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Greatest Years in Gaming History: 1998

The '90s came to a close with some of the most innovative, genre-defining games in history. How did all of this greatness manage to come together in just a single year?

Analysis by Bob Mackey, .

In our modern age of gaming, it seems progress comes solely in baby steps. But you only have to peer back into the '90s to witness a time when each new technological advancement shot us light years forward into a brave, new frontier.

We've truly become victims of progress. While our video game hardware grows increasingly overpowered, the limits of human productivity remain the same. The jaw-dropping spectacles that bowled us over years ago make today's tiny advancements seem like a joke: a boost in frame rate here, a switch from 720p to 1080p there. Simply put, we've seen it all. But in 1998, it still seemed as if gaming had an unlimited potential for surprise.

The early state of 3D gaming on consoles was... Well... You look at it! (But not too close.)
Resident Evil 2 delivered a bigger, better, and more playable take on the original's "survival horror."

Okay, maybe that came out a little more cynical than expected. I still love gaming just as much as I always have, but, outside of a few notable exceptions, most mass-market experiences are now a known quantity. That's not necessarily a bad thing: Why reinvent the wheel if you don't have to? If you grew up alongside games, though, you'd know it took constant iteration for us to reach this point. Even the most brain-dead shooter rests its tired design on bold innovations that changed the rules decades ago.

And while we may take this conventional wisdom for granted, back in 1998, game design wasn't so... familiar. 16 years ago, we had no choice but to sit back in stunned silence as the blueprints for the industry's future revealed themselves to us, one by one.

By 1994, console gaming's 3D (that's "3D" in terms of polygonal graphics, not cheesy perspective effects) era began in earnest, but the addition of colorful, rotating geometry to our video games mostly existed as a flashy gimmick.

The Sega Saturn and PlayStation both launched at a time when developers weren't entirely comfortable designing their games with the Z-axis in mind, simply because most of their careers had revolved around 2D up until that point in time. Sure, their experimenting brought us extremely playable evolutionary dead ends like Jumping Flash!, but these awkward teen years of 3D gaming usually offered the fugly clumsiness of the Sega Saturn's Bug!.

Suikoden 2's American release put it in direct competition with FF VIII, which is a damned shame.

By 1998, these growing pains had ceased, and the formerly shoddy medium of 3D graphics now stood as a strong foundation for gaming. Still, developers weren't entirely confident: Two of 1998's—and perhaps the entire generation's—most important games leaned heavily on the design of similar titles from nearly a decade prior. Simply designing a 3D world that worked presented a big enough problem, so savvy designers looked to the past for time-tested mechanics that would serve this new format well.

The first of these heavy hitters, Konami's Metal Gear Solid, relied on referencing its history, which posed a problem to American players who hadn't seen protagonist Solid Snake since the NES era. Of course, Japanese players (and clued-in importers) recognized the roots of the MSX2's Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake planted deeply in Metal Gear Solid, as the latter borrowed heavily from its predecessor's achievements. With most of creator Hideo Kojima's work inaccessible to all but his native country, Metal Gear Solid dropped most of its players head-first into Hideo unique brand of strangeness.

Even with the limited capabilities of the PlayStation, Metal Gear Solid's real-time cut scenes were dazzling.
Thankfully, no one in Ocarina of Time actually talked like this.

The oddities of Metal Gear Solid were just one factor of the game's incredible sense of confidence. Though Kojima locked down its camera to a prescribed path, with the push of a button, players could leap inside Snake's head for a first-person view of Solid's meticulously crafted environments. While its chunky textures and crude geometry may seem laughable today, at the time of its release, no 3D world felt more fully realized. Metal Gear Solid populated its environments with enemies that followed routines and reacted to your presence on the fly, giving Shadow Moses Island a unique sense of life. These Genome Soldiers weren't the sharpest knives in their respective drawers, but their limited AI behaviors allowed players to screw with artificial humans a few years before The Sims made untold millions based on this very premise.

1998 brought us another revolutionary console game with one foot planted firmly in the past: The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Like Star Fox 64 before it, Ocarina of Time stood as a spiritual remake of sorts, borrowing liberally from its 16-bit past. Before Zelda had a recognized formula—and many years prior to this whole "timeline" nonsense—Shigeru Miyamoto's team recycled A Link to the Past's finest ideas, while dressing up the narrative with a flair only the N64 could bring. True, many of Ocarina of Time's sprawling landscapes offered very few attractions, but these vast fields of nothingness gave the game a sense of scope that seemed impossible at the time.

Can you think of a game with classier box art than Ocarina of Time?

With 1996's Super Mario 64, Nintendo deftly answered the question "How do you move a character around in a 3D space?" Two years later, Ocarina of Time would task its hero with more than running, jumping, and punching: For the first time, players were thrown into a fully 3D environment, and asked to contend with demands that went beyond those of a simple platformer. Where Mario 64 solved the issue of movement in a 3D world, Zelda showed the industry how combat in this type of space should be done. Though a similar idea appeared a few months earlier in Mega Man Legends, Ocarina's use of "Z-Targeting" was a masterstroke roughly 99.9% of games would borrow after its release. Players didn't have to worry about aligning themselves with enemies and charging, like some sort of Medieval joust—instead, Ocarina's controls changed when Link focused his attention on an enemy, allowing players to jab away as they circled around their opponents with ease.

Ocarina of Time's vast, mostly empty overworld helped it sell the illusion of sprawling environments.

1998 didn't limit its revelations to the console space: In 1998, PC gaming saw one of its biggest and most influential titles of all time: Half-Life. While Valve is mostly known these days for their online marketplace, they hit the gaming scene hard with their first FPS, which sought to make the genre amount to more than just the heavy metal-fueled demonic antics of Doom and its imitators. While Ultima Underworld and System Shock would attempt strange, new ideas within the FPS context, Half-Life kept the basic grammar of the genre, but wrapped its players in a seamless world that managed to tell a gripping story not via cut scenes, but within the actual game itself.

This approach is par for the course in our era of tightly-scripted shooters, but in 1998, Half-Life's Black Mesa Research Facility felt like a real place instead of a series of corridors. And instead of opening its story with guns blazing, Valve chose to begin Half-Life with a quiet, ominous tram ride, before slowly lowering protagonist Gordon Freeman into hot water on his first day of work. This prologue has been one of Half-Life's most copied elements, simply for how effectively it worked on all of us back in 1998—up until that point, no other action game let us soak up the atmosphere before placing an instrument of destruction in our hands.

Half-Life's print ad let the world know it was more than just another FPS.
Grim Fandango could have been a hit, but the world wasn't ready for a film noir take on the Day of the Dead starring skeletons. Their loss.
Astoundingly, Baldur's Gate was Bioware's second game. What's the opposite of a sophomore slump?

1998 also brought us StarCraft, a sci-fi spin-off of the popular Warcraft series that nonetheless became a phenomenon as well as South Korea's national pastime. Blizzard certainly knew how to put together a real-time strategy game, and StarCraft stands as the culmination of the knowledge gained from half a decade of recreating tabletop miniatures. Instead of pitting one side against another—as with WarCraft's orcs and humans—StarCraft offered three different factions, each one expertly balanced against the others. And the game mostly shuttered the cheeky humor of its predecessors, exchanging it for a meaningful sci-fi story full of twists and turns. These expertly blended elements led to Starcraft gaining a sort of immortality for its audience—even though its sequel has gained more traction in the competitive circuit, for most, the original is the de facto RTS, one to judge all newcomers by.

Outside of Half-Life and StarCraft, PC gaming in 1998 offered a few other monumental games that provided vastly different experiences from their console brethren. BioWare's Baldur's Gate crafted an amazing adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons that's still viewed as one of the finest RPGs of all time. LucasArts' Grim Fandango might have been a bit of a flop, but it remains one of the studio's most treasured titles from its golden era, one that broke free from its 2D, point-and-click roots for a new take on the classic adventure game. Looking Glass Studios' Thief: The Dark Project—featuring contributions by BioShock's Ken Levine—did the impossible by making stealth approachable from a first-person perspective, tasking players with finding increasingly creative ways out of their predicaments.

Where would the state of metaphors be without the term "zerg rush?" Thanks, StarCraft!
See-through electronics: Coming soon to a "remember the '90s" hashtag near you!
Nintendo uses marketing genius! It's super effective!

Of course, 1998's biggest breakout hit couldn't be found on the latest high-powered hardware, and had a sense of design that seemed more at home in 1988 than 1998. Though it made waves since 1996 in its native country of Japan, Pokemon began its multimedia assault on Americans in September of 1998, and what could have easily been a passing fad has since persisted as one of Nintendo's most popular series. Pokemon somehow overcame its status as "the seizure cartoon" by appealing to children's natural instincts as collectors: Each version of the game offers its own unique creatures to catch, encouraging real-world communities to develop around the mastery of these marketable beasts. Other RPGs might have outclassed Pokemon in terms of complexity, but for Nintendo's monster-hunting game, simplicity is a virtue. The game's basic interface and simple battle system gave children an entry point into the world of RPGs, bringing the genre an influx of young fans in the process.

And, just as 3D gaming on consoles began to bloom into something beautiful, Pokemon's graphics were simple, squat, and tile-based, engineered to run effectively on a system designed a decade prior. Pokemon gave Nintendo's Game Boy brand a new life just as we all assumed it had died, with November 1998's Game Boy Color line acting as the portable's three-year stay of execution. The Game Boy Color didn't offer a significant leap forward in technology, but redefined the Nintendo platform as "cool" once again, removing any notion that it was quickly becoming a relic of the late '80s. Suddenly, the Game Boy had proven its viability all over again, and while this resulted in many pounds of licensed garbageware, Nintendo's portable Renaissance spawned a handful of amazing games, like the Wario Land series, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Seasons, and Metal Gear Solid, which made a tiny, 2D Solid Snake just as versatile as he was on the PlayStation.

1998 remains my favorite year of gaming simply for how many surprises these 365 days contained. And, being an excitable young person at the time, I couldn't wait to see the next completely unexpected experience lurking around the next corner. Because I only have so much space to work with, I had to limit the scope of this conversation to the heavy hitters, though plenty of other amazing games sit on the sidelines, like Gran Turismo, Resident Evil 2, Fallout 2, and Suikoden 2. It's unlikely that a single year will ever bring us this much magic again, but I'm hanging in there in the hopes it'll happen, at least within my lifetime. And, if circumstances dictate I have to artificially prolong my existence to witness this event, I ask you to at least keep my brain alive in a jar until 2998.

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Comments 21

  • Avatar for DogNozzle #1 DogNozzle 3 years ago
    Some good games here, sure, and certainly gaming did feel like it was "moving" at this time, but to me personally this is the era when console games had moved from the polish of the late 16-bit era into the ugliness of the early 3D era, and I was grumpy about it.

    I think the games that I enjoyed the most that year were Thief and Gran Turismo.

    Looking at Wikipedia's 1998 video games list, there was a game called "Wargasm". Could this be the worst name of all time?
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  • Avatar for Daikaiju #2 Daikaiju 3 years ago
    With bony hands I hold my partner
    On soulless feet we cross the floor
    The music stops as if to answer
    An empty knocking at the door
    It seems his skin was sweet as mango
    When last I held him to my breast
    But now we dance this grim fandango
    And will four years before we rest.
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  • Avatar for retr0gamer #3 retr0gamer 3 years ago
    Pedantic correction. Ken Levie hadn't much to do with Thief since he was too busy working on System Shock 2 at the time (in the same room that Thief was being made)
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  • Avatar for kingaelfric #4 kingaelfric 3 years ago
    Great article, Mr. Mackey! But I have to offer pedantic quibble number 2: is Valve's marketplace really eponymous?
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #5 Y7748837 3 years ago
    Suikoden 2 was released in September 1999, as was FFVIII.

    When I read 98, my first thoughts weren't "Ocarina" or "Metal Gear" but rather "Xenogears." I'll just show myself out.Edited August 2014 by Y7748837
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  • Avatar for hal9k #6 hal9k 3 years ago
    Great article! I think the PS1 era as a whole was a revolutionary time for gaming, not only because of 3D graphics but also because of the storage capacity of CDs and the targeting of games towards slightly older audiences. Some great, quirky stuff like Pokemon came over from Japan, too - the US mainstream market seemed most receptive at that time. I think that picking a specific critical year from that generation would be harder than previous generations, since those systems took a little longer to establish themselves than, say, the SNES.

    Unfortunately, I missed out on a lot of these games at the time. Other than gaming on PC (Starcraft was huge), I only played OoT because my roommate was a die-hard Nintendo supporter with an N64. That intro with the horse really did indicate an epic scale. Even my N64-fan roommate was speechless when a friend brought over his PS1 and fired up RE2 and MGS - they just seemed so much more cinematic, and really felt like new experiences. Another example from '98 would be Parasite Eve - for a few years, it seemed like Square could do no wrong. At least I had plenty to play when I got a PS2!
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  • Avatar for bobservo #7 bobservo 3 years ago
    @kingaelfric I just fixed that—those are the type of brain farts that happen when you're writing for a six-hour stretch.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #8 bobservo 3 years ago
    @TK-Flash Suikoden 2's Japanese release date was December of 1998, though it wouldn't make it to America until September of 1999. I know it's kind of a cheat, but I wanted to include it in this article!
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  • Avatar for bobservo #9 bobservo 3 years ago
    Deleted August 2014 by bobservo
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #10 Y7748837 3 years ago
    @bobservo Yeah, I figured that was the case! :D No harm in fudging the numbers a bit in a bit of warm-hearted nostalgia.

    My personal favorite pick for 1998 RPG is probably Final Fantasy Tactics, and my least favorite would be Azure Dreams. Yes, I did play RPGs almost exclusively at the time, they offered the best dollar/hour ratio! Oh, to be 12 again.
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  • Avatar for HellsBlackAces #11 HellsBlackAces 3 years ago
    Great games from 1998 not in the article:

    Dance Dance Revolution

    RTS:
    Battlezone
    Myth 2: Bungie made a nice Real Time Tactical game.

    Shooter:
    Radiant Silvergun

    RPG:
    Xenogears
    Panzer Dragoon Saga
    Parasite Eve
    Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete

    Fighting Game:
    Guilty Gear
    SoulCalibur
    Tekken 3

    FPS:
    Unreal
    Starsiege Tribes
    Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six

    Flight Sim:
    Falcon 4.0
    Descent FreeSpace

    Platformer:
    Banjo-Kazooie
    Klonoa: US and EU releaseEdited 4 times. Last edited August 2014 by HellsBlackAces
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  • Avatar for Punk1984 #12 Punk1984 3 years ago
    I had been playing AD&D 2nd ed. since 1996 and all we talked about over lunch was Baldur's Gate. I still remember picking that box off a shelf in Electronic's Boutique the week it came out. I had saved up birthday money to get it and my dad took me to the store to pick it up. Setup and installation has never felt longer, but running around Candlekeep made up for everything. After futzing around with RPGs on console and PC this was finally a game that had the feeling of Dungeons and Dragons, not just the mechanics but the feeling of it. Top to bottom a great game.
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  • Avatar for docexe #13 docexe 3 years ago
    It’s surprising how many genre defining games appeared on this year. I have to agree with the sentiment expressed in the article: This was the year when games with 3D graphics finally matured and the possibilities seemed endless.
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #14 Vinheimer 3 years ago
    Deleted August 2014 by Vinheimer
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #15 Vinheimer 3 years ago
    Deleted August 2014 by Vinheimer
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #16 Vinheimer 3 years ago
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #17 Vinheimer 3 years ago
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #18 Vinheimer 3 years ago
    @TK-Flash @bobservo

    I also thought Xenogears deserved a place somewhere on this list. Whether or not it's a good game, it's certainly a great one. It was a massively influential B-list RPG that represented some of the best and worst trends of JRPG design at the time. It brought a timely anime sensibility to the genre--namely, giant robots who have a bone to pick with God. Some of the things seen in Xenogears (hour-long cutscenes, for example) have never been seen elsewhere, before or since. They're tiresome, to be sure, but eerily fascinating nevertheless, if for no other reason than their curiosity. If nothing else, Xenogears manages to keep you guessing until the very end. You find yourself at one moment witnessing an interactive re-imagining of parts of the film Soylent Green, followed by a bizarre recreation of the crucifixion of Christ, followed by inter-dimensional travel...and down the rabbit hole you fall. All of the places you could imagine a JRPG to go--Xenogears bravely goes there. My friends and I actually derived a lot of amusement in college from dramatically voicing some of the cutscene dialogue to break the monotony--I played Fei if I remember correctly. Good times.

    Featuring lavish art, positively transcendental music, and an overabundance of navel-gazing, Xenogears was the nadir of the Final Fantasy VII school of design. These JRPGS, by golly, want really badly to tell you a story, regardless of whether or not this goal comes into conflict with the exigencies of, you know, a game. Part of me says "good riddance" to this type of design, but part of me laments its absolute sincerity, which seems harder to find these days.Edited 5 times. Last edited August 2014 by Vinheimer
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  • Avatar for kingaelfric #19 kingaelfric 3 years ago
    @bobservo Re: word choices, I appreciate your writing and felt bad even being "that guy," but thanks for handling it with aplomb!
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  • Avatar for Compeau #20 Compeau 3 years ago
    Starcraft is one of my favorite PC games ever, but another RTS came out in 1998 that might have been even better: Bungie's Myth II: Soulblighter.

    Myth II also has the origins of Bungie's online ranking system that was later used in Halo 2.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #21 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    BEHOLD, you who have lived too little so as to be too young or unborn to remember this!

    BEHOLD, you who have lived too much and lost to the mists of time the memories of this year of gaming!

    For 1998 was, is, and shall ever be the greatest 12 months of gaming advancement, iteration, evolution, revolution, and refinement of all time. This was back when innovations like that tied into just-released tech didn't take multimillions and appeased sharefholders to achieve. It simply was. That's why there was all this talk in Gen 7 about "we must evolve the genre" or "weve made the most innovative blah blah blah": it wasn't happening anywhere near as much, nor was it anywhere near as fast on the uptake. Most that was swiftly uptook was trends, fads, and labor/skill-saving methods like Detective Vision, not real breakthrus.

    If I wasn't out of a job and a poor college student at the time, I would have bankrupted myself.
    @HellsBlackAces

    Oh yeah, he had to avoid mentioning those; the article was long enough already!Edited August 2014 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for MightyJAK #22 MightyJAK 3 years ago
    @HellsBlackAces

    Hells yeah, DDR. Plenty of other great games from 1998, but only one of them helped me lose 50+ pounds!

    You got to bring your mind (bring it up, let it go, let it go!)
    And then (come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on!)
    Work that body
    Go on, get down (1998!)
    Oh, go with me (Oh go with me) (go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, c'mon!)
    And let go (you gotta let it go)
    The music make you high (and it make you high)
    The music has the power


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  • Avatar for alexb #23 alexb 3 years ago
    Small quibble, but your front page graphic for this article is artwork from MGS2, not the original.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #24 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    Im pretty sure 2015 will be the next great year in gaming. at least I hope so.
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  • Avatar for masoniter #25 masoniter 3 years ago
    I remember playing a lot of those games in 1998. I also remember that ad for half-life, saw it in PC Gamer, took up like two pages, probably stared at it a lot--half-life was pretty mind-blowing at the time, especially considering it came out around the same time as games like Quake 2 and Sin.
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  • Avatar for aspara #26 aspara 8 months ago
    I think 1998 is the year when childrens and adullts will be playing first time video games in computers with passion and all the players will be comparedtheir games with others and check records.. Live stream cricket, footbal, Car racing, motogp are th most popular games in these days.
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