It’s easy to recall entertainment from the early 1990s as better than it actually was. Gladiators! Baywatch! Blind Date! Once the ultimate Saturday night TV line-up, it’s all a bit cringeworthy when watched again now.
Yet the same isn’t true of gaming, with the era’s big two machines – Sega’s Mega Drive, released in Europe in 1990, and 1992 rival Super Nintendo – spawning games that remain timeless.
Below we revisit a dozen console classics still considered seminal, and well worth a retro play.
1. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Mega Drive)
We’ve plumped for the second Sonic game (1992) thanks to the introduction of sidekick Miles ‘Tails’ Prower. While the character was mocked upon release, its addition delivered a split-screen two-player mode that’s still hilarious and competitive 30 years on.
Otherwise any of Sonic’s main Mega Drive efforts are worthy of a spot here: 1991’s original made an immediate icon of the red-sneakered hog by blending traditional platforming mechanics with devilish level design, while Sonic 3 (1994) ramped up the creativity and difficulty.
2. Super Mario World (Super Nintendo)
By the time of Sonic’s 1992 arrival Mario had been Nintendo’s mascot for half a decade – and this 1990 offering assured that the moustachioed plumber would endure for generations.
SNES’ best-selling game with more than 20 million copies sold, its 96 levels of coin collecting, power-ups and everlasting cuteness (it also introduced loveable dino Yoshi) holds up immaculately three decades on.
3. Streets of Rage II (Mega Drive)
Like Sonic, it’s the middle entry of a classic trilogy which makes this list. Streets of Rage was the machine’s must-own beat-‘em-up, its timeless electronic soundtrack the perfect accompaniment to side-scrolling levels in which you despatched OTT baddies.
Streets of Rage II (1993) featured four protagonist characters, including universally adored brunette whirlwind Blaze Fielding, and endlessly playable levels set in an amusement park, stadium and jungle. A fourth series entry finally landed in 2020.
4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past (Super Nintendo)
For many the pinnacle of an entire era, this unputdownable 1992 gem melded exploration, puzzles, battles and adventuring into a perfect whole.
While cute on the surface, the twisted twin realm of Hyrule delivered some genuinely sinister moments, and the tale was paced perfectly, keeping you invested in main character Link’s journey for every second of the 16-ish hours required for completion.
5. Sensible Soccer (Mega Drive)
This all-time footballing favourite was converted from Amiga to both Mega Drive and SNES, but the former, released in 1992, was the snappier, more responsive console version.
Fast top-down gameplay packed in Exocet passing, wild banana shots and flying tackles to form a sports effort as beloved now as it was in its heyday. The lack of an HD version on modern consoles is a genuine travesty.
6. Street Fighter II (Super Nintendo)
A flip-around from Sensible Soccer here. While Street Fighter II’s conversion from arcade to Mega Drive was great, it was blown to kingdom come by 1992’s all-conquering SNES iteration.
This pixel-perfect brawler introduced the world to a cast of soon-to-be household names: fireball-slinging Japanese badass Ryu, spinning-bird-kicking super girl Chun-Li, and nefarious red-hatted big boss M Bison. Still, many argue, unsurpassed.
7. Desert Strike (Mega Drive/Super Nintendo)
Long before Call of Duty brought 1939-45 conflicts to life, this isometric shooter from 1992 placed you in an Apache helicopter with the aim of taking down Middle Eastern dictator General Kilbaba – a transparent nod to Gulf War tensions.
Missions required you to rescue hostages and capture enemies, in addition to blasting the snot out of stuff, and the premise spawned four sequels: Jungle Strike, Urban Strike, Soviet Strike, and Nuclear Strike.
8. Super Mario Kart (Super Nintendo)
Mario Circuit 1, Donut Plains 1, Ghost Valley 1, Bowser Castle 1, Mario Circuit 2: for hundreds of thousands of now 40-somethings, those five simple racetracks were the entryway into decades of red-shell-slinging, ramp-boosting, drift-braking brilliance.
Just eight drivers and 20 courses populated this instant hall-of-famer, which remains as essential in HD on Nintendo Switch as it was way back in 1992.
9. Road Rash (Mega Drive)
Weapon-based racing from 1991, of a very different ilk to Mario Kart. You sped a motorbike along traffic-laden roads, dodging oncoming vehicles while attempting to dethrone other riders using crowbars, nunchaku, and cattle prods.
It only featured five levels yet the basic premise was sufficiently addictive to keep you coming back for more, and inspire a series of sequels which ultimately ended at shambolic 2000 release Road Rash Jailbreak.
10. Final Fantasy VI (Super Nintendo)
No other RPG (role-playing video game) series is held in such high regard as Final Fantasy, and any of its four SNES appearances could have made our list.
1994’s Final Fantasy VI nabs the spot because of the way it so perfectly melded accessibility with depth. Mechanics that initially felt simple gradually expanded in nuance, pulling you into an apocalyptic tale full of power and emotion. Oh, and it looked astonishing, too.
11. Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament (Mega Drive)
A 1994 video game based on the teeny tiny cars that are even more painful to tread on than Lego? Well, yes.
An ingenious one too: you and three siblings/friends/schoolmates-you-were-never-quite-sure-about hared around top-down courses set on pool tables and work desks, aiming to be the first player to reach the edge of the screen, or complete three laps. A Super Nintendo version was released two long years after its Sega counterpart.
12. Super Metroid (Super Nintendo)
Set on the fictional planet Zebes, this adroitly balanced precise platforming with boss battles that required genuine thought and knowledge garnered through previous play.
Considered state of the art in 1994, its pixellated visuals haven’t aged – indeed, they’ve inspired numerous copycat indie adventures spanning the last three decades. Yet there’s none quite like the original, boxed copies of which now fetch three figures on eBay.