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Games of the Year: Part 3, 1994-1998

Hey there game fans! Welcome to another sparsely read collection of the best video game for every year from 1984 to 2009. Refresh on parts one and two if you'd like. Today, we look at the mid-90s.
Before I get started with the official list, I feel it is important to point out that this is the hardest five I've done so far. This time period seems to be a really halcyon moment for gaming, with the twilight of the 16-bit era creating final masterpieces and the dawn of 3D offering a bold new vision and direction for the future. It is a time of transition, both from the old and into the new. Thus there are quite a few games that aren't on this list that are crucial to the development of gaming: Half-Life, Warcraft 1 and 2, Starcraft, Diablo, Final Fantasy VI and VII, Tomb Raider, Baldur's Gate, Ocarina of Time and several more that I just don't have time to mention. 97 and 98 in particular were especially hard, as they were the years that the Playstation came into its own and redefined the landscape of games. But as the rules clearly state, there can be only one winner for every year. So here we go. 


Super Metroid (SNES)

 Excuse Me If I Get Choked Up
 Excuse Me If I Get Choked Up
In the name of full disclosure, I will admit up front that Super Metroid is my favorite game of all time. It isn't because of some sense of nostalgia for playing the game when I was in my whipper-snapper years; I only got around to playing the game my senior year in college, 2007.  Rather, it is out of amazement of how the game has remained engaging and beautiful all these years later. The core gameplay of Samus' 16-bit journey is the standard as every other Metroid game: discovering power-ups to reveal new sections of the game-map and uncovering more powerful enemies to defeat. But the atmosphere and experience of playing Super Metroid draws you in immediately. The gigantic sprawling world is sparse but intricately imagined. Discovering artifacts and enemies of a long dead planet raped by space pirates is a harrowing and sometimes emotionally draining experience, borrowing heavily from the isolated horror if its spiritual mother, Alien. When Samus eventually finds the larva that she comes to save, only for it to attack her in adolescent confusion and frustration breaks my heart. While Thomson's claim that the Metroid Prime Trilogy is "our Citizen Kane" is laughable, the truth is that few games have excited, thrilled, scared and genuinely touched me quite like Super Metroid. 



Chrono Trigger (SNES)

Mapcap Adventures Through Time
Mapcap Adventures Through Time
A co-worker of mine is currently playing through Chrono Trigger for the first time on his DS. Through him, I am reliving how many moments of that game are so expertly crafted and realized. The game is constantly watching and reacting to your actions, allowing you to feel as if your every decision has an ultimate price and purpose. The refinement of the active battle system allows a streamlineed and constantly entertaining JRPG battle experience, enhanced even more by the Techs systems. But it was the use of time travel that set Chrono Trigger's experience apart, offering differing worlds to explore from familiar but tweaked environments. Add the fact that these worlds looked fantastic, pushing the SNES to its outer limits. With branching storylines and the NewGame+ feature, Chrono Trigger was a loving gift from Squaresoft for long-time 16-bit RPG fans.



Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

 The Plumber  King Returns
 The Plumber  King Returns
The core concept of Mario 64 is radical enough for its day and time to leave it head and shoulders above just about everyone else. The idea of moving Mario around and through a 3D environment seems too wild to really work. And yet the the initial impression is one of unparalleled jaw-dropping wonder, an experience repeted throughout playing. Sailing through the air is especially gratifying, adding an extra context and tactile excitement to the soaring Mario had done since his third platformer. Add the precise controls and imaginative world design that defined the series from the beginning, and you have a game that truly excels even beyond its mad ambition. The variety of activities in large, open worlds that the player constantly explores and uncover add thrills and variety up to the final conflict. It bears mentioning that 64 was the last Mario game to leave such an awe-inspiring impression for a very long time, but it also remains among the best in the lauded series. In some ways, it sits on top of the Mario Game Throne.



Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation)

 You Tell 'Im Richter!
 You Tell 'Im Richter!
Given my already stated love of Castlevania and near cultish worship of Super Metroid, this selection shouldn't really be a surprise. But to call Symphony of the Night merely a Metroid clone misses some of the real enjoyment of the game. Take for instance the opening moments of the game, which replay the end of Dracula: Rondo of Blood, the last side-scrolling traditional game of the series before Symphony. It serves as a reminder of the mechanics that the game had always operated within and also provides a view into the bombastic narrative the game lovingly embraces. But moments later, you discover that this isn't Richter's game, but Alucard's, Dracula's vampire son who first appeared in Castlevania III. Thus, you have no access to the Vampire Killer, and while you start with amazing powers, Death strips you pretty quickly of those as well. The sense of discovery as the game progresses only goes deeper and deeper, encouraging and rewarding exploration. Different weapons have benefits and draw-backs. Screen-filling enemy fights frighten and disgust. By the time the game literally flips everything upside down, you've learned to expect anything. While Metroid is a much tighter and more emotionally satisfying experience, the level of shock, both from the grotesque and the unexpected, in Symphony made it both a game of established traditions and a new creation for the next generation. It was at once familiar and unknown, like the archetypal monsters that wander Dracula's haven.



Metal Gear Solid (Playstation)

That Dude? Totally Boned
That Dude? Totally Boned
Metal Gear Solid is an odd duck, to put it mildly. The core of the story is an anti-war narrative, yet the primary action you take in the game is hiding in corners so you can take advantage of unwary opponents. Solid Snake constantly rattles on about how impossible his mission seems, only to prove to have inhuman resolve. And while some of the crazier plot elements are only hinted at in this first incarnation, Kojima is one of the few game auteurs to truly take full advantage of his chosen medium for maximum mythical effect. Yes, the game utilizes long cinematic cut-scenes (nothing compared to its sequels) and extended codec conversations, but those are simply one tool in his storytelling handbag (and an innovative one for the time). The core moments of Metal Gear Solid are sneaking around and solving each room more like a puzzle than a level. There are multiple ways to do it...and multiple ways NOT to do it, just as organized and planned.  The game constantly engages a unique, tactical headspace, only to turn around and violate its own rules once boss battles begin. Easily described as an extended, brilliant mind-fuck, Metal Gear Solid provides an early template for what artistic, thoughtful game design in the 3D age can achieve.
So what do you think? Did I snub Cloud? Am I a heathen for not mentioning a single Blizzard game? And why do I love Konami so much? We're done for now, but get all your seething out before we come back next week where we'll lurch ever closer to the present. We move into the new century/millennium, as well as some upstart Microsoft entering the console business.