In defining the many different genres of the videogame industry with our handy genres chart, it became clear that there were some games that changed the way that we think about games. Some of these games made so many innovations and creative leaps in gameplay that they spawned imitators to the point where a whole new category was created. Other games built on the foundation laid by a specific title, and improved it to the point where it became a massive critical and commercial success. These games may not be the first of their kind, but without their influence many similar games would never have been made.
The Escapist brings you a list of games which defined a genre. We’re talking about the genres that are impossible to discuss without mentioning the title that made it all possible. Where there was a clear originator that didn’t necessarily find commercial success, or isn’t usually categorized correctly, we made sure that those games received their due respect.
Enjoy! And make sure to tell us your opinions on what games defined their genres in the comments.
First Released: 1984
Platform: IBM PCjr., Apple II
When the personal computer began appearing in people’s homes, many people were excited at the prospect of using moving graphics to play a game like Pong. But a subset of people were impressed with the possibilities of not only flashing lights and moving sprites, but telling real stories using the communicative ability of a computer. Adventure games expressed only in words were among the most popular uses of early computers, with the Colossal Cave Adventure written in 1975 being the first multi-user dungeons (MUD) that captivated gamers by allowing a multiplayer D&D-like experience. To play these games, you’d type commands such as “Take stick” or “Move north” and then the game would respond. Later, static images accompanied the text, but these held scant detail and did little more than set the scene.
Until King’s Quest. Written by Roberta Williams and programmed by a team of 6 programmers at a cost of almost $700,000 (unheard of in the early days of videogame development), the story of King Graham was the first game that animated the main character on the screen interacting with objects. Using the keyboard to provide direction, Graham walked across the screen, picked up items, and opened doors, all in simulated 3D. You solved puzzles by exploring the land, meeting people, and finding items. King’s Quest was the first of its kind and spawned a huge number of Sierra titles like Space Quest, Police Quest and Gold Rush. Sierra games were the basis of all digital adventures to follow, from Myst to Monkey Island and Sam and Max.
First Released: 1979
Four MIT students wrote Zork and later formed the leading text adventure game developer Infocom in 1980. Zork was presented purely with evocative text descriptions of the Great Underground Empire as you collected items to solve puzzles and advance further in the story. The tongue-in-cheek humor of Zork was the basis for many adventure games and solving the many item-based puzzles allowed you to adventure further in its vibrant world. Just watch out if your torch ceases to burn, you are likely to be eaten by a grue.
Street Fighter II
First Released: 1991
1987’s Street Fighter laid much of the groundwork for one of gaming’s great series, but it was a rookie pugilist in every way. There was one playable character – two if you counted the blond pallet-swapped fighter Player 2 controlled in the Versus mode – there were three special moves in the entire game, and there was a single button for punch and a single button for kick. Four years later, Capcom built on those meager foundations to create a legend its second time around. Street Fighter II featured a list of colorful characters from around the globe, each with their own set of moves and techniques to be learned. There was a fighter for everyone, whether it was Brazilian beastman Blanka, Chinese cop Chun-Li or the now-iconic duo of Ryu and Ken, returning from the original Street Fighter and now (slightly) more than pallet-swaps.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the conventions set by Street Fighter II and its various incarnations still define the fighting genre: Whether it’s something so simple as health bars at the top of the screen or best-of-three matches, or more advanced things like combo strings, super attacks and mix-up mindgames. What’s even more impressive is that the game has stood the test of time, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo is still a mainstay of tournaments around the world. Without SF2, the gaming scene would be devoid of fireballs and dragon punches – and what a bleak world that would be.
Genre: Grand Strategy
First Released: 1991
Developer: Sid Meier
Games are about struggles, conflict and resolution. In addition to entertainment, they are mental exercise, preparing us for dealing with the complexities of life. It should be no surprise then to learn that the earliest games were wargames, simulating the experience of armed conflict in a controlled environment, allowing participants to learn form their mistakes and hopefully not repeat them when it really mattered.
Wargames existed in many forms for centuries before the invention of the computer. Even as late as the 20th century, the best and most complex wargames were still being played on a table, with metal figurines, dice and massive rulebooks. The invention of the home persona computer raised the question of what would happen if a player couldn’t see his opponent, couldn’t observe the other side of the board and had no idea what the enemy was thinking …
Games like Empire began to answer this question by putting the control of massive armies of men and machines into the hands of players and obscuring the world around them with a “fog of war” that only lifted when explored. But these early strategy games, while massively complex and engaging, were two-dimensional affairs. One fought because, well, that’s what one did when one had a virtual army. What else would you do?
Civilization roundly answered that question and many more besides. In “Civ” and its many sequels and expansions, players not only wage war when necessary, but peace when they desire. They not only control armies, but create them. They not only destroy – they build. You can play Civilization by amassing a powerful force of combat machinery and decimating your opponents, or you can kill them with kindness by leveraging the culture of your civilization against them. Or you can become the most technologically advanced civilization in the game and blast off to Alpha Centauri, leaving the world and its problems behind. Even though Civilization is an abstraction of the whole of human history, it forms the basis for all grand strategy games that focus on specific eras of history like Europa Universalis and Rome: Total War.
First Released: 2005
Platform: PlayStation 2
Music-based games had been around for years before Guitar Hero came along. Fundamentally, it did nothing new. Music played along with animations on the player’s television and the “game” consisted of an interface whereby the player could perform action in time with the music. Simple. Dancing and Karaoke games had been doing this for some time. But Guitar Hero introduced a subtle shift in this dynamic. So subtle, many failed to recognize it at the time for the brilliant development it represented, and many are struggling with how to recreate that shift even today.
On the surface, Guitar Hero seemed to be little more than a dancing game with a plastic guitar. You held the guitar while the music played. Simple. Yet not. Because the one thing Guitar Hero accomplished that no dancing game had ever achieved was to make the gamer an accomplice in the creation of the music.
Pressing the guitar controller’s buttons in time with the music accomplished no more and no less than allowing the music to continue to play. The player didn’t write the music, nor, really, create it, but by holding the guitar, manipulating it in time with the audible and visible game cues, he felt like he was making music. He felt like a guitar hero. That experiential thrill was unlike anything that had come before, and that fundamental innovation led to the plethora of music games that mimicked it with different peripherals like Rock Band and DJ Hero.
Originator: Dance Aerobics
First Released: 1987 (Japan)
Platform: NES (Power Pad)
The first music rhythm game wasn’t Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution or even Parappa the Rapper. It was a game developed for Nintendo’s Power Pad peripheral called Dance Aerobics. The Power Pad was a flat piece of plastic that you laid on the floor like a game of Twister, and Dance Aerobics had you hit the correct parts in time with the music. If you got the moves wrong too many times, the game ended. Sound familiar? It’s odd that this genre didn’t really catch on with the masses until over a decade after Dance Aerobics, but it was this gem that inspired all the Hero and Band games that have come since.
Super Mario Bros.
First Released: 1985
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Games like Pitfall!, the Commodore 64’s Impossible Mission, and even Donkey Kong all featured a character who could jump to avoid enemies and obstacles, but it wasn’t until Super Mario Bros. in 1985 that we had the amazing success of a platforming game that featured smooth-scrolling from left to right instead of all of the action occurring on one screen or board. The concept of several different “worlds” or levels, each with their own character and flavor, all started with Super Mario Bros.
That’s the reason that Super Mario Bros. sold over 40 million copies and fueled the launch of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Shigeru Miyamoto, who would go on to design The Legend of Zelda and Star Fox, credits the widespread audience of his Super Mario Bros. to the simple “start screen.” In a quick animation, you see Mario jump and land on an enemy goomba, crushing him forever. That’s all you need to know. Couple the easy-to-grasp gameplay with wonderful music, art and high production values for the era, and it’s no wonder that Super Mario Bros. is the basis of all action platforming games that came after it. For millions of people, and hundreds of imitators, games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot and Little Big Planet, hearing the opening bars of the Super Mario Bros. theme music means platforming, and videogames in general.
First Released: 1984 (Russia)
Platform: IBM PC
Developer: Alexey Pajitnov
There were puzzle games before Tetris and puzzle games after Tetris but none of them defined what makes a puzzle videogame tick more than those falling tetrominos. Released in Soviet Russia in 1984 and played on PCs, Tetris didn’t officially make it to the United States until 1989 when it was bundled with the Nintendo Gameboy. It may have been the title that sold 100 million handhelds, as Tetris appealed to all players: boys, girls, men, women, even dogs. Tetris is gameplay distilled to its very essence. There is no character or semblance of story. There is hardly a tutorial. When the game starts, the blocks just appear, and you have to put them somewhere.
In The Escapist Magazine, Robert Buerkle places Tetris in the pantheon of great works of 20th Century art alongside Citizen Kane and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World because of its pure “videogamic” quality. The need to put the different shapes in the right place, creating order from chaos, has been shown to help soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome and mother’s dealing with post-holiday shopping rages. Tetris is pure videogame, and without it, there would be no Dr. Mario, Bejeweled, or even Window’s Minesweeper. The popularity of all so-called casual games can all be traced back to Tetris.
Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
First Released: 1992
Developer: Westwood Studios
For many RTS fans, this is the game that started it all. It was certainly the game that first proved what could be done with the genre. Looking back at the game, it’s amazing how firmly Dune II set the model for the entire genre. To begin with, it used a mouse to control units. It sounds bizarre to list that as an innovation, but back in 1992, it was positively revolutionary.
Moreover, it set the pattern for resource collection and base building that we still use today. In fact, the Harvesters of Dune II became part of the vocabulary of resource collection from then on. Throw in tech trees, three factions who each had different types of units and structures, and a minimap with fog of war, and you’ve got all the ingredients that RTS designers have been using for the last twenty years, from Westwood’s own follow-up Command & Conquer to Blizzard’s recent StarCraft 2. Other titles have taken what Dune II did and done it better, but no title in the entire history of the genre has done as much to establish the overall blueprint.
Originator: Herzog Zwei
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
First Released: 1990
Platform: Sega Genesis
It’s a shame more people today don’t know about this early Sega Genesis classic. In fact, it’s a shame that more people didn’t know about it when it was released way back in 1990. Herzog Zwei was not what you would call a commercial success, but it’s fondly remembered by those who played it as the first serious evolution towards real-time strategy. Players controlled a transforming mech, flying around the battlefield, buying and transporting units, fighting against enemy forces, and trying to capture enemy installations. The basic format of the game was very simple, but the possibilities were tremendous.
Genre: Role-Playing Game
First Released: 1980
Platform: Apple II
Developer: Richard Garriott (Origin Systems)
Many early programmers were also tabletop role-playing grognards. The first attempts at reproducing Dungeons & Dragons on a computer were probably the MUDs of the mid-seventies, but it wasn’t until Richard Garriott wrote Ultima that a commercially available game added mechanics like hit points, attribute statistics and race choices. Different from adventure games of the time, the player-controlled character in Ultima could be whatever the player wanted. An elf wizard, a human fighter or a Bobbit (Hobbit) thief were all possibilities.
The game also featured many of the conventions that we now take for granted in RPGs. The game world was separated into a wilderness map, which was peppered with towns and dungeons. Enemies and monsters were randomly generated. Spells and magic, as well as better arms and armor, were bought in towns using the gold found adventuring. Quests involved going to specific dungeons and killing a specific creature. While Ultima wasn’t a true presentation of the tabletop experience, it proved that a fun computer game could be derived from the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. In the 80s, Ultima meant RPG and Garriott’s series laid the groundwork for the “Gold Box” D&D games like Pool of Radiance, BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate and even Dragon Age as well as the entire MMO market.
John Madden Football
First Released: 1988
Platform: Apple II, Commodore 64
Developer: EA, John Madden
Many games tried to emulate the action of common sports like soccer, tennis and baseball. In 1988, Trip Hawkins from Electronic Arts wanted to create a game based on American football that accurately simulated what a real football game is like. Following in the footsteps of Earl Weaver Baseball, EA contacted John Madden, former coach of the Los Angeles Raiders and a popular commentator for the sport, to contribute his expertise to the development of the game. The early PC versions were limited by the technical capabilities of the time, and Madden’s insistence on each team having 11 players, but when the game was ported to the Sega Genesis in 1991, the series took off. An update was released the following year with more features and teams, which began the now common practice of annual sports game updates. After knocking off a few competitors like Joe Montana Football and acquiring the NFL license in 1994, Madden was soon the most recognizable name in sports gaming and led to the creation of a separate EA Sports brand.
What Madden did that no other sports videogame did well was to meld accurate simulation with the action of the game itself. To excel at Madden, you not only have to be able to juke and shake tacklers, but you have to know the right play to call in a given situation. Nowadays, it’s a common feature for each team or player to feel as close to their real-world counterpart as possible, but that wasn’t standard until Madden. Without Madden, we’d have no FIFA, no Mario Strikers and maybe even no NBA Jam. And that would be a sad world.
First Released: 1972
We wouldn’t have any videogames without Pong, let alone any sports games. Assigned as an exercise to Allan Alcorn, Atari was so impressed with Pong‘s recreation of table tennis physics that they started producing and selling cabinets across the country. For many, Pong was a proof of concept for what was possible for videogames. It was also a simple game that all ages of consumers could understand, which is a tenet of sports games even today with titles like Wii Sports. The widespread success of the game planted the seeds for the nascent videogame industry as a whole, while also inspiring the development of sports videogames for years to come.
First Released: 1993
Developer: id Software
For the first few decades of its existence, the television was a one-way device. Images were beamed into the box from somewhere far away. You could no sooner interact with them than you could change the channel without getting up from your chair. We scoff at the earliest videogames (Pong, Spacewar!) because of their limited interface and simple graphics, but simply by turning the dynamic of the one-way box on its head, these games were magical.
For years afterward, videogames built on that magic, creating more and more interesting interactive experiences – Space Invaders, Pac-Man – each an improvement on the genre, but all offering the same kind of experience: interactive control of an “other” a device on the screen controlled by the human hand.
Doom took the next step. Games like Battlezone and the Star Wars arcade cabinet had already cracked the fourth wall by moving the focus of player interaction from outside of an on-screen machine to the inside of its cockpit, but Doom shattered the wall entirely; Doom put you inside a person’s head.
Doom introduced videogamers to the concept of immersion, a heretofore unprecedented level of interaction with a digital device. Playing Doom, a player did not move a tiny space marine around on the screen, the player was the space marine, opening a whole new door for interactivity and setting the stage for how games would be played for decades to come. Doom wasn’t the originator of the first-person shooter, but its immense commercial and critical success laid the groundwork for the millions of Call of Duty‘s and Medal of Honor‘s sold.
First Released: 1980
Sure, it doesn’t have a mouse, and, sure, it uses a freaking periscope, but Battlezone is still the air-breathing, granddaddy mudfish in the evolutionary line of the first person shooter genre. This 1980 arcade classic gave players simple 3D vector graphics and a turret you could only move by steering your tank left or right, but it was still one of the first games that really gave you in that “you are there” perspective in a field full of enemies. It looks positively primitive by today’s standards, but Battlezone is the game that started it all.
Genre: Survival Horror
First Released: 1996
You’re not alone in a mansion on a dark and stormy night. Something is with you, lurking in the shadows, waiting for its chance to reach out and grab you. It’s a scenario common to many a nightmare, and the backbone of Capcom’s Resident Evil, the game that would go on to define the survival horror genre.
There’s more going on, of course – Umbrella Corporation’s evil experiments, a horde of hungry undead, and more than a few doors that need a good unlocking – but Resident Evil‘s lasting appeal lies in its ability to tap into that most basic of human fears: ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. Resident Evil tapped into the power of the PlayStation to bring a create a cinematic horror experience, using many of the same tricks and cues that movies had been using to scare audiences for decades.
Even though Capcom focused more on sudden scares designed to send your pulse racing rather than creating an atmosphere of dread, Resident Evil was the first game an entire generation of gamers found genuinly frightening. Capcom increased the tension with Resident Evil‘s save system that relied on a limited number of typewriter ribbons scattered throughout the game; running out of ribbons was as much of a threat as whatever might be waiting just past the next safe room. The mechanics of Resident Evil, as well as the chilling atmosphere, spawned a vibrant series of games and movies. Without Resident Evil, there would be no F.E.A.R., Left 4 Dead, or even Dead Rising.
Originator: Alone in the Dark
Genre: Survival Horror
First Released: 1992
Starting with no weapons in the attic of an extremely haunted house, Edward Carnby had to fight like hell just to get out. That’s the simple premise of Infogrames’ 1992 classic, Alone in the Dark. While some could rightly argue it trod the same territory as Famicom’s Sweet Home, Alone in the Dark‘s use of polygons really qualifies it as the originator of Survival Horror as we know it today. The combination of suspense, puzzles, and insanely scary encounters has been done better since, but Alone in the Dark was first.
X-COM: UFO Defense
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
First Released: 1994
Developer: MicroProse Software
It may be 16-years-old, but tactical turn-based combat doesn’t get any better than this. Originally published by Microprose, X-COM: UFO Defense (originally known as UFO: Enemy Unknown) placed players as the commander of a worldwide military/science organization tasked with defeating an alien invasion. The game took place in two perspectives. At the global level, players were tasked with establishing and maintaining bases around the world to track and intercept alien ships flying in the atmosphere. The player had to manage supplies, facilities and personnel, and there was never enough money or time to do everything you needed to do.
Things became even more intense in the turn-based tactical battles, where the player sent in squads of troopers, armed with the latest technology scavenged or reverse-engineered from the aliens, to battle it out with the aliens on the ground. Battles took place amid the crashed ruins of alien ships, or in the midst of crowded cities where the aliens were spreading terror. The game used multiple levels and full on environmental destruction – firefights around gas stations were particularly deadly – to make each space as interesting as possible, while the turn-based, action-point nature of the combat made for many a tense round.