(Due to the length of this blog I've decided to separate it into 2 parts)
It's the end of the year and amid the holiday festivities we gamers also have something else to think on - the all important best game of the year winner. What game do we call the defining experience of the last 12 months? Which game moved the medium forward and redefined what a game could be? There's so much to consider... Which game had the best graphics? Which game had the best single player or multiplayer? Which game had the best story or performances? Which soundtrack was the best? Which game innovated the most? All these questions help narrow it down.
Before I go into speculation about this years contenders, I'd like to take a look back at the games that won in previous years and why they still hold meaning to us today. So join me on this journey as we go back in time to an era when gaming was considered a dying fad and few cared about which was the best of the year. Come with me to 1985...
(All GotY award winners on this list were decided by the total number of GotY awards won from many different publications.)
1985 Game of the Year: Super Mario Bros. on the NES
It's hard for us to imagine now, but gaming was on it's deathbed in 1985. 2 years earlier, the market had crashed and now most people only cared about arcade coin-op games, if they cared at all. Nintendo boldly decided now was the time to reintroduce home console gaming and it did so by marketing the NES as a toy instead of a video game console.
Before 1985, there were certainly many great games but there is no real consensus on which was the best in any given year, except maybe 1981's Donkey Kong... But from 1985 onward, every year had a clear victor and the medium's popularity steadily increased all the way to the present day. That's because 1985 saw the release of what many consider "the cornerstone" of gaming, Super Mario Bros. This game was so amazing in 1985 that everyone simply had to have it for Christmas that year and as word spread, it became what could be argued as the game of the year 1986, 87, 88, and 89. Such was the overwhelming success of Super Mario Bros. and the fat plumber is still amazing us to this day.
1985 Honorable mentions:
Tales of the Unknown: Volume I - The Bard's Tale, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
1986 Game of the Year: Tetris on Personal Computers
Released first in the Soviet Union and spreading to the west as shareware on floppy disks, Tetris was an ingenious little puzzle game that still sees much play on cell phones today. Tetris also had a large part to play in the success of the Game Boy in 1989. This entry is also interesting due to its success as a pirated game as it would be years before a proper licensing agreement was made.
1986 Honorable Mentions:
Starflight, The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight, Fantasy Zone, Labyrinth: The Computer Game, Gradius
1987 Game of the Year: The Legend of Zelda on the NES
The first Zelda game introduced console gamers to vast open worlds and the need for exploration. It's quaint to look at now, but the original is really the beginning of so many greater things to come. The first great RPG that console gamers could call their own.
1987 Honorable Mentions:
Castlevania, Metroid, Penguin Land, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, Sid Meier's Pirates!, Dungeon Master, Zillion
1988 Game of the Year: Contra on the NES
The Konami code was practically required to beat this run n gun masterpiece. The 2 player coop was truly a breath of fresh air and the mash-up of 80s action movies like Aliens, Predator and Rambo proved to be an addictive mix. Still considered to be one of the greatest 2 player games of all time.
1988 Honorable Mentions:
Wonder Boy in Monster Land, The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate, Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode, Super Mario Bros. 2, Pool of Radiance, Phantasy Star, Laser Squad, Bionic Commando, Elite, R-Type
1989 Game of the Year: Mega Man 2 on the NES
The game that made Mega Man a household name. Still considered by many to be the best in the series. Innovations like being able to chose the order of the levels you played and using the boss weapons against other bosses was truly a revelation.
1989 Honorable Mentions:
Ninja Gaiden, Dungeon Explorer, Wonder Boy III The Dragon's Trap, Blazing Lasers, The Revenge of Shinobi, The Legendary Axe, POW Prisoners of War, DuckTales, Truxton, Golden Axe
1990 Game of the Year: Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES
The last NES game to win GotY and one of the most hyped games I can remember. The 1989 movie "The Wizard" was basically an hour and a half long advertisement for SMB3. It completely lived up to it's hype though and I still consider it the best 2D Mario game ever. It was the true sequel to the original SMB (SMB2 was a repackaged game) and it had more secrets, more boss battles, some of the best graphics on the NES and a soundtrack so memorable, I still wax nostalgic when I hear it.
1990 Honorable Mentions:
Phantasy Star II, Super C, Ultima VI: The False Prophet, Ninja Gaiden II: Dark Sword of Chaos, Thunder Force III, Final Fantasy, Devil's Crush, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Wing Commander, Mega Man 3, Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse, Strider, The Secret of Monkey Island
1991 Game of the Year: Super Mario World on the SNES
Two Mario games for 2 years in a row?! I know, I'm still in shock all these years later. How did Nintendo do it? Does they have a bunch of programmers working like slaves all day long? Probably... There’s no way around it, SMW was one of the best launch titles of all time and really showed people why they needed to upgrade to the SNES. I still think SMB3 is better, but SMW is so charming and delightful that it's infectious.
1991 Honorable Mentions:
M.U.S.H.A., Sid Meier's Civilization, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bonk's Revenge, Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, Final Fantasy II (actually #4), Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, Super Castlevania IV, QuackShot starring Donald Duck, Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2 – Martian Dreams, Streets of Rage, ToeJam & Earl, ActRaiser
1992 Game of the Year: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES
The first Zelda game I really fell in love with and a graphical powerhouse, there is no escaping the awesome power of this game and the effects it had on the industry. Some consider this to be the best Zelda game of all time but there's no question that it won GotY with flying colors. If you haven't already played this game, you need to get to it NOW!
1992 Honorable Mentions:
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Wolfenstein 3D, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Street Fighter II, Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (AKA Thunder Force IV), Super Mario Kart, Out of this World (AKA Another World), Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Streets of Rage 2
1993 Game of the Year: DOOM on Personal Computers
It wasn't the first FPS game, but it most certainly popularized the genre. Terms we still use today like "death match" got their start with this landmark shooter. Finally breaking up the Nintendo monopoly on GotY Awards, Doom was simply irresistible with its gory graphics and fast paced action.
1993 Honorable Mentions:
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole, Robo Aleste, Star Wars: X-Wing, Lords of Thunder, Star Fox, Strike Commander, Kirby's Adventure, Maniac Mansion II: Day of the Tentacle, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, Street Fighter II Turbo, Gunstar Heroes, Mortal Kombat, Myst, Secret of Mana, Sam & Max Hit the Road, Disney's Aladdin (Genesis version, the SNES version was very mediocre), Sonic the Hedgehog CD, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers
1994 Game of the Year: Donkey Kong Country on the SNES
This was a tough year to decide on a GotY. Many publications chose different games. I personally loved Final Fantasy VI more and I know lots of people voted for Super Metroid but I knew the moment that I saw DKC that this was something game changing. Just visually, the graphics felt they were from another world where the SNES had the horsepower of a super computer. I remember starring jaw agape at those smooth 3D rendered models moving around on a 2D plane and wondering what dark magic the Nintendo guys were conjuring. It may seem like nothing to kids nowadays but back in 1994, we have never seen graphics like that on a home console. The soundtrack was a treat for the ears and the platforming was some of the best on the SNES.
1994 Honorable Mentions:
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, Sim City 2000, X-COM UFO Defense, NBA Jam, Super Metroid, Jagged Alliance, Star Wars TIE Fighter, Mortal Kombat II, System Shock, Contra Hard Corps, Earthworm Jim, Doom II Hell on Earth, Shining Force II, Final Fantasy III (actually #6), Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, Snatcher
1995 Game of the Year: Chrono Trigger on the SNES
This was the last SNES game to win GotY but what a way to go out! Chrono Trigger was graphical powerhouse with a soundtrack so good that I'm STILL listening to it 20 years later. If you haven’t played this almighty RPG masterpiece of time traveling goodness, then you simply must. It's short too, only about 17 hrs long and very re-playable.
1995 Honorable Mentions:
Phantasy Star IV, Star Wars Dark Forces, Ristar, Descent, Full Throttle, Panzer Dragoon, Virtua Fighter 1 & 2, Tekken, MechWarrior 2, Killer Instinct, Command & Conquer, Earthworm Jim 2, SMW 2 Yoshi's Island, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
1996 Game of the Year: Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64
3D games seemed unresponsive and ugly when compared to the beautiful 2D games of the era. I was starting to thing the whole 3D gaming thing was a passing fad until Super Mario 64 came along and showed everyone how 3D gaming was supposed to work. It's hard to describe what a revelation this game was in 1996. You would have to go back and play the awful early 3D games to get a feel for how it was before playing the smooth and responsive SM64. In a lot of ways, you could divide gaming history into before Mario 64 and after Mario 64. Its really that big a change.
1996 Honorable Mentions:
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, Sid Meier's Civilization II, Resident Evil, Panzer Dragoon II Zwei, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Quake, NiGHTS into Dreams..., Tekken 2, Tomb Raider, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Diablo, Dragon Force
1997 Game of the Year: Tie between GoldenEye 007 and Final Fantasy VII
Lots of sevens in this year, hmmm.... This is one of those years where we essentially had a tie vote. The RPG and PlayStation Nation sided with FFVII and the FPS, multiplayer and Nintendo fans sided with GoldenEye 007. There was even a sizable faction of MetroidVania fans voting for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Either way, this was a REALLY good year for gaming and gamers on all platforms had something to brag about.
1997 Honorable Mentions:
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Soul Blade, Turok Dinosaur Hunter, Fighters Megamix, MDK, Star Fox 64, Fallout, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, The Curse of Monkey Island, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, PaRappa the Rapper, Quake II
1998 Game of the Year: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64
1998 is widely considered to the best year in gaming history with such monumental hits like StarCraft, Metal Gear Solid, Half Life and Resident Evil 2 it would take a game of ENORMOUS scope and innovation to win the top prize. Leave it to Nintendo to blow everyone away with a game that is still the highest ever recorded on Metacritic and what many consider the best game in the series. What Super Mario 64 did for platformers, Zelda OoT did for Action RPGs. Easily one of the most beloved games of all time, every gamer needs to have beaten it at least once.
1998 Honorable Mentions:
Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, Half Life, StarCraft, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Tekken 3, Gran Turismo, Banjo Kazooie, Shining Force III, Fallout 2, Grim Fandango, Baldur's Gate, Thief the Dark Project, Starseige Tribes, Star Wars Rogue Squadron
1999 Game of the Year: SoulCalibur on Sega Dreamcast
This winner is unique for 2 reasons: first, it's a Sega console exclusive (It's about time right?) and second, it's a fighting game. It's hard to put into words the effect this game had on the industry. It had an 8 way run style of control and it ran at a butter smooth 60 frames per second which isn't that impressive nowadays but was eye popping to the PS1 and N64 gamers used to 30 fps or lower gameplay. It actually took me a while to adjust to fast pace of the fighting. 3D fighters have never been the same since SoulCalibur launched with the Dreamcast on 9/9/99.
1999 Honorable Mentions:
Silent Hill, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, EverQuest, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Ape Escape, Jagged Alliance 2, System Shock 2, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Homeworld, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, FreeSpace 2, Medal of Honor, Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena, Planescape: Torment, Gran Turismo 2, Grandia
Continued in Part 2...