Why 1998 Was the Best Year in Gaming
The classics take to 3D.
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 at 1998.
1998 was a year of firsts. The first narrative-driven shooter. The first three-dimensional Legend of Zelda game. The first modern stealth simulator. The first Japanese role-playing game that would drive us to catch them all. The first game to emulate cinematic techniques and direction. And the first RPG from a developer that has now become the genre's leader.
And 1998 was the year 3D technology began to mature. The first version of the Unreal engine was released with Epic's first-person shooter of the same name; the technology would go on to power hundreds of games including BioShock, Gears of War, and Mass Effect. It was the year Rockstar Games was founded, the year Sega made the leap from the Saturn to the Dreamcast in its home territory and began the next generation of the time. No matter who you were, or what system you owned, the following list shows 1998 was the year in which there was something truly incredible for everyone to play.
Half-Life | Valve
Valve's debut game showed us that narrative in a first-person shooter didn't need to only be delivered through cutscenes and dialogue, but could be delivered through the environment itself. Half-Life placed you at the center of a catastrophic event; an alien invasion launched through a dimensional tear deep in an underground research facility. The sense of place that Valve builds over the course of the entire game, through environmental interactivity and scripted events that blend naturally and seamlessly with combat and exploration, is impactful even today. There is a reason that a third instalment in the series is so desperately wanted: because even in 1998, Valve were masters of their craft.
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time | Nintendo EAD
Though Sony came to market with the 3D-capable console first, they didn't share Nintendo's burden of figuring out how to recreate classic gaming franchises with a new dimension. But Nintendo was up to the task, first redefining platforming with Super Mario 64, and next, bringing The Legend of Zelda to life in 3D with The Ocarina of Time. The series' hallmark sense of scale and grand adventure was all the more prominent when exploring a 3D Hyrule, and the new dimension allowed for the creation of new kinds of spatial awareness puzzles we had never tackled before. The Ocarina of Time was also one of the first games to use context-sensitive actions on a single button, so its legacy is felt throughout almost every action-adventure game today.
Banjo-Kazooie | Rare
Though it was Super Mario 64 that showed how platformers could work in 3D, it was Rare who took that formula and greatly expanded upon it. Banjo-Kazooie's world was massive, rendered with gorgeous style that pushed the Nintendo 64 to its limit, and full of colourful and quirky characters spouting clever and humorous dialogue. Banjo and Kazooie themselves were gifted with numerous abilities that complemented one another in interesting ways, while additional abilities were unlocked the further into game you progressed--something entirely new for the time. Put simply, Banjo-Kazooie is Rare at their best.
StarCraft: Brood War | Blizzard
Both the original StarCraft, and its expansion pack, Brood War, were released in 1998, so we're combining the two into this single entry. It's for good reason: though the vanilla StarCraft release was a seminal real-time strategy game at launch, it wasn't until Brood War that the game's three-race interplay was strong enough to spearhead the formation of the competitive gaming scene as we know it today. Without StarCraft and Brood War, it's arguable we would not have as strong and vibrant an eSports scene as we do now. Brood War is the chess of the gaming world: deep enough that a plethora of strategies continued to come to the fore, whilst being simple enough that it could kick off as a spectator sport.
Grim Fandango | LucasArts
Despite the fact that there isn't any actual pointing and clicking going on, Grim Fandango is considered to be the pinnacle of the point-and-click adventure. As with other genres at the time, adventure games were in the process of figuring out how to make the move to 3D. Though Grim Fandango won't be remembered for its 3D movement controls, it did opt for a design that removed any kind of interface from the game and replaced it with in-world equivalents for things like inventory management. Beyond this, the game's tone, mature narrative, creative art direction and excellent soundtrack crafted a memorable journey through the underworld.
Thief: The Dark Project | Looking Glass Studios
Thief: The Dark Project pioneered the modern stealth genre as we know it today. It was one of the first games to utilise light and shadow for concealment in a 3D environment, whilst also allowing you to snuff out torches and create more darkness to hide yourself in. Different floor surfaces also created noises at different volumes when walked on, which forced you to play close attention to the beautifully rendered steampunk world. Guards and civilians would exhibit natural reactions to your presence, while written material and conversations to eavesdrop on furthered the story organically. Much of what The Dark Project did forms the basis for any modern immersive first-person game.
Baldur's Gate | BioWare
This is where the BioWare's history with RPGs begins. Baldur's Gate was the developer's first foray into role-playing, and was an essential part of the revival of the genre on PC. It was also a game that successfully translated the complex Dungeons & Dragons ruleset into something that worked well on the platform, making its stats-heavy backbone accurate and accessible. With a massive open world to explore and quests with varied outcomes, Baldur's Gate defined what we would come to know as the BioWare formula--something that would be expanded upon and refined in all of the developer's subsequent RPGs.
Pokemon Red & Pokemon Blue | Game Freak
The worldwide phenomenon that is Pokemon sported relatively humble beginnings on the original Game Boy. Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue took the Japanese RPG formula and turned the party composition aspect into a game about catching its fantastical wildlife. But this wasn't purely about cosmetic choice or personal preference; every Pokemon conformed to a surprisingly deep battle system that rewarded effective use of the interplay between elements and attack types. This wasn't a game about saving the world, or defeating a villain; it was about becoming the best you could be. The fact that we are still trying to catch 'em all in 2014 is a testament to the success of these original games.
Metal Gear Solid | KCEJ
Though the original Metal Gear was one of the first stealth games, Metal Gear Solid--the series' PlayStation debut--isn't remembered as strongly for its contributions to the stealth genre. No, Metal Gear Solid is remembered as one of the first truly cinematic videogames. Its numerous, lengthy cutscenes dramatically recreated filmic techniques, and its characters were brought to life with complete voice acting. The game even broke the fourth wall in clever ways that had never been done before, thanks to the features of the original PlayStation hardware. This cinematic style has persisted for the rest of the Metal Gear Solid series, resulting in one of the most dramatic stories ever told in gaming.
Do you think 1998 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:
GameSpot may get a commission from retail offers.