With Thanksgiving here, I’d like to take a moment and give thanks. To the games that revolutionized the industry with long-reaching effects. Games that busted down the door of innovation and literally changed the way we think about them. Every relevant game that came after these titles owes it’s very existence to the visionary quantum leap inherent in their design. We should all be thankful, for without these reinventions of the wheel, games would be nothing more than time-killers and distractions for restless kids tweaking on massive amounts of sugar. Rather than the hollywood quality productions with realistic, motivated characters; massive do-anything, go-anywhere, living, breathing game worlds; epic stories as nuanced as any classic work of fiction. Oh, and don’t forget the murder with heavy weaponry simulators we all love!
It all began here. I know, I know. Atari was technically the first to offer a popular, consumer console. But think about the games they released. They were all variations of one another – competitive 2-player shootouts or “adventure” titles that spanned the length and width of one screen. All well and good, I mean, we had to start somewhere, right? Then Shigeru Miyamoto came along with his fairy-tale influenced masterpiece called Super Mario Bros. What made this title revolutionary? What didn’t? Everything about Mario was unheard of at the time. A fully realized fantasy world and a multitude of creatures and characters – The Mushroom Kingdom is inhabited by different races (Koopas, the Mushroom people, Goombas, etc.) and even has a monarchal system of rulers. Such as the King Koopa Bowser and Princess Toadstool. The Kingdom even covered a realistic region of differing climates (this was expanded in future titles to it’s full potential) and through the course of the game you covered a varied landscape – grassy countryside, subterranean catacombs, deep bodies of water, high above the ‘shroomtops and even the castles of each region. While the plot was as simple as it gets (rescue the princess) it still was a rare thing for a game to even give you a reason for what you were doing. In the simpler times of the mid-80′s, the story and world was epic and finally opened up the industry to allow more visionary creations to come to fruition. Remember that before this, all we had were competitive titles akin to something you and a drinking buddy would play at a bar. Quick, easy matches of reflexes. Super Mario’s explosion in popularity (over 40 million sold) gave rise to the video game as we know it today and I’m sure opened the eyes of many talented designers who, living a life sans the fat little Italian plumber from Brooklyn, might never have gone on to craft the interactive worlds more fascinating and colorful than the one we call home.
2.Blood ‘n’ Gore
Responsible for bringing games to the attentions of senators everywhere. Ed Boon and John Tobias’ courage and conviction in releasing such a dark and violent game in a medium that was all about cutesy characters and bright colors. In other words, games are for kids and the arguement was this game is going to corrupt the children and create a nation of cold-hearted murderers. Granted, there were a few mature games before MK but the difference maker was in the technology finally being able to create realistic graphics. They faced some stiff opposition, even from Nintendo itself, which held a strict philosophy of no offensive material on their consoles. Of course the young people ate it up. Tell them something’s “bad, you can’t have it” and all they hear is “wow, I have got to get me some of that!”. The sprays of blood from every connecting hit were nice, but what really made the franchise (and got all those DC panties in a bunch) were the fatalities. Nothing was so cool as beating your opponent to a bloody pulp and then hearing the iconic “Finish Him!”. And then getting the complicated set of controller motions down just right to witness Sub-Zero rip an entire spinal column out like he was gutting a fish. While games on the whole still have a cartoony aesthetic, MK was the precedent that gave other developer’s license to animate all the blood and gore they wanted. When a game is so popular that it gets a movie (and a sequel), it’s obviously caused a major shift in the industry. Honestly though, the first MK was kind of tame looking back on it. Best believe that further installments pushed the envelope into a ridiculous amount of gore. Now when we see blood in a game, its most likely for an added sense of realism. If you whack a ninja with a surgically sharp katana, they don’t explode like a firecracker in Ninja Gaiden. They gush crimson glory like a decapitated Super Mutant in Fallout 3.
At one time the Holy Grail of first-person shooters, this was the first example of an excellent FPS on a console. Doom and Wolfenstein technically were the first, hugely popular and well deserving of the title of this article, but Goldeneye brought the genre’s best contribution – multiplayer deathmatch. The campaign’s maps were redesigned for competitive game types and certain ones were perfectly suited to specific match types. The game allowed you to tailor the matches by time limit, score limit and restrict the types of weapons available. Each player also had his/her choice of characters from Bond movies past and present. Many a friendship was tainted by his buddy always choosing Oddjob in a throwing knives only match. Proximity mines were deviously fun, rocket launchers guaranteed explosive results and pistols only matches separated the men from the boys. The concept of infinite replayability was born. People never tire of killing each other with firearms and developer’s were soon implementing deathmatch modes in games that weren’t even designed for it. It wasn’t until internet connections and online capable consoles became ubiquitous that this idea was realized to its true potential. So it could be said that Goldeneye was ahead of its time. As many a developer would claim over the next few years that it was what they were reaching for. It also helped to have an established property based in reality. Its far more enjoyable making use of real-life firearms instead of playing the role of a space-marine firing laser beams. You could also thank Bond for the overload of movie-licensed games but we all know how that turned out.
4.Wide Open World
This fairly recent title is still immensely influencing and changing game design to this day. While it’s open world design had been done before, none had been made to feel like a living, breathing city. Liberty City was the first showcase of a wide-open playground where we could have fun just screwing around. The consensus was that this is what games were meant to be. The player could make of it what he wanted. It was a rerfreshing change of pace to cut the game on with no goal in mind. As the series continued into further sequels, the idea was expanded as the developers packed more and more into the game space. The impact on the industry was massive as every other title was touting it’s open world that allowed free reign of the landscape. RPG’s had a similar world design, but they were limited in that every character followed a specific script they couldn’t deviate from and you were likewise limited in your freedom. GTA III was limited in this aspect, but the city was still well populated with hundreds of people following their own routines and impacting the world around you. Sit back long enough, and something hilarious will unfold before you. A thug hijacks an old lady at the light, in his rush to flee the scene he hits a streetlight and gets stuck, old lady proceeds to snatch his narrow tail out the car and commence the whooping. There’s gang members and mafia types that stick to their territory. If you offend one of the groups, you’ll find shots ricochetting off your fenders as you roll through their parts of town. The freedom and adult themes led to the notoriety and controversy over details like the ability to pick up a prostitute off the street, drive her over to a dark alley, park the car and wait for her to service you. The vehicle would begin rocking, as your health rose and cash declined. When she was done, she would exit the car and you were free to run her over and collect your cash from her corpse. Then, you could wait a few minutes for the ambulance to show up and scrape her filthy self off the curb, murder the EMT’s in whatever way suits your fancy and jack the ambulance. Now you have a pretty formidable battering ram for the squad of police cruisers surely swarming in your rear view by now. After scenes like this, video games have never been the same.
Have you noticed on this list, that almost all of these highly influential game-changers had a visionary creative director at the helm. It takes a man with a very specific vision, and the freedom to apply it, because a company is only going to make decisions with one thing in mind – money. Hideo Kojima had very specific goals in mind with Metal Gear Solid and he obviously was allowed free reign to implement them. This game literally feels like a Hollywood quality movie. The script is the perfect set-up for an 80′s action flick. Solid Snake is tasked with infiltrating a nuclear storage facility in Alaska to take down his former Special Ops team known as FOXHOUND. Along the way, you’ll meet a cast of fully developed characters and bear witness to some of the best cutscenes in video game history. There’s also hours of dialogue between Snake and his support team over a radio (CODEC) embedded in his inner ear. A lot of fans deride Kojima for his overly long expositionary dialogue but it serves to deepen your connection with the characters and setting. Where it really paved the way, and made all that dialogue bearable, is the outstanding job by the voice actors. Before MGS, voiceovers in games were laughable at best and always had a B-movie quality about them (see Wing Commander). Although, towards the end of the game, they dropped a ridiculous amount of “shocking surprises” on you and it creeped into a realm of cheesiness. But the trend was set, video games could be as engaging as any experience at the cinema. I mean, it’s a rare thing in a game, but you really could care about these characters and the action set-pieces were just amazing. Being chased by a Hind D while rappelling down a building, facing off against a Hulk-sized man toting a helicopter’s gatling gun and not to mention taking down the 40-foot tall walking battle tank Metal Gear REX. Some minor trends include the technical accuracy and fascination with military procedures and equipment. While MGS was in a realm of hyper-realism, its obvious that Kojima did his homework. By the time CoD 4 & 6 came out, I was comfortable with a Stinger, the FaMas, rapelling down buildings and guiding missles to my target. I had already done all these things in MGS.
There you have it. The games that made the amazingly epic adventures we experience on our consoles today possible. Think about it : what game these days, doesn’t have at least 3 of the 5 characteristics mentioned in these titles? Fantasy worlds with a diverse set of characters matched up with cinema level production values set in a hugely interactive, mature themed open world. Add in the recent prolific use of online multiplayer modes and you can count the blessings of each and every one of these games. We should all be thankful for the contributions of people like Kojima, Miyamoto, Boon, Tobias and Dan Houser. And don’t forget Bond. James Bond.