Important because: It formed the foundation for 3D games as we know them, showing for the first time that games didn’t have to be limited to the simple, single-screen adventures of 16-pixel spaceships and dot-munching circles. More than a decade before Doom, Wolfenstein 3D and even Ultima Underworld, the true pioneer of first-person shooting was a two-stick tank simulator called Battlezone, which used wireframe “vector” graphics to simulate depth of field in a huge three-dimensional space.
Battlezone wasn’t the first game to use a first-person perspective; that honor goes to 1975’s Maze War. But while Maze War was a rigid, four-directional maze crawl moved one static screen at a time, Battlezone used a pair of two-way tank-simulator joysticks to enable movement in any direction with a smooth framerate. It isn’t as sophisticated as gunning down Nazis or 3D dungeon-delving, sure, but peering through its goggle-shaped display and hunting other tanks is still pretty striking today, even if the “environment” is triangles, only one tank appears at a time and everything is green.
Legacy: Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, plenty of other games took Battlezone’s ball and ran with it. Open, freely navigable 3D environments (or, at least, simulated 3D using 2D graphics) became increasingly common on PCs, eventually culminating in Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. These gave rise to an entire generation of first-person shooters, which in turn would lead to widespread demand for the advances in 3D technology that have since led to about 90 percent of modern games.
First seen in: Donkey Kong (1981)
Important because: Whether you actually care about game stories or consider them an inane, idiotic distraction from the gameplay, they’ve played a big part in elevating games from simple, one-note diversions to complex experiences with huge worlds, recognizable characters and varied gameplay. (They’ve also gone a long way toward making marathon gaming sessions bearable to people other than ultra-hardcore high-score chasers.)
It could be argued that text adventures and computer RPGs told stories before the advent of Donkey Kong, but those weren’t really “stories” so much as they were nameless characters wandering around, solving puzzles and occasionally killing things. Besides, Donkey Kong had a clear, simple narrative that unfolded from beginning to end on the screen. Ape kidnaps girl, hero chases ape, ape falls as hero and girl are reunited. Nothing had to be inferred, nothing was unclear, and you didn’t need to wade through any supplemental manuals or pages of onscreen text to understand what you had to do and why you were doing it.
Legacy: It took a few years to really catch on, but storytelling has gradually become a bigger and bigger part of games. Donkey Kong’s example would later bleed into other, more cinematic games, like Karateka and Prince of Persia, and eventually combine with Pac-Man’s gameplay-interrupting cutscenes to make short, movie-like bits the preferred means of relaying a story in a game.
The downside to this is that a lot of games have used “storytelling” as an excuse to pad out their run times with some really long, unnecessary cutscenes which frequently feature little more than static dialogue (we’re looking at you, every Japanese game of the last 10 years). But more and more, we’re seeing attempts to add story elements that feel more like an organic part of the gameplay – much like Donkey Kong’s did.
First seen in: Donkey Kong (1981)
Above: No, you didn’t scroll up by mistake. Keep reading
Important because: This is the only time in this article you’ll see us detail the same game twice, we promise. But Donkey Kong’s other innovation is just too important to lump in with storytelling. It just seems natural now; the desire to get to that next area, jump towards the next platform and hopefully land or fall to your death is encoded deep into the gamer heart. Do it hundreds of times in a row, and you’ve got a standard platformer. But when Donkey Kong introduced the need to jump over approaching enemies and between gaps of space in hopes of getting to the next area safely, it wasn’t just a new idea, it changed everything.
The journey of the appropriately named Jumpman (later renamed Mario) was filled with danger as he hopped over barrels, fireballs, gaps in the floor, and – in the game’s climax – locks to defeat DK and save Pauline. The game was defined by the actions of Jumpman leaping around his problems, and that action was so fun and addictive the game not only became one of the most popular of all time, but created a genre.
Above: SCREW YOU, LOCK
Legacy: Presently, platformers are no longer the insanely dominant genre they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but in their time, games featuring a character jumping from a thing to another thing were at least as ubiquitous as the FPS is now. For so long, Mario and his ilk (Mega Man, Sonic, the Prince of Persia, Simon Belmont and approximately eight million others) defined gaming and what people thought gaming was. For 8- and 16-bit consoles, platformers were the norm, and every other genre took a back seat.
As 2D platformers gave way to 3D ones in the 32/64-bit era, Mario again clearly defined what the genre meant, and Mario 64 was followed by such luminaries as Lara Croft, Banjo-Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Ape Escape and many others that kept the platforming spirit alive in the third dimension. As simple as it is, moving from one thing to another thing by pressing a single button to jump in one direction is at the bedrock of gaming and will probably be a defining element of games for as long as they exist.
Multi-directional, two-stick aiming
First seen in: Robotron 2084 (1982)
Important because: In many ways, this was the birth of multitasking in games. It may seem simple now, but in 1982, Robotron baffled many players who essentially had to learn how to pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time. It may have not been the first game to use two joysticks, but it was the first to be designed completely around the notion of moving with one stick and firing with the other, without the need for a button to shoot. It was also an incredibly difficult game, but for the first time, a shooter was difficult because of what it could throw at you – since you could run and shoot in opposite directions, you were unconstrained in a way not seen before, and therefore the game could get even more insane in its frantic pace.
Legacy: Almost every game developed today owes its camera controls to Robotron 2084. Before we got to 3D games, though, there were a couple of more involved top-down twin stick shooters released by Robotron publisher Midway: Smash TV and Total Carnage. A similar approach, still inspired by Robotron, is that of Ikari Warriors’ rotational sticks – instead of using a second joystick to control directional aiming, the movement stick could be rotated to change firing direction.
Above: Hordes like the ones in Victory Road would have been impossible to handle without it
This scheme lasted for a few more games, such as Ikari Warriors II, Guerilla War and Heavy Barrel, but didn’t catch on the way twin sticks would. Take a look at the controller connected to your PS3 or 360 (or even PC). Two sticks. You can thank Robotron for that. And yet it’s gone so far beyond simply pushing a stick and having a 2D sprite fire away endlessly – that second stick has become our surrogate eyes in platforming games, first- and third-person shooters, and a million other genres we know and love. Hell, Kratos wouldn’t be dodging with precision without Robotron. More recently, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved revived the simple beauty of running away from enemies and shooting that juicy train of targets in tow (and was followed by a slew of indie two-stick shooters, most of them available for download on PSN). It’s even possible that The Terminator and The Matrix were inspired by Robotron’s creepy “Robots deem humans inefficient and decide to eradicate them,” although it’s hard to be sure.
First seen in: Moon Patrol (1982)
Important because: This might seem like a pretty insignificant evolution, especially compared to some of the other entries on the list, but after Atari Football, scrolling got more complicated – and more interesting. Defender made it smoother and faster, and Rally X made it possible to pull the screen quickly in multiple directions. However, it wasn’t until Moon Patrol that games saw the pseudo-3D technique known as parallax scrolling, in which separate layers of the background move at different speeds to create an illusion of depth.
Aside from a fake-3D effect, parallax created backdrops that looked more vivid and convincing than the flat, scrolling wallpaper games had boasted up until that point. It’s a minor graphical touch, but one that would later help make the most impressive games of the 16-bit era even more so.
Legacy: If you paid much attention to game-console news during the early ‘90s, you knew that parallax scrolling was amazing, even if you had no idea what the hell it was. Games like ActRaiser and Street Fighter II took the innovations pioneered by Moon Patrol and used them to create detailed, multi-layered backdrops and, in SFII’s case, 3D-looking floors that would actually shift slightly to match your perspective of the action. It’s still in common use today, although it’s notably less impressive, now that we have actual 3D environments to play around in.
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