You could argue that every game is of some sort of historical significance, of course. The question really is how do you whittle down the list.
Can you really have a list of the games that have defined our medium without the inspirational Half-Life? That skips over the technologically liberating Pong? That omits the expectation-defying Super Mario 64? That fails to mention the crack-like World of Warcraft? That ignores the divorce-inducing Championship/Football Manager? That ignores the commercial impact of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare?
Yes, at MCV we reckon you probably can. That is, if you boil everything down to the ten titles that have absolutely defined the shape of the industry and dictated the path that all successors have followed.
And this is what we reckon they are:
(1978) Space Invaders – Games become ‘cool’
You can spend plenty of time arguing about the origins of video games, and plenty of people have. Whether you choose to attribute its genesis to the likes of Nimrod in the ‘50s, Stanford’s Spacewar in the ‘60s or Pong (be that Baer’s version or Bushnell’s Atari iteration), it’s clear that one title changed everything and established games as we know them.
In 1978 Taito introduced Space Invaders in Japan. Gone were the glowing Star Wars style vector displays or abstract sports recreations and in their place were instantly recognisable symbols with which everyone could relate. Aliens were descending and your gun is all that stood in their way. Like in the comics and the movies except now it was you, the user who was in control.
There were animations, there were sounds effects (that reacted to what was happening on the screen) and a very cool cabinet.And, if urban legend is to be believed, a coin shortage due to the huge amounts being pumped into the 100,000 machines Taito had spread across the country.
It was a great game, too, that remains very playable today.
Video games had ceased to be a nerdist curiosity and become something that could be found out in the real world, and that appealed to a wide array of people. Furthermore, it wasn’t alienating – it was easy, it was fun, it was cool and anyone could do it. Gaming was born.
(1985) Super Mario Bros – Games enter the home
A mainstream social pursuit was one thing but as any entertainment medium will tell you, real commercial success must be found in the home.
Of course, anyone could buy an arcade cabinet and plop it in the garage but if gaming was to ascend the heights that increasing numbers felt it capable of, it would need a cost-effective and user-friendly home solution.
Nintendo wasn’t the first, of course. Long before the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) arrived in 1983-85 consumers could get their hands on systems such as the Magnavox Odyssey, the successful Atari 2600, the Fairchild or Mattel’s Intellivision but it was Nintendo that ticked all the boxes essential to making home console gaming a success.
The NES was simple, sturdy and reasonably affordable but most of all had a range of software unlike anything seen before it – not least of which was the magnificent Super Mario Bros. A game that was designed not just to be played but to be mastered. Super Mario Bros brought with it an icon (Mario himself), a damsel in distress (the Princess), a villain (Bowser), a wide assortment of quirky bad guys and even an inadvertently camp brother! And an awesome ray gun that you used to shoot ducks. And a robot.
Furthermore, Nintendo’s at times controversial ‘Seal of Quality’ ensured that consumers could be moderately sure that any of the hard-earned cash they handed over for a game would be rewarded with something that was at the least playable and more than likely pretty bloody good.
(1989) Tetris (on the Game Boy) – Games can live in your pocket
Selling games consoles into the home was one thing, but with TVs still an expensive commodity Little Jimmy not only had to convince mum and dad to pay out for a console, but also to hand over control of the living room. Nintendo wanted to do something about that.
What if kids had their own screen? Better still, what of that screen could go with them anywhere? The question now was about priorities. Yes, you could give them a full colour, self-lit display. But did consumers really want a machine that required a rucksack to transport, weighed a ton and needed carrier bags full of batteries that lasted mere moments? Some companies thought so, but Nintendo knew better.
The Game Boy’s monochrome screen may have paled in comparison to the technology available but the pay-off was a truly portable machine that fitted in your pocket and lasted a decent amount of time between battery changes. The tech was perfect and all Nintendo wanted was a game that would sell the system. That game was Tetris.
Not only was Tetris fundamentally brilliant and not only did it have an incredible soundtrack, but it also offered an even broader appeal than plumbers chomping mushrooms. It was a very good thing that the Game Boy lasted so long on a single set of batteries as an increasing number of people were genuinely happy to spend their lives in search of that elusive 100,000 point rocket.
(1993) Doom – Oh, so games can be this can they?
By the early ‘90s the foundations of the traditional games industry as we know it were all in place. The next stage of the industry’s evolution would come not from new hardware, but from new ways of using the tools already in place.
Creators were planting the first seeds of what would become the first person shooter as far back as the early ‘70s and you could very comfortably argue that 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D was the pioneer of what would later go on to become the dominant genre in the Western games market, but really it was 1993’s Doom that changed the expectations of consumers and established a whole new wave of obsessive gamers.
Although it stuck true to Wolfenstein’s template, its expansion beyond flat levels to fully 3D worlds inspired a whole new generation. And there’s no escaping the fact that its ultra-violence also unearthed a new fan base that while not interested in plumbers and hedgehogs most definitely was interesting in shooting demons in the face.
Doom is also one of the earliest examples of as title whose rise to dominance was in no way harmed by a blanket media outcry. Its combination of gunplay and demonic imagery ushered in a whole new era of post-video nasty video game demonization – selling millions of additional games in the process.
(1996) Tomb Raider – We can visit other worlds
While Doom’s grit and gore appealed to a huge number of gamers, it was too strong for some, not least many younger players (or at least younger players who were not as adept at hiding their gaming from their parents). Far more acceptable than Doomguy and Satan was a young, beautiful, British female rebel aristocrat.
Lara Croft was part of a new PlayStation generation of gamers and for many presented their first taste of a fully believable, interactive digital world. And it certainly helped a great deal that was Lara identifiable to females and very pleasing on the eye to males.
She also coupled exploration and adventure to the now established gunplay and peril. The shooting mechanics were accessible enough for less experienced players but engaging enough for the seasoned, while Tomb Raider’s puzzles resonated with a very broad audience. And anyone who played the game will know the satisfaction of finally getting to that ledge you’ve been eying up for a couple of hours.
Lara went on to become a cultural icon in her own right, starring in Hollywood films, spawning a host of sequels and becoming a figurehead of successful British games design.
(2001) Grand Theft Auto III – Hang on, there are actually no limits?
None of which is to say that Ms Croft is Britain’s most successful gaming export. That title is well and truly claimed by perhaps the most acclaimed video game series of all time – Grand Theft Auto.
GTA had been around and generating media controversy since 1997, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the series attained a vital additional attribute – a third dimension. While GTA, GTA: London and GTA 2 were all great games in their own right, Rockstar completely redefined what video games were capable of achieving with its 3D magnum opus GTA III.
Doom created a 3D world before our eyes and Tomb Raider offered one that we could explore. GTA III for the first time created a 3D universe that was alive in its own right and begging to be lived in. Lara’s dinosaurs and wolves would be willingly frozen in time the moment you powered down your PSOne – the same was of course fundamentally true of GTA III but part of Rockstar’s genius was creating the illusion that Liberty City persisted and developed whether you chose to be there or not.
It’s wrong to say that GTA is successful because it’s ultra violent. It’s successful because it’s brilliant, with unrivalled attention to detail and unmatched possibilities. But there’s no denying that the violence helped. A lot. That guy with the silly hat who pissed you off? Run him over. Bat him to death. Shoot him. Take his cash. Then blow up a police car. Create a pile-up. Out run the cops. All these things are possible. As are practising an impossible jump on a motorbike. Idly watching the world go by. Catching a cab. Going shopping. Finding new places and constantly discovering new experiences. Thanks to its pioneering scope, GTA is what you make it and reflects the player more than any other title.
(2004) Halo 2 – So THAT’S why they invented the internet!
Halo had for years been the darling of a new breed of console gamers keen to assert their place alongside the established PC master race. But some incredible AI, novel sci-fi setting and appealing lore aside, Halo broke little in the way of new ground to close followers of the FPS genre. All of which changed with Halo 2.
Of course, PC types had been gathering for LAN parties and cleverly networking PCs for Unreal Tournament death matches for years – and even console gamers had in limited numbers been experiencing online functionality of various kinds – but for the first time with Halo 2 your average consumer was able to plug a telephone cable into the box under their TV and effortlessly find themselves playing against players from across the world.
While Bungie’s game modes and design were indeed fantastic, it was the genius through which its net code was structured and presented that made Halo 2 the revolutionary title it was. It was easy, it offered huge depth – but fundamentally it just worked. Just like the NES before it. Many may bemoan the death of the same-room split-screen multiplayer dream but millions more would prefer to celebrate the birth of effective online multiplayer.
(2009) Angry Birds – You don’t actually need a console
The traditional games industry had reached its commercial peak in 2008 – a height that has not yet, and possibly never will, be matched – but a new technology was waiting that would shake the industry to its very foundations. And the most amazing thing was that the technology that would change it all was already in the hands of millions of consumers.
Yes, we all played Snake but what awaited in the world of mobile gaming was altogether more disruptive. Of course smartphones were never going to rival dedicated handhelds in terms of traditional gaming. But then they didn’t have to.
Angry Birds didn’t only work without traditional controls, it worked BETTER without traditional controls. It was designed with the touchscreen in mind, not shoehorned awkwardly onto it. It was accessible, friendly, had recognisable characters and was decent in its own right. Ardent gamers got a kick out of it but your mum and your little sister wanted in on it too.
The revolution didn’t end there, though. Games had cost anything up to £50 (we remember paying £79.99 for Super Street Fighter II on the SNES) for over twenty years, sometimes for just a few hours play. Angry Birds offered just as much content for 59p (yes, iOS apps used to cost 59p). This wasn’t undercutting the opposition – it was obliterating it.
For the same price as a Mario title on DS or a racing game on PSP smartphone owners could access hundreds of hours of content across dozens of titles. And is if that weren’t enough, they didn’t even need to go to the shops to buy them – they could download them directly onto their devices, wherever they were, and all at a cost that would barely register on the bank statement.
(2009) League of Legends – I wasn’t wasting my life after all?
In the mean time, another revolution was quietly getting underway. Unbeknownst not only to non-gamers, but also to most avid gamers and even to the people who wrote about games, increasing numbers of users were flocking to a seemingly peculiar multiplayer game called League of Legends.
Developed by an unknown studio in California startup called Riot Games, League of Legends was not only a relatively new type of game – a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena title (MOBA) – but it was also delivered in a new way. In the same way as smartphone owners were slowly becoming accustomed to free content, Riot would unleash its behemoth on the world for free.
The game itself may seem impenetrable to even the most experienced gamer, but the numbers don’t lie. In 2011 Chinese form Tencent acquired a majority stake in Riot for an eye-watering $230m. The 2013 League of Legends World Championship offered a grand prize of $1m and attracted over 30m viewers worldwide. eSports, as it is now known, is even being broadcast on networks such as ESPN and the events themselves attract live audiences of thousands.
The winners of the recent Dota 2 International (a tournament based around Blizzard’s MOBA title) won $5m/£2.9m between them – that’s more than the winners of Wimbledon, the British Open or the Grand National.
(2009) Minecraft – David topples goliath
While League of Legends’ silent revolution was slowly piecing together a narrative of independent developer power that would not be told for another four years, there was one indie studio that would not go about things so quietly – even if it had no idea at the time.
Made by a then unknown Swedish coder by the name of Markus Persson, Minecraft was a tiny solo project released in alpha (meaning the game was playable but still in development) on PC to little fanfare. Word of mouth and the sheer simplistic appeal of its fantastic design meant that it had already hit 1m downloads before it entered beta. By the time the full release arrived sales had reached 16m.
A record-breaking release on Xbox 360 as well as roll-outs on iOS, Android and PS3 (as well as the upcoming next-gen consoles) followed. As of the most recent counts the smartphone Pocket Edition had sold 21m units and the PC version 15m – and combined 360/PS3 sales are now ahead of PC.
All of this was achieved without the development clout of EA, the marketing clout of Activision or the fan power of Nintendo. It was a guy with a great idea who was empowered by the internet to share (and sell) his idea directly to everyone. There was no chain – no manufacturer to put it on disc, no distributor to get it to retail and no shops displaying it on shelves (although of course it has gone on to become a mainstay in the UK boxed charts). From Persson directly to your kids – the traditional industry in its entirety was omitted.
And that’s the battle the industry faces today. Having laid claim to nearly 40 years of video games commerce, the sector is now in a brutal battle for relevance. Gaming is now back in the same hands in which it all began – the people who make games and the people who play them. How big a slice of the pie in between the increasingly dwindling number of remaining players can claim may be the preoccupance of big business, MCV and the thousands of others whose employment depends on it, but in reality that’s not what really matters. It’s only really about games and the people that play them – and that’s something that will live on forever.