Game of the Year: The Last Two Decades in Retrospect

Game of the Year.  It’s a prestigious award, but what does it really mean?  Who hands this award out, besides everybody?  Well, the truth is that, like pretty much everything else, it all comes down to opinion.  Sometimes, there is a clear, consensus favorite.  Other times, it seems like there are dozens of games that could potentially pull in the award.

So I decided to do a little digging, and take a GOTY-themed look at the last twenty years.  Below, you will find a short rundown of the big events of the year, some notable games from that year, and finally my pick for Game of the Year.  Some you’ll agree with, some you won’t, probably, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.  Read on to see the last twenty years in retrospective.

1993:  As the Super Nintendo chugs along, Nintendo looks to the past with a tiny version of the NES, the beginning of a long line of console redesigns.  The Jaguar is released by Atari, but was somehow forgot about five minutes afterwards.  The 3DO is also released by Panasonic at a $700 price point, which is a shame because it was well-ahead of its time.  However, a limited supply base and limited third-party support spelled the end for the 3DO.  Take-Two is founded, and arcade gaming is in its golden age.

Notables: Star Fox,  Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Day of the Tentacle, Myst, Doom, Syndicate, Mega Man X, NBA Jam

GOTY:  Secret of Mana

1994:  The PlayStation is released…in Japan.  We won’t get it stateside for another year, but Super Nintendo owners get some of its best games yet.  A company called Silicone & Synapse rebrands itself Blizzard Entertainment.  The Neo Geo CD hits shelves, as does the Super Game Boy.  Unfortunatly, Pokemon is still a few years away, at least in North America, so it won’t see much use until later.  Tony Hawk creator Neversoft is founded, just as Commodore goes out of business.  The world also gets its first look at Project Reality, which is redubbed the  Nintendo Ultra 64.  One of those words gets dropped from the final title.

Notables: Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, Earthworm Jim

GOTY:  Final Fantasy VI


1995:  One thing dies, another is birthed.  Nintendo ceases development of the NES, just as Sega releases the ill-fated Sega Saturn.  It may not have dazzled, but another console released that same year does:  the Sony PlayStation.  A company you may have heard of, BioWare, is formed by Greg Zeschuk, Ray Muzyka and Augustine Yip, while another group of talented people form Mythic Entertainment.  History is also made, or rather started, with the first annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3.

Notables:  Earthbound, Yoshi’s Island, Suikoden, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, Rayman

GOTY:  Chrono Trigger

1996: 3D gaming has arrived!  Well, it had already arrived, really, but it was basically perfected by the launch title of Nintendo’s brand new 64-bit console, Mario 64. The Nintendo 64 is wildly popular, despite being designed with three-armed humans in mind. Strategy gamers should hold this year in high regard; Sid Meier helps found Firaxis Games, one of the best strategy studios around. A little company called Valve is formed, and I think its safe to say that they are doing okay for themselves. And last, but certainly not least, GameFAQs hits the scene, saving a generation of gamers from leaving their favorite games uncompleted.

Notables:  Super Mario RPG, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Diablo, Crash Bandicoot

GOTY:   Super Mario 64

1997:  The seeds of Rapture are planted.  More specifically, Irrational Games is founded, the company that would later go on to create masterpieces System Shock 2 and BioShock and BioShock Infinite. The N64 continues to roll along, but the PlayStation catches ground with some of its strongest titles, including the venerable Final Fantasy VII. In other news, development begins on Duke Nukem Forever! I know, right.

Notables:  Final Fantasy VII, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy Tactics, Star Fox 64, Gran Turismo

GOTY:  Goldeneye 64


1998:  While it may have been a relatively slow news year on the indusrty front (the Dreamcast did launch in Japan!) 1998 saw a wealth of excellent game releases. The only studio of note to be founded is admittedly a doozie, you may have seen Rockstar mentioned a time or two after all, but with the PlayStation and N64 churning out hits seemingly left and right, that’s ok.

Notables: Resident Evil 2, StarCraft, Banjo-Kazooie,  Grim Fandango,  Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life

GOTY:  Pokemon Red & Blue

1999:  Hey, things are starting to pick up as we inch closer to the millennium. Sega unleashes the Dreamcast in North America, which becomes the video game equivalent of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I’m a fan of Pabst. As Semisonic said (the year before) every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end. Sadly, this is the last year that the SNES is produced, otherwise known as the beginning of the apocalypse. It’s in Revelations, look it up. Zenimax acquires Bethesda Softworks, and I think it’s safe to say that worked out for them.

Notables:  Silent Hill, EverQuest, Counter-Strike, System Shock 2, Chrono Cross, Legend of Dragoon, Shenmue, Final Fantasy VIII

GOTY:  Super Smash Bros.

2000: Lots of acquisitions going on.  Hey, it’s a new millenium, time to shake things up, right?  EA acquires DreamWorks, Microsoft acquires Bungie, THQ acquires Volition and Ubisoft takes Red Storm Entertainment into the fold. Not bad, guys. The PS2 is released in Japan, while Americans brood and play Crash Bandicoot. But most importantly, PopCap is founded, ensuring that we will one day be able to kill zombies with plants and play Peggle.

Notables: The Sims, Perfect Dark,  Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Dark Cloud

GOTY:   Diablo 2

2001:  2001 might be the first super year in gaming.  In addition to the ridiculous lineup of games, we received the PS2, the Xbox, and the Game Boy Advance. Schwing! Online gaming is also starting to weave its cocoon, but with only a bare-bones PS2 feature set and the undewrwhelming Sega Network, the butterfly phase is still a ways off. Activision also acquires Treyarch, which will come in handy when they attempt to play Snidely Whiplash against Infinity Ward in the years ahead.

Notables: Final Fantasy X, Ico, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid 2, Halo, Jak and Daxter

GOTY:  Grand Theft Auto 3

Gta 3

2002:  Things slow down a bit in 2002.  Rockstar is still on top of the world with GTA III and the newly released Vice City bringing in all the money, and Nintendo trots out one of the more questionable (but still fun) consoles ever in the GameCube. G4 is launched, and gamers and television watchers can finally hold hands and sing songs together…or something.

Notables: The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, GTA: Vice City, Ratchet & Clank, Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda; Wind Waker, Splinter Cell, Kingdom Hearts

GOTY:  Metroid Prime

2003: The times, they are a changin’.  Video games are starting to really come into their own, not only as entertainment, but as an art form.  Black Isle Studios, the team behind Fallout, sadly shuts their doors.  As it turns out, though, the circle of life was still spinning, as a new studio is founded, Obsidian Entertainment.  You may know them from their eventual work on….Fallout: New Vegas.  Weird, huh?  In other news, the first whispers of next-gen are heard, as Nintendo talks about GameCube compatibility with their upcoming system.

Notables: Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Soul Calibur 2, Viewtiful Joe, Beyond Good & Evil

GOTY:   Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

2004:  Next-gen!!! Nintendo announces the Nintendo Revolution, but someone thought it sounded dumb so they eventually rename it the Wii.  Almost as if video games are required to work in cycles, the original PlayStation sees its last game released, but people are too busy still playing Final Fantasy VII to notice.  Electronic Arts attempts a hostile takeover of Ubisoft while Rockstar continues to make all the money with their newest incarnation of GTA.

Notables: The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, Fable, Star Wars: Battlefront, GTA: San Andreas, Halo 2, World of Warcraft

GOTY:  Half-Life 2

2005:  At E3, we get our first real glimpse at the Wii controller, and the Xbox 360.  The PS3 is talked about, and I think there was a boomerang, but honestly its hard to be sure.  The PS2  closes down the current generation with some truly excellent titles, which is good because, even though the shiny new consoles are upon us, plenty of people are still playing their PS2s.  Heck, I’d be willing to bet plenty of people are still playing their PS2s.  High Moon Studios makes their debut, while BioWare and Pandemic join forces in a totally equal split…except for the totally equal part.

Notables:  God of War, Jade Empire, Psychonauts, Battlefield 2, The Warriors

GOTY:  Resident Evil 4


2006:  The PS3/Xbox 360/Wii generation is officially fully a go!  While the PS2 is still busy working its twilight years, Gears of War becomes an overnight sensation, and one of the first games to truly harness the power of online multiplayer.  Plastic guitars are all the rage and people are having a generally good time with their new consoles.  Irrational Games is officially taken into the Take-Two Interactive, which is good because they are busy dealing with the city of Los Angeles suing Rockstar over the infamous Hot Coffee scandal.  The holiday season sees the PS3 and Wii officially released, and old people everywhere rediscover their love of bowling.

Notables:  Kingdom Hearts 2, Dead Rising, Bully, Guitar Hero II, Gears of War, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

GOTY:  The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

2007:   Folks, for my money, this is the single greatest software year in history.  Just look at that list if games…that is ridiculous.  The Orange Box presents Portal to the masses, Mass Effect redefines storytelling and Modern Warfare 4 gives multiplayer a whole new look.  For the first time ever, Mario and Sonic team up to take part in some Olympic hijinks, and if sales re any indication, people are into that sort of thing.  But the big news is of course 3D Realms releasing a teaser trailer for Duke Nukem Forever.  At this point, I’m not sure Duke isn’t actually a Time Lord.

Notables: God of War II,  Halo 3, The Orange Box, Cal of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Super Mario Galaxy, Mass Effect, Rock Band

GOTY:  BioShock

2008:  While the current generation continues to show strong, it is clear who is winning the financial side of things.  The Wii is pulling in money hand over fist, with Wii Sports breaking its own record every day for sales.  Kinda shocking, when you consider the pedigree of games released this year, including GTA IV.  WoW players get arguably the best expansion yet in Wrath of the Lich King, leading to an influx of Death Knights roaming around Azeroth.

Notables:  The Club, Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of The Patriots, Spore, Dead Space, Saint’s Row II, Fallout 3, LittleBigPlanet

GOTY:  Left 4 Dead

2009:  Minecraft is officially created!  Sadly, almost nobody gets their hands on it yet, but still, progress.  It’s not the only progress being made, as 2009 is a particularly business heavy year.  Ensemble Studios closed their doors after releasing the incredible Halo Wars (R.I.P), but elsewhere Free Radical gets new life as Crytek UK.  The PS3 is starting to gain momentum for the first time in its short life span, and SOny releases a slim version to capitalize.  Eidos is also swallowed up by Square Enix, transferring control of such properties as Tomb Raider, Hitman, TimeSplitters and Deus Ex over to them.

Notables:  Street Fighter IV, Halo Wars, Braid, inFamous, Batman: Arkham Asylum,  Borderlands, Dragon Age: Origins, Assassin’s Creed II, Angry Birds

GOTY:  Uncharted 2: Among Thieves


2010:  Another ridiculous year for gaming, 2010 saw a number of high-profile and under the radar hits that are still defining games today.  The first Humble Bundle is released, and people begin to realize that indie games aren’t going anywhere.  Seeing the success of the Wii, Sony and Microsoft work to get their own motion controls up and running.  While the Move didn’t exactly wow people, it is safe to say the Kinect ignited a consumer fire, despite an overwhelming dearth of software for it.  Microsoft also closes down Xbox Live for the original Xbox, making at least two or three little boys very sad.

Notables:   Heavy Rain, Final Fantasy XIII, God of War III, Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Limbo, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Halo: Reach, Fable III

GOTY:  Mass Effect 2

2011:  Hey, some new hardware worth getting!  Nintendo releases the 3DS, although “worth getting” might be getting a bit ahead of myself.  The fighting game renaissance started by Street Fighter 4 is in full swing, and Minecraft is now officially a thing.  That’s not the only awesomeness in the video game realm, as gaming wins a huge legal battle and is declared protected under the First Amendment.  Score!

Notables:  Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Mortal Kombat, Portal 2, Terraria, L.A. Noire, The Witcher 2, Bastion, Gears of War 3, Dark Souls,  Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Skyrim, Rayman Origins, Minecraft, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Batman: Arkham City

GOTY:  Skyrim

2012:  Not to be outdone by Nintendo’s handheld, Sony releases the Vita, where people the world over can play Gravity Drop and absolutely nothing else for the time being.  However, the real big news of the year is, again, NEXT-GEN!!!  Wait, I misspoke, it was just the Wii U, but still…Mario looked damned good.  Story is definitely moving to the forefront, with titles like Mass Effect 3, The Walking Dead and Spec Ops: The Line all making their mark.

Notables:   Journey, Fez, The Walking Dead, Diablo 3, Max Payne 3, Spec Ops: The Line, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Assassin’s Creed III, Halo 4, Borderlands 2, Far Cry 3

GOTY:  Mass Effect 3

Well, there you have it, the last twenty years in retrospective.  Kinda crazy how far we’ve come, right?  As always, I would love to hear any thoughts, feedback or differing opinions about what was said here.  Leave a comment!


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  1. Eric W.

    Crazy to think how brief video games have existed versus how far they’ve come in such a short time. While ’07 did set the stage for many great modern franchises, I would give the best year to ’98 for software releases with Ocarina of Time, Half-Life, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout 2, Starcraft, Unreal, Suikoden II, and Pokémon. Maybe I’m just super nostalgic for the 90s. Overall I agree with most of your GOTY picks with a few eyebrow raisers (Diablo 2 over BG2? Metroid Prime over Morrowind? L4D over Falllout 3?). Great article and a fun source of endless debating.

    Also, holy crap that FF6 team is overpowered. Poor Atma Weapon doesn’t stand a chance.

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