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Gaming's most important evolutions

Scrolling

First seen in: Atari Football (1978)

Important because: Do you like your 2D action to unfold in something bigger than a single, static arena that doesn’t do anything aside from take up the entire screen? Then scrolling, which moves a much larger background to follow the action, is pretty essential. Surprisingly, this technology didn’t debut in the glorious Defender or the abysmal Pac-Land, but in an ugly, black-and-white football sim from Atari.

True, teams of X’s and Os chasing each other across a bunch of vertical lines and bars is an anticlimactic far cry from scrolling mountains or obstacles.  But every cool technology has to start somewhere.

Legacy: In finding an elegant solution for displaying a football field – a seamless environment too big to be contained by a single screen, with action that wouldn’t make sense spread across several static screens – Atari Football blazed a trail that would be followed by most of the games of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And that’s to say nothing of every complicated, league-endorsed sports game that followed it.


Two-player co-op

First seen in: Fire Truck (1978)

Important because: Playing games by yourself is always fun, sure, but add a friend’s input and they become completely different experiences. It’s even more fun when they’re helping you out, but while plenty of early arcade games featured head-to-head competition for two players, it wasn’t until Fire Truck that someone had the idea to force them to work together. Specifically to steer both ends of a fire truck.

It wasn’t exactly Gears of War. Hell, it wasn’t even Double Dragon. In fact, just looking at it is enough to provoke a knee-jerk “ugh” from all but the most enthusiastic old-school gamers. But we can see how teaming up to steer a high-speed emergency vehicle could be fun, even if said vehicle is only represented as a little gray sprite.

Legacy: Fire Truck, whether it directly influenced other games or not, set the stage for an integral part of some of the most influential and important games of the last 25 years. The option for two-player co-op made shooters like Contra much more fun than they are as solo experiences, and kept brawlers from being too daunting or repetitive. It also gave rise to four-player co-op in games like Gauntlet and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and eventually gave us one of the most sought-after online features in modern games. 


Easter eggs

First seen in: Adventure (1979)

Important because: You see that “Cheats & Guides” section at the top of this page? It exists only because of people like Adventure designer Warren Robinett. Cheats weren’t really around during the Atari 2600 era, and putting hidden, optional things in games for players to find was totally unheard of. Adventure changed that by squeezing in a super-secret hidden room that was damn near impossible to find accidentally. What treasure did it hide? Why, Robinett’s own name, written in huge letters!

This also made Adventure the first Atari game to credit one of its developers, something the company didn’t do as a matter of policy (allegedly because it wanted to keep its talent safe from being headhunted by rivals).

Legacy: Countless thousands of games with hidden secrets and cheat codes, ranging from Gradius and its famous Konami Code, to all the semi-secret collectibles that keep the game-guide industry chugging along. All thanks to one man who had a well-deserved fit of vanity 31 years ago.


Background music

First seen in: Rally-X (1980)

Important because: If your experience with videogames only extends back a decade or two, this might seem like another no-brainer; nearly every commercial game uses background music, and it’s noticeable when they don’t. A good soundtrack can add to the experience of playing games immeasurably; hell, that’s why we’ve got a daily feature dedicated to especially memorable tunes.

However, until Namco’s Rally-X came along in 1980, continuous background music in a videogame was unheard-of – and even afterward, it wouldn’t really become a standard feature until the rollout of the NES. Maybe that had something to do with the repetitiveness of Rally-X’s little chase ditty. Or not – it’s nothing to write home about today, but it was nonetheless a revolutionary idea for the time, and one that helped bring games closer to our current idea of what they should be.

Legacy: Did we mention the daily feature? Videogame music is an art form unto itself, whether we’re talking about Castlevania’s iconic soundtrack, Bioshock’s haunting score or the work of game-inspired chiptunes artists like Anamanaguchi. To think it’s an art form that started with a single game (much less a game as unassuming and unsung as Rally-X), rather than with some sort of grand industry consensus, is a little mind-boggling.


Speech

First seen in: Stratovox (1980)

Important because: Like music and sound, speech has become an important (and unintentionally hilarious) way to make games and their characters more interesting and lifelike. Before we got used to it, though, the idea of a game that could actually talk to us was a huge draw. It was also the only reason we can imagine anyone wanting to play Stratovox in 1980.

Like a Galaga without the charm, Stratovox tasked players with protecting a row of humans against squads of dive-bombing, kidnapping aliens. Thanks to the arcade machine’s speech-synthesis capabilities, its human victims could bellow “HELP ME,” VERY GOOD,” “WE’LL BE BACK” and “LUCKY.” It wasn’t recorded speech (that wouldn’t happen until later, with games like Sinistar and Star Wars), and frankly it was grating and horrible, but still – a game that could talk? In 1980, that was a big deal. Big enough to carve out a place in history for a decidedly mediocre space shooter, at least.

Legacy: Once Stratovox and other games like Berzerk upped the ante by making their characters talk, arcade-machine developers had a new way to stand out and draw players to their games – which, of course, would mean that speech became increasingly common over the next several years, giving us immortal phrases like Gauntlet’s “BLUE VALKYRIE NEEDS FOOD, BADLY!” and eventually bleeding into console and PC games. Thanks to the storage space of disc-based media and the general demand for high production values, fully voice-acted games have become commonplace. Sometimes this has led to horrifying results, but it’s still hard to imagine going back to reading unending lines of text without someone to act it out for us.


Cutscenes

First seen in: Pac-Man (1980)

Important because: If you haven’t yet caught on, 1980 was kind of an important year for big strides forward in gaming, and one of them would play a key role in turning games into a storytelling medium. Cutscenes, love them or hate them, appeared for the first time in Pac-Man, of all games.

While it spent most of its time as a relatively straightforward dot-muncher, completing a couple of levels opened up brief, comical interludes about Pac-Man and the ghosts chasing each other around. They couldn’t really be called a “story,” exactly, but they were entertaining enough, in a silent-movie kind of way.


Above: Haven’t seen this? Then play past the second maze sometime

Legacy: They also set the stage for cut-away story sequences in countless future games, giving birth to what’s either the most compelling or most irritating thing about story-heavy games, depending on how patient you are.

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60 comments

  • bungalo-dave - October 6, 2011 7 a.m.

    I did the Sprites on the Mega Drive version of Wolverine and yes, the regenerating bar was just the best way to represent his mutant regenerative powers. And yes it was too hard which made it suck, like many companies at the time we had one tester in a room playing this all the time, he didn't think it was too hard because he played it all the time and we didn't verify if it was too hard because we were sick of looking at it, Sorry everyone..............
  • kuashio - December 23, 2010 9:02 p.m.

    If I remember correctly, the original X-Men game for the Genesis (1993) had regenerating health for Wolverine before Adamantium Rage (1994). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-Men_%28Sega%29 I believe Wolverine's mutant power (healing) was the key element in this breakthrough for videogames.
  • Rowdie - October 19, 2010 7:27 p.m.

    The list is awesome save one selection. Quick Timer Events are not an important evolution. They are in fact the anti-game play. Rather than appearing on a list of important mile stone they should be at the top of the list of wrong turns and missteps. QTEs are for when you're not good enough to create a real game play mechanic. It's awful putting that in this list and who ever is responsible should be sacked.
  • The - October 15, 2010 1 a.m.

    Great article. Thanks for all your hard work.
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  • RAYZOR12 - October 12, 2010 8:54 p.m.

    Hahahaha!! ">cry I don't know that word" Ha! That is awesome....
  • Tomsta666 - October 11, 2010 9:37 p.m.

    I wish "Sticky Cover" as you put it, would fuck off. Seriously. It's like every 3rd person action game since Gears of War has to have a cover system. What's the fun in hiding? I wanna go guns blazing, not cower round the corner. It's fine when done in moderation, (tips hat to Red Dead Redemption.) But it's a game killer for me at times (scowls at Mafia II) I may be in a minority of people who found Gears to be a big pile of shit, but the effect it's had on that genre is shocking.
  • GamesRadarJuniorWildlifeEditor - October 11, 2010 9:14 p.m.

    exhaustive and exhausting.
  • Sy87 - October 11, 2010 6:55 p.m.

    Now Resident Evil can advance it by being able to move while using over the shoulder aiming. Oh wait other games have been able to do that! Bring zombies back!
  • 510BrotherPanda - October 11, 2010 4:08 a.m.

    The little girl in the Outlaws clip sounds like she was voice acted by the same lady who voiced Gosalyn in Darkwing Duck; Christine Cavanaugh, I think.
  • Jarednotthesubwayguy - October 11, 2010 3:53 a.m.

    A few non-troll corrections: Sniper zoom was on SkyNet in 1996. One of the weapons, some sort of pulse rife if I recall, had a screen permanently zoomed in a few notches from reality. It's not a sniper scope per se, but it does function as a zoom and helped greatly with accuracy. Z-lock was on many flight sims of the early nineties. Called "padlock view", it centered the camera on an opponent while the cockpit moved around. Over the shoulder aiming was on Fade to Black (1995), Flashback's sequel. Definitely long before RE4.
  • V13Dragongal - October 11, 2010 2:12 a.m.

    WOW. So many things. So many people and games to thank for so many things.
  • TommyG - October 10, 2010 10:40 p.m.

    What is Link doing in Dodongo's Cavern with an empty bottle, two bombchus and only three life hearts?!? I don't like it.
  • NeelEvil - October 10, 2010 7:57 p.m.

    Body Harvest on the N64 had over the shoulder aiming many years before Resi 4. Other than that it waas an interesting & well written article.
  • FinalGamer - October 10, 2010 7:18 p.m.

    What an awesome list that was. I love finding out this kind of gaming history, and some of that just blew my mind. Great research GR.
  • GangsterJew92 - October 10, 2010 3:35 p.m.

    Fantastic article guys
  • NEPAL - October 10, 2010 1:26 p.m.

    I had no idea polygons existed so long ago!
  • astroPastel - October 10, 2010 8:55 a.m.

    pretty tenuous a lot of these 'innovations'. Pretty sure I,Robot wasn't an important step in polygonal gaming, they didn't invent polygons. If anything they proved that the latest graphical technology doesn't make a game popular which will always be the case. Also Disney didn't rotoscope, the animators used video references in particularly difficult sequences. However, for the most part they pioneered the majority of the techniques used in animation across the world to make fluid motion. You can keep your badly motion captured huge budget games, a good animator will really bring a character to life.
  • icantbelieveitsnutbutter - October 10, 2010 6:43 a.m.

    Outlaws! Represent! My first PC game. So nostalgic. They need to re-release it! Great article GR, looks like this one took some time.

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