Since I have Game of the Year posts starting in 2000, I thought that I should close the loop and name a game of the year for every year that I’ve been alive. Obviously, I wasn’t playing video games in my crib, but I can peer back through my rose tinted glasses and pick out my favorites. For this list, I’m skipping the whole Top 10 mentality and simply naming two nominees and a champion. Let me know your favorite games from these early years in the comments, and enjoy!
1988 – Super Mario Bros 2
Nominees – Zelda 2: Adventures of Link, Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest
Video gaming as we know it was still in its relative infancy in 1988, and this was really the year of the sequel. Developers had found games that took footholds in players’ minds, and they wanted to cash in on that. It’s really cool to look back 30 years ago and see some of the best games from that year belong to series that are still going. Whether or not we’ll see another great Castlevania anytime soon is pretty up in the air, but Nintendo doesn’t seem to be abandoning Zelda or Mario anytime soon.
Super Mario Bros 2 is probably my least favorite from those original Mario games, but it was still incredibly special at the time. It was a weird and different sequel, to be sure. Nintendo loves to experiment with new gameplay mechanics in its Mario games, and Super Mario Bros 2 was a perfect example of that. I absolutely respect how they aren’t afraid to try something out of left field, especially when they make it fit so naturally into the already established gameplay mold.
1989 – Mega Man 2
Nominees – Duck Tales, SimCity
In my opinion, Mega Man 2 is not only the best in the series, but is one of the greatest games of all time. This was a weaker year overall than 1988, with a merely average Mario entry in Super Mario Land and some fun diversion games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Golden Axe. Duck Tales was a truly fantastic game at the time, but it’s definitely worth noting that the recent re-release pointed out that plenty of the mechanics have not stood the test of time. Still, it was one of my early favorites as a kid, and the music still rocks.
SimCity was a game that I was far too young to fully comprehend when I first played it, but its importance to the city building genre is undeniable. Modern games still take lessons from that first entry in the now long-running series. It’s crazy to look back on how simple some of the features sets were at the time, because everything still felt so overwhelming for me as a kid. It wasn’t really until SimCity 2000 that the series took on the form that we recognize today.
1990 – Super Mario Bros 3
Nominees – Mega Man 3, Secret of Monkey Island
Super Mario Bros 3 was another fantastic sequel in the Mario series, and the one that plenty of people refer to as not only the best Mario game, but as the best game of all time. I’m not in that camp, but I understand the argument. It was Mario firing on all cylinders, with great level design and catchy music. It was definitely more traditional than the experimental Super Mario Bros 2.
Mega Man 3 was also no slouch, though I still prefer the second game. Honestly, it’s tough to differentiate between those early Mega Man games since there were just so many, but Mega Man 3 was the one that introduced the slide. Secret of Monkey Island was a game that I didn’t discover until much later, but I’m glad that I did. Those early adventure games are near impossible by today’s gaming standards, and in a day when there was no internet, getting stuck on a puzzle meant hours of frustration. It’s really hard to go back to a game like Secret of Monkey Island unless you already know what you’re supposed to do, but its sense of humor and lovable characters make it stand out in my memory. As a fun aside, some friends and I were working on writing a Secret of Monkey Island musical in college. We were nerds.
1991 – Super Mario World
Nominees – Battletoads, Final Fantasy IV
1991 brought us one of my personal favorite games, and the game which I consider to be the best 2D Mario to date: Super Mario World. The new world map was revolutionary at the time, and it still boasts some of the best Mario levels ever. Super Mario World is a game that I love to revisit whenever I can, even if its on some janky rom hack on my PC.
Final Fantasy IV was one of my first experiences with JRPGs, and it was a pretty good place to start. It’s still one of the best Final Fantasy games ever, all considered. It had an engrossing story, fantastic characters, and a great battle system. Battletoads is a bit of a dark horse on this list, because I’ve always maintained that it’s not actually that good of a game. Being incredibly hard doesn’t make something good. However, I can’t discount the hours and hours I spent with it, both as a kid, and during my high school free period senior year, when my buddies and I banged our heads against the infamous turbo tunnel.
1992 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time
Nominees – Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, Sonic the Hedgehog 2
I know plenty of people will consider me crazy for not picking Link to the Past as 1992’s game of the year, but I just love Turtles in Time so damn much. I played it dozens of times at the arcade as a kid (both the two player and four player variants), and then even more once it came to SNES. It was everything I wanted from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, with great co-op, cool boss battles, and a fun story that led players across plenty of visually interesting levels. One of the best things about the home console versions were the new bosses added, like Rat King. You could also change the skin color of each turtle to further differentiate them, and players were able to throw Foot Soldiers directly at the television screen. Radical! There were other great Turtles games from the era like the original from 1989 and Manhattan Project from 1991, but Turtles in Time has always been my favorite.
The Sonic series is another tough one to look back at, as there’s an argument to be made that Sonic has never been good — simpler times, and all that. Still, the speed and music stand out in my mind, and I lost dozens of hours trying to get through its levels. Not to be ignored, Link to the Past is a phenomenal game, but having never played it until recent years, I don’t have the nostalgia for it.
1993 – SimCity 2000
Nominees – Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Doom
When it comes to SimCity games, SimCity 2000 is what really put the franchise on the map for me. The original game had been a fun city builder with surprising depth, but 2000 took the franchise in a completely new direction with the jump forward into the future. And what a future it was. I only wish the real year 2000 had some of the crazy stuff like fusion power plants. The game added a ton of features and new mechanics over the first, with new building options like schools and hospitals giving even more customization options for your city.
Doom was a game that I didn’t play until much later, as my five-year-old self didn’t exactly have the wherewithal or technical prowess to play such an intense first-person PC shooter. But its gameplay still holds up to this day, and serves as one of the great early examples of modern shooting in video games. Link’s Awakening was a very different Zelda game at the time, abandoning Hyrule for Koholint Island and adding cameos from other popular Nintendo characters. The gameplay was mostly the same, though.
1994 – Super Metroid
Nominees – Final Fantasy VI, Sonic 3 and Knuckles
It’s not a terribly fragile limb to go out on, but I’m pretty confident in saying that Super Metroid is the best Metroid game to date. It wasn’t all that different from the Metroid games that came before it, but everything in the game felt so much more polished and well tuned. The music was also amazing, with some higher quality versions of songs from the earlier games in the series. So many modern games use Metroid as a source of inspiration for their level design, spawning the term “Metroidvania,” with a combination of Metroid and Castlevania elements. As you progressed through the game, Samus earned new abilities that allowed her to access areas that were previously unreachable. It was an ingenious way to design a video game, and encouraged backtracking without the tedious grinding.
Final Fantasy VI also felt like a continuation of the games that came before, with a fantastic story and a continuation of the active time battle system from FF IV. Sonic and Knuckles is probably my favorite Sonic game, due in large part to the inclusion of that punk rock echidna.
1995 – Chrono Trigger
Nominees – Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, Yoshi’s Island
Chrono Trigger is widely considered one of the greatest JRPGs of all time, and you certainly won’t hear any dissent from me. I also love the sequel, Chrono Cross, but find it to be less impressive than the original. The story in Chrono Trigger is just so mesmerizing, even though it involves typical RPG tropes like saving the world and time travel. It’s certainly not a simple story, but it’s definitely an engrossing one — due in no small part to the characters. One of the coolest elements was how you ended up with different party members from different times, and how you were able to see them interact. The combat was pretty standard active time battle stuff, but it was well done and there was a cool element where you actually fought the enemies on the map where you came across them, and not on a separate battle screen.
Yoshi’s Island is kind of the red-headed stepchild of the early Mario series, and it makes sense why. It was such a different game at the time, but still a great one. It was a sort of prequel to Super Mario World that had the player controlling Yoshi as he guided baby Mario through levels. It was a weird concept, but it worked. The game also had a beautiful hand-drawn aesthetic, which helped it stand out even more from previous Mario games. There isn’t much for me to say about Diddy’s Kong Quest, other than to me it is easily the best Donkey Kong game thus far. But it was mostly just an improved version of the first game.
1996 – Super Mario 64
Nominees – Twisted Metal 2, Quake
I know I’ve already said it of several other games so far, but Super Mario 64 is absolutely one of the best games ever made. For me, it really proved the coolness of 3D gaming like no other game had before. The graphics were stunning and colorful, there were plenty of classic Mario series secrets to be found, and the platforming was surprisingly tight considering the jump to 3D and a less than stellar camera. It was one of those games that I never stopped wanting to play as a kid, and that’s something that I wouldn’t say of another Mario game until Super Mario Galaxy.
As with Doom, Quake wasn’t a game that I came across until later in life, once I actually had a PC that was capable of playing video games. Since I came to it so late, some of the impact was lessened, but I still have a tremendous amount of respect for the feel of the game, from the shooting to the character movement. Everything felt so smooth. It’s also worth noting how moddable the game was, and players still mess around with it to this day. Twisted Metal was a series that I loved growing up. I can definitely acknowledge its flaws now, but at the time, the games felt perfect to me. And Twisted Metal 2 was the best of the series. The music was so aggressively angsty and dark, but it fit the tone of the game and story perfectly. I played through hours and hours of Twisted Metal 2 as every character available, but I have to say that Outlaw 2 was probably my favorite.
1997 – Final Fantasy VII
Nominees – Mario Kart 64, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Another year, another release of one of the best games of all time in Final Fantasy VII, though I personally like several other Final Fantasy games more than I do VII. It’s also a hard game to go back to right now, as the early days of polygonal characters have left some pretty terrifyingly ugly character models behind. Still, the combat and story were top notch, and it’s hard to think of a game that had a bigger emotional impact on me as a kid. Poor Aerith. And the other characters were awesome too, including Tifa, Barret, Yuffie, and the infamous Sephiroth.
This was an exceptionally strong year in gaming, as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is also considered one of the best games of all time. I don’t personally love it as much as some, but I definitely respect what it did for gaming. Along with Metroid, it helped spawn the Metroidvania style of game, which in recent years has influenced the rogue-like/rogue-lite genre. Symphony of the Night was a huge departure for the series, and focused more on exploration than on straight side-scrolling action. Mario Kart 64 is kind of a weird game to have on the list. I loved it as a kid, but there are several games in that series that I enjoyed more. But again, it put kart racers on the map, so it deserves praise (and some derision) for that. The tracks were simple, but it was still a blast to play.
1998 – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Nominees – Pokemon Red/Blue, Banjo Kazooie
I wonder what we’ll be saying about our recent game of the year winners in 20 years, since most of these are now hailed as some of the best games of all time? Ocarina definitely fits into that category, as it also brought a stalwart Nintendo series into 3D and added several literally game-changing design elements. There was a huge semi-open world similar to Mario 64, the puzzle elements felt fresh, and the game introduced a lock-on mechanic that is now a staple in 3rd person action/adventure games. The music was gorgeous, as well, and played a huge part in the gameplay and story. Banjo Kazooie was yet another fun, 3rd person action platformer from back in the day where those types of games were becoming all too popular. It had a great sense of humor, diverse gameplay, and some really great hidden collectibles.
As for Pokemon Red and Blue, I might actually love those games more than Ocarina, but it’s really hard to not give game of the year to what some consider the greatest video game ever made. Pokemon was just such a huge part of my childhood, and I regularly revisit Pokemon to this day — which can’t be said of the vast majority of games on this list. The Pokemon designs were super cool, there were just enough RPG elements to keep you invested, the story was simple but gave you a sense of direction, and the gameplay was immensely addictive. It’s absolutely one of my favorite games ever. And it’s worth noting that I prefer the Red version, since that one included the vastly underrated Magmar.
1999 – Pokemon Yellow
Nominees – Donkey Kong 64, Suikoden 2
I know, I know, Pokemon Yellow is still basically the same game as Red/Blue. It’s definitely a bit of a cheat, but I really wanted to give game of the year 1998 to Pokemon and couldn’t justify it, and there wasn’t another game from 1999 that felt right to take the top honors. Also, it’s my list so I can do what I want. In all seriousness, though, Pokemon Yellow really is the best version of those original games, since it followed more closely to the show. You started with Pikachu, and were given a free Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur as you progressed through the game. It also didn’t have the tedious restrictions on some of the other Pokemon. I totally understand wanting to force kids to trade or buy two copies in order to catch them all, but it was a pretty annoying thing. The graphics and music were simple, but being able to take the game on the go more than made up for that. It’s still one of the most addicting games ever.
Donkey Kong 64 makes the list for changing up its gameplay elements in a great way. I still like the first three side-scrolling games better, but I greatly enjoyed taking Donkey Kong into the open world, 3rd person action/platformer genre. I also liked being able to play as several different characters throughout the game. Suikoden 2 was another game that I discovered well after its release. It’s very much a JRPG, with strategically-based combat and tons of different recruitable characters. It’s a fantastic game, and definitely one of the more underrated games on this list.
And now the circle is complete! I have a game of the year (and varying numbers of runners-up) for every single year that I’ve been alive! If you haven’t, check out some of my other game of the year lists, and thanks for reading! Now I just need to put together a list of my favorite games of all time…