1997: The most notable year in video games?

A lot of people tend to look back at the history of video games and get into a debate about the most fundamental year.  After all, a lot has happened over the past couple of decades, as we eventually grew out of the NES era and came to a more commercially popular game scene as it’s known today.  So with that, we’ve decided to start doing a series of specials that looks at particular years in video games, and how much of an impact they really made with key game releases, business maneuvers and so forth.

So, without further ado, let’s get started by looking at 1997 — a year that truly defined video games with a number of happenings and outstanding products.

The End of an Era…But Not So Fast

In 1997, Sega, after spending years developing a huge 16-bit audience with it, discontinued its Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) console, with hundreds of game releases and millions of units sold.  Meanwhile, on the flip side of that coin, Nintendo still found its SNES console quite marketable and released a smaller model of it, similar to its top-loading NES.  The system would last for a couple more years before the company would eventually shift its attention solely to the Nintendo 64.

Duke Nukem Begins…

1997 marked the year that 3D Realms began production on Duke Nukem Forever, its ambitious first-person shooter project that would be the next big leap in the series for the stripper-loving, alien-killing badass.  Unfortunately, the project would end up sitting in limbo for many years, until it finally arrived in stores in 2011 — to much criticism.

Rest In Peace, Gunpei Yokoi

Though his tenure at Nintendo was somewhat controversial, Gunpei Yokoi left his mark with the company by producing the Game Boy, one of its most successful handhelds to date.  Unfortunately, he also made one of the company’s biggest misfires, the Virtual Boy, resulting in his departure.  Soon after, his life was claimed in a double car accident in Japan in 1997.

The Game.com – and It Sucks

In an effort to try and compete with the Game Boy handhelds, Tiger Electronics attempted to capitalize the market with its own handheld, a black-and-white unit known as the Game.com.  Packed with one included game (Lights Out), the Game.com was home to some impressive franchises, including Resident Evil.  Unfortunately, the poor production value and horrible screen left most units sitting unsold in shelves.  It was discontinued not too long after.

The Start of Something Big

Several companies got their start in 1997, or found themselves lined up for something bigger.  Raven Software was acquired by Activision, and remains a popular studio with the company today, thanks to releases like Wolfenstein.  Meanwhile, Irrational Games was also formed and became a huge fan favorite.  And to this day, it remains one, thanks to the forthcoming Bioshock Infinite.

Other companies also moved up in the ranks in 1997.  Bungie Studios West was formed, beginning initial work on what would eventually become the original Halo game.  Smaller companies like Crave Entertainment and Conspiracy Entertainment were also formed, creating several independent favorites for game consoles.  And finally, Electronic Arts acquired Maxis, promising plenty of exclusive Sims games to come.

The PlayStation Shakes Things Up

Throughout 1997, the Sony PlayStation got a number of memorable games.  Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Tomb Raider II delivered familiar thrills; Mega Man Legends brought the Blue Bomber to a whole new 3D dimension; the space adventure Colony Wars turned out to be a huge success for Psygnosis; a small studio called Polyphony Digital would get its start with the illustrious racing game Gran Turismo; and Parappa the Rapper ended up hitting the stage for the first time, with awesome musical numbers and an addictive gameplay set-up.

However, two big franchises really made their mark that year — Final Fantasy and Castlevania.  With Square’s long-running RPG series, two particular games stood out — the long-awaited sequel Final Fantasy VII and the cult favorite Final Fantasy Tactics.  Meanwhile, Konami changed everything we could possibly realize about Castlevania, introducing a new adventure-style set-up with the stellar Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  Even with somewhat weak voice acting (“Die, monster!  You don’t belong in this world!”), it ranked as one of the greatest games released for the console.  And it’s still popular today on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.

Meanwhile, over in Nintendo’s camp…

Not to be outdone by Sony’s powerful PlayStation, Nintendo struck back with a slew of great Nintendo 64 games.  Leading the pack was Acclaim’s Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, an impressive first-person shooter packed with excellent visuals and plenty of action.  Following that, Rare’s Blast Corps introduced a sophisticated mix of strategy and excitement, as you trashed buildings and other objects to keep a truck from exploding.

But Nintendo themselves would be leading the charge into summer with a one-two punch.  The first came in the form of StarFox 64, a wondrous sequel with a solid single-player campaign and, for the first time in the series, split-screen multiplayer between jets, tanks and on-foot action.  The second followed in late August, with the release of Goldeneye 007, considered by many to be one of the best movie-licensed games in existence.  It also introduced strong split-screen multiplayer options, as well as a slew of terrific maps and characters.  To this day, it remains a fan favorite.

Arcade Fighting

Arcades continued to see a huge comeback from a lull that had followed a year before, thanks to the release of two key fighting games.  The first, Tekken 3, introduced some great new characters, along with the slick tap-tap combo gameplay that fans had gotten so used to.  The second, Mortal Kombat 4, took the bloody fighting series into 3D for the first time, and quite effectively to boot.

Save Time For Windows

Finally, while console gaming was thriving in 1997, Windows expanded just as nicely, thanks to a number of unforgettable game releases.  Star Wars got a major boost between the releases of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and the impressive Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight; Wing Commander: Prophecy wowed fans of the long-running adventure series; and several other games also released, including the original Fallout, Quake II, Myth: The Fallen Lords and Ultima Online.  It was definitely a good time to be a PC gamer.

So, yeah, a lot happened in 1997… but how does it hold up compared to other years?  Well, that’s another article for another time.  But, for now, we hope you enjoyed this retrospective and go looking for a few lost classics as a result.