Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts paid tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talked to the people who made them, and analyzed both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Although the 1998 lineup is too deep for every great game to get its due—it’s nothing personal, Suikoden II, Tenchu, Battlezone, F-Zero X, and others—we wanted to conclude the series by saluting at least some of the games that didn’t get the full feature treatment but nonetheless merited mentions.
Resident Evil 2
In 1996, Capcom’s Resident Evil was a trailblazing game. It established the survivor-horror genre and received a handful of Game of the Year nominations. Resident Evil was a mix of atmospheric white-knuckle action and item-driven puzzle solving. It mass-produced adrenaline by making ammunition and medical supplies scarce while limiting players’ abilities to save their progress. While developing 1998’s Resident Evil 2, Capcom seemed to really take to heart the old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Resident Evil 2 refined the survival-horror experience rather than redesigned it. Aside from the returning tank controls, virtually everything about RE2 was an improvement over its predecessor. The story featured a new branching path system that encouraged players to complete the game with both protagonists. The graphics took a big leap forward. New character-animation advancements resulted in heads that tracked action in the room and body language that conveyed player heath levels. Puzzle logic was more sound. The score was epic and lended a Hollywood blockbuster sheen to the experience. Even the legendarily bad voice acting of RE1 was improved upon (although not tremendously).
RE2 pulled players out of the mansion of the first game and let them loose on the streets. It broadened the world of Resident Evil, giving it room to grow (or mutate). RE2 sold 4.96 million copies on PlayStation. Its success is a big reason why 20 years, 21 games, and six movies later, Resident Evil is a major franchise with a rabid following. It spread like the t-Virus.
The release of each new Resident Evil game is the gaming equivalent of the Big Dumb Fun Action Movie of the Summer. These games are Fast & Furious movies with zombies swapped in for cars: They’re kind of the same thing every time, but that’s why we love them.
As we’ve traced the origins, innovations, and impact of each of 1998’s standout titles, we haven’t really reckoned with the question that lies behind the whole series: Why 1998? What was it about that year that created the conditions for such an explosion of gaming greatness?
Perhaps it was partly chance that so many legends lined up within one calendar year, but there was some significance to the timing. By 1998, developers had already logged a few years of floundering around the third dimension, and they’d learned what would and wouldn’t work. It was early enough in the 3-D era that long-running series such as The Legend of Zelda and committed 2-D developers like LucasArts were making their first forays into the form, but late enough that they weren’t doing so without examples of other good games to guide them. Similarly, studios knew their way around the N64, PlayStation, and Saturn hardware and could coax extra power out of each, while also getting their feet wet with newer, souped-up systems. Gamers were growing up and expecting more sophisticated stories, and improvements in processing power enabled larger relative leaps in visual fidelity than are evident today. Amid that maturation, the potential for online play—fully exploited by StarCraft, Starsiege: Tribes, and the modding scene surrounding Half-Life—unlocked a larger world.
Unreal embodied most of those trends. Epic’s challenger to Doom and Quake’s throne told a more engrossing story than either of Id Software’s FPS series, and its Unreal Tournament spinoffs were a staple of the early esports scene. Most memorably, the game’s graphics wowed anyone whose hardware met its demanding minimum specs. Unreal’s atmospheric, flashy, and first-of-their-kind visual techniques—not to mention its mod-friendly map editor—were products of the Unreal Engine, whose impact on game development is by far the biggest legacy of the single game that first featured it. The Unreal Engine has served as the guts of hundreds of games over the past two decades, and its fourth iteration underpins Epic’s own Fortnite, which became a cultural phenomenon in 2018. —Ben Lindbergh
Crash Bandicoot: Warped
Crash Bandicoot: Warped is the best installment of the Crash Bandicoot series. It’s fun and beautiful with just the right level of difficulty. The story line involves time-traveling around the world, which meant that the levels got a lot more varied and strange than the previous installments’ jungle scenes. There’s a spooky Area 51 desert, there’s an underwater Atlantis-flavored stage, there’s the Great Wall of China. The visuals are fresh and interesting all the way through, whereas the biggest weakness in the earlier Crash games was the repetitiveness of the settings. This time around, Crash rides a friggin’ baby Tyrannosaurus rex and a Jet Ski. Mark Mothersbaugh produced the soundtrack, because Crash isn’t a normal bandicoot; he’s a cool bandicoot, and I love him. —Kate Knibbs
Mario Kart and F-Zero overshadow all other Nintendo-developed racing games, but the N64 featured two all-timers in Wave Race 64 and 1080°, both of which were produced by Shigeru Miyamoto and had some of the same creators in common. Unlike Wave Race, 1080° was programmed by two of the few foreigners at Nintendo, Englishmen Giles Goddard and Colin Reed. In only nine months, the duo designed a satisfying (if fairly unforgiving) physics model that, as Goddard explained, “comes down on the simulation side of the fence.”
Although 1080° included three racing modes, it also featured two trick modes in which the goal was not to finish first, but to accrue the maximum score by stringing together the game’s 25 moves. The snow looked fantastic for the time, the selection of several racers and boards added depth despite the limited course count, and a propulsive soundtrack by Mario Kart composer Kenta Nagata heightened the hypnotic experience of carving one’s way downhill. Between its realistic-looking characters, its lack of items or cartoonish touches, and its product placements, 1080° didn’t really resemble the typical Nintendo game, but the company’s range and capacity to surprise has always been part of its appeal.
A glut of snowboarding games plowed onto the PlayStation and N64 in 1998, but 1080° was the best of the bunch, and probably the best produced up to that point. The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences named it the Console Sports Game of the Year, and although it inspired only one so-so sequel of its own, it set a snowboarding-sim standard that future tricky-heavy successors such as SSX sought to emulate. —Lindbergh
Game Boy Color
The Game Boy Color was the little cash-grab that could. The device was the PlayStation Pro of its day, offering a meager hardware upgrade to the monochromatic Game Boy line nearly a decade into its life. SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color offered more vivid visuals, and even Sega’s eight-year-old Game Gear held its own against the new handheld, but the GBC was the first of many times Nintendo would prove graphics aren’t everything. In its short lifespan the handheld racked up a number of great exclusives, including the twin Legend of Zelda Oracle games and a Metal Gear sequel in the spirit of the original 2-D titles. It also helped that Pokémon Red and Blue debuted in the United States two months before the GBC launched, leading many kids to be introduced to the system and its most iconic franchise at the same time. (My GOAT birthday was the year I got Pokémon Blue, a GBC, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the span of one euphoric hour.) But I have to give a special shout-out to the Game Boy Color version of Mario Tennis, which features an elaborate RPG mode where you go to tennis academy and train to be a world champion. It’s one of the most absorbing sports games of all time and a testament to the fact that fantastic experiences can be created with humble hardware. —Victor Luckerson
Star Wars: Rogue Squadron
By 1998, PC players had been reveling in unrestricted Star Wars space combat for five years, but aside from the on-rails shooting stages in Rebel Assault and its sequel and a pair of flying sequences in Shadows of the Empire, console Star Wars gamers hadn’t gotten off the ground. Rogue Squadron, which was inspired by the Battle of Hoth level in Shadows, finally let them take flight for a full game, and a good one.
The first entry in Factor 5’s trilogy, which arrived on N64 just in time to make my Christmas and delay me from tackling Ocarina of Time, featured a substantial 16-part campaign with a plot inspired by Dark Horse’s subsequently decanonized mid-’90s Rogue Squadron and Dark Empire comics. The action was faster-paced and much more arcadey than that of the X-Wing and TIE Fighter PC simulators that preceded it, and its array of five default fighters handled distinctly and intuitively. Factor 5’s custom compression system allowed the studio to cram more than 80 minutes of high-quality sound onto the cartridge, creating an auditory experience that IGN deemed the best of 1998, and the game’s use of Nintendo’s new Expansion Pak enabled it to run in higher resolution. Rogue Squadron also offered great replay value, thanks to a three-medal scoring system, a trio of unlockable levels, and several unlockable vehicles, including a Naboo Starfighter that stayed hidden until The Phantom Menace came out the following May (and played a more prominent role in a 2000 Factor 5 follow-up).
Rogue Squadron II, a launch title for GameCube that somehow still looks good, improved upon the first game in every way, although Rogue Squadron III’s on-foot missions were a major misstep. Sadly, we may never see another Rogue Squadron sequel, but there is a fan effort underway to remake the original in Unreal Engine 4, and Battlefront II’s “Starfighter Assault” is the killer multiplayer mode that Rogue Squadron never had. —Lindbergh
Released in Japan in December 1998, Mario Party delivered the first real community game of the N64 era. Titles like Super Mario 64 could be counted on for hours of fun, but for only one person at a time. And a game like Mario Kart, while loaded with charm, timed out early—how many three-lap races can you really run before boredom sets in? That’s what set Mario Party apart. For anywhere from an hour to three, depending on how many turns competitors subjected themselves to, friends and family alike could play mini games, dash around the board, collect items, and, more importantly, royally screw over the people closest to them by paying Boo to swipe coins and stars. Mario Party brought out the worst in people, and it nearly led to a full-on Samman family brawl. But I wouldn’t have wanted to spend time playing anything else. —Shaker Samman
If a game like NFL Blitz were made today, it’s safe to say the NFL would receive an intense backlash. Fortunately for Midway Games, its 1998 football-themed video game was an immediate success after it branched out from arcades into the homes of gamers everywhere. NFL Blitz instantly stood out compared to the other football video games on the market because it looked completely different from the various Tecmo Bowl copycats. Blitz was a frenetic experience, exploding with personality while also being extremely violent. The game was essentially what Vince McMahon wanted the XFL to be: professional wrestling on the gridiron.
According to a 2014 Vice Sports feature, Sal DiVita, the lead artist for Blitz, was an avid wrestling fan and was able to incorporate spine-busting moves into the game because the NFL didn’t check on them after signing the licensing deal. The NFL later stepped in with some serious notes about the game’s violence, even though the Nintendo 64 version still allowed you to suplex opponents well after the whistle had blown. But that cartoonish violence was one of the main reasons for Blitz’s massive success: It was a video game made for young boys who loved hyperbolic tackles and catchy play-call names like “Da Bomb.”
Looking back on it, I can’t believe NFL Blitz existed, I can’t believe parents allowed their kids to play it, and I especially can’t believe the NFL allowed its name to be associated with this game. But for what it’s worth, I enjoyed the heck out of it and will always have fond memories of wasting five minutes after the whistle to powerbomb my helpless friends. —Sean Yoo
Unless you frequented arcades in Japan or made a habit of importing Sega Saturn games at a time when that system was circling the drain, you didn’t play Radiant Silvergun in 1998. Most Western gamers didn’t play it after ’98, either. Between its inaccessibility and its faithfulness to an old-school genre that had fallen out of favor even by the time it came out, it’s understandable that the game is somewhat obscure. It’s another indication of 1998’s ridiculous depth, though, that even a lower-profile release like Radiant Silvergun may be the best-ever example of a game of its kind.
Japanese studio Treasure had specialized in side-scrolling platformers and beat-’em-ups before beginning work on Radiant Silvergun, a vertically scrolling shoot-’em-up that came out in arcades first and on Saturn two months later. Treasure wasn’t chasing any industry trends: In the late ’90s, arcades were in decline, and fighting games ruled the shrinking market. But Treasure’s 10-person team was determined to breathe new life into a suffocating style.
A gorgeous blend of 2-D and 3-D, Radiant Silvergun was one of the best-looking games on the Saturn, and its mesmerizing dance of death pushed players to the limit. Unlike a lot of shmups, though, the game was about more than memorizing patterns and dodging bullets: A scoring system based on enemy color injected some strategy into the mix. All of the game’s weapons were available from the start, and although there were no power-ups, the array of enemies forced players to chain and cycle between attacks in inventive ways. Anime studio Gonzo added cutscenes to the Saturn version, giving the game more of a plot than barebones bullet-hell games tended to feature, and Final Fantasy Tactics composer Hitoshi Sakimoto made the music. Weirdly, the game also had hidden dogs.
Radiant Silvergun belatedly went west via Xbox Live Arcade in 2011, although Saturn copies still sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Its oft-ported 2001 spiritual sequel, Ikaruga, is more easily obtained and deserves a spot in every Switch player’s library. —Lindbergh
Thief: The Dark Project
Thief: The Dark Project isn’t the game developers originally set out to make, but it is the one that shaped the future of the industry. What began as a sword-fighting simulator evolved into the definitive stealth title on the market. Games like Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, Hitman, and Fallout all owe their gameplay mechanics and stealth bona fides to Thief. Players had to learn how to adapt to light and control their footsteps or else risk being a spotted by a guard. Whereas most games from the era (and a fair number of them from the current one) could be hacked by full-frontal assaults on enemies, Thief rewarded the sneaky and punished the bold. An icon on the screen let gamers know how visible they were to their enemies, and was almost a mini game in itself, as you could dip in and out of sight with whimsy. —Samman
Parasite Eve is a stark and strange dissent from its own genre—the Japanese role-playing game. The game places its protagonist, Aya Brea, in intimate conflict with the troubled antagonist, Eve, a violent mutant whose emergent consciousness has overwhelmed opera singer Melissa Pearce, her reluctant human host. They meet at Carnegie Hall and then proceed to ruin Manhattan. There are several supporting characters in Parasite Eve, all nonplayer characters, but they linger, as if behind police tape, at the story’s margins. Through Aya Brea and Eve—two female leads in a genre too frequently defined by masculine avatars—Squaresoft essentially simplified the long and sprawling Final Fantasy VII to its central conflict, Cloud Strife vs. Sephiroth; Aya and Eve spend much of the game struggling to understand and accept their genetic fates, their fuses intertwined. Aya chases Eve through Central Park (there’s a horse-drawn carriage chase) and, climatically, to the Statue of Liberty (there’s a helicopter offensive), but the game is most memorably defined by its urban enclosures—Carnegie, the Chinatown sewers, and the Chrysler Building—which render Manhattan as a dark and lonesome series of corridors filled with long shadows and haunted by composer Yoko Shimomura’s moon-glossed musical themes. It was a different game in a different time: There was no open world. —Justin Charity
In 1997, Square’s Final Fantasy VII was an inescapable phenomenon in the gaming world. In America, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and shined a spotlight on the genre of role-playing games. Many people who had never played a Final Fantasy game or even an RPG bought a PlayStation specifically to play FF7. A little over a year later, up to their necks in FF7 money, Square released a new RPG called Xenogears. The story of FF7 had been a fairly straightforward tale of good versus evil. Xenogears, on the other hand, was an incredibly complex 80-plus-hour existential and religious odyssey. In fact, Xenogears almost wasn’t released in America because Square was worried that Xenogears’ religious themes would offend our Judeo-Christian values. Some translators even quit the project (spoiler in link) out of fear of violent backlash from an American audience.
Originally pitched to Square as a plot for Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears was instead green-lit as a stand-alone work helmed by husband-and-wife duo Tetsuya Takahashi and Kaori Tanaka. Pulling from myriad influences, Xenogears was ultimately about self-realization and the aspirations of humanity, but it should also be noted that it was an RPG that featured a jump button. Yes, in addition to being a singular mindfuck of a story, Xenogears had some game mechanics that were quite noteworthy.
While the characters were rendered in 2D, the environments were rendered in 3D, allowing the player to rotate the camera around the action with the L1 and R1 buttons. The camera system, coupled with a jump button, introduced elements of 3D exploration and platforming unfamiliar to the traditional RPG experience.
The combat system was atypical for the genre in that there were actually two combat systems. Half of the game’s combat occured on foot and the other half from the cockpit of a giant fighting mech called a “gear.” Unlike most RPGs, Xenogears minimized magic use, and instead encouraged the player to focus on strategic combinations of physical attacks of varying power.
Xenogears was a ludicrously ambitious project, but if you were willing to pay it the time and attention necessary, it was a sublime and unique gaming experience. To many, it was a game that was lost in the shadow of FF7, but to those who spent time with Xenogears, it remains one of the more memorable games of all time. —James
Sonic Adventure launched in Japan in late 1998 on Sega’s brand-new Dreamcast, although the system didn’t debut until September ’99 in North America. The first 3-D Sonic game, which arose in just 10 months from the ashes of canceled Saturn title Sonic X-treme, would go on to be the best-selling game on the system.
When the Dreamcast debuted, the innovative console—whose software support would wither away too soon, albeit not before it featured SoulCalibur and some of my most fondly remembered games—felt like the future. It was, for one thing, the first console to include a built-in modem. For another, its games looked incredible compared to anything that appeared on another pre-PlayStation 2 system. At full speed, Sonic Adventure was mind-blowingly beautiful.
Sonic didn’t run at 60 frames per second, as F-Zero X did on Nintendo 64, but while F-Zero achieved that fluidity by reducing detail so drastically that everything looked like a blur, Sonic was so stunningly high-resolution that it seemed as if graphics could never be better. After becoming one of the first kids in my class to get a Dreamcast, I’d do demos for my friends of Sonic’s “Speed Highway” stage, showing off its dizzying heights and blistering turns as proudly as if I’d designed them myself. (My friends probably loved this.)
Although the game was largely linear, could be buggy, and suffered from a wonky camera (as well as nearly lethal doses of Big the Cat), its six playable characters came with disparate skill sets and objectives that delivered great variety. The Dreamcast’s system-seller set itself apart from contemporary platformers that encouraged compulsive collecting, and its action set pieces successfully translated the excitement of 16-bit Sonic into 3-D. After Sonic Adventure 2, the series went into a Tails-spin that lasted until 2017’s retro revival Sonic Mania. In the late ’90s, though, Sonic was still vital, pushing platformers forward instead of retracing their past. —Lindbergh