In the 1990s, any company expecting to succeed in the console market had to outsmart the competition. After the immense popularity of 16-bit consoles, namely the Super NES and the Sega Genesis, the race was on to develop a commercially successful 32-bit machine. Despite early attempts by Fujitsu (with the FM Towns Marty) and Commodore (with the Amiga CD32), Panasonic was the first company to attract attention with the release of the 3DO in October 1993. Atari fired back the following month with the Atari Jaguar, a 64-bit machine that failed to generate buzz and ended up alienating consumers. Roughly one year later, Sega released the 32X add-on for the Sega Genesis in North America. The next day, the first powerhouse 32-bit system hit Japan: the Sega Saturn. Eleven days later, Japan would also welcome the Sony PlayStation, Sony's inaugural home console. Nintendo would only make a move in mid-1996 with the release of the Nintendo 64, mimicking Atari's ambition to skip the 32-bit era.

Regardless of the number of bits, what defined the 32-bit/64-bit generation was the jump from 2D to 3D graphics. Nothing before or after that moment had such a significant impact on the gaming world. Adding an extra dimension to graphics and gameplay proved to be a massive change, allowing more immersive games to be created and, for the time, more realistic graphics. Not only were fully polygonal games possible now, but 2D games could be displayed in higher resolution, and videos could be stored on the CDs due the massive capacity of the optical media. It was, arguably, a very creative era and many beloved franchises made their debut on 32-bit consoles.

What follows is a chronological list of multi-platform releases that, in one way or another, helped shape the 32-bit era. Obviously, there are many more titles that had some sort of impact on the generation as a whole, but given that this is a top 10 list, it is to be expected that a vast number of games would have to be omitted.

Let's begin our trip down the memory lane in August 1994. The Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn had not been released yet; instead, the most important 32-bit console at the time was the 3DO. As we would soon learn, Sega's and Sony's consoles had their own strengths and weaknesses, but their overall level of performance was roughly equivalent in 3D games, with a slight advantage to the PlayStation; the Saturn, instead, was a much more capable machine than the PlayStation when it came to 2D graphics. The 3DO, however, was not really outstanding in any particular area. This didn't stop the console from securing the first release in one of the most influential racing franchises in the history of video games.

Release dates:
3DO: August 1994 (North America)
PlayStation: March 1996 (North America/Europe)
Saturn: June 1996 (North America)

While Sega and Namco were the undisputed kings of arcade racing games, their newest titles -- Daytona USA and Ridge Racer -- were too complex to be faithfully recreated on 16-bit consoles. Sega ported Virtua Racing to the Sega Genesis with surprisingly good results, but it was clear that its 16-bit machine would never be able to run Daytona USA. We would have to wait for the Sega Saturn. Namco was still waiting for a more powerful machine than the ones which were available on the shelves. But not every company wanted to wait; Electronic Arts decided to take their chances with the 3DO.

The 3DO was an expensive machine. A very expensive machine. Despite its early release compared to the other 32-bit systems, the 3DO failed to capture a significant share of the market, since consumers still had their eyes on the much cheaper 16-bit systems. It didn't help that nearly one year after its release, the 3DO didn't have any killer apps. Why spend 700 dollars on a console that failed to take players to the next level? Enter The Need for Speed.

Electronic Arts focused on a more realistic experience for the release of The Need for Speed, displaying textured polygons running at solid frame rate instead of crazy, fast-paced action. It worked. While not nearly as intense as Daytona USA or Ridge Racer, The Need for Speed was a convincing driving simulation with 3D graphics that are among the best for the 3DO. The game also attempted to recreate the sounds made by the vehicles, what was a big deal in 1994. Live action sequences, while dated and somewhat awkward in retrospect, helped to increase realism for the time, creating a package unlike anything else on the market.

The title would eventually be ported to the Saturn and PlayStation with better graphics and significantly improved frame rate. Unfortunately, hovewer, not even The Need for Speed could save the 3DO. The exorbitant price of the console was still very much prohibitive to consumers, especially considering the upcoming Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation would cost a fraction of Panasonic's console. But 1994 was still not over. A juggernaut was about to make its debut on 32-bit consoles.

Release dates:
32X: November 1994 (North America)
PlayStation: November 1995 (North America)
3DO: April 1996 (North America)
Saturn: March 1997 (North America)

Doom was a watershed game for the gaming industry. The freedom of movement it allowed in a 3D space made most gamers actually feel like they were playing a next-gen game. Though from a technical standpoint Doom is not really a 3D game, gameplay is what matters the most, and for gamers used to merely moving their avatars from left to right in a 2D side-scrolling game, Doom was a revolution. The innovation came at a cost: 16-bit platforms could not run the game properly, at least not like it was envisioned. This is where the horsepower from 32-bit machines came into play.

The first 32-bit system to receive a port of the most popular PC game at the time was the 32X. Now, this was a somewhat odd choice, since the 32X was an add-on for the Sega Genesis. However, the port was surprisingly competent, though the game did not run in full screen and, thanks to the limitations of the cartridge format, sizable chunks of data had to be cut, compared to the PC original. One week later, the game was released on the Atari Jaguar, a 64-bit machine, to great acclaim. The next port would only come in September 1995 for the Super NES. Now, while a commendable work, this version could not really compare to the 32X and Jaguar releases. If anything, the SNES port only proved that 16-bit machines were falling behind and 32-bit systems were the future.

In November 1995, Doom was ported to the Sony Playstation. This was, at the time, the best version of the game, even surpassing the original in some areas. Graphics were greatly enhanced with animated textures, dynamic lighting and transparency effects. Unlike the Jaguar version, both sound effects and soundtrack could be played at the same time. The 3DO version was released five months later and, for all intents and purposes, is nearly unplayable. The main programmer was given only ten weeks to finish the project, and it's quite surprising that it could even be ported as it was; but the gameplay was very sluggish and the low frame rate made it feel like the 3DO was trying hard but ultimately failing to keep up with the game.

The Saturn port was only released in 1997 and, while not as bad as the 3DO port, is severely flawed with a very inconsistent frame rate. This would raise concerns about the Saturn's ability to handle first-person shooters and was a huge blow to the reputation of Sega's console; not only was Doom released very late, it also played noticeably worse than the 32X port, released almost two and a half years earlier. Sega was quick to patch up the hole five months later when the Saturn received a port of Duke Nukem 3D with dynamic lighting effects and a solid frame rate; this port is often considered even better than the PlayStation port, released in September 1997. Nevertheless, after Doom, the damage had been done. But I digress. It's not time to discuss about 1997 yet.

Release dates:
PlayStation: March 1996 (Japan)
Saturn: July 1997 (Japan)

1995 was a busy year for the Saturn, PlayStation and the 3DO. Important adventure games like D, Myst, Policenauts and Alone in the Dark 2 made their way to the three platforms. But it was Resident Evil, in 1996, that really took the world by storm; and the 3DO was not invited to this party.

Resident Evil is responsible for making true one of the biggest unfulfilled dreams of the generation: it truly felt like a movie that could be played. It's by no means an FMV game, though. The doomed genre that gained slight popularity with the Sega CD and CDi, with games like Night Trap and Burning Cycle, had nothing to do with Resident Evil. Capcom's title made use of live action cinematic sequences, 3D character models, pre-rendered backgrounds and immersive audio to transport players to its own world. The company even coined a new term to design its genre: survival horror.

Now, it's important to stress that Resident Evil was not the first game of its kind -- Alone in the Dark as well as the Japan-only Clock Tower preceded it by a few years. Resident Evil, however, perfected the formula (well, as much as tank controls can be considered perfect, that is). Players were in full control of their characters in a huge mansion, trying to find their way through a then unmatched tense atmosphere. The title made masterful use graphics, music and sound effects to completely immerse the player.

The game was only ported to the Sega Saturn over one year after the original release for the Sony PlayStation. This led to some rumors about the Saturn not being able to run the port, which were put to rest once the game was released for Sega's console in a flawless conversion that not only retained all content from the PlayStation original, but also included an all-new gameplay mode, the Battle Game mode. However, by the time the game was released for the Saturn in North America, Resident Evil 2 was right around the corner, being released for the Sony PlayStation only three months later. Capcom still planned to port the sequel to the Sega Saturn (which never materialized), but it was clear that Sega's console was in trouble.

Release dates:
Saturn: October 1996 (Europe)
PlayStation: November 1996 (North America)

By mid-1996 the 32X and 3DO were nearly dead. The remaining 32-bit systems, the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation, were finally finding their pacing after highly experimental years from 1993 to 1995. The journey was a little rough, though: companies had a hard time learning how to port first-person shooters (Doom and Hexen), 3D fighters (Virtua Fighter and Tekken) and racing games (Sega Rally and Ridge Racer) to Sega's and Sony's flagship consoles. But after Resident Evil, consumers were more and more inclined to play on 32-bit systems and eager for more.

Then, Nintendo finally made their move. The company decided to counter-attack Sega and Sony with a 64-bit system. While the Jaguar was performing poorly and was mostly (unfairly) seen as a joke at the time, the Nintendo 64 came to the market with strong ambitions. Nintendo meant business. After Super Mario 64 hit the market, pressure was on. The revolutionary title greatly expanded possibilities for 3D worlds and it was time for the companies to show whether they could reproduce such immersive levels on 32-bit consoles. It didn't take long, though.

Tomb Raider proved that 32-bit consoles could handle complex 3D environments. The game, however, had a very different approach compared to Super Mario 64. For starters, Lara Croft was supposed to represent a real woman, with real ambitions, in a real world. Of course it can be argued that Lara was hypersexualized and her proportions, especially her breasts, were not exactly realistic. But she was more realistic than an Italian plumber trying to save a princess in a kingdom filled with turtles, mushrooms and piranha plants. Lara's animation and movements were also seen as realistic, and she had to explore caves, pyramids and temples based on real world locations. Lara was more than a cartoon character, and she had massive (for the time) 3D stages to explore. This was enough to prove that 32-bit systems were still relevant, despite the recent release of the Nintendo 64.

As time would have it, Super Mario 64 would go on to become one of the best-selling games ever. However, 32-bit consoles were still very much alive and kicking.

Release dates:
Saturn: December 1996 (Japan)
PlayStation: September 1997 (Japan)

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together was originally released for the Super Famicom, the Japanese equivalent to the Super NES, in 1995, selling more than half a million copies in Japan for Nintendo's system alone. The game is worthy of being mentioned for greatly influencing other role-playing games of the 32-bit era. The story was dense, leading to branching paths and different endings. Characters were fully realized, with their own motivations to act, sometimes even in contradictory and unexpected ways. The innovative gameplay of Tactics Ogre was mimicked by another extremely influential game from the era: Final Fantasy Tactics, a title that remained a PlayStation exclusive for the entire generation. In fact, Tactics Ogre has had a profound impact on the industry, changing the way epic stories would be told and influencing many other subsequent role-playing games, from Final Fantasy XII to Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Given the trend of 3D graphics, TO:LUCT was not exactly the kind of game that one expected to be ported to a 32-bit system, since it was entirely conceived using 2D graphics. Nevertheless, the first 32-bit console to receive a port of the title was the Sega Saturn, in 1996. At first, it doesn't look that much different from the original version; compared to the Super Famicom release, visual improvements are marginal, merely slightly improving the resolution, while retaining 2D graphics for characters, backgrounds and special effects. Tactics Ogre was released before Final Fantasy VII, when developers were still trying to understand how 32-bit systems could help expand role-playing games and how optical media could further improve the experience.

If anything, the most important feature of the Saturn port is how this version takes advantage of the audio capabilities of 32-bit systems. First, the soundtrack was rearranged, with crisper audio that sounds decidedly better than the SFC original. Next, cutscenes are now fully voiced, and the voice work is fantastic if you can understand Japanese. These enhancements help immersing the player even more, further improving the experience, adding to what is an already fantastic game. In 1997, Tactics Ogre was finally ported to the Sony PlayStation, and this is the only version that reached North America, in 1998.

Currently, SquareEnix owns the right to the Ogre Battle franchise, including Tactics Ogre and both the Saturn and PlayStation ports. The voice work and the arranged music, sadly, were nowhere to be seen (or heard), in the PlayStation release.

Release dates:
PlayStation: March 1997 (Japan)
Saturn: June 1998 (Japan)

Pretty much like Tactics Ogre, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is an important title for not adhering to tried and true conventions. It was originally released in March 1997 in Japan and proudly displays 2D graphics, with gorgeous artwork and fantastic level design. It is important to remember that early 1997 was the moment when 3D graphics were pushed hard and seen as a major selling point for games, so much so that Sony nearly forbade companies from releasing games with 2D graphics in North America. Still, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night somehow made the jump from Japan to North America in October 1997.

Of course it had to have that extra something to be released overseas. That extra "something", however, was huge: it greatly expanded the exploration aspect made famous by Super Metroid, to the point where it had become a new genre, aptly named Metroidvania (a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania). The flawless mix of 2D platforming, role-playing game aspects, swift combat mechanics, sleek presentation and lots of items, weapons and armor created a unique blend that changed forever the gaming world. It is safe to state that Castlevania: SOTN's bold return to 2D graphics and revolutionary presentation had a strong impact on every subsequent side-scrolling action role-playing game released after it.

The title was ported to the Sega Saturn only in mid-1998. Though not a perfect port, with slightly inferior graphics, new areas and a new playable character were added to the game. This was a Japan-exclusive release, though, what means that many players could never experience it. Such a shame.

Release dates:
PlayStation: September 1997 (North America)
Saturn: October 1997 (Europe)

Argonaut released Croc: Legend of the Gobbos in an attempt to prove that 32-bit consoles also had the processing power to render huge 3D worlds like the ones present in Super Mario 64, one year after its release for the Nintendo 64. Previous attempts of creating 3D platformers for 32-bit platforms produced mixed results: Crash Bandicoot was very successful, but it never came close to offer quite the same level of freedom Super Mario 64 gave players. Jumping Flash! and Jumping Flash! 2 had a weird first-person view that alienated most players. Bubsy 3D was atrocious. Croc came to the market hoping to surprise players; against all odds, it did.

Now, it is important to note that Spyro the Dragon would only be released in late 1998. Croc was released one full year before Insomniac's mascot starred its namesake title. While Croc does not offer the same level of freedom of Super Mario 64, it is still a fantastic achievement for 32-bit platforms. Graphics are solid and the mascot who stars the game has a wide range of moves, like jumping, running, butt-stomping, tail-whipping, wall-climbing and grabbing monkey bars. The story behind the development of the title is quite curious: it was actually designed before Super Mario 64, presented to Nintendo, dismissed by Shigeru Miyamoto himself, and then adapted and released for 32-bit platforms.

Unlike most games on this list, Croc hit the Sega Saturn just one month after the PlayStation release, at least in Europe; in North America, the Saturn port was released in November 1997. It was the first of only two 3D platformers released for the Sega Saturn, the other one being Ninpen Manmaru, an exclusive title for the system which was released only in Japan. All of the features from the PlayStation original made their way to the Saturn version of Croc, with an added bonus: analog control support. The Dual Shock controller for the Sony PlayStation would only be released in 1998 in North America, so Croc is not compatible with it. The Sega Saturn had analog control support since 1996, which the port made full use of.

Release dates:
Saturn: October 1997 (Japan)
PlayStation: March 1998 (Japan)

I believe some readers are scratching their heads wondering why I never mentioned Battle Arena Toshinden until now. BAT was an early release for the PlayStation, in January 1995 in Japan; in September 1995 it was released as a launch title for the system in North America. The title did not age particularly well, but at the time 3D fighters were novel and attracted attention. Toshinden gained a bit of popularity thanks to its fast-paced action and competent early-generation 3D graphics. Sega took note and decided to port the game to the Sega Saturn. Despite being handled by Sega itself, the port was inferior in quality, with slightly reduced speed and missing effects; the lush transparency effects present on the PlayStation release could not be properly replicated on the Sega Saturn.

The Sega Saturn, however, received a superb port of the arcade hit Virtua Fighter 2, the only game that sold more than one million copies for the console. The machine was powerful and competent, but sometimes not even Sega was able to handle it properly. Then Dead or Alive was released for the system in Japan in late 1997. A direct conversion of a Model 2 arcade game, Dead or Alive had excellent graphics and tight gameplay. Team Ninja proved that third-party developers could also squeeze the most out of the Sega Saturn. It was a very important victory in Japan for Sega to have it as an exclusive title.

Or so everybody thought. Five months later, Dead or Alive was ported to the PlayStation. It had even better graphics, more characters, more stages, tons of alternate costumes, new background music and an updated fighting engine. It was the first game created for a Sega arcade hardware to be ported to the PlayStation, and it was even better than the already excellent Saturn port in every way. Sony proved that when it came to 3D graphics, what the Saturn could do, the PlayStation could do better. By then, the Saturn was already struggling in North America, and now even in Japan Sony was able to outsmart Sega. But the Sega Saturn would not go down without a fight; at least, not in Japan.

Release dates:
Saturn: December 1997 (Japan)
PlayStation: June 1999 (Japan)

By late 1997, the PlayStation was the clear winner of the 32-bit war in North America. Final Fantasy VII had been released in Japan in January 1997 and it drastically increased sales of the Sony PlayStation. September was the month when the title was released in North America, and a revolutionary, aggressive marketing campaign convinced American players to buy the title and give a chance to role-playing games, a mostly ignored, relatively unknown genre for the masses.

Sega had to act fast. Grandia had been in development for over three years when Final Fantasy VII was released in Japan. Though the Saturn had received a few important role-playing games releases in Japan (namely Shining the Holy Ark, Sakura Taisen and Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete), none of them came close to what Final Fantasy VII represented in length and scale. Sakura Taisen was a huge hit, but Final Fantasy VII offered a completely different experience. Finally, in late 1997, Grandia was released in Japan to great acclaim.

Grandia was the only game that could compete against Final Fantasy VII on all fronts. It had excellent, detailed 3D graphics, innovative gameplay, superb music, an epic story and cinematic presentation. It was the only title that could deliver a similar experience to SquareSoft's game, thanks to top-notch production values, albeit, stylistically, in a different fashion. Grandia sold more than 340,000 copies in Japan and the Sega Saturn finally had an epic, cinematic RPG to call its own. It was time for Sega to make their move and release the game in the West.

However, to everyone's surprise, Grandia remained a Japan-exclusive title for the Sega Saturn in 1998. Rumors of a release in Europe came up, especially after Deep Fear made its way from Japan to Europe, but eventually a Western release did not materialize. It seemed like Sega had simply given up on the Saturn in North America. Grandia was supposed to stay forever in Japan.

Once again: or so everybody thought. Game Arts expected to earn a little bit more with the title, so the game was ported to the PlayStation in mid-1999. In late 1999 it was released in North America, and in early 2000 it was released in Europe. Twenty years later, though, efforts have been made by fans to translate the Saturn release to English. Better late than never.

Release dates:
PlayStation: December 1998 (Japan)
Saturn: August 1999 (Japan)

1998 was an excellent year for the PlayStation worldwide: Metal Gear Solid, Tekken 3 and Ridge Racer Type 4 cemented the reputation of the console as the dominant system around the globe. The Sega Saturn also had a number of major exclusive releases like Panzer Dragoon Saga, Burning Rangers and Magic Knight Rayearth; however, it was clear that the console was on its last legs in North America, though it was still somewhat strong in Japan, with total hardware sales surpassing those of the Nintendo 64 and major exclusive releases like Radiant Silvergun and Deep Fear.

In fact, Sega's machine had acquired a strong reputation as the best system for playing 2D games, with titles like X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, The King of Fighters '97, DoDonPachi and Metal Slug receiving arcade-perfect ports for the console, while their PlayStation counterparts lacked features, animation, had reduced sprites and, in some cases, completely changed gameplay elements.

Needless to say, the PlayStation was never seen as a powerhouse for 2D games. To everyone's surprise, Capcom released in December 1998 a nearly perfect port of Street Fighter Alpha 3 for Sony's console. Long seen as the Ugly Duckling when it comes to 2D graphics, the PlayStation finally had an arcade-perfect port of a 2D fighting game to brag about. Since the Dreamcast had been released in Japan in November 1998, no one expected the Saturn to receive any substantial releases in 1999. Capcom, however, surprised everyone once again, releasing a port of SFA3 (in Japan, Street Fighter Zero 3) for the Sega Saturn in mid-1999. The port retained all of the new content introduced in the PlayStation version, and had an added exclusive mode, the Reverse Dramatic Battle mode.

Street Fighter Zero 3 would not be Capcom's last release for the Saturn, though. The company released one more game for the system, a port of the arcade game Final Fight Revenge, on March 30, 2000, even after the PlayStation 2 was released in Japan. As of 2020, this remains a Saturn-exclusive port.

The 32-bit era started out strong -- with many different systems being released in 1993 and 1994, joined by the Nintendo 64 and the Atari Jaguar as the only 64-bit machines on the market -- but it soon became clear that the 32-bit era would be best remembered by two consoles: the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. Unfortunately, the 32-bit war ended too soon in North America, but it lasted even after the dawn of the 128-bit era in Japan.

List by Simon (04/29/2020)

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