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ARTICLE

1996: A Vintage Year

You ever meet me and get talking video games, I'll eventually steer the conversation round to the mid-90s.

No disrespect to the current generation, or indeed any generation prior to those years, but i just don't get the same buzz as I do when talking about that time. Write professionally in the medium for seven years, and you can't help but start viewing things from a bubble.

Sure you got the same passion, but its edged with critical evaluation. You suffer some disconnect. Numbness, even. Then something comes along and kicks the legs out from under you, and the slam you feel as you hit the curb reawakens that feeling, reminds you what a pretentious asshole you're being. Reminds you to be excited as a kid again.

It can be a re-release of a game. Retro worship in the digital age giving us dinosaurs reason to regale new gamers of the 'glory' days. Get us talking about the past. Anecdotes begin to fall into reviews and articles like rain on a winter's night.

Happened to me a few hours ago, writing a Nights: Into Dreams review. A re-release of a Sega Saturn game, and made me recollect, and use, a personal anecdote come the game's original launch.

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In fact, that's a lie. The anecdote's been rolling around my head for some time, because the subject of gaming the mid-90s, and 1996 in particular, is something I've been looking for an excuse to write about. That's the truth right there.

The story, for those that don't want to read the review, pinpoints a September issue of CVG (back when the outfit behind it put out a monthly magazine) which had three games on its cover, one of which was Nights. The version for the review used its comparison with its other two cover-stars, Quake and Mario, as a sad testament to a game that was treated as equal but never reached the same heights.

There's another version to the story. That the cover, and issue, is a poster-child for one of the best years in gaming.

We talk about eras, generations. Console life-cycles, singular defining moments. But for me 1996 was an amazing time to be a gamer.

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Games were getting experimental. Nights: Into Dreams was a score-attack wonder with unique flight mechanics. PaRappa the Rapper was an action-rhythm title about a rapping dog trying to win over a flower girl's heart.

Even Quake was taking the FPS genre into new and exciting places, while Sega gave birth to the Vs series by matching two of its established fighting franchises against each other as Virtua Fighters fought Fighting Vipers in the unbalanced but fun Fighters Megamix.

Developers were finding their groove with their respective hardware development kits. Wipeout 2097 was a vast improvement of the original in every way, was one of the exhilarating racers around, and brought a counter-culture coolness to gaming (Red Bull sponsorship anyone?) Panzer Dragoon Zwei was also a vastly-superior sequel, while Duke Nukem 3D took the Doom model and lampooned it, but made sure underneath was a rock-solid FPS.

The industry was grasping the potential of the 32-bit machines. Both Resident Evil and Tomb Raider made their debut this year, with games that would have never been possible on previous generations. Yet their graphical feats would be outstripped by the year's end with Mario 64, Pilotwings and Wave Race as the N64 launched in Japan.

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But this was the year that even saw the Nintendo 64 humbled: the powerhouse Nintendo boasted the system would be clearly hadn't the heft to continue the Final Fantasy series, as owner SquareSoft announced at the year's beginning the RPG series would move to the PSOne - releasing one month after 1996 came to a close.

And even as the new generation of consoles worked towards matching arcade's visual fidelity (mainly recognised by Capcom's 2D fighters), 1996 saw Sega reveal the stunning Virtua Fighter 3 on its Model 3 arcade board. Suddenly consoles were left in the dust. Not even a year after the company had released a decent Saturn port of Virtua Fighter 2, the creator had unwittingly neutered the power of its own home hardware.

It was a year whose releases would become household franchises. Releases that'd prove influential for years to come. And across those twelve months there were exciting releases to feel a real buzz over.

But if you weren't there, you'll likely snort and roll your eyes. You won't get it. Of course you won't. If you weren't there, how could you? Momentous occasions viewed through recounting are sterile. You need a first-hand account to work some feeling into the moment. Else you're apathetic. Disconnected.

So the question's fired right back at you: what's your favourite year in gaming?

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