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Top 5 games of 1996

Historical context: Nintendo releases the Nintendo 64, their powerful new console capable of really good full 3D graphics and shit. Unfortunately, Nintendo opted to make the N64 cartridge-based like the SNES, instead of CD-based like the Playstation. This had numerous effects. For one, cartridges were more expensive than CDs, so their games costed more. Secondly, cartridges had certain limitations that CDs didn’t, especially with sound. As a result, a lot of Nintendo’s third party support abandoned ship and started making games for the Playstation. From this point on, most major titles from Capcom, Square, Konami and the other big names would be made for Sony consoles instead of Nintendo consoles. Essentially, Nintendo managed to make the Playstation a much more viable rival than it had been before. The N64 still had some really, really great games, but most were made by Nintendo themselves or their loyal developer Rare, who really came into their own during this console generation.

5. Duke Nukem 3D (PC - 3D Realms)

While flying over Los Angeles, Duke’s fuckin’ rocket car gets shot down by some aliens. He decides to get out of LA by kicking every alien in the face while delivering some cigar-mouthed one liners. Sometimes he stops by a strip club.

Duke Nukem 3D is the third in the Duke Nukem series. Along with Quake, it was one of the first full 3D first person shooters I ever played. Quake was also released this year, and while it’s a great game, I decided to give the love to Duke. This game is pure balls. It was one of the first FPS’s to have a sense of humor about itself, with some light commentary on American society. You get the impression that Los Angeles isn’t a whole lot worse off with aliens. It’s a nasty old town with strip clubs and sex stores all over the place. One of the most common enemies is a trigger happy pig in an LAPD uniform. Wait. That sounds like LA on any given day. Except it’s a literal pig. Anthropomorphized, of course. And Duke himself is a likewise trigger happy, somewhat misogynist American alpha male Hollywood action hero stereotype. He’s so extreme that it’s pretty hard to be offended by him. He’s a lovable guy. He recovers health by pissing on things.

But that’s me reading a bit far into a pretty simple game. No one plays Duke Nukem 3D for any other reason except to have some fun. And this game is loads of fun. It’s got great level design that makes you feel like you’re actually in a real place, as opposed to a video gamey facsimile of a real place. Duke Nukem is also known for it highly destructible environments, where almost every object can be destroyed collaterally in a gun fight. This game probably scandalized our parents, but we were too busy feeling like badasses to give a fuck. Hail to the king, baby.

4. Pokémon Red & Blue (Gameboy - Game Freak)

The game that started the phenomenon. Several more games, a hugely successful TV series, a card game and a few feature films later, it’s apparently still cool to like Pokémon.

There’s not a whole lot I can say about Pokémon. You all know what it is. Yes you do. However, there are two things I do find worth mentioning. (1) Pokémon Red/Blue is a unique example of a JRPG that is almost entirely focused on the gameplay, with little regard for story. I mean, there’s kind of a story. Some douchebag gang is stealing Pokémon and Professor Oak’s dunce of a grandson is following you around and being a pain in your balls. But it’s far from the epic world-saving fare you’re used to in this type of game. The ultimate goal for most people was not to complete the story. All you want to do is catch ‘em all. (2) The fact that this game has mass appeal is pretty remarkable in itself. I’m sure some of it has to do with the fact that Pokémon is more of a media empire than just a series of video games. But another big part of it is that it’s an RPG with accessible gameplay. Yes, an RPG that has an honest to goodness pick-up-and-play feel to it. I mean, I know people who are pretty classic non-gamer stereotypes; the kind of people who would probably scoff at you if you put a copy of Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog in front of them. And those are the epitomes of simple and fun gaming. And yet some of these same people played and continue to play the shit out of this game. And this is a game with turn-based combat and random battles and character stats. That’s the sort of stuff that usually only appeals to geeks like me. But then there she is: that preppy “I don’t waste my time with stupid toys” girl that you hate. And she’s playing fucking Pokémon during recess. I don’t usually like any sort of media that’s too accessible, but in this case I can’t help but think Game Freak did something right. It’s a remarkable game. I’d tell you to play it, but you already have.

3. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (SNES - Square)

It’s a Mario game that’s an RPG. What a strange and awesome idea. And how appropriate that the last major game Square made for a non-handheld Nintendo console was not an original dramatic piece, but a little tribute to Nintendo itself. Almost like they were saying “no hard feelings about us breaking up with you guys. We really like you!” I’m sure the reasons for making this game were more complex and business-related than that, but I like having cute ideas about media corporations I like.

This game starts like any other Mario game. Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach and Mario must rescue her. Mario’s a little smarter in this game. Rather than journeying for hours across the Mushroom Kingdom, he’s built himself a little Dutch colonial a stone’s throw away from Bowser’s permanent residence. So he beats down Bowser and rescues Peach within the first 10 minutes of the game. Then a giant sword with a face falls from the heavens and impales Bowser’s castle. The impact sends Mario, Bowser and Peach flying in different directions. So Mario sets off to find Peach and bring her safely back to her castle. Along the way, he meets some new characters, including Mallow, a cute little puff ball who was raised by frogs, and Geno, a celestial secret agent investigating the disappearance of some stars, an event which appears to be related to that weird sword from earlier. Bowser and Peach eventually join Mario’s party too, making this the first game where Mario fights alongside his arch nemesis.

Mario RPG’s gameplay is pretty simple, designed as an introduction to the RPG genre for younger kids who haven’t been exposed to it yet. The combat is turn based, with a small real time element in the form of timed hits. If you press a certain button during a certain point in one of your character’s attacks, it will do anywhere between 1.5x and 2x the damage. But where Mario RPG really excels is in its story and characters. No Mario game before had really had much plot or characterization, so we get a unique look into the Mushroom Kingdom and some of its famous residents. Mario is a silent protagonist apt to communicate through hilariously elaborate pantomime. Bowser is probably the best character in the game. After being humiliatingly evicted from his own castle by another villainous interest, Bowser’s Ultimate Dinosaur King of Evil façade wears off, and we see that he is, in fact, an insecure and prideful little beast. He awkwardly attempts to keep up the pretense of maliciousness while fighting alongside the man he hates most in the world, but can’t really pull it off. It’s also heavily implied that his motive for kidnapping Peach all of those times was a misguided sense of love and jealousy for the elites of Mushroom Kingdom society. And here we thought Bowser was just some despotic would-be megalomaniac.

Super Mario RPG, while being unique for a Mario game, shows Square’s ability to be funny and light hearted. The story rarely takes itself seriously and is, in fact, laugh-out-loud funny most of the time. On top of being just a fun game to play, Super Mario RPG is a fantastic game, and a wonderful and unexpected swan song for the SNES.

2. Resident Evil (PS - Capcom)

Pulling inspiration from older horror games like Alone in the Dark and their own fairly unknown NES classic Sweet Home, Capcom came out with Resident Evil in the spring of 1996 and started something big.

Resident Evil is a game where you, playing as a member of a small town police department, investigate a mansion deep in a forested mountain range. Recently, hikers have been disappearing, their corpses being found later, partially eaten by humans. Separated from the rest of your cop buddies, you find that the mansion is full of Romero-esque zombies, zombie dogs, a giant snake, extremely fast and strong creatures that look like shaved gorillas, and other monstrosities. You have lost radio contact with the outside world. No one knows where you are. Your goal is to explore the grounds and survive while finding a way to contact your home base for a helicopter evac. Along the way, you discover the horrible secrets of the mansion and why these things are happening.

The game has 3D character and enemy models interacting in 3D spaces, with 2D pre-rendered backgrounds. In order to mask the two dimensionality, Resident Evil uses a fixed camera perspective. What this means is that the camera remains still, and when you move to another part of the room, it cuts to another still camera in another part of the room. The fact that you have no camera control, and can often not see what’s around a corner until you’re already there, makes for an extremely tense and suspenseful experience. Often you’ll be in a big hallway. It’ll be complete silent. Then, somewhere, you hear the moan of a zombie. It’s hard to tell how far away it is, or if it’s moving. Every time you turn a corner, you suspect it might be there, waiting. Due to the necessarily stiff controls of a fixed camera perspective, combat is fairly difficult. Also, unlike most action oriented games, there is a predetermined amount of ammunition and healing items in the game, meaning you have to conserve. Sometimes you’ll find yourself with very little ammo. You have to attempt to avoid enemies (which can be very difficult and stressful), leaving them behind so that they will be there when you return. And you can only carry so many weapons and ammo at a time. If you run out of anything, you’re fucked. Even your saves are limited. You can only save at typewriters, and you need to use an ink ribbon (another item of which there is a limited number) to do so. When you die, you start at your last save. Given that playing smart often involves going long periods of time without saving, death is always an extremely unpleasant option. Every second you play this game, your heart is beating fast. And, of course, you’re always alone.

There had been horror games before, but nothing quite like this. Resident Evil marked a watershed moment in the history of horror storytelling in interactive media. Like Clock Tower, it emphasized pure survival over action. But Resident Evil put a little less emphasis on puzzle solving and more on avoiding get your throat bitten out by ghouls, something which was a constant possibility. Resident Evil established the survival horror genre as a thing, which would influence scores of games afterwards. There were numerous sequels, all of which changed things up a little bit. Slowly, the series became more action oriented and less survival oriented, finally hitting a complete genre shift with Resident Evil 4. However, shortly before that, Capcom made a complete remake of the first Resident Evil for the Gamecube. It’s even better, and probably my favorite game in the franchise. But that’s another review for another day. This is the game the started it all. While it’s less popular than most of its sequels, Resident Evil’s colossal impact is undeniable.

1. Super Mario 64 (N64 - Nintendo)

And so Nintendo enters the 3D age. And they descend the mountain with a single stone tablet, inscribed with the words “Super Mario 64”. And there is much rejoicing.

It’s typical Mario-rescuing-princess-from-Dinousaur-rapist fare. There’s something in there about collecting stars I think. Do you care? No. Super Mario 64 just kicks ass. It is the best 3D Mario game we could’ve hoped for. Mario tears it up through haunted houses, deserts, snowy mountains and volcanic islands. He’s no longer just a plumber who can jump high. He’s basically an Italian ninja now.  Mario can backflip, long jump, punch and kick shit, do Jackie Chan style wall jumping, and (with the proper tools) turn invisible, fly, and turn into a metal-plated version of himself. And he controls fluidly. Almost too fluidly. He responds to your every move exactly as you would like him to. And this is one of the first 3D games that put you in control of the camera. Some object blocking your view? Rotate the camera a little. This is a normal aspect of gaming now, but at the time it was revolutionary. Most 3D platformers of the day, like Crash Bandicoot, had you going along set tracks with the camera following behind you, giving a relatively shallow, almost 2.5D impression. Mario 64 had open worlds for you to explore any way you wanted. Sure, the worlds were small and your exploration limited. I mean, this wasn’t Grand Theft Auto. But it was way different from anything else we had at the time. And it was way awesome.

The soundtrack is awesome. Want epic? It’s got epic. Want happy? It’s got happy. Want pretty? It’s got pretty. Want scary? It’s got scary. Considering the sound limitations N64 cartridges had, this game was able to achieve a lot with its score.

And you thought fights with Bowser in the old games were epic? Yeah, fighting him on a big bridge and then chopping the bridge out with an axe. That’s cool. In this game, you grab Bowser by the tail and swing him a hundred yards across a field onto a fucking bomb. I guess I forgot to mention that Mario also has super strength now.

I fucking love this game. And it goes beyond simple Mario nostalgia. It was just ahead of its time. Mario and the camera control wonderfully, it’s pretty big in scope, and the level design is perfect. It didn’t completely reinvent Mario (that probably wouldn’t have been very good), but it injected the franchise with some good old fashioned steroids. (I guess the kind that don’t shrink your balls) It exceeded every single expectation we had. You might say it’s a little dated now, but I say it’s a little fuck you. This game is awesome. Go play it again, asshole. Go play it with my dick in your mouth. Never say that again to me.

Filed under top 5 games

  1. clintisiceman posted this