3. Soul Blazer (SNES)
Two years after Quintet’s epic title Actraiser came a spiritual descendant, and one much worthier of the mantle than the actual sequel Actraiser received in 1994. Soul Blazer follows the quest of a human-figured servant of The Master — presumably, it’s safe to say, the same Master the player controlled in Actraiser — who is sent to the planet below to vanquish assorted evils and restore peace to the populace. In concept it’s not that much different than Quintet’s preceding effort, with The Master’s disciple filling in this time for the big guy himself.
In design and gameplay, however, Soul Blazer is drastically dissimilar. Gone are side-scrolling battles and city-building simulations, in favor of a top down adventure game with a distinct twist: when you first visit a new town, it’s deserted. Only by entering areas infested with monsters and sealing their lairs do you release the souls, bodies, and sometimes buildings of the townsfolk. As you progress through each temple or dungeon, sealing lairs as you go, the adjacent town gradually becomes more and more bustling, opening up new choices for how to proceed.
It’s a rare thrill to play a game and immediately feel you’re in safe hands, and that confidence oozes over you during Soul Blazer. The plot, characters, level design and sound are all top-notch, with terrific composition by Yukihide Takekawa ranging from soft and lilting town themes, to the aggressive grinding of a hellish basement. The game’s design and score culminate in their greatest moment of synchronicity, the game’s climax — the final battle against the malevolent Deathtoll.
To put it simply, had it not been for the #1 game on this list, this would perhaps be the best top-down adventure game in the console’s history.
2. Out Of This World (SNES)
An element I find broadly vital to successful game design in the 16-bit era is artistically pushing the edges of graphical ability, and not confusing that with pushing the limits of raw computing power. It’s perfectly possible to make bold, strange, and beautiful art decisions with the graphics common to this time without slaving for the premature “high-end” look, often oh-so dreadful.
So it’s a mild surprise, I guess, that the 1992 runner-up is a game that makes those bold choices, but does so with a style that could easily be interpreted as an overly ambitious, ultimately doomed attempt at realism. But the macabre atmosphere that drenches its alien world is in an unmistakable way a product of that same awkward, jagged aesthetic. Even as you sense the game is reaching for stars just out of reach, it’s almost a happy surprise that it can’t nab them.
Once the humble developer of a particle accelerator, Lester Knight Chaykin III is blasted by a lightning strike into this endlessly lethal and disquieting new landscape. Narrowly escaping death at the hands of a blocky, shambling black beast truly terrifying in its simplicity, Lester is lasered unconscious by a crew of heavily armed, bipedal aliens. When he comes to, he’s locked in a cage with a cellmate — a nameless member of the alien race, who serves as his lone, constant companion. The subsequent twisting and harrowing escape attempt from this massively militarized world, and the deeply uncertain and ill-fated conclusion, is as interesting and cinematic as anything 1992 has on offer.