Video games can create a lot of powerful emotions for anyone that plays them, and these emotions later translate into fond memories of nostalgia. For anyone that had any remote interest in video games, the 1990s are seen as a golden era by gamers, with so many classic must-play games released in a short span of 10 years. Not only were they classics, but the majority of these games had a huge influence on the video game industry itself.
If you consider yourself a video game enthusiast, you must have played each and every game on this list at least once. Not only are they highly engrossing with tons of replay value, they will remind you why you play video games in the first place. From Zelda to Pokemon to Yoshi’s Island to Goldeneye, the following games may seem like they don’t have much in common, but once you play any of them you’ll realize why they are all considered timeless classics. Picking 15 games from the 90s is no easy task, as it could have easily stretched to 20, 30 or even 50, but anyone that sees this list will agree the following games are a must-play for any true gamer.
The 1990s video game consoles stretched from the handheld Game Boy to the 16 bit Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and later to the 32 bit Sony PlayStation and 64 bit Nintendo 64. Each one of those systems is accounted for on this list. A lot of these games can be picked up for cheap on the used market or are available on the PlayStation Network and Nintendo’s Virtual Console. With further ado here, in no particular order, are 15 of the best games from the 1990s.
15. Donkey Kong Country (1994) – Super Nintendo
In 1994, the 16 bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System was seen as an old hat showing its age. British video game developer Rareware used cutting edge Silicon Computer Graphics to produce eye opening graphics on the stodgy SNES with Donkey Kong Country. Nintendo brought back old friend Donkey Kong to give the system a huge sales and morale boost with its latest game. DKC became the must-play game of 1994 and was the hottest “toy” come Christmas time. The game revolved around Donkey and Diddy Kong chasing after King K. Rool for stealing their banana horde. The gameplay took a monkey page from Super Mario World with standard platforming. DKC wasn’t a great game by its looks alone, it was also addictive, making gamers look forward to each new level and boss.
14. Goldeneye (1997) – Nintendo 64
Doom was the trend setting first-person shooter of the ’90s but Goldeneye took everything good about it and then expanded upon it to the point that it was difficult to believe they were in the same genre. Goldeneye puts you in the shoes of James Bond from the namesake movie. You complete objectives in a level by using stealth and not gung-ho rampages. Where Goldeneye shined is in its multi-player death matches. Besides the huge variety of gameplay modifiers, levels and guns, players had many different characters to choose from. Many kids and teens spent countless nights playing Goldeneye with their friends. This game broke free from the stigma of being a Doom clone and is a must-play game.
13. Final Fantasy VII (1997) – Playstation
Originally slated for release for the Nintendo 64, Final Fantasy VII single handedly turned the tide of the console wars when it was released in 1997 for Sony’s Playstation. The first FF game on a non-Nintendo system, Final Fantasy VII is an epic 4-disc-long RPG with ground breaking 3D graphics for its time. Prior to its release, RPGs were 2D niche games, but Final Fantasy VII changed all of that. Maybe it was the engrossing gameplay or Aerith’s fate, but players couldn’t get enough of Cloud and friends on his journey to stop the evil Sephiroth. Putting RPGs and the Playstation on the map, Final Fantasy VII is a great game to add to any collection.
12. Pokémon (1998) – Game Boy
While the creatures themselves were recognized by a large amount of the population across the world, the first Pokémon games released in the United States became a phenomenon. Pokémon was released in 1998 in Red and Blue versions for the Nintendo Game Boy. Why two of them? Each color had a specific amount of Pokémon you could catch, and to get them all you would need to trade with the other version. The addictive nature of catching wild Pokemon and raising them to be level 100 juggernauts made Pokémon a very memorable game. It later expanded into a cartoon show, trading card game and other spin offs. Not bad for a humble little black and white game that still holds up well today.
11. Super Mario World (1990) – SNES
The follow up to Super Mario Brothers 3 had some big shoes to fill after SMB3 became the number one best-selling game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo wisely waited to develop SMB4 for the upcoming Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The game underwent a name change to Super Mario World and was released with the launch of the SNES. Expanding on SMB3, everything was bigger and better in SMW. Mario had tighter physics, there was longer levels with an overworld map, more variety in the boss battles and prettier graphics thanks to more horsepower. Super Mario World introduced the world to Mario’s sidekick, a green dinosaur named Yoshi.
10. Doom (1993) – PC
Very often called the grand daddy of the FPS genre, Doom was the game that set the standard for future first person shooters. Released in 1993 as a shareware demo, Doom fever quickly spread like wildfire due to its addictive gameplay and LAN death matches. Doom is probably responsible for more lost productivity in the work place than any other game. Taking a page from the movie Aliens, the main character (the unnamed “Doomguy”) responds to a distress signal from scientists coming from Mars’s moon, Phobos. Once on the moon, the player quickly realizes the scientists opened a portal to hell and armed with only a pistol, the journey begins. Doom was easy to modify thanks to WAD files. Unheard of in the early 90s, players could edit levels, graphics and music to their heart’s content. With its hellacious enemies and levels set in the underworld, Doom is a unique must-play game.
9. Banjo Kazooie (1998) – Nintendo 64
Banjo Kazooie wasn’t a terribly original game, as it drew a lot of “inspiration” from Super Mario 64. What makes Banjo Kazooie great is that it expands on everything that made Super Mario 64 a great game. Taking place in spiral mountain, evil witch Gruntilda kidnaps Banjo’s sister Tooty. Banjo heads out to rescue her with his bird friend Kazooie. While exploring nine worlds, Banjo and Kazooie collect jigsaw pieces and music notes to ultimately battle against Gruntilda. The puzzle pieces work in the same manner as power stars in SM64, while the music notes open new areas in the hubworld. With bright, colorful graphics and a groundbreaking music score, Banjo Kazooie is a must-play game for anybody.
8. Super Mario Word 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995) – SNES
The sequel to the hit game Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island was a drastic departure from its predecessor. The game is both a prequel and sequel. Yoshi takes the starring role while Mario becomes a baby who is along for the ride to rescue baby Luigi. Rather than using 3D graphics a la Donkey Kong Country, Yoshi’s Island goes in an almost completely different direction with hand drawn graphics. The music is upbeat and memorable and the gameplay keeps the tight mechanics of Super Mario World while making subtle differences. Yoshi’s health was a timer that activated every time you got hit and Mario got knocked off. You had to rescue him before the timer hit zero. Yoshi could swallow the majority of enemies and turn them into eggs which doubled as weapons. With 48 levels and 12 bosses, Yoshi’s Island will keep you busy for a while. If that isn’t enough, there are also 6 secret levels and 6 bonus games to unlock. Yoshi’s Island still holds up well and is a timeless classic.
7. Super Mario 64 (1996) – Nintendo 64
Very often called the first 3D adventure game, Super Mario 64 is the latest installment in the genre-creating Super Mario series. Taking place in Princess Peach’s castle after Bowser has kidnapped her, it is up to Mario to rescue her. Mario explores a wide variety of levels contained in paintings. Each level has 7 stars to acquire, of which Mario needs 70 to fight Bowser in a final battle. The colorful 3D graphics and symphonic music combined to create an immersive experience unlike any other, especially when it was released in 1996. It is incredibly easy to spend hours just exploring the castle grounds which is a true test of a great game.
6. Resident Evil 2 (1997) – Playstation
Resident Evil was the groundbreaking original but Resident Evil 2 took everything that made it great and expanded on it in every way possible. More locations to explore instead of just a mansion, more enemies such as the dreaded Licker and more bosses like the giant alligator combined to give Resident Evil 2 a longer adventure that ended up being released on two discs. Once you beat the game with one character, you could continue on a second quest, giving it even more replay value. RE2 was even twice as scary as its predecessor. An instant classic when released in 1997, Resident Evil 2 is a must-play game for anyone 17 and older.
5. Super Metroid (1994) – Super Nintendo
Taking everything that made Metroid great, Super Metroid was released in 1994 for the Super Nintendo to great anticipation. Set on planet Zebes, Samus has to rescue a baby metroid from Ridley. Along the way, Samus runs into old foes Ridley and Mother Brain. The gameplay is the x-factor that keeps enticing new and old gamers to give Super Metroid a try. You start off with minimal weapons and explore Zebes to acquire more weapons and abilities. Thanks to the addition of a map, Super Metroid is a game that can make hours seem like minutes and you’ll still want to keep playing. Give Super Metroid a try, you’ll be glad you played it.
4. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996) – Super Nintendo
Super Mario RPG took the Mario series and flipped it on its side. No longer a platformer, Mario was in a full-fledged role playing game adventure. Like in any traditional RPG, Mario would recruit other characters to join his team. What made big news was that Bowser was no longer the bad guy after his castle was invaded. Long-time enemies reluctantly joined forces to fight against the evil sword named Exor. In 1996 that was the equivalent of cats and dogs being best friends. Super Mario RPG is a funny, engrossing game that will keep anyone entertained. Even today, Nintendo is cranking out spiritual successors which is a testament to how great Super Mario RPG is.
3. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) – Sega Genesis
When Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991, it set a new standard for speed in a platformer. Sonic 2 ramps up the speed and attitude with a new spin dash move and new sidekick Tails. Sonic 2 was the system-defining game for the Sega Genesis. The gameplay is standard hop ‘n’ bop fare with a huge emphasis on speed. Sonic is on a quest to stop Dr. Robotnik from world domination. During the journey Sonic explores a forest, casino and even a factory. Each level is filled with loop-the-loops and corkscrews designed to make you feel like you’re on a roller coaster ride. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 quickly became Sega’s best selling game and is an enjoyable experience even today.
2. Gran Turismo 2 (1999) – Playstation
Gran Turismo set the benchmark and Gran Turismo 2 surpassed it. Billed as the ultimate driving simulator, GT2 has nearly 600 cars from a variety of manufacturers, a number unheard of for a racing game at the time. There is a huge selection of on and off road tracks, endurance races and more license tests. With GT2 having the depth of the ocean, the gameplay is just sublime. Easy to learn but hard to master, nothing beats the feeling of executing a perfectly timed powerslide to squeak in a 1st place finish. GT2 spawned many imitators that couldn’t hold a candle to its greatness. Still seen as the best game in the series, Gran Turismo 2 is simply a game you must play, even if you have no interest in cars.
1. A Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) – Game Boy
Originally released in 1993 for the Nintendo Game Boy, Link’s Awakening was launched to trepidation. After all, it was the sequel to the great Super Nintendo game, A Link to The Past. How could a game on a black and white handheld system measure up to such high expectations? Not only did Link’s Awakening meet expectations, it blew them away. Breaking away from Hyrule Field, Link’s Awakening takes place on Koholint Island. Link’s main goal is simple, to wake the slumbering Windfish and return home. Thanks to the great gameplay and memorable dungeons, players who took a chance on Link’s Awakening were well rewarded with a game that became an instant classic. Nintendo later updated it with color and a new dungeon to coincide with the launch of the Game Boy Color in 1998.