Innovation is a word that gets tossed around a lot. Be it in the business world, technology, or elsewhere, it’s a word associated with new ideas and change.
And of course, innovation is no stranger to gaming. In fact, it’s the very element that makes games fresh and unique, giving us an opportunity to take part in a new experience or approach to an older, more familiar mechanic.
So what games can we consider innovators? With both nostalgia and iconic conventions, these are games with ideas and mechanics so unique and revolutionary that they not only changed or pioneered their respected genres, but also challenged our conceptions of gaming itself:
Without Pong, there would be no video games as we know them. Had the game never come along, you might be playing chess or reading a book right now instead of reading this. While we can discuss the greatest games of our generation endlessly, there is one truth that remains evident; for all its simplicity, Pong is truly the great-grandaddy of modern video games.
The yellow dot-muncher continues to be one of the most widely recognized and beloved video game personalities to this day. In fact, he was one of the very first actual characters to appear in a game, and was the first arcade game ported to consoles in gaming’s infancy. Who knew that running from ghosts and eating kid’s quarters in the 80’s would lead to such an acclaim?
Made by a Russian developer, the block-puzzle game Tetris has been touted as the first truly “casual” puzzle game. It was simple, it required little to no instruction to play, and it’s still just as addicting now as it was upon its release eons ago.
With bones piling up at the bottom of the screen and spines and hearts being ripped out of men’s chests, Mortal Kombat was a game that came under heavy fire upon its debut in the early 90’s. The fighting game spurred controversy as cardigan-clad moms clutched their pearls in fear and lawmakers pointed at the evils of violence in media. It’s true, Mortal Kombat was violent, and thanks to its edge and grit, we’ve seen violence ramp up in games ever since. It, alongside Doom, can be pointed to for pioneering graphic violence in a time when it simply wasn’t dealt with in gaming.
The adventures of Samus Aran in space as she hunted space pirates and aliens not only made her a beloved character in the Nintendo universe, but also changed how games view level design. Instead of sticking to a linear, left to right structure characteristic of so many other side-scrolling platformers, Metroid was built around the idea of exploratory gameplay. In this style of design, players start with a low skill set, exploring the world and adding more skills and abilities that unlocked more areas of the game. It required people to backtrack and memorize the area, feeling a bit like a maze. This style of design was eventually adopted by the likes of Castlevania and the more recent Shadow Complex.
Upon its release, the Wii became a sensation, promising a new and exciting way to play games through motion controls. With every purchase of a Wii came Wii Sports, a compilation of sports games that allowed for up to four people to join in on the likes of golf, bowling, boxing, tennis, and baseball. The controls were intuitive and simple enough for your grandma to join in, and influenced the likes of Sports Champoins and Kinect Sports when Sony and Microsoft attempted to capitalize on the motion gaming craze through the Move and the Kinect.
The original Bond shooter for the N64, GoldenEye was one of the first FPS to tackle split-screen multiplayer. With modes like Big Head and Paintball, weapon upgrades, and multiple gameplay maps, GoldenEye was the game that gave rise to multiplayer game design as we know it today.
Halo: Combat Evolved
In a time when the FPS felt tired and repetitive, in stepped the Master Chief and his sci-fi shooter Halo: Combat Evolved. Featuring a unique story, enemies, weapons, vehicles, and tight controls, Halo became a sensation, defining the Xbox and re-inventing multiplayer both locally and later on Xbox Live.
World of Warcraft
Upon its release, World of Warcraft became a cultural phenomenon, spawning debates about gaming addiction and even a South Park episode based on the subject. World of Warcraft certainly didn’t invent the MMO, but it did change it dramatically by showing what an MMO could be. It united players by creating guilds and alliances within the game, keeping players hooked by giving them a sense of belonging and realism in the game itself. It popularized the subscription-based MMO format, was the influence of about a trillion clones, and still dominates the MMO world to this day. It is even big enough that fans make the journey every year to meet up and share in their passion at BlizzCon every year.
Grand Theft Auto III
Despite all the controversy of the Grand Theft Auto series, they are truly one of the most unique and revolutionary franchises ever created.
But it’s GTA 3 that stands out among the rest. With its open world full of endless side missions, stories, minigames, and possibilities, GTA 3 was the game that defined the “sandbox” genre. Its open-ended style of gameplay is still very much alive and integrated into games in the same genre routinely.
Legend of Zelda
Next to Mario stands Link as one of the most widely-recognized characters in Nintendo’s roster. With his green tunic, pointy ears, and the Master sword, Link was the character who introduced us to the magic of Hyrule. It’s to his credit that we are able to experience the same magic and mystery of fantasy games even in our modern day.
Ambience, fog, eery soundtrack, and vulnerable gameplay made Silent Hill the game that very much proved Survival Horror was a viable genre in gaming. It was an unsettling game that leaves your hair raised long after you’ve played it, blurring the lines between reality and insanity and giving an overall helpless and panicked feeling that had not been found in horror games before.
With its roster of memorable characters, engaging storylines, and unique combat system, Final Fantasy was the game that truly inspired the RPG genre. Even in a pixilated form, the game was engrossing and immersive, allowing players to take part in a world completely unique and separate from reality. While fans will debate between the best Final Fantasy game for the rest of eternity, this much remains true; the game was revolutionary in its own right, and we have it to thank for inspiring the RPGs of today.
Feared for being “too violent” alongside Mortal Kombat in the early 90’s, Doom was also the PC game that started the online-multiplayer FPS craze that continues today. First through LAN parties and later over ancient dial-up connections, Doom allowed for gamers to play online in one session together, allowing gamers the opportunity to connect with their friends and shoot some guns.
While traversing the halls of Black Mesa as Gordon Freeman, Half-Life has become a sensation that changed how we see the FPS. Its gameplay mechanics were fairly standard, but it was the storytelling of Half-Life that made it unique. There were no cutscenes in Half-Life; instead, all of the story played out in real time, right in front of you. Events were scripted in, and the player was left with a type of immersion not experienced before in a game.
Textures, the visible hand grasping a gun unique to FPS, interchangeable weapons, and ammunition counts were all part of a long list of things Wolfenstein did to change the way we play first-person shooters. The conventions of Wolfenstein had not been encountered in a shooter before, and its influence continues to bleed into the FPS games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.
Street Fighter 2
Combos, power-ups, and iconic characters gave Street Fighter 2 the right to call itself the title that pioneered fighting games. Easy to play, but hard to master, the game gave equal chance to both strategists and button mashers. Plus, it was (and still is) a heck of a lot of fun, and its mechanics are found in nearly every fighting game on the market today.
Dungeon-crawling and killing monstrous enemies led to scoring in on crazy amounts of loot in Diablo 2. The gameplay was highly successful and addictive, and most games copying the game’s style after that were called Diablo clones. The idea even bled over into other genres as well, inspiring a strong loot system even in shooters like Borderlands.
Super Mario Brothers
Of all the beloved characters that exist in gaming, it’s undisputable that Mario is by far the most recognizable. Sporting his blue overalls, red hat, and thick mustache, the beloved plumber leapt to fame in Super Mario Brothers. While the game certainly wasn’t the first to include platforming elements, it was the one that popularized power-ups, extra lives, side-scrollers, and Mario himself. And on top of that, anyone who calls themselves gamer will be familiar with the game’s famous soundtrack.
Metal Gear Solid
Dropping dirty magazines and sneaking in for silent kills were among the many creative and intuitive conventions of stealth found in Metal Gear Solid. While it wasn’t necessarily the first game to incorporate stealth mechanics, its overall approach to sneaking made it a revolutionary title that has influenced games ever since. Add to that a twisted, confusing narrative, and Metal Gear Solid finds itself cemented as one of the most innovative stealth games in recent history.