Retrospective Reflections: Best video games of my childhood
Let the nostalgia surround you. It's time to go back to the 90s and 00s.
My parents gave my two older brothers and me a Nintendo 64 for Christmas when I was six years old. It was glorious — whenever I had the chance actually to play, that is. It’s hard when you need to compete with a pair of eight and ten-year-old boys for the controller. Like, really hard.
The N64 was amazing. It was our first real introduction to video games, an
obsession hobby that I’d carry with me into adulthood.
Around the same time, we also had a PC and discovered the further thrills of computer gaming. So many of them are lost in the cobwebs of too many games and too many memories — but a few have stuck. And in no particular order, I’d like to share with you my top ten favorites from my childhood, or roughly from 1996-2004.
10. The ClueFinders
The educational games of the 90s/00s were terrific. As someone who bopped between being homeschooled and attending “real” school (especially as someone who hated traditional learning) educational games were a lifesaver. The sound of writing on the chalkboard would make me sleepy but the thrill of solving these puzzles and advancing forward made me forget I was learning math, of all things.
But The Cluefinders Math Adventures: Mystery in the Himalayas (published circa 1998 and again in 1999 by The Learning Company) was one of my many addictions. In a tiny village in the Himalayas, stolen treasures need to be found and the thieves discovered. Eight locations in the village dealt with different math activities: the tailor did charts, the ice cave was equation balancing, and the yak pasture taught about perimeters. Complete the activity and receive a clue. Mystery made math palatable in ways the classroom never did.
Best of all, I didn’t have to compete with any of my brothers to try and get on the computer to play it. They were older and did different math.
9. Explorers of the New World
Published in 1995 by Future Vision Multimedia, I don’t remember much about this particular game but it played like an interactive history book. There were three primary explorers whose trail you could follow and a selection of lesser-known explorers as well.
I do remember being absolutely fascinated learning about La Noche Triste, or the “Night of Sorrows,” when Cortes violently drove the native Aztecs out of Tenochtitlan. I remember the shock of learning that Magellan was eaten by a cannibalistic tribe.
Years later, I’d learn that this beloved game of my youth was not particularly historically accurate. Magellan actually died from a spear to the face when he tried to forcefully convert a native tribe on the island of Mactan in the Philippines. Less exciting than a tribe of cannibals, but much more believable.
Yet it was games like this lit the spark that made me fall in love with history. Ask me about the Aksumite Empire, the Byzantines, or the Egyptians and I will talk your ear off.
8. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Half the reason I didn’t need to compete over playing my educational games on our PC was due to the Nintendo 64. We only had three games the entire time that console survived: the first one we ever played was Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, published in 1998.
This was the game that made many Millennials fall in love with games. Even today, Zelda persists as a popular and fantastic franchise. There are 19 Zelda games, not including the spin-offs, and this particular title was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame just this year.
Yet despite the many wonderful new Zelda titles, none will ever really be loved as much as I loved that very first time meeting the world’s most annoying fairy, shooting the sun with a slingshot, or playing a song to tame a horse. This was the game that showed me how utterly magical the realm of video games could be.
7. Oregon Trail II
So many Millennials played the OG game in school but I devoured this entire series at home. It’s 2022 and I still play Oregon Trail V (but only because it’s the closest thing to Oregon Trail II and that was the absolute best one, I’ll die on that hill).
I’d name my party members after my family and do my best to ensure none of them died from cholera. I’d administer ipecac, camphor, laudanum, or rest for as many days as necessary just to make sure we all made it to Oregon City alive. Some of them may have been in poor condition by the end, but by golly, they were alive — which made all the difference to my final scorecard.
This was also the game that taught me about edible plants in the wild. Poison hemlock may look like Queen Anne’s Lace, but they’re very different. If I’m walking through the woods, you can be absolutely positive that in my head I am foraging for food.
6. Pokemon Blue
Did we have a GameBoy? No. Did my brother have a magical friend who copied the game onto a floppy disc? Yes.
I didn’t know the struggle of Pokemon on a small screen until years later when we had a GameBoy Advance. In those early days of falling in love with Eevee and the mystique of Mewtwo, it was on a PC monitor.
Blue was released in North America in 1998 and introduced many of us to the Kanto region, the dangers of tall grass, and very unrealistic expectations of what we should be achieving by the time we turned ten.
Unlike more recent titles, however (I’m looking at you, Violet/Scarlet), your rival was an absolute jerk you wanted to crush into the ground. Battling him was a thing you needed to grind levels for and prepare your very best. He didn’t bring a sheep to a PokeBattle (poor Hop from Sword/Shield never stood a chance).
Additionally, Team Rocket was an evil corporation run by adults that, for some reason, needed to be taken down by a child. They were more villainous than silly, which is another element no longer present in newer titles.
5. Roller Coaster Tycoon
Eventually, we all succumb to capitalism. Might as well make it thrilling and fun for the kiddos. While later versions of Roller Coaster Tycoon got incredibly fancy, the simplicity of the original always appealed to me more. Even today, this is what I’ll pick over RC2 or RC3.
Before the horrors inflicted in The Sims, there was carefully picking up all cranky or vomiting guests and placing them in an isolated sidewalk square far away from the rest of the park. No sick guests will bring down my park rating.
And if it’s raining, the price of umbrellas is already cranked up to $20. Yay, capitalism!
4. Civilization III
Civilization is a franchise that will probably endure for many more years to come, but Civilization III is the one I grew up on. It also featured the palace mini-game that I feel is sorely missed in the later games (Firaxis, if you’re reading this, please note I am not alone in this feeling).
Even today, looking back at Civ III, it’s clean, polished, and set in motion elements still seen in modern titles. Different civilizations now came with their own unique traits, requiring players to proceed with caution when it came to developing strategies.
And even though it was tedious, I almost miss having builders construct roads piece by piece. Nowadays, roads are completed by trader units as they work their route.
3. Age of Empires - Gold Edition
Now this was the PC game that caused numerous fights over who got to play on the computer. Even though Age of Empires II is a superior title, the first game added fuel to my growing love of history and strategy games.
Building up the most epic empire and army and slowly eliminating every opposing color on the mini-map was addictive. Different civilizations meant having to come up with new approaches and, if you weren’t careful, monks would “wo-lo-lo” their way into stealing a precious unit.
Plus, the cheat codes were hilarious. The Greeks got nothin’ on my sports car with a rocket launcher strapped to the roof.
2. Star Wars: Episode 1: Racer
Racer was the second game we owned for our N64 (the third being Super Mario 64 which, while great, probably hits at #11 for me and therefore misses out on being on this exceptionally tasteful list).
Opinions on the prequels aside, this game was amazing. I remember many weekends spent working to upgrade my pod, buying parts from Watto to be the best podracer in the galaxy.
Originally named Podracer, at some point, it was renamed Racer for copyright reasons. It recently got a “remaster” (I literally cannot see any difference) for modern consoles and yes, I did buy it. My husband and I aggressively compete for first place over twenty years later since the first time I played.
1. Final Fantasy X
I never had a PlayStation 1 but we did get a PlayStation 2 and Final Fantasy X was the first game I bought.
Naturally, I played Final Fantasy VII and VIII before but it had been at friends’ houses and only very casually. FFX is what I quickly poured hundreds of hours into all from the leisure of my own couch. That opening scene with Auron being casual and cool as Sin attacks Zanarkand is forever burned into my core memories.
While Titus was a rather ditzy character, the love story that unfolded between him and Summoner Yuna was beautiful and brought me to tears.
Later on, I’d play more Final Fantasy games both new and old, but FFX is what definitively hooked me onto the franchise.
Drop your childhood favorites in the comments and don’t ever forget your gaming roots.