First seen in: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Important because: Maneuvering a 3D camera is hard enough, but trying to do that and keep track of aggressive enemies is enough to give any seasoned gamer a headache. Lock-on targeting (called Z-targeting in OoT, as that’s the button you pressed to activate it) focused the camera on a particular enemy, allowing you to strafe around said enemy while keeping it in center view. This enabled you to roam freely most of the time (as in prior 3D games), but when necessary, you could zone in and target specific monsters or items of interest. It also allowed for more complicated combat options once your character was fixated on the enemy.
Zelda director Eiji Aonuma commented on the creation of Z-targeting back in a 2008 issue of Nintendo Power:
“Everyone has probably experienced how hard it can be to go where you want to go when moving your character around in 3-D space. When an opponent is approaching, in order to attack with your sword, you’ve got to position yourself in such a way as to hit it, and that can be quite difficult.
“Another problem in games with a third-person perspective is that the camera must follow around the player character. Opponents with a large range of movement soon fall outside the frame. Losing track of your opponent’s location happens much too often.
“That was one obvious problem with Super Mario 64, so when it came to Zelda, which features a lot of swordfights, we introduced ‘Z-targeting,’ by which the player could lock on to an opponent. The opponent would stay in front of the player, all the player’s attacks would converge on the opponent, and the camera would always capture both the opponent and the player onscreen.
“This lock-on system was developed by Miyamoto and Yoshiaki Koizumi, our 3-D system director. Together with the programmers, they worked directly on adjusting game operability, camera-rotation speed, and even sound effects.”
Legacy: Lock-on targeting made formerly cumbersome 3D worlds much easier to tolerate, and has been used in countless games since. Everything from FPSes (Metroid Prime, Red Steel 2) to third-person shooters (Crackdown, Red Dead Redemption) let players select an enemy as their focal point. Some action titles still force you to line up your hits, but with modern dual-stick controls, even that once-painful endeavor has become immensely easier.
Realistic environmental physics
First seen in: Trespasser (1998)
Important because: A key part of the “realism” in modern action games is how the objects and characters around you behave. Do your enemies fall to pieces convincingly when you gib them with a rocket? Can crates be stacked, smashed or floated? Does it hurt an enemy if you pick up a glass bottle and throw it at his head? All that is down to realistic physics models. The origins of “realistic physics” are debatable – Pong and SpaceWar used simple physics models, and driving games like Gran Turismo have used them to control drift and acceleration – but using them to create convincing environments began in earnest with one game: Trespasser, also known as Jurassic Park: Trespasser.
While not a very good shooter by most accounts (and damn near impossible to run on most circa-1998 computers), Trespasser was nonetheless a proving ground for a lot of the physics elements we take for granted in modern games. Ragdoll physics started here, as did the idea of physics puzzles in a shooter. You could throw objects at other objects, and they’d react in an almost-realistic way, which was pretty novel for the time. Also, if you think stackable-crate physics demos started with Crysis, well, we have a surprise for you:
It was also the first game to feature a lot of entertainingly stupid physics glitches, as this video demonstrates:
Legacy: Name a game that uses physics convincingly, and the things it does can be traced back to Trespasser. Do you like to mess around with Warthogs in Halo? Trespasser did similar stuff first. Likewise, games like Half-Life 2, Crysis and Grand Theft Auto IV all owe tiny debts to the trail that Trespasser blazed. And if you’ve ever giggled at a silly shove-the-ragdoll minigame, then so do you.
First seen in: WinBack: Covert Operations (1999)
Important because: It’s becoming more and more common to hear critics refer to certain games as “Gears of War-style shooters,” which usually means one thing: they feature sticky cover. Enabling players to flatten themselves against walls or low barriers and shoot around the corners, it’s a feature that’s becoming increasingly vital for third-person shooters, to the point where those that don’t have it feel strangely antiquated.
While Gears popularized it, ducking behind sticky cover technically started with 1995’s Time Crisis, which as a rail shooter doesn’t really count. Three years later, flattening yourself against a wall was a key feature in Metal Gear Solid, although it was really only used for hiding and peering around corners, and you had to hold down a button to use it. But it was WinBack – an MGS-inspired, N64 stealth-shooter – that introduced the one-press “cover” button as we know it, along with the ability to aim and shoot around corners.
Legacy: WinBack was seen as a weird consolation prize for N64-bound Metal Gear fans when it released, but it appears to have gone on to influence a few other games – in particular 2003’s Kill.Switch, which in turn was a heavy influence on Gears of War. Gears then influenced nearly every other third-person shooter that followed, giving us no shortage of easy ways to hide while we wait for our health to automatically regenerate.
First seen in: Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Important because: Prior to 2005, there wasn’t really much to differentiate third-person shooters from first-person ones, except that your avatar was onscreen, and you could maybe lock onto your enemies when you aimed. In addition to completely throwing everything we knew about Resident Evil out the proverbial zombie-shattered window, Resident Evil 4 introduced its own spin on third-person aiming. When you made Leon (who appeared slightly off-center onscreen, offering a better view of what was right in front of him) raise his gun, the camera zoomed in for a claustrophobia-inducing, over-the-shoulder view of whatever his laser sight was aiming at.
It wasn’t quite as immediately useful as a simple lock-on, but it fit the tone of the game surprisingly well – and turned out to be pretty damned useful in its own right, as it allowed for precision headshots in tight, desperate situations.
Legacy: in a few short years, over-the-shoulder aiming has gone from an RE4-inspired novelty to a standard “precision aim” feature in third-person shooters and action games, with examples ranging from Gears of War, Dead Space and Grand Theft Auto to the Ratchet & Clank Future series. It’s turned out to be a hell of a lot more helpful than just trying to aim an FPS-style crosshairs, at least.
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