Historical context: With the Saturn and Genesis essentially dead, Sega releases the Nomad, a handheld console that played Genesis games. While impressive technically, its sales weren’t amazing. The Sony Playstation is getting ready for a major coup. Nintendo releases the Virtual Boy a “handheld” console that was “3D”. It only had two colors (red and black) and was a severe strain on the eyes. Also, the fact that you had to wear enormous bulky goggles made it not particularly convenient as a hand held. Nintendo’s first major mistake after about 15 years of great games and hardware. 1995 was mostly a year for good SNES and computer games.
5. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (SNES - Nintendo)
A break from the usual Mario fare, Yoshi’s Island is a prequel to the entire series. Instead of controlling Mario, you control Yoshi, who has to chauffeur around an infant Mario, and reunite him with his twin brother Luigi while protecting him from Bowser’s minions. Yoshi’s Island returns to the much more linear style of the first two NES games, but improves on the series in a couple of ways. The boss fights in this game are probably the best in the entire series, and thankfully there’s a lot more of them. The bosses are all really big and take a lot more than just jumping on them three times to take down. Each fight has a unique strategy, never reused for a future battle. And the final fight with baby Bowser blown up to the size of a skyscraper is fucking epic. You thought Kraid in Super Metroid was huge? Nah. This motherfucker is mountainous. And he’s not too easy to take down either.
Yoshi’s Island also looks beautiful, benefitting from the same Super FX chip that Star Fox had. Most games on the SNES look either highly pixellated or very polygonal. Yoshi’s Island looks like it was drawn with a crayon, keeping in line with the prominent theme of childhood innocence. It really looks like the kind of drawing you do in kindergarten that your mom puts up on the refrigerator with a smiley face magnet. It’s an amazingly effective style choice, and it looks more beautiful than it sounds.
Yoshi’s Island is in no way superior to Super Mario World. It does have its flaws, one of which (“WAHHH! WAHHH! WAHHH! WAHHH! WAHHH!”) still gives me horrible night terrors. But it’s a refreshing change and is definitely worth playing if you missed it.
4. Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (PC - Blizzard)
This is going to be hard to talk about, so I’m probably not going to say much. I’ve never been a big RTS fan and this is really the only one I’ve played in any real depth. But I used to play the shit out of this game. This was around the time the battle between Blizzard and the developer Westwood (maker of the popular RTS series Command & Conquer) really heated up. Blizzard would eventually win, paving the way to them making the god-awful money factory that is World of Warcraft. Warcraft 2, however, is excellent. Like the first one, you can play as either Orcs or Humans, and battle your way through numerous conflicts along a long campaign. Sometimes your goal is to protect a village, sometimes to attack and destroy an enemy base. But it is always a prolonged engagement, with lots of different factors involved. It takes a deep level of thought and planning to progress, which can be challenging and fun. I realize I’m basically just giving a dictionary definition of the RTS genre, and not describing anything terribly unique about this game. Not being a PC gamer, this was a genre I was never really exposed to, so I’m somewhat out of my element. However, it was a really fun experience playing it back in the day. And the voice acting for all of the units is great. “Job’s done!” “Ready to serve!”
3. Clock Tower (SNES - Human)
Holy goddamn hell this game is fucking scary. Never before had a game done the horror genre so successfully. There have been better horror games since then, but none of them have been quite like Clock Tower.
Clock Tower is not an action game where you have to fight through loads of monsters. It’s a point and click adventure game where most of what you do is run around an eerily empty mansion solving its strange puzzles by yourself. Occasionally you will be ambushed by the Scissorman. He’s a deformed boy-man wearing a traditional school uniform who wields a giant pair of scissors. He never speaks, though he occasionally lets out a freakish giggle. He is the only enemy in the entire game. Staying consistent with the fact that you’re playing a young unarmed girl, there’s no way to fight him. All you can do when he arrives is run and hide. Sometimes he emerges at scripted moments, but most of the time encounters with Scissorman are random. You’re never safe. He’s always stalking you. And it’s a big fucking deal when he shows up. Due to your lack of fighting ability, the chances are always very high that he will kill you. Whenever it goes from complete silence (the game has almost no music, by the way) to the very faint sound of scissors rhythmically opening and closing around the corner, you basically enter pants shitting mode.
The idea of being isolated and defenseless in a creepy mansion with a deranged murderer was something that hadn’t really been done before in a game. Clock Tower is a unique experience, and it’s fucking terrifying to play. Considering the technical limitations of the SNES, getting that kind of emotional reaction from the player is a pretty big achievement.
2. Marathon 2: Durandal (Mac - Bungie)
Along with System Shock, Marathon was an evolutionary stepping stone between the old school Doom/Quake shooters and the current more story based ones. While very crude on a technical level, I think the eventual breakthrough FPS Half Life took a lot from the Marathon series. Unfortunately not many people played these, due to it being Mac exclusive. But believe me, Marathon was fucking great. The second installment, Durandal, is the one I played the most and is probably my favorite.
It’s a bit hard for me to describe, since I honestly haven’t played it straight through in years. In the first game, you play a security officer on a space station that is invaded by some fucked up alien slavers called the Pfhor. The station is run by three A.I.: Leela, Tycho and Durandal. As I recall, Leela is still functioning normally, and she acts as your guide throughout most of the game. Tycho, on the other hand, goes rampant and becomes a drooling psychopath. Sometimes he’ll take over, and rather than sending you to a part of the ship on an important mission, he’ll just teleport you to an arena full of monsters and giggle as you try to fight them off. Durandal, throughout most of the game, is absent. In the sequel taking place years later, he acts as your main guide. He is rampant, but not like Tycho was. He has a very calm arrogant tone (not entirely unlike HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and likes playing little mind games with you. He’s a psychopath in a much more subtle way than Tycho was. He kind of wants to help you fight the aliens when he feels like it, but he seems pretty uninterested in the whole thing. The best parts of this game are whenever you get to a computer terminal and read the messages he’s left for you. Durandal is a fantastically well written character in a great, creepy sci fi horror story.
After the Marathon trilogy, Bungie went through a lot of personnel changes, and went on to make the enormously popular and overrated Halo series. It’s all anyone knows them for these days. But if you want to see what they used to be like, I highly recommend getting these three games. Bungie has made them available for a completely free download. They’re fairly primitive, but genuinely disturbing. It’s another one of my beloved, “isolated with minimal-to-no music” games. It has great characters and a wonderfully deep story. Underrated to the fucking extreme.
1. Chrono Trigger (SNES - Square)
What can I possibly say about Chrono Trigger that hasn’t already been said? Or that I can fit in my self-imposed space restrictions? It’s a Square JRPG, but is not really a whole lot like Final Fantasy. It’s really a lot better than a majority of the series, in fact.
The story, as concisely as possible: young Crono wakes up on the day of the Millennial Fair, commemorating the 1,000th year of the kingdom of Guardia’s reign. His best friend Lucca is an inventor, and while demoing a teleportation device, she accidentally rips open a portal in time. Crono, Lucca and their new friend Marle (the kingdom’s tomboy princess, a fact which she hides from her friends), travel 400 years in the past to a time when Guardia was ravaged by a war with magical beasts who were under the command of a dark wizard named Magus. Upon having a fairly amusing and light adventure, they inadvertently travel to the distant future, where the world is a desolate wasteland and the last dregs of humanity hold on for dear life against their better judgment. They find out that several hundred years prior, an all-powerful being called Lavos emerged from beneath the planet’s crust and, in a matter of minutes, brought about the apocalypse. It seems that this Lavos creature may have been summoned forth thousands of years in the past by Magus. Crono and his friends, along with a few new people they meet along the way, set out to prevent this from happening. As they adventure on, they discover that the nature of the Lavos, human evolution and the planet itself might not be exactly what it seems.
Chrono Trigger is a fucking miracle, and is probably the last truly great JRPG before the genre began its gradual downfall. The story and the gameplay are so engaging; probably even more so than Final Fantasy VI, and you know how I feel about that fucking game. Battles aren’t random, and you don’t have to go to a special battle screen every time a fight breaks out. It all takes place on the travel screen itself. This seems insignificant, but it kept the gameplay flowing in a way that most RPGs did not. RPG guy confession: I fucking hate random encounters. They are a terrible design idea, and I have no idea why more games didn’t go the Chrono Trigger route.
The story is not nearly as heavy in tone and subject matter as Final Fantasy VI, but it is still fantastic in a mind bending sort of way. However, much like FF6, Chrono Trigger has some marvelously sincere characters. The heroes of Chrono Trigger are some of the most wonderfully endearing people you’ll ever spend time with. Crono is a silent protagonist, an RPG trope that I tend to find uninteresting. But I dare you not to get emotional when he (SPOILERZ?) has his devastating heroic sacrifice two thirds of the way through the game. (END SPOILERZ?) And who hasn’t had their heart touched by Frog, the young self-loathing swordsman who, after failing to save his best friend and mentor from a grisly death, is cursed by Magus to live the rest of his life as an anthropomorphic amphibian? (SPOILER AGAIN) Hell, even Magus himself turns out to be a complex and very sympathetic character. A functionally immortal member of an ancient enlightened civilization, as a child he witnessed his land’s tragic destruction at the hands of people corrupted by the power Lavos offered. His kind hearted sister Schala, the only person in the world that the dark and misunderstood boy could relate to, was essentially killed before his very eyes.(/END SPOILERZ)
And on top of that, Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack is an amazing achievement. Sure games before Chrono Trigger had great music, but this soundtrack is so goddamn emotional. I mean, listen to this shit. Sure it’s epic, but it has a certain emotional content that I don’t think any game before it had ever achieved. And this wasn’t even composed by Square’s resident genius Nobuo Uematsu. A young untested composer named Yasunori Mitsuda was given the opportunity to score this one. Supposedly, the kid was so excited, he barely slept during the entire scoring process, and wept when he first heard his music in the final product. You can really hear that passion in there. It’s fucking beautiful.
Chrono Trigger is a classic. If you haven’t played it, fucking play it. You don’t like RPGs? Shove it up your ass. I used to hate RPGs until I played Chrono Trigger. It turned me. The first time playing this game is a pretty indescribable experience, and it stays fresh on repeat play throughs. Simply put: a groundbreaking game that one shouldn’t deny.