Gaming has changed a lot in the last 30 years. From pixels to polygons, from barely workable 3D to incredibly complex gaming worlds, and from 16-bit soundtracks to fully orchestrated scores. One thing has been consistent for the last three decades though, and that has been the games. For every change in technology, growth in ambition, and exciting new idea, there have been men and women who took games to the next level and created some of the greatest games we’ve ever played in the process.
With this spirit in mind, we’ve decided to go back over the last 30 years with the gift of hindsight. Our editors selected 6 games from each year that we thought best encapsulated it. Our criteria included new ground broken, lasting impact, fun factor, general quality, influence, popularity and a whole host of other criteria. It was hard going, but we managed to narrow it down to a mere 6 from every single year. 1 winner and 5 runners-up. We then asked our writers to choose the best game of each of the last 3 decades years. Now, with the votes tallied and the list prepared, we offer it to you. Some of our picks may be divisive, and others may be safe as houses, but the democratic process won out, and these are our picks for Goomba Stomp’s favorite games of the last quarter-century. Here are the best games of the 1990s.
Best Video Games Of The 1990s
1990) Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros 3 is often considered to be the best video game of the 8-bit generation and with reason. It introduced so many new ideas and for its time, the game was beyond anything you could ever dream of with eight worlds and seventy-plus ingenious levels of side-scrolling awesomeness. It introduced new power-ups and various suits Mario can use inside the levels, including the super leaf which turns Mario into Raccoon Mario, letting him fly, glide, and tail whip – and the fan-favorite, the Tanooki suit, which gives Mario the same abilities as the super leaf, but also lets him briefly turn into a statue protecting him from danger. Meanwhile, the frog suit allows you to swim very quickly underwater and jump higher while on land, and the hammer suit turns Mario into Hammer Mario, letting him throw powerful hammers and block fireballs by crouching.
In Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario could now slide down hills, knocking down enemies who get in his way, and the powerups from the original game also make an appearance. Also new to the series were mini-games, an overhead map screen to track progress and collectible warp whistles that teleport you to later worlds in the game. In addition, is the music box which puts enemies on the map to sleep and the anchor used to stop the Koopaling’s airship from flying around the map so that you don’t have to chase it. Jugern’s Cloud allows you to skip a level and Kuribo’s Shoe, easily one of the most beloved power-ups in Mario history, can be found in only one level!
The familiar Mario sound effects are present and accounted for, along with a batch of new musical compositions concocted by Koji Kondo and dozens of new enemies like Boom Booms, Boos and Chain Chomps make their very first appearance in the Nintendo universe. In my opinion, it is a near-perfect video game crammed with so much to see and so much to do. It is hands down the best in the Super Mario series— a masterpiece, full of innovation, surprises and a game that will forever stand the test of time. (Ricky D)
Runners-Up: Mega Man 3, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, The Secret of Monkey Island, Startropics
1991) Super Mario World
There are about eight Mario adventures that could easily be listed within the lexicon of the greatest games ever made, and Super Mario World, released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System sits on that list. Super Mario World helped define the 16-bit era, transforming the classic Mario formula into something bigger, faster, brighter, and some would say, better. It proved that Nintendo could deviate away from a traditional formula and still have a massive hit on their hands. And for this reason alone, Super Mario World is one of the most important games Nintendo has ever released. It gave them the confidence to continuously experiment, even if it was at the expense of their now iconic mascot. It also helped the Super NES sell millions of units while teens were desperately trying to decide between purchasing either the Super NES or the Sega Genesis.
What makes the Super Mario series so great is Nintendo’s insistence in finding new ways to expand upon its basic concepts in unexpected ways. Super Mario World managed to push the boundaries and exceeded the expectations of gamers back in 1992. Following up on the brilliance of Super Mario Bros. 3 was no easy feat but Nintendo pulled it off with great success. I think it’s safe to say that Super Mario World is the apex of 16-bit platforming and set the bar impossibly high for any future 16-bit releases. (Ricky D)
Runners-Up: Another World, Final Fantasy IV, F-Zero, Street Fighter II, Super Castlevania IV
1992) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
A Link to the Past did many things other games had never done before it, and in many ways, A Link to the Past was the Zelda game that would lay down the blueprint for other entries to follow. A Link to the Past puts its contemporaries to shame, which is quite a claim when you consider the library the Super Nintendo boasts. There are easily more dungeons to explore in this game than any other game in the series, and each of those labyrinths is vibrantly rendered. Kazuaki Morita, who would go on to become a permanent fixture in the Zelda franchise, did an incredible job in creating a new multi-level geometry for Link to roam around. Every dungeon in the game is overflowing with intricately layered platforms, a wide variety of enemies, and a healthy dose of complex puzzles. One could say that A Link to the Past is the ultimate dungeon-crawling game.
It was also a graphical showcase at the time, full of diverse environments and detailed sprites. The sound design, too, is a work of genius. Koji Kondo’s compositions here are legendary, and A Link to the Past helped to establish the musical score of the Zelda series. Meanwhile, the game introduced elements to the series that are still commonplace today, such as the concept of an alternate or parallel world, the Master Sword, and several new weapons and items for Link to use. Released to critical and commercial success, A Link to the Past was a landmark title for Nintendo and established a formula for adventure games that balanced exploration, storytelling, item acquisition, and puzzle-solving. It’s a formula still followed today, and not just in the series, but by many other game developers worldwide. In the Zelda canon — which, in my opinion, consists of six masterpieces — this 16-bit adventure is still by far the best in the series. (Ricky D)
Runners-Up: Alone in the Dark, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Super Mario Kart, Wolfenstein 3D
Doom is not the original first-person shooter, but it’s undeniably the most significant. The continued prevalence of FPS titles in 2019, 26 years after its release, exist as an ongoing tribute to the phenomenal impact of id software’s blockbuster shooter. It caused tidal waves in the PC gaming industry, set an unparalleled standard for 3D gaming, and made rock stars out of its small team of developers and programmers.
Time has been astonishingly kind to Doom, and this can be attributed to the unfiltered vision and unrelenting work ethic of id. Wanting nothing but the fastest, bloodiest, most visceral and badass video game possible, the team created an experience that still encapsulates every bit of their mantra to this day. It remains a blistering, brutal blast of pure adrenaline that’s as infinitely playable on its recent Switch port as it is in a web browser.
Looking at pretty much any screenshot of Doom will bring memories flooding back, as so much of the game’s visuals are truly iconic. The coloured key cards, the grotesque monsters, the Doom Guy avatar at the bottom of the screen, the BFG – everything on display is memorable, and without any semblance of a story to carry it all.
Doom’s method of gameplay over story quintessentially embodies the early philosophy of id software, where, “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie; it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” That may be less of the case today, but back in 1993 it was unquestionably true. Doom’s influence has, and will continue to, echo through the ages thanks to its revolutionary gameplay and unabashed focus on big f’n guns and lots of f’n fun. (Alex Aldridge)
Runners-Up: Mortal Kombat II, Mega Man X, Myst, Secret of Mana, Star Fox
1994) Super Metroid
The bodies of dead scientists lie strewn across the floor. Leering strings echo in the background, mingling with the shrill screeches of the last Metroid. Super Metroid thrives on creating such an unsettling atmosphere. A masterwork of worldbuilding, it presents an eerily explorable planet unlike anything before it. In doing so, it also became one of the few games that can truly be said to have begun its own genre.
Super Metroid’s brilliance boils down to its setting – the desolate Planet Zebes. It is a silent planet, one that tells its own stories through its environment alone. From the ruins of the fallen Chozo society to the distorted remains of failed Space Pirate experiments, Zebes is filled with muted monuments of its tragic history. With its ominous visuals and its ambient, percussive soundtrack, it creates an alien environment that encourages players to uncover more of its past.
Progress through Zebes isn’t siphoned off into segmented levels as in other action games of the time. Instead, Super Metroid presents a masterfully interconnected world that can be explored in any direction – provided that one has the items necessary to overcome the game’s many obstacles. As the player becomes more powerful with every new item or ability, the world opens up further, exposing more of its mysteries and hidden depths. It’s this marriage of exploration and worldbuilding that makes the gameplay loop so intoxicating, even a quarter of a century after its release.
For 25 years, countless games have proudly dubbed themselves “Metroidvanias” as they strive to emulate Super Metroid’s signature seamless design. Yet even with so many successors, Super Metroid remains the pinnacle of the genre it fostered. Few games have created a world as engrossing and worthy of exploring as Zebes. (Campbell Gill)
Runners-Up: Donkey Kong Country, Earthworm Jim, Earthbound, Final Fantasy VI, Sim City 2000
1995) Chrono Trigger
Few RPGs inspire as warm memories as Chrono Trigger does. It makes sense too, Chrono Trigger arrived at a time when the world needed a game just like it. Final Fantasy VI is a great game, but it lacks the polish and vision of a game like this. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy VII was a ground-breaking game-changer, but its experimental development means that it hasn’t aged as well as we might like.
Chrono Trigger is the perfect sweet spot between the two. Crafted by the dream team of Yoshinori Kitase, Takashi Tokita, and Akihiko Matsui, Chrono Trigger benefited from having the best and brightest in the business at the helm, and a bevy of talented outliers contributing in other facets. Akira Toriyama of Dragonball Z fame designed the characters, while one of a kind composers Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda concocted the score.
A timeless tale of a group of misfits who take up the call of all of humanity without even being asked, Chrono Trigger is an unforgettable experience, a game that is as timeless as its characters journey. (Mike Worby)
Runners-Up: Civilization II, Command and Conquer, Donkey Kong Country 2, Warcraft II, Yoshi’s Island
1996) Super Mario 64
In many ways, Super Mario 64 is the definitive video game. As a technical showcase, it simultaneously ushered the best-selling video game series and the medium as a whole into the third dimension, redefining the very notion of what games could be. As a design marvel, it remains one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time and continues to influence countless successors, from games in its own series such as Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Odyssey, to non-Nintendo games such as Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, and A Hat in Time.
Nearly twenty-five years later, Super Mario 64 remains a joy to play and for many series vets it still features the most responsive and flexible controls, most memorable worlds, most quintessential tunes, and most satisfying missions. From first landing on the castle lawn to discovering Yoshi on its roof, Super Mario 64 is full of unforgettable moments that will remain forever lodged into the collective subconscious of 90s kids and gaming culture. (Kyle Rentschler)
Runners-Up: Crash Bandicoot, Mario Kart 64, Pokemon Red & Blue, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider
1997) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Sometimes the best strategy for a franchise is simply to take up someone else’s ball and run with it. Such was the case with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. After Super Metroid redefined its own genre, the previously level-based Castlevania decided to take that concept and evolve it further. Birthed from this experiment was the most memorable and successful game in the franchise, an outlier that saw us playing as one of Dracula’s own instead of one of the Belmonts.
Set free in Dracula’s castle as his very own son, players flew, floated, and ran toward their destiny, in hopes of committing a melancholic patricide that would only be diminished by the hilariously bad voice acting that accompanied it. Today, even those glaring flaws are looked upon with loving nostalgia. Such is the quality of a game like Symphony of the Night, a game so enduring that it could inspire a successor over 20 years later.
While everyone else was concentrating on the next realm of game development, Koji Igarashi focused on making the best version of Castlevania he could, without abandoning the look and style the series had come to be known for. The results speak for themselves. (Mike Worby)
Runners-Up: Final Fantasy VII, Goldeneye, Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey, Parappa the Rapper, Tekken 3
1998) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Few games hold their value with as much longevity as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. To this day, it remains the basis for virtually every major 3D action-adventure game. Even within its own franchise, Ocarina of Time tends to tower above other entries. Not because it has yet to be topped, but because it set such an all-around high benchmark for quality.
Where other games have surpassed Ocarina of Time’s individual mechanics, very few rivals how cohesive and balanced the complete game still is. A slower text crawl does lead to a much slower experience overall, but Ocarina of Time is a game that thrives on its smaller moments. Every beat, every cutscene, and every dungeon meld together into an unforgettably epic adventure. (Renan Fontes)
Runners-Up: Grim Fandango, Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, StarCraft
1999) Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is as much a time capsule as it is a video game. It’s a remnant of an era when the millennium was young, life was rad, the future was irrelevant, and goofing off was life. It got the punk kids into skating, the skater kids into video games, and the gamers into both. It truly exemplifies a period in time where my life aligned with this video game on practically every level.
As far as skateboarding games go, even within its own franchise, it’s fairly rudimentary. It lacks a lot of important features that were added in later installments like manuals and reverts, but its simplicity helps mark it as a timeless classic – one that can be easier to pick back up than riding… well, not a bike, but it’s definitely easier than riding an actual skateboard. What it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in a tight, responsive control system that made virtual skateboarding feel refined and ready for intense, skill-based chaos.
THPS boasts some of the most iconic levels and music in the series’ history and the majority of it is imprinted in my brain at this point, even if it took me years to hear the bridge in Goldfinger’s ‘Superman’ thanks to the two-minute time limit on Warehouse. Long before activities could be gamified, Neversoft was putting collectibles and hidden secrets into a skate park. It created this bite-sized chunk of adrenaline that could be repeated over and over again, much like trying to nail the perfect skateboard trick. It adhered perfectly to the short attention spans of young punks and skaters, and it was endlessly addictive.
THPS is not just an important game in terms of establishing a genre, but it’s an important game for an entire generation of people who grew up on Bart Simpson and Bam Margera, Offspring and NOFX, Osiris and DC, Jackass and CKY, Sega and Nintendo. Skating has never been as big, and the series has all but died a death after the repugnant fifth entry a few years ago, but nothing can kill the memory of playing THPS back on PS1. Gaming and skating collectively will never be as gnarly again. (Alex Aldridge)
Runners-Up: Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VIII, Planescape: Torment, Silent Hill, System Shock 2