Video games have gone through their fair share of evolutions. Nearly every decade brings with it some sort of innovation that changes the (sigh) game. From arcades to home consoles to 3D polygons to internet, it’s easy to see and reflect on how the genre has grown and expanded over the past 40 years or so. But as someone who was born in ’89 and spent the ’90s growing up with video games, I can’t help but think about how we, the gamers, have changed just as much. Childhood itself is a pretty magical time in life and looking back on mine, it was also a pretty amazing time to be playing games.
Recess/Cafeteria time – Recess and lunch have always been every kid’s favorite part of elementary school, but in the ’90s, they also became that essential time for video game players to discuss the exciting developments in our latest adventures. Game play counselors and video game hotlines were a thing back then too, but they remained an unattainable luxury for those of us who’d been raised not to run up the phone bill. Even the internet was still barely coming into its own, so most of us weren’t getting our fix online in chat rooms or AOL Instant Messenger. No, the big gaming discussions were found on the playground and in the cafeteria, and you never quite knew what you were going to hear.
Super Mario Bros. really paved the way for what games in the ’90s would become: adventures set in colorful and fantastic worlds filled to the brim with power-ups, possibilities, and of course, secrets. And without the power of the internet to connect us to walkthroughs, Let’s Plays, and spoiler-filled Twitter feeds, there was no telling what crazy things a game would be hiding for weeks, months, even years after its release. My friends and I were still helping each other through A Link to the Past years after it came out, because to us, it still felt brand new.
Then there were the kids that spewed straight lies every single day about what they could accomplish in the latest games… and hey, we didn’t know any better. I can’t even count how many flat-out fabrications I overheard about Mortal Kombat, but it was the ’90s, and games were starting to feel like they could be and do anything. After all, Ed Boon wasn’t going to come to my school to tell me the “TOASTY” guy wasn’t a playable character.
Besides the typical discussions of progress, secrets, and tips for fighting bosses, recess was the perfect time to get your trade on. You wanted that copy of Yoshi’s Island? Well, you’re going to have to give up a lot more than just The Adventures of Doctor Franken and Cool Spot… how about sweetening the deal with your copy of Super Street Fighter II? Most parents and teachers didn’t realize it, but we were learning all about economics long before we got to high school.
Editor’s Note: On a related note, I traded Mega Man I-III for Game Boy for the last two Marvel Masterpieces cards I needed… I think maybe Archangel and Omega Red? Kids are dumb and those cards are now worthless. – Michael
Magazines – Print wasn’t quite dead yet in the ’90s, and though it still hangs on by a thread today, I feel like the magazine stands of the ’90s were print’s last big hurrah. Personally, I could care less about the Sports Illustrateds (even the Swimsuit Issues), Tiger Beats, Disney Adventures… All I wanted on those stands was an abundance of video game magazines.
GamePro, Nintendo Power, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Tips & Tricks, Game Informer, and a plethora of others I can no longer remember consumed my adolescent brain. Thankfully my mom was willing to fork over the $5 or so for an issue almost every month, so I always had something to gawk over. When you’re young and jobless, those monthly magazines kept you connected to the gaming world. You might never’ve known anyone with a Sega CD, but at least through those postage stamp-sized screenshots you could see what those games looked like and imagine what it might be like to play them (more often than not, turning mediocre drivel into mystical treasures you could only ever dream of playing!) On a related note, it’s safe to say these magazines actually helped me read and expanded my vocabulary at a time when my school’s required reading curriculum
With the internet, we now have infinite knowledge at our fingertips, accessed within a fraction of a second, so it’s kind of hard to imagine a world where people had to actually wait an entire month for information to come to them. Viewed through rose-colored lenses, it felt amazing every time I opened a new issue and got a glance at something new that I never expected to see, or had been praying to see for months. And you know what? I still think it’s better that way.
Value of a Dollar – There’s very little you can afford when you’re an 8-year-old. In the ’90s, you didn’t have a lot of options when it came to owning video games. You basically had to hope and pray your parents were on your side, willing to get you the games you asked for on your birthday, for Christmas, for getting straight A’s, etc. And darnit, those games had to last you for months. Games like Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past kept me occupied for years. Years! Because it always felt like I was discovering new things, or figuring out a better way to get through an area I’d previously struggled through. Even with less-than-great titles like The Adventures of Dr. Franken, I still played it over and over again, because I had no other choice.
If you were more interested in playing games than owning them, you could be a little more savvy. Like I mentioned earlier, trading was huge during the ’90s, and everyone had something someone else wanted, it was all a matter of finding it. If your mom refused to buy you Mortal Kombat, you might be able to trade a few action figures for little Bobby’s copy (he already had Mortal Kombat II, anyway.) And then you treasured that copy for all time, or at least until something else you wanted came along. It was a very different world than the one we see today. There were no free-to-play games. No Steam sales. No “sorry we got hacked, choose three games you probably already own, on us!” That kind of marketing was unheard of in the ’90s.
The BOX – Another way young gamers could play as many games as possible was by going to these ancient establishments called “Video Stores” where you could rent movies or games for a set number of days. I remember my local shop renting out video games for around a dollar a day. My favorite was the “$5 for 5 days” deal. But with so many options, the trick was figuring out which games were worth taking home simply by ogling over the box art.
As far as I’m concerned, those old games boxes are pieces of art. Not only did they show you what the game was about; the best artwork gave you an idea of the feeling you’d get playing the game. Others, like Phalanx, were so completely ridiculous and non sequitur that you just had to take them home to see what they were all about. At least there were tiny screen shots on the back of the box if you didn’t want to take that risk!
It was here on the back of the box where you’d find a brief bit of flavor copy about the game. Sometimes they gave you a brief summary of the story. Sometimes you’d get an exciting tagline or catch phrase you’d be using on the playground for months. In some useful instances, you’d get bullet points listing the main features of the game. Some combined all three while providing a tiny selection of the absolute coolest screenshots the game’s marketing team could capture. I loved looking through shelves and shelves of games, getting my hands on each box and taking in as much information as I could before coming to a decision. It was like searching for a really exciting book in the library, except that with video games it was way more fun! And I think every kid went to a video store and dreamed about the same thing I did: “I want to take all these games home with me.”
Co-Op Everything – With the times of the arcades coming to a close, the communal environment in video games was being shifted to people’s homes, with a rise in console multiplayer gaming. With more and more people playing video games in their homes, more games were enabling players to play together, helping each other out or facing off against each other in real time, instead of simply taking turns. Beat ‘em ups were everywhere in the 16 bit generation, but things really took off in the late ’90s when the Nintendo 64 came out and became one of the greatest multiplayer machines of all time.
Between games like Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye 007, and Super Smash Bros., the Nintendo 64 didn’t need a vast library of games to be a viable multiplayer draw. It simply was the system everyone played together. With four controller ports, four people could play at the same time! This was something that was capable of happening earlier in video games with extra peripherals, but how many people do you know that actually bought a multitap for Super Bomberman 2 or NBA Jam? That’s right: nobody. The N64 made it the defacto way of playing, and even if you didn’t have four controllers, you surely knew someone else would could bring an extra controller or two along to your next all night gaming session.
The ’90s were undoubtedly the era of couch co-op and multiplayer gaming. It was the last decade where people sat right next to each other, enjoying the same game, whether you were competing in Street Fighter, or taking on the gangs of Final Fight 2. I even got my mom to play video games with me during the ’90s. I know darn well she didn’t want to play Turtles in Time with me, but she did it anyway, and it’s one of those special things she did for me that will always make me love and appreciate her.
3D – There’s never been a jump as drastic in gaming as the one from 2D to 3D. The closest we’ve gotten hasn’t even really happened yet. The upcoming wave of VR games may be gaming’s next big jump and if it turns out to be anywhere near as exciting as it was in the ’90s, I’m all for it. This was a crazy, strange, and absolutely mind blowing time in video games for a kid growing up in the middle of it all.
Attempts at 3D gaming have been made since the early ’80s, but when the technology finally started catching up with the developers ambitions in the mid-to-late ’90s, players were in for some wild experiments. While games like Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario RPG weren’t really 3D—they sort of tricked players into feeling like they were looking at a fully rendered 3D world, while still being fully sprite-based—I was absolutely blown away by these titles. Even Sonic 3D looked really cool, even if it kind of sucked compared to the earlier Sonic games.
Then when games like Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII hit, I finally began to feel like I was doing more than just playing a game. Those games made me feel like I was inside of their worlds. I was able to run, jump, mess around, explore, and do so many other things the game didn’t necessarily tell me to do. It was a freeing time. And nearly every new game that came out felt like it was full of endless possibilities (at least until you played it.) This jump to 3D, and to bigger, more complex games, was my favorite time I can remember because of that feeling like the medium could go anywhere and do anything. Even the games that didn’t necessarily pursue 3D still tried new and interesting things as the technology evolved. There’s a reason we’re still talking about games like PaRappa the Rapper. But it’s been 20 years since that magical time. Here’s hoping VR can capture some of that same magic.
Growing up in the ’90s as a gamer was amazing. I have an endless supply of fond memories from that decade that continue to warm my heart to this day. I hate being the grumpy old gamer who complains about video games nowadays, but I can’t help but look at the landscape and see how different things have become in the last 20 years. Yes, in some ways things are better, but in others, I think we’ve lost a lot of what made gaming such a special medium. Reliving some of what made that time special over the last couple thousand words has been a blessing and I’ll always have those memories. But hey, things aren’t so bad. I’m able to play with friends from that time who live on the other side of the country now. I can pick up games for anywhere between FREE and $100. And if I ever get stuck, I spend two seconds looking up how to progress. Ah, the yin and yang of the video game world. Here’s to the next 20 years.