Rad to the max
Virtual pets, neon everything, inflatable chairs--the 1990s certainly seemed pretty tubular at the time. But as it often is with nostalgia, pry off those rose-tinted Oakley's and you begin to notice that many of those things you once thought were great are actually pretty terrible. You know, like that massive Beanie Babies collection you've been hoarding. Let it go. They're worthless now.
Video games are just as susceptible to flash-in-the-pan fads and dated aesthetics as everything else, and games in the '90s were bursting with them. Full motion video, overly macho action heroes, cartoon animals with an attitude, and ridiculous slang: these are the games that defined an era. Some of them are still worth playing even today, while others well, we only hope they stay buried in time capsules along with our New Kids on the Block fanny packs.
Duke Nukem 3D
A walking mass of flat top hair, bulging biceps, and ripped-off one-liners, Duke Nukem is the embodiment of the the Schwarzenegger era of machismo. If you grew up playing games in the '90s, there's a good chance you played Duke Nukem 3D with the bedroom door closed so your parents wouldn't hear him spew salty language (which you'd no doubt go on to repeat on the schoolyard playground to impress your friends).
Always ready to kick ass (but never carrying enough bubble gum), Duke Nukem's adventures culminated in the raunchy-yet-well-designed Duke Nukem 3D, where our cocky hero attempts to save buxom females and blast every alien in sight. Unfortunately, Duke's brand of heroism doesn't translate all that well outside of the 1990s. Duke Nukem Forever plays like a relic of a bygone era, and not in a good way.
Oh, look--another 'X'. This time, it's for a light gun game starring every teen's favorite power balladiers, Aerosmith. You're off to see them at Club X (good Lord), when suddenly the New Order Nation kidnaps the band and effectively bans all youth culture. That's right, your Ninja Turtles cartoons and skateboards are no longer kosher, and you're the only one capable of stopping them with your laserdisc-fueled onslaught. Yes, that's right. You fire laserdiscs at your enemies, which, honestly, is about all they're good for anyways, even by '90s standards.
Revolution X contains what is likely my favorite moment in all of video games. Near the end of the first stage, you discover a video message from none other than Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, who tells you to stop NON's evil plot. He then throws you the keys to his car through the television set, and your digitized hand rises up to catch them in mid-air. It's so bad--and yes, I'm using both meanings of the word here.
Back in the '90s, all you needed to make a video game was a mascot with an attitude and some rote platforming-based challenges--and Bubsy is the worst of the worst. His first adventure, Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind is (in addition to having the worst pun-laden title ever) a shameless Sonic the Hedgehog ripoff at best. After four games in four years, it never really got much better than that.
The Bubsy franchise ultimately imploded on itself in Bubsy 3D (also known by its awful alternate title, Bubsy is 3D in Furbitten Planet). Thanks to the technological capabilities of the PlayStation, Bubsy chatters constantly, spouting inane one-liners with a high-pitched squeal not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard. With a heavy fog permeating each level, music that sounds like Bugs Bunny's nightmares, and a tank-based control scheme that makes the first Resident Evil's gameplay feel fluid, Bubsy 3D more than earned its keep as one of the worst video games ever made. If only the designers focused less on his 'tude and more on, you know, actual gameplay.
Back in the '90s, arcades were our kingdom and Midway was king. It applied a cartoony, over-the-top attitude to all of its games, from the ultra-violent Mortal Kombat to the ultimate basketball game: NBA Jam. It features some of the best players of the '92-'93 season, minus Michael Jordan--apparently he was too cool to play ball with everyone else. Pick your favorite team (Phoenix Suns FTW!), throw a flaming basketball around, and pull off some of the most insane slam dunks ever conceived.
Even more '90s than NBA Jam's roster and overly-zealous announcer are the legion of hidden characters. Depending on what version you're playing, you can jam with the likes of ex-President and First Lady duo Bill and Hillary Clinton, shoot some b-ball outside of the school with the Fresh Prince, or even say "Hello Nasty" to the members of the Beastie Boys--as long as you know the secret codes.
Full motion video games were all the rage back in the '90s (especially on the Sega CD), but Night Trap is definitely the most infamous. Starring C-list celebrity Dana Plato (of Diff'rent Strokes fame), Night Trap puts you in the role of a member of the "Sega Control Attack Team" or (sigh) SCAT for short. You use a series of hidden cameras to watch over a bunch of girls at a random slumber party, and protect them from evil Augers by activating traps at the right time. The Augers are supposed to be vampires, but they just look like crappy ninjas.
Night Trap was a schlocky, forgettable game before it even released, but a Congressional hearing cited it specifically as an "ultra-violent" game where you "trap and kill women" (which is actually the exact opposite of what you do), causing the game to be pulled from some store shelves. This, of course, ensured that it would sell like crazy. Terrible video quality, even worse acting, and unnecessary controversy--yep, sounds like a game from the '90s.
PaRappa the Rapper
There was a time when rap music wasn't all about turning down for what. Back in the day, there was a lighter side of hip-hop that disappeared when Will Smith stopped getting jiggy with it--and PaRappa the Rapper was the perfect video game embodiment of that era. PaRappa just wants to ask Sunny Funny out on a date, and he raps his way through a colorful paper cutout world filled with cutesy characters to build up enough courage to do it. No thug life here, just PaRappa singing about karate moves and cooking lessons. It's all good, clean, wholesome fun.
But this kind of hip-hop doesn't fly any more. People want to grind on each other in a nightclub, not listen to a cheerful dog rap about getting his driver's license in a day-glo paradise. It's probably why PaRappa the Rapper 2 was completely forgotten. (opens in new tab) In a world where Li'l Jon exists, is there any room left for Parappa? Unlikely.
Make My Video
Now, if you're like me, you're probably thinking to yourself: "Man, I wish there was some way I could edit really grainy music video clips and stock footage together to the soulful jams of classic '90s musicians like Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch." Well, buster, you're in luck, because they made four of these games.
Well, "game" is the wrong word--"barely interactive waste of money" is far more accurate. The Make My Video series lets budding film editors work with such classic "artists" as INXS, Kris Kross, C+C Music Factory, and the aforementioned Funkiest of Bunches. You throw a couple clips together, set some effects, and watch your video. That's it. The videos themselves take up maybe an eighth of the entire screen, and the audio sounds like you've stuck your head inside a metal drum filled with battery acid. Would you be surprised if I told you these games were a critical and commercial failure? To quote Kris Kross, these games are wiggity-wiggity-wiggity-wack.
Sonic is already a bona fide '90s icon, with his devil-may-care attitude and perpetual impatience--and Knuckles Chaotix (again, with the 'X' on the end) is even more '90s than that. Made for Sega's dead-on-arrival 32X (another one!) add-on, Knuckles Chaotix features the titular echidna (whose own bad-itude rivals Sonic's) along with a gator wearing headphones, a chameleon named Espio, and a cutesy bee with a giant stinger as they run through an adventure that all the blast processing in the world can't salvage.
Rather than splitting up the characters on individual halves of your tiny boxy TV screen, both Knuckles and his friend are attached via a tether created by the rings they hold. This keeps both characters on the same screen at all times, and leads to some interesting scenarios that require you to use your own momentum and whip your buddy up to the next platform. Though more often than not, all it does is slow you down when you start to pick up some speed--ultimately making this 24-megabit cartridge a wasted opportunity.
Games don't really get more '90s than Comix Zone. First, the name: nothing says "We're trying desperately to appeal to children of the '90s" than throwing a random 'X' in a title where it doesn't belong. I guess the 'X' is supposed to stand for "Xtreme" or "Xciting," but all it does is look really "Xtupid."
Second, the hero: his name is Sketch Turner, and he's been sucked into the comic art world of his own creation by the super villain he drew to life. With a blond ponytail, a sleeveless jacket, ridiculous glasses, jean shorts, and Doc Martens, Sketch represents every '90s dweeb you've hated in every movie you've ever seen. The game itself is a really fun take on beat-'em-up actioners, but its style has aged about as gracefully as Vanilla Ice's career.
When Mortal Kombat upped the fighting game ante, every studio out there tried its hand at toppling the bloody giant--and Killer Instinct got pretty close. Filled with insane 70-hit Ultra combos and the ability to change the tide with a well-timed c-c-c-combo breaker, Killer Instinct takes a tried and true formula and turns it on its bruised ear. The characters are also walking stereotypes that only the '90s could love.
Killer Instinct tells the story of megacorp Ultratech (of course it's called Ultratech), and its bid for power with a worldwide fighting tournament. Joining the tournament are such wonderfully diverse characters like the Native American Chief Thunder (opens in new tab), cybernetic African-American boxer T.J. Combo, and the hyper-sexualized Black Orchid. We also get playable werewolves, skeleton warriors, and a dude made entirely of fire, so I guess it all evens out.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Released in 1999, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater set the bar for extreme sports games--and there isn't a single 'X' in the name! You get to choose from a handful of some of the greatest professional skaters of all time and tear up a variety of sick courses, quite possibly breaking every bone in your body in the process.
The aesthetics themselves are quite dated, while the ska-heavy soundtrack and collection of hidden video tapes certainly aren't doing it any favors. Even so, THPS' addictive combo system and replayability means that it will still be loved by wannabe pavement shredders for years to come. And if you're like me, you still know all the words to Superman by Goldfinger. It's a trip to the '90s that I certainly don't mind taking, even now.
Remember Alf? He's back! In Pog form!
I bought an inflatable chair once. It lasted me maybe two weeks, as it slowly deflated around me while I played many of these games, leaving me with a punctured wad of vinyl and negative $20. At least the games were rad--well, some of them, anyway. What are your favorite games of the '90s? Have they aged well, or do they strictly belong in the vault of your memories? Let me know in the comments!
Looking for more? Check out some of the most ludicrous game hardware knock-offs ever made (opens in new tab), or the Top 7 video game bosses you don't actually fight. (opens in new tab)