First seen in: Dragon’s Lair (1983)
Important because: During an era when videogame characters were limited to simple sprites, Cinematronics dreamed of something bigger with the arcade release of Dragon’s Lair in 1983. Featuring animation from former Disney animator Don Bluth, Dragon’s Lair was the first game to truly marry full-motion video with traditional game controls. The end result was a stunning mix of gorgeous, high-quality animation and somewhat awkward controls. But Dragon’s Lair’s real gift to gaming was the quick time event, which has players follow onscreen prompts to input commands, giving you the feeling that you’re controlling the amazing action onscreen without directly controlling that action.
Above: A quick time event in God of War II. When used sparingly, quick time events can be awesome
Legacy: Dragon’s Lair was essentially one gigantic quick time event, but it cleared the way for other, more modern action games to make comparatively restrained use of them, God of War, Bayonetta, and Uncharted being just a few examples.
First seen in: I, Robot (1983)
Important because: Playing I, Robot today is still pretty mindblowing, especially when you put the world’s first 3D polygonal game in the context of 1983. Unfortunately, most of you will never have the chance to see for yourself, as this forgotten little trailblazer from Tempest and Missile Command mastermind Dave Theurer pretty much died on the arcade floor and has since become quite a cabinet rarity. As a result, I, Robot’s legacy wouldn’t truly be acknowledged for almost a decade. Hell, you probably take it for granted that every game disc in your collection contains a shitload of manipulated polygons, and you owe I, Robot a debt of gratitude, mister, because it paid a dear price for pioneering the process.
Above: Your servant bot blasted its way across 100-plus levels of rudimentary 3D platforms and meteors, turning blue squares red. The catch? When Big Brother’s eye is open, jumping equals death!
Rasterized shapes, polygon shading, an unprecedented depth of field and platform jumping on a 3D plane… it was apparently just too bizarre, too off-puttingly complex, for arcade goers during the heyday of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Add to that, the game required radically different hardware that broke down far too consistently for entrepreneurs trying to make a living quarter by quarter. And yeah, having nothing to do with Isaac Asimov’s book and not starring Will Smith probably didn’t help either.
Above: Quiz Time! Which jaggy-headed boss is from 1983, and which one is from 1993?
Legacy: Again: NINETEEN EIGHTY-THREE! That’s over a decade before Quake, Star Fox and anything Sega ever threw “Virtua” in front of, junior! It may have taken years for the medium to finally feel the ripples of I, Robot’s bellyflop, but it’s hard to argue that it paved the way for the 3D perspectives and interactivity found in titles you’re buying right now. It goes without saying that the game was “ahead of its time.” More impressively, I, Robot still plays much closer to the games we enjoy today and feels a lot less dated than infinitely more popular titles from the same era.
First seen in: Dragon Buster (1984)
Important because: Whether it’s a big green bar at the top of the screen or just a screen that gradually goes red, it’s not often you see a modern action game without a life meter of some kind. By enabling players to soak up more than one hit without dying, they open up possibilities for all kinds of nuanced action that might be impossible (or just impossibly hard) otherwise.
Even so, they were apparently a pretty novel idea in 1984. While the idea of giving players “lives” had become a standard, industrywide practice by then, Dragon Buster went for a more nuanced approach. A side-scrolling dungeon crawler with a hero whose body shape only made sense when he was looking left (but looked ridiculous when he was looking right, which he was for most of the game), Dragon Buster featured combat that was hard to scrape through without absorbing a few hits – which, in just about every other game, would kill the player instantly. To give players a fighting chance, it traded in the usual three-life model for a single “Vitality” bar, which not only enabled the protagonist to absorb a lot more punishment, but also allowed different enemies to dish out different levels of damage.
Above: It was also the first game to display health for bosses
True, similar things had already been done with hit points in RPGs, years before Dragon Buster hit. Hell, that’s probably where Dragon Buster got the idea. But this was the first time it had been done in an action game, as well as the first time health was represented by a dynamic meter.
Legacy: Again, it’s pretty rare to see an action game that doesn’t use a life meter of any kind these days. They’re such a standard fixture that we tend to notice their absence more than we do their presence, and the “meter” concept has since spread to magic, ammunition or whatever else the game in question requires. The idea has also led to more creative representations of health, like the Doom marine’s progressively bloodied face, or the red chunks that obscure your bullet-riddled vision in Call of Duty.
Yeah, man. Life meters. Hoo boy.
First seen in: Air Warrior (1986)
Above: The 1993 PC version of Air Warrior
Important because: Text-based multi-user games weren’t going to cut it forever. MUDs, MUSHs, and MOOs had fun acronyms, but they could never attract the crowds that pixels could. Games like Air Warrior represent the transitional period between “>kill orc” and World of Warcraft.
Air Warrior was first introduced in 1986, but the internet didn’t yet exist in its current form, so the simple WWII flight sim used General Electric’s GEnie network. It wasn’t until 1993 that it was revised for then-modern internet providers, two years after the launch of AOL’s Neverwinter Nights (not to be confused with the 2002 BioWare game). At the time, ISPs were grasping for every advantage, and games were apparently a big draw. But which game actually counts as the first graphical MMO?
Maybe neither. Around the time of Air Warrior, Lucasfilm introduced Habitat (later called Club Caribe) for the Commodore 64’s Q-Link service - it’s said to be the first instance of online chat with graphical avatars. But it’s just semantics - all three games were forerunners of the genre, and deserve recognition for being ahead of their time. They were the stepping stones to modern MMOs.
Above: AOL’s Neverwinter Nights may look silly by today’s standards, but it did have graphics
Legacy: We couldn’t find any definite account, but a few reports suggest that the term “massively-multiplayer game” was coined by Dale Addink at 1993’s E3 when he used it to describe Air Warrior. Four years later, Richard Garriott and Ultima Online would popularize the term and coin the “MMORPG” variant.
That was the tipping point – Everquest, World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Aion, Guild Wars, Second Life, Maple Story, A Tale in the Desert, and all the others sprung up like weeds after a heavy rain, and they keep on coming.
First seen in: Metroid (1986)
Important because: You don’t want to start from the beginning every time you turn the game off, do you? Passwords were long-ass letter and number combinations that, if miraculously copied correctly, granted you access to your last stopping point. You’d usually receive one at a Game Over screen, and the code would contain all the variables you’d unlocked prior to dying. In the case of Metroid, it kept track of your missile and energy tank expansions, as well as all the various power-ups littered across the map. Absolutely essential for a long, non-linear game like Metroid.
Interestingly, the Japanese version of Metroid (and Kid Icarus) was on the Famicom Disk System, which could write saved game data to the disk. When those two games came to the US (where there was no Disk System), Nintendo conjured up passwords to simulate the “save state” effect.
Above: Not all passwords were dull text strings – Mega Man X, for example, livened things up with animated cursors and a rather swingin’ dance tune
Legacy: After a decent run through the 8- and 16-bit eras, passwords became less and less relevant as internal hard drives and memory cards gained popularity. And even in the old days, a handful of games (the next entry, for one) had battery-backed save data on the cart, removing the need for passwords altogether. Today you’ll find a few games that hand out passwords (usually those trying to save money by omitting some kind of writable media on the cart), but by and large they’re gone. It is fun to see how malleable passwords actually were, though – this Metroid generator lets you freely tinker with each variable and see the resultant password.
First seen in: The Legend of Zelda (1987)
Important because: Same as with passwords – if you’re playing a complicated, lengthy game, you want to pick up where you left off, not back at the start of the whole damn thing. With the ability to save your progress, games could offer much more than linear, side-scrolling outings. Now, instead of straightforward action games, you could explore a vast world over hours and hours of gameplay, transforming games from disposable entertainment into week-long time sinks.
Above: Twilight Princess saves to the Wii hard drive, but the same three slots remain
Legacy: Well… in a way, every game with save data owes something to Zelda. Granted, there were PC hard drives and floppy disks well before the gold-colored NES cart, but the idea of saving data on the cart itself (and not the hardware) continues to this day. DS cards store your progress just like the NES carts from the ‘80s, though they do so without an actual battery, which eroded over time and eventually wiped all your data. In other words, good luck getting those Zelda 1 saves to last much longer – better learn how to replace that battery.