Welcome to the next chapter in our quest to determine which generation of gaming was (or is) the greatest of them all. Today we’ve reached the 4th generation of video games, otherwise known as the 16-bit era. It was during this time that what is now known as the ‘Console War’ first started gaining traction as the battle lines were drawn in playgrounds everywhere and whether you were in Mario’s or Sonic’s (or Bonk’s if you were a weird kid) camp was a big deal. Though this generation wasn’t just marked by schoolyard arguments as we also got a seemingly endless stream of games that are still considered among the best every made. So let’s dig into it and see why generation 4 has the right to call itself the very best of them all.
If you’ve read the previous LC Loves in this series (you really should!) you’ll have noticed that the first three generations of video game were marked by one console (or game) basically dominating the industry. In the first generation it was the breakout hit Pong that captivated millions, this was followed by the success of the Atari 2600 which outsold its competitors by 10’s of millions of consoles in the 2nd generation. Nintendo repeated this feat during the 3rd generation thanks to the runaway success of the Nintendo Entertainment System which was supported by games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda to name just two of the dozens (if not hundreds) of great games the NES received. In the fourth generation however, for this first time in the young history of gaming there was real competition in the industry and that spurred maybe one of the best eras for innovation and creativity gamers have ever seen.
The rivalry between Nintendo and Sega erupted in earnest in 1991 when both companies released what would be two of the best 2D platformers ever released; Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo and Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis. While both vastly different games in terms of gameplay and progression they stood as a clear point of differentiation between the two companies. Mario’s game, while featuring more worlds, levels and abilities than Sonic’s game, was slower and visually less impressive and has considerably less of that distinct 90’s ‘attitude’ which, meant a lot to the kids growing up during that time since it made the Genesis seem like a more ‘mature’ platform than the SNES. In fact, Nintendo’s stringent censorship rules would be a big part of the reason why the Genesis saw so much early success. Many multiplatform games like NHL ’94, Jurassic Park and Mortal Kombat sold better on the Genesis because they left the violent content intact. This stigma of being too ‘kid friendly’, while popular with parents hurt Nintendo in the eyes of gamers that were growing up and in many ways still impacts the company’s image in 2017 just as much as it did in the early 90’s.
However this competition between the two Japanese juggernauts did more than help gamers choose sides in the nascent console wars, it also helped game developers improve their craft by not only giving them new tools to create games but by pushing them to experiment, try new ideas and refinements and create games to stand the test of time. Here’s a ‘short list’ of the games that defined the 4th generation.
- Chrono Trigger
- Comix Zone
- Donkey Kong Country
- Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
- Ecco the Dolphin
- Final Fantasy II (USA)
- Final Fantasy III (USA)
- Harvest Moon
- Gunstar Heroes
- Kirby Super Star
- Mega Man X
- Mortal Kombat
- Phantasy Star II
- Secret of Mana
- Sonic the Hedgehog
- Sonic the Hedgehog 2
- Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles
- Sonic CD
- Star Fox
- Super Mario Kart
- Super Mario R.P.G.: Legend of the Seven Stars
- Super Mario World
- Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
- Super Metroid
- Super Street Fighter II
- TMNT IV: Turtles in Time
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Short list right? And this only a small sample of all the great games that released during the 16-bit era… on consoles.
The handheld gaming scene also blew up during this time with both Nintendo’s Game Boy and the Sega Game Gear vying for gaming on the go superiority. In this arena though things were pretty one-sided with the Game Boy outselling the Game Gear by a factor of almost 7 to 1, due in part to things like battery usage and the general higher quality of the games it offered over the Game Gear. That being said, like in the console department both major handhelds had their supporters would expound on the benefits of one system over the other. And while the Game Gear wasn’t a smash hit, it did show others that their was room for more than one player in the handheld gaming scene leading to new systems like the WonderSwan, N-Gage, Gizmondo, PlayStation Portable and PS Vita to challenge Nintendo in this arena with varying degrees of success.
It’s not easy to place PC gaming within the confines of console generations but this era was notable since it featured the release of the Windows ’95 operating system, which allowed for the standardization of games across multiple hardware specs. In addition to this fancy new OS, PC gamers were also treated to some of the best games ever played with a mouse and keyboard. Titles like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, Command & Conquer, Myst, X-Wing VS. TIE Fighter and SimCity 2000 showed that, despite how fast console technology was progressing the biggest and most detailed games lived on the PC, a trend that would continue for a few generations yet.
One more thing that I wanted to touch on when it comes to the 4th generation of gaming is that it showed the power of a ‘mascot’ to represent your brand. Sure Mario is technically a product of the 3rd generation but his value to Nintendo did not become so apparent as to when he was going head to head with his chief rival Sonic. The amount of attachment that players felt for these two icons led to other companies to start creating their own mascots to represent them. Characters like Bonk, Bubsy & Rayman gave games a Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe, with each character representing their own show. While the importance of the mascot would diminish and change over time, they were critically important to gaming during the 4th and 5th generations, giving us characters that are still cherished to this day.
The fourth generation of gaming maybe have taken place almost three decades ago but its legacy is still strongly felt to this day. While some consoles may outsell others we currently have a strong industry that can support three major console manufactures as well as a vibrant PC gaming scene not to mention mobile game and its hold on millions of players, all of that can trace its roots back to the 4th generation and the vision of some developers to challenge the status quo. Gen 4 made gamers passionate about their hobby, willing to put personal honor on the line to defend what they loved and for those reasons, this was the best generation of them all.