There was a methodology by which you were supposed to generate that list. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. You were not supposed to spend a lot of time with it. And, of course, I tossed that aside. Rather than a quick list of 15 special games, I ended up with my list of the 15 most influential video games in my gaming career so far.
And what do I mean by “influential?”
I mean that they opened up new idea, new genres, or new points of view for me when it came to video games.
Influential does not mean that they were my favorites, the games I played the most in a given genre, or even all that good in a few cases. So, for example, I have played a LOT more World of Warcraft than EverQuest at this point in my life, and I am not really all that keen to go back to EverQuest. But EverQuest is the more influential of the two. Without it, there would be no WoW, and without me playing it in 1999, I might not have made it to WoW.
Anyway, on to the list.
1. Star Trek (1971) – many platforms
I have covered this as the first computer video game I ever played. While incredibly simple, this game showed me the way, let me know that computers were going to be an entertainment device
2. Tank (1974) – Arcade
This was the game AFTER Pong. Not that Pong was bad. Pong was new and fresh when it came out, but I must admit that it did become a little dull after the first pass or two. And then Tank showed us that man need not entertain himself with virtual paddles alone. I wouldn’t touch Pong after a while, but Tank was always good. You just needed somebody to play with.
3. Adventure (1979) – Atari 2600
Yes, I got that Atari 2600 for Christmas way back when, but then there was a matter of what to play. It came with the Combat cartridge, which included Tank. And I also had Air-Sea Battle and a few others. But the problem was that these games were all unfulfilling unless played with two people. And then came Adventure. Not only wasn’t it the usual 27 minor variations on three two-player themes, it was specifically, unashamedly single player only. Here, loner, good luck storming the castle! And it had odd behaviors and minor flaws. I tried putting that magic bridge everywhere and ended up in some strange places. It also had a random mode, that might just set you up with an unwinnable scenario. And there was an Easter egg in it.
It was both different and a harbinger of things to come.
4. Castle Wolfenstein (1981) – Apple II
This was the first game that I saw that indicated that I really, really needed to get a computer. An Apple II specifically, because that was what Gary had. And he also had Castle Wolfenstein.
It was not an easy game. You lost. A lot. The control system left something to be desired. You really needed a joystick to play. And there were so many quirks and strange behaviors that somebody created a utility program a couple years after it came out that basically “fixed” a lot of the worst annoyances. I bought it gladly.
But this game was the prototype for many that followed. You’re in a cell and you need to escape. You need make your way through the castle, picking up guns, keys, ammunition, German uniforms, and grenades. Oh, grenades were so much fun. There were other, later games I considered for this list, but when I broke them down, I often found that Castle Wolfenstein had done it already, in its own primitive way.
5. Wizardry (1981) – Apple IIBasically, the party based dungeon crawl in computer form. Monsters, mazes, traps, treasure, combat, and death. Oh, so much death. NetHack was a potential for this list, but I realized that randomness and ASCII graphics aside, Wizardry had pretty much everything it did.
And I spent hours playing. I mapped out the whole game on graph paper, including that one level with all the squares that would turn you around. The one with the pits of insta-death. It also taught me the word “apostate.”
6. Stellar Emperor (1985) – Apple II
But it was the online, playing with other people, usually the same people, making friends and enemies and having ongoing relationships that sold the game. Again, it was primitive, even in its day, with ASCII based terminal graphics. But there was magic in the mixture.
7. Civilization (1991) – Mac/Windows
Sid Meier was already something of a star by the time Civilization came out, but this cemented things as far as I was concerned. I was considering putting Civilization II on the list rather than this. Once I got Civ II, I never went back and played the original.
But that wasn’t because the original was crap. That was because the sequel built on what was great in the original. It was purely an evolutionary move. But it was the original that hooked me, so that has to get the nod for influential.
8. Marathon (1994) – Mac
For me, this was the defining first person shooter. There was a single player campaign. There was a multiplayer deathmatch mode. There were a variety of weapons. There was a map editor and some mods and an online community that built up around it. Everything after Marathon was just an incremental improvement for me.
There have been better graphics, better rendering engines, different weapons, plenty of variety on arena options, all sorts of updates on match making and connectivity, but in the end those are just updates to what Marathon already did. To this day, I still sometimes say “I’ll gather” when creating a game or match for other people to join. That was the terminology from 1994. I wonder what Bungie has done since this?
9. TacOps (1994) – Mac/Windows
Before video games I played a lot of Avalon Hill war games. Those sorts of games made the natural transition to the computer, which was ideal for handling much of the housekeeping chores. However, in the transition, some old conventions got dragged along as well, like hexes. And I hate hexes. Yes, on a board game you need to use that hexgrid for movement. I could accept that for Tobruk set up on the kitchen table. But a computer was fully capable of handling movement without such an arbitrary overlay. A couple of games tried it, but they tended to fall into the more arcade-ish vein, which wasn’t what I wanted.
And then I picked up a copy of TacOps.
I bought it on a complete whim, picking up the very rare initial boxed version off the shelf at ComputerWare before it went completely to online sales. And it was a revelation. Hey, terrain governs movement. And cover. And visibility. That plus simultaneous movement phases rather than turn based combat meant wonderful chaos on the field. The game was good enough that the military of several countries contracted for special versions of the game to use as a training tool.
I originally had Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin on my list. That is where Battlefront.com really came into their own with the Combat Mission series. But aside from 3D graphics, TacOps had done it all already.
10. TorilMUD (1993) – various platforms
11. Diablo (1996) – Windows
I have written quite a bit about my fondness for Diablo II, while I haven’t gone back to play the original Diablo since the sequel came out. But I wouldn’t be still talking about Diablo II or comparing the merits of Diablo III, Torchlight II, and Path of Exile had the original not been something very, very special.
12. Total Annihilation (1997) – Windows
Total Annihilation was not the first RTS game I played. I am pretty sure I played Dune II and Warcraft before it. It is not the RTS game I have played the most. I am sure I have more hours in both StarCraft and Age of Kings. But it was the first RTS game that showed me that the genre could be about something more than a very specific winning build order. All the units, on ground, in the air, on the water, were amazing. The player maps were amazing, and player created AIs were even better. The 3D terrain and line of sight and all that was wonderful. And new units kept getting released. And you could nuke things. I still find the game amazing.
13. EverQuest (1999) – Windows
Fifteen years later and nothing has made my mouth hang open like it did on the first day I logged into Norrath. I can grouse about SOE and the decisions they have made and the state of the genre, but that day back in 1999 sunk the hook into me good and hard and it hasn’t worked itself loose since. Pretty much what this whole blog is about.
14. Pokemon Diamond (2006) – Nintendo DS
Before we got my daughter a DS lite and a copy of Pokemon Diamond, Pokemon was pretty much just a cartoon on TV and a card game somebody’s kid at work played. Sure, I knew who Pikachu was, but I had no real clue about the video game.
And then in watching my daughter play, I had to have my own DS and copy of the game. Make no mistake, despite its reputation as a kids game, Pokemon can be deep and satisfying. It tickles any number of gamer needs. My peak was in HeartGold/SoulSilver, where I finally caught them all.
While I have stopped playing, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about buying a 3DS XL and a copy of Pokemon X or Y and diving back into the game. It is that good.
15. LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (2006) – many platforms
Filling this last slot… tough to do. There are lots of potential games out there. For example, I like tower defense games, but which one sold me on the idea? But for a game that launched me into a lot of play time over a series of titles, I have to go with LEGO Star Wars II.
That is where Travelers Tales really hit their stride. The original LEGO Star Wars tried to hard to be a serious and difficult game. With this second entry, they realized the power of simply being fun and irreverent. That was the magic.
And I only have to look at the shelf of console games we have to see that LEGO games dominate as a result of this one title. They have evolved, and in some ways I think they have lost a bit of their charm by trying to do too much. We got the LEGO Movie Game for the PS3 and it didn’t have the joy of LEGO Star Wars II. Still, 8 years down the road, the influence of LEGO Star Wars II got us to try it.
Of course, putting limits like an arbitrary number on a list like this means it must ring false in some way. And what does influential really mean? I know what I said, but I can look back at that list and nitpick that, say, Castle Wolfenstein might not belong. And what about genres I missed, like tower defense? I could make the case that Defense Grid: The Awakening belongs on the list. What about games like EVE Online? Actually, I explained that one away to myself, seeing EVE as sort of the bastard child of Stellar Emperor and EverQuest or some such. And while TorilMUD is so powerful in my consciousness, would I have played it had it not been for Gemstone? Where does NBA Jams fit? And what other Apple II games did I miss? Should Ultima III be on there? Lode Runner? Karateka?
And somehow this all ties into my post about platforms and connectivity options I have had over the years.
Anyway, there is my list, and I stand firm behind it today. Tomorrow I might change my mind. You are welcome to consider this a meme and take up the challenge of figuring out your 15 most influential games.
Others who have attempted to pick their 15, each with their own history: