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10 Video Games That Revolutionized the Industry

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Let’s go ahead and get Pong out of the way up front. Yes, the table-tennis game for arcades and Ataris was a game-changer, and your older brother or parents thought it was awesome, but everyone knows that already. What about the other games that pushed the field in new directions? Some of them are major titles recognizable to people who’ve never picked up a controller in their lives and whose eyes glaze over when you talk about 8-bit versus 16-bit; other games, though, are below-the-radar smashes, responsible as much for influencing the field than capturing an audience. These are the games that did more than entertain players. They redefined what it meant to play a video game, and they took story and graphics to fantastic new places. They revolutionized the industry, and they were — and are — worth your time, money, and extra lives.

  1. The Legend of Zelda: The entire Legend of Zelda franchise spans multiple game consoles and character iterations, but for sheer groundbreaking value, the original title remains the most revolutionary of the bunch. Released in 1986 in Japan and hitting North American shelves a year later, The Legend of Zelda was one of the early titles to push the Nintendo Entertainment System to a perch atop the home gaming market. Part of it was the way players could move Link anywhere they wanted on the screen, breaking the left-right confines of the original Super Mario Bros. with a top-down perspective that felt more impressive. Part of it was also the fantasy story line that tapped into the geek reserves that would make video games such a success. But the real revolution? You could save your game. Not to sound like every stereotype in history, but kids today don’t know how easy they have it with games of all types — console and online — that chart and save their progress. In the infant days of video games, you played until you died or got tired. That’s it. You couldn’t stop and pick it up again later without losing your place. Zelda, though, came with a battery pack that let you save your game. It’s unthinkable in today’s era to have a game that doesn’t let you save. Zelda led the way.
  2. Guitar Hero: Although the Guitar Hero series eventually lost some of its edge to the more party-oriented Rock Band franchise — slipping so much that it went on "hiatus" in 2011 — it’s impossible to oversell the game’s contribution to music-based console entertainment. The third installment in the series, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, is actually the biggest moneymaker in U.S. gaming history. Guitar Hero took everyone’s childhood dream of rock stardom and turned it into a fun and highly replayable fantasy world complete with real tracks from solid rockers. Rhythm-based music games weren’t new when Guitar Hero came out in 2005 (PaRappa the Rapper found console success in the mid-1990s), but they’d never been done with such energy and polish. Guitar Hero invented the rock-and-roll video game party all by itself.
  3. Super Mario 64: Mario’s been involved in plenty of classic games in his time — each new Nintendo console tends to release a Mario title to sell it — but 1996′s Super Mario 64, the flagship title for the Nintendo 64, blew the doors off. This was the first Mario titled that let players run around a 3-D world, and the switch from side-scroller to third-person immersion made for one of the best Mario experiences of all time. The flight sequences were fantastic (if typically quirky), but the game really took off when it offered an open world to explore. Players could roam the castle grounds, jump into paintings, and attack the game in their own way. This opened up the doors to hidden treats and made the game feel all-encompassing in a way that had escaped the previous installments. Instead of just chugging along a track, the game let viewers move through a world and start adventures with a natural rhythm. This approach can still be felt in console titles that mix RPG elements with a variety of stories.
  4. Grand Theft Auto III: The Grand Theft Auto series used to be just another video game franchise with a devoted but narrow following; if you weren’t a gamer, you probably didn’t have much to do with it. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the early games had a top-down viewpoint that rendered them inherently game-like; they looked and played like interactive toy car sets. But Grand Theft Auto III turned the series on its head and took it to new pop-cultural heights by creating a third-person 3-D world that let the player get into the violence and sex in a visceral way. More importantly, the game was probably at the time the biggest smash of the sandbox gaming field. Sandbox gaming is non-linear: although there’s a clear start and end to the game, the player can go anywhere he or she wants and complete missions in their chosen order, shaping the game world the way a kid builds castles in the sand. GTA 3 wasn’t a simple run-and-gun game; it required the player to strategize, and it also let the player get into trouble in the game’s world free from any mission-based constraints. The game wasn’t the first sandbox title out there, but its fantastic execution and high profile unquestionably made the mode more popular.
  5. Red Faction: Released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2 as well as the PC market, Red Faction was a game-changer for those players who wanted a fully interactive world. A few programming glitches aside, games usually keep players on a strict path, and even sandbox games have limits to where you can go and, more important, what you can do. Red Faction, though, let players interact with and change every part of the world around them. Can’t get through a door? Blast your way through the wall next to it. Not sure what’s on the other side of that window? Smash it and see. The physics of the game were massively important, and though later titles switched from the first-person shooter perspective to a third-person button-masher, the god-like ability to destroy the world around you remained. After this, more games let players break the rules.
  6. GoldenEye 007: To anyone who was playing video games in the late 1990s, GoldenEye 007 — usually just GoldenEye — is a landmark moment in gaming. Although not the first to offer it, GoldenEye raised the bar for multiplayer death-matches. Heads-up gaming that pits players against strangers grew in popularity in the 1990s thanks to LAN parties, the Internet boom, and eventually the arrival of consoles that connected to the Internet and made global death matches a reality. But before all that, the Nintendo 64 title garnered massive critical praise for its fun and eminently replayable multiplayer set-ups. The customizable weapon loads and interchangeable levels that are a hallmark of things like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare really came to prominence with this James Bond video game. Just don’t pick Oddjob, OK? Nobody likes the guy who picks Oddjob.
  7. Portal: Plenty of video games have played with physics and reality, and plenty more have offered challenging puzzles to their players. But Portal, released in 2007 as part of Valve’s compilation The Orange Box, mixed an ingenous physics engine with fascinating puzzles and hilarious black humor to create a demo game that outshined almost every other full release that year. The premise is simple: the player has a gun that shoots "portals" of two different colors on certain walls and surfaces, one for an entrance, one for an exit. The gimmick lets you cross entire rooms with one jump, but it also pushes players to tease out the physics of bending space and orientation to, say, successfully fling themselves across a chasm. The critical and player acclaim turned Valve into something like the Pixar of console titles, and the company followed up with Portal 2 in 2011.
  8. Mass Effect 2: The first Mass Effect game debuted in 2007 and earned strong reviews for its epic story, sci-fi setting, and the nuanced way that the player’s actions influenced the other characters. As such, expectations were high leading up to the 2010 debut of Mass Effect 2, and though the sequel was once again lauded for its story and execution, it did something even more amazing by offering cross-game continuity. The game isn’t just a sequel to the earlier title, but an actual continuation of it that allows players to import saved files from the first game and use them in the second. In other words, you don’t start back at square one. The things you do in the first game will impact your experience in the second. Few if any games attempt this, and when they do, the games are more entertainment-oriented. (E.g., Rock Band 2 lets you import song files from Rock Band.) This is a huge step in gaming whose effects might not be fully felt for years.
  9. Street Fighter II: Fighting games blew up in the 1990s, but it wasn’t the parentally decried Mortal Kombat that made them so popular. (Though that game did help.) No, it was 1991′s Street Fighter II and its many, many spin-offs that changed the format of fighting games for good. The game continued the Capcom series’ arcade success with rapid-fire match-ups that downplayed the blood in favor of cartoonish mayhem. Things got even crazier for Super Street Fighter II and the subsequent Turbo version, all of which solidified not just the appeal of fighting games but their eternal format: multiple fighters, endless matches, and a variety of special moves that can usually be figured out by hammering the same button combinations. It’s a classic for a reason.
  10. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater: Some of the earliest home video games were sports-related, and franchises like John Madden Football (later Madden NFL) solidified the hold of sports on gamers’ dollars. But 1999′s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater went one better by taking sports games mainstream. Far from the side-scrolling days of Excitebike, the Pro Skater games used 3-D graphics and amazing camera placement to put the player in the middle of the ramp-jumping, Kickflip McTwist-landing action. Unlike traditional sports franchises, it didn’t matter how much you knew about the game in real life; all you had to do was pick a character and start hopping around. Tricks were accomplished through increasingly difficult button combos, but the real joy was just flying around the digital world. The game and its followers brought a sense of real energy and excitement to sports gaming that crossed over to all audiences, regardless of age or gaming experience. It was what all great games should be: fun.

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