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This is the sixth part in a series that I'll sporadically work on over the next couple years as I go back and play every game I have interest in and access to, and attempt to catalog my favorite games of each year and do my best to explain why these games are special to me. Here's the first year of what's probably the most important decade in gaming!
1990 was a year of refinement, a year in which several series made (sometimes further) steps into greatness. The point-and-click received its first masterpiece, a flamboyant arcade developer made a pair of eyebrow-raising platformers, and the two biggest RPG series made their best entries yet.
I like the early 90's a lot. The arcade was booming, PC's were still an experimental platform, and the 4th generation was building steam. It's a cool time to look back at.
An Honorable Mention: Trio the Punch - Never Forget Me... (Arcade)
Data East's extremely strange arcade side-scroller. It's no better than any of its competition, in fact it's worse. It's an extremely repetitive, simplistic game that's far too long and quite shallow. It's the fact that it's a completely nonsensical, absurd romp that makes it worth a play-through.
Enemies range from basic ninjas to a transforming Colonel Sanders, the continue screen is a Michelangelo sculpture whose face becomes happy-go lucky when you continue playing, a roulette wheel that can profoundly or mundanely effect your gameplay experience spins every time you enter a new level. The player is even, for little to no reason, transformed from time to time. It's a frustrating, confounding game with a surprisingly effective non-sequitur of an ending that somehow pulls the whole experience together.
An Honorable Mention: Rampart (Arcade/various)
Rampart is a shockingly effective head to head arcade game, and one of my favorite works of genre mish-mash. It's puzzle meets turn-based strategy. In a top-down view, use Tetris-style blocks to wall off your castle, then blast each other's bases apart with canons; repeat.
Head to head puzzle games, which are a wonderful genre when done correctly, focus primarily on a player's ability to mess with another player's ability. The thing is, the 'mess with' is generally automated; a swath of garbage pieces added onto your competitor's work pile. Rampart allows you to be somewhat surgical, to recognize your opponent's abilities to puzzle solve and harass them in appropriate ways---all the while providing an appropriate context of empire and warfare.
Me and my friends discovered this one on one of those arcade compilations from the 6th generation and we played it a ton. Check it out with company if you can some time.
An Honorable Mention: Gun-Nac (NES)
Shmups on the NES weren't always the best. They're a fast, processor intensive genre for their time and many early console efforts didn't really cut it. I've already covered some of Konami's sterling work for the system, but apart from them, there's really only one other company that was able to make competent stuff in the genre: Compile.
Compile worked across just about every system in the late 80's and early 90's through their loose Aleste series, and I've already covered one of their games in this genre and on this system: The Guardian Legend. That, however, was only half shmup, and I'd say a less involved work for the particular genre. Still, it was very fast, challenging and responsive; all qualities that persist in Gun-Nac.
Gun-Nac succeeds in the varied, wild nature of a lot of games in the genre. There are crazy enemies (giant rabbits? Money? Logs?), and a whole lot of power-ups. It's fast, challenging and completely competent. Maybe that's the best word for it: competent. There's nothing new here exactly, but it so entirely stands up to the arcade experience it's more than worth a mention.
StarTropics has one of my favorite titles of just about any game. It doesn't mean anything by itself, and I honestly can't remember if it has any meaning within the game itself (though I'd wager it doesn't). It's a purely tonal title, and gives you a perfect sense of what the game might feel like; and StarTropics' feel is one of my favorite things about it. So many games feature a laid-back tropical environment as just a momentary flavor, so it's wonderful to see a game fully commit to this particular atmosphere.
The game is split into two uneven halves: dungeon crawling and less involved world map/village exploration (similar to Gargoyle's Quest---but more on that in a bit). The world map/village sequences don't have much going on, but they contribute to the journey, representing the protagonist's modes of travel, their interactions with other characters (my favorite being a dolphin!), and most importantly, help to spatially and dramatically contextualize the otherwise insular dungeons. Again, it's nothing crazy, but it's a smart way to link together the more mechanically driven and obtuse 'levels' of the game.
As for the meat of the game, the The Legend of Zelda-like dungeon navigation, StarTropics really takes off. It takes liberal inspiration from that particular Nintendo title, with its single-screen rooms, its switches, its pesky enemies. Where StarTropics differentiates itself is in how it moves. Most of these screens are comprised of small platforms arranged in grid-like patterns that Mike can jump between. There's a rhythm to his movement, and he's able to attack in any direction when airborne. It's an utterly unique mode of traversal, one that should be frustrating, but ends up building a precise mode, a language---a feel that nothing else quite has.
And that's StarTropics' strongest suit: how distinct it is. It abides by familiar frameworks, but deviates enough both in atmosphere and design to craft an identity for itself.
Final Fantasy III (FC)
I thought Dragon Quest had an underwhelming sequel, but then I played Final Fantasy II. It was a respectable deviation, but a broken, tedious ordeal. Final Fantasy III on the other hand, takes inspiration from Dragon Quest III in more ways than one. It's a complete and drastic elaboration of the first title in the series, with a number of surprise pleasures to offer.
Final Fantasy III takes the basic premise of the first game (warriors of light, restore the crystal, etc.) and makes everything bigger and varied. More classes with unique properties and even hidden talents. More towns with unique characters and moods. More modes of traversal on the world map. More world, and that's a big one. The game has you exploring a world map that's eventually revealed to be a floating continent over a much, much larger world map that can be explored above and below the sea. It's humbling.
It feels odd saying that this is the first game but more, because that's something that bothers me---a sense of iteration, or preservation of concept while improving the things that obviously didn't work in previous titles. Final Fantasy III has a lighter touch than what might be expected, an even deeper similarity to Dragon Quest in its looseness and occasional light-hearted delights.
My favorite moment is actually the very end. After dealing with a tower of bullshit, the game rewards you with the usual cutscene traveling about and restoring the crystals and balance to the world. The game ends in the village in which you started as the final crystal is restored. This is where the game makes my favorite move: it cuts to an ultra wide of the valley the city is located in. The crystal shines and the ground and sky brighten a bit, then the game cuts to credits. Nothing fancy, but immensely effective; both massive and mundane all in one instant.
Journey to Silius (NES)
An admirable, minimalistic run-and-gun platformer from Sunsoft. It was initially based upon The Terminator, but a loss of the license forced them to redesign the iconography of the game and almost certainly damaged the sales. On the positive side, this also allows Journey to Silius to operate free of pesky comparisons to the film's continuity.
What the game retains is Cameron's unique visions of an apocalyptic future. Journey to Silius is at first desolate and dark, and progressively becomes both more sanitary and sinister. Sunsoft's excellent uses of contrast and unsaturated additive colors presents itself again, giving the game a similarly mysterious, quasi-abstract look as some of their other games. The player character pops nicely while staying unassuming with orange hair.
The sound work here is also uniformly excellent. Sound effects are responsive and directly related to player action and success. Bullets fired, bullets hit, only the important stuff. In contrast enemy robots are weirdly quiet, which is effective. The soundtrack is one of its most notable aspects: a moody, rhythmic set of songs that explore the bass-ier ends of the sound-chip. Some of the best work on the system.
Journey to Silius is bound to be compared to Mega Man, but its world building, its focus on mood makes it a more attractive item for me. There are some nuances to its play that I appreciate more. It's a more deliberately paced game. Combat needs to be approached with precision, timing jump-shots and going prone are essential---as are the same bodily movements to avoid enemy projectiles. They are simple movements, but the rhythms with which they need to be executed are consistently changed up. Overall it's a unique and atmospheric work of simple but solid genre gaming.
The first game from the remarkable development studio Quintet, Actraiser is an ambitious and frequently brilliant title. It provides two modes of gameplay, a god sim and a platformer. The god sim has the player controlling a cherub, using weather to shape the land for humans and a bow to combat airborne demons from destroying humanity. The platformer section is more conventional: jump around and swing a greatsword; progress through linear levels.
It's really the god sim section that makes this game a great one. It's where the most interesting design ideas rest, and it's also a space that can allow for stories to more organically emerge. As far as a game about constructing a civilization goes, Actraiser is appreciably hands-off. Humans are capable of building their own society, handling many of their own problems, and even banishing the source of many of the demons that are troubling them. As a god, you work in guidance and divine intervention, and it's tough not to find it comforting.
Actraiser's simple, nicely articulated graphical style allows for some very pleasant details, like watching villagers walk and play with their dogs, or try to tame wild horses; there's a really admirable attention to detail. Though the setup (banish demons!) is simple, there are some really excellent minor plot strands. A man goes missing in the desert, and you unveil his lone corpse after ridding the land of sand. A sickly man wishes to die in the rain, and you use your power over weather to grant this wish. There's a lot of lovely, surprising stuff.
But all this is ignoring what caps off each area you develop: a side-scroller section. This is the most unfortunate part of the game. It's weightless and deprived of story, or the sense of community you just fostered entirely. It clearly borrows from the many combat side-scrollers of its time but it feels shallow and graceless---simply amiable instead of fresh. How the developers thought this would be the half of the game worth basing the sequel around is baffling.
Still, the better half of Actraiser makes it more than worth playing.
Gargoyle's Quest (GB)
Continuing the trend of half action game, half 'top down all-powerful being changing the world' games in my list, Gargoyle's Quest takes the most memorable and dubious enemy from the Ghosts and Goblins franchise and gives them their own title. Firebrand is the playable character of this game, a gargoyle on a journey destined to preserve the ghoul realm.
The gargoyle was an enemy best remembered in the Ghosts and Goblins games for its movement, and my favorite thing about this game is how it imagines controlling a character like Firebrand. The game is played primarily as a 2D platformer, with Firebrand able to shoot fireballs out of his mouth. The real kicker here is that he can also hover mid-jump and grab onto walls. These options build an excellent groundwork; a distinct, easily controllable but just as easily challenged mode of movement. Levels are often designed vertically, with special attention given to the presence of walls and dangerous surfaces. It builds a world that's not just unfriendly, but nicely supports the narrative. Who else but a gargoyle could overcome these threats?
Jump height, hover length, and projectiles are all periodically upgraded, which keeps the platforming capabilities in flux without feeling foreign. It also feeds into the light RPG elements, which seem to borrow a bit from Zelda II. On top of upgrading stats, there's a world map with minor encounters, villages to visit, and a kind of currency---though these elements aren't all that complex or vital. It works better to provide a spatial context for the levels and the progression of the quest. It's a welcome, enriching inclusion instead of a distraction.
As a game from 1990, it's great; for a Gameboy game from 1990 it's something approaching astounding. It's one of the best feeling, best produced games for the system, and something really unique in the landscape of games as a whole.
Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei II (FC)
The first Megami Tensei got a ton of things right. Its battle system and command of tone were excellent, but it was missing scope, it was missing a journey beyond the numbers of levels (both character and spacial). This game, it's sequel, is probably the biggest leap in the franchise; a prototypical title that following series entries would look to in most aspects.
Megami Tensei II opens with one of the great coups in RPG gaming. You begin by playing through the opening of the first game. Same layout, same gameplay---but a shifted perspective: a third-person view. Shortly after defeating the first boss, it's revealed that the first game is just that, a video game. Japan has already fallen to an apocalyptic invasion from demons and you, a survivor in a fallout shelter which is no longer safe, must venture out and reckon with the new, dangerous world.
Tokyo's in ruin. Flooded, occupied by ambivalent demons and wastelanders, with small communities holding out in various buildings and shopping centers in each of Tokyo's marooned districts. Several of these districts function more as islands, with large, amphibian demons acting as ferries. What settlements remain work in religion, vice (hats off to the very fun Code Breaker minigame), and other post-apocalyptic fascinations.
What this game gets across isn't just its sense of place in the physical sense, but an uneasy, ambiguous nature in the spiritual sense. Like the first game, enemy demons are strange and ambivalent beings, and the dungeon crawling can be brutal, but Megami Tensei II's relaxed, skeptical sense of storytelling is what better pulls together these strands. Goals are never really what they seem, party members sometimes act of their own accord, and one plot circumstance hugely effects the lead character in battle and out.
Megami Tensei II is a wholly ambivalent and mysterious game. It's elusive without being nebulous, and the world it conjures is one of a kind. Many fans of the series point back to other earlier works in the franchise (the early SMT and Persona games), but this one has my heart, and to some extent, makes a lot of the 4th and 5th generation titles feel redundant.
The Cliffhanger: Edward Randy (Arcade)
The best Indiana Jones game ever made. Data East was a bonkers arcade developer in the early to mid 90's, and Edward Randy is one of their craziest, radiant games. It's a 2D action platformer that looks to be set in the South of France in the early 20th century. Bi-planes, speed boats, all sorts of automated monstrosities, and a hell of a lot of expendable soldiers. Edward has a whip, which he uses to attack and also swing about haphazardly.
This game is wild. It moves too quickly and flamboyantly to even get a handle on the controls, which are strong, if a bit floaty at first play. Randy can hang, action roll, whip in all sorts of directions and swing-kick all over the place. The whip cuts through enemies, vehicles, and returns grenades---it's really satisfying exploding the entire screen with a few cracks.
But it's impossible to talk about the title without saying how great it looks. It's colorful, fast, and full of impressive effects. It opens on moving speedboats that change direction (left-to-right, then towards the screen), before becoming a truck chase across a cliff-face, then a battle with a giant robot, and finally an in-air battle on the wings of several bi-planes. The attention to perspective and spacial orientation while remaining in 2D and moving in every conceivable motion is amazing. It might be the most impressive looking video game made up until this point.
Edward Randy is a classic in action video games, a game that captures the havoc and chaos of high-flying combat in a way that few games of the time did. That it does so while being so gorgeous makes it a personal favorite.
The Secret of Monkey Island (DOS)
The design promise of Maniac Mansion is finally realized by Lucasarts. This isn't meant to slight the other formative point-and-click games created between that title and this one (I'm much more fond of Loom than most are), but The Secret of Monkey Island is such a thoroughly and beautifully realized game.
It, of course, tells the story of Guybrush Threepwood, a wannabe swashbuckler stranded on the pirate infested Melee Island (TM), equipped with nothing other than the vague dream of living the pirate life. Ghost pirate captain LeChuck haunts the seas, but Guybrush interacts with this massive threat as more of an annoyance than anything else. In fact, Guybrush's carefree, foolhardy spirit is the perfect foil for such a wild and at times uncaring world.
Melee Island is one of my favorite places in gaming; a bustling, open, mysterious space in the perpetual blue and purple-y glow of night, full of pointed architecture and often lensed at expressionistic angles. Lucasarts really stepped up their presentation with this game, not just in environments, but in characters as well. Exaggerated caricature paired with expressive animations and gestures---despite semi-crude pixel art. It's really excellent stuff all-round.
The rigid, sporadically frustrating framework of point-and-click games is present, but it's really amazing how well Lucasarts uses its engine and design in compelling ways. One sequence centers around swordfighting, or rather the trash-talking that occurs simultaneously. Success isn't measured by swiftness, but rather the ability to construct clever insults and and comebacks. Another sequence denies player control entirely, wherein an extended series of absurd slapstick happens off-screen, only illustrated through the action lines that would normally confirm player action.
The Secret of Monkey Island is a brilliant, inventive work of wild humor and imagination; a game that endures due to its still infectious spirit and charm.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (MSX2)
Hideo Kojima, the most apparent and recognizable auteur in gaming is, almost unfortunately, sutured to the Metal Gear series in many eyes. Because of this, most of his modern reputation rests in his works from Metal Gear Solid onward. His first two Metal Gear games, Snatcher, and Policenauts go without much notice due to the lack of Western support.
Metal Gear 2 might be Kojima's first great game (Snatcher could be, but I've only played CDROMantic, which is technically a '92 release). It so thoroughly improves upon the mechanics and aspirations of the first game, it almost makes MGS1 look redundant. A comprehensive mini-map with vision cones, different phases of enemy alert, crawling though vents, radio communication with several distinct characters; most of what the Metal Gear series is comes from this title.
And still this game surprises in its storytelling and scenario design. One sequence has Snake using smoke grenades to check the direction of the wind before hang-gliding, one involves traversing a deadly swamp, one part relies on remote-control missiles to neutralize a hazardous room (sound familiar). All the while maintaining the 2D, semi-top-down view that allows for ample control in both sneaking and combat.
Like Megami Tensei II, Metal Gear 2 really establishes its franchise's personality and distinctive traits with complete confidence. Though the PS2 trilogy is often thought of as the high point of the series (and rightfully so), I believe that looking back one more title for the sake of consideration is in order.
Dragon Quest IV (NES)
At this point in the series, Dragon Quest was distinct. Hell, it was distinct from the first title, but by now it was an item, a known quantity. It would be easy and reliable to make a larger game with a longer, more involved narrative with more gameplay mechanics and rake in the cash. The thing is, Dragon Quest started as an experiment. It's tone might be breezy, but that first title was a groundbreaking game, and like everything that's groundbreaking, it was a major risk.
Dragon Quest IV however, takes a glorious risk in its structure and narrative and it pays off incredibly. The game is presented as a series of separate arcs: the story of a knight investigating disappearances, a princess journeying for the first time, a shopkeeper looking to expand his business, and a pair of sisters bent on revenge. Each one of these stories is presented one after the other, situated in different areas of the world, and are sometimes with subtle connections to one another. There are plot strands that are introduced and then followed up on hours, and stories apart.
Each of these journeys is unique in its characters, party formations, locations, and goals. I love the brief, contained nature of the knight's story; following it up with the more freewheeling and mysterious story of the princess is a great choice. Torneko the shopkeep's, journey is among the most astonishing sequences of any game I've played, which starts behind the counter of store selling wares and ends funding a connection between continents as a successful entrepreneur. Torneko's journey is profiteer's delight, but sticks in my mind as the story of someone trying to build a better life for his family; it's wonderful. The sisters, both performers, have a journey that's more desperate and personal, but it leads nicely into the game's last surprise.
The longest story is the final one: that of the fated hero, the character alluded to in the knight's narrative with the name that you gave when you started---many hours ago. This journey is the globe-trotting, party gathering, dungeon exploring, big-bad defeating story you would expect from Dragon Quest, except now it's more greatly contextualized. You know the people that are joining you. You know the areas you are visiting, which are now different than the last time you saw them due to the passage of time and the actions of the other characters.
It's an astounding game with a brilliant central concept. The execution of this concept enlightens everything around it, bringing a sympathy for its characters and world that few games in the genre are able to. It's my favorite Dragon Quest, and up until this point, the most complete RPG made.
So it's the start of a new decade, and games seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Some of the years that follow this one are completely stacked, but '90 and '91 both seem pretty manageable in my eyes. Thoughts? Your favorites? Let me know!
I just want to say, If you havent played Journey to Silius yet, you really should! I recommend the US version as it looks slightly better colour wise and the main character got a cool helmet!
I discovered this game at my grandmas place as there were a NES there I could play on. I remember bairly making it past level 2 and by this day I still have not beaten the game! The music in this game is sooo good for its time, fun boss fights and the level design is also fun and challenging!