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Top Ten Video Game Developers of the 90s
Journey back in time with us to to a bygone era when gaming began transitioning away from arcade cabinets and into home entertainment centers, CD-ROMs gave way to voice acting and full motion video cutscenes, and video games took their first tentative steps into the world of polygons and three dimensions. It was the world of grunge rock, ridiculously crazy action movies, and America Online. It was the radical 1990s. Judging video game developers purely by their library of games and contribution to the industry between 1990-99, we present you with our Top Ten Video Game Developers of the 90s.
Top Ten Video Game Developers of the 90s
10) Sierra On-Line
Notable Games: King’s Quest series, Space Quest series, Gabriel Knight
Sierra rose to prominence in the 1980s through their revolutionary computer games that used a graphical interface instead of the previous text-only adventures that existed at the time. By the time 1990 rolled around, Sierra was already on their fifth iteration in their highly successful King’s Quest series of graphical adventure games, and King’s Quest V was the first to utilize the additional storage space of CD-ROMs by providing full voice acting and an enhanced engine that utilized the new Video Graphics Array of modern hardware. Sierra would continue their line of successful adventure game franchises throughout the early and mid 90s, and along with LucasArts were the premiere adventure game company, and one of the most recognizable computer gaming developers of the time.
Notable Games: Castlevania series, Metal Gear Solid (1998), Dance Dance Revolution (1999)
Tracing its roots back to a jukebox repair company, Konami began manufacturing arcade machines in the late 70s and early 80s before finding success developing and publishing video games. By the mid 80s the company had successfully transitioned to creating games for the Nintendo Famicom (NES) and became particularly known for its awesome platformers and beat ’em ups using major cartoon licenses like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons. More importantly in the gaming sphere, however, were Konami’s original creations; titles like Castlevania, Contra, Silent Hill, and Metal Gear became huge successes and spawned major franchises (Metal Gear Solid in particular pioneered the concept of a stealth game), while the popularity of the entire rhythm genre can be attributed to the absolute craziness surrounding Dance Dance Revolution both in arcades and at home on the Sony Playstation. Konami’s prominence may have faded in recent years but its popularity and string of hits in the 90s make it one of the best developers of the decade.
Notable Games: Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991), Master of Orion II (1996), X-Com: UFO Defense (1994)
Co-founded by legendary game designer Sid Meier, MicroProse found niche success developing numerous vehicle simulation and strategy games for the PC before hitting it big with Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon and Sid Meier’s Civilization. Civilization in particular spawned several sequels and expansion packs, making Sid Meier a household name amongst computer gamers and strategy gaming enthusiasts, and Civilization still enjoys the elite status of being the premiere turn based strategy game series to this day. MicoProse also created some of the most beloved strategy games of its day, including Colonization, Master of Orion, and X-Com: UFO Defense. Despite its successes, MicoProse went through numerous acquisitions and layoffs in the 90s, and Sid Meier, along with key members of his team, left MicroProse in 1996 to form Firaxis Games. MicroProse’s legacy remains alive and well in Firaxis as the team has continued building amazing Civilization titles as well as the recent well-received revival of XCOM.
7) Id Software
Notable Games: Doom (1993), Quake (1996), Quake III Arena (1999)
Created by several burgeoning geniuses in the field of computer programming including John Carmack and John Romero, the team at Id Software had become enamored with gaming and set to work developing their own graphics engine for rendering a pseudo-three dimensional world, constructed with pixels, with a first person viewpoint and dressing it all with violent gameplay involving shooting lots and lots of Nazis. The game was Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and is considered to be the grandfather and progenitor of the entire first person shooter genre. Nothing like it had ever been experienced before in the realm of gaming, and its quick success lead to the more mainstream and recognized follow-up, 1993’s Doom. Doom forever changed PC gaming and culture in general, and combined with other emerging violent games like Mortal Kombat helped usher in an era when video games became edgy and controversial, a trend that ebbs and flows to this day. Single-handedly inventing one of the most popular genres still to this day would keep Id on this list, but they also had the foresight to see the rise of multiplayer gaming over the internet, and FPS series Quake would take advantage of fully 3D environments and competitive multiplayer over the internet to catapult the genre and gaming into heights that it still enjoys now. Id also popularized the notion of creating a game engine and licensing it out for others to use, allowing other development companies to build upon their work while providing Id with a steady revenue stream, and providing the gaming world with more great games.
Notable Games: Mega Man series, Street Fighter II (1991), Resident Evil series
Beginning life as an arcade developer, Capcom (“Capsule Computers”) soon branched out into home console development after the massive success of the Nintendo Famicom (NES), and found initial success with Mega Man, a popular series featuring a recognizable hero with hardcore platforming gameplay. In 1991 Capcom unleashed the sequel to its moderately successful arcade fighting game Street Fighter, and the arcade and gaming world was never the same since. Street Fighter II became an unprecedented success in the arcade world, hooking gamers everywhere with its vibrant graphics, smooth animations, varied multinational character roster, and superb one-on-one gameplay. A massive fighting game boom was created in the early 90s that lasted throughout the entire decade, spilling over to home consoles and spawning an endless amount of legitimate competitors and throwaway clones that all utilized similar one-on-one fighting gameplay, with emphasis on multiplayer. When Street Fighter II was finally ported to 16-bit consoles it was an immediate success, and its various incarnations (World Warrior, Turbo, Championship Edition) all easily made the top ten best selling games for the SNES and Sega Genesis.
In addition to being the House that Street Fighter Built, Capcom practically invented the modern survival horror genre when they released Resident Evil in 1996 for the Sony Playstation, one of the first games to ever receive a Mature rating from the then recently created Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Resident Evil’s success would spawn numerous sequels and continue to find audiences to this day.
5) Interplay Entertainment and Black Isle Studios
Founded (Interplay Entertainment): 1983
Founded (Black Isle Studios): 1996
Notable Games: Fallout (1997), Planescape: Torment (1999)
Technically two entries in one, but as Black Isle was an internal developer under Interplay, I’ll allow it. Interplay Entertainment was founded in the early 80s by video game visionary Brian Fargo, and by the time the 90s rolled around, Interplay was already a well established video game developer with RPG hits such as Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale trilogy. In the 90s Interplay’s success lead them to becoming more of a video game publisher and supporting the fledgling PC gaming industry through backing other developers, most notably giving Silicon & Synapse (Blizzard Entertainment) their first big contract. Interplay published several Star Trek titles, numerous successful PC titles like Carmageddon and Descent, and finally developed another big RPG in Stonekeep, a critically acclaimed first person dungeon crawler. Interplay’s legacy in the 90s however would ultimately come down to two important developments – Fallout and Black Isle Studios.
Fallout was a turn based post apocalyptic RPG created as a spiritual successor to Wasteland and the franchise went on to become one of the most beloved Western RPG series ever created (and enjoy massive mainstream success when the series’ reigns were handed to Bethesda). At the same time Interplay created a new in-house development team to specifically tackle similar big computer RPGs called Black Isle Studios, staffing the team with computer gaming aficionados like Feargus Urquhart, Chris Avellone, and Chris Taylor. Black Isle would develop several big hits in the late 90s such as Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, and produce a little game called Baldur’s Gate in conjunction with another recent Western CRPG developer – Bioware. Black Isle Studios’ lifespan was ultimately short lived, as Interplay ran into financial woes into the next century, but many key members of the team can be found in successful RPG company Obsidian Entertainment, and Interplay’s contributions to the industry throughout the 90s should never be underrated.
4) LucasArts Entertainment Company
Founded: 1982 (as LucasFilm Games Group)
Notable Games: The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), Day of the Tentacle (1993), X-Wing (1993), Jedi Knight (1997)
Aside from creating an amazing science fiction universe that would help shape our entire culture forever, George Lucas also had the foresight to realize that video games were kind of a big deal and founded a video game development company in the early 80s to produce games for the Atari 5200 and personal computer. In 1990 the company reorganized (perfect timing for this top ten list) and became known as LucasArts after finding success with their own adventure game engine named after their first successful title – the Script Creation Utility for Manic Mansion, creating the delightful acronym SCUMM. SCUMM was instantly recognizable for its interface that consisted of several verbs the player used to interact with the game scene, and the familiar engine, along with brilliant writing and fun cartoony graphics helped create many of the most beloved adventure games to grace our PC monitors such as Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and The Secret of Monkey Island.
Of course LucasArts would also take full advantage of the Star Wars license during the 90s as well, creating the revolutionary flight simulator-in-space game X-Wing (as well as incredibly popular and console-friendly spinoff series Rebel Assault), and noticing the popularity of first person shooters created Star Wars: Dark Forces, along with its even more popular sequel Jedi Knight in 1997. Jedi Knight was famous for being one of the earliest games to utilize a separate 3D graphics card to aid in hardware acceleration, which would forever change the face of gaming and prove that LucasArts was a forward-thinking developer.
Special Note: With the acquisition of Lucas’s company by Disney earlier this year, LucasArts was disbanded. Read our recap here.
3) Square (Squaresoft in USA)
Founded: 1983 (Squaresoft in 1989)
Notable Games: Final Fantasy VI (1994), Chrono Trigger (1995), Final Fantasy VII (1997)
In 1987 Japanese developer Square had been somewhat successfully developing titles for the Nintendo Famicom (NES) and Hironobu Sakaguchi finally got his wish to create a role playing game inspired by games like Ultima and role playing systems like Dungeons & Dragons. Under threat of bankruptcy and believing his job to be in jeopardy, Sakaguchi named the title Final Fantasy, believing that it would be the last game he would ever make. History proved otherwise as it became a huge hit, and in 1989 Square added an American branch, called Squaresoft, to localize many of their bigger titles for English audiences, something that I and gamers everywhere are eternally grateful for. Throughout the decade American audiences were introduced to numerous Final Fantasy sequels that ranged from awesome to Best Game Ever as well as other great titles rounding out the 16-bit golden era of SNES RPGs like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and an incredibly amazing collaboration with Square and Nintendo in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Despite the ties to Nintendo, Square moved to the Sony Playstation in the mid to late 90s for the increased disc space of the CD-ROM, and in 1997 released the biggest RPG anyone had ever seen – Final Fantasy VII.
FF7 was the first of the popular series to be released in Europe and the first to feature 3D graphics, and its release was surrounded by a massive marketing campaign the likes of which had rarely been seen in a video game. The marketing and hype paid off as FF7 was a critical and commercial success, catapulting the already storied franchise into gaming hall of fame status, and is often regarded as rejuvenating the entire RPG genre in the West. Even as the 90s came to close, Square’s legacy was well respected and adored, and the company already began releasing remastered editions and video game box sets of their classic titles from the early and mid 90s, cementing their legacy as the premiere RPG developer.
2) Blizzard Entertainment (formerly Silicon & Synapse)
Founded: 1991 (as Silicon & Synapse)
Notable Games: Warcraft II (1995), Diablo (1997), Starcraft (1998)
Well before they hit it big in the world of PC Gaming with seminal real time strategy franchise Warcraft, fledgling developer Silicon & Synapse were creating beloved 16-bit consoles games like Rock ‘N Roll Racing, The Lost Vikings, and Blackthorne. While briefly flirting with the name Chaos Studios, they would ultimately settle on Blizzard Entertainment and change the face of gaming forever with the release of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans in 1994. While not the first real time strategy game, it was the first to incorporate varying mission objectives and most importantly focus on multiplayer as a large component to the overall gaming experience. The game’s massive success spawned an immediate well-received sequel in the following year, and that along with the Command & Conquer series by Westwood began a gigantic RTS boom in the gaming industry that would last a better part of a decade.
Not content to expand and perfect just one genre, Blizzard took the formula of classic random dungeon crawling games and combined it with a new revolutionary free multiplayer matchmaking service called Battle.net to create Diablo in 1997, another explosive shockwave in the industry that inspired endless clones capturing the same addictive and fun hack and slash formula, or commonly referred to now as Action-RPG. Blizzard would conintue to utilize and expand their Battle.net service in the hotly anticipated sci-fi version of Warcraft, Starcraft, which ended up being a brilliant franchise in its own right. Over the years Blizzard has expanded its three primary intellectual properties into some of the biggest blockbuster franchises in the entire industry and Battle.net continues to be one of the premiere PC multiplayer gaming services (though only for Blizzard games). By the end of the decade Blizzard had risen to become the paradigm of a AAA gaming studio and one of the most famous developers in the industry.
1) Nintendo Entertainment
Notable Games: Super Mario series, The Legend of Zelda series
Nintendo had single-handedly saved the entire video game industry in the mid 80s with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Bros, but the venerable company wasn’t about to stop there. Founded in 1889 (that’s EIGHTEEN eighty nine), this Japanese electronics and gaming company can easily be credited with turning video gaming into the juggernaut industry it is today through its massively successful consoles (SNES, N64), creating and exploding the hand held gaming market with the Gameboy, and of course their many popular first party franchises – Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and the many spin-offs and sequels. Only time will tell whether the 90s will represent Nintendo’s golden age in the gaming industry, or merely one chapter of their incredible history.
Honorable Mentions: Sega, Maxis, Origin Systems, Westwood Studios
With a billion dollar industry that releases blockbuster games every year rivaling the biggest Hollywood hits, it’s easy to forget how incredibly young the video game industry is. The 90s were a time of both innovation and rampant stagnation as new genres burst onto the scene and were quickly capitalized into an endless stream of clones with varying degrees of success. The decade proved that video games were not just a fad or gimmick, but a legitimate means of entertainment that steadily grew in popularity from niche kid toys into a cultural phenomenon. You may have been fortunate enough to grow up alongside the fledgling industry but even if your first gaming console was a Playstation 2, it’s still important to look back and appreciate everything these companies did for the industry and how the decade shaped the current atmosphere of the industry today.