Now that geeks have won and video games make more money than Hollywood blockbusters (and even becoming Hollywood blockbusters), it can be easy to forget just how far the industry has come. A lot of gamers are too young to have even heard of the retro games on this list, and I doubt if most people have a machine that can even play some of these titles. But it’s games like these that shaped the culture, art and game-play that all of today’s blockbuster video game titles are based on.
Retro Video Games the Industry Was Built On
Wolfenstein 3D (1992): What’s better than killing Nazis with a massive Gatling gun? Killing Nazis, undead mutants and Hitler in a robot suit and chain guns, obviously. Wolfenstein wasn’t the original first-person shooter, but it was definitely one that everyone — everyone — played. The graphics may look laughable now, but it was one of the first really viable 3D games I every played on a PC, and it helped indoctrinate an entire generation that is now playing Call of Duty and Mass Effect games.
Legend of Zelda (1986): Few other franchises have been as successful as this one. Behind Mario, Link may be the most recognized video game character ever. Zelda is so significant because it really combined elements of action-adventure, RPG and puzzle games in a brilliant way. And the evolution from the top-down style to side-scrolling to the wildly successful 3D game environments on N64 was nothing short of brilliant every step of the way. This game still holds up.
Gauntlet (1985): Starting as an arcade title that evolved into an NES favorite, this dungeon crawler was one of the first of its kind. The ground-breaking element here was Gauntlet’s multiplayer coop mode. You could steal your team-mates food, hurt them with your weapons and just generally start a shouting match in front of the TV. Few other games enabled the same level of chaos, and other games took note that the multiplayer dynamic could make or break a game.
Metroid (1986): Navigating the original Metroid for NES was so dark and weird for games at the time that the experience couldn’t be duplicated. The aliens were scary and otherworldly, and even the levels and music were creepy. It was one of those titles that made it okay for video games not to be all cute or kid-friendly. Successive versions of the game, especially Super Metroid, have met with similar success. But it’s the originality of the first that broke new ground for video games.
Dragon Quest (1986): Originally published as Dragon Warrior in the US, Dragon Quest is probably responsible for introducing much of the gaming masses to full-blown RPGs. It seems simplistic by today’s standards, but it got me hooked on doing small quests and battles to build up my character. You wouldn’t have Neverwinter Nights or Skyrim if not for this retro game.
Final Fantasy (1987): While it was criticized for its lack of balance (a lot of wandering around, waiting for random battles to level up), Final Fantasy earned its place as the seminal RPG, even though it did land in the US after Dragon Quest. It’s largely responsible for launching an entire brand of Japanese-style RPG that counterbalances the traditional Tolkien-style subject matter of other games.
Dune II (1992): Everyone who’s spent any time at all playing StarCraft II owes a debt of gratitude to Frank Herbert for writing the sci-fi epic that inspired this video game. Dune II wasn’t the first RTS, but it created the formula that is the standard for modern real-time strategy titles. Selecting units one at a time was a pain, as was losing harvesters to random sandworms and spice-blows, but Dune II was an addicting experience that paved the way for WarCraft and Command & Conquer.
Image via mobygames.com
Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994): Space and flight sims have certainly evolved since Lucasfilm began cutting it’s teach on games like this. Preceded by Star Wars: X-Wing, TIE Fighter let you fight on the side of the Galactic Empire. The game was almost impossibly difficult, forcing you to hone your reflexes to dogfight enemy ships. Somehow, the game kept you going by marching you up the Imperial ranks. This changed expectations for what special effects and 3D navigation in games was supposed to be.
SimCity (1989): An army of urban planners owe their inspiration to childhood hours spent building roads and connecting power plants to the residential and industrial zones of SimCity. This was before Maxis got distracted with The Sims, and brilliantly challenged players to try and manage utilities, economics, taxes and the occasional alien invasion in their own city. The city-building elements made their way into more complex RTS games, including Civilization and similar titles.
Myst (1993): This is probably the game that sparked by lifelong obsession with puzzle games. At the time, Myst was a kind of enigma. This was before walkthroughs and cheat books were common. I remember my cousin giving me his “Myst Notes”, filled with sketches and explanations of the mysterious island’s many puzzles that unlocked the magical linking books that took you to otherworldly landscapes. Once again, this wasn’t the first of the graphic adventure games, but the storyline, setting and gameplay were pure inspiration, and it raised the bar for game art and showed developers the value of environments that enchant the player.
Author bio: Mark Greene has been gaming since video games still came in cartridges. He blogs at TheTechnologyLounge.com about video games, tech news, geek culture and why zombies will still be cool in ten years.