It's almost impossible to understand how much the world of computer gaming has changed in 20 years. But in 1991, the personal computer was an almost entirely different device than it is today - much more primitive; incapable of displaying hardware-accelerated 3D graphics; barely capable of producing more than primitive beeps unless you'd outfitted it with an expensive sound card; and with a display resolution lower than today's cell phones.
Regardless, it was a golden age for games, when the creativity of individual developers, paired with studios that took some chances, mixed together to produce some really great, fun games for the personal computer.
I won't stir up a hornet's nest by declaring these as the ten best games for 1991. But here are a few of my favorites from that particular era. I'd love to know what you remember from that time, so please make sure to comment.
The Secret of Monkey Island - LucasArts
Ron Gilbert's hilarious and fun graphical pirate adventure game made its debut at about this time, featuring inept Guybrush Threepwood and the dread ghost pirate LeChuck.
It was the auspicious beginning to a series of Monkey Island adventure games that would span a decade. After a period of dormancy it would be resurrected by Telltale Games, which produces Monkey Island games for various platforms today.
Spectre - Velocity Development
A child of the 80s, I spent more quarters in Atari's vector-based tank game Battlezone than almost any other coin-op machine of that period. So when Velocity Development introduced Spectre it was a dream come true - wireframe-based 3D vector graphics and tank combat, set in a "capture the flag" style game.
The game made its debut on the Macintosh (and was later ported to Windows). Mac users had the added benefit of being able to go multiplayer if their machines were linked using LocalTalk connectors - I remember having raucous after-hours Spectre battles with my office mates back in those days. These days, Spectre exists still - dramatically revamped and enhanced, and now on iOS.
Civilization - Microprose
What can I say about Civilization that hasn't already been written? Sid Meier basically lifted up an entire genre with the creation of this game in 1991, a turn-based strategy game that had you lift up a civilization from stone age roots through modern times. Civilization remains one of the most popular and legendary game franchises in video game history.
Settle land, grow your empire, teach your people how to mine, how to farm land, build roads, raise armies and crush your enemies; build technology, create cities, eventually explore the world and get ready to take off in spacecraft. It's almost scary how vast the scope of Civilization is; each game takes hours and hours to complete.
Railroad Tycoon - Microprose
Sid Meier is the game designer behind the epic Civilization series, but I love him best for creating Railroad Tycoon, a game that let you build your own empire as a railroad baron at the dawn of the industrial age. Railroad Tycoon was released a year before Civilization, but I played it well into 1991 and beyond. Railroad Tycoon also distinguishes itself for being the first in a long line of "tycoon" games.
I found out quickly that there's a lot more to becoming Cornelius Vanderbilt than just laying track and running locomotives: you had to understand the nature of supply and demand, play the stock market, pay stockholders, and constantly upgrade and improve to stay ahead of the competition. Even for a 21 year old, it was a crash-course in modern economics that was a lot of fun to play.
Lemmings - Psygnosis
The mistaken belief that Lemmings - small rodents that live in the arctic - go over cliffs en masse to their deaths was the inspiration for DMA Design's Lemmings game. You had to guide these little bipedal creatures - the game's lemmings - from one point to another without letting them get killed. Different kinds of lemmings sported different skills that you used to scale obstacles, avoid traps, change the landscape and more.
Lemmings deserves credit for expanding the puzzle game genre in ways that it hadn't been before; in the years that followed, and even to today, Lemmings has inspired a host of homages and imitations, which attests to the original game's enduring importance.
Wing Commander - Origin Systems
1991 was actually the year that Origin released Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, which is where I picked up the franchise. But boy, was Wing Commander cool in its day. Even before PCs got 3D graphics cards, designer Chris Roberts figured out how to put you in the cockpit of a spaceship as you defended the Terran Confederation against the alien Kilrathi (an homage to Larry Niven's Kzinti).
Besides the faux-3D gameplay, Wing Commander distinguished itself by offering a branching storyline - how well you did determined the outcome of the game. Wing Commander II was even better than its predecessor - improved graphics, voice acting and nifty cutscenes; it's largely been the template that epic, sprawling action games for the PC have followed for the past 20 years.
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat - Electronic Arts
Flight simulators and aircraft combat games were already old hat by 1991, but Chuck Yeager's Air Combat - CYAC for short - distinguished itself by balancing realism with fun. You got a chance to fly a few different combat aircraft ranging from famed World War II-era prop-driven fighters like the P-51D Mustang and FW190 to jets like the F-86 Sabre, F-4 Phantom and even a few Soviet MiGs.
But what separated CYAC from the rest was its namesake, who was more than just a name slapped on the box. Legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager actually consulted on the game, and even recorded some voice tracks for the game, which kick in when you need a bit of encouragement. I played this one on the Mac, which was actually better than its MS-DOS counterpart, thanks to multiplayer network support and higher resolution graphics.
RoboSport - Maxis
In retrospect, Maxis is best known as the original creator of the SimCity game series. But in 1991 they took a break from Sim games to publish RoboSport, a turn-based strategy game in which you create teams of robots then move them around a playfield. You needed to program them cleverly enough to anticipate what your opponent was going to do at the next turn, using different weapons and obstacles on the board to your advantage.
It was a clever idea and extarordinarily addictive, and I spent many nights trying to concoct a winning combination that would keep me playing to the next level. It was another early game to support networking, so you could go head to head against other players on a LAN.
Llamatron: 2112 - Llamasoft
Let me say at the outset that Jeff Minter is weird, and that his taste doesn't suit everyone. But I unabashedly think the guy is a genius, and one game I remember from the early 1990s very well is Llamatron. It was a shooter action game, and a love letter to Eugene Jarvis' impeccable arcade game Robotron: 2084, featuring...well, llamas.
I don't really pretend to understand what the hell is going on in Minter's mind, but these poor llamas are assaulted with wave after wave of enemies ranging from cigarette papers to Coke cans, hamburgers and more. Your goal is to save them by collecting them into a herd.
The game play was ridiculously fun and very addictive, and the llamas and other stuff in the game were just plain weird. It made for an unforgettable gaming experience - which pretty much summarizes everything Minter's done. (And file under "beating a dead ruminant:" Minter has resurrected the concept once more for a recent iOS game called 'Minotaur 2112.')
Duke Nukem - Apogee Software
1991 was the first time we saw that crewcut action hero Duke Nukem take to the computer screen. This side-scrolling action game pit muscled action hero Duke Nukem against Dr. Proton, an evil madman with diabolical plans to take over the world using his army of robots.
Distributed as shareware, you could play through the game's first episode (of three) without paying. More than that, and you needed to fork over a license fee to Apogee. This sounds routine, but this was a time when almost no one had Internet access - games were still being distributed either on BBS's or on compilation CDs and floppies. So it was a pretty radical departure compared to buying a game in a box from a store.
I admit that Duke Nukem's gameplay wasn't particularly ground-breaking - it was basically the same style of gameplay as other side scrollers of the day like Mega Man. But Duke Nukem was popular enough to spawn a franchise that continues to this day - well, assuming that Duke Nukem Forever ever actually does ship.
Alien Breed - Team 17
One of the best games ever made for the Amiga came out in 1991: Alien Breed, a top-down shooter plainly inspired by the Alien movies. Alien Breed played a bit like Gauntlet - you made your way through a space station crawling with toothy, clawed aliens, and it was your job to eradicate the infestation. You could power up and get new weapons from computer terminals as you faced off against wave after wave of gradually more powerful aliens, eventually facing off against an alien boss.
Team 17 went on to create the popular and enduring Worms game series, but for gamers of a certain age, they'll always be the makers of Alien Breed.
Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons - Id Software
We've so associated Id Software with the Doom, Quake (and soon Rage) series of games that it's hard to believe that they developed anything else. But develop they did, and Commander Keen was the first game series they ever released.
A side-scrolling action game released as a series of "episodes," the games follow the adventre of Billy Blaze, an eight year old who becomes Commander Keen and has to fight the Vorticons, aliens bent on causing mischief on Mars and destroying Earth.