Although videogaming as we know it came to life in the 80s, some would argue that the 90s were the gestation period of the industry we have now. It was an era of true innovation and originality, with developers having to utilise imagination and ingenuity instead of falling back on ever more impressive graphical technology. With more primitive hardware, gameplay was the focus, and because of this, many would argue this was the golden age of gaming, where actual gameplay shone brightly, not weighted down by the expectation of amazing visuals and online multiplayer, and without the millstone of penny-pinching DLC or online passes around its neck.
We saw many superb games released during the 90s, on many different formats, and this was where a number of now long-running franchises were born. Along with these commercially successful, and enduring titles, however, came a whole host of great games that either didn’t get the recognition they deserved on release, or simply fell out of gaming’s consciousness, never to be seen again. These underappreciated classics deserve to be loved, and we aim to share with you some of our favourites, beginning with the top 25 underappreciated games of 1990.
25. Venus The Flytrap
This was a tough as nails platform shooter form Gremlin, and one that we’re sure most of you have never heard of. The Earth is pretty much screwed, following overpopulation and pollution, and a solution is needed if people are going to survive. So, what does mankind do? It sends in a robotic fly to fix the mess. What else?.
Okay, so the premise is silly, but the game wasn’t. It was an interesting take on the platform shooter, with a hero that could walk on ceilings, and by shooting foes and collecting power ups, weapons could be improved and movement augmented. Some power-ups, however, would also have negative effects.
It had a bold, colourful art style, all very 90s, and delivered a good challenge that utilised the unique movement and skills of its protagonist to help bolster the gameplay.
24. Dick Tracy
Riding on the reasonable success of the Warren Beatty movie, Sega’s Dick Tracy for the Mega Drive was a genuinely fun shooter. It was basic stuff, and all you did was walk from left to right shooting and punching foes, but how it handled this was novel.
Dick could shoot foes close to him with his pistol, but enemies in the background needed to be mowed down with his trusty Tommy gun. This pushed the game into a very basic 2.5D style, and although it was a very simple trick, it worked. Enemies in the distance could even take cover in the background, and there were more challenging sections where Dick had no ammo and had to rely on his fists.
The aesthetic design of the game was spot on too, as bold and unique as the subject matter, and regardless of the movie and comic tie-in, it was a great game on its own merits.
Released by EA and Bullfrog on the Atari ST and Amiga, Flood was a great platformer with some interesting features. As Quiffy, a strange little green creature, you had to navigate a myriad of levels, collecting rubbish, defeating enemies and avoiding a watery grave as each area slowly flooded with water. Quiffy was a sprightly little thing, able to climb walls and swim around, and could utilise a range of impressive weaponry, such as TNT, throwing stars, flame-throwers and more.
Visually impressive, with a great water system, the game also featured more than simple platforming. Aside from the aforementioned water hazard, which made for a constant level timer of sorts, each area was littered with traps and other threats, and Quiffy was followed by a deadly ghost, which was another reason for players to keep moving forward.
And what an ending…
Awesome came at a time when Psygnosis was constantly pushing the boundaries, releasing impressive titles that were very different to most other releases of the time. Awesome was no different, and it was a sci-fi mash-up, wrapping together top-down shooting, first-person blasting, on-foot sections, and trading.
Making your way across the galaxy, you had to acquire resources to fuel your journey, and this required fighting all sorts of space beings. To survive, it was essential to upgrade your ship with more powerful weaponry, as you started with a fairly mundane load out.
Awesome was a good-looking game for the time, with some impressive cinematics, something Psygnosis was well known for, and the mixture of shooting and trading helped make it all the more memorable.
21. Elemental Master
Many Mega Drive owners will have had this in Japanese import form, as it was released in Japan in 1990, but didn’t arrive in the west until 1993. It was a scrolling, vertical shooter, but instead of some form of space ship, aircraft or even winged beast, you played a man, who walked along blasting everything in his way.
The protagonist, Laden, was a powerful sorcerer, who could make use of elemental magical attacks, which he could fire both upwards and downwards, to cover foes coming from both directions, something of a rarity of auto-scrolling shooters of the time.
It was developed by TechnoSoft, the same team responsible for the Thunder Force series, and so was a quality shooter with a great soundtrack. Unlike Thunder Force, however, it was nowhere near as successful. Shame.
Released in arcades by Atari, Rampart was a distinctly different title to see next to the collection of shooters, beat ’em ups and racers usually adorning arcade halls the world over. It was a hybrid shooter, puzzle, and strategy title set in a medieval period of kings and castles.
Players had to protect their land, surrounded by a wall, by utilising cannons to attack enemies and defending their castles. Enemies attacked using fleets of ships, which had to be destroyed as quickly as possible. At the same time, players needed to repair damage to their castles.
Control over the various defences was allowed, and before an attack, players had to position cannons and forts. The preceding action was then round based, alternating between battle and repair, allowing the player to reposition defences if they so wish. There was also a multiplayer mode, which was great fun, and definitely unique at the time.
On its release, Hammerfist was one of those games that jumped off the pages of gaming magazines, with visuals that just pulled you in. It was a side-scrolling action adventure that allowed players to control two different protagonists, each with different abilities.
Hammerfist was the male combatant, who was strong and could fire energy bolts, whilst Metalisis was the female form, agile and able to traverse obstacles Hammerfist could not. As the two, you had to clear each game screen, killing all foes and collecting items to proceed. Each character had their own health bar, as did the game’s antagonist, The Master. Any items not collected would power up The Master, causing items to become harmful.
In order to progress, players had to combine the skills of both characters in every room, adding a puzzle element to the combat. It was a great title, and one that made full use of it’s unique mechanics.
18. The Killing Game show
Published by Psygnosis, The Killing Game Show was a challenging platform shooter. Players has to navigate various levels, progressing from the bottom of each level to the top in order to avoid the rapidly rising toxic sludge. To do this, the main character could run, jump and climb walls, and utilise a selection of weaponry. Keys also had to be found in order to open gates spread around the level.
The stand out feature at the time, however, was the replay. Upon death, the game played back the previous life’s attempt. This could be fast-forwarded through, and you could assume control at any time, starting off the next life at that point.
The game was later ported to console under the name Fatal Rewind, playing up the replay function even more, but it was an inferior port to the original Atari ST and Amiga versions, as the port missed out levels and had less of a general polish.
As well as featuring cybernetic reproductions of James Bond, The Man with No Name, and Rambo, which was odd, to say the least, Nitro was a great top-down racer that took place on eight-way scrolling maps.
Various races were featured, with day and night playing a big part (the latter had limited visibility with headlights revealing your surroundings). As you progressed from race to race, you had to upgrade and repair your vehicle and ensure you had enough fuel to compete in the next event.
Up to three people could play the game, with a fourth AI racer (or more with less human players), and this made for hectic competitions. Each car type handled better on different terrain too, adding some strategy to the race.
16. Space Gun
There were a lot of Operation Wolf clones in arcades during the 90s, but one of the best had to be Taito’s Aliens-riffing Space Gun. This was a sci-fi light gun title that pitted players against an army of deadly aliens.
As you blasted your way through the various locations, including a moon base and space station, you had to rescue captives and defeat powerful bosses. Various ammo types were available, each having different effects on your xenomorph foes. Ice rounds could freeze foes, for example, whilst blade shots could easily sever limbs.
It looked great, with huge aliens scratching and biting at the screen, and the action was fast, frantic and made you feel every bit like the Space Marine you wanted to be from the Alien series .
A rather strange murder mystery adventure from Access Software, Countdown was a point and clicker that mixed the traditional, point and click puzzling with top-down mazes and exploration. As with many Access titles of the period, it also used digitized actors for dialogue sections.
The game challenged players to solve a murder and clear the name of amnesia-stricken protagonist, Mason Powers. This quest took in locations from all over he world, and the task at hand had to be completed in a 96 hour time frame.
It was a good looking game, and the mixture of play styles, along with the digitized actors and quirky presentation made it very memorable.
14. Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure
This platformer is considered to be a cult classic by some, and rightly so. It was released in the west as DecapAttack, but this original Japanese version, which is based upon a cartoon, is preferred by many of the game’s fans.
DecapAttack was greatly modified, seeing changes to the character, levels and all elements of presentation, which some would say made it inferior to this Japanese original. This version of the game had no horror element, but instead had a very cutsey feel, and included such power-ups as a throwable egg-shaped sidekick called Robegg.
As with many Japanese titles, Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure also offered a much greater challenge than its western counterpart, with one-hit kills instead of a health meter, which was added to DecapAttack to make it easier and appeal to western audiences.
13. Night Shift
Night Shift was a great little puzzler by LucasArts. In it, you played as a factory worker for the amusingly-titled Industrial Might & Logic. You had to manufacture all sorts of Star Wars-themed toys, such as Stormtroopers and Darth Vaders in order to meet your quota per day. This involved using various tools in the different assignment types, such as powering up machinery, fixing damage, and so on. There were also foes to contend with, such as lawyers, and each day increased the quota, beefing up the challenge.
The complex machinery made for some engrossing puzzling, and the Star Wars and LucasFilm theme didn’t hurt either.
Arriving before Wolfenstein 3D, Corporation was a first person shooter that was well ahead of its time. Set in a corporation-ruled future, the game casts you as a spy infiltrating the highly suspicious Universal Cybernetics Corporation.
After choosing from one of six agents, including powerful androids, players had to progress from the roof of the corporation building to the lower levels, all the time looking for evidence proving that the UCC was up to no good. Alongside first person shooting, the game featured hacking and stealth mechanics, as well as inventory management that saw you carefully use items brought along with you for the mission.
Corporation was a very difficult, and highly tactical FPS that required a lot of thought. This was no simple run and gun title, but required far more of an investment, which is impressive given the early release and limited technology that managed to bring the 3D world to life.
11. Buck Rogers: Countdown To Doomsday
Sporting the Buck Rogers license, a character that fell out of favour with the general public long ago, this role playing strategy title from SSI was a genuine gem of a game that far too few people played.
It sported a whole host of game styles, all wrapped up into a large space adventure. Modes included solar system navigation where various planets could be visited, and while flying through space, ship-to-ship combat was possible. Whilst on the surface of planets exploration was done in both top-down and first person, with combat being handled by a turn-based strategic battle system.
It was a surprisingly in depth and deep game, and all of the various game styles worked well together to produce an engrossing strategy RPG, and one that offered quite a steep challenge, and plenty of replay value.
10. Rise Of The Dragon
Arriving first on the PC in 1990, and following on other formats later, Rise of The Dragon was a brilliant and atmospheric adventure delivered in an interactive comic-style manner, similar to other classic tiles like Snatcher, Kult, and B.A.T.
Set in future Los Angeles, and to a strict time limit, the game was a difficult adventure where you had to play a private detective investigating the death of the Mayor’s daughter. The core gameplay was point and click, and focused on puzzles and conversations with the many characters residing in the seedy underworld of L.A.
The game’s internal timer added to the difficulty, and you had to carefully plan your actions and ensure you were present in specific locations at the right time to advance the story. This made the game all very trial and error at times, but it worked, and the world the game delivered was rich and absorbing enough that you didn’t mind revisiting it again, and again.
At a time when classics like Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands were riding high, Rodland was a great title that many simply ignored. This was a crying shame, as this was a great arcade title that was simple, but very addictive. It first appeared in arcades in 1990, and followed on home formats later.
As protagonists Tam and Rit, players had to proceed through a host of levels filled with enemies, clearing each screen to progress. Foes were dispatched by grabbing them with your magic rod, and slamming them from side to side into the floor. Fruit could be collected in each level, and granted bonuses and power ups.
Rodland‘s cartoon aesthetic and big, bold characters made the game very appealing, and the difficulty soon spiked, with some devious enemies forcing players to think tactically and on their toes at all times. The two player mode was the icing on the cake, and working together to clear each stage made for a coin-guzzling classic.
8. Bonanza Bros.
This is another arcade title from 1990, although most may remember it after playing it on the Sega Mega Drive. Bonanza Bros. was a quirky little stealth title where you had to break into various locations in order to steal specific objects. Locations were guarded by a variety of personnel, including standard security guards, and officers wearing riot gear.
Controlling the game’s stars, Mobo and Robo, players had to make use of a stun gun, which only temporarily stunned foes, and could also hide in the background to avoid guard’s lines of sight, as well as enemy fire if discovered. Each level had a strict time limit, and the game could be played either solo, or with a friend.
It was a charming and unique game, and one that was also very tricky due to hard to avoid enemies and the crushing time limits imposed on players.
7. Alien Storm
Scrolling beat ’em ups like Renegade, Final Fight, and Double Dragon were commonplace in the 90s, and a lesser known example is Sega’s Alien Storm. Launching in arcades in 1990, it took the traditional scrolling fighting formula and replaced the usual clichéd street thugs with aliens, and the heroes with weapon-toting alien exterminators.
This was a simple, but effective switch to make, and blasting extra terrestrial foes with guns, flame-throwers, laser whips and other high-tech attacks was certainly a little more interesting than yet another bout of martial arts and street gangs.
Breaking up the standard combat sections were extra features like first-person shooting galleries, and fast-paced shooting sections. All the time it was delivered with a vibrant, Saturday morning cartoon feel, and featured a great, B-movie sci-fi horror soundtrack.
6. Smash TV
Williams’ Smash TV was a simply glorious shooter that took the form of a twisted TV game show where contestants had to kill endless legions of foes in order to win money and appliances. As a new contestant, players fought their way through single-screen levels, making their way to the stage boss, amassing riches, toasters, VCRs and more.
During each level, you had to survive by blasting foes by firing in eights directions, all the time making sure you never stopped moving, lest you be overwhelmed by the stream of enemies after your blood. To help you along, you could pick up various power-ups, including powerful weapons and defensive shields.
There was very little to the gameplay here, just keep moving and shooting, but it was all done in such a playable and addictive way. The dual joystick control foreshadowed today’s standard dual analogue sticks, and the two player mode was simply brilliant.
5. Star Control
Alright, so Star Control is hardly underappreciated by its fans. The sequel has actually been reproduced in fan-made format (Ur-Quan Masters), and it’s superb. However, the original game, and the series as a whole has largely been ignored by the majority, and this is a shame as its one of the best examples of real time strategic combat and turn-based strategy around.
The first game may not have had the complexity and level of content as the second, but this is where the series began, and although simple, the ship-to-ship combat using a wide array of interesting vessels was great. Each ship was unique, and all had their own strengths and weaknesses. This was, in a way, Street Fighter with space ships, and it also added a turn-based strategy mode with various scenarios, basic resource management, and ship building.
All modes could be played against the computer, including the strategic challenges, but the game really stood out when played with a friend.
4. Operation Stealth
Without a doubt one of the most overlooked adventures of the 90s, Operation Stealth was a brilliant point and click adventure set to the backdrop of cold war espionage. If you were in Europe, you’d be forgiven for thinking the game was a blatant rip-off of James Bond, and you’d be right. In fact, in the US it actually was a James Bond game, called The Stealth Affair. The license didn’t make the transition to Europe, sadly, hence the more generic title, and different hero, John Glames.
It was arguably the best adventure from Delphine, which was also responsible for Future Wars, and it featured inventory and environmental puzzles, as well as limited action sections. You could interact with various inventory items, and could combine them in order to solve various problems, such as creating a forged passport, one of the game’s first challenges.
Operation Stealth was a tough adventure, with some very tricky action sequences (the underwater swimming sections were brutal), and it didn’t matter if you had the official James Bond version or more generic release, this was a true 007 adventure either way.
3. Super Cars
Super Cars, by Gremlin Graphics and Magnetic Fields, was a top-down racer, and one of the best examples of the genre, which was popularised by the classic Super Sprint, and later made far more noteworthy by Codemasters with Micro Machines.
Here the game spanned a number of different tracks, and by winning each race, you could earn more money, which could then be used to buy upgrades for your car, as well as totally new vehicles. You could even buy rockets, which could be used to take out your opponents during a race.
A novel feature was the ability to talk to the car salesman in order to try and get a discount, which could allow you to get a better car earlier. During races, you also had to avoid obstacles, such as oil spills, and many tracks featured bridges, which you’d have to drive underneath, making for accident hotspots if you weren’t careful.
A woefully underrated title that was one of the first games on the Super Nintendo, Actraiser was a fantastic mixture of side-scolling hack and slash combat and strategic city building.
The game cast you as a god who had to rid his lands of evil in order to allow his subjects to thrive, building bigger cities and expanding their lands. You managed this by first dropping down from your cloud-level haven in order to smite your enemies with your trusty sword. This played like many side-scrolling action titles of the time, complete with bosses and power ups. Once a boss was defeated, it was then time to take to the skies, and to control an angel, who could help guide your worshippers, helping them build larger towns and blessing them with miracles. You also had to defeat various demons and foes that would attack as you tried to build your empire.
Both core sections of Actraiser were well implemented, and it was one of the most unique console releases of 1990, mixing two usually disparate genres together, and making the combination work. It was a difficult title, but seeing your towns and cities grow as you managed to build your population and influence was hugely rewarding.
Turrican was a 90s videogame star, making a name for himself on the Atari ST and Amiga. The game was a side-scrolling platform shooter that featured fairly simplistic gameplay, but it was brilliantly put together, and featured a host of powerful weapons, many of which you had to make use of at the right time to succeed. It also featured a killer soundtrack and great audio design.
Turrican was heavily influenced by Nintendo’s Metroid, right down to Turrican’s ability to transform into a ball mode that could drop bombs. Levels were also non-linear, and you could freely explore them as you wished, before taking on one of the various unique bosses.
Technically, Turrican was one of the most impressive games of the time, with even the Commodore 64 version looking fantastic, pushing the platform into a whole new level. The gameplay may have been simple, but it was pure, unadulterated fun, and we’d love to see this gaming hero return to our screens.
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