Red Dead who?
Sure, you’ve got your triple-A fancy graphics and hi-tech gameplay (did she just say ‘hi-tech’?) but here’s why 90s games ruled.
1. Something for everyone
Somehow, the range of games just seemed bigger and better when we were kids. To name but a few, you had your classic platformers (Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Prince of Persia), addictive arcades (Mortal Kombat, Streets of Rage, Street Fighter II), epic strategies (Civilization, Worms, X-COM), fast-paced first-person shooters (Half-Life, Quake, Doom), escapist RPGs (Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Diablo) and genre-defining adventure games (Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Myst).
In the 90s gaming emerged as a family pastime, incorporating something for all ages and tastes. PC or console, it belonged to the whole household and was played by everyone in it. There were games you’d play with your dad, games you’d play with your little sister and games you’d play with a freeze pop in one hand and your feet up against the wall.
While there’s still a good variety of games being made today, the majority of these consist of combat-based action sagas and first-person vengeance missions. Modern gaming in itself has become a much more solitary activity, and the games reflect this. For older genres such as platform and adventure there are few new releases, and many of those exist in the form of ‘retro’ styled games aimed at nostalgia seekers.
2. No distractions, ads or costly DLC
Imagine reaching the end of the scrap yard zone in Sonic and being told you must watch a sponsored video to continue. Or having to pay a supplement to play the next chapter of Mario.
This didn’t happen in the 90s. You paid for what you got and that was that. When you finished a game, you simply bought another one. There was no sign-up, no subscription, no sponsored ads and no DLC.
The gameplay was also just simpler. Sometimes after a long day at work or school a nice, plain-sailing arcade game was what you needed. A couple of rounds of Mortal Kombat before your chicken casserole. No temptation to go on side missions or sub-quests and then have to work out what the deuce you were doing in the main game. Sure, Commander Keen had his Pong watch, but it didn’t take you right out of the game – just something to do while you mate goes to the bathroom.
3. Box art is pretty
Remember all your lovely games proudly lined up on the shelf? Organised by genre, then title? You can’t do that on Steam. Opening a new box was way more fun than passively clicking the ‘purchase’ button.
And there were other treats inside. In your youthful wisdom you always knew those feelies and posters would be worth something one day, right? Of course not! That’s how we viewed games as kids – as the fun things there were, not collectors items. The very fact that physical boxes are worth so much today is testament to their sentimentality – who’s going to get teary-eyed about a Steam code in twenty years?
4. They taught us tough love
Rarely today do we see the words GAME OVER. But in the 90s, once that cartridge went in you were committed. There was no option to save – the only way to complete a game was in one long sitting. Your bum was locked into that beanbag for the next four hours, only shifting to take a drink or shout at the cat. Your Sunday afternoon destiny was to beat that boss and spend the aftermath coaxing your thumbs from their bent position.
There were no hand-holding tutorials back then – you learned to play as you went along, and that was part of the experience. You exchanged tips with friends, read magazines and occasionally consulted the manual that came with the game, if you were really stuck. There were no internet walkthroughs, which also meant there were no spoilers – something I would relish today. Some games had hintlines or cheat codes (Right, A, A, B, Start!), but they only got you so far.
5. They gave us proper Easter eggs
And some downright hilarious ones. Hands up who stood Commander Keen on the moon to watch him bare his bum? Who shot John Romero in the head in Doom II? Put the Castlevania disk in the CD player? There were plenty of power-ups and special levels, too. Our 90s minds were a-spinning.
Most Easter eggs these days are references to older games and characters – what does that tell you? And it’s all too easy to find them online now, instead of passing them around in hushed voices like the sacred secrets they are.
6. People played games together
No, not ‘together’ online. Actually in the same room.
Perhaps the most pertinent thing that’s come through in all these points is how video games brought us together. Some of my most treasured memories are of being hunched around the TV, controller in hands, egged on by friends patiently waiting their turn. This is something you just don’t see today. Sure, there are endless online platforms for multiplayer games and social communities for chatting about them, but this virtual equivalent just isn’t the same. It’s a weak substitute for the camaraderie between those kids.
Consoles taught us a lot about sharing. Swapping cartridges or floppies was a ritual, and woe betide you if broke one. Sometimes I’d even lug my Mega Drive to my friend’s house. They were so hardy back then you could drop it on the concrete and watch it spring back up with gusto. Pretty much the only malfunction you’d get was the white screen accompanied by a shrill beep – the signal to empty your lungs into the cartridge slot. None of this ‘wrap it in a towel’ crap.
Computers and their games were basic and unassuming, and so were we. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a date with Toejam and Earl.