The best video games of the 90s

The best video games of the 90s; three iconic game characters from the 90s
(Image credit: Getty Images / Capcom / Amazon / Nintendo)

Coming up with a list of the best video games of the 90s is quite the challenge. For me, the 90s was easily the most exciting decade in gaming. The industry was more mature and more mainstream, driven by business and the need to grow through technology but also design choices. 

I realise I haven’t painted the rosiest picture there, and I did miss the innovative, hobbyist era of the 80s, but it was an amazing decade to experience as a gamer. Every month I’d grab the latest video game magazines to read about the new titles that would push the hardware to the limits.

That hardware was inevitably consoles. Computers were still popular, with the decade witnessing the rise of the PC as a leading platform, and the arcades were clinging on, but consoles became the system of choice for many. That brought about those famous heavyweight rivalries – Nintendo versus Sega versus Sony – and in that battleground, some incredible victories were made.

If you're a fan of old games and console design, a great way to rekindle that love of old tech is with one of the best retro game consoles. Or you can play most of the games below on new consoles, including PlayStation 5. Check out our Nintendo Switch deals page for the latest discounts on this great handheld too, it's a great console for classic games.

The best video games of the 90s for art and design

Selecting the best video games of the 80s was tricky, and doing the same for the 90s has been almost impossible. If I had another ten to choose then the likes of Sonic The Hedgehog, Myst, Metal Gear Solid and Half-Life would surely have made the list. But here, in chronological order, are my ten most important, influential and downright bloody great games of the 90s.

01. Street Fighter II

Best video games of the 90s; a pixel art 2D fighting game

(Image credit: Capcom)

Released: 1991 Format: Arcade

This certainly wasn’t the first one-on-one fighting game, nor the first to feature multiple playable characters with their own move-sets. Hell, it wasn’t even the first Street Fighter game. But it was the one that defined the language of fighting games, largely by the inclusion of special combo moves (which may or may not have been intentional – either way it’s a good story).

The game’s success was instant and widespread, creating a kind of arcade mania I’d not seen since the early 80s. Suddenly every developer was looking to cash-in on its success – including Capcom itself.

You may like: Street Fighter 6 for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X

02. Super Mario Kart

Best video games of the 90s; a retro game, mario kart

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Released: 1992 Format: SNES

How exactly do you follow a masterwork like Super Mario World? Shigeru Miyamoto and his team’s solution was to quietly rustle up a brand new type of game and thus the kart racer was born.

Super Mario Kart wasn’t exactly a looker – even on release, those Mode 7 graphics were a little woozy – but it was so much fun to play that didn’t matter, especially in co-op. In fact, I think it might be one of the best multiplayer games ever released, whether racing against a mate or trying to burst their bubble (okay, balloons) in Battle Mode. 

You may like: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch

03. Doom

Best video games of the 90s; a first person shooter game from the 90s, Doom

(Image credit: id Software / Bethesda)

Released: 1993 Format: PC

Lineage is important in video games. Here I’m championing Doom as the definitive first-person shooter, but I’m not forgetting about its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D, or indeed any of the tunnel-type games that have existed since the 70s. Doom was so significant because the audio, visuals, story and setting all combined to totally immerse players in the action, making them twitch and jump and even scream out at times.

Equally, its importance in popularising PC gaming, multiplayer deathmatches and community modding cannot be understated. Incredible to think Doom was originally an indie title.

You may like: Doom remake for Nintendo Switch, or Doom Eternal

04. Command & Conquer

Best video games of the 90s; a top down tactical game, command and conquer

(Image credit: EA)

Released: 1995 Format: PC

Lineage again. The roots of real-time strategy games stretch back years, but it was Westwood Studios, first with Dune II and then the original C&C that popularised the RTS genre and made it mainstream.

People who had never entertained strategy games previously were suddenly mini dictators, waxing on about gathering resources and harvesting units, while trying to blow flesh-and-blood rivals off the map. Dozens of sequels and spin-offs followed, selling more than 30 million copies in total and establishing an extraordinary franchise.

You may like: the Command & Conquer Remastered Collection for PC

05. WipEout

Best video games of the 90s; a sci-fi racing game from the 90s, WipEout

(Image credit: SCEE)

Released: 1995 Format: PlayStation

I’ve used the stylised title on purpose here, to highlight this clear case of style over substance. Psygnosis’ game was the perfect launch title for the PlayStation in the West, showing off the console’s fast 3D capabilities while also exhibiting that cool sophistication that defined Sony’s marketing approach.

Yet playing Wipeout (that’s better) was a frustrating experience where I’d spend too much time thudding into the track walls. Still, it looked amazing and sounded even better, thanks to Orbital, Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers headlining the soundtrack.

You may like: 2017’s Wipeout Omega Collection for PS4 is playable on PS5 too

06. Tomb Raider

Best video games of the 90s; a classic platform game from the 90s, Tomb Raider

(Image credit: Amazon)

Released: 1996 Format: PlayStation

Remember when Lara Croft became a 90’s pop culture icon, appearing on the cover of The Face magazine and firing twin-pistols on a 50-metre-wide screen on U2’s PopMart tour? The ‘Silicon Chick’ was everywhere, but behind the dubious headlines was a groundbreaking 3D adventure game that mixed exploration, action, platforming and puzzle-solving.

The level design deserves special mention, in particular the vertical deathtrap that was St. Francis’ Folly. The sequels dialled up the action, but I find the original’s quiet ambience is hard to top.

You may like: the new Tomb Raider games for PS4, Xbox and PS5

07. PaRappa The Rapper

Best video games of the 90s; a cartoon game from the 90s for PlayStation

(Image credit: SCEE)

Released: 1997 Format: PlayStation

While 3D action and sports games were the flavour of the day, along came PaRappa and his paper-thin pals to change the record. Featuring a distinct cartoon style and six annoyingly catchy tunes, this was the title that kickstarted the rhythm-based gaming craze that became so popular.

Like most people I first encountered the game on a magazine demo disc which teased the first stage, and so Chop Chop Master Onion’s rap is an indelible memory of that time. It really is all in the mind.

You may like: PaRappa The Rapper is pre-installed on the PlayStation Classic

08. Final Fantasy VII

Best video games of the 90s; a 90s Final Fantasy game on PlayStation

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Released: 1997 Format: PlayStation

It may have been the seventh in the mainline series, but for many gamers this was their first introduction to JRPGs and it was instrumental in the genre’s explosion in the West.

Having broken away from Nintendo and its reliance on cartridge formats, Square was free to create this three-CD epic that retained the series’ core gameplay but introduced polygonal characters, pre-rendered backgrounds and around an hour of cutscenes that told its hugely emotive storyline. The reaction to the recent Rebirth reveal suggests that fans are still clamouring for the next chapter.

You may like: Final Fantasy VII Remake Integrade for PlayStation 5

09. The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time

Best video games of the 90s; a 90s Nintendo game, Zelda

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Released: 1998 Format: Nintendo 64

Here’s another 90’s masterpiece and an obvious candidate for best adventure game of all time. For me what elevates it above the rest is the unforgettable introduction to Hyrule Field. Having spent hours in Kokiri Forest, battling enemies and the wonky camera, you find yourself out on the wide open plains with a seemingly endless overworld spreading out in every direction.

Many other games – including Zelda titles – have tried to recreate the same effect, but none can match the impact of that original reveal. 

You may like: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

10. Pokémon Red / Blue

Best video games of the 90s; a 90s Game Boy game, Pokemon

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Released: 1998 Format: Game Boy

Just when the Game Boy was starting to look tired and hopelessly outdated in the hardware stakes, Pokémon emerged from the long grass and made Nintendo’s handheld essential again.

It may have been monochrome when everything else was Technicolor, and the graphics were beyond basic, but monster hunting would become a worldwide pastime with players linking up the two coloured versions of the game to catch ‘em all. And thanks to the numerous updates and more recently Pokémon Go, we’re still hunting them 25 years later.

You may like: Pokémon Violet on Nintendo Switch

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Martyn Carroll

Martyn has been writing about video games since 1997, when as a film student he managed to sell an article about retro games to a movie magazine. And so began a hustle which turned into a career (of sorts) and he's since written about games for numerous magazines, books and websites. In 2004 he launched Retro Gamer magazine and he still contributes to the title, along with others in the Future stable. He's an authority on games where you start with three lives and press up to jump.