What it was before: A top-down, free-roaming adventure that was sort of like an action-RPG without the leveling up. Instead, players would scour the landscape for dungeons, hidden secrets and cool new weapons and items that would give them a fighting chance against Hyrule’s countless monsters.
What it became: An odd side-scroller/RPG hybrid that was divided between an RPG-style “land map” (on which you’d be attacked by monsters if you wandered off the road), and action sequences that unfolded mainly in caves, swamps and “Palaces” dominated by huge, memorable boss monsters. Finding items to get past obstacles was essential, but your continued survival was more a matter of killing enemies to gain experience and leveling up Link’s life, attack and magic.
This was also the first Zelda to feature magic spells (and a magic meter to dictate how much you could use them), as well as towns filled with occasionally helpful civilians. More interestingly, it was the first time series hero Link was represented as a teenager, which since Ocarina of Time has been the way most Zelda fans seem to prefer him.
Also, much as Zelda II is always derided as the black sheep of the Zelda family, it’s important to point out that it was actually an excellent game, much as a few petulant fans cried foul when it was released. It was different from other Zeldas, sure, but at the time, most of us were too busy figuring out how to earn the down-thrust ability to care.
Above: YEAH, SUCK IT, BRICKS
Where it went from there: Zelda II’s negative reputation might have more to do with this than anything else, actually. Following the experiment that was Zelda II, A Link to the Past reverted the main Zelda series to something much more like the first game, with numerous improvements and a few borrowed elements from Zelda II (like the magic meter). The series has kept that formula going into the present day, and even the 3D adventures retain most of the overhead-Zelda gameplay elements.
Above: Exploring dungeons, finding key items – it should all be familiar by now
The only Zelda games that would actually go on to mimic Zelda II’s formula, meanwhile, were the reviled CD-I games, Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon. And really, the less said about those, the better.
2. Duke Nukem 3D
What it was before: A pair of interesting-for-their-time, PC-only platformers starring Duke Nukem, a smart-mouthed (but still decidedly PG) blond hero who wandered around blasting robots (and, later, aliens and guys in flight suits) with lasers.
Above: OH GOD THEY EVEN SPELLED THE TITLE SCREEN WRONG
The second game gave us a Duke that was a little closer to the character we know, but who still erred on the kid-friendly side of brutality.
What it became: One of the most beloved and influential first-person shooters of all time. Far more than just a transition from 2D to 3D, Duke Nukem 3D was a near-total reinvention of Duke Nukem’s gameplay, character and tone. Not only did the perspective change, but the action got a hell of a lot more impressive. The levels were huge, varied wildly and were immensely interactive, with Duke able to smash objects in the environment and activate things like light switches and faucets. The action was bloody and intense, with a wide variety of cool guns for gibbing everything from alien grunts and pigcops to towering monsters.
Duke himself, meanwhile, went from a Flash Gordon-esque robot-fighter to a gravel-voiced, steroidal badass hell-bent on tipping every stripper, peeing in every plumbing fixture and doing horrible, horrible things to aliens.
Above: Oh dear
He was a parody of action heroes, sure, but an insanely brutal and entertaining parody who had a jetpack and could pulp monsters by kicking them in the balls, and his game – since ported to seemingly every platform that can handle it – was a hell of a lot of fun.
Where it went from there: Down a very long and meandering path, filled with spinoffs and semi-sequels that are probably best forgotten. Towering over them all was Duke Nukem Forever, which gradually went from one of the most hotly anticipated PC games ever to one of the internet’s longest-running jokes. But after 13 years of delays, hilarious insistences the project was on track and an outright cancellation, September’s Penny Arcade Expo brought the news that Duke Nukem Forever was back on – and a quick hands-on reminded us why we were looking forward to it in the first place.
Above: Which is to say it was pretty fun for the 10 minutes we played