I started gaming in the 80’s, but the 90’s was the decade that shaped my likes and dislikes to the hobby. Some incredible development teams have done a great job, changing gaming forever and making us all hungry for the future. While much of the gaming promise of the time came from new consoles and new technology, it was the developers who squeezed every ounce of performance out of these machines and showed us what dedicated and forward-thinking gamers could do.
In this article, I’m going to go through the teams that I believe make up the top ten game developers of the ’90s. I’m not going to talk about Sega or Nintendo simply because their places in the pantheon should be obvious. Both companies almost go beyond such lists, and everyone knows their names.
The 10 best game developers of the 90s
#1 Bitmap Brothers
In the 90’s I spent more time playing Bitmap Brothers games with my friends than what other developers had to offer. Speedball 2, Gods, Magic Pockets and The Chaos Engine (1 and 2) dominated our Friday night play sessions. Z would open our minds to a whole new world of gaming with a particularly fast-paced approach to real-time strategy gaming. The Bitmap brothers just seemed to tap into what made gaming cool in the ’90s, moving away from cartoon graphics towards the dirtier, grittier themes that dominate the industry today. They also had some of the best intro music in the business. The intro to Gods is still absolutely sopping wet.
In the ’90s, Rare seemed like they couldn’t go wrong as the team released critical and commercial hits with the regularity that most of us eat hot breakfasts. Much like Bitmap Brothers, they had incredible diversity in their production, with games like Banjo Kazooie, GoldenEye, and Donkey Kong setting them apart from their competitors. They would end the decade with Perfect Dark, another cult classic.
There’s a strange kind of backlash against adventure games in the modern age; for reasons I could never quite figure out. I see people saying these aren’t “real” games, but all I can say is if you didn’t play Secret of Monkey Island in the 90’s then you were a braggart. LucasArts’ main mission was to release games related to Lucas Film titles, but they also gave us two amazing Monkey Island games, Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. They also gave us games like Star Wars: Rebel Assault and Dark Forces.
#4 ID software
Wolfenstein: 3D, Doom, and Quake all came out within five years, and with those titles, Id Software established itself as a studio that wouldn’t stop pushing games into the future. Wolfenstein largely built the FPS genre, Doom set new standards for graphics and screen violence, and then Quake dragged us all into existential horror with a state-of-the-art 3D engine. Oddly enough, it all came out of their first attempts at remaking Super Mario Bros 3 in 3D. After being rejected by Nintendo, they eventually started their own company where their skills and passion would change gaming forever.
#5 Westwood Studios
It’s easy to get caught up in the Command And Conquer series, which was an absolute titan of a series, but Westwood also brought us Eye of the Beholder, Dune II (a really great strategy game), and Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge. With the advent of early PC games, Westwood was perfectly equipped to take advantage of the user interface advantages offered by a mouse and keyboard over a controller, and they made real-time strategy an extremely popular genre at the time.
It could be argued that Street Fighter 2 trailed only behind Mario and Sonic in the ’90s when it came to mainstream mindshare. Everyone knew what the game was, and for a while it looked like arcades were about to make a comeback. It wasn’t meant to be for arcades, but Street Fighter 2 would help Capcom become one of the biggest names in gaming. Street Fighter 2 even got a movie starring someone who was a real movie star at the time. And it even had a guy who could act! This next part may shock and disturb you, but Resident Evil was released in 1996, Dino Crisis came at the end of the decade, just after the second part of Resident Evil, and we’ve had quite a few Street Fighter games over the decade.
It’s impossible to compile such a list without Blizzard. Everyone knows Warcraft, which probably changed RTS games forever. And everyone knows about Starcraft, which would spawn one of the biggest esports movements of all time. We also had Diablo in the ’90s. But what about Blackthorne? The Lost Vikings? Some classic platforming action right there. Blizzard’s ability to take a genre and polish it to dazzling glory was established way back in the ’90s. They rightfully changed gaming forever in a single decade multiple times. They may have fallen away and we may have learned some things about those glory days that cast dark shadows on bright memories, but it is impossible to deny their impact at this time.
For a while, Lemmings was the biggest game in the world. Pretty much anything capable of playing a game came out, and it could have been argued that the success of this was a studio well above their weight class. The problem with that statement is that four years later, Psygnosis would release Wipeout and change racing games forever. We’ve had futuristic racing games before, but nothing on the market has been able to leverage the PlayStation in a way that gives the impression of speed that Wipeout managed. Colony Wars and G-Police ended a strong decade for Psygnosis, and just before the calendars switched to the 2000s and we all risked the Y2K bug, they launched Rollcage, one of the most underrated racing games of all time.
Populous II, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Hi-Octane, Syndicate Wars, Dungeon Keeper, Theme Hospital and several sequels to some of these games. It really shouldn’t have been possible for a team to do that much, but Bullfrog pulled it off. Led by the man who would lead us all to a bright future in the form of Peter Molyneux. How could it ever go wrong? Unfortunately it went wrong. Bullfrog was proof in the 90’s that you could burn twice as bright and half as long. Photos of the staff looked like a heavy metal band, and any young kid interested in making games would end up wanting to work at Bullfrog. It was a success, but not a business. It was a rebellion that paid off well. Oh how stupid we all were.
Konami spent much of the ’90s leveraging deals with properties like The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they also put out some great games that weren’t tied to major entertainment IPs. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Silent Scope, other entries in the Contra series, Vandal Hearts and ISS Soccer were just a few of their standout games at the time. They also released Metal Gear Solid in 1998, and one of the best gaming experiences of the decade was there before we even knew what was happening.
Sierra is on this list for a pretty simple reason. King’s Quest V was the best selling video game in the first half of the 90’s. No one could beat it off that rack, and the folks at Sierra turned the success into an eventual $1.5 billion sale to CUC International. In 1996 they secured the publishing rights to Half-Life. If you’re taking two steps to making a mark in the ’90s, then these are the two you need to do. To top it off, they used their publishing linchpin to launch Homeworld in 1999, capping the decade with another gaming milestone.
Nintendo and Sega
The reason I give credit to Nintendo and Sega is that even though they were two pillars of the industry in the 90’s, they both had enough money for software development as they sold consoles in pounds sterling which they used cheat- code operated. You can argue that’s unfair and I would agree with you but I would also say that it’s just plain boring to occupy two slots on this list with such obvious choices. We all know who they are and what they did, why fool around?
While these aren’t the only developers who had a major impact in the ’90s, they are ten key groups of people who have impacted my personal gaming life more than just about any other. I’ll be making journeys through other gaming decades in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more.
https://www.gamepur.com/guides/the-10-best-game-developers-of-the-90s The 10 best game developers of the 90s