Twenty Years Ago, E3 ’96 Announced the Arrival of Gaming’s Second “Golden Age”

E3 1996 may have only been the show’s sophomore year, but it’s still fair to call it the most “important” E3 of all time in terms of how it signaled the end of more than one era and the beginning of a few others, and truly set in motion the “modern” video game era. That E3 took place twenty years ago on May 16-18, and here is why it was one of the most pivotal events in video game history.

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The PC Demands To Be Noticed

Despite all of the noise that the three console manufacturers were making that year, a PC game called StarCraft made its debut at E3 1996, as well as being the first public showing of a little piece of technology called the Unreal Engine. The eventual impact of both of these premiers cannot be understated, although it’s hard for that E3 not to be overshadowed in the history of E3 debuts of PC games by what was to be shown in the following year’s event (Half-Life, Unreal, and Quake II, anyone?).

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The Saturn Is Still A Contender

While Sega had every reason to be nervous given Sony proving to be the real deal and Nintendo’s next piece of hardware right around the corner, at this point there was no reason to write the Saturn’s obituary just yet. Solid offerings like Nights Into Dreams…, Panzer Dragoon II Zwei, and the visually stunning Virtua Fighter 2 were on display, the latter which helped to quiet the skeptics who doubted the system’s ability to handle high-quality 3D graphics. That show also featured footage of Sonic X-treme, and although we now know that game’s ultimate fate, at the time it seemed as though Mario wasn’t going to be the only 16-bit superstar to enter the third dimension with exciting results. At E3 ’96 we still had every reason to believe that we had 4-5 years ahead of us where the PlayStation and Saturn would duke it out for our time and money and that we were going to reap the glorious rewards of an epic 32-bit battle.

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The Rise of PlayStation Is Underway

Rookie Sony continued to build momentum with its PlayStation as it showed off its impressive second-year lineup that included sequels to Ridge Racer, Jumping Flash!, WipeOut and Tekken; the North American release of Resident Evil; its technologically superior version of Tomb Raider; and the debut of what would be the platform’s unofficial mascot for most of its lifespan, Crash Bandicoot. And with fellow console first-timers 3DO and CD-i already on their death crawls, the PlayStation had proven that it was going to be the only new kid left standing in the sixth console generation race.

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SquareSoft – Nintendo + Sony = ?

Sony also quieted some of Nintendo’s thunder at E3 ’96 (see below) by having the big N’s former golden boy SquareSoft show their first PlayStation game, Tobal No. 1, as well as a little video taste of Final Fantasy VII, the first-ever Final Fantasy game not on a Nintendo platform (“Final Fantasy 64 had made its first-and last-teaser appearance the previous year). Needless to say, this deserved its own separate subsection within this column given just how huge a part Square’s support of the PlayStation played in its fight against Nintendo (and also Nintendo’s first major fall from dominance). Square would go on to be one of the most prolific and beloved developer/publishers of the latter half of the 90s, and all of that goodness belonged to PlayStation owners.

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Nintendoes Does What Nintendoes

All that said, however, the star of this particular E3 was still definitely Nintendo, unveiling the Nintendo 64 and demoing the mind-blowing Super Mario 64 and showing off the console’s weird but revolutionary controller (the first console to ever have an analog stick on its default launch controller). For this one last E3, Nintendo was still the video game developer and hardware maker to beat, before Sony would begin its near decade of unrivaled console dominance.