Sometimes, a game will arrive with a unique mechanic, boasting a never-before-seen feature that will change the way developers think about video games forever. Unfortunately, these individual innovations are not always enough to secure a long-lasting legacy. It could be that the mechanic is implemented more successfully elsewhere, that the pioneering game had simply too many flaws to be considered a classic, or just plain old bad luck.
These games, however, still deserve a place in video game history. After all, without the risks they have taken, gamers may have never played some of their favourite video gaming moments. Here is our rundown of five titles that made great steps forwards for the industry as a whole, but have since been dwarfed by the success of the games that have followed.
It’s hard to think of a time where platforming was not considered a staple part of any video game fanatic’s diet. However, every important genre has to have a starting point. For platforming, one of the largest strides in the genre came from Universal with its title Space Panic.
Space Panic was released in 1980, and brought in many of the early mechanics of the genre. Players had to climb up and down ladders, trapping invading aliens by digging holes and knocking them off-screen. The title is seen as one of the earliest instances of side-on gameplay, stepping away from the top-down view of many titles from the same era.
Space Panic was commercially unsuccessful, however, and it wasn’t long before the arcade world was engulfed by a much larger, hairier gaming giant. Nintendo released Donkey Kong just one year later, with one important change to the Space Panic formula: the ability to jump. It became a smash hit, and both hero Mario and antagonist Donkey Kong became instant video game royalty. Meanwhile, Space Panic has been largely forgotten.
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
The original Wizardry, released in 1981, has a huge part to play in game development. The title, created by Sir-Tech Software, helped create a huge number of highly recognisable RPG gaming elements. Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord was one of the first computer RPGs to use color graphics, and gave the player control over a party of six adventurers using turn-based combat to traverse a perilous dungeon.
It may sound familiar to any fans of turn-based RPGs, and for good reason: Wizardry helped create the Japanese RPG scene. Two Enix developers, Koichi Nakamura and Yuuji Horii, were highly impressed with Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, and were influenced by its menu-based gameplay to help create Dragon Quest. The original Wizardry also provided a framework for Final Fantasy.
Thankfully, Wizardry was in no way a failure. The game gained a huge number of fans and sold incredibly well, earning a number of sequels leading up to Wizardry 8 in 2001. However, the franchise’s success pales in comparison to that of its successors – both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy have become well-known global franchises, whilst Wizardry’s role in the development of the RPG genre has been left in gaming history.
The last console generation saw a boom in third person shooters, with cover-based combat becoming an essential gaming mechanic. Huge franchises grew out of this new gameplay style. Gears of War was the must-have Xbox 360 exclusive series, while Uncharted used cover-based gameplay in Nathan Drake’s adventures.
But while those titles help establish the mechanic, there was one game in particular that first explored it in earnest. Kill Switch, from Namco, was a third person shooter released in 2003 for the original Xbox, PS2 and PC. The title pushed the significance of using strategic cover in gameplay, and introduced blind fire to a player’s repertoire. Unfortunately for Namco, the title received mediocre reviews and sales upon release, with complaints that Kill Switch was too reliant on its core mechanic.
Kill Switch left a legacy far beyond its initial release, however, as the game turned out to be incredibly influential amongst developers. Namco’s title provided a springboard for the likes of Cliff Bleszinski from Epic Games. Bleszinski was incredibly impressed with Kill Switch’s new gameplay mechanics, calling them a “breath of fresh air” and admitting their impact on Gears of War’s development. Epic even hired Kill Switch designer Chris Esaki to help with the cover system, resulting in the launch of one of the most successful IPs of the last generation.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
One of the best games in the Ultima RPG franchise is Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. The game was a huge critical hit upon its release in 1992, winning multiple awards and gaining plenty of plaudits from the gaming community. Unfortunately, the game did not sell quite as well, although The Stygian Abyss did become a sleeper sales hit.
The title’s legacy goes far beyond its sales and initial critical acclaim, however. With The Stygian Abyss, Blue Sky Productions created a game that was well ahead of its time, and used a number of features that are still part of video game development today. The title included a physics engine that allowed players to bounce objects, and even weapon deterioration. Blue Sky Productions also included a dynamic music system – the first for a first-person game.
Most importantly, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was a real game-changer for 3D development. It is cited as being the first 3D first-person RPG, and has influenced many heavy-hitters from video game history, including the likes of Deus Ex, Bioshock and The Elder Scrolls: Arena.
Id Software was also influenced by The Stygian Abyss. Purportedly, John Carmack saw a build of the title at a 1990 software convention and was inspired to build a faster texture mapper for Doom precursor Catacomb 3-D.
Jurassic Park: Trespasser
Not all pioneering video games have a positive immediate impact, however, and some have truly infamous beginnings. One of these cases is 1998’s Jurassic Park: Trespasser. The game was released to universal scorn, and was even dubbed the worst game of the year by some critics. The game was not only a critical flop, but a commercial one as well, only selling 50,000 copies with players instead wowed by Valve’s Half Life.
The Jurassic Park title, although a failure, had a number of truly innovative elements, boasting open 3D environments, regenerating health, enemy movements based solely on AI instead of pre-animated sequences, and ragdoll physics. Unfortunately, due to the rushed nature of the game’s development and executive interference, the innovations were flawed in many ways. The AI routines were full of system bugs, while the control scheme, where the user could control player-character Anna’s arm independently, resulted in clumsy and unpredictable gameplay.
Dreamworks Interactive’s shooter has managed to find a lasting legacy in the industry, however. One of the more ignoble ideas to last is the aforementioned arm mechanic, which has influenced the control schemes of Surgeon Simulator and Octodad. On a more positive note, Gabe Newell has cited Trespasser as an influence for Half Life 2’s physics engine, while Crytek was inspired by the game’s open nature when creating the original Far Cry. Jurassic Park: Trespasser may have been a resounding failure, but its individual parts have gone on to become important parts of the video game world.
What do you make of our list? Do you think these games deserve to have their advances recognised? Or are the games that followed with a better reception more worthy of our time? Let us know in the comments below.