There are many games that have come and gone over the years which have seared themselves into gamers’ minds. Many original games have come out during the life of the video game industry that have had immediate influences on other games of its kind, or even spawned outright copycat titles. However, there’s a much shorter list of games that have had a far more lasting impact on the gaming landscape, that transcend time and remain the foremost influences in their genres.
We’re going to look at just four of these games today. This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list of industry-changing games, but just of four particular games that stand out among many others.
Star Raiders (Atari, 1979)
Back in the late 1970s, during the infancy of the home computer era, Atari decided to join the ranks of Apple, Tandy, and Commodore in releasing their Atari 400 and 800 computers. These computers were quite remarkable for their time, and were the first to use dedicated processors for handling graphics and sound. This made them the early choice for game software. All Atari needed was a “killer app” to help spark sales of their computers.
Enter Atari employee Doug Neubauer, who had originally worked on the POKEY sound chip for the Atari computers. After finishing his work on the chip, he spent his free time working on a game to make use of the Atari computer’s advanced graphics and sound capabilities, and managed to cook up one of the most influential games of all time.
While Star Raiders’ graphics seem primitive now, they were quite advanced for 35 years ago. However, the game’s 3D first person perspective wasn’t alone in capturing the imagination of gamers. The deep and complex real-time gameplay brought something to computer gamers that had never been seen before: complex strategy coupled with fast-paced real time gameplay. Star Raiders provided a glimpse of the technological heights that gaming could reach.
Ultima IV (Origin, 1985)
Dungeons and Dragons-style role playing games have been around on computers about as long as computers have existed. Gathering a group of adventurers to defeat some ultimate evil within a fantasy setting was already old-hat by the time Richard Garriott created Ultima IV, which was actually the fifth title in the Ultima series.
There are plenty of examples of innovative RPGs, but Ultima IV stands out among all others due to what it had that few others since have been able to copy: a sense of ethics. Instead of running with the usual RPG plot lines, Ultima IV takes place in a world without a great evil currently threatening it. The good King British, sensing that his realm doesn’t have a spiritual figure to emulate, puts forth a call for an individual to take up the mantle of Avatar by becoming the embodiment of the eight virtues (Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility).
While Ultima IV does have quests that you need to complete, and includes your standard RPG conventions, this is not the focus of the game. Instead, your ultimate goal is to raise your virtues to high enough levels to where you can become the Avatar. This is accomplished by the actions that you take throughout the game.
In fact, most actions that you take will have an effect on your virtue levels. For instance, defeating evil creatures throughout the land will raise your Valor, but killing non-evil creatures will lower it. Donating money to beggars will raise your Compassion, but not answering a question that a character asks you will lower your Honesty. Playing the game “ethically” will allow you to achieve your goals, although there are no real repercussions for not doing so (although you won’t be able to complete it that way).
The Ultima series stands as one of the measuring sticks of all RPGs that have come since, but Ultima IV still shines as the biggest standout RPG of all time.
Mortal Kombat (Midway, 1992)
I still remember an incident sometime during my high school years, when a friend of mine was telling me and a couple of other gaming enthusiasts about some new arcade fighter that he saw at the bowling alley. His description of the violent gameplay, involving ripping the heads off opponents and the large splatters of blood that came from every hit, left most of us incredulous, and me with a bit of doubt. Surely such excess violence and gore wasn’t possible (or even legal) in an arcade game, right?
Wrong. Mortal Kombat first hit arcades sometime in the fall of 1992, and immediately gained notice by both the gaming public and the gaming press. In fact, it didn’t take long for the mainstream press, and even politicians, to take notice.
Mortal Kombat, while being a good game in its own right, is more on this list due to its impact on the gaming industry rather than for what it contributed to the fighting game genre. Street Fighter II was the fighting game king at the time of its release, and would remain so for some time. Mortal Kombat was initially just another “kopy-kat” game (complete with bad spelling), but had more long-lasting effects on the industry as a whole than the Street Fighter franchise.
Thanks to the controversy over it’s realistic (for the time) graphics and explicit gore, the industry ended up forming the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) to “police” itself and to help keep the government out of heavily regulating the gaming industry. Even today, almost all games sold in retail come with an ESRB rating.
Half-Life (Valve, 1998)
Yet again, here’s another game that didn’t pioneer its genre, but had long-lasting effects on it. Released in 1998, Half-Life made an immediate impact on the gaming scene, putting up big sales numbers and scoring high reviews in the gaming press.
So, yes, Half-Life hardly created the First Person Shooter genre. No, it wasn’t the first FPS to use heavily-scripted sequences in the game (you can thank Bungie’s pre-MS-and-Halo “Marathon” series for that). What it did do, however, was blend many pre-existing FPS elements together into a seamless, satisfying experience.
The entire game is played through the eyes of Gordon Freeman, who doesn’t speak a single word throughout the series. All of the action and events happen around him, but include him in a way that makes the player think they are more involved in them than they really are.
I don’t need to spill many more words about Half-Life, as it is well-known by most gamers. However, whenever you play a first person shooter now, you are still experiencing Half-Life’s influence on the genre.
While the four games I listed above are not played heavily today, we must not underestimate their influence on the video game industry as a whole.
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