SORRY IT TOOK ME TWO MONTHS TO WRITE THIS. I’VE BEEN DISTRACTED.
Historical context: No new console releases or anything. However, as you will see, Sony’s new third party support started kicking out some fan-fucking-tastic games for it this year. On the N64, Nintendo started releasing and working on new installments of some of their classic NES/SNES franchises. Rare, Nintendo’s always loyal forever (?FORESHADOWING?) developer starts cooking up some good shit as well. (EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m giving an honorable mention to Final Fantasy Tactics. I’m not including it in the main list because (a) I didn’t want to put two Final Fantasy games in one list and (b) I haven’t played enough of it to make a totally fair judgment. It’s on my list of games to devote time to. Towards the top.)
5. Star Fox 64 (N64 - Nintendo)
"Do a barrel roll!"
Star Fox 64 was an improvement in every way over the first one. It had much better graphics and sound, awesomely bad voice acting, better controls and more variety. In addition to the traditional levels where you fly the Arwing along a set path, there were levels where you fly it in any direction within a circular field, as well as levels where you pilot a tank and a submarine. And instead of being completely linear, there were different paths to get you to Venom depending on decisions you made, giving this admittedly short game a ton of replay value. But what most people love about this game is its characterization and immense quotability. The Star Fox squad members had personalities for the first time. Falco was was the cocky and self-righteous ace pilot. Peppy was the seasoned veteran who fought alongside Fox’s father and provided sage tactical advice like the quote above, and other gems such as “Use the boost to get through!” and “Try a somersault!” One of the great minds of our generation. And Slippy was the young and possibly gay frog who was always getting himself in trouble because he was a shitty pilot. He also was a tech whiz; he designed the tank and submarine Fox uses, and analyzes all of the bosses. If he is removed from your party for a level, there won’t be a health bar when you fight the boss. God I hate Slippy. Everyone does.
4. Riven (PC - Cyan)
Stunning visuals, interesting puzzles, and an intriguing story and setting. This is a fantastic sequel to Myst, the number 2 entry on my 1993 list, if memory serves me.
Riven changed things up a little. Rather than jumping between four small worlds, you have one large world to explore. You’re a little less isolated; there are villagers that live on the largest of the five islands. However, something’s wrong. Rather than being curious of this strange traveler you control, they seem to fear you. If you come across a watch tower, a guy will sound an alarm and then hide. A child playing by a dock is swept up by his mother and whisked away to the relative safety of their spherical hut. You get the constant feeling that someone’s watching you. Gradually, you figure out that that’s probably true.The world of Riven is a world slowly being drained of its resources by its despotic lord Gehn, a creator of worlds like his gentle and reasonable son Atrus. You’re there to fuck his shit up, and rescue Atrus’s wife, who he’s holding prisoner on the remains of a great tree that once stood in the middle of an ocean.
This brings me to the setting. Riven just pops with amazing and creative details. Every sight and sound in this game is not only memorable, but meaningful. If it doesn’t factor into the story in some way, it’s relevant to solving a puzzle. For example, the sounds of Riven’s native creatures (menacing whale-sharks, lazy dinosaur-seals, beautiful golden beetles and multi-colored frogs) end up factoring into the solving of an obscure puzzle that gains you access into the secret world of Riven’s rebel faction. It’s something that wouldn’t even occur to you in the beginning, but when it comes up and you finally figure it out, it’s amazingly rewarding. Hell, the natives of Riven have their own alphabet and numerical system. If you want to be able to complete your mission, you have to figure them out almost entirely on your own. That’s some pretty sophisticated gameplay.
Riven may not have the variety that Myst had, but it delivers to you a world that just feels so real, has fantastic puzzles, and an overall phenomenal structure and flow. If you liked Myst even a little bit and haven’t played Riven, you’d better get on that.
3. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS - Konami)
Prior to Symphony of the Night, your average Castlevania game was pretty simple. You fight through a series of linear levels with a whip, fighting monsters. When you get to the end, you fight Dracula. The end. Some games changed it up a little (Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest), but for the most part, they all followed the same formula. Symphony of the Night, taking a significant influence from Nintendo’s Super Metroid, made a new paradigm for Castlevania. Now when people talk about the series, they describe something entirely different and almost entirely better.
Symphony of the Night is about Alucard, the half-human son of Dracula. A few years ago, the latest descendent of the Belmont clan vanquished Dracula for the umpteenth time. Or did he? Some sort of disturbance awakens Alucard, as he comes to realize that it’s up to him to defeat his father on his own. Rather than slashing his way through linear levels, Alucard has Dracula’s entire enormous castle to explore. Some areas he can’t get to until he gains certain abilities, but the guy can basically go wherever he pleases throughout the game. As you play more, you level up and get stronger, and you get new weapons, armors, and relics that give you special skills. Also, you can turn into a wolf, bat or cloud of fog. That’s just cool.
As one would come to expect from a Castlevania game, the soundtrack is great. The whole game has an awesome atmosphere, oozing with fantastic horror cheese. Who can forgot the awesome B-movie dialogue between Dracula and Richter Belmont at the very beginning of the game? “What is a man!? A miserable little pile of secrets!” It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s like Shakespeare if he thought it was awesome to write shitty dialogue. It’s such a masterfully crafted kind of bad that you can’t help but stand in awe of it.
Super Metroid was a pretty unique game. But when SOTN came out and tweaked the formula, it spawned a new genre. And I really mean that. Us nerds usually refer to it as “Metroidvania”: a 2D platformer with RPG elements that emphasizes exploration over linear action. And there have been a lot of games like this in the last decade or so. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of the most influential games to come out in my lifetime.
2. Goldeneye 007 (N64 - Rare)
How many people would have taken the idea of a first person shooter on a console seriously before Goldeneye? I’d wager almost zero. Before this game, if you wanted to play a good game where you see through the eyes of a badass gunning down monsters and nazis, you’d better have owned a decent computer. Then Rare comes along and they’re all “Fuck that. Let’s not only make a console FPS that doesn’t suck, but also make a game based on a movie that doesn’t suck.” And did they ever.
Goldeneye kicks so much ass. I’m pretty sure everyone is familiar with this game, so I don’t really know what to say. You play as James Bond trying to stop some terrorist group led by a former friend who he believed was dead. You play through a series of fairly linear maps (rendered in full 3D), accomplishing various mission goals. The story is mostly unfolded through dossiers and mission briefings you read before the start of a level.
But who cares? I had some fun with Goldeneye’s single player, but where this game really developed an emotional attachment with me is in its multiplayer. When I was 12 years old, the epitome of fun was having three friends over, ordering a big pizza, and killing each other in this game over and over again until about 2 AM. Then we would talk about girls and fall asleep. The multiplayer was just so versatile, and could be enjoyed for long stretches of time. You had a bunch of different maps, game modes, cheats and weapons to mix and match. No battle was ever the same. This game pretty much established the zeitgeist of late 90’s gaming culture. Pizza, mountain dew, aggression and guns.
What adolescent gamer during this period didn’t play Goldeneye? What images or emotions jump to mind when you read the words “Oddjob”, “Klobb” or “Facility”? Goldeneye left such an enormous impact on the culture that I can hardly describe the emotions I feel from just typing this review. This is a game that engendered (and endangered) friendships and provided hours of fun and challenge in a way that party games today simply can’t achieve. Its influence and masterful design are legendary. Without Goldeneye, there would be no (*groan*) Halo. Without Goldeneye, there would be no memories.
1. Final Fantasy VII (PS - Square)
Yeah, it’s Final Fantasy VII.
I’m really not going to write a lot about this game like I did with Final Fantasy VI, because it’s all been said already. Is it overrated? I’m inclined to say yes. But is it great? Yes. It’s really fucking great. Not the best game of all time, but certainly the best game to be released in 1997.
Watch this. At least up until the fight begins. You don’t really need to watch that. It’s crude, yes. But no one had really seen anything like that before in a game. With sweeping camera movements and no dialogue, this opening cinematic perfectly sets the stage for the game, but not without leaving you with some nagging questions. Final Fantasy has always been big on the whole in medias res style of storytelling, but this is probably the apex of it.
Final Fantasy VII’s story is epic. It’s more opaque and convoluted than previous installments, sure, but immensely complex and mature for its time. It presents the player with matters of extreme global significance, as well as intimate moments of humanity. (SPOILERS) The fight to save the Earth from your former comrade’s certifiably insane schemings is great, but millions of gamers were touched by the tragic and sudden death of a simple girl. Or when Cloud falls into the lifestream, and his fragile and fragmented psyche begins to unravel. Tifa has to literally enter his mind, and delicately help Cloud figure out who he really is. The visual symbolism, sense of dreamlike disorientation, and emotional tension in that sequence would not be recaptured by another game until the release of Psychonauts almost 10 years later. (/SPOILERS) The characters were, for the time, stunningly three dimensional, and the story stunningly sophisticated. It has been imitated countless times, most recently by Square Enix themselves, having long ago sold their souls, in attempt to shamelessly recapture and cash in on the popularity of their own game.
I’m not really a huge fan of the Materia system, in which any character can get any ability based on how you distribute colored spheres amongst them. But it works in the context of the story. Materia has a literal connection to the world your characters inhabit, and are not just an arbitrary system only to be understood by the player (*COUGH*SPHEREGRID*COUGH*FINALFANTASYX*COUGH*). Final Fantasy VII is also probably the only Final Fantasy game with minigames that aren’t completely fucking terrible.
Yeah, yeah, it’s Final Fantasy VII. It’s really good. It has stood the test of time. I cried when that one thing happened. #1 game of the year. Let’s move on now.