Gaming's most important evolutions

Z-targeting (lock-on targeting)

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.

Sticky cover

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.

Over-the-shoulder aiming

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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  • cptnoremac - September 26, 2014 9:56 a.m.

    Geez, did you get teabagged one too many times by a sniper in Halo 2? So much bitterness.
  • 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). 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.