While the 70’s and 80’s served as a great starting point for gaming, the first decade of game of the year awards reflects that; however, the industry grows considerably within the following decade, and by observing the GOTY winners throughout the 1990’s, it becomes quite apparent. Many consider the 1990’s to be the most defining decade of gaming, and looking over the GOTY winners for these years, it’s understandable why.

Here is NAVGTR’s look back at the history of the game of the year award, with this article covering every winner from 1990 to 1999. If you haven’t already, take a look at part one of this list.

1990 – Mega Man

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Strangely enough, Mega Man was released way back in December of 1987 – but for whatever reason, didn’t receive any awards until nearly three years later in 1990. But regardless of timing, the classic 2D platformer deserves it. While the platforming genre was already incredibly popular at the time of its release, with no shortage of other games of its kind, Mega Man set itself apart with its interesting cast of characters, challenging gameplay, and wide assortment of powerups and moves.

One of Mega Man’s elements that many are quick to compliment is its unique structure – instead of going from world 1 to world 2, and so on, the player can choose to tackle each boss and their respective world in any order. Upon beating a boss, the player will unlock a new move tied to the defeated boss. It’s a great new spin on the formula that changes things up just enough, and can make each repeat playthrough feel different from the last!

At its time, Mega Man was groundbreaking and paved the way for future entries in the series as well as other platformers that took inspiration. It received the Golden Joystick Awards’ Game of the Year award.

Other GOTY winners: Strider, Final Fight, Dragon Quest IV, John Madden Football, Rick Dangerous 2, Kick Off 2

1991 – Sonic the Hedgehog

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Sonic was created as SEGA’s answer to Mario, Nintendo’s system-selling mascot. Overall, SEGA was very successful, with the blue blur becoming the top-selling game for the Genesis. But even without all of the marketing and hype behind it, Sonic the Hedgehog is a phenomenal game. This fast-paced 2D platformer took the platforming genre, which had traditionally been rather slower-paced and focused on precision-based running and jumping, in a different direction by amplifying the speed.

While the game still holds up today, its greatest achievement was introducing the world to the character of Sonic himself; unlike other notable gaming mascots before him, Sonic featured more personality, being very charismatic, sarcastic, witty, and cool. With one fell swoop, Sonic ushered in a brand-new era of gaming mascots, inspiring characters like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Gex, Rayman, and Bubsy.

The SEGA platformer was awarded GOTY by both Electronic Gaming Monthly and the Golden Joystick Awards.

Other GOTY winners: Final Fantasy IV

1992 – Street Fighter II

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Street Fighter II was absolutely groundbreaking when it was first released in arcades. The game featured an astounding amount of depth and complexity, featuring a wide range of characters that each had their own distinctive fighting style each with their own unique special moves and combos. And while all of the aforementioned features are commonplace within most fighting games nowadays, this wasn’t the case when the game launched.

Street Fighter II, in a way, invented the modern fighting game – and caused a massive boom of popularity in arcades; for that reason, it is one of the most important games of all time. It was awarded Game of the Year by Electronic Gaming Awards, Golden Joystick Awards, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Informer, and Gamest.

1993 – Samurai Shodown, Mortal Kombat

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In 1993, the fighting game genre really began hitting its stride; Street Fighter II set the bar for what was possible in the year prior, and countless competitors began showing up to challenge its reign. While many were forgotten or lost in the crowd, two big names managed to stand out, and even take the title of game of the year: these games were Mortal Kombat and Samurai Shodown.

In many ways, 1993’s two GOTY winners feel like two opposite sides of the same coin; while Mortal Kombat focused on style, visuals, and new tech, Samurai Shodown featured luscious 2D artwork, fluid animations, and deep gameplay. Published by NEOGEO – a company known for its excellent 2D fighting games – Samurai Shodown represented what they were capable of. While not quite as huge of a name as other later fighting titles, the series went on to receive several great sequels and a reboot which was very well received. Electronic Gaming Monthly and Gamest awarded it GOTY.

Instead of focusing on an overly elaborate combo system and fluid 2D animations, Mortal Kombat went a very different route by focusing on creating realistic characters and amping up the gore to 11. The game was actually one of the very first to utilize motion-capture technology (sort of) by capturing footage of real actors and using it for character art and animations. The game also notoriously was incredibly gorey for its time, stirring up tons of controversy. Mortal Kombat has become a video game staple, going on to inspire tons of fighting games and popularize violence in video games. It was awarded GOTY by Game Informer.

Other GOTY winners: Disney’s Aladdin

1994 – Donkey Kong Country

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While difficult games are a dime a dozen, finding a game that manages to offer tons of challenge while also feeling fair and still fun is much harder to come by. Donkey Kong Country strikes this balance perfectly, as it walks a fine line: it’s hard, without feeling unfair; it pushes the player into mastering it, without feeling repetitive or frustrating.

Not only does Donkey Kong Country excel in its gameplay, but it also offers 3D graphics that were totally groundbreaking for their time. The game used pre-rendered 3D models that were converted to 2D, giving the game’s characters an incredibly polished, detailed 3D look. There was simply nothing else like it.

This game also introduced gamers to the Donkey Kong that we’re familiar with today, and solidified a recognizable arcade monkey into an absolute gaming icon. It was awarded GOTY by Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Informer, and VSDA Awards.

Other GOTY winners: NBA Jam, The King of Fighters ‘94

1995 – Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

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While it isn’t too common to see two games of the same franchise dominate awards two years in a row, it makes sense why Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest is an exception. The 2.5D platformer for the Super Nintendo continued onward with what its predecessor began – offering very challenging, yet fair, platforming gameplay while presenting it with some of the more gorgeous graphics ever seen on a gaming console.

DKC2 also took the first game’s sidekick, Diddy Kong, and brought him into the spotlight for the very first time while also introducing another fan favorite, Dixie Kong. The characters of the DKC series are nothing short of iconic, and this sequel makes it easy to see why so many fell in love with them. Donkey Kong Country 2 is a bona fide classic and has aged like fine wine over the years, remaining one of the best platformers of all time.

Both Game Informer and VSDA Awards awarded it Game of the Year.

Other GOTY winners: Twisted Metal, Virtua Fighter 2

1996 – Super Mario 64

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Name a more influential video game than Super Mario 64. We’ll wait.

Super Mario 64 simply needs no introduction; around the time of its release, the video game industry was undergoing a massive transition – while the Sony PlayStation had been released back in 1994, one could argue that there had yet to be a single game that properly showed off what the third dimension was capable of, for the simple reason that d-pads and 3D didn’t work well together.

Nintendo changed everything with Super Mario 64, the first game to truly take advantage of 3D via the N64’s analog stick. The game blew both gamers and critics away when it was released, and as a result, it took home nearly all of the GOTY awards from major gaming awards at the time.

This game marked a sharp change within the industry and is a perfect example of why gaming awards are important – recognizing greatness, offering praise, and giving inspiration to other game developers.

The Golden Joystick Awards, Game Informer, and Electronic Gaming Monthly all awarded Super Mario 64 the grand prize of GOTY.

Other GOTY winners: Sakura Wars, Street Fighter Alpha 2, Diablo

1997 – GoldenEye 007

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Whilst later game franchises like Halo and Call of Duty brought FPS shooters into the mainstream of console gaming, they weren’t the first games to do it successfully; no, technically Wolfenstein and Doom were the first to start the FPS craze in the early 90’s. The only shortcoming that these games had was, sadly, they were tied mostly to PC and were limited to only single-player campaigns.

But in 1996, Nintendo 64 changed everything by not only featuring the first-ever joystick with 360-degree movement but also was the first console to add four controller support right out of the box – this encouraged game developers to add in 4-player couch multiplayer.

Rare, the developers behind GoldenEye 007 as well as countless other N64 classics, actually added the 4-player split-screen mode last minute during a very late stage of the game’s development. This single-handedly caused GoldenEye 007 to become one of the most popular games on the console. The game’s split-screen multiplayer became a sensation and helped to popularize what is now one of the biggest gaming genres of all time – the competitive shooter. Because of this, GoldenEye 007 easily deserves the title of 1997’s game of the year. It was awarded GOTY by BAFTA, D.I.C.E. Awards, VSDA Awards, and Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Other GOTY winners: Final Fantasy VII, DarkStalkers III, Total Annihilation

1998 – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

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The Nintendo 64 truly dominated the industry during the late 90’s, in terms of innovative games that have left a lasting impression on the industry. With Mario 64 revolutionizing the 3D platforming genre and GoldenEye 007 creating couch split-screen for competitive shooters, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time went on the following year to innovate the action/adventure game genre.

While the Legend of Zelda series was always known as being a great adventure game series, Ocarina of Time took the series to new heights by bringing it to a fully 3D space and introduced many mechanics that have since become gaming mainstays such as an enemy lock-on system, modern 360-degree movement (instead of tank controls, which were more commonly used in other adventure games such as Tomb Raider). And while not necessarily an “open world” game by today’s standards, it had a much more open environment than other games and gave the player a larger space to explore than ever seen before on console.

Nintendo’s 3D Zelda game essentially modernized the 3D action/adventure genre. Its influence can be seen in many adventure games such as Dark Souls, Fable, Okami, and many others. Countless different game awards and gaming publications awarded it game of the year, including BAFTA, D.I.C.E. Awards, Japan Game Awards, VSDA Awards, Edge, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Informer, and GameSpot.

Other GOTY winners: Grim Fandango

1999 – Soul Calibur

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It’s pretty fitting to see Soul Calibur round off this list – this Sega Dreamcast exclusive was released at the tail end of the 1990’s, and represented both the ending of an era as well as the start of something brand new: the game featured absolutely breathtaking graphics for its time, was the first fighting game to truly feature fully 3D movement, and offered players something new with its weapon-based combat.

Soul Calibur is also probably one of the biggest glow-ups that a game has ever seen between installments. Its predecessor Soul Blade – or Soul Edge as it was known in the arcades – was a perfectly solid fighting game, but it felt rather average in many respects. Soul Calibur improved in nearly every respect, something that’s honestly pretty rare with fighting game sequels.

Soul Calibur had an immense influence on modern fighting games, with full 3D movement becoming more common throughout the 2000’s and onward. The series continues to thrive, with the seventh installment, Soul Calibur VI, releasing in 2018.

Other GOTY winners: Final Fantasy VIII, Gran Turismo 2, Unreal Tournament, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, EverQuest

Nominate Your Game Today

The Game of the Year award is one of the highest honors that a game developer can receive from many organizations. Presently, NAVGTR extends an invitation for entries to its annual game awards. We encourage you to submit your game as well – nominate your game today!