Last Updated on July 19, 2023
In my previous article, I stated the case for common sense that 1996 was the greatest year for gaming, both within the industry and the culture that gathers around it. In the process of writing that, I discovered that such a year was going to require more space than one feature. Website Chief, Christian, clearly thrilled by this, requested that I not go on about it for more than one more.
Easy-peasy. I have already covered the Nintendo 64 and Mario 64, Quake and the internet coming of age, and analogue control turning everything on its head on both the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn. I mean how much better can a year get?
Baby, we are just getting started…
Knowing this, and now armed with only one thousand more words to get me there, come and let us take in the remains of the vista.
Personal Computers, those miserable machines and their wanton brethren got a jump on everyone with the internet, and Quake cemented the possibilities of what that would mean going forward. The absolute bloody ruination of everything good as it turned out, but I haven’t got time to wander down that avenue. We all live there. Enough said.
PC gaming in general hit the afterburners in 1996, with so much of the excitement coming from the arrival of superior steroidal graphic packages like 3Dfx. Smoother, sharper, higher, faster; indeed almost indistinguishable from the modern market as it stands today, all miserable and uncaring for my attention. Same as it ever was from 1996 on, which is where we shall leave PCs.
Seriously though, well done. An amazing year for you, and you now have everything. I hope you’re happy. At least Sony was.
Another day, another dollar
Whatever else was going on in the gaming landscape, and there was a lot of it, it all circled around a centre that was now owned by Sony. They had taken control by sheer numbers, because they had a machine with loads of great games. As a Sega fan, I was bitter about this because the Saturn also had loads of great games. Also as a Sega fan, I owned a PlayStation as well.
So where to begin?
Resident Evil. That’ll do considering that at the time of writing the recent Resident Evil 4 Remake (!) still has the series holding court. It all started in 1996; the gruel, grime and gunshots, and remains true enough to the formula today. Brilliant, but I have got to move along.
Formula 1. The one that out-foxed the PC crowd. I wasn’t into racing sims myself but I could see that this was one that got away from them. Stunning visual design and all that high-sim gameplay that got people like my PC fan brother envious. 1996 was when sim racing got real on console and sold very nicely. I was still playing Sega Rally, but good for them.
Tomb Raider. Need I say more? I am going to despite the word count pressures upon me, please excuse me if it is needless.
Lara arrived to broad and loud applause in 1996. I think it is fair to say that no other video game character has made such an impact on popular culture since. And it was earned. Although the control wasn’t perfect, it did seem to be the general answer as to how a three-dimensional character moves around on a digital pad.
The entire cubic design of the game was set around how Lara’s animation worked, and that worked for me at the time. And for context, I bought it first on the Saturn. Sega had that non-lucrative deal going with developers Core that kept the game on Saturn for about four weeks before Lara became an icon on PlayStation.
In many ways, I do feel that it beat Nintendo to the punch in Europe. The game design was similar, but only one of them was officially available in 1996. And the soundtrack was next level.
Onwards. I have five hundred words to spare and I mean to give them all to Sega. It was 1996 after all.
Sega of ages
We can talk about the sudden emergence of PC graphics accelerators and the what-may-be power of the Nintendo 64 for some time, and I have, but one piece of hardware was so far ahead of the competition at the time, it was effectively in a weight division of its own.
Sega had developed their latest arcade board, the Model 3, alongside Lockheed Martin, as had been their want, and as you could tell. Nothing had really gotten to grips with the power of their previous Model 2 board by the time the third one came out, so when developers AM2 debuted the kit with Virtua Fighter 3 it ended any debate. Plus, playing like it did helped.
Model 3 took us to a place where polygons per second no longer mattered. Fidelity had been achieved and from this mark on it would be about art direction. Virtua Fighter 3 had that in spades too. I am going to take a moment to give honourable an mention to Tekken 2, also a monster home title in 1996, but we are talking broad strokes of fidelity that I don’t think Tekken has ever even considered.
On the home machine front, the Saturn got a winning and cheap modular device that year in the form of a 1MB cartridge that made SNKs King of Fighters ‘95 an absolute stunner. A slight addition to the scale of the year, but it began a couple of years of ever-larger cartridges with SNK, Capcom and others trading titles. On import at least. Oh Sega.
Elsewhere on the Saturn, Sega was doubling down on the post-Virtua Fighter 2 confidence in their arcade conversions. Virtual On: Cyber Troopers was a 1996 conversion that was unlike anything else. The complicated control system was a total mind job on a joypad, but it worked and came with a useable two-player mode. (If, as a Saturn owner, you knew someone else who had it.)
The Saturn had a lot of games like that in 1996.
NiGHTS of course, with its majestic analogue control, sweeping pace and endless score attack. Sonic Team were so far above everyone else with this game that I doubted at the time that any team could ever make a game that played as telepathic as this. That has become the case.
In so many ways, Sega were operating in a smaller culture at the time, but it was no less fevered. In fact, it was more so because the kind of culture that Sega gathered in the middle nineties was pure cult; own-brand arcade games and the cream of next-generation 2-D. Things like the much-loved Guardian Heroes, and Capcom giving the machine four state-of-the-2-D-art conversions of their flagship fighters in one year. Minor for the year perhaps, but the thought of such a list of near perfect conversions from Capcom but a couple of years prior would not have crossed your mind.
Finally, on our last order of business, Pokemon was released on Game Boy in Japan this year. Let that sink into everything else I have mentioned, and consider its relevance/dominance still to this day. It is clear that the modern world of gaming was born this year.
1996: the greatest year in video gaming.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.