Tuesday, July 8, 2014

1994 In Gaming: A contender for Best Ever

1994: Great Starts

This year is the 20th Anniversary of 1994, one of the greatest years in gaming.  When it comes to film buffs, there is a popular discussion "game" they like to play where they argue for the greatest year in movies ever.  One of the first things you have to do is consider the metrics of measurement to use.  Do you factor in money, attendance, influence, what exactly is success?  Well this has also been done for video games.  The general consensus in movies is that 1939 is the greatest year in Hollywood, with a couple of really close 2nd and 3rds.  When it comes to video games, it is also a foregone conclusion that 1998 is the best ever, but it has a run for its money with 1994.

Let's start 1994 with some "beginnings" in the industry.  Neversoft, of Tony Hawk fame, is founded, as is the FPS juggernaut 3D Realms.  Current huge studios get their start as Bungee released Marathon, and Epic releases Jazz the Jackrabbit.  Shiny Entertainment also releases Earthworm Jim, it set a new standard in 2-D animation that made everything before it look flat.  Fans of the X-men cartoon got X-men: Children of the Atom.  Shadowrun on the Genesis was a taste of what was to come with Bio-ware style RPG's AND open world RPG's a decade later.   Bethesda released the first Elder Scrolls video game, Arena.

In Tech we get some footnote fizzles as Neo Geo CD and PC-FX are released.  We also have end of the year Playstation launch in Japan.  1994 was the year of Sega though, as they release the 32x, the Nomad, and the Saturn all in 1994, sadly sewing the seeds of them leaving the hardware business.  Sega did, however, start the first major non-physical software distribution home service when they started the Sega Channel, a cable box adapter that streamed Genesis games into your home.  Some monster 3-D polygon franchises began as Daytona USA and Tekken were released to arcades.  Road and Track Magazine sponsored a game that I would later have some of my first 32-bit next gen memories from, as I rented the game with a Playstation a few times through the Summer of 1995; the first Need for Speed.

The Big 3 Number 1
Blizzard released its genre defining game Warcraft in 1994 as well.  Nowadays we know of Warcraft as this huge cashing printing, world wide economy stimulating MMORPG, but in the 90's it was just as revitalizing for the Real Time Strategy genre, and popularized it enough to make it one of the largest genres in the world.  Warcraft feeds directly into not only MMORPG's but also into the MOBA's, arguably the highest grossing money makers in the industry.  While it wasn't the first, it was one of the most polished, and the Artificial intelligence of units allowing the player to be viewing and managing other parts of the game while still getting their work done was mind blowing when I first saw it.  Simcity with orcs and war?  YES!

 Just like many years in movies, 1994 was a huge year for sequels, fortunately unlike Hollywood, sequels can be great gaming. A few quick shoutouts include Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, and its introduction of Akuma, my favorite gaming badass.  Sonic and Knuckles was released with an innovative stacked cartridge that let you put older sonic games in the top to allow you to play Knuckles in older Sonic games.  The cult classic(and Ebay darling) Earthbound(Mother 2 in Japan) was released here.  Doom 2 raised the bar in the FPS genre as Id had so far reigned un-challenged as the kings of First Person Shooters.  Rare released Donkey Kong Country, a pseudo-sequel to Donkey Kong that amazed people with its pre-rendered "Silicon" graphics.  While Mortal Kombat 2 was released in 1993, its biggest event was when the SNES version was released un-censored, heralding a "new" attitude at Nintendo for the first time.

The Big 3 Number 2
In 1994 we also got a few games that are contenders for not only best of their franchise, best of their genre, but even contenders for best games of all time.  Final Fantasy VI is a game I write about a lot.  In fact, you're going to be sick of it if you read my stuff as I put it out.  I'll do a quick summary here.  Final Fantasy VI raised the bar in story telling for all genres.  The soundtrack was done in the style of a movie soundtrack instead of the traditional gaming one.  Themes weaved in and out of the songs, reoccurring at key moments and signaling changes in character development.  Cinematic story telling evolved as perspectives were changed for certain events, finally doing away with the fixed overhead perspective.  Final Fantasy VI convinced Japan they could market RPG's in North America, leading to more releases, and leading Squaresoft to invest millions into the next sequel.

The Big 3 Number 3
In Japan the Metroid series is not very popular.  That is why it took so long for a sequel to Metroid to reach consoles.  The 3rd title in the series Super Metroid is widely considered one of the greatest achievements in game development to ever exist.  The attention to detail, from dripping water to tiny insects, was something thought not possible on the SNES.  The game even amazed people with some spoken dialog at the beginning.  It pushed the 2-D platform genre to heights that would not be reached again for several years.  While Donkey Kong Country got applauded for its tech, critics knew it was Metroid that had the gameplay.  There are many games in the world that have lone protagonists, but very few make you feel alone.  Super Metroid gave you the sense of loneliness like few games can.  Then, in the end, it manages to teach you that kindness too can be rewarded in our worst, most hopeless moments.

How does 1998 beat 1994 in so many lists?  In many ways 1994 was a build up, a stepping stone of things to come.  New technology was still too young for the truly amazing things to happen just yet, but games like FFVI and Super Metroid had to set the stage and prove certain things work before they could be perfected.  The innovations of 1998 are still being built upon today, and so 1998 feels like the first "modern" year of gaming with its cinematic Metal Gear Solid and its hyper detailed 2-D art in Symphony of the Night.  Also in 1998, people brought their money.  Video Games were on the verge of being bigger than the movie industry, but not nearly as widely sold as today.  1998 was over the top financially successful compared to the critically acclaimed, yet still niche market, that was video games in 1994.

1994 was a strong year, one of the best, and I hope those that read this have memories of games made that year and that maybe I brought back a little bit of your childhood while reading it.  With the indie revolution, I feel like it gives some of these games another chance that even 10 years ago they were rejected.  Super Metroid, Final Fantasy VI, Warcraft, all 3 are just as good as a lot of the mobile indie games you see now, both in graphics and especially in gameplay.  In the PS2 era, these games were seen as outdated, old, and no good, but the appreciation for such "primitive" games has come back as of late and it makes me happy to see the trend going into that direction.

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