By Marshall Garvey
Being an unabashed history geek, one of my most distinct (re: pathetic) habits is to chronicle the most superlative years of a given field. It’s a habit some might find downright anal and, perhaps, kind of pointless. After all, many believe history is better learned by de-emphasizing year and date memorization. But there’s something so intriguing and satisfying about looking at a particular year and parsing through its most indelible highlights. It’s also an effective way to do a “time capsule” of anything, and revisit the minutia of what a specific time in history was like. (All the more effective if you weren’t alive during or don’t remember it.) And I won’t lie: I do get get kind of an elitist kick out of being able to do it. I could go on about how 1973 was such an incredible year for rock albums, or why 2001 is the greatest year of baseball, or…wait, am I boring you to death yet?
Naturally, I’ve spent some time rummaging through the years in gaming, wondering which stands above all as the greatest one. Up front, it should be an easier task than picking the best year of popular music, movies or baseball. Video games are, of course, a much younger medium, and while there are hundreds upon thousands of great games, divvying them up by era and console is fairly easy to do. However, the challenge is that my criteria includes not just the list of outstanding games released in a given year, but also the technological, business and stylistic evolutions that might have happened as well. (Hell, with that set criteria, you could pick 1980 by default for the greatness and cultural reverberations of Pac-Man alone.)
Ultimately, I felt there was one year that truly does resonate as the single greatest year in the history of video games. Not only because the lineup of games released during its 365 days is still staggering, but because those games shaped modern genres and the gaming world as we know it today. It witnessed the birth or consolidation of a great swath of premiere franchises, as well as tremendous innovation in a multitude of genres. The year was 1998, and while it may seem distant now (seriously, we’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its classics before you know it), there never was, nor will there ever be, a gaming year like it.
To begin, 1998 may have been the ultimate year for first-person shooters thanks to one seismic title: Half-Life. The 90’s witnessed many explosive FPS classics whose impacts are still felt (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, GoldenEye), but as IGN put it, “When you look at the history of first-person shooters, it all breaks down pretty cleanly into pre-Half-Life and post-Half-Life eras.” Sporting the genre’s most idiosyncratic protagonist in theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman, it augmented stellar FPS gameplay with interactive environments and a complex story. Of course, Half-Life wasn’t just the first installment of its own franchise; it also served as a thunderous announcement of Valve as a force to be reckoned with in the video game world. As we all know, the company has not only released other pinnacle titles since (Portal 1 and 2, Team Fortress 2), but their Steam service singlehandedly changed the way games are bought and played.
Yet Valve wasn’t the only studio familiar today that exploded onto the scene in 1998. The Canadian company BioWare made a name for itself with its first RPG, Baldur’s Gate, which helped revive the genre on the PC. Taking the popular, if somewhat insular, ruleset of the card game smash Dungeons & Dragons, it translated it into an accessible open-world adventure with different outcomes depending on your actions. In the latter half of the 2000s, their blockbuster reputation with open-ended RPGs would soar with the Mass Effect trilogy and the Dragon Age franchise. That is, of course, after they made perhaps the single greatest Star Wars game of all-time in Knights of the Old Republic.
In the realm of platforming games, players were introduced to perhaps the genre’s single greatest offering in Rareware’s Banjo-Kazooie, for the Nintendo 64. Building upon the revolutionary template laid down by Super Mario 64 two years prior, it ignited the imaginations of gamers like nothing before. Brimming with vibrant detail, eccentric characters, imaginative level design, insanely catchy music, and an indelible protagonist duo, it redefined what an adventure plays and feels like for legions of players. So much so, that the recent announcement of a spiritual successor from Rare’s original devs quickly garnered over $2,000,000 on Kickstarter.
No title in 1998, however, singlehandedly launched a genre like Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation. While not the first of its franchise (that’d be 1987’s Metal Gear), it was the one that announced stealth as a viable form of gameplay. Rather than solve things through simply shooting enemies, players were challenged to complete missions thanks to evasive tactics like hiding under a box or behind a wall. In addition to its revolutionary stealth mechanics, MGS elevated video games to cinematic heights with extensive cutscenes, strong voice acting, and an intricate plot of nuclear terrorism worthy of a Tom Clancy novel. The Metal Gear franchise has only grown since then, spawning blockbuster after blockbuster, including the upcoming Phantom Pain hitting stores in September.
Another game had an impact that went far beyond being immensely popular with gamers. Rather, it spawned the defining pop culture fad of the end of the millennium. I’m of course referring to Pokemon Red/Blue, whose simple and now very familiar premise (catch ‘em all, train ‘em all, be the best) provided an unprecedented kind of adventure. Eschewing features like high scores and standard boss battles, it allowed the player to collect over a hundred strange creatures in the wild and have them battle in impromptu fights and tournaments. Basically, collecting pets in a video game setting…and turning them into badass fighters. But of all the games from this year, this one really needs the least explaining. The fact that you’re likely still playing it (and your parents still paying off the credit cards they used to buy you all of its merchandise) speaks volumes.
Just as consoles and handhelds were packed to the hilt with A-class titles in 1998, computers were just as replete. In addition to Half-Life and Baldur’s Gate, PC gamers were swept away by the likes of Grim Fandango and StarCraft. The former, another brainchild of LucasArts’ Tim Schafer, marked the pinnacle of the graphic point-and-click adventure format. Casting the player as a travel agent in the Land of the Dead, its use of influences like film noir and Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration made it an instant classic that maintains a loyal following to this day. (Indeed, it got a highly touted remastered release just a few months ago.) StarCraft (as well as its expansion set, Brood War) furthered the realm of strategy games, and it’s impossible to imagine the competitive gaming world of today without it.
Even some of the year’s less anticipated releases proved to be outstanding. Easily the best “sleeper” (at least as much as it could be with a blockbuster license) was Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Nintendo 64’s immediate follow-up to 1996’s Shadows of the Empire. While released at year’s end with subdued expectations, it ended up being a smash hit thanks to its smooth controls and seamless recreation of the series’ timeless space battles. Even with two sequels, the original sojourn as Luke, Wedge and co. remains a gold standard for movie franchise games, and the best Star Wars game on N64.
Of course, the best was very much saved for last this year. OK, technically not last, as it wasn’t released in December for the Christmas rush like I always assumed. (Interestingly, it was released on none other than my ninth birthday, November 21.) But you already know what it is: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game that took the flagship Nintendo franchise into the 3D world at long last now has a reputation of the greatest of its medium equivalent to Citizen Kane in film and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in popular music albums. And it isn’t hard to see why, as it’s downright perfect in every regard, from level design to music to story. Granted, all these strengths are too numerous to mention here. Hell, they may even be too numerous to catalogue in its inevitable Hall of Fame Review.
Needless to say, this isn’t a complete catalogue of all the seminal classics of 1998. There are plenty of other crucial, highly entertaining titles I haven’t even touched on, like Thief and Suikoden II. But that’s precisely the point, and if anything, proves 1998 was almost too great to capture in one sitting. These and other games from then not only endure as classics to this day, but their unprecedented complexity and innovation ushered in a new era of gaming. An era of cinematic stories, unconventional gameplay, sharper graphical detail, and greater multiplayer interaction. Once people all over the world played any one of them, let alone all of them, the possibilities of what video games could accomplish seemed more limitless than ever before.