The sneaky history of stealth games

Hide and seek is one of the oldest playground games in existence. It only makes sense to translate the thrill of escaping your friends’ clutches into a digital form. After all, “don’t get caught” is a parameter gamers can instantly recognize.

It’s a simple premise that has expanded from outwitting a single enemy unit into outthinking collective AI. Instead of staying out of a guard’s line of sight, you must now utilize dynamic light sources to make sure your shadow isn’t detected. Instead of a small room with one predestined outcome, you have entire islands with bountiful foliage to disguise whatever you feel like doing.

And perhaps our favorite question - “Do we kill that guy or let him live and find a way around?” For your pleasure is a quick, pictorial history through the stealth subgenre. Happy hunting and don’t forget to comment on your favorite stealth games.

Wolfenstein series - 1981-2009
In the original Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II, you needed to slowly traverse the Nazi castle, find secret plans and get out alive. Mostly you’d spend the game sneaking past guards with disguises. It wasn’t until 3D (the third game) that killing was necessary. In fact, many stealth elements were deleted from 3D to make the game quicker. We’ve been shotgunning mutant Nazis ever since. With glee.

Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid series - 1987-2008
Hideo Kojima can almost be directly responsible for incorporating stealth elements into modern action/adventure games. Each game is designed so that you can play without engaging the enemy. The NES originals were the first mainstream stealth games on consoles. Solid 2 introduced collective/group AI for patrolling squads, while Solid 3 introduced camouflage to the genre.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – 1989
You would think any time ninjas are in a game, there would be stealth. Maybe because this game used stealth in a crappy and unforgiving way - in which you avoided tanks on an overworld map - the Ninja Turtles were then known for beat-‘em-ups. It’s cool, we like beating the crap out of numerous enemies with our ninja weapons anyway.

Alien versus Predator series – 1994-2003
In this series of games (originating on Jaguar), you’re able to play as a colonial marine, Predator or Alien. As the Predator, you’re able to use a cloaking device to become invisible and can hunt using an infrared vision mode.

Clock Tower series – 1995-2003
In this classic survival-horror series, you explore a creepy castle while a demented killer - the aptly titled Scissorman - hunts for your blood. A 2D point-and-click adventure on the PC, CT makes use of the gamepad on SNES and PlayStation for your evading abilities. Even if Scissorman is hilariously slow, it was always frightening whenever that little guy showed up.

Oddworld series – 1997-2001
This critically acclaimed series is almost forgotten by time. Control either Abe (in the 2D PlayStation games) or Munch (in the Xbox follow-up) to save members of your species through communication and possession. Very rarely do you engage enemy Slogs (bad guys).

Final Fantasy VII – 1997
There are few parts where sneaking is in order: a brief segment when you infiltrate Shinra headquarters or don a disguise to sneak into a military parade. Did we mention an extended segment where you dress in drag to rescue Tifa? Or our favorite: tip-toeing out of Aerith’s house after you survived an explosion. Totally a guy thing to do.

GoldenEye – 1997
After our fifth failed firefight against multiple Russians, we realized that destroying security cameras and Judo-chopping those Pinkos from behind was the best way to go during certain missions of this N64 fave.

Tenchu series – 1998-present
Released months before the original Metal Gear Solid - making it the first 3D stealth game ever, Tenchu demonstrated how to make a ninja game properly. Scale rooftops, toss daggers or slowly stalk an enemy right before slicing his throat. The subsequent titles were all a little ‘eh.’

Thief series – 1998-2004
The Dark Project holds the distinction of being the first 3D stealth game on the PC. Not only was it the first game to also utilize lighting and shadows for hiding, but also the first to use audio cues like footsteps and eavesdropping. Incredibly immersive and one of the best PC series’ of all time.

Legend of Zelda series – 1998-2007
The famed adventure series doesn’t usually favor flight over fight, but there are sections that rely on your cunning to progress. For example, Ocarina of Time tasked you with sneaking by guards into Hyrule castle, Wind Waker had you avoiding beasties in the Forsaken Fortress and Phantom Hourglass’ Temple of the Ocean King was filled with beefy soldiers you couldn’t best.


  • paulo-junior - January 9, 2012 3:48 p.m.

    Great list. Only it missed Shadow of Rome.
  • crazyqazqaz - February 7, 2009 4:50 p.m.

    Oh come on!! All Ghillied Up in CoD 4 was amazing! I've played that level at least 20 times!!
  • deathrebellion - February 5, 2009 10:18 p.m.

    Awesome list though U did include useless titles
  • TastyCakesMcgee - February 5, 2009 3:36 a.m.

    TF2 forever!
  • game_over - February 4, 2009 10:57 p.m.

    GoldenEye64 has co-op? Yes.
  • noobeater - February 4, 2009 10:16 p.m.

    great article....i really want to play shadow of collosus or watevere its called since i began looking at this mighty website anyway one you missed was SOCOM:us navy seals...i only played first one but get on ship...shoot out lights...silently knife people...every gun having a silencer getting intel or hostages means getting there quietly or the run/get destroyed/killed also in prison lvl u can make an diversion by setting a bomb at the wall and then running to the prison add it...i wanna be a part of it lol great article all the same most of these games=legends in their own right
  • Jbo87 - February 4, 2009 6:09 p.m.

    I really enjoyed Sniper Elite. As mentioned pulling off a brilliant shot was ultra satisfying and if you could time your shot to an artillery blast then the other enemies wouldn't hear it, hard to do but it felt like a real achievement. It also had a coop mode which worked really well. Getting both players into good positions and picking off guards at the smae time was quality. Definitely a game that could do with a sequel. Next-gen sniping, with explosive headshots would be awesome.
  • game_over - February 4, 2009 6:09 p.m.

    Goldeneye64; Has anyone else, ever, played the co-op mode that was built into the game?
  • aequitas13 - February 4, 2009 2:04 p.m.

    Going through the list again... In addition to Thief, kudos for NOLF, Riddick, SotC, RE4, Bioshock, and Commandos (should read 1998 - love for Commandos 2 or 3?)
  • Sash - February 4, 2009 1:43 p.m.

    Wow, its either very good or very sad that I have played ALL of these games o.o
  • GreyGhost - February 4, 2009 1:31 p.m.

    Good list but ... You forgot Stolen for the PS2 ... Fun game ...
  • averagejoe - February 4, 2009 3:47 a.m.

    Didn't Eternal Darkness have an invisibility spell? And I seem to remember some sneaking about in Chrono Trigger (the prison) and certainly there are stealth elements in Mirror's Edge. Heck, Mario 64 even had stealth to some degree: he could sneak up on sleeping piranha plants or turn invisible to evade enemies with the vanish cap. So..... there!
  • AMayer - February 4, 2009 3:16 a.m.

    I remember I used to play GoldenEye for so long that shotting people in the back of the noggin became second nature.
  • game-thugsta - February 4, 2009 1:34 a.m.

    Snake is and always will be the king of stealth... and in general the best video game character ever.
  • Red - February 4, 2009 1:11 a.m.

    If I had to pick two things that I absolutely hate about games, it would be mandatory stealth sections and mandatory protect the NPC missions. Games that force you to stay hidden AND keep your companions alive/hidden are the wosrt of all. There's almost nothing more irritating than being almost finished with a mission/level only to turn around and find your dumbass companion standing out in the open. MISSION FAILED.
  • cart00n - February 4, 2009 12:47 a.m.

    Not usually a big fan of "stealth games" - there are far too many other, cheaper ways to aggravate myself! However, BG&E was awesome. Assassins' Creed was a whole lot of fun, too.
  • Montag - February 4, 2009 12:39 a.m.

    No System Shock 2? Good call on Deus Ex tho..... Stealth if you like, not because you have to... nice
  • WaldoOfWhere - February 4, 2009 12:22 a.m.

    OMG What About Rainbow Six Vegas or did I miss IT.
  • AnonymouZ - February 3, 2009 11:12 p.m.

    gigglesnort* sneakily
  • rocketfuel - February 3, 2009 10:16 p.m.

    Another game I know is missing from that list is Shadow of Rome. When you took a break from chopping off limbs you'd play as octavian and sneak around hiding from Roman soldiers or killing them and stealing their outfits but otherwise great list. I'm a huge fan of bethesda and the stealth in their games.

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