There was a time when I was just a kid who played video games. Games were not a part of me.
I had a NES and subsequently a SNES and Game Boy. My best friend had a Genesis and a Game Gear. Kids in our neighbourhood all had games. We played them sometimes, we talked about them sometimes, but we weren't passionate about them. We weren't gamers. Today, I am very much a gamer. I have every generation of system, thousands of collected games sealed and unsealed. I purchase strategy guides and collectible statuettes of characters like Big Daddy and Fox McCloud.
I often wonder when exactly I transitioned from a kid who liked games into a true gamer and as best as I can recall, my anno domini was 1994. My medium was the SNES and my gaming collection was an array of powerful 16bit games considered universally today as classics. I have focused on my personal experience of releases of North American SNES games, however if you were to look at the list of SNES games released in 1994 in Japan and North America together, you can see why this is such a standout year: Earthworm Jim, Earthbound, Final Fantasy VI, Mortal Kombat II, Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid…
Essentially, what I'm saying is that in '94 games took on a new complexion and aesthetic depth. The standards set 1994 in the Fighting, JRPG and side scrolling adventure genres would continue to have influence until this very day. I believe gamemakers today seek to capture some of the magic found in these specific classics and constantly see titles like Metroid and FFVI referenced as influences in modern games.
Anyways, here's my experience...
April 1994- Super Metroid puts the "Metroid" in "Metroid-vania"
You kill all the Metroids. The last one gets captured. The opening level has a countdown timer. You slowly build up armour and weapons until you are a multi-jumping, laser beaming bounty hunter babe. The music is rich and eerie. There are weird and secret sanctums you can fall down into where odd creatures teach you how to power jump. You can start it right over again as soon as you kill a giant brain with a rainbow electro laser. You can speedrun it to see the protag in her bikini. The whole thing took video game storytelling to another level on the SNES. I remember flipping back to Mega Man 6 (which came out the same year BTW) and thinking how pathetic side-scrolling-action-games-containing-heros-with-guns-for-a-hand had been all my life until this point.
September 1994- Mortal Kombat II- The Fighter Genre Reigns Supreme
Into the pit. Can you imagine a time when fighting games as a genre were the be all end all? After MK 2 was released it seemed like a million wannabes popped up across every system. But there was something about the weird lore of the tournament of Shao Khan and the colorful and deeply fleshed out "photo-realistic" characters. Add to that the controversial addition of blood (which wasn't in MK1 SNES) and you had a well made game that had young boys drooling for violence. And everybody wanted Reptile, you know it.
October 1994- Final Fantasy VI (III) Expands My Soul
FF VI is such a powerful title, I think for me when I first played it when I was 12 I honestly felt like I was experiencing art for the first time. A game opening with a world without magic turned the entire series on its head. The entire essence of FF games is magic. The story of the mysterious girl and the slave crown, Biggs and Wedge dying, a creature trapped in crystal.. a world powered by coal and steam... I had never thought a "fantasy world" could exist in this kind of milieu, and frankly as a 12 year old I was completely overwhelmed and mystified by my first 20 minutes in the game. Watching three mechs march across a snowy field, playing as the "bad empire" and killing innocent citizens, with what I found immediately to be catchy, epic music all around me was exhilarating.
The way characters are introduced and integrated is very strange in this game. If you watch closely, each character is presented (with the exception of Locke, Gau and Shadow) under great duress. You are immediately meant to connect with them through a personal form of suffering. They each have a side story that evolves throughout your quest and you get to see how they change after the world comes to an end. The ability to do such a thing with so many characters in a deep and moving way has not been repeated perhaps since FFX, though even that pales in comparison to what VI did in its time.
In previous FF games, the big bad guy would often be mentioned or appear at the end. Another boon to this series is that Kefka is one of the characters from the first hour of gameplay. I remember having a debate in Grade 6 with my friends that there was no way Kefka would be the last boss. Lo and behold, he ends up killing the emperor, destroying the world and being the cherry on top of an epic multi-last boss climb to heaven. Add in that he had music, a 16 bit laugh, a deeply fleshed out sadistic personality it was unreal. To watch him poison a kingdom made me hate him, to kill Leo.. or just to watch the rage he feels when Celes stabs him... there are so many well written moments in this epic that really show you the stakes for all the characters.
The music too was unparalleled. No other SNES game at the time could compete with what was done here, including the 27 minute ending music which was a symphonic medley of all the character's personal theme songs mixed with traditional FF overtures. There is a reason Uematsu says this is his best work.
I have a lot more to say, but for its time- 1994- this game set the high water mark. It has a massive scale, huge ending, epic last boss, amazing music, and rich characters. Now, looking at it through today's lens may muddy it a bit, in many ways the game feels and looks very old. But for what it did in its day, the only other game I can think of that went so far as to be "over the top in all areas" is GTA V for PS3.
November 1994- Donkey Kong Country Revitalizes
Finishing out the year was a game that both showed the true capabilities of the SNES and put Rare back into gaming relevancy: Donkey Kong Country. With its pre-rendered 3D graphics, extremely scaling difficulty and odd ambient sounds the game gave sidescrollers new atmospherics entirely. It was also just straight up fun, like going on the roller coaster rides and stabbing enemies with Enguarde the Swordfish.. that was cool. The game was endlessly replay-able.