The 1990s is the decade that genuinely allowed video games to thrive. With massive innovations in the arcades, the home console market, and PCs, thousands of games — good games — flooded the market.
There are hundreds of top-tier games from the ’90s, but successful games don’t necessarily become important for the industry. These ten titles came out in the ’90s and offered something different, making them the most important games of the decade.
10 Ultima Online (1997)
It seems you can’t surf the Internet these days without running into a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG). They are ubiquitous, with World of Warcraft and many more dominating the market. MMORPGs are everywhere these days, but the genre’s success exists, thank to Ultima Online.
When Origin Systems launched Ultima Online in 1997, the programmers expected to serve around 15,000 subscribers. That’s what the server architecture was designed to accommodate, but there was a problem. Within six months, the servers were lagging horribly, thanks to the presence of some 100,000 subscribers.
It took some time, but Ultima Online caught up to the demand, making it one of the most influential and important games in the genre. It wasn’t the first MMORPG, but the genre was fairly limited to a niche group before it was released.
Ultima Online grabbed gamers’ attention worldwide, and it wasn’t long before massive events drew in thousands of people. At its height, the game had a quarter-million subscribers. While it’s since faded and been replaced by bigger games, its servers are still online, and people continue to play it more than two decades after its release.
9 NBA Jam (1993)
Sports games had been around forever, but they didn’t really shine until the 1990s. There were some decent games in the ’70s and 1980s, but things changed in the ’90s. Thanks to some innovative technical advancements, people who weren’t interested in sports games found themselves playing them. A lot.
The most important sports game from the decade is easily 1993’s NBA Jam. Not only was it one of the first arcade basketball games, but it was also one of the first to feature NBA-licensed teams and players. The gameplay built on the success of Midway’s Arch Rivals (1989) and exploded in popularity all across the United States.
NBA Jam was an instant success, and it helped pave the way for a plethora of sports games of all types. A year after it was released, NBA Jam became one of the highest-earning arcade games of all time, grossing an estimated $1 billion in the first 12 months. It was quickly ported to home consoles, where it sold over three million units.
NBA Jam proved that sports games could be fun and playable by anyone. It also showed how lucrative licensing deals could be for professional sports organizations. It wasn’t long before the NHL, NFL, and MLB were signing similar deals.
8 Civilization (1991)
Turn-based strategy games were developed as early as 1976, but they didn’t gain widespread appeal right away. 1985’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms was an excellent title, and there are a few contenders throughout that decade. It wasn’t until 1991’s Civilization came out that people stood up and took notice.
Compared to the most recent edition of the game, the original is lackluster and devoid of numerous mechanics now common to the genre. That said, when it came out, Sid Meyer’s Civilization introduced several mechanics to turn-based strategy games that remain staples in almost every title that followed.
Civilization helped establish the 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) subgenre of strategy-based computer games, making it one of the most important games in history. Civilization places a great deal of emphasis on the intricate details of empire building. These mechanics are at the core of what makes 4X games addictive and successful.
Since its release, Civilization has spawned a franchise, which includes several sequels and spinoff games. It’s been ported to just about every computer and console capable of playing it and remains popular today. It’s been estimated that after 25 years, 33 million copies of 66 versions were sold, and more than one billion hours have been spent collectively playing it.
7 Pokémon Red And Blue (1996)
Few people could have imagined the cultural impact a couple of GameBoy carts would have on the world when Pokémon Red And Blue were released in 1996. Japan saw them first as Pocket Monsters: Red and Green, and later Blue as a special edition. When they were released outside Japan in 1998, the game launched a multi-billion dollar franchise.
The first Pokémon game established the norms of the franchise, including the concept of collecting, battling, training, and trading. Players were especially interested in the concept of trading, which they could do via the Game Link Cable. This helped add an addictive factor to the game, and it remains a significant aspect of the franchise.
In its first year, Pokémon Red And Blue sold 1.04 million units. The following year, that number increased to 3.65 million, and the sales continued to break records. It quickly became the fastest-selling Game Boy title in the States, which ultimately saw sales top 9.85 million by the end of its run.
The Pokémon franchise intrigued young players through exploration, training, battling, and trading, which forced kids to socialize. It impacted popular culture in ways rarely seen in video games. The franchise it established has grown to become the highest-grossing media franchise of all time.
6 Super Mario 64 (1996)
Mario dominated video games throughout much of the 1980s, and that didn’t change in the ’90s. When the plumber made the jump to the N64, he did so in a big way, and he once more changed video games for the better. Before Super Mario 64, platformers were mostly limited to 2D side-scrolling adventures, but this game changed everything.
Technically, Super Mario 64 wasn’t the first 3D platformer. That distinction goes to Alpha Waves (1990). Still, it was the first to find a measure of success, and it absolutely dominated the market. Mario’s adventures in side-scrolling worlds were replaced because of the new N64 title, and its influence on the industry was widespread.
Mario’s newest adventure placed him in a 3D open-world environment. The freedom of movement that gave players helped the game (and console) dominate the market. The game also introduced a 360° dynamic camera — an innovation often repeated throughout the ’90s.
Super Mario 64 became the top-selling game for the N64, with more than eleven million sales as of 2003. It became a template for ‘what works’ in 3D games, and its influence continues to this day.
5 Dune II: The Building Of A Dynasty (1992)
Dune II: The Building Of A Dynasty is one of those PC games few remember these days. It was a successful strategy game based on David Lynch’s Dune, and the game is a solid entry in the Real-Time Strategy genre. The thing about Dune II that makes it important is how it influenced the genre.
Dune II wasn’t the first RTS game, but it is considered the archetypal RTS game. It established norms for the genre that didn’t exist before, and they became the standard in every game that followed. It’s not hyperbolic to say that Command & Conquer, Warcraft, Starcraft, and every successful RTS game from the ’90s and beyond wouldn’t exist without Dune II.
On its own, Dune II is an excellent game with a high replay value. That said, it’s far more important to the genre for what it added. Dune II introduced the concept that different sides in a conflict could create different units and weapons.
It established a solid resource management system tied to a real-time battlefield that continuously challenged the player. Every RTS game that came after Dune II incorporated these aspects, making it the most important game in its genre for the ’90s and possibly, for all time.
4 Resident Evil (1996)
These days, the survival horror genre is one of the best-selling on any console or PC, but it didn’t exist before 1996. That’s when Resident Evil was first released. It was the first to use that label, which ultimately became one of gaming’s most successful sub-genres. That makes Resident Evil a pioneer and also one of the most important games of the ’90s.
Originally, the game was planned as a remake of Sweet Home for the Super Nintendo. After several redesigns, the remake concept was scrapped. It was designed for the PlayStation, and when it came out, it established many of the conventions that remain popular in the survival horror genre. These include the controls, inventory system, and save function.
Resident Evil’s 3D graphics and third-person perspective became the norm for the genre, and the game was a major success. It’s been credited with repopularizing zombies, which saw a massive resurgence in the 2000s. These days, Resident Evil is considered one of the best and most influential video games ever made.
The original game was remastered in high-definition for numerous platforms. It spawned a huge franchise, consisting of 28 games, seven live-action films, four animated movies, two television series, three stage plays, and a plethora of comic books and tie-in novels.
3 Myst (1993)
Back when Myst was released in 1993, there were some technical limitations concerning the rendering of graphics. This aspect of the industry influenced the design of Myst, which uses beautifully rendered static graphics. This was a significant achievement at the time, and it had an enormous impact on PC games.
Myst is, by today’s standards, a relatively simplistic game. When it was released, it became something of a surprise hit. The game sold more than six million copies, which was a significant achievement for the PC market at the time. It became the best-selling PC game — a title it held until the 2002 release of The Sims.
In Myst, the player travels to a beautiful island, where they unlock secrets and travel to different worlds via puzzles they solve. It features a 40-minute synthesized score that places the player in a complex yet relaxing environment.
It was one of the first games released on CD-ROM, and its success helped solidify that medium for years to come. The game’s commercial success continues today, thanks to a VR port that places the player inside Myst. Myst remains a delightful and playable game nearly 30 years after its release.
2 GoldenEye 007 (1997)
The 1990s was the decade the first-person shooter made its mark, and there were tons of them. Games like Duke Nukem 3D, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Heretic, and Quake dominated the PC market. While each was important for the genre, the game with the most significant impact was GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64.
Typically, licensed video games made in conjunction with a movie are terrible. It’s far more common to find bad games made for movies than the alternative, which is what this game is. GoldenEye 007 was surprisingly well-made, entertaining, and innovative. It built on the success of the FPS titles that came before it and changed the industry.
Previous FPS games featured a less realistic, more arcade-like setting. GoldenEye 007 offered an immersive campaign that included stealth tactics. Of course, the game’s most significant impact on the industry was its quad-screen multiplayer deathmatch mode. Racing games introduced this, but GoldenEye 007 perfected it for the FPS genre.
GoldenEye 007’s greatest innovation was its freedom of movement, which was a significant change from the rail shooters dominating the PC market. It showed that consoles could play FPS’ as well (or better) than PCs, and it effectively changed the entire video game industry moving forward.
1 Street Fighter II (1991)
The first Street Fighter game was arguably an important entry in the latter part of the previous decade. Still, its impact pales in comparison to the sequel. Street Fighter II absolutely exploded in popularity to become the best-selling game during the Golden Age of Video Games.
Street Fighter II was, by no means, the first game of its type, but it is widely regarded as the best fighting video game of all time. It sold over 200,000 arcade cabinets and was ported to every console that could run it. It became a tournament game people could play all over the world, resulting in the creation of multiple updates and reissues of the game.
Games like Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Tekken, Soul Caliber, and Virtual Fighter all owe their existence to Street Fighter II.
It offered up innovations that would ultimately become standards for the genre. The “Dragon Punch,” special moves, and movement controls can all be found in one form or another across the genre.
Street Fighter II is 30 years old, but it still holds up. People continue to play it, and it’s not entirely due to nostalgia. People continue to play it because it’s an incredibly well-programmed fighter that stands the test of time.