Charlie Brooker’s Videogames that Changed the World aired last weekend on Channel 4 – a two-hour exploration of 25 of the most groundbreaking and revolutionary titles in the medium’s history – and is still available on 4OD.
It comes thoroughly recommended; whilst there isn’t a whole host of “new” information – depending on your level of expertise and interest – there are witty insights from various commentators, such as comedians/entertainers (including Dara O’Briain and Jonathan Ross), industry experts (writers from IGN and national newspapers) and game creators themselves. It adds up to a sharp, interesting take on the history of gaming, with the big contenders of course covered, and with its only real problem being that each game isn’t given enough time to delve into real details.
A combination of this and the fact that – like any list – there were notable absentees (not a criticism incidentally, simply another unfortunate limitation) means that there’s plenty of scope to expand on Brooker’s choices here. Some of the ten below might have been mentioned by Brooker (most weren’t) but none managed to squeeze themselves in between the simplistic Pong (1972) or the box-set comparison The Last of Us (2013) which chronologically-speaking were the bookends of his selections.
The following ten are included in this list, however, because of two reasons: (1) their lasting impact on gaming, and (2) well… personal (often childhood) cherishment. I hope that with the likes of Rick Dangerous, Crash Bandicoot, Goldeneye, Gran Turismo, Theme Park, Worms and FIFA all missing out, you’re made aware of just how difficult this process was. And so we begin, like Charlie Brooker’s effort, from the distant past to the almost-present…
Streets of Rage (1991)
Our opener seems to go hand-in-hand with Golden Axe for a side-scrolling battle-adventure game which captured the attention and imagination of audiences at the time, and still lives long in nostalgia-land of those affected even now.
Basic games indeed, but both SOR and Golden Axe had inventive levels with traps such as pitfalls and fire, an array of enemies with various skillsets, a number of weapons available for the player and some brilliant boss battles.
Lasting Legacy: Retro Play
Whilst hardly alone in these ideas, there’s something charming and easygoing that has resulted in these games – alongside many others – being available through emulators, downloads and in-store purchases even on the most advanced systems. They’ve lived long in the mind of not only players, but surely developers too.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994)
Brooker had to focus on either Mario or Sonic for his list (and chose wrongly, obviously) to explore the platformer revolution, though I’m surprised that more wasn’t made of the massive rivalry and effect it would have on gaming long-term.
There’s no doubt that Mario adapts to change better – see Mario Kart and others, of course – but Sonic was the better platformer by Miles (extra life if you understand that geeky reference).
Mario was for any and all-comers, whereas Sonic represents a shift in pace, complexity and improvements in the level design.
The first two are great games, but the series move up a gear with Sonic 3 & Knuckles – originally intended for release as a single game – but instead functioned (due to time and space issues) as two separate games, one inside the other (honestly).
Lasting Legacy: Expansion packs
Effectively, it was one of the very first expansion packs, which The Sims exploited and nowadays most next-gen releases make heavy use of. It also heralded the arrival of Tails as a second playable character which was a great innovation. Talk about (unexpected) legacies…
International Track & Field (1996)
Brooker’s show almost covered the button-basher with Street Fighter II, but ended up cleverly inverting expectations by instead highlighting the capacity for intelligent and quick-thinking moves and counter-moves.
International Track & Field had just 11 of the most popular athletic events – a variety of races, jumps and throws – though further games have since extended this into more challenging environments such as diving, weightlifting and shooting, putting an increased amount of reliance on technique, skill and timing.
The original remains King and conqueror of friendships everywhere though, with many vying to be the elite athlete via intense finger-hammering.
Lasting Legacy: Team Sports
International Track & Field and others have paved the way for Wii Sports and similar family-friendly multiplayer games through simple but compelling gameplay, bringing sports (and exercise!) indoors into the living room.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Ah Final Fantasy VII, my friend. The series had actually been alive for ten years by the time the seventh game was released, although nobody really cares about the first six (sorry, but it’s true).
Final Fantasy VII, however, is another story altogether… and is a contender for the greatest game of all-time. The names of Cloud Strife and particularly antagonist Sephiroth will linger long in the memory of a fanbase that was devastated in every way with this game-changer (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Lasting Legacy: Console Wars
It’s difficult to narrow it down to one thing, because everything about it was pushing boundaries: it’s a tale spanning four discs that has typically Japanese, Ghibli-esque themes of revenge, power and nature. The strategy and additional components of the turn-based fighting system was innovative, as was the world map and free roaming capabilities, the characters and cut-scenes, the mini-games and the wonderful visuals. Just all of it, really.
But what Final Fantasy, plus the game to follow below, and others did (as we’ve already noted from Sonic vs. Mario on previous console-war incarnations) is to really enforce and heighten the importance of exclusivity of titles in the console wars, where one game could make all the difference for the consumer.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Speaking of genius, here’s another massive milestone for gaming – in the following year, no less – with the arrival of the astoundingly impressive Metal Gear Solid franchise, which has – for my money – three of the best games ever made in the first, third and fourth installments.
The plot is wonderfully complex, full of marvellous characters – including the legendary Solid Snake – and is one of the most unbelievable, heartbreaking yet richly rewarding experiences of this or any other console.
The excellent stealth-focused gameplay (which incorporated an increasing amount of action if you so wished as the games developed over the years) is often forgotten because of its USP: the cinematic narrative, and lengthy, often off-putting, cut-scenes.
Lasting Legacy: Cinematic Gameplay
Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Wreck-it Ralph delightfully nod to games as films, but MGS has long been doing the opposite,inducing a film-like experience from gamers, and inspiring modern-day narrative-heavy hits such as Heavy Rain, LA Noire and The Last of Us.
Age of Empires II (1999)
Age of Empires II is another of those real-time strategy games which got just about everything right, leading to an enviable state of perfect playability and addictiveness.
Another up-until-early-hours vehicle which was a complete joy to play with your friends (this time, online – in separate rooms!), Age of Empires II rightly sped up the pace of the game from the original without making it too frantic.
Choose your people – Goths, Turks, Celts, whatever – each with their own specialties, strengths and weaknesses, and get to building, farming and creating your army to help you control the kingdom.
A totally fascinating game of exploration, history, tactics and war – completely loveable.
Lasting Legacy: Online Play
Again, not the first to incorporate such an element into its play, but certainly one of the early big-hitters to do so. Age of Empires II was a prolonged success, especially amongst online players, leading to The Sims, World of Warcraft, Minecraft and more.
Pokemon Red & Pokemon Blue (1999)
Of course we’re talking about the sublime originals here, Red, Blue and/or Yellow, depending on your Pokemon of choice (Scyther or Pinsir? The original three or Pikachu?, etc.).
The game, like many of the others on this list, was part-simulation, but also involved strategy and adventure. It comprised of Pokemon battles, training up your chosen warriors, trainer showdowns, explorations of towns and mini-quests.
Even the Elite Four wasn’t the end, for you could continue to free roam despite being the master of the world (well, one small town) if you so decided. And, though choice was the aim of the game, everybody should know that the correct decisions were Bulbasaur (starting Pokemon), Jolteon (Eevee’s evolved state) and Articuno (favourite legendary bird). That’s just obvious.
Lasting Legacy: Society
Um, hello? Pokemon’s half-Murdoch, half-Disney stranglehold on society started with the harmless games before the trend-cum-cult expanded in the form of trading cards, a fabulous TV show (complete with angsty hero, Ash) and an enormous amount of cuddly toys, thereby forever consuming consumers and their kids.
Championship Manager 01/02 (2001)
Now known as Football Manager, CM 01/02 is the epitome of the CM/FM series, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest simulation games of all-time.
It’s a special skill to draw players into a world where text is all there is (as it was pre-3D engines for football games) but Championship Manager did just that.
I have fond memories of staying up until 5am, 6am and 7am over Summer holidays to wake up the following afternoon, with a hangover of rage, elation and regret over the previous night’s decisions.
I can even still remember many of my all-conquering Blackburn team (who started with Damien Duff at that time); Cristian Chivu, Brett Emerton, Mark Kerr, Stephane Dalmat, Kim Kallstrom, Fausto Rossini and more!
Lasting Legacy: Data & Detail
CM 01/02 turned a generation of teenagers into wilful drones with a insanely-big database, which in turn has led to even more developed, detailed and data-filled games in every genre, not merely simulation.
I’m surprised that LittleBigPlanet didn’t make an even bigger splash than it did in the gaming world. An initial hit, it seems to have been semi-forgotten in the last couple of years, with the sequel not taking significant steps forward from the original.
LBP though was a wonderful blend of an old-school platformer with loveable and custom-made characters, brilliant multiplayer modes, interactive and user-created environments, and voiceover from a certain Stephen Fry (with Portal following this lead by employing Stephen Merchant to do the same for their game).
Lasting Legacy: Customisation
LBP was primarily a revolution in terms of the ability to create, innovate and share online – and it will no doubt have a significant long-term impact on the wider industry in the years still to come.
LA Noire (2011)
Out last entry, and the most modern game on our list, comes in the form of LA Noire. Unsurprisingly it’s heavily noir-inflected throughout, from the colour scheme (and option to play in black and white) to the themes, from the music to the outfits, and through constant references to renowned films such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (always a bonus in my book).
Lasting Legacy: Motion Capture
LA Noire is largely known for its motion-capture advancements which has since been replicated by the Heavy Rain creators for their newest outing, Beyond Two Souls (starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe).
This case of boundaries blurring between games and films was essential to the plot – as players needed to judge facial expressions in LA Noire to decipher the truth – and has also been recognised by the Tribeca Film Festival, as the first ever videogame to screen there.
And if that’s not an excellent way to end the list by mulling over the things to come from gaming in the wake of advanced and enhanced technology, as well as its potential crossovers with other artforms such as film, then I don’t know what is.