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.
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!.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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