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The Citizen Kanes of videogames

The Legend of Zelda

Released 1987

Pioneered: Open-world, item-heavy action-RPG, hack-and-slash gameplay.

Influenced: Metal Gear, The Guardian Legend, Secret of Mana, virtually every top-down console adventure or action-RPG.

Why it qualifies: Aside from being one of the most iconic fantasy adventures of all time, The Legend of Zelda was one of the earliest examples of a truly free-roaming game. You could wander just about anywhere on the map, anytime you liked, regardless of how far you’d gotten in the game. You could even charge into the game’s dungeons in any order, assuming you knew how to find them, and technically, you weren’t even required to enter the dungeons or advance in any way. So long as you had at least a wooden sword, you could wander the overworld at your leisure, killing monsters until you were bored.

Of course, the game was a lot more rewarding – and a lot bigger – for those who actually did follow its quest, collect the shards of the Triforce and eventually rescue Princess Zelda. But being able to take things at your own pace was key, and often led to the discovery of all kinds of cool secrets. Zelda’s Hyrule was one of the first fully realized, freely explorable game worlds, and while there are those who would say the game was influenced by earlier titles like Adventure and (shudder) E.T., that’s a little like saying crossword puzzles were influenced by connect-the-dots. Much like Kane himself, Zelda stands on its own.


SimCity

Released 1989

Pioneered: Resource management, city management, buildings that serve specific purposes, (most of the credit for) the “god game” genre in general.

Influenced: Sid Meier’s Civilization, ActRaiser, the entire “Sim” line, the Tycoon series, any real-time strategy game that requires you to build things.

Why it qualifies: SimCity can’t necessarily claim full credit for inventing “god games,” as it came out the same year as Populous, in which you actually play as a god. But SimCity is notable for taking something that seems boring on its face – managing a city’s zoning, layout and day-to-day operations – and turning it not only into an entertaining game, but into one of the most addicting and replayable games ever conceived.


Above: Image courtesy of Moby Games

This was also the beginning of creator Will Wright’s seemingly inexhaustible “Sim” series, which has since run the gamut from SimEarth and SimLife to SimAnt and The Sims. The series has also included several different versions of, and sequels to, SimCity itself, and while SimCity 2000 is arguably more versatile and memorable than the flat-looking original, this is where millions got their first taste of laying down roads and power lines, trying to control crime by laying down police stations on every block, deciding civic issues and building a working model of a city in their own image.


Street Fighter II: The World Warrior

Released 1991

Pioneered: One-on-one fighting games with multiple selectable characters, combos, special moves with shouted names.

Influenced: Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, Killer Instinct and every other one-on-one fighter worth a damn.

Why it qualifies: There were plenty of fighting games before Street Fighter II, but most of them were stiff, unmemorable tournament sims like Karate Champ, Budokai and Pit Fighter. When Ryu, Guile and co. stomped into arcades in ’91, however, they immediately flash-kicked all that garbage out of our minds forever. From that point onward, every fighting game had to have multiple characters, fast action and lots of semi-secret combos and special moves (especially fireballs) to reward fans who took the time to really learn the game.

Even discounting the army of copycats whose careers it launched (*coughMortalKombatcough*), Street Fighter II was a juggernaut in its own right, continuing to excite arcade-goers every time it put out a new, slightly retooled version of itself. And while its excellent home versions spelled the beginning of the end for arcades, for a while there it was practically propping up the industry by itself. And while it’s since been overshadowed by its sequels, prequels and wide array of spinoffs, the original – by which we mean SF II, which so thoroughly overshadowed its predecessor as to render it irrelevant – is still a remarkable technical achievement that continues to hold up alarmingly well.


Doom

Released 1993

Pioneered: “Realistic” first-person shooting, bobbing onscreen guns, fully 3D environments, online multiplayer, easy modification by users.

Influenced: Heretic, Duke Nukem 3D, Half-Life and every FPS created since.

Why it qualifies: Doom wasn’t first to the first-person shooter table – that honor goes to Wolfenstein 3D. But if you want to talk “influential,” Doom has it all over its Nazi-tinged predecessor, and if you compare the two side-by-side, Wolfenstein feels like an ugly dry run for Doom. Which it kind of was, seeing as they were both created by id Software. And while Wolfenstein was popular for its time, seemingly every developer wanted to jump on the new FPS bandwagon after Doom had blasted its way onto the scene with a fistful of rockets and bloody demon guts.

Everything about it screamed “realism” (by early-‘90s standards, anyway): the bobbing gun at the bottom of the screen that represented your character, the spurting gore that accompanied every kill, the multi-dimensional environments that stood in stark contrast to Wolfenstein’s rectangular hallways, and the wide selection of photo-realistic shotguns, chainguns and chainsaws. Even better, you weren’t limited to fighting demons – you could also hunt other players, thanks to the magic of LAN, ancient dialup connections and a word Doom introduced to the gaming lexicon: “Deathmatch.” It was even possible to create and/or download new levels, scenarios and even complete re-skins as .WAD files.

Doom was more than just the game that popularized first-person shooting – it was the genesis of online PC gaming as we know it.


Tomb Raider

Released 1996

Pioneered: Three-dimensional exploration, climbing puzzles, breasts.

Influenced: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Splinter Cell, Tenchu, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Devil May Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Mirror’s Edge, any “serious” third-person game to feature acrobatic jumping and/or climbing puzzles.

Why it qualifies: Frequently hailed as the point at which videogames discovered girls, Tomb Raider marks the medium’s first shaky steps toward adulthood. It was one of the earliest - and easily the most instantly recognizable - games to demonstrate that the medium was growing up (this despite it being an adolescent guns-and-tits wet dream). It was also a big part of what popularized the PlayStation brand and made being an adult gamer more socially acceptable.

Of course, there was a lot more to Tomb Raider than a giant pair of pyramid breasts and Lara Croft’s squarish ass. The gameplay was unprecedented, giving players a chance to explore vast, fully 3D ruins and caverns that offered endless opportunities for jumping and climbing.  The actual exploration wasn’t quite as free as Super Mario 64, which came out the same year, but Tomb Raider’s acrobatic take on platforming rapidly caught on, reshaping the public’s attitudes and expectations toward 3D action and exploration. Throw in a surprise T-Rex attack, and Tomb Raider was an instant classic.


Super Mario 64

Released 1996

Pioneered: Analog-driven freedom in huge, open 3D environments, 3D hand-to-mushroom combat, butt-stomping.

Influenced: Croc, Sonic Adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Jak & Daxter, Sly Cooper, Devil May Cry and every other 3D platformer that followed its release.

Why it qualifies: Around the same time that Tomb Raider was pushing gamers toward adulthood, Super Mario 64 showed up to drag them, kicking and screaming, back into childhood. To be sure, both were important, but while Tomb Raider introduced players to exploration in confined spaces at 90-degree angles, Mario gave them freedom. Possibly the greatest console-launch game of all time, Super Mario 64 offered huge, sunny, wide-open worlds, deep lakes and caverns and more than a few Thwomp-filled fortresses, and gave players a full 360-degree range of movement with which to explore them.

It wasn’t just a great game – it was for 3D games what Super Mario Bros. was for 2D games. It set the template on which all future platformers were based, and the standard by which they’re judged. And perhaps most significantly (for Nintendo, at least), it reasserted Mario’s iron grip on the minds of gamers and game designers, reminding us that games didn’t have to be dark or violent or sexy in order to be awesome. That outlook didn’t help the N64 much, but it did secure SM64 a place in gaming history.


Resident Evil

Released 1996

Pioneered: Sudden, horror movie-style scares; tense 3D exploration filled with zombies that can be shot to death.

Influenced: Dino Crisis, Carrier, Onimusha, Silent Hill and the whole zombie-killing/survival-horror subgenre.

Why it qualifies: Resident Evil is yet another example of a game that didn’t innovate so much as it perfected a gameplay style created for the original Alone in the Dark: 3D horror exploration that uses fixed camera angles and sudden scares to make an escape from a haunted house feel like a trip through hell. But while Alone in the Dark was rendered hokey by its primitive polygonal graphics, Resident Evil combined then-cutting-edge visuals with copious amounts of blood, lots of guns and expert direction to create an experience that was more frightening than anything that had come before.

Sure, the puzzles were silly and the voice acting was awful, but if you played through RE’s mansion, then you can probably remember when your first zombie dog crashed through its first window, or when the game’s first zombie looked up from the corpse of the STARS officer it had been munching on and started lurching slowly toward you, or when you walked into a flooded room and found out the hard way that it was full of zombie sharks. Death could come suddenly, and the mansion itself – with its ambient creaks and paranoid camera angles – was creepy as hell. It quickly became apparent that gamers loved being frightened by things and then blowing the heads off those things, and so survival horror rapidly became one of the most prolific and popular genres of the last couple console eras.


Final Fantasy VII

Released 1997

Pioneered: The blending of classical JRPG combat and exploration with sky-high production values and pre-rendered, movie-style cutscenes.

Influenced: Nearly every subsequent Japanese RPG, and especially every following installment of the Final Fantasy series.

Why it qualifies: Say whatever you want about Final Fantasy VII – it’s overrated, it looks like crap now, it was never that great to begin with, you never understood its appeal, etc., etc. - but before it came along, the idea of a cinematic RPG that enjoyed enormous mainstream success was completely unknown. Up until that point, RPGs had been the most graphically weak genre, thanks largely to the constraints of cartridges and 16-bit systems. Characters were small and stunted, monsters rarely moved during combat and most of the story’s emotion and character development took place in the player’s imagination.

Final Fantasy VII changed all that, as the relatively huge storage and power offered by the PlayStation finally gave developers the resources they needed to tell the stories they wanted to tell. In one stroke, it turned RPGs from a popular niche into a story-focused visual powerhouse. Since then, it’s aged poorly and the long-term benefits of its arrival are debatable, but it still stands as a great leap forward for not only RPGs, but for the public’s perception of games in general.


StarCraft

Released 1998

Pioneered: Online, real-time strategy with multiple players and armies, factions that operate completely different from each other.

Influenced: WarCraft III, Command & Conquer: Generals, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the nation of South Korea.

Why it qualifies: Frequently cited as developer Blizzard’s magnum opus, StarCraft was released 11 years ago, has since received exactly three expansions, and still remains ridiculously popular in certain circles (most notably the entire country of South Korea). Tinkering with the RTS formula that Blizzard had established in WarCraft and WarCraft II, StarCraft moved away from the orcs-vs-humans model of opposing, more or less symmetrical armies, and instead created three factions that had radically different deployments, hierarchies and methodologies.

StarCraft also marked the first time Blizzard created a single-player campaign that had to be played from all sides in order to get the full story. Of course, single-player isn’t the reason for StarCraft’s unnatural longevity; that’s due more to the robust multiplayer modes, which did away with more traditional one-on-one battles and opened the field to up to eight players, who were free to form alliances or just hurl their armies against each other across different match types. StarCraft perfected RTS gameplay to the point that it remains more influential and consistently popular than anything else in its genre, and so far the only thing that looks ready to unseat it is the long-overdue advent of StarCraft II.


EverQuest

Released 1998

Pioneered: MMO gameplay in a vast 3D world, crippling addiction.

Influenced: World of WarCraft, Guild Wars, City of Heroes and hundreds if not thousands of other, similar massively multiplayer online games.

Why it qualifies: Once again, EverQuest wasn’t the first of its kind by a longshot, and it doesn’t really stand as the best, either. Ultima Online had popularized the idea of MMOs long before EverQuest strutted into view, and World of WarCraft has since stomped EQ’s subscriber base into jelly. This one’s really down to influence, in that EverQuest created the template on which future MMOs were based – that of relatively simple, party-centric 3D exploration, monster fighting and loot gathering.

The formula proved so engrossing, and gained such widespread acceptance, that EverQuest pioneered more than just the concept of modern MMOs – it pioneered the concept of MMO addiction, filling the internet with stories of ruined marriages and neglected lives. And if that’s not a sign of an important and successful game, we don’t know what is.

254 comments

  • LunarMoon - November 6, 2010 4:29 p.m.

    I totally believe that video games are art but some things need to be said: If this is the best that the video game world will ever offer than that’s a really depressing thought. I think that those of us who want an engrossing and emotionally involving plot in our video games should stop patting developers on the back and start demanding it, since if there’s no market demand for a particular product than there’s absolutely no reason for the producer’s to risk their livelihood’s attempting to create the next Brave New World. It would be shame if the video game world began to stagnate and fail to live up to its potential due to the contentment of its patrons. Take comic books for example. Watchmen was produced because Alan Moore was discontent with the potential of the comic medium in comparison to where it was. Why can’t the same happen for video games?
  • Ganonpork - October 9, 2010 9:51 a.m.

    XD no more heroes pioneered awesome
  • Gurkog - October 8, 2010 5:46 a.m.

    I don't have any idea about the originality of Ninja Gaiden for the NES and it probably didn't pioneer anything, but imo no later side scrolling 8-bit game was better...and the cut scenes were HOT for the period. Oh, it was also the first action game I played that had a real feeling of a developing story. It has been 20 years since I played it so my rose-colored glasses might be blinding me to the truth.
  • mrmorozov987 - September 1, 2010 1:06 a.m.

    Okay, I retract what I said about the first Modern Warfare. After seeing popular multiplayer games released before it, COD4's multiplayer is actually a big step forward. Sorry for being a complete ass and making a comment about a game I hadn't played at all. The second one is still less good. (?)
  • mrmorozov987 - May 29, 2010 10:21 p.m.

    While I'm glad to see titles like Resident Evil 4 and Grand Theft Auto III here, I'm a little disappointed that Gran Turismo (for introducing realistic car physics and serious car customization, all while remaining accessible to newcomers). isn't on here. Also, Call of Duty 4? It's a great game, but it didn't really pioneer anything. Also, they should update this list to include Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (if you've seen 5 seconds of it, you know why it should be here).
  • SandroTheMaster - September 17, 2009 10:54 p.m.

    I know I'm late to the party but... a lot of these "pioneering" actually started in PC games. The worst case is Grand Theft Auto 3, which is claimed to influence Elder Scrolls 4. Oblivion was mostly influenced by Morrowind (AKA, Elder Scrolls 3)! Actually, it is more or less a Morrowind lite, which was a refinement upon Daggerfall (guess what, Elder Scrolls 2!). And all free-roaming games out there owes everything to Wizardry and Might & Magic, years before any console RPG considered gamers smart enough to handle derailing from the plot.
  • deora2dude - August 2, 2009 11:25 p.m.

    WHERE. IS. PORTAL.
  • deathrebellion - July 30, 2009 10:18 p.m.

    my two most fav games r on dis list ^^ and i seriously don't think that Tomb Raider wuz the cause of DMC , Assassins Creed and Mirrors Edge
  • CrazedPenguin - July 29, 2009 11:35 a.m.

    Great read, I always enjoy your articles :) All this talk of genre changing and defining titles has made me strangely excited for HEavy Rain.
  • MarchIntoTheSea - July 28, 2009 9:16 p.m.

    And what about Ico? Mass Effect should be here too. It did come after kotor but it does the job so much better. And the dialogue is revolutionary while 2 is gonna be better
  • AscendedArsehole - July 28, 2009 2:35 p.m.

    Hey GR, ever heard of Deus Ex? Give it a go, it's a great game with deep level design that I have not seen elsewhere.
  • purple_omlet - July 27, 2009 9:13 a.m.

    wait a minute, i just realized, after a 4 hour okami session, that there is not okami on this list! sure, not many people have played it, but it's a god damn masterpeice! the art style, the ingenious story line, and the controls just show what they Ps2 was made for. and as an eitor for GR, i thought you had an obligation to get the okami name out even more, like a video game pimp...
  • purple_omlet - July 27, 2009 9:04 a.m.

    like the list, but don't care for devil may cry to much, my brother likes it, but by the time i actually got the game i was way to into god of war 2. @ludovix: gran tourismo sucks ass.
  • solsunforge - July 27, 2009 3:33 a.m.

    pardon the interuption but all of you halo fanboys out there who think halo introduced any new concepts to videogames on for fps or storywise should know your 100% incorrect. It was not the first to introduce gernades it wasnt the first to introduce coop for 4 players. Ever heard of unreal tournament? Ever hear of red faction? Well the 2nd red faction introduced 4 player coop. I may even be incorect in that one(as far as consoles). What about goldeneye for the n64. I mean come on halo doesnt even have that great of story. halo 3 is about a whole 5 hours long and is complete trash. Dont get me wrong halo is a fun game and i played it to completion a few times but its not even a top 10 shooter. Even the original gauntlet had coop play so learn something about what you like before you talk or go play some mario party or dynasty warriors and sit down.
  • dweller - July 27, 2009 1:26 a.m.

    I'm glad Planescape: Torment was mentioned on this list. One of my all time fav RPGs ever.
  • Riq12 - July 26, 2009 5:32 p.m.

    What about Quake I ?!?
  • honjuden - July 26, 2009 8:16 a.m.

    Such a large list and no Baldur's Gate to be found. Baldur's Gate did things that were unprecedented for western rpgs.
  • JamesT - July 25, 2009 8:42 p.m.

    Only one of the DMC sequels was "middling". Hell, number 3 was in some ways better than the first.
  • skyguy343 - July 25, 2009 8:34 p.m.

    no Ico or SotC but the ingenuity of this article prevents it from bring a fail. still, moar SotC. way to go mikel
  • drewthaler - July 25, 2009 4:47 p.m.

    This list doesn't include Ico or Shadow of the Colossus? For shame. Those two are probably the closest parallels to Citizen Kane that exist. Critically acclaimed, loved by game designers, massively influential, but not a great success with the public. They defied convention and showed that there were ways of storytelling that had never been seen before. And they had some really ground-breaking technical achievements which influenced the rest of the gaming world dramatically - HDR bloom, dynamic exposure, realistic fur, etc.

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