Once I reflected on this 1992 list, I noticed I had omitted many landmark and truly great games. That’s just a sign of the burgeoning and diverse landscape video gaming was evolving into, a line that was truly drawn, in my opinion, in 1991. From here on out, I can only imagine a greater number of games that people hold truly near and dear will be left out. Then again, this list is a blend of my personal favorites and a standard criteria of what still “feels” great (with this entry) 25 years later. ’92 also marks the beginning of the cultural threads we associate with the ’90s, as the decade moved squarely away from the influences of the ’80s. Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States of America, Aladdin firmly cemented Disney’s streak that would erupt into its own Renaissance, and Sublime’s debut 40oz. to Freedom brought the almost ’90s-confined ska to the mainstream.
Note: Previous entries in this series were built with North American release dates in mind. From now on, games will be considered for the year they were first released, regardless of territory. Thankfully, there weren’t any major games lost in this translation. Additionally, due to the increasingly complex nature of this idea, it’s going to be difficult to write at length about every game I played. Some help will come in the form of fellow Invisible Gamer writers, however.
Honorable Mention – Pocky & Rocky
Austin Clark: I played Pocky & Rocky with my mom all the time as a kid. It was one of those games that I rented so much it probably would’ve been smarter to just buy it. Why did we play it so much? Because it’s a fantastic co-op game that evolved from other shoot ‘em up games from the arcade. It wasn’t about a spaceship shooting aliens; it was a colorful, imaginative take on Japanese folklore and mythology. The action was frantic and non-stop, and enemy patterns make it a perfect co-op experience. My mom and I never beat it, but 20 years later a buddy of mine and I got together and barely beat the game on easy. It was glorious.
#9 – Lunar: The Silver Star
Developer: Game Arts/Studio Alex
Publisher: Working Designs (NA)
The Sega CD was a strange disc-based add-on for the then-flourishing Genesis, a sign of the times as CD technology was the new and exciting thing. While the Sega CD didn’t ultimately end up being an incredibly well-supported peripheral, a number of key games made the add-on a worthwhile addition. Lunar: The Silver Star was one of those games. Lunar was a pretty ambitious, lengthy RPG defined more by its storytelling than its gameplay innovations. In fact, the game is pretty linear and simple. Beyond its unique, pretty open-ended formation system, Lunar doesn’t feature any kind of cool, deep mechanics. Nevertheless, its simplicity is one if its strongest draws. I enjoy easier RPGs that allow the player to experience the game fully, a welcome design philosophy when it comes to Lunar’s emphasis on story and length. It actually utilized the new CD technology very effectively, building a wide-spanning epic with impressive (for the time) anime-style cutscenes. The PlayStation “Complete” remake is the best way to play the game, but even still, the original is an oft overlooked RPG with a unique art style and world.
#8 – E.V.O.: Search for Eden
E.V.O.: Search for Eden is one of those games I’d somehow known about (and was interested in) for a large portion of my life but never played. Thankfully, once I resolved its backlog status, I was incredibly pleased to find a revolutionary and technically fun RPG/platformer. E.V.O. reminds me of ActRaiser in the best of ways; they are both strange genre hybrids that pushed the envelope of what could be done on console. E.V.O. takes place across millenia, as players take their basic fish to the age of man, evolving it into various forms along the way. E.V.O. makes “leveling” a truly satisfying and visually representative process, as accruing experience allows players to add various evolutionary adaptations to their creature. There are a number of branching paths that result in truly unique creations, and hidden secrets add new parts and evolutions into the mix. The incredibly unique and innovative metagame is experienced through a solid and combat-based platformer, full of a great mix of brilliantly designed enemies and bosses. E.V.O. even has a pretty compelling and strange “alternate history” plot that explains the miraculous events the player creature experiences. Nothing quite like E.V.O. has been made in the 25 years since its release, and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay it.
#7 – Super Mario Kart
I didn’t grow up with Super Mario Kart, as I assume many of the people that claim it’s the best in the series did. I played it for the first time only when preparing for this 1992 list, so I think my infatuation with it speaks to its enduring ability to provide sheer, polished, kart-based fun. There’s a reason why every kart-based game uses Super Mario Kart as its template. In typical Nintendo fashion, Super Mario Kart is designed with accessibility in mind, and the end result is accentuated by thoughtful polish and expansive options. Of course, Super Mario Kart looks simplistic in comparison to its successors, but the number of tracks, characters, modes, and other options make it a complete and well-rounded package unlike many other racing or sports-based games of the time. That wealth of content only allows you to experience the tight, incredibly fun Mode 7 racing over and over.
Austin Clark: For me, Super Mario Kart still stands the test of time as being one of the best Mario Kart games in the franchise not only because of its legacy, but because of how unique it feels compared to the rest of the series. It could be the 16-bit stylings of the SNES that get to me, but Super Mario Kart plays, feels, and sounds just a little bit different than the other games. To this day, I love that soundtrack. And I love how crazy sharp the drifts are, and to this day, I love that battle mode. If you’ve never tried out the original Mario Kart thinking it’s just a prototype that’s been improved upon, I implore you to go back and give it a try. It’s still something special.
#6 – Shining Force
Developer: Climax Entertainment/Camelot
I’m real bad at strategy games, turn-based or realtime. And oftentimes, strategy games don’t do a lot to invite me in and help me get better. They’re usually complex, off-putting affairs that would require a lot of studying, practice, and failure to get right. I might have failed a lot playing Shining Force, but the game made me want to keep on trying. Shining Force is a turn-based strategy game that streamlines and personalizes the strategy experience. There aren’t a whole lot of numbers or complex tactics or massive maps. Instead, the game’s interface is not unlike a traditional RPG, and in between battles, shopping for your party’s equipment and furthering the plot couldn’t be simpler. Once in battle, the relatively small scale helps manage the strategy stress levels, and the individuality of the characters helps plan accordingly. Shining Force’s greatest strength is its recruiting system. The game is paced so well, with new, unique characters constantly joining your titular army, that battles always feel like they have a new twist or element. Finding hidden, well-designed, and incredibly useful characters isn’t incredibly difficult or obtuse, and picking a battalion from your larger crew to send into battle is a challenging yet exciting prospect. The game’s battle animations, music, and art style make any action taken in the game incredibly satisfying, a notable effect when completing an especially difficult battle. Shining Force is one of the most addicting and rewarding strategy games I’ve ever played, as someone who doesn’t necessarily worship the genre. For that, it earns this spot as one of the best games of 1992.
#5 – World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck
I had a strange experience playing World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. When I first booted up the game, I chose Donald because…duh. As I continued to play, I noticed that the game seemed familiar. But I chalked that up to the fact that I had played its predecessor, Castle of Illusion, and its similarity to other Sega Mickey Mouse/Donald Duck games. Then I reached the library level, and saw the shrunken Donald Duck sprite standing next to a massive fishbowl in which the goldfish from Pinocchio was swimming. And I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. I don’t when, where, or how, but I realized I had played this game in the formative years of my childhood, and didn’t know that going into it. In spite of the nostalgia brownie points World of Illusion may have earned in that moment, it nevertheless stands as a really solid and imaginative platformer. It’s kind of the original Kingdom Hearts (minus the Final Fantasy characters) as Mickey and Donald navigate levels inspired by various Disney movies like Snow White and The Little Mermaid. The platforming is pretty basic, although the characters’ abilities to attack with a cool cape and level-specific traversal twists keep things fresh throughout the relatively brief game. Ultimately, though, it’s World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck’s nebulous game feel that elevates its place on this list. Its Genesis sound effects and graphics, supplemented by an otherworldly and magical style that evokes the best of Disney, are so comforting, fulfilling the promise of video games at large by transporting its players to another world.
#4 – Landstalker
Developer: Climax Entertainment
If you told me two Climax Entertainment games were going to be on my best games of 1992 list, I would have said, “Who?” By the time Climax unceremoniously closed in 2014 or ’15, those two games were still the best things the studio ever put out. Granted, Climax co-developed Shining Force with Camelot, but their UI, graphical style, and tendency to streamline genres is also all over Landstalker. The game is an isometric action adventure, but like Shining Force, it doesn’t make things all too complicated. Landstalker definitely pulls a lot of inspiration from Legend of Zelda, which itself somewhat simplified the expansive RPG. The puzzles and combat make the connection all on their own, but the game also bases character progression on items, such as health upgrades or stronger equipment. It’s hard to go wrong with the Zelda formula, and Landstalker is unique in its point of view. The isometric game is essentially tile-based, and the platforming (another unique element) and more action-based puzzles integrate the perspective. A somewhat forgettable plot is supported, however, by memorable scenarios, characters, and bits of pretty funny dialogue, making Landstalker a fleshed out experience that satisfies on nearly every count.
#3 – Final Fantasy V
Final Fantasy V was part of a really cool movement in early ’90s RPGs that emphasized even greater player agency and customization. The depths to which players can customize their party with an expanded job system, which was first introduced in Final Fantasy III, allows for so many unique scenarios, each one playing out differently than the others depending on the party’s composition. Also like Final Fantasy III, the “there’s another world” plot raises the stakes of the game to an epic scale, even if it lacks some of the great moments and characterization of Final Fantasy IV. Even still, Final Fantasy V was the best in the series at that time, as it blended the more story-heavy style of Final Fantasy II and IV with the more technical ones like the first Final Fantasy, III, and, well, II.
Michael Burns: Final Fantasy V is undoubtedly a great game, but rather than extol its virtues or talk about the ways it’s shaped all of the best games in the series, I’d like to use this space to talk about why it’s one of the most important game in the history of the industry. Final Fantasy V is the game that heralded in an era of democracy—one in which players didn’t just helplessly petition publishers to give them their most eagerly anticipated games, but took matters into their own hands—to the benefit of all. See, this was one of the very first games to ever receive a fan translation for players who didn’t speak Japanese. And because this fan translation coincided with the rise of computer-based emulation in the late ’90s, most players outside of Japan got their first taste of the game on a computer.
Legal issues aside, this is significant for two reasons. One: publisher Square, who’d originally characterized the game as “too hard” for Western players, took notice, later re-releasing the game with an official English translation on PlayStation and Game Boy Advance platforms (which is the centerpiece of an annual charity event called Four Job Fiesta). Two: fan translations, for which Final Fantasy V was unquestionably the most famous pioneer, have become a cottage industry of sorts, meaning players all over the world can play games in languages their publishers never had the resources to address. RPGs like Star Ocean, Mother 3, and even the most recent Fire Emblem games on 3DS have had unofficial translations for players who were desperate to play them before their publishers wanted them to. Best of all, some publishers are now using fan translations in official releases. It’s likely we never would’ve seen Ys: The Oath of Felghana or Steins;Gate in English otherwise. Final Fantasy V was the start of all of this, and for that, there’s no overstating just how important it is.
#2 – Wolfenstein 3D
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Apogee Software
Wolfenstein 3D was a revelation. Just not as many people knew it yet. Doom was the first-person shooter that took the world by storm, but Wolfenstein 3D relatively quietly laid the groundwork, almost single-handedly. There were, of course, first-person games before Wolfenstein, and even ones in which things were shot, but Wolfenstein really was the first first-person shooter. And it’s still incredibly fun. The game is so fast-paced, and Nazis are a satisfying target. The feedback from any one of the three guns in the game is chunky and somehow translates out through the screen and speakers. The moment-to-moment gameplay is as simple as any other first-person shooter, really, but Wolfenstein 3D’s labyrinthian levels hide so many secrets that I’ve discovered a whole handful of new item-laden caches and crevices every time I’ve run through the game. Wolfenstein 3D also has some of the most satisfying bosses in first-person shooter history, each one of them massive, hulking sprites that are brilliantly designed and convincingly terrifying. And of course, defeating Mecha-Hitler is one of those iconic Nazi-shaming moments in fiction, up there alongside Captain America punching Hitler and Gotenks eviscerating “The Dictator” and his army in the Dragon Ball Z film Fusion Reborn. OK, maybe that last one is only iconic to me.
#1 – Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride is a masterpiece. As I’ve recounted, my Final Fantasy slant began to slide towards Dragon Quest around Dragon Quest IV and Final Fantasy III. Dragon Quest V marked the first time that I felt totally blown out of the water by the series, and especially as compared to my relative mild enjoyment of Final Fantasy V. While Final Fantasy had experimented pretty radically with each installment, Dragon Quest was solidly and quietly building upon its basic framework, upping its storytelling alongside its gameplay changes. Dragon Quest V was the ultimate culmination of that trend. Dragon Quest V’s generation-spanning tale is epic, in the true literary sense of the word, and features a number of emotional and surprising twists that translate beautifully through the pixels. The story impacts the gameplay structure, in a similar yet more cohesive manner to Dragon Quest IV. That game featured distinct gameplay chapters following different characters that met up at the end; Dragon Quest V follows one character throughout his entire life, which leads into different parts of the world opening up, new characters, and challenges to face. It makes things a little more manageable, as opposed to being dropped into one massive world, and makes progression all the more memorable and meaningful. That meaningfulness translates to a key decision in the game, as your player character must choose someone to marry. The outcome does actually change certain elements of the game, although not too drastically. Nevertheless, it indicates a more story-based approach to the “RPG player agency” movement I mentioned earlier, while Final Fantasy tackled technical gameplay mechanics and Romancing SaGa tried to define the concept of a changing and dynamic open world. Still, Dragon Quest V made a great gameplay change that would influence an entire generation of games, and one phenomenon in particular. Dragon Quest V allows the player to recruit enemy monsters and fight alongside them, swapping them out for your human companions or saving them as potential backups. The strategy of which monsters to take with you into the world, and battle, only deepens the tried and true Dragon Quest RPG gameplay, and they come in handy. After losing nearly every other party member, one last weak monster finished off the final boss I had been butting my head against for hours. When it comes down to it, though, Dragon Quest V’s lasting impact on me has nothing to do with the admittedly solid, fun, and satisfying process of battling, grinding, finding hidden secrets, managing party members, and upgrading equipment. It’s something more emotional, something tied to the story, the decision I made, and the characters my hero came to know and lose over the course of his tragic life. Ultimately, though, his success feels like yours, and the typical happy ending has so much more of an impact when the challenging gameplay and storytelling work in tandem. Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride has one of the finer 16-bit RPG stories I’ve experienced, and that helps the game retain its immense value 25 years later.
The Genesis and its offerings, by 1992, were shaping up to be worthwhile competitors and alternatives to the dominant Super Nintendo, which was churning out incredibly ambitious and deep RPGs that are still considered some of the best today. Perhaps that’s why there’s an even number of Sega and Nintendo games on this list, something that’s never happened before. And PC gaming was flourishing like never before, ushering in new innovations and gameplay styles; 1992 is certainly the year I’ve played the most PC games for, so far, even if only one made its way onto the list. In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1992? Let us know!