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August 15, 2011

Top Five: Formative Video Games

Posted by on Aug 15, 2011

Halo wasn’t born out of the ether and World of Warcraft didn’t rise from the ashes. Nearly every video game we play today owes its lineage to something that came before it. It’s worth taking a look back at those formative games now and again, and in a couple places, actually replaying them. You get a real appreciation for the designers of the games, both for the cojones to make them in the first place, and the very real technical hurdles they overcame in doing so.

So without further ado, my (guaranteed to be disagreed with, lambasted, and generally derided) list of the top five most formative video games.

1. Pong

Everyone would bitch and moan if I didn’t put the first commercially successful video game on this list. When talking about formative video games, Pong stands alone as the one that showed the world video games were a viable commercial market. Released in 1972, it predates all of the games on this list by a long shot, and while no one would call it a graphical masterpiece, it was a significant technical achievement. Without a doubt, video games would have become an industry whether or not Pong was created, but it’s difficult to deny its place the development of games we know and love today.

2. Final Fantasy

If we’re basing status on number of games derived directly from it, Final Fantasy has little competition. With upwards of thirteen games released under the Final Fantasy branding alone, it is one of – if not the - most successful franchises in history. However, even discounting its own personal legacy, Final Fantasy was a formative component in creating the graphical Role Playing Game (RPG) genre. RPGs existed for a long time before that as players of MUD will be happy to inform me, but Final Fantasy created a graphical world in which to play.

The stop-action combat system FF pioneered was also a breakthrough – it created gameplay that simultaneously was turn-based and active. Combat changed from the traditional one on one fight to tussles between groups of characters. The concept of a ‘party’ whose actions you control was a novel idea when it was released; it’s a theme that has since been repeated in countless games.

3. Wolfenstein 3D

Wolfenstein was one of the first commercially viable 3D first person shooters and the direct predecessor to Doom. It moved the video game market away from scrolling shooters, and popularized the genre in time for Doom (also made by id Software) to take it by storm a year later. Almost all of the first person shooters available today can trace their origins back to this game. It was a blast to play – fast paced, with a variety of weapons to use and enemies to fight – and best of all, it was widely available thanks to its shareware distribution methodology. Younger readers may not have ever seen shareware games before – limited versions of the games were distributed for free.  I still remember receiving Wolfenstein 3D from Macworld, and playing through the first several levels. Wolfenstein’s shareware success helped push later games to continue the practice.

4. GoldenEye 007

Prior to GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64, nobody had managed to create an effective 3D first person shooter on a game console that allowed the player a full range of vision. Doom and its cohorts didn’t have the capability to look up or down with in the scope of vision. The Nintendo 64 changed all that with the addition of an analog joystick, and GoldenEye proved to the world what a difference it made. In addition, GoldenEye was one of the first person shooters where the goal was not necessarily to kill people – many of it’s single player missions required the player to sneak through the level without raising any alarms.

Undoubtably however, GoldenEye’s main contribution to the video game world was its split screen multiplayer. It popularized the concept of a multiplayer first person shooter on game consoles; now you could sit down with four friends in front of the TV and duke it out in death match battles. Games we know and love like Halo and Modern Warfare all owe their existence to the pioneering game that was GoldenEye 007.

5. Ultima Online

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) have existed for a very long time. Initially they were text based and weren’t really ‘massive’. Even the later graphical RPGs were still niche products. Ultima Online brought MMORPGs out of the shadows and into the mainstream, partly because it was the first commercially viable game of its type. Users connected to central servers using modems and paid a monthly fee for the ability to play the game. While this sounds commonplace to us today – it was a technological breakthrough at the time. The breakthrough of Ultima Online essentially created the MMORPG marketplace, and led to Asheron’s Call, Everquest, and eventually World of Warcraft – among countless others.



So what do you think?  Are there any glaring omissions from our list?  Chime in with your own top five in the comments.