1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)
The king of the crop for this top-heavy class of 1992 was, in the end, a foregone conclusion. Never before and never since would a game grace the Super Nintendo capable of such evocation of adventure. The third installment of The Legend of Zelda franchise, A Link to the Past subtly blends the solitary and intimate world of the first game, and the town-roaming world map approach of the second. The result is a view of Hyrule that can touch either pole — both the life of the roaming monster-slayer, and the kid who strolls into an inviting town to visit the bow-and-arrow shooting gallery.
The technological achievement is understated in presentation, but considerable, given the size of the game and its quintessential hook, the shifting between Light World and Dark. The ability to shift between two similar yet skewed worlds, and indeed the necessity to do so in the face of a variety of puzzles, is probably the single best decision, in service of gameplay, plot, and setting, in the history of the Super Nintendo.
Not enough praise can be heaped on the music produced for this game, either, straining the limits of conventional SNES sound to produce thick, rich tones, masterfully arranged. The level design is also a standout, as the first three dungeons of the game can be breezed through relatively briskly before Link is thrown headlong into the Dark World, and the numerous, far more vexing lairs that await.
Link’s progression from wayfaring boy with a standard issue sword into the heavily armored, magic/tempered steel wielding warrior of legend he ultimately becomes is richly satisfying, to boot. While you start ill-equipped to access most areas of Hyrule or its corrupted offshoot, suspicious areas and puzzles that you see earlier will suddenly blaze into your mind when a new item is found. A cape that makes you invisible (and temporarily invulnerable)? Time to high-tail it back to that hallway full of spikes that stopped you dead in your tracks before.
In summation, never for a moment while compiling my list of nominees did anything ever come close to topping this venerable classic. Suffice it to say, this game may well represent both the greatest ever made on Super Nintendo, and (while I suspect this may be controversial) the absolute high-water mark of the Zelda franchise.
Tragic Mangling of the Year: The Rocketeer (SNES)
What is a tragic mangling, you ask? No you don’t, it’s blatantly obvious what it means.
Suffice it to say that the source material for this game, a movie I have a lot of affection for, may be part of the reason this dismal product rankled me so. The Rocketeer as a film was, while not without flaws, an attempt to wed jetpacks, art deco, and World War 2 era espionage, set against the fading colors of a Hollywood long in the rear-view mirror.
The game they decided to turn it into lacks the deco and art direction, and is at best a pathetic and rickety pastiche of the other two. Indeed, you do get to fly around with a jetpack, though not before you win a race in the eminently crappy Gee Bee biplane, which is hard enough to pull off to make you want to shut the whole thing off. The mechanics of the flight, and the developer’s attempts to represent a foreground and background that you swing between as you round the corners of the course, are disgracefully unmanagable.
And even should you win the inane race, you still have some irritating locked perspective shooting to do before you’ll sniff that sweet, sweet jetpack. Once you have it? Well, you’ll do another race like you did in the plane, and then some auto-scroll aerial levels. It’s all a catastrophic disappointment, for a franchise that’s endured a few of them.
Cynically Dystopian View of the Future of the Year: Super Smash T.V. (SNES)
“Big money! Big prizes! I love it!”
From the mouth of your unhinged yet charismatic host out to the viewing public, the above quote is about as precise a description of Super Smash T.V. as one could make, while omitting the central thrust — the price of the big money and big prizes is paid in blood.
This isn’t actually the first iteration of Smash T.V., formerly an arcade hit, but it was indeed released in 1992 for the Super Nintendo, and as such I was all too pleased to spotlight it here. By no means should you take “cynically dystopian” as an insult — the unwinking, relentless positivity of the bloody game show’s host, his occasional interjections during play, and the sheer frenetic insanity of the gameplay combine for a harshly challenging and exhilarating struggle.
Basically, you’re in a futuristic game show in which hoardes of foes swarm you from all sides. You must kill them all without being hit by their bodies or projectile attacks. At times so many enemies pack into a single room that it’s something of a surprise the game handles it so capably. All the while as you fight the enemy onslaught, prizes and cash randomly appear around the room, daring you to try to nab them at increased risk to your life. The prizes range from those sexy piles of cold, hard cash to things as mundane as toaster and VCRs, but you’ll feel the impulse to nab them all the same — after all, the object of the game may be to survive, but the reason for playing is to get stinking rich, off your own greed and recklessness. In other words:
So, that’s it, gang. What do you think? Pretty good year, no?