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Gaming's most important evolutions

Level select

First seen in: Mega Man (1987)

Important because: You could now play the game in whatever order you wanted. Granted, Super Mario’s Warp Zones sort of let you pick and choose which levels you would and would not play, but Mega Man actually let you select the order in which you’d encounter them. Right away, you could choose from six levels (Cut, Elec, Ice, Fire, Bomb and Guts Man) instead of being forced down a set path (like Mario) or dropped into a huge world with no instructions (Zelda, Metroid). However, it’s almost an illusion of choice, as the game’s bosses are weak to specific weapons gained in other levels, so in the end you did kinda have to obey a pre-conceived route. But hey, if you wanted to ignore that and try to kill ‘em all with your regular weapon, the choice was always there.


Above: It’s your funeral

Legacy: Linear games still have dominant sway, but there are innumerable instances of games leaving the path up to you. You could even draw parallels to GTA and Red Dead, where you can pick certain missions over others rather than blindly proceed through one official narrative. In a way, you can attribute something as basic as “level select” with birthing open world, multi-mission, side-quest-heavy games. A more recent example is Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, which gives you the option to choose which universe to play in, and in what order. It’s probably impossible to name every game that uses this feature, easily making it essential for any “greatest innovations” list.


Networked multiplayer deathmatch

First seen in: MIDI Maze (1987)


Above: Despite the crude cubicle walls and Pac-Man-like avatars, MIDI Maze introduced networked multiplayer deathmatch for more than two players

Important because: Today, multiplayer deathmatch is an expected feature in just about every game with a gun. But it wasn’t always this way, and in fact the very first game to feature it didn’t even have guns. While 1975’s two-player Maze Wars was the earliest example of competitive network play, it wasn’t until 1987’s MIDI Maze that more than two players – up to 16, in fact – could chain their computers together for face-to-face deathmatches. Released on the Atari ST, the game allowed players to connect their systems through the computer’s MIDI-In and MIDI-Out ports (hence the title). Games were started by the player running a ‘master machine,’ who chose the settings and levels for the match. If the systems were connected incorrectly, though, the match would slow down to a crawl.

So in addition to featuring the first instance of networked multiplayer deathmatch, MIDI Maze also broke ground by introducing the concept of a LAN party, a host, and lag!


Above: If MIDI Maze was before your time, you may recognize Faceball 2000, as it was known on Game Boy and SNES

Legacy: Quake, Unreal Tournament, and Counter-Strike are just a few of the franchises with communities that have thrived thanks to networked multiplayer. The fast-paced action was complemented by speedy networked connections at LAN events, which helped promote the rise of e-sports and competitive gaming in the west. Today, PC gamers still congregate at LAN events and conventions, like QuakeCon, to get their frag on with like-minded shooter fans. Despite more recent improvements in high-speed internet connections and multiplayer services, like Xbox LIVE, nothing beats the thrill of the high-stakes competition and low ping you get when you wire up in person for some old-school deathmatch.


Motion capture

First seen in: Prince of Persia (1989)

Important because: You like fluid animation, right? Characters who move in a way that appears convincing and realistic? Then motion capture is pretty essential, because without it animators would probably still be creating heroes who run like stiff-jointed robots. And while motion capture today is generally done in expensive, purpose-built studios with men covered in little ping-pong balls, it got its start in videogames with Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner filming his brother David running around outdoors.

Drawing frames of animation over film (or “rotoscoping”) was nothing new in 1989; Disney had been doing it since the ‘30s, and animator Ralph Bakshi is notorious for using it (sometimes to a too-obvious degree) in most of his films. But while games had featured some sharp-looking animation prior to ’89, Prince of Persia was the first to actually use rotoscoping, thereby securing its place in history as one of the most impressive-looking games of its era.

Legacy: While some 2D games would later follow PoP’s rotoscoped example (most notably Out of This World/Another World, Flashback and Shaq-Fu, all produced by developer Delphine), the practice didn’t really become standard until the 3D era made animating lifelike characters increasingly difficult. The solution was motion-capture technology, which started life primarily in sports games, but has since become standard in most big-budget releases.


AI partners

First seen in: A Boy and his Blob (1989)

Important because: Saving the world by yourself can get lonely! Far better to bring a buddy along, in this case a mindless blob that craves jellybeans and has transmorphic capabilities. He’d follow you around, always hopping a step behind, ready to tumble into a pit or get confused by something as daunting as a staircase. Luckily, there was a “ketchup” bean that made him instantly reappear in front of you (catch up, lul), plus he could never actually die, so that helped ease us into the idea of having to babysit another onscreen character.

We’re honestly more than a little surprised A Boy and his Blob is the first instance of an AI partner, as it’s such a weird niche title that we assumed most people forgot about until the 2009 Wii sequel. Before leaving a comment to tell us we’re wrong, though, be careful not to confuse an AI partner – which is controlled by the magical video game box on your shelf – and a dumbass Minnie Mouse who just jumps two seconds after you do. In other words, Mickey Mousecapade doesn’t count because Minnie was never under the machine’s control.

Legacy: Thanks to this helpless, gelatinous moron, we now have hundreds of games nearly ruined by shitty AI partners. They’re a great idea, and when done well add a personal touch to games (see Half-Life 2, ICO and Enslaved), but almost always end up causing you more trouble than they’re worth. Rise of the Kasai, Daikitana, Secret of Mana and countless others all suffered from varying degrees of frustrating idiocy. Luckily, we now usually have the option of turning the AI partner into a co-op buddy, as seen in Resident Evil 5.


Tech trees

First seen in: Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991)


Above: A snippet of the original tech tree

Important because: The tech tree is one of Civilization’s most copied innovations, and its impact on game design in general is significant. The flow chart allowed players to see their research progress and generate and reach their own goals - the antithesis of many games before and after it that treat upgrades as surprise gifts.

Legacy: The tech tree was originally designed for Civilization… no, not that Civilization, the ‘80s board game. A similar construct appeared in the 1991 PC strategy game Mega Lo Mania, but the video game form we’re most familiar with spawned from Sid Meier’s Civilization.

After that, tech trees started showing up in swaths of strategy games, from Dune II to StarCraft. But even beyond strategy games, the tool has made its way into RPGs, shooters, and just about every other genre.


Above: Dead Space’s upgrade trees don’t quite contain the complex and varied paths of Civilization’s, but they’re fundamentally similar

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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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