Like its predecessor before it in the 8- and 16-bit eras, Super Mario 64 ushered in a next-generation renaissance in platform gaming. Back in the SNES/Genesis era, every company on the market that had a jumping mascot was trying their hand at implementing the third dimension. Some eventually got their groove on (Sonic 3D Blast to Sonic Adventure); others made "admirable" strides into this new gameplay type (Megaman Legends), while the rest crashed and burned at the gate (Bubsy 3D). Leave it to Rare—the company that gave Mario a run for its money in platforming in the SNES days with their Donkey Kong Country series—to do the same on the Nintendo 64 with 1998's Banjo-Kazooie.
Originally conceived as a platformer on the the SNES labeled Project Dream, development was shifted over to the N64 due to time. After numerous rewrites and redesigns, the main character was changed from a boy named Edison to the bear/bird duo we know and love. The main story of Banjo-Kazooie is the quest to save Banjo the bear's captured little sister, Tooty, from the evil Gruntilda, who intends to steal Tooty's youth and beauty for herself. Banjo and Kazooie must traverse Grunty's castle (via several sub-worlds within) in order to reach the top and fight to get said sister back.
So what makes Banjo-Kazooie better than the iconic Super Mario 64? Well, everything. While I give a lot of these games credit for their contribution to gaming history, I also can't deny when a game is just plain good, or even better than its predecessors. In this case, I have to give Banjo-Kazooie credit. This game takes everything about SM64 and ramps it up tenfold. Gone are the flat textures of SM64. Here we have tons of graphical detail, not only in the textures, but in the overlevels and character designs. Control is much more fleshed-out, allowing a lot more moves in Banjo than in Mario. Not only can you jump, swat, and hip drop like Mario, but you can also fly using your partner, Kazooie, who can also shoot eggs and help you reach areas inaccessible to Banjo. Levels have a much bigger and more organic feel to them than in Mario. Where Mario's levels were built around whatever star you were going after in each one, Banjo's levels are free and sprawling. You could go from one quest to the other without being taken out of the level and starting from square one. There also seems to be a lot more interactivity in Banjo-Kazooie's levels than in Mario 64.
This leads us to the biggest difference between Mario and Banjo: the writing. For all intents and purposes, Mario 64 really was a one-person game. Aside from Toad and the occasional ancillary character, it was just you and the game. In Banjo-Kazooie, you meet a whole host of unique and interesting characters, and the dialog between them is sharp, witty, and always hilarious. It helps to create an atmosphere that I don't think you get with Mario 64. You really start to connect with the main protagonists and their universe. It also doesn't hurt that that gameplay centers around the classic jumping, exploring, and collecting that made platformers the king of '90s gaming. Banjo-Kazooie is proof that as much as it's great to be the first, sometimes it's better just to be the best.
3. Pokémon Yellow
Do I even have to mention why? Its Pokémon. It's that one magical franchise that encapsulated childhood in the late '90s. We all played the games, watched the show, and collected the cards. Some of us still break out the old Red and Blue versions from time to time, or engage in a spirited match with the Pokémon Trading Card Game. It would have been easy to put the original Red and Blue on this list, and even more tempting to cheat by including Gold and Silver instead (which were out in Japan in 1999). But to be fair, I think we can agree that out of the original three, the standout of the pack was 1999's Pokémon Yellow or Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition.
Yes, this version took a page right out of the accompanying TV show and put you in the figurative shoes of its protagonist, Ash (or whatever name you decided to go with). But the most important thing was that the game mimicked key plot elements of the series, while still retaining the overall feel of the original two games. You had your main Pokémon—the titular Pikachu—follow you around outside of battles; you were given all the starters early on; and you even got to fight Jesse and James of the infamous Team Rocket. It was the complete Pokémon experience.
What, are you expecting more in-depth description of why this game is awesome? OK, long story short for those of you who still don't know about Pokémon: You collect little creatures that have elemental powers and battle other creatures and their trainers, in the process leveling up your creatures' abilities in an attempt to be the best Pokémon trainer in the world. It's more complicated than that, but that's all you get if you are new to the series. Now, in terms of other improvements, the most impressive was that this was the first full-color Pokémon game. Also, a lot of the game's art was either improved from the original sprites or reworked to match that of the corresponding characters on the TV series. It was a welcome boost.
All in all, there's not much that can be said. If you're any kind of video game fan, or if you grew up in the '90s, you already know why Pokémon is so awesome and why Pokémon Yellow stands at the top of the card.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Combat took full advantage of the new third dimension by pioneering the N64's signature "Z targeting" system, which allowed for fluid and precise combat. (For those of you too young to remember, this was a big problem with early action titles at that time.) Graphically, the game is massive even by PS1 standards. Given how limited the space on an N64 game could be, it's impressive that Ocarina of Time could rival the then-current Final Fantasy games in terms of grandeur. Sound design also got an orchestral boost that took the classic tunes of the original game and ramped them up.
But simply upgrading the original wouldn't make a game memorable if it didn't have a great backbone, and that's where the story comes in. As you probably guessed from the title, the game does a lot with the concept of time. You start the first half of the game as a child, and by collecting various talismans, you wind up time traveling seven years to the future to play as adult Link. This is important in that it shows you how the world has evolved since your adventures as a child. You meet up with all sorts of characters in the first half of the game, and seeing how they've evolved in your adult life gives you a strong sense of connection with the world. You feel that these characters are more than just scenery, that they have a special connection to Link. And since Link isn't given an overt personality or voice, you feel a real connection to these people. Its a much deeper story than most probably expected, and it's withstood the test of time by forming the template for all subsequent Zelda games, even as recently as Skyward Sword. Longevity is the mark of a true classic, and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has definitely cemented its spot.
1. Metal Gear Solid
As the technology of video games evolved, many companies tried to emulate the cinematic feel of movies in interactive media. But while early attempts were less than stellar (full motion video, anyone?), developers were even more driven to attempt this once 3D arrived on mainstream consoles with the PS1. And while Final Fantasy VII ushered in the idea of 3D video in 1997, it took until 1998 for Hideo Kojima and the folks at Konami to finally give gamers the feeling that they were playing a big-budget action movie with Metal Gear Solid. This was the next chapter in the Metal Gear series, which was introduced on the NES in 1987. You play as Solid Snake—a one-man Seal Team Six—as he infiltrates a nuclear weapons disposal facility on Shadow Moses Island in order to save a high-ranking government head and a major arms manufacturer.
There are so many factors that set Metal Gear Solid apart from what was out at the time. First and foremost, there was the gameplay. This game wasn't a tradition action title; instead, the goal was stealth. Your job was to maneuver around the battlefield and avoid confrontation. And while you did have stealth games in that era, like the Thief series, no other mainstream console title really tasked the player to use stealth. You could say that Metal Gear Solid pioneered the stealth action genre and paved the way for titles like the Splinter Cell series. Building on the first Metal Gear's original design, Metal Gear Solid enhanced the gameplay with real-world tweaks like enemies hearing the sounds you make or finding your tracks in the snow. Running and gunning were out of the question; patience and attentiveness were the name of the game.
But what really set Metal Gear Solid apart from everything else was its presentation. The production value of this game was nothing that had ever been seen before. Whereas games in the full motion video era were aping movies, Metal Gear Solid started with gameplay and molded the cinema around it, with fantastic results. The story feels like it was pulled right from the mind of Tom Clancy, its constant twists and turns mixed with real-world elements and a dash of topical "ripped from the headlines" fiction. It had a realistic weight to it that no other game at the time was pulling off.
The game's real star was voice actor David Hayter, who brought Solid Snake to life and gave him the depth and personality that made the character a household name among gamers. Add to that the great supporting cast—including such characters as Colonel Roy Campbell, prisoner of war-turned-ally Meryl Silverburgh, and the always-offbeat Dr. Hal "Otacon" Emmerich—along with fantastic set pieces and multiple branching story paths, and you have a game that defines the word "epic."
And that's why this is the greatest game of the late '90s. While some would argue that games like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII advanced the image of games in the mainstream, Metal Gear Solid brought games mainstream acceptance as more than just kid stuff. Evolving the way games told stories, it bridged the gap between games and movies, and showed the potential that games had in entertainment. And while in most respects the series has jumped the shark a bit (some would even argue it was jumped as early as MGS2), there's a reason that the Metal Gear Solid series has lived on into its fourth console generation. Games like Call of Duty, Gears of War, and even Halo owe a ton of gratitude to Metal Gear Solid, the first true video game blockbuster.
And with that, we end our countdown. I'd like to thank all of you out there for sticking around this long (and I mean LONG) to see the end. We'll see where the series as a whole goes from here. But if this is the end, at least we get to go out on a high note!
By the way, If you got something to say, please comment in the comments section.