Top Ten Tuesday 35

My Top Ten Video Game Developers of the 90s

Disclaimer: There are many top ten lists but this one is mine, if you think a game is missing here, I either didn't play it, didn't have any interest in it, or I just hate you.

Pre-List Notes

Step right in to my time machine and journey to a bygone era when gaming grew away from arcade cabinets and into full-blown home entertainment centers, CD-ROMs gave way to voice acting and full motion video cutscenes, and video games took their first tentative steps into the rough but magical world of polygons and three dimensions. It was the world of grunge rock, ridiculously crazy action movies, and America Online. It was the radical 1990s, and I present you with my favorite game development companies based on their library of games and contribution to the industry throughout the decade.


--Read my similar but far more objective top ten list on Leviathyn!--

--Check out my other articles on my author page!--



My Top Ten Video Game Developers of the 90s



10) New World Computing

Founded: 1984

Notable Games: Might & Magic series, Heroes of Might & Magic series

In the early 90's New World Computing was already up to the third sequel in their first person, grid based role playing series Might & Magic. MM3 utilized amazing 8-bit VGA graphics that carried over to the next two sequels, allowing intrepid fantasy gamers to explore their cool worlds outside of the typical D&D setting. The Might & Magic series would remain a mainstay of PC RPGs as it made the successful transition to early 3D graphics in the latter half of the decade, but New World Computing's legacy would brighten the most under its hugely successful turn based strategy spinoff series Heroes of Might & Magic. Based on their own tactical strategy game King's Bounty, released in 1990, Heroes put players in the familiar worlds of Enroth and Axeoth but in a zoomed out strategical map complete with turn based, tactical battles. It was a dream come true for this gamer and Heroes of Might and Magic III (1999) is still considered the pinnacle of the series and one of the greatest strategy games ever made.


9) LucasArts Entertainment Company

Founded: 1982 (as LucasFilm Games Group)

Notable Games:  The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), Day of the Tentacle (1993), X-Wing (1993), Jedi Knight (1997)

Aside from creating an amazing science fiction universe that would help shape our entire culture forever, George Lucas also had the foresight to realize that video games were kind of a big deal and founded a video game development company in the early 80s to produce games for the Atari 5200 and personal computer. In 1990 the company reorganized (perfect timing for this top ten list) and became known as LucasArts after finding success with their own adventure game engine named after their first successful title - the Script Creation Utility for Manic Mansion, creating the delightful acronym SCUMM. SCUMM was instantly recognizable for its interface that consisted of several verbs the player used to interact with the game scene, and the familiar engine, along with brilliant writing and fun cartoony graphics helped create many of the most beloved adventure games to grace our PC monitors such as Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and The Secret of Monkey Island. As I've lamented before I've actually played very few of these classic adventure games (thus its relatively low ranking on my list), hitching my adventuring horse instead to Sierra's fantasy series and settings, but you can read my retrospective Final Thoughts on Indiana Jones & The Fate of Atlantis.

Of course LucasArts would also take full advantage of the Star Wars license during the 90s as well, creating the revolutionary flight simulator-in-space game X-Wing (as well as incredibly popular and console-friendly spinoff series Rebel Assault), and noticing the popularity of first person shooters created Star Wars: Dark Forces, along with its even more popular sequel Jedi Knight in 1997. Jedi Knight was famous for being one of the earliest games to utilize a separate 3D graphics card to aid in hardware acceleration, which would forever change the face of gaming and prove that LucasArts was a forward-thinking developer.


8) Konami

Founded: 1969

Notable Games: Castlevania series, Metal Gear Solid (1998), Dance Dance Revolution (1999)

Tracing its roots back to a jukebox repair company, Konami began manufacturing arcade machines in the late 70s and early 80s before finding success developing and publishing video games. By the mid 80s the company had successfully transitioned to creating games for the Nintendo Famicom (NES) and became particularly known for its awesome platformers and beat 'em ups using major cartoon licenses like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons. More importantly in the gaming sphere, however, were Konami's original creations; titles like Castlevania, Contra, Silent Hill, and Metal Gear became huge successes and spawned major franchises (Metal Gear Solid in particular pioneered the concept of a stealth game), while the popularity of the entire rhythm genre can be attributed to the absolute craziness surrounding Dance Dance Revolution both in arcades and at home on the Sony Playstation. Not to mention that Konami also gave us one of the greatest RPG series ever in Suikoden, in this humble gamer's opinion! Konami's prominence may have faded in recent years but its popularity and string of hits in the 90s make it one of the best developers of the decade.


7) MicroProse

Founded: 1982

Notable Games: Sid Meier's Civilization (1991), Master of Orion II (1996), X-Com: UFO Defense (1994)

Co-founded by legendary game designer Sid Meier (see my Top Ten Game Designers list), MicroProse found niche success developing numerous vehicle simulation and strategy games for the PC before hitting it big with Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon and Sid Meier's Civilization. Civilization in particular spawned several sequels and expansion packs, making Sid Meier a household name amongst computer gamers and strategy gaming enthusiasts, and Civilization still enjoys the elite status of being the premiere turn based strategy game series to this day. MicoProse also created some of the most beloved strategy games of its day, including Colonization, Master of Orion, and X-Com: UFO Defense. Despite its successes, MicoProse went through numerous acquisitions and layoffs in the 90s, and Sid Meier, along with key members of his team, left MicroProse in 1996 to form Firaxis Games. MicroProse's legacy remains alive and well in Firaxis as the team has continued building amazing Civilization titles as well as the recent well-received revival of XCOM.


6) Sega Corporation

Founded: 1940 (as SErvice GAmes)

Notable Games: Sonic the Hedghog series,Streets of Rage series, Golden Axe series

Any child of the late 80s/early 90s will recall the genesis (get it!?) of the console wars and the edgy slogan that Sega of America screamed at us when the Sega Genesis was launched in North America: "Genesis does what Nintedon't." The Genesis, launched in 1989 in North America, was far superior to the NES, but in '91 Nintendo bounced right back with the Super Nintendo and the console wars were on. Sega, in the hopes to compete with Nintendo's incredibly popular Mario mascot branded their own unique gaming hero in Sonic the Hedgehog, a gaming character that would legitimately rival Mario throughout the early 90s, and dare I say had a much better run in animated form on television with two decently entertaining cartoon shows.

Although most consider the SNES to be one of the greatest consoles of all time (see my top ten list), the Genesis was still near and dear to many gamers' hearts, had an amazing library (see my top ten list), and credit must be given to Sega for attempting to try new things in its pursuit of dethroning Nintendo, from the SEGA CD add-on that gave us an interesting blend of 16-bit games with full voice acting and FMV scenes to the ill-fated 32x add-on that attempted to upgrade the Genesis to keep up with the next generation of consoles. Ultimately Sega would see a sharp decline in the mid 90s with a poor showing of the Sega Saturn as newcomer Sony entered the market with its highly successful Playstation. The Dreamcast, launched in '98, was technically superior to the Nintendo 64 and Playstation but without any notable games failed to catch on, and ultimately lead to Sega bowing out of the console market all together in 2001. Still we must never forget the contributions and awesome competition that Sega gave us throughout the 90s.


5) Sierra On-Line

Founded: 1979

Notable Games: King's Quest series, Space Quest series, Quest for Glory series, Gabriel Knight

Sierra rose to prominence in the 1980s through their revolutionary computer games that used a graphical interface instead of the previous text-only adventures that existed at the time. By the time 1990 rolled around, Sierra was already on their fifth iteration in their highly successful King's Quest series of graphical adventure games, and King's Quest V was the first to utilize the additional storage space of CD-ROMs by providing full voice acting and an enhanced engine that utilized the new Video Graphics Array of modern hardware. King's Quest VI is considered to be one of the greatest adventure games ever created, and was one of the first games I ever played, sealing in my love for gaming at an early age. Sierra would continue their line of successful adventure game franchises throughout the early and mid 90s, and along with LucasArts were the premiere adventure game company, and one of the most recognizable computer gaming developers of the time.


4) Interplay Entertainment and Black Isle Studios

Founded (Interplay Entertainment): 1983

Founded (Black Isle Studios): 1996

Notable Games: Fallout (1997), Planescape: Torment (1999)

Technically two entries in one, but as Black Isle was an internal developer under Interplay, I'll allow it. Interplay Entertainment was founded in the early 80s by video game visionary Brian Fargo, and by the time the 90s rolled around, Interplay was already a well established video game developer with RPG hits such as Wasteland and The Bard's Tale trilogy. In the 90s Interplay's success lead them to becoming more of a video game publisher and supporting the fledgling PC gaming industry through backing other developers, most notably giving Silicon & Synapse (Blizzard Entertainment) their first big contract. Interplay published several Star Trek titles, numerous successful PC titles like Carmageddon and Descent, and finally developed another big RPG in Stonekeep, a critically acclaimed first person dungeon crawler. Interplay's legacy in the 90s however would ultimately come down to two important developments - Fallout and Black Isle Studios.

Fallout (read my Final Thoughts here) was a turn based post apocalyptic RPG created as a spiritual successor to Wasteland and the franchise went on to become one of the most beloved Western RPG series ever created (and enjoy massive mainstream success when the series' reigns were handed to Bethesda). At the same time Interplay created a new in-house development team to specifically tackle similar big computer RPGs called Black Isle Studios, staffing the team with computer gaming aficionados like Feargus Urquhart, Chris Avellone, and Chris Taylor. Black Isle would develop several big hits in the late 90s such as Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, and produce a little game called Baldur's Gate in conjunction with another recent Western CRPG developer - Bioware. Black Isle Studios' lifespan was ultimately short lived, as Interplay ran into financial woes into the next century, but many key members of the team can be found in successful RPG company Obsidian Entertainment, and Interplay's contributions to the industry throughout the 90s should never be underrated.


3) Square (Squaresoft in USA)

Founded: 1983 (Squaresoft in 1989)

Notable Games: Final Fantasy VI (1994), Chrono Trigger (1995), Final Fantasy VII (1997)

In 1987 Japanese developer Square had been somewhat successfully developing titles for the Nintendo Famicom (NES) and Hironobu Sakaguchi finally got his wish to create a role playing game inspired by games like Ultima and role playing systems like Dungeons & Dragons. Under threat of bankruptcy and believing his job to be in jeopardy, Sakaguchi named the title Final Fantasy, believing that it would be the last game he would ever make. History proved otherwise as it became a huge hit, and in 1989 Square added an American branch, called Squaresoft, to localize many of their bigger titles for English audiences, something that I and gamers everywhere are eternally grateful for. Throughout the decade American audiences were introduced to numerous Final Fantasy sequels that ranged from awesome to Best Game Ever as well as other great titles rounding out the 16-bit golden era of SNES RPGs like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and an incredibly amazing collaboration with Square and Nintendo in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Despite the ties to Nintendo, Square moved to the Sony Playstation in the mid to late 90s for the increased disc space of the CD-ROM, and in 1997 released the biggest RPG anyone had ever seen - Final Fantasy VII.

FF7 was the first of the popular series to be released in Europe and the first to feature 3D graphics, and its release was surrounded by a massive marketing campaign the likes of which had rarely been seen in a video game. The marketing and hype paid off as FF7 was a critical and commercial success, catapulting the already storied franchise into gaming hall of fame status, and is often regarded as rejuvenating the entire RPG genre in the West (personally I prefer FF6 but to each his or her own). Even as the 90s came to close, Square's legacy was well respected and adored, and the company already began releasing remastered editions and video game box sets of their classic titles from the early and mid 90s, cementing their legacy as the premiere RPG developer.


2) Blizzard Entertainment (formerly Silicon & Synapse)

Founded: 1991 (as Silicon & Synapse)

Notable Games: Warcraft II (1995), Diablo (1997), Starcraft (1998)

Well before they hit it big in the world of PC Gaming with seminal real time strategy franchise Warcraft, fledgling developer Silicon & Synapse were creating beloved 16-bit consoles games like Rock 'N Roll Racing, The Lost Vikings, and Blackthorne, all of which I adored. While briefly flirting with the name Chaos Studios, they would ultimately settle on Blizzard Entertainment and change the face of gaming forever with the release of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans in 1994. While not the first real time strategy game, it was the first to incorporate varying mission objectives and most importantly focus on multiplayer as a large component to the overall gaming experience. The game's massive success spawned an immediate well-received sequel in the following year, and that along with the Command & Conquer series by Westwood began a gigantic RTS boom in the gaming industry that would last a better part of a decade.

Not content to expand and perfect just one genre, Blizzard took the formula of classic random dungeon crawling games and combined it with a new revolutionary free multiplayer matchmaking service called to create Diablo in 1997, another explosive shockwave in the industry that inspired endless clones capturing the same addictive and fun hack and slash formula, or commonly referred to now as Action-RPG. Blizzard would conintue to utilize and expand their service in the hotly anticipated sci-fi version of Warcraft, Starcraft, which ended up being a brilliant franchise in its own right. Over the years Blizzard has expanded its three primary intellectual properties into some of the biggest blockbuster franchises in the entire industry and continues to be one of the premiere PC multiplayer gaming services (though only for Blizzard games). By the end of the decade Blizzard had risen to become the paradigm of a AAA gaming studio and one of the most famous developers in the industry.


1) Nintendo Entertainment

Founded: 1889

Notable Games: Super Mario series, The Legend of Zelda series

Nintendo had single-handedly saved the entire video game industry in the mid 80s with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Bros, but the venerable company wasn't about to stop there. Founded in 1889 (that's EIGHTEEN eighty nine), this Japanese electronics and gaming company can easily be credited with turning video gaming into the juggernaut industry it is today through its massively successful consoles (SNES, N64), creating and exploding the hand held gaming market with the Gameboy, and of course their many popular first party franchises - Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and the many spin-offs and sequels. Only time will tell whether the 90s will represent Nintendo's golden age in the gaming industry, or merely one chapter of their incredible history.

For more nostalgic Nintendo love see my Top Ten NES Games, Top Ten Gameboy Games, Top Ten SNES Games, and Top Ten Nintendo 64 Games lists!


Honorable Mentions: Maxis, Capcom, Origin Systems, Westwood Studios, id software


Wrap Up

There were many widely recognized and successful developers during the decade which saw explosive growth in the video gaming industry, though still experienced its share of massive layoffs, corporate acquisitions, and studio shutdowns that sadly continue to plague the volatile industry today. I based this list mostly on my own personal experiences with games in the 90s both on consoles and PC, and still couldn't quite find room for the likes of Maxis, Westwood, and Bullfrog. For a more objective list, where I step back from my personal feelings and rank the companies according to their contributions to the industry, check out the article on Leviathyn, linked below.

With a billion dollar industry that releases blockbuster games every year rivaling the biggest Hollywood hits, it's easy to forget how incredibly young the video game industry is. The 90s were a time of both innovation and rampant stagnation as new genres burst onto the scene and were quickly capitalized into an endless stream of clones with varying degrees of success. The decade proved that video games were not just a fad or gimmick, but a legitimate means of entertainment that steadily grew in popularity from niche kid toys into a cultural phenomenon. You may have been fortunate enough to grow up alongside the fledgling industry but even if your first gaming console was a Playstation 2, it's still important to look back and appreciate everything these companies did for the industry and how the decade shaped the current atmosphere of the industry today.


--Read my similar but far more objective top ten list on Leviathyn!--

--Check out my other articles on my author page!--