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Why 1996 Was the Best Year in Gaming

Tomb Raider and Crash Bandicoot and Diablo, oh my!


Which year was the best in video game history? Which 12 month period had the biggest releases and the most influential games? Join us over the next few days as we look back in time at five of the most outstanding years in games. Today, we look back at 1996.

In 1996, the industry landscape was forever altered with a handful of game-changing new franchises. It was a golden year for strong leading characters and equally strong new gameplay ideas, both from Japanese and Western studios. Icons that are now household names—including Lara Croft and Crash Bandicoot--were born in 1996. It was a good year to be a Mario fan as well, with still-beloved favorites from two branches of the franchise making their debut. Not to mention this was the year the world got Pokémon, a series that would reach dizzying heights of popularity nearly two decades later.

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Super Mario 64 | Nintendo EAD

1996 was the year we got the Nintendo 64. And with a new Nintendo console came new installments in beloved first-party franchises. Not only was Super Mario 64 one of the first 3D platform games, it was the first title in the Mario series to go open-world (almost). Players could complete levels on their own time, with emphasis on the exploration and working through multiple objectives at once instead of a linear progression. Of all of its design risks, its 360-degree controllable camera angle made Super Mario 64 revolutionary, and forever changed the way we thought about 3D platformers.

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Mario Kart 64 | Nintendo EAD

In addition to a new Mario platformer, players eager to break in their Nintendo 64 got a new Mario Kart as well. Mario Kart 64 was the first Mario Kart to move to 3D. This new dimension added depth to tracks, significantly changing elevating structures like bridges, pits, and walls. The addition of four-player multiplayer turned Mario Kart into a party game staple, a favorite for large gatherings and a must-have game for every Nintendo console moving forward.

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Resident Evil | Capcom

Created by lauded horror game designer Shinji Mikami, the original Resident Evil marked the beginning of the modern survival-horror genre. In addition to redefining the genre, it featured a clever inventory system that has been borrowed and mirrored in countless games since. Despite some genuinely poor and cheesy dialogue, Resident Evil brilliantly weaves tension into gameplay. No game since has been able to top those dogs jumping through the window.

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Crash Bandicoot | Naughty Dog

Crash Bandicoot was one of the best-looking games for its time. Praised for its graphics, this platform game would go on to become one of PlayStation’s Greatest Hits for a reason. Colorfully detailed environments and soft-edged characters drew players to the screen, shading made areas feel more tangible and real, and animations were widely applauded for being silky smooth. It didn’t do anything new for the action game genre, mostly borrowing tried and true gameplay mechanics, but the depth of field allowed players different perspectives for its platforming sections. Crash Bandicoot was also the first major hit from a little studio that would go on to make wonderful, powerful experiences: Naughty Dog.

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Tomb Raider | Eidos

When someone asks you to name a strong female video game character, invariably Lara Croft is the first to come to mind. In addition to spawning a still-beloved icon, Tomb Raider became a template for the 3D action adventure games that followed in its footsteps. Its innovative gameplay, a mixture of action sequences and puzzle solving would be forever imitated and built on by new franchises. Its cinematic approach to storytelling was groundbreaking for its time, and we still see traces of Tomb Raider’s approach to narrative in series like Uncharted. Lara would go on to star in everything from films based on the games to comic books and more, transcending gaming to become a pop culture darling.

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Shin Megami Tensei: Persona | Atlus

Known for its sophisticated themes, endearing characters, and compelling inter-character relationship chasing, Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series kicked off in 1996 with Revelations: Persona. Where traditional role-playing games stuck to medieval settings with magical influence, Persona took place in the modern arena with a cast of rowdy teenagers. The game broke the mold of what defined Japanese role-playing games at the time and while it received average reviews at the time was lauded as--and has since become--a cult classic.

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Diablo | Blizzard

On the last day of the year 1996, we got Diablo. Blizzard’s latest creation, a hack-and-slash action role-playing game, set a dark and broody tone but sucked players in with a seemingly unending amount of things to do. Being able to choose and develop a class to your liking was one thing, but the immense variety of spells, items, monsters, and quests made the game addictive and set the replayability bar high. Players fell in love with Diablo’s multiplayer, and to this day it’s one of the most highly acclaimed online gaming experiences in history.

Do you think 1996 was the best year for games? Did we miss any other outstanding games released that year? Sound off in the comments below! And don't forget to come back over the next few days for more Best Year in Gaming features.

Check out our previous Best Year in Gaming features below:

Why 1993 Was the Best Year in Gaming

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