There’s nothing quite like a good gaming anniversary, and 2019 has plenty.
We’ve spoken previously about the golden years of gaming – the late ’90s, especially if you were a PC gamer. But in those discussions, there was one year that I deliberately left unmentioned because it had an unfair advantage, a technological advantage over its predecessors that fundamentally affected games ever since.
The internet existed long before 1999 – the MSN Gaming Zone thrived on turn-based dial-up gaming. But 1999 saw more games built specifically around online multiplayer, like Unreal Tournament and Quake 3: Arena. Both franchises had some form of singleplayer, of course, but the key in 1999 was that they eschewed the traditional ideas of a shooter campaign for a model that was largely a training ground for online multiplayer.
The majority of users around the world didn’t have access to broadband internet when Quake, Half-Life et al were released. Some countries and places were fortunate enough – Optus were still operating the legendary cable-powered Netstats service, a vastly superior offer to the artificially capped 1500/256kbit offering you could get through Telstra (or Telstra Wholesale).
So as a result, the experience was hugely limited. The original Quake was never developed exclusively with the online experience in mind, so John Carmack spent a year developing new code that would improve the physics, responsiveness, and other small behaviours that soured the experience once your ping went past 200ms.
“If it looks feasible, I would like to see internet focused gaming become a justifiable biz direction for us. Its definitely cool, but it is uncertain if people can actually make money at it,” Carmack wrote in a post outlining Quakeworld‘s broader design.
1999 was about more than multiplayer-centric titles, of course, although it’s difficult to downplay the impact and success games like Quake 3, Team Fortress Classic, the initial release of Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament and MMOs like Everquest – a major source of inspiration for World of Warcraft – had on the rest of the industry. The codebase for those games, especially Quake 3, would go on to form the bedrock of many shooters over the course of the next decade, too.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for truly memorable, iconic games enjoying adulthood this year.
A fun fact for Aussies: while Baldur’s Gate officially launched internationally at the very end of 1998, most Australian stores didn’t get it until the start of 1999. Bioware’s RPG classic, which Beamdog has since remastered on every platform under the sun, ended up being the best selling PC game in Australia that year.
There’s multiple reasons for the sales, but 1999 was a banger of a year for RPGs. Everquest was one thing (as was Asheron’s Call), but for people who wanted a more curated narrative experience there was also the outstanding Planescape: Torment. Septerra Core dropped closer to Christmas, and System Shock 2 was so beloved by fans that its re-release proved foundational for Night Dive Studios.
Pokemon Yellow made its way to the West in 1999, and not long after Baldur’s Gate hit shelves Aussies were graced with Might and Magic 7. Westwood – better known for the Command & Conquer series – also launched Lands of Lore 3, although finding enjoyment from that series always required a little more effort than most.
Still a soft spot in my heart for those games. But if we’re talking volume, the genre that perhaps dominated the end of ’90s more than any else was the land of tactics and turns.
You could make a case for 1999 being the best year for games based on the turn-based, tactics and real-time strategy titles alone. Alpha Centauri is still a masterpiece to this day. But if you think more broadly about the concept of strategy, it’s astonishing how many bangers gamers got in a 12 month period.
Imagine, for instance, a world where all of these games had launched and you had to decide where to divide your time: Rollercoaster Tycoon, Warzone 2100, Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (along with its first expansion), Dungeon Keeper 2, Jagged Alliance 2, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, Homeworld, Age of Empires 2, Age of Wonders, Battlezone 2, the holy hand grenades of Worms Armageddon, Army Men 3D and Army Men 2, Pokemon Gold and Silver, Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, and Theme Park World.
And that’s just the stuff you can neatly fit into “strategy”.
Shenmue, Silent Hill, and the other shooters
This is still the stuff that came out in 99. If you wanted a solid shooter campaign, there was plenty to choose from: the original Medal of Honor, whose team would later go on to make the Call of Duty and Modern Warfare games (with alumni from those breaking off to work on Titanfall and, more recently, Apex Legends).
There were still plenty of high profile point-and-click adventures too: Gabriel Knight made the transition to 3D in 1999, although I still remember the menu music more fondly than the game itself. But Silent Hill sparked a series that would become foundational for horror games, while being made into one of the more successful film adaptations, pulling just under $US100 million at the box office. Not to be forgotten, The Longest Journey,
Discworld Noir, which is sadly stuck in IP limbo, reminded us of how well Terry Pratchett’s world and humour could translate to video games. The disappointment of Mechwarrior 3 was quickly followed up by the serviceable Starsiege, and the hugely enjoyable Heavy Gear 2.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Final Fantasy VIII, despite Squall doing his level best to be the most unlikable, aggravating characters to be saddled with in an RPG.
Also: Shane Warne Cricket 99 is still one of the best cricket games ever made. Still worth playing today, if you can find a disc or download somewhere.
Driver, Midtown Madness, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and Soulcalibur struck a chord with fans, while X-Wing Alliance remains one of the best branded Star Wars space games behind TIE Fighter. The Aliens vs Predator 2000 game that’s been given away for free of late, and perhaps the best Aliens game until Alien: Isolation, was actually released in 1999. (It was also a huge hit at my high school in my brother’s year – nothing like scaring the shit out of people in IT by dropping from the ceiling.)
And all of this still ignores classics like: Donkey Kong 64, the brilliant Super Smash Bros, Star Wars: Episode 1 Pod Racer, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Road Rash 64, Pokemon Snap, the Western launch of Mario Party, Crash Team Racing, Grand Theft Auto 2 and Dino Crisis.
But there’s also the 10 year anniversaries…
2019 marks the 10th anniversary of games like Bayonetta. Batman: Arkham Asylum and the modern three-button based combat system. A time when DICE took a gamble and made something that wasn’t a straight shooter: Mirror’s Edge. Burnout Paradise. Dawn of War 2, which marked the rise of simpler, more action-based strategy games. LittleBigPlanet. Still one of the best titles in Ubisoft’s tentpole franchise, Assassin’s Creed 2. Braid and a new age of indies.
And, of course, Modern Warfare 2, which we’ll probably see reappear as a pre-order bonus for whatever this year’s Call of Duty is. We’ll be hearing more about the next Dragon Age in 2019, which is fitting given that it’s the 10th anniversary of Dragon Age: Origins, the Bioware-style RPG from Bioware.
Demon’s Souls started the pathway to what would become the Dark Souls games, and the Wipeout franchise was brought into the modern generation with Wipeout HD/Fury, one of the most technically accomplished games of the PS3/360 era and one of the first games to effectively utilise dynamic resolution to maintain frame rate (a technique that is all but essential for video games today, especially those being ported to the Switch).
ArmA 2 would become the platform for not just a long-lasting community around military shooters, but mods like DayZ and the progeny of the battle royale genre with the rise of modders like Brendan Greene. And Microsoft surely won’t let the entirety of 2019 pass without some kind of commemoration for the 10th anniversary of Minecraft, which has had all sorts of impacts industry-wide.
You could go on and on. Hell, there’s a ton of games turning 30 that shouldn’t be forgotten: DuckTales, SimCity, Golden Axe, Super Mario Land, Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia, Mother (not that we’re likely to see a sequel, but you never know), Castlevania, and perhaps the ultimate casual game for anyone with a PC: Minesweeper.
Update: It’s also been pointed out to me that World of Warcraft turns 15 this year, and as a result I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention these bangers from 2004: GTA San Andreas, Half-Life 2, Fable, Knights of the Old Republic 2, Spider-Man 2 on the PS2, Need for Speed: Underground 2, CS: Source, DOOM 3, Chronicles of Riddick, and Halo 2. Bugger me.
So whatever generation of gaming you grew up with, get ready for some celebrations this year. There’s a lot of worthy cake to go around.