on those aspects. No longer constrained to an admittedly massive colony ship, MARATHON 2: DURANDAL is to MARATHON as ALIENS (1986) was to ALIEN (1979), in a way. Set on the home planet of the enemy S’pht, DURANDAL deepens the lore of its premise while also delivering similarly paced first-person shooter action. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but MARATHON 2 just ends up being an immensely memorable game, one that stuck around in my head for some time after I completed it.

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo

But at the end of the day, I’m a simple boy, and I love my cute Nintendo platformers. DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 2: DIDDY’S KONG QUEST (not DIDDY KONG’S QUEST, as it is often erroneously called) improved on its already great predecessor in subtle ways. Oh, sure, an obvious change is that you can no longer play as its main title character. In DKC 2, Diddy is joined by helicopter-haired Dixie Kong to rescue ol’ Donkey. Her ability to glide certainly changes up the game and level design, but I think one of the standout abilities of the first few DKC games is their ability to create a sense of otherworldly atmosphere. And in regards to DIDDY’S KONG QUEST, that atmosphere feels like a separate world from even its predecessor. It’s built in the same pre-rendered 3D graphics, but they are put to use in exciting new environments, backed with great music, to really make you feel like you’re exploring a part of the Donkey Kong universe that’s not yet been seen. And bouncing along on enemies and finding the collectibles and interacting with the assorted Kongs on the world map is all still well and good. But there’s a certain undefinable quality to DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 2: DIDDY’S KONG QUEST that leads me to believe it is one of my favorite games of all time.

Developer/Publisher: Nintendo

And yet, there is still one greater from 1995, and I guess in my favorites as well. In spite of its title, SUPER MARIO WORLD 2: YOSHI’S ISLAND, much like WARIO LAND: SUPER MARIO LAND 3 (1994) did for Wario, spawned something separate from the SUPER MARIO series. So yes, in spite of the fact that were some Yoshi-themed puzzle games before its release, YOSHI’S ISLAND was the start of an admittedly hit-or-miss platforming series. And it never got better than this. From its beautiful, crayon-like art style to its interesting gameplay mechanics, based around Yoshi’s ability to flutter, eat things, and throw eggs, YOSHI’S ISLAND is just immensely satisfying to play. Sure, Baby Mario’s cries are annoying, but that’s kind of the point; rushing to rescue him after being hit is one of the great aspects of the game’s design. And of course, the very existence of a “Baby Mario” and “Baby Luigi” would factor into future games and many questions about the Mario “canon.” But ultimately, YOSHI’S ISLAND, while not incredibly easy in practice, is one of the easiest games to play. It’s comfort food, and a welcome reminder of the artistry of video games.

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