Nostalgia can sometimes shape our perception of gaming to such an extent that we can believe things to have been much better than they were. That sense is not unique to gaming, of course. If you watch a movie or cartoon from your childhood today, the enjoyment usually comes from remembering how it made you feel back then.
As such, you can never truly say that a certain year or time was the best for gaming. And, we aren’t going to do that here, despite 1991 having some belting releases (more on those later). But we can make a strong – objective argument – that 1991 was one of the most important years in gaming history, and that it was perhaps the most pivotal of all. It was a kind of watershed year that heralded the end of one era and planted the seeds for modern gaming.
So, what was happening 30 years ago? Arguably, we were looking at the very end of the arcade era. The golden age of the arcade was said to be the late-70s to the mid-80s, with the likes of Pac-Man and Space Invaders gobbling coins from kids all over the world. If you remember the 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgement Day, one of the early scenes shows John Connor (Edward Furlong) hanging out in the arcade – could you imagine such a premise today in a contemporary film?
Arcade culture was on its knees
By the 1990s, declining revenues – and rising console sales – sounded the death knell for gaming halls. But it certainly went out with a bang with the release of one of the most beloved arcade games in history coming in 1991 – Street Fighter II. Yes, there were great arcade games after Street Fighter II, including Mortal Kombat III, Killer Instinct and Daytona USA, but the Capcom release has the longest-lasting legacy.
1991 was the year when Nintendo tried to raise the stakes with the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (It was released in Japan and Korea in 1990). While it was not exactly a game-changer, it was certainly successful in terms of sales. Another important release in 1991 was, of course, Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega had strived for a long time to create a mascot to rival Mario, and the blue hedgehog certainly did the trick. It caused sales of the Sega Genesis (Megadrive) to soar, and it was eventually outselling SNES consoles by two to one in North America.
Significant Video Game Releases in 1991
Sonic the Hedgehog
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior
Final Fantasy IV
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Super Castlevania IV
Metroid II: Return of Samus
Perhaps more significantly, August 1991 saw Tim Berners-Lee launch the first public website. Did the gaming world notice the arrival of the world wide web? Not particularly, but it opened the door to the pioneers of internet gaming. Everything from the launch of the first online casino to the arrival of Quake, which would pioneer the idea of online distribution, would follow in the coming years and change our perceptions of how to access gaming and entertainment.
World wide web changed the course of gaming history
Of course, it might be pointed out that internet gaming arrived a lot earlier. And, confusingly, you might argue that it came about a bit later. These things are not always clear cut. Some might say online gaming really launched with the Apple Pippin in 1996, whereas others might say it existed decades earlier. But 1991 was the year that the world wide web launched (to the public), and it should thus be viewed as an agreeable landing point for the birth of online gaming.
As hinted above, there is something problematic about pushing these milestones with arbitrary measurements like years. Moreover, the significance can depend on your audience. In the 80s and 90s, for instance, Europeans would usually have to wait several months to buy a new console or game compared to North America; perhaps over a year when compared to Japan. As such, the experiences at a given time are different depending on where you lived.
But we can point to 1991 as a watershed moment, even if the fruits of those planted trees were not evident for a few years. You might still have been using your ZX Spectrum or Sega Master System, and you may have been waiting years to play a bona fide online game. Yet, that year saw a great leap towards modern gaming, even if it was not immediately felt by every gamer on the planet.