Nine games that were ahead of their time

Isn't living in the future sweet? We can trade gameplay videos in Halo 3 and Forza 3, race open-world style with Burnout Paradise, screw over our compatriots in EVE Online, or wreak havoc on bustling cities in Grand Theft Auto. Except, most of the aforementioned features have been around for decades. You see, the games that actually pioneered these mind-blowing features that we take for granted today have been unjustly forgotten. Well, we're here to remedy that with the unsung heralds of progress: games that were truly ahead of their time.

Elite (Mac, PC, MSX, 1984)

What it was: Forget Wing Commander, forget Freelancer, and forget most any game featuring a fat dude named Wedge. Elite was making the Kessel Run before most other space sims made the hyper jump to three dimensional space. In Elite, budding smugglers could traverse eight procedurally generated galaxies loading and unloading cargo while fending off raiders. The objective is to sell enough cargo at a profit to reach the vaunted "elite" status, but once that's achieved you could keep on playing.

What made it ahead of it time: Such open-ended gameplay was unheard at the time, but 3D space and objects rendered in wireframe polygons with hidden line removal looked revolutionary, raising the bar for the visual representation of 3D objects in games.

How would today’s games be different without it: Without Elite we'd still likely be kicking around 2D space blasting pixelated sprites. Elite also came packed with a short novella, explaining the game’s moral code and setting while fleshing out its universe. Think about that the next time you see a Halo novel.

Gone but not forgotten: If you're eager to take a peak at the genesis of the space sim genre you can still download a freeware version of Elite from the creator Ian Bell's site.

Tradewars 2002 (BBS, 1984)

What it was: While Elite advanced 3D visuals in space games, it was Tradewars 2002 that brought corporate espionage to the table.  In the turn-based strategy game, players focused on developing profitable trade routes across thousands of discrete sectors. Once established, these routes could enrich individual players with massive amounts of cash for ship upgrades and space colonization. From there, they could mobilize an armada to either defend their territory or wage war on other player corporations.

What made it ahead of it time: In addition to granting players free reign to backstab members of their own corporation, Tradewars 2002 utilized an alignment system that kept tabs on the player’s good and evil actions. Blasting hostile aliens: good, very good. Pillaging a peaceful spaceport: most definitely evil. A player's alignment affected their standing with the Federation, effectively turning them into either an upstanding trader or a kill-on-sight fugitive.

How would today’s games be different without it: Although CCP has cited Elite as a direct influence on their space-trading MMO EVE: Online, its very difficult to deny that the Tradewars laid down the groundwork for the corporate structure and framework that makes the traitorous conspiracies in EVE so dramatic. Similarly, think about Fallout, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, or even Fable. Just about any game that experiments with player choice and repercussions can be traced back to Tradewars.

Gone but not forgotten: User incarna over on the SomethingAwful forums has set up a Tradewars 2002 game server. To play, simply download Putty and telnet into on port 2002. Happy trading.

Spaceship Warlock (Mac, 1990)

What it was: We're not out of space genre yet. Spaceship Warlock, one of the earliest CD-ROM adventure games, placed the player under the command of Captain Hammer, a Nick Fury clone bent on freeing humanity from enslavement under the murderous Kroll. Players could explore a rich future world and interact with various NPCs using a free dialogue system.

What made it ahead of it time: Spaceship Warlock piloted the adventure genre into the age of optical media  and VGA graphics utilizing full voice acting and robust textured animations. It eclipsed other adventure games of the time graphically, besting popular hits from Sierra and LucasArts. A PC port was released to crack a wider market, but by 1994 Myst had already taken the world by storm.

How would today’s games be different without it: Sparking interest in the CD-ROM format, Spaceship Warlock and others prompted not only a tsunami of CD-ROM based videogames but also an avalanche of CD-ROM accompanied books and software that led to one of many tech sector crashes.

Gone but not forgotten: Spaceship Warlock remains an overlooked classic. Copies are widely available on eBay and Amazon and will run on Windows XP. Do yourself a favor and grab one.


  • james-carruthers - May 8, 2012 12:27 a.m.

    No love for G-Surfers for PS2? It had the WHOLE WORLD on one disc, in 2002. I think people would have gone mad for that if it were to be released in this generation.
  • Cromac - December 2, 2010 11:24 p.m.

    I miss Tribes.
  • miasma - June 14, 2010 8:09 p.m.

    That TD song is terrible.
  • whiteknight1981 - May 23, 2010 2:34 p.m.

    You are dead...dead...dead. You are dead.
  • ODST117 - May 23, 2010 10:13 a.m.

    surprised to not see shenmue on there
  • Stabby_Joe - May 23, 2010 1:34 a.m.

    Again, the Myth series. The most recent case of its physics engine was Company of Heroes, 10 years after Myth.
  • DreadZer0 - May 23, 2010 1:13 a.m.

    You mentioned motor city offline? Pah. It's just a reskin of an old NFS title. If you want real MCO, then look out for Motor World Online. Anyone who used to play MCO went there. They've been trying to get a replacement going for ages.
  • AuthorityFigure - May 22, 2010 2:15 p.m.

    These innovations were inevitable - not to say that these games don't deserve credit...
  • Rhymenocerous - May 22, 2010 10:42 a.m.

    I think Omikron had fully 3D, free-roaming city...on PS1 in 1995!
  • SenatorPepper - May 22, 2010 4:42 a.m.

    Ohhhh, Tradewars. I had forgotten those halcyon days of grinding for a new ship with a new right-angle ascii character. And of being a dick to everyone on my favorite BBS, Neo Tokyo. Thanks, Mike, for allowing me to melt into a disgusting mass of nostalgic beaming jelly.
  • Samuel71 - May 21, 2010 11:08 p.m.

    System Shock?
  • ryan_bigl - May 21, 2010 4:48 p.m.

    Always wanted to play Phantasy Star: Online when I was a kid. Would kill to play it now using the PS3's free internet...
  • CaptainSpatula - May 21, 2010 4:35 p.m.

    Whenever I use putty to log on to the arcadia server and play Tradewars 2002, I get an error message that says, "unable to open connection to host does not exist". Can someone help me with this? I really want to play trade wars ;_;
  • Oddeh7 - May 21, 2010 4:15 p.m.

    Thank you for putting TD into the list, such a hilarious game. "The master of this dimension... the Metal Lord... does NOT welcome you. You MUST. TURN. BACK."
  • Joshin69 - May 21, 2010 11:28 a.m.

    umm, where the hell is Deus Ex? As far as gameplay goes, games are only just starting to match that genius! great redo of the site by the way, works much better.
  • philipshaw - May 21, 2010 10:20 a.m.

    Great article and I agree with PS: O being on here, that game was doing stuff that shouldn't be possible on a 56k modem. I always wondered what game that "You are dead" song came from, now I know
  • DarkPaladin - May 21, 2010 3:45 a.m.

    Tribes is a game I have some of my fondest memories of, but no one else I ever talk to seems to even ever heard of it, which is huge shame.
  • milesgregory - May 21, 2010 2:14 a.m.

    correction spell it Seaman sorry
  • milesgregory - May 21, 2010 2:12 a.m.

    @CH3BURASHKA Because Semen is a great game. You should try it. Maybe with a friend. Oh be sure to get it all in your mouth. Jk. spell it Seamen I had a hard time figuaring out what you were saying. It was just an interesting concept. I am not fascinated by it but I do play it.
  • CH3BURASHKA - May 21, 2010 1:37 a.m.

    I never played Semen, so I don't understand the fascination with Semen other people relate.

Showing 1-20 of 28 comments

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