When we talk about amazing years in video games, few compare to 1996, a legendary era filled with classics and the genesis of many long-running series that continue to this day. Filled with icons of gaming, 1996 was a heated year in video game competition, with the PC, Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 fighting it out for consumer dollars and market primacy.
The old adage about intense competition producing excellent outcomes for consumers proved correct in 1996 as this high-pressure market created true legends of gameplay form and execution, some of which continue to be imitated and studied today.
This list represents a cross-section of multiple genres across multiple gaming formats – from consoles to PCs. Because 1996 was filled with so many excellent games, this list could be much longer but, given the constraints of the top 10 list format, we had to make to some hard choices.
Without delay, here are the 10 top video games of 1996:
10. Duke Nukem 3D, PC
One of the crudest games to come out in an era known for its share of crude games, Duke Nukem 3D is ostensibly a DOOM clone but really is so much more. In many ways a time capsule for 1990s humor and aesthetic, Duke Nukem 3D was not the first title starring the eponymous hero but it was the first title to launch him into the cultural zeitgeist. Previously an action-platform hero on the PC, Duke Nukem 3D saw the Duke in a world overrun by aliens and porn, tasking the player with navigating the seedy extraterrestrial-infested Earth and saving the planet.
Kind of like DOOM except for with go-go dancers and Pig Cops. Sometimes a bit heavy handed (as in the latter example), the humor is nonetheless consistent – a marked criticism of the most recent entry Duke Nukem Forever, which critics thought was too slavishly imitative of the 90s style humor. Much of it has aged well in terms of gameplay and what few “offensive” moments remain only exist because social mores changed. Probably one of the best first-person shooters from 1996, Duke Nukem 3D showed developers how much could be done with the FPS format.
9. Tetris Attack, Super Famicom
A puzzle game from Intelligent Systems for Nintendo’s Super Famicom in North America and Europe, Tetris Attack was originally released as Panel de Pon in Japan to great acclaim. A variant on the Tetris-format, this game has cascading puzzle pieces that need to be matched and aligned in unbroken order to clear lines.
This small twist to the classic formula provides hours of fun and the game’s format, pitting the player in various “levels” and “boss fights” was genius for the time. Nintendo decided to switch over the Panel de Pon characters out for its own and the game is all the better for it, although it only did this for the North American and European markets. Really, though, this is only an aesthetic consideration, not a gameplay change, so players that play Panel de Pon are basically getting the same game. It’s amazing how addicting this game is even today.
8. Super Mario RPG, Super Famicom
A collaboration between Squaresoft and Nintendo, Super Mario RPG represents a bit of a unicorn in the video game pantheon. Occupying a space similar to Chrono Trigger, this game represents an amalgamation of talent that is once in a lifetime. The story is moderately adult without straying too far from the Mario premise and the gameplay is top notch.
If you’ve ever wanted to combine classic Super Famicom Squaresoft JRPG style gameplay with the Super Mario Bros. universe, then this game is for you. The other interesting aspect of the game are the pre-rendered graphics which are bright and colorful, really pushing the Super Famicom’s palette to the max. The soundtrack is quintessentially Nintendo and the dialogue also mirror that style. It’s a strange game, in hindsight, but a real jewel and a highlight in video games for 1996.
7. Resident Evil, PlayStation
Capcom’s first survival horror game which would go on to spawn an endless series itself and an entire genre otherwise, Resident Evil, known as Biohazard in Japan, was one of the coolest video games to ever come out when it hit shelves in March 1996. In many ways, Resident Evil was the ultimate expression of the full-motion video games that the Sega CD and other early CD-based consoles tried to popularize. Combining cinematic experience with somewhat limited action made for a game that was both immediately compelling and totally unique.
Solving puzzles, a la FMV games of the past, and shooting enemies in a 3D space both combined for an experience that owes much to games like 7th Guest and Phantasmagoria as well as console action games. It really was something new and it was a sensation, a fire that burns bright to this day. It wasn’t the story or the characters, although such monikers as “The Master of Unlocking” have become video game legend; rather, it was the total package, and that is what the first Resident Evil represents.
6. Metal Slug, Neo Geo
Metal Slug is an intense, side-scrolling action game that involves Contra-like gameplay in a bright, detailed world of pixel graphics that maintain amazing fidelity to this day. Impressive and fast, Metal Slug was the game the Super Famicom and Sega Genesis wished they could do. Explosions everywhere, arcade-loud sound and a booming soundtrack, Metal Slug takes a simple premise and spins it into endless fun.
Still beloved even now, Metal Slug existed to show what other consoles could not do and was a testament to both SNK’s prowess as a games developer and the Neo Geo’s power as a machine.
5. Quake, PC
This game was the next installment from the team that brought the world DOOM and, while not quite as sensational as the aforementioned title, Quake nonetheless helped kick off the 3D gaming revolution in the PC space. It was also hugely popular on multiplayer and helped refine many of the mechanics first-person shooter games use to this day. If any title on this list is ripe for a resurrection, Quake might be it.
Reminiscent of DOOM without being a clone of its forebear, Quake looks primitive by today’s standards but, when one considers the game’s place in PC gaming history, it is not shocking that the relatively simple polygons helped kick off a revolution in the personal computer gaming graphic’s space.
4. Phantasmagoria, PC
Roberta Williams games were always a joy to play, and none were more terrifying than Phantasmagoria, a controversial game from 1996 that remains scandalous in many ways to this day. This game was the FMV-genre at its peak, utilizing full-motion video and pre-rendered environments to create a horror house Myst-type game that had the depth of story you’d find in a Zork title combined with the gore of something like Mortal Kombat. If you’ve never thought a click game could be tense, Phantasmagoria was happy to change your perception of the genre.
The acting was great for the time and the environments are detailed and believable. There’s a very claustrophobic quality to the whole story that really makes the building pressure effective and the denouement worthwhile.
It holds up today and is reminiscent in many ways of a Dario Argento plot in a horror movie. The puzzles are not overly challenging but provide enough to keep the game from being a visual novel with gore, violence, and assault. Trust us, this game will surprise you – and is worth a playthrough if you are a fan of the FMV genre.
3. NiGHTS Into Dreams, Sega Saturn
Sega’s response to the 3D platformer craze of 1996, NiGHTS was not exactly Sonic but it was from the same team.
Featuring a dreamscape world in which the player’s avatar flies around the levels collecting orbs, NiGHTS is a trippy experience but an experience nonetheless. Sega even released an awesome analog controller for the Saturn so that gamers could better control the characters.
A remake didn’t quite blow up quite like the original, nonetheless, the original NiGHTS meet a need that Saturn owners had in their libraries and is a stand out title for the system.
2. Super Mario 64, Nintendo 64
Nintendo’s first 3D platforming game, the classic Super Mario 64, probably needs little introduction. This game changed everything and is fondly remembered by just about everyone who ever lighted upon its cartridge.
A fun, 3D cartoon world featuring Nintendo’s iconic mascot – what was there not to love? Nothing, really, as Super Mario 64 is a study in how to a video game. Everything that has come since is compared to it, even other Mario games, and nothing quite seems to live up to it.
Launching a new system and a new type of home video game, Super Mario 64 was not only revolutionary but it is a necessary experience for video game connoisseurs. Even the recent Super Mario Odyssey was compared to Super Mario 64 – over twenty years after the game was released. Indeed, every Mario game since Super Mario 64 has evinced the question: Will this be the “true” sequel to Super Mario 64? Such is the impact of this legendary launch title for Nintendo’s first 3D console.
1. Civilization II, PC
Sid Meier’s Civilization was an awesome game when it came out but its sequel, Civilization II, built upon everything the original introduced with enough refinement to make it eclipse the original, a rare feat. Civilization was no slouch, but Civilization II’s approach to iterative design is a case study in how to take something already great and make it better without alienating your previous fans.
Modern Civilization games struggle to strike this balance, often sacrificing accommodation for innovation – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when you look at Civilization II you quickly see that sometimes innovation is an oversold concept and refinement and polish an underrated one.
This game screams class, polish, and quality – and is literally endless. Aside from Tetris Attack, no other game on this list can consume so much of a gamer’s video game hours. Without falling into cliche, this game is truly timeless.