For our second look at the the underappreciated videogames of the 1990s, we – quite logically – land in 1991. This was a year where we saw classics like Another World, Lemmings and Neverwinter Nights arrive on home computers, Street Fighter II launched in the arcades, and Sega’s mascot, Sonic The Hedgehog make his console debut. It was also the year that saw the arrival of the SNES, with Super Mario World, F-Zero and the mighty Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past.
These are just some of the big releases of the year, and alongisde there were many others, some of which would go on to become 90s favourites, and others that would slip under the radar. So, let’s have a look at some of the underappreciated games, including some that may have been successful at the time, but have since drifted into obscurity.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Armour-Geddon gives you control of a number of vehicles, and you have to plan your attacks, and choose which vehicles out of the six available types to take into each battle. You also have to research new weapons to improve your chances.
The actual combat is 3D, with the era’s characteristic polygon technology. It all looks very simple by today’s standard, of course, but back in 1991, this was impressive stuff, and the mixture of different vehicles, along with the strategic element make this a great title.
One of the only decent games on the Amiga CD32, D/Generation was also released for PC, Amiga and Atari ST. It’s a great little isometric puzzler where you have to navigate the dangers of a bioweapon company’s skyscraper.
Each room of the tower contains traps and bioweapon creatures. You have to defeat all of the creatures and seal air vents to stop them getting in to clear a room and proceed. Your gun can be used to fight foes, but is also useful in solving puzzles, as it’s able to trip switches, amongst other uses. You can also rescue stranded company employees, granting you extra lives.
Its simple visuals didn’t make it an instantly desirable title, and it wasn’t what you’d expect of a game to demonstrate the supposed power of the CD32, but it had it where it counted, with good gameplay.
23. Mad TV
Mad TV gives you control of your own TV channel, and during each eight hour day you have to fill up the programming schedule and make sure you have enough advertising to keep your channel funded. To attract the advertisers you’ll have to have good ratings, with the big name brands requiring the most viewers to land.
Why are you doing all of this? To become the best TV station ever? Nope, not really. Your ultimate goal is to win over the girl, in this case Betty, a news reporter who’s attracting the attention of you, and other executives in the building.
Mad TV is an interesting strategy game with a great cartoon style and unique interface. Despite the whimsical presentation, it’s still quite a deep game, and has a ton of replayability. You can even run a TV station without any crappy reality TV shows. Good lord.
Also called Wings Of Wor, Gynoug for the Sega Mega Drive is a widely ignored shooter in which you play a winged warrior on a mission to save his world. It’s a typical side-scrolling shooter, and to be honest, there isn’t really anything unique about it. The key thing here is quality, and it’s a really well put together shooter with some great bosses and useful power-ups.
It didn’t get the same public recognition as titles like Thunderforce or Hellfire in its day, which was a shame as it may not be quite as good as those big names, but it’s a definite quality shooter.
21. Jewel Master
Another Mega Drive title, this time in the form of a side-scrolling action platformer of sorts. You play as the titular jewel master, and using various configurations of rings you can equip all sorts of magical attacks. This was a unique feature back on release, and by mixing different rings you can create whole new moves. For example, one set of rings may create a short range fire blast, whilst another will allow the use of a ranged fireball.
Rings are elemental, and you can use a separate combination per hand, giving you two different attacks at any one time. As you make your way through the game you find more powerful rings, giving you even more options. It’s a challenging, and fairly decent-looking title that presents quite a challenge.
A Psygnosis title, Leander is a very console-style action platformer that originally appeared on the Atari and Amiga in 1991, later arriving on the Mega Drive in 1992 (as Leander on the US Genesis, and The Legend of Galahad on MD). You play as a knight on a quest to save a princess, so it’s hardly an original premise, but the game itself is solid.
You use various weapons to battle a range of creature in three differently themed worlds, and can visit the local shop to buy new items. Armour power-ups can also help you in your mission.
The game has that distinctive Psygnosis aesthetic and design, and is a great mix of platforming and hack-and-slash play.
19. Mega Lo Mania
One of the more original god games to arrive on the market, Mega Lo Mania doesn’t take the serious approach like Populous, but instead is a comedic RTS that’s presented on a smaller scale.
The game is all about the race to master technology before rival tribes do, and as the overseer of a tribe, it’s up to you to guide your worshippers in research and creation of ever more powerful weapons and structures. Eventually, you’d need to fight and defeat your foes, taking over the whole land.
Each level was small scale, split into several screen-sized blocks, each of which were ruled by a different tribe, or open to all to take. By inventing and equipping your men with better weapons than your foes, moving from cavemen with sticks to armies with jets and guns, you could ensure victory.
What made Mega Lo Mania so good was the great, simple design, and the faster paced levels, which were far more interesting and action packed than larger-scale titles like Populous. This was a god game for RTS fans with ADD. A shame the sequel never got out of development.
Brat is a tricky puzzler in which you have to guide baby Nathan through each level by placing down various tiles in his path. Tiles have various effects, including pointing Nathan in different directions, stopping him and using a range of items to bypass obstacles and foes.
The game is very similar to Lemmings, but instead of a whole procession of creatures, you have a single baby to protect, which is arguably more difficult as the game is faster paced, with more types of dangers to avoid. The isometric design also makes it feel very different, and each level presents a new challenge.
The unofficial sequel to Silkworm, SWIV takes the two-player co-op of Silkworm‘s side-scrolling shooting and changes it to a vertical blaster. As in Silkworm, one player takes control of a helicopter, and the other drives a jeep (which can change into a boat).
Although the first game was better, making much better use of the two-player dynamic, SWIV is still a fine shooter, and the unique mix of air, land, and sea combat make it stand out from the crowd. The boss battles are also good, taking inspiration directly from the ‘Goose’ enemy of Silkworm.
16. Wonderboy In Monster World
Once upon a time, Wonderboy was a big thing in gaming. His original games were very popular, but over time, this popularity faded, and the simple run and jump gameplay soon wore thin. So, to stay relevant, spin-offs were created, including Wonderboy In Monster World for the Mega Drive.
The game plays in a similar way to the likes of Zelda II on the NES. It features basic RPG elements, including the ability to increase your health, find and equip new weapons, and NPCs you can talk to in towns and villages. Combat and adventuring is side-scrolling, with simple hack and slash fighting alongside the use of various weapons and magic. Some puzzle elements are also included. In every sense, this is Zelda II for Sega machines.
15. First Samurai
No relation to the Last Ninja, this is a side-scrolling action title that casts you as a lone Samurai in a strange land. Your quest is to slay the demon king, and to do this you need to traverse a series of varied locations, including a rural landscape, a speeding subway train, and urban sprawl.
Initially unarmed, with only martial arts to defend you, you soon obtain your magic sword after killing enough enemies (although you can lose it too), and you also have access to a range of throwing weapons. Your samurai is an agile chap, able to fight with his sword in all directions, even in mid air, and he can climb walls to better move through the world.
First Samurai is a visually striking platformer from Vivid Image, with the eastern setting being a little different to the norm when it was released. It saw releases on other platforms other than the Amiga and ST, including PC, Commodore 64, and SNES.
14. Road Rash
Although it’s coming back in spirit via the Kickstarter project, Road Redemption, the actual Road Rash series is one that’s seemingly been cast out by publisher, Electronic Arts, which certainly underappreciates one of its best IPs.
The premise is simple: compete in cross country bike races with the goal of finishing first. The difference? You can punch, kick and club your foes off their bikes in order to gain the upper hand. Whilst doing all of this you have to avoid traffic and the police. Get busted, and it’s game over.
Road Rash II was the best in the series (in this writer’s opinion, anyway), but it was in 1991 when we first got the chance to burn rubber and break teeth. EA’s reluctance to reboot this is puzzling.
13. Cruise For A Corpse
A classic whodunit mystery, Cruise For A Corpse is a point and click adventure from Delphine Software, creators of classics like Another World and Flashback. It’s set in the 1920s aboard a cruise ship. As a police officer, who was a guest of the murdered host, you have to solve the crime.
It’s all very Agatha Cristie, right down to the period setting and assembling of possible killers, many of which are family members of the victim who are a little calm, considering the situation. You have to interview the various witnesses and suspects, as well as finding your way around the cruise ship, solving puzzles in the traditional point-and-click adventure style.
12. Sunset Riders
Appearing in arcades in 1991, Sunset Riders is a Wild West-themed scrolling shooter in which you play as colourful guns lingers taking on whole armies of bandits in towns, deserts and on top of stampeding cattle. Your ultimate goal is to find and confront the wanted outlaw, Sir Richard Rose.
Pure action, with co-operative play, it’s a big, bold and frantic shooter, and an example of why Konami was a big name in the arcades way back when. It eventually received home ports, arriving on the Mega Drive and SNES, but the Sega conversion was pretty poor, and the SNES got by far the best port.
Hailing from the Bitmap Brothers, Gods is a unique take on Greek mythology, bearing the familiar Bitmap style and strong presentation. You play as Hercules on a quest to become immortal. To do this, you have to overcome a challenge set by the gods, which basically means fighting your way through various dangerous locations, finding keys to open doors and power-ups to help you survive.
A ladder and platform action adventure, Gods’ core gameplay isn’t all that different, but it is very polished with a great soundtrack. What is interesting is the game’s AI system. Depending on how well you do in the game, you’re given more or less items and power-ups. Enemies also change their behaviour and positions.
It’s also much better than the subsequent Bitmap game, Magic Pockets…
10. Martian Memorandum
The second outing for Tex Murphy, who was recently revived in the kickstarter-funded, Tesla Effect, Martian Memorandum was a very different game to the FMV adventures the series would become known for.
This Tex adventure takes on a more traditional point-and-click adventure style, and no longer features the flight sections and open-ish world of the first game. It’s all still heavily dialogue-based, with conversation choices being more prevalent than normal puzzles, and it features FMV for characters, a staple of the series. Of course, it’s all delivered with the usual humour and none-too-serious writing.
9. James Pond 2: Robocod
While this may not have been all that underappreciated on release, it soon faded into obscurity, and the third game, although decent, changed the formula when it really didn’t need to.
At a time when many home computer owners were envious of console gamers’ massive choice of enjoyable platformers and more arcade-style releases, James Pond 2 was the perfect green eye remedy.
It features very similar gameplay to Nintendo’s Mario series, with stomp attacks, various themed-worlds and big bosses, but it adds in drivable vehicles and Pond’s ability to stretch upwards to access new areas and items. It also looks great, with a detailed cartoon aesthetic, and the Santa’s toy factory setting allows for some great stage designs.
Robocod is about as console as it gets, so much so that it did get released on consoles later on. Sadly, with such an abundance of games in the genre available on these platforms, it was lost in a sea of titles that already dominated the formats.
Widely hailed as one of the most difficult games ever released, especially in its NES incarnation, Battletoads is a great action title that features a selection of gameplay styles spread over a host of controller-smashing levels.
The Battletoads, an obvious attempt to ape the Ninja Turtles, are great game characters, and during the course of the game you need to fight in side-scrolling beat ’em up sections, abseil down giant pits, fly fighters, and infamously, dodge walls and pits on jet bikes in the dreaded Turbo Tunnels level.
Some of the levels are very inventive, such as the snake level, where you have to use moving snakes to climb and avoid spikes, and the addition of two-player, rather than making the game easier, actually ups the challenge (as if it needs it), as you can hit each other by mistake, and when one player dies, you both have to restart. This difficulty put many players off, meaning the game arguably never found its true success. It sold a lot of copies, though.
Battletoads is another game that may have done fairly well sales-wise on release, and it even had additional outings and a team up with Double Dragon, but it never became the killer series it could have been, and now lies mostly forgotten. With the recent interest in harder games like Dark Souls, however, maybe the ‘toads could return.
7. El Viento
A very obscure side-scroller on the Mega Drive. El Viento is an anime-themed title in which you play as a very fleet-footed heronie fighting foes in 1930’s New York. Using her trusty boomerang and magical abilities, you have to fight through mobsters and all sorts of otherworldly threats to stop the arrival or a dark being.
Wolf Team’s style is all over this adventure, with the familiar sprite-scaling and warping effects the team often used in its games. These provided some great boss battles and visual effects for magic. It was also a very fluid and fast-paced game, and skilled players could breeze through levels in no time. A very speed-run friendly title, and one of the better scrolling shooters on the Mega Drive.
6. Moonstone: A Hard Day’s Knight
A cult classic, Moonstone is a brilliant, and brutal beat ’em up where you play as a knight fighting against all sorts of fantasy creatures, all of which have unique and grizzly ways to take you out. You explore a large land full of these dangerous creatures, and can visit settlements to buy items and obtain other services.
The game allows one to four players, and each picks a different coloured knight. As you wander, you can encounter each other, and fight to the death, picking clean the corpse of your fallen foe. This was also possible in single-player, as the computer took over this role.
Moonstone was a visual masterpiece on release, and even today boasts a charming, if gory aesthetic, like an adult-rated Castle Crashers. Despite a loyal fan following, the game is largely unknown, which is a shame.
5. Popful Mail
Although a superior version would later arrive on the Mega CD (Sega CD) in 1994, 1991’s Popful Mail on the PC-98 was a great side scrolling RPG which is, unfortunately, also one of the least well known action RPGs of the era, even with its Mega CD release in 1994.
It’s an anime title with a typically bubbly red-haired female protagonist. Much of the play is platfrom-based exploring, and you visit towns to converse with NPCs and trade for items. The core game is similar to the later versions, but relies less on combat and more on exploration, with levels that are far more complex and maze-like, whereas later releases would be more straightforward, with more combat.
4. ToeJam & Earl
Although Toejam & Earl is often listed on best game lists for Sega’s Mega Drive, it’s also very underappreciated, both by gamers and Sega. Only two sequels starred the alien duo from Funkotron, with a good second outing, and a poor third, but the first game is arguably the best. Unlike the side-scrolling second game, the first is a skewed perspective top-down adventure that features randomly generated levels.
One or two players can take part, with the latter being by far the best option as the game is clearly designed with co-op in mind. The goal is simple, wander around the abstract depiction of Earth to locate the various parts of Toejam and Earl’s ship. Blocking your progress are a zany collection of humans, each of which have different attacks and personalities. Most are dangerous, but some are friendly.
The game makes use of presents as power-ups, but on beginning a new game, you don’t know what there are until you open them, only then will you be able to tell what each kind of present contains. This is important, as some presents are bad for you, even to the point of instant death.
It’s a very challenging game, and the random worlds (there is a fixed version too) makes each game totally unique, so you can’t prepare for what’s to come, which necessitates a good level of co-operation. A classic, and one that could be done justice in a decent reboot with network play.
3. The Immortal
The Immortal is a unique take on the usual sword and sorcery adventure. Instead of a muscle-bound barbarian you play as a wizard, one that’s not exactly durable, as death awaits at every turn. At this is quite literal. Every level of the dungeon you’re exploring contains traps and enemies, all of which can kill you outright. In fact, you’ll often die over and over again as you learn the layout of a level before you manage to best each and move onto the next. You find friendly characters who trade items with you, and combat is one-on-one, with a unique attack and defend mechanic.
This trial and error gameplay is hard to get right without becoming cheap, but somehow The Immortal managed to do it correctly, and although it was a very tricky game, with effort, you could best the dungeon, and have a rewarding time doing so.
2. Legend Of The Mystical Ninja
Released on the SNES in the same year as The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, and bearing many similarities to Nintendo’s own action adventure, The Legend Of The Mystical Ninja (also known as Ganbare Goemon) remains one of the best games on the 16-bit console.
The game is split into two main sections, villages and side-scrolling action stages. The former is where the Zelda similarities come in, and you wander around the area, attacking foes and talking to NPCs. You can enter various buildings to shop, as well as partake in minigames to win money, including a quiz show, dice games, and first person mazes, amongst others.
The action sections are side-scrolling action stages where you have to fight enemies, avoid traps and defeat bosses. All of this can be played with two players, which, like Toejam & Earl, is where the game can shine.
It’s surprising how many people haven’t heard of this home computer classic, as it’s one of the very first examples of a true, 3D open world, one where you can drive or fly any vehicle you find.
You play as an elite soldier sent behind enemy lines to achieve various objectives (in a series of missions). It’s totally up to you how you complete these objectives, and the only restriction you have is the time limit. Other than this, you can go where you like, drive what you like, and utilise all sorts of weapons to get the job done.
Spread around the archipelago world are various buildings and facilities, and you’ll find vehicles like cars, tanks, boats, helicopters and even surf boards. Buildings may contain friendlies who you can talk to to find out information, and if you’d rather take a stealthy option, you can disguise yourself as an enemy soldier to avoid combat.
It looks very primitive by today’s standards, but in 1991, this level of detail, flexible play and wide open world was something of a marvel, and was truly spectacular.
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