In 1996 I was, mostly, nine years old, it was a truly wondrous time to be a young video game fan, before analog sticks, pay to win, microtransactions, and DLC had taken over and become the standard. It’s easy to forget life without all instant news, reviews, and rumors with your new-fangled YouTube, websites, and Twitters back in the dark old days we had to wait for magazines to come out, monthly if we were lucky, and spend actual physical money on them.
Back then burgeoning compact disk based technologies were blowing minds the world over, arcades were still booming, the second great platform war was just heating up and it was a year that had undoubtedly, truly exceptional releases across a spectrum of platforms.
The hardest part of writing this list based, opinion piece has been cutting it down into a reasonable reading length and balancing my own nostalgia with undeniably fantastic games that have long-reaching legacies that are still felt today, I may not have played every game on the list in 1996 but I have played all of them by now and after reading this list you should too (or at least their HD Remakes)! Allow me to escort you through a list that will irrefutably prove to the world over that 1996 was the best year in gaming.
Tekken 2 hit PlayStations and changed the 3D fighting game arena forever. At the time many 3D fighters had made advancements in depth, graphics, character designs and speed, Tekken 2 managed to develop and balance in all of these areas and still remains an enjoyable classic to this day.
It wasn’t the first 3D fighter, but it was one of the first titles that cemented PlayStation reputation as a stylish powerhouse, something the PlayStation brand still works to maintain today. Tekken 2 is still very much playable due to the fantastic soundtrack, fast pace of combat, (for the time) massive twenty-four character roster that goes way beyond simple archetypes. Each character had an arcade mode that unlocked a unique ending movie, unlike the first where only the base roster had ending movies. Along with the arcade and remix soundtracks, the ending movies could all be later viewed again in Theatre. This mode was groundbreaking at the time, watching films and listening to music on a games console? Not playing games during a game? Madness!
The intuitive combat system of the first and is more refined and balanced, allowing baby button bashers to keep up with those of us spending our days attempting to become King of Iron Fist. Tekken as a series has never taken itself too seriously and the second entry nails the balance of drama and over the top action, with demons fighting kangaroos, masked Lucha Libre wrestlers fighting pensioners and Paul’s hair. Paul’s hair…
And now for something completely different: The Neverhood (released in Japan as Klaymen Klaymen: The Mystery of Neverhood). Developed by The Neverhood, Inc. and published by DreamWorks Interactive for Microsoft Windows. The Neverhood was a very ambitious gaming experience that was unlike anything that had come before (or since really), with full claymation visuals and a surreal sense of humor, story and gameplay. The point and click gameplay is enhanced by the not having an inventory, so puzzles have to be solved on the screen you are in, allowing players the chance to enjoy and take in the hand molded backgrounds and characters.
The Neverhood was later followed up with a 1998 platformer sequel, Skullmonkeys, and a Japan-only sports action spin-off. Neither of these is really required playing and deviate from the stop motion point and click classic, unlike the 2016 spiritual successor Armikrog that truly lives up to the unique style originated by the team at The Neverhood, Inc. The Neverhood is an artist adventure that fans of the weird or obscure games should seek out and play, although the Armikog may be easier to find and get into with modern graphics and amazing, voice acting supported.
Die Hard Trilogy
According to developer interviews Die Hard Trilogy started off as an action driving based adaptation of the film Die Hard: With Avengence (Die Hard 3 ya noob), the team was left wanting more and went ahead, adapting the previous two films into two more games in two more genres. 3 original games in 1 disc, each based on a different movie in the series! Each game stood up on their own; Die Hard was a simple top-down 3rd person arcade-style adventure game based around shooting terrorists and saving hostages trapped in the setting of the first film, the Nakatomi Plaza.
Die Hard with a Vengeance was a bombastic high octane chase through the streets of New York sitting. While driving taxicabs, sports cars, and dump trucks players are tasked various missions ranging from racing, defusing bombs left by tiny polygonated Jeremy Irons and wrecking other vehicles. One particularly memorable delight of the third on disk was the destructible vehicles and pigeons that could be blown up if driven into fast enough.
The true star of the Die Hard Trilogy is undeniably Die Hard 2: Die Harder. This on-rails first-person shooter was not only better than the source material it came from but a game that had almost endless replay value. Due to modern real-life events the plot and violence would probably not be acceptable today with gameplay centered around shooting your way through an airport full of terrorists and hostages, this is probably why it is the only game on my list without a current gen sequel or high definition remaster. The violence and gore were turned all the way up with exploding corpses that fly through the airport concourses and gates after a few grenades or tracer bullets to their low poly heads (unless you activate the big head mode cheat).
Die Hard 2: Die Harder did not require a lightgun to play, but pointing a giant plastic gun at your TV makes the game infinitely more immersive and ultimately more fun! Unfortunately, there is no way to currently play this classic light-gun shooter without using a CRT television and hooking up your Sega Saturn or Playstation.
Duke Nukem 3D/Quake
Duke Nukem 3D and Quake both revolutionized the blossoming first-person genre, each representing polar opposite design styles at the peak of their respective technologies. Both were successors to Doom and progressed the graphics used in-game, Duke took the classic 2D graphics to the next level, whereas Quake uses full real-time 3D rendering. Duke Nukem 3D pushed tongue in cheek humor and references, featuring iconic voice samples that flat out stole quips and lines from, then, lesser-known classic action movies.
id Software’s advanced 3D graphics technology started a franchise that has sold more than 4 million games and the various iterations of the Quake engine have powered many modern classic games. Duke Nukem 3D and Quake both featured and popularised online gaming both cooperative and competitive multiplayer was supported and without a generation of people cutting their online teeth in LAN parties where the world of online gaming would stand now?
Super Mario 64/Mario Kart 64
Both of these exemplary games have been written about and discussed countless times by greater minds than my own. There is not much I can add to their reputations. Both Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 have become the standards by which all future iterations not only of their own franchises but their very medium was measured by. Iterations have come and brought graphical and gameplay updates but these are the foundations on which 3D gaming was built. It may sound daft but MK64 was the first time we could race in full screen, this along with four player split-screen to me makes it vastly more replayable than the SNES original. Mario Kart 64 embodied the four-player multiplayer potential that the Nintendo 64 will always be remembered for.
It is with great regret and editorial mandate that I couldn’t include all the significant releases of 1996, it’s amazing how many games that had a vast impact on my life were either produced or in production in 1996. Here are some that very nearly made the cut for Why 1996 was the Best Year for Gaming: Resident Evil, Dead or Alive, Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, Tobal No 1 and Pokémon Red & Green, all of these games have far-reaching legacies, except maybe Die Hard Trilogy, which needs a Nintendo HD to rerelease sharpish!
What games have I missed? What games would you have included on your list of the best games of 1996? Let us know below and stay tuned to n3rdabl3 for all your gaming news, reviews, and rumors.