During its first forty three years, the games business has seen incredible growth, driven by amazing technological advances and creative piques of genius that have helped it evolve from a specialized, geeky curiosity into a mass-market, pop-culture, entertainment juggernaut.
The rate of growth hasn't always been consistent, however. While it's true that the industry has been constantly propelled forward on a wave of new ideas and innovations, there have also been brief periods of extremely concentrated activity, usually precipitated by specific market conditions, in which the industry has taken significant steps forward in a relatively short space of time.
One of those periods – perhaps the most important period so far in video game history – was the early 90's, and one year in particular stands out. That's 1991, a twelve month period that in many respects represents a temporal watershed between the early days of the games industry, and the true beginnings of the modern era.
So what was happening twenty four years ago that I think is so historically important? Well, gaming was in the midst of a revolution. The unassuming grey shoebox that was the NES, which had utterly dominated the Japanese and US markets for years, and Sega's bungalow-shaped Master System, by far the most popular video game system in Europe, were both in decline.
The machine in the ascendancy was Sega's magnificent Genesis, whose lovely rounded corners, circular design cues and fabulous 16-bit technology made the previous generation of consoles look positively clunky by comparison. The Mega Drive was launched in Japan in late 1988, was rebadged as the Genesis for the US market the following year, and reverted back to the Mega Drive as it hit European territories in 1990. By 1991, the 16-bit wonder was carving out a hefty worldwide market share for itself that was gaining momentum every month.
Meanwhile, Nintendo seemed to be resting on its laurels. This was somewhat understandable considering the company was still enjoying unprecedented dominant market share in the US and Japan, and wanted to continue to milk the last vestiges of the 8-bit market for all it was worth. But as it did, Sega spooled out an ever-increasing head start that seemed to be reaching the point of unassailability. Until finally, in late 1990, Nintendo fired its opening salvo in the 16-bit wars with the launch of the Super Famicom in Japan. The second salvo followed nine months later, when the needlessly redesigned Super Nintendo Entertainment System hit US shores in August 1991 in all its angular, grey and lilac glory. As usual, third-world gamer territory Europe had to wait even longer for it. But while Nintendo dithered, enterprising importers brought thousands of modded Japanese machines into the country and sold them to impatient gamers at a premium, creating a frenzy of anticipation ahead of its official 1992 European launch.
When it finally did arrive, the SNES was every bit the match for the Genesis, and eventually caught up with and overtook Sega's system to become the most popular 16-bit console in the world – but not before precipitating a fiercely competitive and unprecedented software development "arms race" between Sega and Nintendo. Both companies invested enormous amounts of money creating "killer app" flagship games for their systems to attract new customers, and in doing so created a golden age of software development that pushed the boundaries of gaming to new heights - much to the delight of players worldwide.
The console war wasn't just limited to the bitter battle between the Genesis and SNES. The nascent handheld market had also become its own theater of system war - an epic four-way battle royale between Nintendo, Sega, Atari and NEC. Within the space of eighteen months, three technically advanced, but power-hungry and prohibitively expensive color hand-held systems had been launched against Nintendo's much cheaper black and white Game Boy: Atari's Lynx, retrospectively looking like a PSP forerunner, Sega's Game Gear, essentially a mini Master System, and NEC's TurboGrafx-16-on-the-go, the TurboExpress.
By 1991 each of these systems had some great games available for it, but none had hit critical mass for success. Instead, it was the Game Boy that was kicking ass and taking names thanks to its monstrous popularity – and vast software library. And as it did, Nintendo was learning a lesson that it would leverage time and time again on subsequent hardware generations: that success is not always contingent on having the most technically advanced system - instead price, innovation, usability and great games could do the job.
Over in Europe, the bastion of the home micro computer for the last decade, the major home computer manufacturers were less in a battle between themselves, and were more fighting a war of survival on all fronts. In the mid 80's, at the height of the 8-bit market, Atari and Commodore had launched the ST and Amiga respectively. Clearly next generation machines, the general consensus within the European games industry was that these 16-bit micros would replace the dominant C64 and ZX Spectrum systems once consumers tired of their 8-bit systems and wanted to upgrade. But as the 90's rolled around, despite having five years to take up the slack in a home micro market that was increasingly running out of puff, neither new machine had achieved mass market success.
Unfortunately, two market mechanics stacked together to create a perfect storm that would ultimately kill off the 16-bit computer market within a few years. Firstly, there was a high degree of excitement surrounding the new 16-bit consoles, and many gamers saw them as highly desirable. The Amiga and ST were also expensive. And faced with buying an Amiga or ST at a premium versus buying the nice cheap gaming console that little Johnny wanted, most parents found the latter option infinitely more palatable.
Adding even more pressure on the Amiga and ST was a machine that could indeed do all of the practical, functional things we were told home micros could do, but it did them so, so much better than anything else that was out there. I'm talking, of course, about the humble IBM PC compatible, as it was called during this period.
During the late 1980's it had insinuated itself onto the desks of businesses and home offices around the world under the guise of the professional's must-have, do-everything tool for the just-about-to-explode information age. By 1990, PC technology was burgeoning, transforming these boring beige business machines into something that could play games quite effectively. In 1991, the PC's final, secret weapon was ready to be deployed that would enable it to establish itself as a bona fide gaming machine - and become the customizable, do-it-all personal computer that both consumers and professionals really wanted. I'll talk about the specifics of that a little later.
The rise of the PC compatible as a business and entertainment machine was the death knell for almost any other computer that wasn't. Within just a few years the PC would become the only game in town when it came to personal computer choice. Well, apart from the technically impressive, but rather expensive low-volume alternative PCs being made by a struggling company in Cupertino, California that creative people seemed to favor. But I digress.
The other important sector of the gaming market during this era was the arcade industry. Although if truth be told, by 1991 that importance was rapidly beginning to diminish. Its "golden age" having already come and gone, arcades around the world were reporting steep declines in revenue - but even so, this year would witness a few last, triumphant hurrahs for coin-ops! The biggest of which was the release of the most significant and influential arcade machine of the decade: Street Fighter II.
I remember playing it for the first time at an arcade trade show in London, and having to be pretty much forcibly removed from it. I hadn't been so excited about an arcade game in years. So many buttons. So many combos. So many characters. My mind was well and truly boggled.
The impact Street Fighter II had on the fighting game scene - and indeed gaming in general - was simply extraordinary: it evolved fighting games a quantum leap in one single step, and founded a legacy that continues unbounded to this day. Players were obsessed with the game, a whole cottage industry of Street Fighter II products emerged, and for a while Street Fighter II images dominated gaming media. It was impossible to get away from it.
Time Traveler was another notable 1991 coin-op: a "holographic" arcade machine that used some brilliant visual trickery and a whole bunch of live action QT events to deliver an unprecedented gaming experience. Well, unprecedented in the fact that it looked really cool, with miniature live actors walking around the coin-op's play area like holo-projections from R2-D2. But unfortunately the gameplay totally sucked – it was just a crappy Dragon's Lair type game, but without the wit or charm. Still, throngs of people flocked to the arcades to see this wonderful new piece of gaming tech... and then swiftly grew bored of it after realizing that it was in fact a phenomenally shiny, technologically polished "holographic" turd.
The other biggie this year, and I mean BIG (like, not many coin-ops get any physically bigger than this) was Sega's R-360. It's basically a bonkers version of G-LoC, a game based on the Afterburner series that features a giant-sized, sit-in cabinet that can spin the player, tightly strapped into its seat, in pretty much every direction, including upside-down. It was quite the conversation piece, but, like Time Traveler, was really more of a novelty item than a truly great game. Half the time it felt like it was just spinning you around just to mess with your head (and stomach), since it didn't seem to be accurately representing what the player's jet fighter was doing on the screen.
In retrospect, R-360 and Time Traveler showcased the increasingly desperate lengths that the arcade industry had to go to try to slow the declining number of people coming through their doors. Despite seeing some great successes in 1991, the reality was that faced with home gaming systems that were rapidly catching up with, and would soon equal arcade technology, the sun was setting on the arcade industry. 1991 would be its final, golden year.
However, in living rooms, the sun was rising on a whole new era for games, and indeed for the companies that made them. Interplay's RPM Racing is an excellent case in point. I remember playing and enjoying this Super Nintendo game immensely. It's a remake of a 1985 Electronic Arts Commodore 64 game that I also loved, Racing Destruction Set. What I didn't know at the time, however, was that this game would become a definitive case of "mighty oaks from little acorns grow." RPM Racing was a reasonable commercial hit, and became the foundation stone upon which its first-time developer would start to build a phenomenal business success. Who was it? Silicon & Synapse. Name still doesn't ring a bell? Well, two years later the company would change its name into something more recognizable and go on to develop some of the biggest franchises in gaming – none other than Blizzard Entertainment.
While Blizzard was putting down its roots as a software developer, then-industry giants (and ideal candidates for "Where Are they Now" articles), AOL, SSI, TSR and Stormfront Studios were collaborating to put down the roots of the MMORPG genre. Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical multiplayer role-playing game, was launched in 1991 as a pay-to-play game on fledgling Internet service AOL. I got to play it in late 1994 when there were hundreds of people playing it, rather than the 50-person capacity it launched with three years earlier. By the time the game closed – following a ridiculous spat between developer, publisher and IP owner about who actually owned what – Neverwinter Nights had some 115,000 subscribers. That's pretty much heading into MMORPG territory, opening the door for games like Ultima Online, Everquest and Asheron's Call, which would appear during the late 90's and establish what has now become one of the most popular and lucrative genres in modern gaming.
Another type of game that was taking some significant steps forward in 1991 was the action adventure, thanks to the vision and creativity of French developer, Eric Chahi. His innovative Amiga title, Another World, published by Delphine Software, was one of the first games to use polygonal graphics combined with rotoscoping techniques – essentially a rudimentary form of motion capture. What makes this game particularly special is the way it cleverly merges gameplay and cutscenes to tell a compelling story. It totally blew me away when I first played it – the quality of the graphics and storytelling were just miles ahead of anything else at the time, and it really helped showcase the possibilities of merging real narrative with high quality visuals and great gameplay. It was definitely a pioneering product whose legacy can be seen today in games that dynamically combine action and storytelling.
While the action adventure genre was being pushed forward in Europe, over here, another gaming visionary, Sid Meier, was taking the strategy genre to new heights with Civilization. Based on his board game, and released originally on PC DOS, Civ, is a turn-based strategy game that set new standards in terms of its complexity and presentation.
A soon-to-be-very-well-known franchise getting its first run out in 1991 was none other than Duke Nukem. However, as you might expect of something that was created during the 16-bit era, the game wasn't a first-person 3D shooter, but was instead a good old-fashioned platform game. Its storyline, set in the far flung future of 1997, postulated a madman taking over the world with his army of robots, setting an ironic precedent for the franchise in terms of predicting things that would happen by a certain date that actually never did.
One of the most important developments of the year occurred in the PC market, and involved the secret weapon I mentioned earlier. It would set into motion events that would enable the PC to fight back against console dominance and push itself to the very forefront of gaming - where it still resides today. It was rolled out in September by S3 Group, and was called the 86C911.
For those who aren't up on early PC tech, that seemingly random series of letters and numbers had been given to what is widely regarded as the first significant commercial graphics processing unit - the thing that said to the CPU, "let me take care of the drawing for you, while you just concentrate on the numbers." And lo! The foundation stone was laid for today's multi-billion dollar graphics card industry.
In the US, the biggest month of the gaming year was August. That's when Nintendo finally rolled out its Super NES to the American audience, complete with quite probably the all-time greatest pack in game ever – Super Mario World. If you were one of the lucky ones to get an early SNES, you didn't have that big a choice of games, but it didn't matter. Nintendo's onus was on quality, not quantity. F-Zero and Pilotwings showcased the SNES' Mode 7 brilliantly, and basically trumpeted SNES' next generation credentials. UN Squadron, Gradius III and Super R-Type provided some decent quality shoot 'em up action if the other two games sold out (which they often did), and Sim City could be found at the bottom of the barrel if you were super-late to the Super Nintendo party. But even then, while not being an exciting console-style game, it was still great fun to play.
By a strange coincidence - either that, or a well-calculated marketing ploy aimed squarely at heading off undecided gamers before they reached Super Nintendo Pass - a couple of months prior to the SNES' debut in North America, Sega had come out swinging with its own answer to Mario: a certain blue hedgehog who went by the name of Sonic. Created by AM8, which later became Sonic Team, Sonic the Hedgehog was a glorious, colorful, 16-bit defining character that burst onto the scene amidst huge hype. The game was absolutely terrific. While in retrospect it didn't quite have the finesse, attention to detail and craftsmanship of the very best Mario games, it nevertheless made up for its shortcomings with blisteringly fast graphics and some very fun gameplay.
Mario and Sonic both became lightning rods for fanboy debate. Battle lines were drawn, and endless arguments raged over which was the best. Once the dust finally settled, both characters would eventually kiss and make up and go on to star in several games together: an inconceivable idea in 1991, when Sega and Nintendo were locked in bitter war.
Another video game icon who hit big in 1991 was Link. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released in Japan in November to huge critical acclaim. It wouldn't appear until the following year in the US and Europe, but since I played it in late '91, I'm including it here. Selling almost five million units, and seeing a second and third lease of life on Color Game Boy and Virtual Console in '03 and '07 respectively, it's an absolute stone cold classic: one that deserves to be on every gamer's "play before you die" list.
A Link to the Past innovated in many areas: its outstanding landscape design and game structure, multi-level dungeons, weapon systems, solid storyline, superb puzzles and parallel world mechanic are all notable features that became franchise hallmarks - and influenced many other games in the action-RPG/adventure genre. Looking back at the Legend of Zelda now, its historical significance is clearly evident - its features and level of sophistication is far closer to what we'd expect from a game today than what had been seen in previous generations, essentially making it one of the earliest games of the modern era.
While most of the excitement and innovation was being driven by developments in the fiercely competitive 16-bit market, there was still some life left in the 8-bit arena. Showing that the NES still had a pulse was Tecmo Super Bowl. Combining fast-action arcade gameplay with an NFL license, this sequel to Tecmo Bowl delivered some incredibly fun sports action that still has a cult following today thanks to a long series of remakes and re-releases. Indeed, modern players continue to hack the original NES ROM to add updated player rosters and set up online leagues, making Tecmo Bowl the most modified and consistently played NES game ever.
Awesome football fun was also evident in Genesis Madden '92, which this year brought weather, two-player cooperative play, and – best of all – the ambulance of death that would mow down players indiscriminately as it drove onto the field to pick up injured players. I wish they'd bring it back – it was hilarious comedy relief.
Although we didn't know it at the time, Madden '92 was setting a trend of sports franchises that would have yearly, evolutionary updates. While other sports franchises had come and gone before Madden, the concept of a new game in the series every year was very much a novel one. And while that may or may not be a good thing depending on your point of view, what we can all agree on is that it set a business model that would become a fundamental part of the gaming release calendar.
A completely new sports franchise kicking off in 1991 - or pucking off if you want to put it that way - was another Electronic Arts game: NHL Hockey. The first game in what would become a hugely successful franchise featured a vertical top-down view of its action, a unique idea at a time when almost all prior hockey games had used a horizontally scrolling, side-on view. NHL Hockey was a massive hit worldwide, even in non-ice hockey playing countries, simply because it was such a highly enjoyable, super-competitive game. Thanks to that initial success, it went on to found another sports franchise dynasty that, like Madden and EA's many other sports titles, continues to go from strength to strength today.
But wait! There's yet more on the sports franchise front. PGA Tour Golf appeared on PC right at the very end of 1990, but really hit big in 1991 thanks to its appearance on Genesis, SNES, Amiga and Mac. PGA Golf is another showcase of the kind of visionary product coming out of Electronic Arts during what retrospectively feels like this company's second golden age (the first being a period in the early 80's). The game had that perfect balance of being very easy and intuitive to play, yet had the headroom for hardcore players to achieve a level of skill way beyond the casual. On a personal note, I'm a huge fan of the series. PGA Tour Golf and its many sequels were a stalwart of my Saturday night gaming sessions with friends for nearly a decade: it's the absolute perfect last game of the night to play when everyone still wants to compete, but are too tired or messed up to play something fast and furious.
Speaking of fast and furious, and indeed highly contrived segues, for motorcycle racing fans, 1991 was a vintage year. Road Rash made its debut on Megadrive, kicking off a franchise that saw great early success before disappearing into obscurity for reasons best known to publisher Electronic Arts. I loved the series' combination of insane breakneck racing and violent vehicular combat, and would love to see a new version of the game. But despite some apparent internal efforts to kickstart the franchise, unfortunately at this point it seems to have been left to rot in a field behind EA's offices with its forks half-buried in the mud.
The thing of real interest to me is that the Road Rash series still remains unchallenged as the most enjoyable and fun video gaming take on motorcycling some 21 years after its release, despite the advancements we've seen in virtually every genre of game. Is this because nobody can do any better? Or is there no market for it? Either way, methinks it would be perfect fodder for a Kickstarter project.
A series that's as much fun now as it was in 1991 is DMA Design's Lemmings. This groundbreaking Amiga title is a puzzle game that requires the player to help groups of lemmings safely navigate a series of hazardous environments. It's hugely fun, and caused a sensation when it appeared in 1991. Since then it's become the most-ported game of all time, appearing on virtually every gaming platform you can think of – and even a bunch of non-gaming platforms you'd never think of, such as Texas Instruments calculators, Palm and UIQ. Most recently, the game was set for release on iOS, before Sony turned around and slapped developer Mobile 1UP with a cease and desist order. Which is a bit of a shame really, because Lemmings would make a brilliant touch screen game. Perhaps Sony wants it for PS Vita?
Another franchise with legs released in 1991 was Final Fantasy IV, renamed Final Fantasy II in the US to help avoid confusing American customers who'd only previously been exposed to the first NES Final Fantasy game. Regardless of the name – and indeed the fact that Nintendo removed chunks of the story to save space, and eliminated seemingly innocuous religious references and graphics – this SNES RPG was an immense critical and commercial hit. Not surprising, really, as it's one of the high points in the franchise, and is considered by many as one of the finest RPGs ever made. I'd also put it alongside A Link to the Past as a game that would help define what was to come, rather than representing what had been. Since then, the series has gone from strength to strength, and despite some inconsistency in the quality of the releases, the franchise continues to engage fans over two decades later.
While several European-built computers had been released to varying degrees of success during the 80's, by 1991, only Amstrad had any kind of presence in the marketplace, and even that was beginning to fade. In a last ditch attempt to position the brand as a gaming concern to increasingly console-crazy consumers - a maneuver that was simultaneously tried by US-based Commodore - both companies released shiny, new consoles. Well, they looked shiny and new, but really they weren't. The machines I'm talking about, in case you don't remember them and nobody would blame you if you didn't, are Amstrad's GX4000, and Commodore's C64GS. Both were cynical re-boxing exercises: inside the GX4000 was basically an 80's Amstrad CPC Plus computer, while the C64GS case hid Commodore's almost decade-old C64.
The launch software roster for each system was pitifully poor - in most cases "new" releases were barely retouched versions of older games blown onto cartridges and sold at a higher price than their original cassette versions. Making things even more ridiculous was that neither machine had the functionality and usefulness of their micro computer brethren. So why buy one when you could purchase a much, much cheaper original system that would work with the thousands of cassettes and disks released during the prior decade that were now available from friends or flea markets for pennies? Why indeed? Fortunately, the public was not fooled.
Both consoles were dropped into retail channels with barely a ripple at the end of 1990 with the intention of capitalizing on what would become a console-driven Christmas market... but neither made any sales headway during the peak buying season. As the year rolled over into 1991, both machines hit a sales wall and within weeks were being heavily discounted. Neither system would get an additional production run, and games in development were quickly canceled following abysmal Q1 retail reports.
Amstrad's machine, the lesser of the two evils, sold around 15,000 units - the vast majority of which were at almost giveaway prices. No sales figures for Commodore's effort seem to exist, which tells you how badly it sold, but rough estimates put the number somewhere in the region of 8,000. You can still find these machines on eBay, usually going for many times the price that they sold for, simply because they are such strange and rare gaming curios.
With Commodore and Amstrad out of the race, and the 16-bit home micro market rapidly fading, the gaming market began to resemble a structure that's familiar today. Two dominant consoles rose to the fore, the handheld market was dominated by a Nintendo system, and if you wanted to play the most sophisticated games, you bought a PC. While the players might change from generation to generation, the structure of the business hasn't changed in 23 years.
Add to that the games, genres, companies, franchises and even marketing techniques that emerged this year, and you have a watershed between the chaotic, pioneering experimental early days, and the more cyclical, predictable modern era. While that divide might feel somewhat bittersweet, these developments, shifts and changes were dramatic, and lasting – perhaps more so than any other year in gaming. Which is why I believe 1991 was the most greatest year in gaming.