In this, my most enormous video yet, I tried to capture the essence of what I believe to be the secretly best year in video game history: 1994. Yes, I reviewed 1994, by writing reviews of each of my 25 favorite games released in 1994.
To quote Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale Of Two Cities (which we had to read in English class in high school in, you guessed it, 1994), “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
1994 was the best of times to play video games, and it was the worst of times to be me personally. I was a sweatpants-wearing, Frankenstein-haired bullying victim who twice wore a Donkey Kong Country preorder bonus T-shirt into his high school. Meanwhile, as I awaited puberty, video games were right in the middle of it: 1994 saw the release of a platform action adventure starring Michael Jordan. In 1994, even the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat II had blood and fatalities in it.
It’s easy to laugh off 1994 as “The year Shaq Fu came out,” or “The year Blizzard released a grim, dark Flashback clone in which a character designed by Jim Lee can fire a shotgun behind his back.”
On the other hand, if we put our detective hat on, we see that Blackthorne was a phenomenally thoughtful game. Blizzard’s game designers had looked into a genre they liked, and refined its every little mechanism for maximum player enjoyment.
Iteration was the spiritual theme of 1994. The Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation wouldn’t come out in Japan until November and December of 1994, respectively. The leap from 16-bit to 32-bit, from cartridge to CD, was perhaps the most significant hardware milestone we video game players had yet witnessed. (Yes, I know the PC-Engine and Sega CD existed. I’m talking about all-CD mainstream game consoles.)
Once the world had the PlayStation, video games never looked back. A cacophony of hype yelling has punished the game-liker’s eardrums ever since.
As the specter of hardware madness loomed, developers’ only choice for squeezing the last remaining dollars out of a yet-undiluted 16-bit games market was game design. They didn’t just need any old game design, though: it had to be simultaneously fresh and familiar, simultaneously weird and friendly. Developers took their established franchises and cranked out one last entry before they’d have to start learning how to do everything in three dimensions.
In 1996, we would have Super Mario 64. In 1994, we had Donkey Kong Country.
In 1996, we would have Quake. In 1994, we had Doom II.
Actually, this Wikipedia quote about Doom II just about says most of what I say in this video about most games on my list:
Doom II was not dramatically different from its predecessor. There were no major technological developments, graphical improvements, or substantial gameplay changes. Instead, the development team took advantage of advances in computer hardware since the release of the original game that allowed them to do more with their game engine by making much larger and more intricate levels.
In 1997, we’d have Final Fantasy VII. In 1994, we had Final Fantasy VI.
Throughout 2019, I noticed a lot of posts on social media about how such-and-such game came out “25 years ago.” I couldn’t help thinking that this year was a good year for 25th anniversaries.
I spent a couple of months in a 1994 state of mind.
Then, in September, I became aware of Final Fantasy VI’s 25th anniversary lurking around October’s corner. Thinking back on my personal experience with Final Fantasy III (as we called it, back then) sent me into an abysmal tunnel of recollection. I wrote a massive essay about 1994. I shared a Google Doc of it with Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo. Then, I read the first couple of paragraphs, deemed the entire thing too personal, dark, and sad, and quickly removed Stephen Totilo from the collaborators list. I printed the essay out and burned it in my kitchen sink. (Figuratively.)
I needed to get 1994 out of my system. The essay hadn’t exorcised the demon. In fact, said ghost only yowled more loudly now.
So I thought, let’s focus on what I liked about that year. Instead of shedding 8,000 words of comically morose prose, let’s instead rank a god darn list of 25 25-year-old video games.
And buddy, let me tell you: that list came easy. It flowed like Coca-Cola out of a truck stop fountain. It shashed out loudly and effortlessly, and it instantly filled my cup mostly with bubbles.
What I mean is, I typed out 65 great games off the top of my head. Narrowing it down to 25 took some time.
I replayed as much of as many of my 25 final choices as possible over the past three months.
I like my ultimate list. My list gave me almost as many occasions to reflect on my own life experience as it gave me opportunities to pinpoint key moments in game design history.
I arrived at the end of this project with my appreciation of video games renewed in an unexpected way. Revisiting the games of 1994 brought me back to a time where I loved video games more than anything or anyone else, especially myself.
All these years, I figured I was just antisocial back then. It turns out that, yes, I had been apocalyptically antisocial, though also the video games were, in fact, very good.
Making a video about the best games of 1994 before making a video about the best games of the 2010s before making a video about the best games of 2019 proved a surreal decision.
While scanning the list of games I played in 2019 in search of a game of the year, I couldn’t help seeing parallels to 1994. Almost every great game of 2019 has a perfect counterpart here in my 1994 list. My brain was an unlookatable conspiracy theory spiderweb not 10 minutes into my game of the year 2019 video production process.
When I was making my video about 2019’s best games, I couldn’t pick a game of the year. So I decided not to. It was, however, effortless to do so for 1994.
I can’t prove it with math or science, though I feel it in my bones that while making these three videos I came within a hair’s breadth of concrete evidence that, yes, video games were better back then.
By making this ridiculous, way-too-ambitious video, I perhaps forever altered my critical perception of time. I don’t even know what a game of the year is anymore.
It occurs to me that I’ve reached the exact point in my personal aging process that I’m more concerned with “All Time” than I am with frivolous little intervals such as decades or single years.
I don’t think there was a single top-50 alltimer on my list of the best games of 2019. I think my list of the 10 best games of the 2010s might have only contained one.
Miraculously, all 10 of my top 10 games of 1994 are alltimers. Especially my number one, which just so happens to be the last video game I acquired as a lawn-mowing, leaf-raking, snow-shoveling, coin-scrounging child who had worn a Donkey Kong Country preorder bonus T-shirt into his high school twice. It was the last video game I obtained while I could always count on a $25 birthday check from my grandmother. By the next hot game of its genre, I’d be a teenager with a driver’s license, a job, and multiple friends.
The week before my next birthday, my grandmother inexplicably sent $100 instead of $25. Then she went on a cruise, and then she died.
1994 taught me how to 1995. And so on. I’m still here, and so is 1994.
In summary, Final Fantasy VI taught me how to Chrono Trigger. Please watch my hour-long ranked list video featuring 25 classic video games.
Also! If you personally liked, commented, and / or subscribed to our YouTube channel, that would definitely fuel my habit of making a lot more videos like this. I promise you might love it.