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In Part One of our look at 50 years of video games, we saw how the experiments of engineers in the 1960s and 70s gave rise to the birth of gaming machines in arcade halls and at home. As computing technology slowly improved and prices came down, the platform of choice swung from consoles to cheap computers, then back to consoles.
These changes, however, came slowly – it took 20 years to evolve from a handful of dots and lines on the screen to a visual feast of colors, sprites, and vivid effects. The boxes that games were shipped in always boasted ultra-realistic graphics or claimed to be the best yet, but this never stopped developers from pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved with the available hardware.
Gameplay still trumped all, but that didn't prevent game makers from striving for the deepest sense of immersion and realism: 3D.
"The boxes that games were shipped in always boasted ultra-realistic graphics or claimed to be the best yet"
The chase begins
We begin this journey through the decades of video games by returning to the scene as it was 40 years ago. At this point in time, 8-bit home computers and gaming consoles were selling like hot cakes on a cold winter's day. However, the best games could still be found in arcade halls across the land.
Having enjoyed tremendous success with Asteroids in 1979, Atari sought to push the technology used in those games one step further. What set this title apart from the majority of games during that period was the use of vector graphics – images created by sequences of lines, rather than colored pixels (also known as raster graphics).
This required the use of specialized processors and monitors, but the sales of Asteroids clearly showed that there was potential for profit using this technology. And thus, Battlezone was born.
Released towards the end of 1980, this first-person tank 'simulator' was well received but not quite the commercial success Atari had hoped for. But for our journey, it's the perfect starting point, because it was the first commercial game to offer full 3D graphics, albeit in wireframe vector form.
Released towards the end of 1980, this first-person tank 'simulator' was well received, but not quite the commercial success Atari had hoped for. However, for our journey, it's the perfect starting point, because it was the first commercial game to offer full 3D graphics, albeit in wireframe vector form.
There were others before it, of course, such as Maze War (1973) and Spasim (1974), which rightly take credit for being the first-ever 3D games. But both were university projects, rather than games for the mass consumer.
Surprisingly, the first game to offer 3D graphics using rasterization didn't come from the engineers in Atari or Sega. This particular honor goes to two people, working with the ultra-affordable Sinclair ZX81 home computer. 3D Monster Maze (1981) might not seem remarkable by today's standards, but running away from a massive T-rex in a claustrophobic maze certainly had its own charm.
Progress in rendering technology meant that it wasn't long before rasterized triangles hit the scene, and once again, it was Atari leading the field. I, Robot (1984) was a commercial flop, due to its lackluster gameplay, but nothing else was showcasing solid, flat-shaded polygons at that time (and for some years afterward, too).
The best example of tech-over-content in this era was platformer-puzzler Alpha Waves (1990). Its fully rendered 3D world boasted environmental interaction and the use of clipping based on view depth (i.e., objects far away from the camera weren't drawn).
Game publishers venturing into the world of 3D were relatively few in number, as consumers were more interested in colorful 2D sprites, coupled with engaging gameplay.
The swansong of 16-bit
Let's fast forward to where we concluded Part 1 of our 50 Years of Video Games – Sega and Nintendo were battling head-to-head in the console market, with the former's Genesis/Mega Drive leading the fight against the latter's SNES, thanks to games such as Sonic the Hedgehog.
With millions of owners of both consoles worldwide, publishers were desperate to offer the next 'killer app', and in the world of fighting games, Midway took this almost literally with Mortal Kombat (1992). Praised and reviled in equal measures for its superb graphics and violent action, the console versions of the hit arcade game clearly demonstrated the audiences Sega and Nintendo were targeting.
The ports for both platforms were censored, replacing gore with sweat and tears, and significantly toning down the visceral finishing moves. However, while Sega allowed the use of a simple cheat code to restore the original effects, Nintendo's family-friendly approach resulted in a much firmer stance.
It didn't actually matter that the SNES version was superior in terms of graphics and audio – gamers wanted gore, and Sega delivered. Mortal Kombat's controversy and multi-million dollar marketing campaign resulted in over 6 million copies sold in less than a year.
In the early-to-mid 90s, Nintendo and Sega published games that sold in incredible numbers. On the SNES, just four titles eventually went on to move over 25 million copies combined. On the Genesis/Mega Drive, success was somewhat more muted, but Disney's Aladdin (1993) still reached 4 million, and numerous sports titles, as well as sequels to Sonic and Mortal Kombat, enjoyed six-figure sales.
Despite these numbers, both companies were fully aware of the changing landscape in the video game universe regarding graphics, and they recognized that the throne of 16-bit, 2D gaming was going to be challenged by a burgeoning upstart.
In 1993, Sega launched Virtua Fighter, the first commercial polygon-based fighting game in arcade form, and a fantastic fighting game in its own right. However, there wasn't a console on the market capable of doing a home version justice. To address this, Sega developed and eventually released the 32X add-on towards the end of 1994.
An unsightly design, the internals of the 32X provided a substantial boost to the Genesis/Mega Drive's rendering abilities, most notably with the handling of polygons. However, it failed to attract much attention from game publishers and ultimately proved to be a commercial flop.
Nintendo collaborated with staff from British developers Argonaut Software to design the Super FX co-processor, which was embedded into the relevant game cartridges – the first of which was Star Fox (1993). Its primitive 3D polygon graphics were a breakthrough for consoles, and the game was hugely popular.
But just like the 32X, the use of the Super FX chip was very limited (although the use of additional graphics-accelerating chips was relatively common in SNES cartridges). The company's focus remained heavily on 2D sprites for visuals, and the sales of titles like Final Fantasy VI (below), Donkey Kong Country (both 1994), and Chrono Trigger (1995) easily justified this decision.
These three games represented the pinnacle of the 16-bit era, not just for their graphic design, gameplay, and storytelling, but also for the sheer amount of work and development that went into creating these masterpieces.
In hindsight, they would also mark the rapid transition to a new paradigm.
32-bit and 3D slowly becomes the norm
In 1991, Electronic Arts founder William "Trip" Hawkins decided the time was ripe for another gaming and multimedia hardware manufacturer. Backed by technology giants LG, Panasonic, and AT&T, as well as media firms MCA and Time Warner, the 3DO Company was formed. Just two years later, in the fall of 1993, the snappily titled 3DO Interactive Multiplayer hit the shelves for an eye-watering $700.
What set this console apart from the rest, other than its excessive price, was the fact that games were shipped on CD-ROMs rather than cartridges. It sported a fully 32-bit RISC-based ARM60 main processor, along with a host of other custom chips.
Although it was no competitor to the old guard, it marked the first step into the next era of gaming. Atari followed next, one month later, with its first 32-bit platform called the Jaguar. Although marketed as a 64-bit machine due to its 64-bit blitter, it was actually a 32-bit system.
Despite having the best 3D capabilities of any console around, neither platform sold particularly well. The 3DO offering was far too expensive due to its licensed production model and very low game development license fees. On the other hand, the Jaguar was difficult to program for and play on, thanks to its awful controller design.
Gex (1995, 3DO) and Aliens vs Predator (1994, Jaguar) were good at demonstrating what the machines were capable of but did little to endear the consoles with gamers. The same was true of the Sega Saturn.
This 32-bit console appeared a year after the Jaguar but was hugely complex inside, sporting nine separate processing chips. Naturally, it was more expensive than the Atari platform, though far cheaper than the 3DO offering. Even though its game catalog offered a vast array of faithful Sega arcade ports, its botched launch and hardware focus on sprites, rather than polygons, made it a difficult console to love.
With consumers and developers still favoring the 16-bit world, the 3D market needed something different to really kick things along. Enter stage left, Sony with its PlayStation consoles, in 1994.
The story of how this machine came to be has been told many times over the years, but it wasn't its development or capabilities that made it special – it was Sony's approach to marketing and game publishing that stood out from the crowd.
Where Atari, Sega, and Nintendo expected children and late teens to play the games, they also expected someone else to foot the bills. With the PlayStation, Sony targeted a more mature audience, one that would pay for everything themselves. By targeting consumers who had grown up in the 8-bit era but were now financially independent adults, publishers were free to explore broader themes in games.
Success was somewhat slow to come, though, and didn't really take off until the PlayStation launched in America and Europe at the start of fall in 1995.
Early games, such as Ridge Racer, Wipeout (above), Air Combat, and Battle Arena Toshinden all demonstrated that 3D, polygon-based graphics were the future of gaming, even though the gameplay wasn't especially original or revolutionary.
But within a few years, polygons became the norm for graphics, and video games were changed forever.
The battle for 3D supremacy
As the 3DO, Jaguar, and Saturn consoles faded into the background, the PlayStation went from strength to strength. Between 1995 and 1998, the number of games released for the platform was reminiscent of the 8-bit home computer days – hundreds of titles poured onto shelves due to Sony's hands-off approach to publishing.
Naturally, this meant an awful lot of unmitigated dross was available to squander one's money on, but the best games were truly special.
Some of the most iconic titles and franchises were launched on this platform, and the list of the best titles reads like a Who's Who of video gaming. Fans of the beat-em-up/fighting genre were treated to absolute classics such as Tekken and Soul Blade.
Racing enthusiasts had Formula 1 and Gran Turismo for realism, and Twisted Metal and Destruction Derby for mindless fun. The world of action-adventure took a gigantic leap forward in stature, because of the landmark trio of Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Metal Gear Solid (below).
Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot became unofficial mascots for the platform, natural counterfoils to Nintendo's Mario and Sega's Sonic, and no list of 3D classics for the PlayStation would be complete without mentioning Final Fantasy VII.
But not everything on the PlayStation was a polygon-fest. Sony's console also played host to some brilliant 2D games, such as Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night, and Parappa the Rapper.
Nintendo's response to all of this came in the form of the Nintendo 64 console (aka the N64), released in mid-1996 in Japan and late September in America. Despite being the most affordable of all the current platforms, it packed serious horsepower under its hood, and initial sales were high – outside of its home country, at least.
Delays in developing the console and getting it to market meant that game developers didn't have much time to prepare, and in the US, the Nintendo 64 launched with just two titles – Pilotwings 64 and the seminal Super Mario 64 (above).
Both were outstanding showcases of what the machine could do, and the latter's design and gameplay elements would resonate through game development for years to come. However, the scarcity of games and late appearance on shelves meant that Sony's dominance would remain unchallenged.
Not that this stopped the N64 from sporting some of the 3D finest games around, at that time – Wave Race 64, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Goldeneye 007 (above), and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (below) demonstrated that developers for Nintendo's system were fully embracing the world of polygons.
While Nintendo and Sony were pitched head-to-head for sales, and raked in the money, Atari and Sega's fortunes slumped. The former ultimately merged with a hard drive manufacturer, before selling the name and all assets to Hasbro Interactive in 1998.
But one particular platform, lurking in the background for many years, was ready to take the 3D crown away from them all.
PC gaming comes of age
The IBM-compatible PC had been a decent gaming platform for many years already, but the average cost was far beyond most consoles and the struggle with managing settings and drivers meant that it was one for enthusiasts only.
However, garnish any computing device with a killer application, and sales will take off, helping to reduce overall prices in the long term. Atari, Nintendo, Sega, and Sony all had multiple games that helped sell millions of consoles. For the PC in the mid-1990s, it was an operating system.
The release of Microsoft's Windows 95 in the late summer of 1995, carried on the shoulders of promotions and advertising worth hundreds of millions of dollars, led to healthy sales of the software package. It also helped give the hardware industry a much-needed boost in unit sales (as did the next version of Windows).
While not without its issues, the new version of Windows was far more user-friendly than MS-DOS, particularly when it came to getting peripherals and software to run. That said, games of that time were still designed to run on the older operating system.
PC prices began to tumble, and households that had never really considered owning such a machine in the past were now proud owners of devices from the likes of Dell or Gateway. Not that these computers were any good at gaming, as to keep prices down, they typically came with a very basic 2D graphics accelerator.
But around that time, multiple new companies were coming out of the woods, all jumping on the 3D graphics bandwagon. The old guard of ATi and SiS were soon having to compete against fresh-faced upstarts like 3Dfx, Nvidia, and Rendition. Basic home computers could be turned into serious gaming systems simply by purchasing and installing a dedicated 3D graphics card.
And naturally, these had killer apps, too.
Where Doom (1993) and its multitude of clones generated faux-3D images, id Software's Quake (1996, below) was fully polygonal, albeit with muddy textures galore. It wasn't as big a hit as Doom was, though still sold very well. However, the most popular titles on the PC were still 2D in nature, such as Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, and Diablo.
But with the console crowd enjoying a surfeit of polygon pleasure, it wasn't long before the graphics card industry reached a point where an average PC owner could furnish their computer with hardware that was equal to, or better, than anything the giants from Japan were offering.
Top hits like Tomb Raider made their way over to the PC and with support from GPU vendors, provided a better-looking gaming experience (although the switch from gamepad to keyboard and mouse didn't always translate very well).
The true strength of the humble PC, as a gaming platform lay in its flexibility and the scope of game themes it could support, whether 2D or 3D. The best titles released in 1998 were a testament to both of these aspects – what more needs to be said about Half-Life, Grim Fandango, Thief: The Dark Project, Baldur's Gate, StarCraft, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six?
While none were truly original pieces in their respective categories, the design choices, graphics, and gameplay were all outstanding. All of these would shape the direction that future games would take and continue to do so today.
As the first decade of the millennium drew to a close, the PC also played host to the explosion in the next revolution in video games.
Video gaming goes truly global
Home consoles were multiplayer machines almost from the very start, though initially limited to 2 players. By the time the PlayStation was dominating the sales charts, this was still largely the case, although Nintendo's N64 sported four controller ports, and adapters could be purchased for other machines, such as Sega's 6Player for the Genesis/MegaDrive, to extend the number of concurrent players in games that supported their use.
Of course, everyone still needed to be in the same room, hunkered around the console and TV it was connected to. If you wanted to play against people who were, say, in another country, then things were somewhat trickier.
Some machines had basic Internet services, which usually required an add-in module, while Sega's Dreamcast (launched in 1998) included a modem in the package for almost every country where the product was released. This platform would ultimately be the company's final attempt in the hardware market before transitioning to software-only, but it marked the first serious attempt at providing an online service with access to servers running multiplayer games.
Even so, the number of players that games and servers could accommodate was still quite limited, with the majority only supporting four as a maximum. For a true online gaming experience, one had to be on a PC.
The likes of Quakeworld (1996) and Ultima Online (1997) were mere hors d'oeuvres to what was about to come, and 1999 was the year when the first serving of the main course arrived. Counter-Strike, Quake III Arena (above), and Unreal Tournament (below) each took hold of the multiplayer mantle and ran away with it.
Like so many titles we've covered, they weren't the first of their ilk, but they all set the bar so high that it would be years before anything could wrestle the crown back from them.
Multiplayer role-playing games had been online for years, though they always eschewed the latest trends in graphics technology. That was until Everquest hit the shelves in the same year as the Quake III Arena, et al. Published by Sony and Ubisoft, it was extraordinarily successful, collecting numerous awards and a healthy amount of monthly revenue, thanks to its subscription model.
Despite the popularity of these games, console manufacturers were rather slow to adapt to this explosion in online gaming. Six years after its first console hit the market, Sony unveiled the PlayStation 2 (PS2) in early 2000 – later in that same year for the American and European markets. Where Sega offered an online service in which they controlled and managed all the servers, Sony left such matters in the hands of game publishers.
Like other consoles of the time, getting connected to the Internet required the purchase of a separate adapter, though later revisions of the PS2 came with an Ethernet socket built into the machine. The same was true of Nintendo's next console entry, the GameCube (2001).
Both companies took the same approach when it came to handling online services, but where PS2 owners could choose from a wealth of games offering a decent multiplayer mode, Nintendo owners were left with just a smattering of titles in the Phantasy Star Online series.
Meanwhile, the PC was going from strength to strength, thanks to the sheer diversity of games being developed for that platform.
Scattered about, through the mass of genuinely excellent sequels to the likes of Diablo, Thief, Baldur's Gate, and Tribes, were gems such as Deus Ex (above), Sacrifice, No One Lives Forever, Black & White, and IL-2 Sturmovik.
Ever-popular The Sims also made its first appearance around this time, too.
The first console to truly embrace the demand for multiplayer, online gaming was a new contender – one that would help sweep away the remnants of the old guard, except for Nintendo, and eventually become Sony's long-standing rival in the gaming market. Concerned about Sony's rampant success with the PlayStation and PS2, Microsoft felt the need to enter the same market, fearing that the boom in sales of Windows-based PCs wouldn't last as more people might switch to the far-cheaper console.
And so the Xbox was born hitting shelves in November 2001. Essentially a custom PC in a small box, the machine still needed something special to stand out against the millions of other consoles already established in gamers' homes. The killer app came in the form of Halo: Combat Evolved and its acclaimed gameplay and design played no small part in the Xbox's healthy sales figures.
However, it took another year for the console to be ready for true online, multiplayer gaming. Despite having an Ethernet adapter already fitted, Microsoft didn't have any real Internet services ready for the console's launch, so players had to make do with setting up cumbersome LAN connections (though Halo did have a split-screen mode). But when Xbox Live went public in 2002, Xbox owners finally gained access to a unified system, providing server support for games that utilized the service.
This was a model that Nintendo and Sony would both eventually adopt, providing another revenue source in addition to console sales and game license fees. Meanwhile, in the world of PCs, online servers were, and still are, provided by publishers, and over the years, this would become increasingly frustrating for managers and accountants, who were all looking to pull in ever larger sums of gaming revenue.
As home Internet speeds grew and computing technologies became cheaper, smaller, and more powerful, they wouldn't have to wait long for new markets to appear.
In Part Three, we'll continue our exploration of how games and the way we played them changed and evolved throughout the formative years of the new millennium. New platforms, markets, and technologies all played crucial roles in the path our journey takes.