The fall of 1996 was a strange time to be a video game fan. Depending on what platform you were spending your time with, you could have still had both feet firmly planted in the 16-bit era or you could choose to look towards the future with the release of one of the first 64-bit consoles. Sure, the Atari Jaguar was the possibly the first 64-bit console, but I was never very good at math anyway. On one end of the gaming spectrum, you had the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis still out there, releasing titles for their long running consoles. On the other end of the spectrum, you had Nintendo’s latest shiny new toy, the Nintendo 64. The former Ultra-64 was now finally seeing the light of day in North America and Europe and die-hard Nintendo fans were as excited as Luigi on National Siblings Day. However, it was the 32-bit systems, the Sony Playstation and to a much lesser extent, the Sega Saturn, that were actually dominating sales figures.
So what are some of the notable new games that owners of the PlayStation and Saturn would have to look forward to in the fall of 1996? How about two of the most innovative and influential gaming series that originated in the 32-bit era, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider? Crash Bandicoot was a 3D-polygonal platformer and PlayStation exclusive where you play as the titular marsupial running and jumping around a lush island environment, fighting mutated island creatures and saving your sweetheart, Tawna, from the clutches of the evil Dr. Cortex. The overwhelming success of this title spawned several PlayStation sequels before Crash branched off onto handhelds and into kart racing games. Crash may have retired his platforming shoes for a set of go-kart wheels, but the Crash franchise of racing games continues to go strong with a recent release, Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled, available on modern consoles in 2019.
While Crash the wise cracking Bandicoot was a fun, edgy (but not too edgy) cartoon character, a much more teen and adult-friendly, titillating heroine would also see the light of day around the same time. Her name was Lara Croft. All angular breasts, legs for days, full pouty lips and an unwavering sense of adventure, Lara became the first significant gaming “pin-up” star. If you were a 15 year old boy in 1996, you could maybe thank (or curse) the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn’s polygonal 32-bit graphics for gaming related hormone surges. The graphical power behind these systems provided a sense of realism gamers had never experienced before. Let’s just hope that most Lara Croft fans kept their admiration for her polygonal gams at a platonic level.
In addition to the aforementioned consoles, Tomb Raider was also an enormous PC hit. Similar to Doom had been a few years before it, Tomb Raider was a cross platform smash and would kick off another long-running franchise. This Core/Eidos action-adventure puzzler gave players everything they could want in a modern 3D style game. Run and gun action. Puzzle and problem solving. An attractive female Indiana Jones. 23 years later, Tomb Raider is still a relevant gaming franchise, with the most recent entry released on consoles and computers in 2018. In addition to the numerous sequels on a variety of computers and consoles, this original title even spawned a film franchise in the early 2000s starring Angelina Jolie. In a synergistic twist to match the latest gaming release, Tomb Raider also received a film reboot in 2018.
The fall of 1996 was a promising time for Sega. Sure, the Genesis/Mega Drive was still out there, but it was not Sega’s future. By late 1996, even the two Genesis/Mega Drive add-ons that were meant to be a stop gap between generations, the Sega/Mega CD and the 32X, were in the process of being discontinued. Sega was putting all its eggs into their 1995 launched, 32-bit console basket, the Saturn. Despite the still strong sales for the Genesis/Mega Drive, thanks to low price point and an enormous library of stand-out titles, the Saturn was the system that Sega wanted to push. At least for another year. As a result, the fall of 1996 saw the release of a number of Saturn titles, notably Virtua Cop 2 and Dragon Force.
Virtua Cop 2, a port of the hit Sega arcade title, was a rail shooter that put you in the shoes of police force tasked to clean up the city by eliminating the E.V.I.L. inc. criminal empire. This is done by using the light gun to shoot at your TV and kill the enemies as they appear on screen, being careful not to shoot innocent bystanders. Another technique you can employ, unique to Virtua Cop 2, was the trickier, but more more rewarding “justice shot”. To accomplish this, you would need to shoot an enemy’s weapon in order to disarm him or her, as opposed to simply killing them. It’s much more difficult than it sounds. Virtua Cop 2 also differentiated itself from its predecessor by implementing branching paths, allowing for more variety in gameplay. The Saturn’s light gun, called the Stunner, had a nice, sturdy feel to it. It seemingly corrected the accuracy issues that plagued the Sega CD’s Justifier gun and the Virtua Cop series directly benefited from it.
Another fall of ’96 Saturn release, Dragon Force, wasn’t a huge hit like Virtua Cop 2. However, let’s be honest. Nothing on the Saturn was really a huge hit outside of Japan. I’m mentioning it here because of its status as one of the top tier exclusive (at the time) games available for the Saturn. With the benefit of hindsight and time on our side, we can now look back at the software released for the Saturn in North America and Europe and come to the conclusion that we missed out on some serious gems and Dragon Force is definitely one of them. It is a tactical JRPG that was translated for English audiences by the famed Working Designs studios, so it already had a pedigree right out of the gate. The game may not have been a huge seller at the time but now it’s known today as the bonkers title that allows up to 200 (?!?!) soldiers fighting each other in real time on the screen. If you can avoid a nervous breakdown trying to figure out who’s fighting who and what exactly is transpiring in front of you, Dragon Force was then and is still considered today one of the essential, if a bit expensive, titles for the under performed Saturn.
So while Sega and Sony were duking it out in the CD-ROM based, 32-bit front, what was Nintendo up to during the fall of 1996? Not much, other than launching a new 64-bit cartridge based console. The Nintendo 64, despite its advanced graphical capabilities and revolutionary pack-in title, Super Mario 64, was still looked at as a bit of a throwback, if you were being kind, or dinosaur, if you weren’t. This was all thanks to Nintendo’s insistence on continuing to house their software inside plastic cartridges and a loss of 3rd party support that jumped ship for the easier to develop for Sony PlayStation.
There is something about the Nintendo 64 that has always made me scratch my head in bewilderment. It’s a Nintendo console, which at least at the time it was released, was a huge selling point. The NES release was a game changer in the ’80s and the SNES was as equally impressive and well received in the early ’90s. There was no reason to doubt the N64’s ability to wow the public when it was released but for some reason I was not only unimpressed and underwhelmed, I was turned off by the console. In my then 21 year old mind, the PlayStation, and to a lesser extent, the Sega Saturn, were the future and Nintendo seemed stubborn and out of touch to what console gaming was supposed to be. Cartridges? Pass. $60-70 games? Pass. Rehashes of already existing games/franchises (Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, Dr. Mario 64, Bomberman 64, Star Fox 64, et. al.) which seemed to point to a lack of innovation and imagination? Pass. Nintendo wasn’t giving me a compelling reason to save up my part time job money that wasn’t already dedicated to paying rent, college tuition, or buying food and beer and spend it on their new console. So I passed on it. The only Nintendo console I didn’t own during it’s heyday.
While I may have been lukewarm on the N64, it has its fans and at the time, there were plenty of console buyers that gave it a shot. However, Nintendo wasn’t done supporting their previous generation console when the N64 was launched. They were still squeezing out the last few titles for the Super Nintendo, most notably Donkey Kong Country 3, the final DKC game released for the system. Donkey Kong Country was the key franchise that helped Nintendo regain its footing during the battle for 16-bit supremacy with the Genesis/Mega Drive back in 1994. Donkey Kong Country 3 doesn’t do anything drastically different than its predecessors, with the notable exception of putting you in control of Dixie Kong, Diddy Kong’s girlfriend. Like Sega did with the Genesis/Mega Drive, Nintendo continued to manufacture SNES consoles for another 2-3 years beyond 1996 and late releases such as DKC3 were enough to keep owners satisfied without having to upgrade to the N64.
Whether you were steadfast in your 16-bit roots and continued to add titles to your Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, jumping on the 32-bit CD-ROM bandwagon with the Sony PlayStation or Sega Saturn, or saving up your hard earned money to purchase the Nintendo 64 on launch day, the fall of 1996 was quite the time to be a home video game consumer.