Historical context: The Sony Playstation is released. There is some long boring history behind it, but the bottom line is that it was the first successful CD-based console ever released, and pretty much launched the era of 3D gaming. They had some trouble getting third party support early on, so there wouldn’t really be any first rate games on it for another year or two. Eventually, Sony will replace Sega as the company that can potentially dethrone Nintendo. Speaking of Sega, they released their new console in 1994 as well. It was called the Sega Saturn and it was a miserable failure. It was CD-based like the Playstation, but (from what I understand) its hardware was really fucking hard to program for. As a result, no one wanted to make games for it. It disappeared not long after hitting the market. In one of the most perplexing and terrible business moves of all time, Sega also released the 32X this year. The 32X was another peripheral for the Sega Genesis and it was absolute fucking garbage. Absolutely no one bought it. Why the fuck would you when you could just get Sega’s new console? Nintendo is still going strong with the SNES, while working on their next console. 1994 is an atomic fuckbomb of amazing games for the SNES. This list may reflect that.
5. Super Street Fighter 2: The New Challenges (SNES - Capcom)
I have never been the biggest fan of fighting games, but most people who have been following me for a while know I’m a big Street Fighter supporter. It was tempting to include a different incarnation of Street Fighter II in each list so far, but I ultimately decided on one, and Super Street Fighter II is by far the best edition that was released on the SNES. In addition to four new characters, SSF2 had lots of graphics and sound upgrades, and tweaked a lot of the players to make it a much more balanced experience. I think this is the first Street Fighter game to establish any sort of concrete difference between Ryu and Ken. Having always been a fan of Ryu based on appearance and personality alone, I slowly began shifting towards Ken around this time, because I preferred his “faster but weaker” style from a tactical stand point. (Ryu is still undeniably a cooler dude than Ken, however) Super Street Fighter II is as close to perfection as a traditional fighting game gets for me, and I think it has stood the test of time admirably. Also, fuck Mortal Kombat.
4. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega Genesis - Sega)
From 1991 to 1994, Sega proved that it could compete on the same level as Nintendo, and one of the main keys to this was Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonics 1 and 2 and Sonic CD (left off the 1993 list due to my not having played a whole lot of it) were instant classics, unified by the same core gameplay idea, but each great in their own unique ways. This four year period is when Sonic was at his best, and when I really loved his games. Sonic 3 is my favorite. It introduced Knuckles the Echidna, beloved anti-hero of the series. It looked beautiful, was interestingly structured, had creative set pieces (largely absent from the previous games) and had the most ballin’ soundtrack ever, thanks in large part to contributions by Michael goddamned Jackson. An improvement in every way over its predecessors, Sonic 3 is damn close to Super Mario World quality, if not possibly better. Coming from me, that’s saying a lot.
A quick aside, because I feel it’s relevant. Sonic 3 was the last truly great game in the franchise. It has been 16 goddamned years. To this day, Sonic continues to appear in games. He is kept prisoner in the dark realm between mediocrity and complete shittiness, his mind and body tortured by eldritch abominations I dare not name. He is an old and once famous clown who wants nothing more than to retire with a legacy of great work to be remembered by, but his cruel and vicious ring leader refuses to let him rest, holding in Sonic’s face a contract which says he belongs to the circus forever. Never have I seen a fucking paragon of quality games and wonderful service as a console mascot so horribly exploited and humiliated by such intolerable fools. Please, Sega, do Sonic a favor. Take him out to the old barn and shoot him in the head. Let him stop. If not for him, than for his old fans. We can’t look him in the eye anymore.
3. Mother 2 (a.k.a. Earthbound) (SNES - Ape/HAL Laboratory)
Earthbound is a kind-of-sequel to a 1989 NES RPG called Mother, which never came out in America. That’s why this game is called Earthbound here, because if they had kept the title “Mother 2” we’d be all “what the fuck?”
Alright. Now the question arises: how the fuck do I even begin to explain Earthbound? It’s pretty consistent as far as gameplay. Earthbound is a typical JRPG where you fight monsters, people and aliens with a party of four people. But the tone and the story are all over the place. For the most part Earthbound is unusually light hearted and comedic considering its typically epic and melodramatic genre. Then at times it becomes an absolute nightmare. Perhaps the easiest way to get this point across is to look at the music. This is the kind of stuff you’ll hear throughout a lot of the game. You don’t have to listen to all of it. Just click a few and listen to the first 10 seconds or so to get an idea. It’s pleasant and mostly upbeat. Okay. Then shit like this happens. You starting to get the idea?
Alright let’s try to make this quick. Earthbound is like Japan’s loving homage to their perception of innocent and happy 1950s America. As such, it pulls a lot of inspiration from 1950s sci fi horror films. There also digs at and references to 1980s and 90s America, like the recurring characters “The Runaway Five” (a pretty blatant tribute to the Blues Brothers), and the fact that you often have to fight punkass skater kids and “New Age Retro Hippies”. The main character is a little kid who likes baseball and is nice to his mom. His name is Ness. He is contacted by a bumblebee who traveled from the future on a metorite to tell him that he is destined to save the world from an evil alien invader named Giygas. No, I didn’t fuck that sentence up. That happens. Remember when I said this game was light hearted and funny? It’s also really fucking weird. The people who wrote this game were mad geniuses. In addition to surreal moments like that, and the general cleverness of the story, the game has frequent and hilarious fourth wall breaks. Fourth wall breaks aren’t terribly uncommon in video games as a means of explaining gameplay mechanics to the player, but Earthbound appears to be self-aware. Most of the characters are completely conscious of the fact that they’re in a game. The ways this works itself into the dialogue and story are beyond genius. To top it all off, the overall light tone of the story takes a dramatically dark turn at the end when you find out that Giygas is, let’s say, not exactly what you expected based on what his minions led you to believe. (SPOILERZ) He is not a funny little grey alien king with a ray gun. He is an abstract and formless being of pure evil whose mind has shattered an reverted the level of a confused and frightened child who can do nothing but cause destruction. (END SPOILERZ) The head designer of the game has said that the final boss battle was based on his memory of witnessing a rape scene in a movie as a young child, and his fragile undeveloped mind’s inability to accept what he was seeing. And people say video games are childish and simple diversions.
There’s a lot more I could say about Earthbound, but it’s better to just play the game for yourself. It is a beautiful and psychotic experience from the minds of some borderline deranged people. I hope I was able to get that across.
2. Super Metroid (SNES - Nintendo)
Super Metroid, along with Earthbound and the #1 entry on this list, was a huge step forward for console games as far as their ability to be taken seriously as art. Super Metroid doesn’t have nearly as much going on as far as story, but a lot going on in other areas. At the end of Metroid 2, Samus Aran wipes out the entire metroid species, save for one baby which she delivers to a research station for scientific study. At the beginning of this one, space pirates, led again by Ridley, launch an assault on the station and steal the Metroid before setting up yet another base on the planet Zebes. Samus goes down there to stop their plans to breed an army of metroids which could be an enormous threat to the universe. That’s all prologue, and once Samus lands on Zebes and the actual game starts, there is very little plot development. What Super Metroid achieves that the previous games in the series did not is atmosphere. Loads of it. The key word (that, as you can probably tell by now, is something I’m a big fan of in games) is isolation. Samus is the only human on this entire planet, and she explores its labyrinthine caverns, its crashed space ships, and its deep lakes completely on her own. The whole experience can be unsettling and tense. This is aided by superb sound design and fantastically ominous music. Super Metroid is not about collecting points or really even mastering a skill. It’s about having an engaging and emotional experience, that is fun at the same time. This was highly unusual for what was essentially just a 2D platformer (albeit a nonlinear one). All Metroid games after would follow this model.
Super Metroid was also enormously influential. While the formula was essentially the same as the first game (start weak, gain powerups that allow you to access parts of the map you couldn’t before, eventually gain access to the final boss and kill it), Super Metroid did it a lot better. The next major Castlevania game would abandon its old linear style in favor of something very similar to this, hence the genre name “metroidvania”. I think all action/adventure games today owe a whole fucking lot to Super Metroid. It’s the perfect blend of visual and aural storytelling, with loads of deep exploration, and it’s a ton of fun to play.
1. Final Fantasy VI (a.k.a. Final Fantasy III) (SNES - Square)
WARNING: PRETTY MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGHOUT
Where do I begin with Final Fantasy VI? In 1994, I don’t think the world had ever seen a game so cinematic and so fucking dark. Final Fantasy VI is an intensely emotional experience. The characters in this game feel more real and strangely relatable than 90% of modern video game characters, and these are fucking 2D sprites that barely resemble actual humans. Who can forget Terra, the tragic half-breed amnesiac? Or Locke, the proud and traumatized thief? Or Cyan, perhaps the most tragic character of all, who, in one of the most tear jerker moments ever, loses everything he has ever loved in the blink of an eye, all so a lazy imperial general can take over his kingdom faster and take a vacation?
Final Fantasy VI starts off as a typical Star Wars plot. A group of rebels wants to stop a powerful empire from taking over the world and threatening global destruction through the use of a power it doesn’t understand. The emperor is a foolish old man named Gestahl. He has three generals: the righteous and noble Leo, the beautiful and intelligent Celes and the disgraceful and psychotic Kefka. Celes eventually defects to the rebels, while Leo and Kefka remain. Kefka spends much of the game as a joke villain. He is a foppish dandy who has a penchant for wearing jester’s makeup, and who has little regard for human life. The few times your characters attempt to fight him, he runs away like a coward. Eventually, Gestahl and Kefka gain enormous power and plan to rule the world together in a cliché emperor and Darth Vader type arrangement. Turns out Kefka’s not so interested in that. He casually and unceremoniously murders the emperor, not because he refuses to share power or be an underling, but because he doesn’t want to be a worshipped by humanity. He hates humanity far too much for that to appeal to him. So he brings about the apocalypse. He kills most everyone in the world. Many survivors commit suicide out of despair. Those that don’t live in constant fear of Kefka, who now lives atop a tall tower in the center of the map, setting towns ablaze because he fucking feels like it. There is no logic to his behavior. He doesn’t want to be exalted or feared. He doesn’t want revenge against anyone. He just hates. You can’t protect against something like that. You can never reason with someone who doesn’t give a shit about reason. You can’t understand someone who does not want to be understood. You can’t teach someone to love when he hates so indescriminately and for no reason. There is some backstory as to how he got to be this way, but it’s not terribly important.
Halfway through the game, the heroes lose. And there isn’t a magical ending where they undo the destruction they failed to prevent. All they can do is reunite and stop Kefka, to give some semblance of hope to a broken and completely hopeless world. In the end, our heroes do manage to kill Kefka and sort out their own emotional problems, but it’s a pyrrhic victory at best. Never before had a game been so unapologetically bleak. Never had a game dealt with issues like genocide, suicide, teen pregnancy and despair so frankly. I talked about Kefka so much because I think he’s the most interesting part of the story. He has no world domination or revenge clichés like pretty much every other video game villain in the history of the medium. As such, he has no boundaries, and he shows the player what true terror really is. How fucking ballsy is this game? I mean, seriously.
In addition to all of this, the gameplay is fluid and fairly complex without being annoying (something which later Final Fantasy games would constantly fuck up). The player characters are all distinctive and memorable, and each has their own arc that the writers manage to resolve by the end of the story. And I’m not talking about five or six characters here. There are 14 heroes in this game, and no clear cut protagonist. As such, the story is never predictable. No character is ever truly safe from a tragic twist of fate. Some characters that you thought were being built up as the main hero of the game will disappear for long stretches of time, revealing a different character in your party to be a leader. And yet it manages to remain tightly written throughout. Final Fantasy VI is one of the most complete games ever made. There are very few flaws and no loose ends. Now that Square Enix has sold out and started making sequels to all of their shit, they still haven’t touched FF6 despite its popularity. You know why? Because there’s absolutely no room for a sequel. The story is so contained that any attempt to do so would be an absolute disaster. Final Fantasy VI is the best JRPG of all time.
Except for maybe two other games, which will undoubtedly be on subsequent lists.
EDIT: One last thing. Final Fantasy VI was a huge evolutionary step forward in the maturity of music written for video games. Dancing Mad, the piece which plays over your epic and fucked up final battle with Kefka, is legitimately a work of genius.