And now for part 2 of my long-winded “stolen” feature…
Diablo was the game to be playing in 1996. It was the ultimate dungeon adventure experience for its time, featuring exciting randomly generated dungeon layouts, and more enemies, bosses, and loot than our little 90’s brains had ever imagined. It was a pretty dark game too, almost feeling like a survival horror game when you were trying to hack and slash your way through really dark and grimy mazes full of nasty undead things that all wanted a taste of you.
When the excellent single player campaign was over, a friend and I even took to playing it online with a very early version of BattleNet. We beat the game a few more times on harder difficulties with groups, but then the thrill of that finally wore off too and we started using cheat programs to become invincible player hunters. We would lure random strangers down to the deep dungeons to fight Diablo and ignore their desperate cries of “NO PK, BRO!” as we mercilessly struck them down and took their ear for our collection. Good times.
But then there came 1997. This was a hard one to decide on since it had 3 of my all time favorite games coming out in the same year. Oh hell, I can’t decide, so I’ll just talk about all three!
First there was Final Fantasy 7. What is it about this game that makes it such a timeless classic? Pretty much everything about it, really. The graphics are terribly dated now, but the visual design still holds up pretty well for a PS1-era game. The soundtrack is one of the best ever heard in a game. The combination of simplistic JRPG turn-based combat and the highly customizable Materia system made for random battles that were exciting and fun instead of just feeling like an annoyance. It has a huge world filled with fascinating locations, dungeons, enemies, bosses, and secrets.
There’s also that amazing story. Yeah, the dialogue is a little overly simplistic and stilted at times, but the story is so strong that it transcends all those rough edges. It’s just a near-perfect game that everyone should play.
And then there was…
Not just one of the greatest Castlevania games ever, but one of the greatest games period, it’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This would become the standard by which all future Metroidvania games would follow. Hell, it’s literally the game that put the “vania” in that word.
Near-flawlessly designed in terms of levels, enemies, items, music, and gameplay, it’s one of the games I’ve re-played the most of all and have bought it on 4 or 5 different systems at this point. Seeing it at a friend’s house was even what caused me to go buy a PlayStation after I’d kind of given up on consoles for a few years there. A true classic.
And finally, there was also…
Quake 2 wasn’t just a great FPS, easily the best one since Doom, it also holds a special place in my heart because it’s where I met my wife. Ohhhh, I’m not going to get into that whole story again, but you can read all about it here if you haven’t already.
Half-Life was probably the first FPS to finally outdo Doom, in an even more significant way than Quake 2. Pretty much everyone that had a PC back in ’98 had Half-Life-mania. It really changed the face of FPS gaming with its highly cinematic presentation, complex level design, and tight, challenging combat against some really bizarre alien enemies.
Also worth mentioning this year was…
While the first Resident Evil was fun and all, it wasn’t until the 2nd one that I really fell in love with the series. Resident Evil 2 went out of its way to outdo everything in the first one, tightening up the gameplay, adding more zombies, and even tossing in a whole second character for a big double-campaign. I replayed all those old Resident Evil games so many damn times, and even today I still can’t get enough of that classic zombie blasting action.
This was the first Baldur’s Gate-type game I ever really got into. I suppose all the grim undead and lost identity themes caught my attention more than others of its kind did. Whatever it was, there turned out to be an amazing RPG here, with a huge world full of more quests, dungeons, and moral dilemmas than you can shake a stick at. There were so many different ways to approach situations and get things done, and a great selection of potential party members, each with their own agendas that may or may not align with your own depending on your actions throughout the game. It was just such a vast, complex, and advanced game for its time, and it still holds up very well even today.
Then the original Deus Ex arrived and gave us the ultimate fusion of high quality FPS and RPG, all in an amazing cyberpunk setting (though System Shock paved the way for this a few years earlier). It was unheard of at the time to have so many different ways to approach situations in a game like this, whether by stealth, hacking, diplomacy, or explosive brute force.
Where Resident Evil was more about the crazy monsters and gore, Silent Hill tried to take a more psychological approach to horror. It didn’t always work, but when it did, it really did. Silent Hill 2 is the perfect example of that. It didn’t have as good gameplay as Resident Evil 2, but it made up for it with a really dark and twisted plot that sticks with you for the longest time. I still consider it one of the greatest horror games ever made. Too bad the series seems to be dead forever now. Oh well. RIP Silent Hill.
Another of the best horror games ever was Eternal Darkness. This game took a really unique approach to 3rd person horror by following a whopping eight different characters, each through a different time period. On top of that it introduced some other interesting features like the ability to easily target different limbs in combat, a strange customizable magic system, and probably the most known feature…the infamous sanity meter mechanic. When your character lost their sanity all kinds of crazy things would start happening in the game, such as the room you’re in turning upside down, your character suddenly turning into a monster or suddenly being beheaded by an invisible force, or even fake game screens that tell you GAME OVER, or even worse things. It was a really inventive game, and it’s a real shame that Silicon Knights never managed to put together anything quite like this again.
Also heating up my GameCube this year was…
It was a great move to turn Metroid into a FPS, especially when they made it such a damn good one. It was really impressive how they managed to make all the classic Metroid mechanics work, and work well, in a first person view. As much as I liked the classic side-scrolling Metroid games, Prime really came in and blew them all away and I’d still call them my favorite games in the Metroid series by far.
Drakengard just came out of nowhere and ended up being one of the most memorable games ever. I don’t even remember how or why I ended up getting it, it just looked like a decent-ish action-RPG with some dragon flying sequences. Nice looking, but not particularly amazing, or so I thought. Drakengard turned out to have an incredibly dark and weird plot, which got even weirder when you got to the end and found that you could keep unlocking and playing new extra levels that each acted as an alternate ending to the game, and things just got worse and worse for the heroes and their world each time, to the point where there wasn’t much left standing by the actual end.
Little did I know that this was just the beginning and that this crazy story would continue on many years later in Nier and beyond, but I’ll come back to that later…
I had some friends that were big into MMOs back in the day, and they were always trying to get me to play one with them. None of them ever really held my attention until the dreaded World of Warcraft came around. I wasn’t particularly interested in Warcraft at the time. I tried and failed to finish Warcraft 2 and never got around to 3, so I didn’t know much about it other than that everyone seemed to be going crazy for this game.
If you’ve ever played it, you can kind of see why it exploded into this weird mass phenomenon that against all odds is still running and coming out with new content even today. There’s just so much to do here. More single player quests and group dungeons, even in just the base game, than you could ever actually do (assuming you aren’t one of those rare few people who pretty much literally live in there). So many interesting locations to see, and creatures to kill, and loot to find.
The only real downside is kind of the standard downside of most online-only games, which is that eventually you’ll reach an end to the content that you can do by yourself or with a smaller group of inexperienced people, and find that the only way to continue to progress involves a lot of grinding and a lot of coordinated raid groups, which leads to having to be very social and sticking to some kind of set schedule if you want to get into the best raid places. When I have to start re-arranging my calendar to make specific time slots available to play a game, that’s when it’s time for me to stop.
Of course if you’ve been paying attention here, you know that I didn’t quite stay away forever, but at least now there’s no commitments involved in the way I play now!
Later, I found myself hooked on another online game, but this time it was a competitive FPS. This was the first and only time I ever really got into playing an online-only FPS competitively. I really prefer to just stick to solo games that have reachable ends, but this game got its hooks in me badly. Dystopia is actually just a free mod for Half-Life 2, but it’s a complete conversion and an extremely well-made one.
In Dystopia you pick one of three classes, each one has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as multiple weapons and abilities to choose from. You could go brute force with a heavy class carrying something nasty like a railgun or rocket launcher, and toss robotic spider-bombs all over the place, or you could pick a light class that can use a cloaking ability and silent weapons like the bolt gun, or go for medium and take a more balanced approach.
What really made Dystopia something special though, was the complicated objectives in each level and the hacking mechanic that was always required to complete them. This wasn’t one of those games where whoever shoots the other guy the most wins, no you had to actually pay attention and work on capturing specific points which always required a pretty high level of teamwork to accomplish.
For example, your team needs to assault the enemy base, but the place is completely locked down. You need to have someone with the hacking ability hack one of the doors open to get in. Hacking takes you to a whole new cyberspace area that looks like something from Tron or some 90’s cyberpunk movie where you have to find the right node to activate, get through the security defending it, activate it, then place some security of your own on it if you have time so that it can’t be taken back easily. I say taken back because there will be an enemy hacker in there with you trying to stop you, and even worse, your body in the real world is completely exposed and helpless while you’re hacking. Sometimes you even have to get this done in the middle of enemy territory, so you can imagine how coordinated you have to become with your team to get the hacker where they need to go, have the hacker successfully do their job, and protect their body the whole time until they’re done. You’d have to get through 3-4 situations like this just in one level. It was nuts.
I ended up specializing in stealth and hacking because I had quickly learned that the best way to be on the top of the scoreboard wasn’t to be the one with the most kills, but to be the one that personally accomplished the most objectives during each level. I became quite good at it and got pretty high on the leaderboards. I could tell you some stories about crazy shit that we would do in that game, but it would take a whole separate article. Eventually I drifted away from it though, as the number of people playing began to shrink over time and unfortunately this game is completely unplayable without having a large amount of people to play with. This is why I never play online shooters anymore. Oh well.
I didn’t play Neverwinter Nights 2 immediately when it came out, as I heard it was horribly buggy on release, but I went and picked it up later after it was all patched up and found that it was a horribly underrated game. This was basically Dragon Age before there was Dragon Age (I know, you could say that about any old Obsidian or Black Isle game, but this one in particular was closer to what would become the BioWare formula). It had a huge RPG world full of great enemies and characters, with a pretty cool plot, and the typical level of complexity of an old-school CRPG.
That Mask of the Betrayer expansion that came out later was also one of the best expansions ever seen on a game. The soul eater mechanic was some really fascinating stuff, once you got used to it and were able to survive it.
Alright, I’ve gone on for quite long enough again. Just one more part in this lengthy feature to go! See you then.