With all due respect to what Williams and Midway did for not only putting Chicago game development on the map but for it’s contributions to gaming history in general, I’d have to say that it was the 1990’s that should be remembered as the “golden age” of video game development in Chicago. Much like the game industry in general, where the ideas started in the 80’s – The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy – but were perfected in the 90’s – Zelda 3, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy 4+ – the groundwork for Chicago’s gaming legacy was laid in the 80’s but truly came into its own in the 90’s. Robotron evolved into Smash TV and Total Carnage, Arch Rivals evolved into NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, and Journey evolved into Revolution X (okay neither are very good – but Revolution X is definitely the better game, and Aerosmith is definitely the better band).
Of course, that’s not taking into account the brand new games and gaming experiences Chicago brought to the world in the 90’s. In 1992, at the height of Street Fighter II mania, Ed Boon, John Tobias, and a handful of local martial artists had the guts (literally) to take it on with their own fighting game, Mortal Kombat. It was the only fighting game to even come close to Street Fighter II in terms of critical and commercial success, and helped to usher in a new, more mature era in video games. MK continued its monumental success throughout the decade with 3 more sequels (5 more if you count Ultimate MK3 and MK Trilogy as their own seperate games), making it the most prolific franchise in Chicago’s history up to that point and the only one to go beyond a third installment.
The following year came Chicago’s OTHER signature 90’s game, NBA Jam. One of the first video games to appeal equally to gamers and non-gamers, and sports fanatics and casual sports fans, NBA Jam was also one of the key pioneers in the so-called “arcade sports” genre, which focused more on over the top action, exaggerated realism, and simpler pick-up-and-play controls that made for more accessible gaming experiences as sport sims became increasingly complex and realistic. Not only was NBA Jam followed up by updates, sequels, and spin-off b-ball titles, its formula was also successfully applied in the 90’s to football with NFL Blitz, hockey with NHL Open Ice, and even wrestling with WWF Wrestlemania. Every non-sim sports game or action sports game released since owes its existence to Chicago’s trailblazing work in the 90’s.
Another splintering off between realism and exaggerated realism that happened in the 90’s was in the racing genre, and Chicago was at the forefront of that as well. Cruis’n USA hit arcades in 2004, followed by two sequels. San Francisco Rush was released in 1996, and was one of the first car racing games to focus heavily on extreme jumps and complex tracks featuring multiple shortcuts. It too saw several sequels. Just before the end of the decade, Midway released Hydro Thunder, which brought racing to the water and also became one of the marquee launch titles for the Sega Dreamcast. And while including pinball in a video game debate gets into murky territory, I do feel it’s worth noting that it was in 1992 when Williams released it’s biggest-selling pinball game of all time, The Addams Family, and this from a company who had been in the pinball business for nearly a half century at that point.
While the impact, dominance, and success of Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam alone practically make the case for the 90’s as being Chicago’s big gaming decade, everything else just ices the cake. The Chicago development scenes was – if I may take the easy cliche – on fire in the 90’s, and as far as I’m concerned that’s the era that I’ll always point to as the example of why I’m so proud to call Chicago home as both a gamer and a local games journalist.