Alex Hajdasz lists a personal best video game for each year since 1994. The only rule is that he must have played an entry in the same year it was released.

Banjo-Kazooie …For 1998

Played on: Nintendo 64

Banjo-Kazooie Nintendo 64 box art

Banjo-Kazooie

1998 is still in the period where my memory is fuzzy on exact dates, but I have strong memories of playing Banjo-Kazooie during the summer it was released.

Rare’s legendary run on the Nintendo 64 produced many classics, with Banjo-Kazooie being a primary contender for that honour. The game has featured on all of my best-of lists including best bosses, best music, as well as best video games.

It’s a take on the formula Super Mario 64 made popular for years to come: that being the 3D platformer bursting at the seams with vibrant colour and collectibles. Unlike the many imitators who fell by the wayside, these two animal stars stood the test of time and would headline several sequels and spin-offs in later years.

 

Soulcalibur …For 1999

Played on: Sega Dreamcast

Soulcalibur Dreamcast NTSC-U box art

Soulcalibur

Competing with Sonic Adventure and Power Stone is Soulcalibur; one of the few new games I played at the end of 1999. This renowned 3D fighter comes via the Sega Dreamcast console whose PAL launch was in October that same year.

To this day, Soulcalibur keeps rare company among the best-reviewed console launch titles ever. Such immense critical success only makes its publisher’s decision to ignore the Dreamcast thereafter even more puzzling. I guess the bean counters at Namco weren’t as thrilled by its console debut as the press was.

Crucially though, this was a game that played as well as it looked, which is no small compliment when you consider how spellbinding its 3D graphics were for the time. Connect a Dreamcast to a display using the console’s native VGA input today and you’d still be dazzled by Soulcalibur‘s beautiful arenas and character models.

What I find equally amazing is how well it holds up. I’m playing Soulcalibur VI at the time of writing and I’m struggling to enjoy its single-player modes as much as I enjoyed the solo missions in the original Soulcalibur. Its Team Battle mode was also a highlight. It was just another feature that made this such a complete package; one that any fighting game fan back then needed to own.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes …For 2000

Played on: Sega Dreamcast

Marvel vs Capcom 2 PAL Dreamcast box art

Marvel vs Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes

And speaking of good fighting games: here comes one of the genre’s best sequels ever — a follow-up so good it smokes its predecessor in every way except music. But if we kindly ignore its horrendous soundtrack, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has everything a good sequel needs.

Its roster is more than double the size of Capcom’s previous effort featuring characters from X-Men vs Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, Marvel Super Heroes and more besides.

The 3v3 action is explosive and more accessible when you consider how easy team super combos are. In the arcade-perfect port for Dreamcast, a player needs only press both shoulder buttons on a full super meter to see the fireworks fly and I remember spending hours experimenting with combinations of characters to see what they could all do.

Capcom made a bold choice in the Dreamcast version to lock a chunk of the roster away in a shop menu. Players need to unlock new characters by scoring points, and whilst I can imagine some people having a problem with this design, it’s exactly what kept me enamoured with the game for so long. The journey towards 100% completion took ages, yet I found it super refreshing for a fighting game to hold my attention like that.

If only I knew back then of the various fan-made rips which replaced the game’s soundtrack, I could have saved my ears so much pain.

 

Shenmue II …For 2001

Played on: Sega Dreamcast

Shenmue II PAL Dreamcast box art

Shenmue II

I remember asking my local video game retailer in mid 2001 about when they’d be selling the next issue of Official Dreamcast Magazine. News travelled slowly back then, so it was quite a shock when they broke it to me that Sega had announced plans to ditch the Dreamcast months ago and that the magazine had already gone the same way.

For a lifelong Sega fan this was a very sensitive moment, but I wasn’t ready to give up on the console yet. Even though the Dreamcast’s fate had been sealed at the beginning of 2001, this was still a surprisingly decent year for its software. Phantasy Star Online, Skies of Arcadia and Sonic Adventure 2 all had their PAL releases then; with Shenmue II arriving in November to give the console a perfect swan song.

Stragglers like Rez and Cannon Spike would keep the Dreamcast scene alive in 2002, but to me Shenmue II felt like its last big game. I’m sure it would have made a bigger impact on the industry’s best-of lists had it been released in North America as well.

It’s a faster-paced RPG than its predecessor and it’s one with four entire GD-ROM discs dedicated to Ryo’s sprawling adventure to find his father’s killer. Playing it that Xmas in 2001 was a bittersweet experience: sweet that this fantastic game made it to fruition against all odds, and bitter in that it truly represented the end of an era.