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Toasting the “Nearly Men” Behind Modern Video Gaming’s Greatest Hits

Some of today's hit games, and gaming genres, aren't the innovators you think they are. Others came before, others that shouldn't be forgotten.

by Ian Dransfield
11 February 2015, 12:04pm

'Bone' was Telltale's first attempt at episodic gaming

Games don't just come into being – they're made. And as they're made, the process has to involve people. And people being people, they often take inspiration – intentionally or otherwise – from elsewhere. But it's not always from the games that made the biggest splash.

See, just because you introduce a feature, or perfect an existing one, or toy with a mechanic that could well revolutionise a genre, it doesn't mean you're making something that will be successful.

The list below shows you just five times – out of plenty more – where the features, the tech and the ideas were there, but the glory was grabbed later on, by another game. Or games. Or entire genres.

You may not have been successful, but we raise a glass to you, the nearly-men of gaming.

'Kill Switch' was one of the first shooters to properly employ sticky walls

COVER-BASED SHOOTING

Operation Winback (1999, PS2 and N64) and Kill Switch (2003, PS2, Xbox, PC) both featured something we take for granted these days. I say "take for granted", when I mean "sigh and get immediately bored of": cover-based shooting.

Winback was slow, clunky and a bit shit, but you could indeed snap to cover and shoot at people from it. Kill Switch was less awful, coming a generation later as it did, and featured blind-fire too.

But it wasn't until 2006's Gears of War that we collectively realised the cover-shooting mechanic was actually good fun and something we would like to see in more games. Maybe not all games as seems to now be the case, but some.

Cover existed in games before these two, of course, with the likes of Metal Gear Solid relying on it heavily. But it wasn't until Winback and Kill Switch that the familiar shape formed, and it wasn't until Gears of War hit that we all realised that was a great way to play games.

For a bit, at least. Until every single bloody game decided to have cover-shooting with knee-high walls. Sigh.

'Bone' – if you bet on it being a hit, you weren't seeing your money back

EPISODIC RELEASES

I like to think I remember the history of Telltale Games quite well – their games used to be a bit pap, and now they're great (though still rough around the edges). The Walking Dead is excellent, and the recent Game of Thrones tie-in has been well received – though I haven't played it because I'm allergic to spoilers and I really do need to read those books. Stop judging me.

But many of us – myself included – don't know about Telltale's first foray into episodic adventure gaming, which appeared back in 2005 in the form of Bone. The first episode, "Out From Boneville", was followed by "The Great Cow Race", which was followed by... nothing.

Instead of finishing off the story that was put in motion, Telltale instead moved on to other projects – no idea why. But it was clearly the right thing to do, as this early (failed) experiment with episodic adventure gaming has led us to greater games, which they have (so far) finished. And which also include The Wolf Among Us, which I forgot to mention above. You should play that one first, because it's the best.

'Jurassic Park: Trespasser' – featuring a fairly unique health meter

PHYSICS

I'm still shocked there's no other game – at least not that I can think of – that uses your breasts as a health meter. Oh, Jurassic Park: Trespasser, you were delightfully weird.

But there were other elements of the game that were lifted and used as inspiration for future, much more successful, not-awfully-reviewed games. Namely, the physics.

Again, physics had appeared in a number of games over the years, but they'd usually erred on the side of being weird made-up ones to suit a game, rather than to emulate the real world. Unless you're talking about a spoddy flight-simulator or something, but I'm not.

Trespasser was a first-person shooter (with adventure-y elements) that brought... Well, I want to say "realistic physics", but I think we'll have to settle for "an attempt at realistic physics". Because good god it was a mess.

But without that glorious, wonderful, imaginative mess, we might not have seen those that followed in its wake – the Max Payne 2s and Half-Life 2s of the world, both of which were made approximately 2.429 times more fun thanks to the introduction of real-world physics, those things we now take for granted in most games.

'Pit-Fighter' looked the part for 1990, but it played like crap

ULTRAVIOLENCE

Games have always been about smashing shit, breaking shit, killing shit, exploding shit and generally messing shit up, but it wasn't until Pit-Fighter was released in 1990 that the violence looked real.

Admittedly you might watch videos of the game today and realise it looks like a vague crayon drawing by an idiotic five year old. But back in the prehistoric days, just after the 1980s finished, this was super-real.

From there, the appetite for digitised brawlers grew – leading to the most famous of them all, 1992's Mortal Kombat. Now that was violent, albeit rather quaint these days, and actually directly led to the creation of the ESRB ratings system on video games that you still see in use in the US today.

Pit-Fighter could never have that impact on the world – one, because it didn't involve people ripping someone's heart out before holding it aloft in glee, and two because it was crap, so nobody cared about it after a month or two.

'The Outfoxies' featured a character called "John Smith" – not quite as exciting as playing as Mario or Link

SMASH!

Long before Super Smash Bros. was a twinkle in anybody's eye, there was another game – this one in the arcades. It was a game enjoyed by all who played it, and quoted endlessly ("GUN") just like a later Namco game was.

The Outfoxies didn't bring together an ensemble cast from other games, instead just having the sort of characters you would expect in a 1994 arcade game (John Smith, for example). But it did have intense combat involving many weapons and other pickups across a number of stages, in a manner not too dissimilar to something that appeared on the N64 in 1999.

And in one of those delightful... things... where stuff happens... The Outfoxies was developed by Namco, which was involved in the development of the most recent Super Smash Bros. games for both 3DS and Wii U.

I really hope that means future DLC features Dweeb, as he's clearly the best Outfoxies character (mainly because he's a chimp).

'Herzog Zwei' wasn't a massive success in 1990, but can its influence be felt in today's MOBA titles?

CONVOLUTED REASONING (THAT STILL RINGS TRUE)

Bear with me here – I've not gone totally mad. But an underloved Mega Drive (Genesis) game led to an overlooked multiplayer mode on a PSone game, which led to a much-loved (though still niche) StarCraft map and onto the most popular genre of games in the world today. It works, I've done the maths.

Herzog Zwei is a name you'll likely be aware of if you pay any attention to retro fans, who all bleat on about things as if they played them at the time. They probably didn't – Herzog is often mentioned as one of the precursors to the modern real-time strategy game, but it wasn't a huge success back in 1990.

It did, however, influence the multiplayer mode, Precinct Assault, on the cult classic Future Cop: LAPD for PlayStation and PC. This in turn was the basis of inspiration for StarCraft mod Aeon of Strife, which considering its influence is bizarre that I can only find this video on it, and it's not only about it.

Anyway, that map proved popular enough to birth the butterfly of MOBAs – multiplayer online battle arenas – from the real-time strategy cocoon. League of Legends and DOTA 2 are two of the world's most popular games today – and all this from a Mega Drive game you likely never even played.

See? Told you the logic worked.

@ianinthefuture

Previously:

Why Is This Shitty, Old Simpsons Game So Expensive?

What Can 'Call of Duty' Do to Avoid Being Gaming's Own Coldplay?

A Brief Look at the Worst Gadgets in Video Gaming History