The 1990s were a decade of innovation and change which was hugely important in gaming. Throughout it we saw three generations of consoles, each one making huge leaps in terms of technology. We also saw several new genres of game popularized.
Back in 1990, the 16 bit console was king. This fourth generation of consoles comprised the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the Super Nintendo, the Neo Geo, and the Game Boy. The rivalry between Sega and Nintendo sparked the second major console war and a battle for 2D supremacy.
Fast forward to 1993 and the 32/64 bit era began as the evolution from 2D and cartridges to 3D and CDs began. The defining consoles for this generation included the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64, one of the last cartridge based consoles in production.
Finally in 1999, the sixth generation began with the Sega Dreamcast, the first console to feature a built-in modem and web browser as well as a full SD resolution.
Alongside these technological changes, gaming itself evolved and grew. The first-person shooter, real-time strategy, and survival horror genres were all popularized and defined during this time.
While there were many amazing games released back in the 1990s, some of them had a much wider influence than others. In this list, I have chosen the ones which I feel were the most important. From those which heralded the beginning of much loved franchises, still going strong some 20 years later, to those which set a bar for titles to come. Here are the 30 most important 90’s video games of all times, ranked by year.
30 Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon And The Blade Of Light (Released April 1990)
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon And The Blade Of Light is the first title in the fantasy tactical role-playing game franchise Fire Emblem. The series currently comprises of 15 main games and 3 spin-offs, the most recent of which was released in 2017, with a new title, Three Houses, set to release later this year.
Initial sales of the game were slow, but it built up into a huge phenomenon and launched the popular series. After the hype built up many began to credit the game with popularizing the tactical role-playing genre.
29 Sonic The Hedgehog (Released June 1991)
Back in the 1990s the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo and their respective games and consoles was huge. Sonic The Hedgehog was created after Sega requested a mascot type character that could compete with Nintendo’s Mario. The first few Sonic The Hedgehog games focused on the high-speed platform genre.
As the 1990s moved on so did Sonic and the 2D fast paced side scroller gave way to Sonic Adventure in 1998, the first 3D Sonic game. Since then, Sonic has gone from strength to strength both in solo games and alongside his one time rival Mario.
28 Final Fantasy IV (Released July 1991)
Final Fantasy IV was one of the first role-playing games to feature such a complex and involving plot. It also included several features which went on to become staples of both the Final Fantasy series and RPGs in general. These include the active-time battle system and unchangeable character classes.
The series remains hugely influential and, in January 1997, it broke new ground again when Final Fantasy VII became the first title in the series to use 3D character models and full motion video. To this day it is considered a landmark title and one of the greatest games of all time.
27 Street Fighter II (Released August 1991)
Street Fighter II is often credited with being the yard stick for the one-on-one fighting genre. It popularized fighting games and went on to become a system seller for the SNES console.
At an arcade level, it contained the most accurate joystick and button controls seen at the time. This enabled players to reliably execute multi-button special moves and combos, which later became a fighting game staple. It was also one of the first player vs player games.
A true game changer which (once adjusted for inflation) remains one of the highest-grossing video games of all time.
26 Sid Meier’s Civilization (Released September 1991)
Sid Meier’s Civilization is a turn based strategy game. It focuses on exploring, expanding and developing an empire over a large time scale. It was the first game to have such huge scale and complexity.
The first installment in the series, which is still going strong today, had its flaws but it was a solid base upon which the franchise was built. It also had a strong influence on other important strategy games of the time including Alpha Centuri and Age Of Empires.
25 Super Mario Kart (Released August 1992)
Super Mario Kart is not only an incredibly fun game to play, but it was a key title in the Mario series. It spawned the kart racing sub-genre and also marked the successful transition of Mario away from being simply a platform game character.
Mario Kart has since become a popular franchise in its own right and is often considered a staple of Nintendo’s consoles. Both the original and several sequels have enjoyed critical and commercial success and to this day there are numerous other kart-racing games which use its model.
24 Virtua Racing (Released August 1992)
Virtua Racing began life as a proof-of-concept application for a new 3D-graphics platform. It got such a great reception that it was developed into an arcade title. While some games, such as Winning Run and Hard Drivin’, had used 3D graphics before, Virtua Racing vastly improved upon this.
The polygon count was much higher than other games of the time and the addition of a better frame rate added scene complexity. It also contained multiple camera angles and 3D non-player characters which added a depth never before seen in racing games. The title set the foundation for 3D racers.
23 Mortal Kombat (Released October 1992)
Mortal Kombat is the arcade fighting game which spawned the hugely popular franchise of the same name. It was released under a storm of controversy thanks to its graphic content which used realistic digitized graphics. What made it controversial also made it appealing.
The unique finishing moves in particular helped the title stand out from the crowd. Mortal Kombat became a best seller and remains one of the most popular fighting games ever, spawning not just sequels but also several spin-offs and a movie.
22 NBA Jam (Released February 1993)
NBA Jam is one of the first arcade basketball games and also one of the earliest to feature NBA-licensed teams and players. It was incredibly popular and, in 1994, became the highest-earning arcade game of all time.
The game paved the way for a new wave of sports games based around fast, action-packed gameplay and exaggerated realism. This model, which NBA Jam followed, would later be used for other successful sports games based on football, hockey and baseball.
21 Doom (Released December 1993)
A first person shooter, considered to be one of the most significant and influential of all time, Doom started out life as shareware. It was later sold at retail where its graphic content and imagery made it the subject of controversy. The game’s first 9 levels were played by an estimated 15-20 million people.
It popularized the first-person shooter genre and was pioneering in the areas of immersive 3D graphics and networked multiplayer gaming. It also allowed support for customized add-ons and modifications.
20 Theme Park (Released 1994)
Bullfrog Productions were pioneers in construction and management games back in the 1990s. Theme Park was their earliest success in this genre and became the basis for games of this type for years to come.
The game was designed to function on several levels. While players can enjoy simply building a theme park they can also up the difficulty to add more complex management tasks to the mix.
Much of the games code was later used to produce Theme Hospital, another classic simulation game released in 1997.
19 The Elder Scrolls: Arena (Released March 1994)
The first Elder Scrolls game, The Elder Scrolls: Arena is an epic fantasy role-playing game with an open world. The title was one of the earliest to feature a realistic day/night cycle which would later become a staple of similar games. It marked the beginning of a change of direction for Bethesda.
The title doesn’t really fit because the game was initially supposed to be an arena combat game. During development of the game's world, side quests were added. Eventually, these over took the arena aspect, which was dropped in favor of more role-playing elements.
18 Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (Released November 1994)
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans is the game which kicked off the entire Warcraft franchise, which is still going strong today.
While Warcraft was not the first real-time strategy game to offer multiplayer, it did help persuade a wider audience that this was an essential feature for the genre. The title’s mission designs and gameplay elements were also incredibly innovative and later adopted by other game developers.
The 1994 sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, was considered the main rival to the Command & Conquer series, a competition which boosted real-time strategy game’s popularity in the late 1990s.
17 Tekken (Released December 1994)
Tekken is a fighting video game which spawned the hugely successful Tekken series, that saw its latest release in 2017. Tekken allows you to take control of each of your fighter’s four limbs individually. Add to this customizable round numbers and time limits and you can play the game the way you want. The PlayStation release also added new sub-bosses and unlockables which really appealed to gamers. It is considered a title critical to the early success of the PlayStation.
16 Command & Conquer (Released September 1995)
Command & Conquer is a real-time strategy game which won numerous awards back in the mid to late 1990’s. It was also a commercial and critical success and had sold 30 million copies by 2009. It has often been cited as the title that defined and popularized the genre, although others say this belongs to Warcraft II.
In reality, the two games hit slightly different markets with Command & Conquer being firmly on the side of realism. Instead of orcs and goblins, you had 2 warring factions, the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod.
15 Pokémon Red And Blue (Released February 1996)
Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version were originally released in Japan in 1996 as Pokémon Red Version and Green Version with Blue Version being a special edition which followed later that year. They were then released as Pokémon Red and Blue in North America and Australia in 1998 and in Europe in 1999.
Not only did the games spawn the multi-billion dollar franchise that still runs today but they were record breakers in their own right. They jointly sold over 300 million copies worldwide and appeared in the Guinness Book Of World Records in 2009 under “Best selling RPG on the Game Boy” and “Best selling RPG of all time.”
14 Resident Evil (Released March 1996)
Resident Evil was the first game of not just the series of the same name, but also of its type. It was this title that is credited with defining the term survival horror, and the series has been a pioneer of the genre ever since.
It was originally conceived as a remake of an earlier horror game called Sweet Home and considered for release on the SNES. After several redesigns, it ended up as a PlayStation release which established the conventions for the series in terms of controls, inventory system and save systems.
13 Super Mario 64 (Released June 1996)
Super Mario 64 is the first Super Mario game to feature 3D gameplay. It also features an open world consisting of large areas to explore, missions to complete and occasional linear obstacle courses. The game set the standard for 3D platformers.
It is often acclaimed as one of the greatest video games of all time, being the first to receive a perfect score from Edge magazine. The game is the Nintendo 64’s most popular title, selling more than 11 million units by 2003. It’s also often cited as an influence for later games.
12 Tomb Raider (Released October 1996)
The Tomb Raider franchise has spawned a large amount of titles since its first inception, including a complete reboot in 2013. In these days of complexity and diversity in gaming it can be difficult to remember just how far Lara has come.
Back in 1996 Lara Croft was one of the first female protagonists in gaming. It was groundbreaking to see a game which had only a solo female as a controllable character. The gamble paid off and the title received critical acclaim. It is also often considered to be an influence for many of the 3D action-adventure games which would come after it.
11 Goldeneye 007 (Released August 1997)
Goldeneye 007 is nothing short of a phenomenon in gaming. It was highly acclaimed and the third best-selling game for the Nintendo 64 console. As well as being a commercial hit it also paved the way for first-person shooters to be seen as viable games for a console market.
In terms of gameplay Goldeneye 007 signaled a transition from the over the top approach of the genre to a more realistic form. Its stealth elements, atmospheric single-player missions, and multiplayer mode were all equally enjoyable. It is frequently cited as one of the greatest games of all time.
10 Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game (Released September 1997)
The Fallout series has had a rollercoaster ride since this first title back in 1997. Way back then Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game was considered a spiritual successor to 1988’s role-playing video game Wasteland.
Originally intended to use Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) system it ended up being based on an internally developed RPG system named SPECIAL. It differed from many other role-playing games due to the way it allows and rewards unconventional and alternative solutions to tasks.
9 Ultima Online (Released September 1997)
Ultima Online was one of the earliest massively multiplayer online role-playing games. It launched in September of 1997 and reached 100,000 subscribers within six months. This was completely unexpected and caused some lag issues while the servers caught up with demand.
The studio had expected around 15,000 subscribers. Instead, the game became one of the fastest selling games of the time and the first major hit of the online-only game genre. It would end up being the benchmark for future MMORPGs.
8 Gran Turismo (Released December 1997)
Gran Turismo took 5 years to develop but it was worth the wait. The aim was to produce a more realistic racing game than had been seen before and they certainly delivered. The title uses real life cars and tracks as well as utilizing cutting edge technology to make the physics and handling realistic. It also featured a gameplay mechanic that meant drivers had to keep playing to unlock new trophies and cars. The game scored an average of 95% in critical reviews. It also won a string of awards including “Best Driving Game” and “Best Graphics.”
7 Metal Gear Solid (Released July 1998)
While not the first title in the Metal Gear series, Metal Gear Solid remains one of the most influential. The action-adventure stealth game used cinematic cutscenes and voice acting to really draw gamers into the storyline. It is everything players loved about its predecessors taken up several notches.
Many gamers consider it one of the most important games of the time. It jump started the franchise as we know it today and helped popularize the stealth genre. It also received huge critical acclaim.
6 Half Life (Released November 1998)
Half Life was Valve’s first ever title and what a title it was. The first-person shooter gave you almost complete and uninterrupted control of its protagonist, Dr. Gordon Freeman. His story is told through scripted sequences which you see through his eyes, making it incredibly immersive.
The ground breaking game won over fifty “Game of the Year” awards. The game's immersive nature as well as its use of both combat tasks and puzzle solving to advance through the narrative would influence other first-person shooters for years to come.
5 Thief: The Dark Project (Released November 1998)
Set in a medieval steampunk metropolis, Thief: The Dark Project was the first PC stealth game to use light and sound as game mechanics. It combined this with complex AI systems to enable a deeper gaming experience.
Often dubbed a “first-person sneaker” the game encouraged players to use stealth instead of aggression. This approach is one which not only helped increase popularity of the stealth genre but also went on to influence future titles including Hitman and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell.
4 Mario Party (Released December 1998)
The Mario Party franchise currently holds the record for the longest-running mini-game series. Still going strong today it started back in 1998 with the first Mario Party game. As the series has evolved gameplay has changed slightly to reflect the technology of the time while still retaining its core board game with mini-games concept.
During the first game players would use their palms to rotate the N64 controller’s analogue stick for one of the mini-games, leading to blisters. Nintendo offered an apology in the form of free gaming gloves for sufferers.
3 Crazy Taxi (Released 1999)
An open world racing game with a difference Crazy Taxi gives you goals and targets to meet. You are required to pick up passengers and use any means necessary to get them to their destination. The gameplay design was unique and was easy to learn but difficult to master.
Since Crazy Taxi’s very successful Dreamcast port the formula has often been copied, sometimes a little too closely. One such case involved a lawsuit Sega brought to the makers of The Simpsons: Road Rage, a game which definitely gives you deja vu. The case was settled out of court.
2 Silent Hill (Released January 1999)
Silent Hill is a survival horror game released for the PlayStation. It uses a third-person view to follow an “every-man” character as he searches for his missing daughter. The story has 5 different possible endings, one of which is a joke.
The game marked a departure from the B movie style of many other titles in the genre and focused on a psychological horror style with an added focus on atmosphere. It succeeded in becoming what many gamers still consider one of the most genuinely scary horror games of all time.
1 Unreal Tournament (Released November 1999)
Way back when, long before Fortnite, Epic Games co-developed a game which would become a benchmark for first-person shooters. Unreal Tournament was everything players wanted in a first-person shooter and more. Its primary focus was head-to-head multiplayer death-matches which were incredibly popular.
It received critical acclaim with reviewers praising everything from the graphics and level design to the gameplay. It took the series in a new direction and set a high bar against which future FPS games would be measured.