There's nothing wrong with contemporary games. Well, there might be something wrong with some of them, but I don't have time to get into it.
Regardless, what's right and wrong with 90s games has a lot more appeal to me. This was a time of aggressive experimentation – how the heck do you make a 3D camera work well? How do you make a nice looking texture, even? Should the game be realistic? Should it be iconic? Should you even make 3D games at all? How do you use the crazy processing power of these next gen consoles, let alone the amazing CD audio?
I like seeing the struggles these folks went through during the first really major transition in the game industry – from 2D to 3D. So many innovative ideas came out of this era, because as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
And so: here are five games (plus some runners-up) that impressed me as I played around with my collection this year. Be warned – a lot of these are pretty deep cuts, and most of them weren't released in the U.S. But video games are global, aren't they?
Pup Breeder (1996)
Platform: Sega Saturn
I'm going to start out with something potentially controversial; Pup Breeder may be the first fully 3D real-time strategy game ever made – and it's a Saturn game. It's so under the radar that I can't find a youtube video for it. As RTS games go, it's rather simple – you can tell your pups a vague direction to go in (to search for treasure or seek out enemies), you can equip them with (or make them use) items, and you can have them call out for help from nearby units. You can also just leave them to their own devices and see what happens (not the best idea).
Pup Breeder was developed and published by Sai-Mate, a bizarrely ambitious company that released two Saturn games (one of which, Elan Doree, first came out on the Saturn's sister-arcade board, the ST-V. It was an early “all directional” flying 3D fighting game), before renaming themselves and just making hentai visual novels from then on.
Really what's most impressive, gameplay and terrible art aside, is that it's a fully 3D RTS, in 1996, on a home console. It has a world minimap and everything. In my research and discussions with others, people pointed either to Total Annihilation (1997), or Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat (1995) as the first 3D RTS, but neither of those are full 3D. Pup Breeder had both a 3D map and units.
To add to the fun, many people consider the first RTS to be Herzog Zwei – a Sega Genesis game. If this all adds up, it would mean the first true 2D RTS, and the first true 3D RTS would both be on Sega consoles, not on PC. How curious would that be? Feel free to prove me wrong!
As an aside, you might wonder – how much will this historical curiosity set me back? It must be rare and expensive! Well, as it turns out, it's a bit more ambitious than it is rare, so you can regularly get it for under two bucks in Japan.
Generations Lost (1994)
Dev: Pacific Softscape
Pub: Time Warner Interactive
Plaform: Sega Genesis
Generations Lost is a Sega Genesis game that sits somewhere between Prince of Persia and the Genesis Xmen games. Run and jump, and occasionally fight your way to victory in a well-animated platformer. That doesn't sound so out of the ordinary until you realize that the leader of the five-person development team is Bruce Straley, of Uncharted, Jak II, and The Last of Us fame. This was his first game as a young man, and his future ambitions are in no way hidden.
Consider the story. You're a descendant of a proud clan of stepped-upon people, who as a right of passage every 200 years choose one young representative to put on the suit of their clan and go on a quest. It sounds pretty straightforward until you realize the (naive, yes, but interesting) names of the clans have meaning. You're part of the Jani-tors. There are also the kep-ten, and many others.
As it turns out, you're all on a living bioship orbiting an earth that had died. The ship was self-sustaining, but over hundreds of years, it needed maintenance. So the janitors had to do it. But over generations, that knowledge passed down as myth and religious rite, rather than as something required to keep the ship alive. The lowest caste were the only ones to keep this knowledge in any form, which is why you must fight your way past the captain's quarters (kep-ten, of course).
Regardless of whether it's rather weirdly executed, this is some heavy stuff for a 1994 Sega Genesis platformer. This is an ambitious game with a solid visual style, and which starts out with basically ambient music on the first stage. I asked Straley about the game at DICE Summit – how the heck did he come up with this idea!? He mentioned that he read a lot of scifi novels. “And we smoked a lot of weed,” he said, laughing. He jokes, but come on now...
Dev/Pub NEC Avenue
Platform: NEC PC Engine (Turbo Grafx)
Anesan is quite simply a delight. It's rough, it's unbalanced, it's all over the place, but I love it dearly.
The game casts you as a group of juvenile delinquent highschool girls, out to expand your territory. Pompadours, teased hair, and garish scooters abound, Japanese bosozoku style. It's a beat-em-up for the most part, with per-character special moves, HP, and attack power. Defeat bosses of rival clans, and after they get out of the hospital, they'll join up with your crew.
Aside from the fact it's all girls, none of this is that special, really. But when your day of fighting ends, you go home to your room, and can spend cash you've earned on decorations. Put up a cool poster of a lady with a tattoo over her eye. Get a planter that sports a devil with a pompadour. Buy a scooter. Or simply get a badass jacket. You can decorate your room as you please. And then the minigames begin. Try to make the ugliest face to scare your opponent. Or smash their pride in a game of chicken.
Then you go to sleep, and based on certain conditions, you may have a dream. Usually this dream is a fairytale about rainbows and unicorns, or a dashing prince. Then you wake up, and the fighting starts again.
There is one man in this game – the protagonist marries him at the end – but you never see his face, because he's not what's important. What matters is the friendships you've forged with other women along your journey.
You see what I'm getting at here? This game has some serious flaws, in both gameplay and narrative, but I'll be damned if this isn't a game about girls, for girls, in 1995, without saying “all you like is dressup.” It says “you like dressup, and you like being a badass.” That's pretty damn good for a video game in the 90s.
Cave Noire (1991)
Platform: Nintendo Game Boy
Cave Noire is a deceptively simple roguelike for the original Game Boy, released in 1991. It's certainly not the first console or handheld roguelike – games like Tower of Druaga predate it by many years. The game follows the typical path of tile-by-tile movement, random generation, permadeath, et cetera. So why do I think it's special? Because it's so dang compartmentalized.
The game is broken into four types of missions – kill X number of monsters, find X amount of gold, find X number of orbs, free X number of fairies. But each of these tasks is so subtly different that it makes the game interesting. Killing monsters is straightforward (relatively), but finding and carrying orbs takes up your inventory, meaning you can carry fewer healing or offensive magic items. Finding money means going after treasure chests in dangerous areas that you might otherwise leave alone. And each dive into the dungeon takes no more than 10 minutes, making it the perfect length for a handheld, while also giving you a bit of that “just one more” sort of feeling.
While the game eventually gets really brutal, this kind of intelligent compartmentalization not only opens up a hardcore genre to newer players, it also teaches them how to get better at it in a way that few other roguelikes have.
Dev: Be Top
Platform: Sega Saturn
This is my favorite find of the year. Cyberdoll is a Saturn and Japan-exclusive cyberpunk RPG with some really neat ideas. First: in a twist on the usual “you've lost your memory at the start of the RPG” trope, the game begins with you (a cyborg) having some bio-feedback and reliving your first mission, where you met an important person in your life for the first time. Second: the towns and dungeons are co-located. The neon, vice-filled cyberpunk world where you buy items and get information from townsfolk is the same place where you beat down (and get beaten down by) multivarious cybernetic malefactors.
Third, and most important: when you defeat enemies, you harvest parts from them. This is how you level up. The premise of the Cyberdoll world is there's this crazy virus that's affecting both humans and cyborgs, and everyone's dying. In the game, you stay alive by harvesting working parts from others. Find a better spine, a better right arm muscle, or a smarter brain, and you're in the running again.
The battle system is also interesting, if flawed. You attack specific parts of your foes' bodies, but only destroying their chest or head will disable them completely. This is also true of you. You can fire weapons from three distances, and if your foe destroys your legs, dashes away, and starts firing at you from a range where you don't have any bullets, well, that's it for you. To combat this, developer Be Top put in a self destruct button in the battle menu. An imperfect solution to say the least, but the system is daring and interesting enough that I'll allow it.
The story and systems in this game are interesting enough that I keep coming back to it, and getting ideas for things I'd like to make. That's a mark of a good game, in my opinion (shame it's only available in Japanese!).
Youkai Douchuuki (1988, Namco, PC Engine): This game is only an honorable mention because it came out in the 80s. Youkai Douchuuki is a lovely assortment of curiosities. It's a shooting platformer, on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you'll be surprised. Pray at a shrine and your grandpa will come help you. Find some dumplings and give them to a cat in a later stage and it will follow you. There are many tiny mysteries to find here, which lead to five different endings in this very difficult PC Engine game (which is much better than the Famicon version).
Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero (1997, Midway, PlayStation): Everybody hated this game when it came out. But I think it's quite smart! First, to recycle your fighting game sprites into a 2D platformer is quite clever. Second, look at how sharp these sprites are (and how they've got nice lighting!), and the spot-on textures of the background. It has really held up visually in a way I wouldn't expect a "digital actor" game to do – just don't go looking for the N64 version.
Battle Arena Toshinden 2/URA (1995/1996, Tamsoft, Takara, PlayStation/Saturn): This gets an honorable mention because it's such a curiosity. Battle Arena Toshinden was released for the PlayStation, and proved quite popular in spite of being quite bad, largely because of the nice (for the time) 3D art. Naturally, Sega had to have it too, and so Tamsoft was commissioned to make a version for Saturn, called Battle Arena Toshinden Remix.
Where this gets really interesting is Battle Arena Toshinden 2, which was released for the PlayStation only. For the Saturn, they got Battle Arena Toshinden URA. This was not BAT 2, it was a Saturn-exclusive sequel to the Saturn-exclusive BAT Remix. The characters were mostly the same, and stages were similar, but 2 was made with polygons in mind, and URA with the Saturn's quads. The resulting games look very interestingly and subtly different. It's a testament to what could be done when companies had the resources to make proper games for two very different platforms. Compare the different models of course, but also how relatively staid and muted the PlayStation version is to how Neo Tokyo and colorful the Saturn version is, and wonder what could have been.
Dragon Master Silk (1997, Datam Polystar, Sega Saturn)
This is a first person dungeon crawler that aims to make dungeon crawlers easier on the brain, while also being pretty legitimately funny. This game lives in that weird interstitial gender-approved space that otherwise only 80s anime can occupy. It stars girls only, it has a lot of dumb jokes, but it manages to be self aware and reverential enough that it totally works without being gross. For example, the orb that comes from the heavens looking for a hero finds the “young man” who must complete the tasks – but he finds the “young man” in the bath, and is surprised and embarrassed when a young woman irately emerges from it. It's dumb, but it's fun, and it certainly passes the Bechdel test.
Bulk Slash (1998, CA Production, Hudson, Sega Saturn)
Some early 3D games hold up really well – Mega Man Legends is one, and we all know it. Bulk Slash is another, and maybe fewer of us know it. Take a look for yourself and enjoy the explosions.
This editorial was written by Brandon Sheffield of Necrosoft Games, which is currently eliciting some 90s vibes with its upcoming game Gunsport.