Although older video games don’t usually have the high-def, realistic graphics we’ve grown accustomed to, they were the games that paved the way.
Hey, all those massive, detailed worlds and compelling characters didn’t just come out of thin air! In fact, many of the games we enjoy today are actually highly influenced by games of yesterday. There are innovations that happened many years ago, and they’re still showing up today.
The history of gaming is as fast and action-packed as the titles we all love to play. These are the games that left their mark on the industry and changed the way we spent our leisure time, turning arcades into cool hangout spots and home TVs into portals to other worlds. How many of them did you play?
Space Invaders – 1978
We’re going to kick this off with the old-school favorite Space Invaders. It wasn’t the first video game to hit arcades. However, it was early enough that it helped launch the video game craze and turned arcades into popular hangouts. It may seem pretty understated these days, but back then, it was a cool and exciting game about invading aliens.
Considered the first shooter video game, this title is clearly already influential. But the game was definitely a huge turning point for arcades and gamers in a different way. Space Invaders was actually the first to save high scores and allow players to enter their initials. It created heated competition between players, which in turn kept them coming back for more!
Tecmo Super Bowl – 1991
1991’s Tecmo Super Bowl may not be the most technologically advanced sports simulation game, but it definitely deserves a spot on a list of influential video games. It paved the way for football and other sports video games.
The game had official licenses and permissions from the NFL and the NFL Players Association, making it the first video game to have licenses from a professional team and league. While licenses are common in all sports video games today, it had never been done quite like this before Tecmo Super Bowl. It allowed the developers to use current, real-life NFL team rosters. This was a game-changer (pun intended!).
In this game, we also saw new features that weren’t in the first Tecmo Bowl, such as the ability to substitute players, timeouts, player injuries, and more. These elements would go on to become staples in football games.
Grand Theft Auto – 1997
We can’t talk about influential video games without talking about 1997’s Grand Theft Auto. This is the game that introduced us to non-linear play. Gamers were free to choose what they wanted to do in the game, and in whatever order they saw fit. Missions were completed to progress the overall story, but there was freedom in how to successfully complete them.
The subject matter in Grand Theft Auto was entirely different from other games on the market, too. We weren’t playing heroes anymore. Instead, players were assuming the role of criminals who roam around committing robbery and murder.
Rockstar Games really outdid themselves with Grand Theft Auto III, too. It was equally as influential and was also available on more consoles. That one really showed the potential of open-world games and immersive play. Sure, it was at the forefront of everyone’s minds thanks to all the controversy at the time, but it also saw plenty of critical acclaim for its concept and gameplay. We’re still looking at non-linear play, but this game was packed with plenty of side missions and gave players the ability to do whatever they wanted.
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior – 1991
Normally, the first in a series would be the most likely candidate for a list like this, but it’s different with Street Fighter. Although the original 1987 game from Capcom set the template for what we know as a fighting video game, it was full of glitches and had poor controls. Its 1991 sequel Street Fighter II: The World Warrior is the real star here.
With the bugs worked out, improved controls, and a wider selection of playable characters with their own unique fighting styles, it was a flying success. It was unlike anything else that was out at the time, and it shifted the way gamers competed with each other. Not only is it considered one of the greatest video games of all time, but it’s also the most important and influential fighting video game ever made.
The Legend of Zelda – 1986
I debated on whether to include The Legend of Zelda or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on this list. I feel like they’re both really influential, so perhaps they should both be here. Both of them are regularly cited as some of the best video games of all time. However, we’re going to give credit where credit is due and dub the original Zelda as the most influential.
Zelda proved what video games could do. Not only was it designed to be more than a single-sitting experience – hence that revolutionary ability to save progress! – but it moved away from that “point A to point B” setup that pretty much all games followed. The open-world approach left players able to explore and even revisit areas.
These clearly had a huge influence on the video game industry, as did Zelda’s top-down perspective and expansive overworld. These are all elements that we have seen again and again in RPGs and sandbox games since.
Since its 1986 release, Zelda has gone on to become one of Nintendo’s flagship franchises. If you want to go back and experience The Legend of Zelda, you don’t even need to track down your old NES. A Nintendo Switch Online membership grants you access to more than 60 NES games, including The Legend of Zelda.
Doom – 1993
Without 1993’s Doom, we wouldn’t have a plethora of modern first-person shooters. That means no Halo and no Call of Duty! While it wasn’t the very first game of its kind, it was definitely the one that popularized the FPS – and took that concept to new levels.
Doom featured 3D graphics, 3D spaciality, and enhanced lighting effects and textures. It also introduced that multiplayer deathmatch/skirmish concept that we’ve all come to know and love. In 1993, there was no high-speed internet, but rather gamers were battling it out in a four-player LAN-only multiplayer mode. The success of this kind of gameplay not only influenced subsequent first-person shooters but all other genres, too.
Super Mario Bros. – 1985
Mario may have just been a side character from Donkey Kong, but Super Mario Bros. was nothing short of pure magic. And while it didn’t necessarily invent platform-style gaming, it absolutely revolutionized it while also revitalizing the video game industry. Without Mario, it’s possible that the whole concept of video games might have fizzled.
No, really. Super Mario Bros., along with the NES, were instrumental in reviving the industry after the 1983 crash in the U.S. The market was saturated, and people were losing interest in console games thanks to the PC. It was then that Nintendo came along and introduced its Famicom console as the NES, along with Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. The side-scrolling game went on to become the best-selling video game of all time until Wii Sports broke that record in 2009. And look – Mario is still here as one of the most recognizable icons across the globe!
Super Mario Bros. introduced us to power-ups, a continuously scrolling screen, and alternate paths to discover – all key elements that have been used in subsequent platform games. The bright graphics and charming characteristics were incredible given the limits of the era’s technology. The game is often cited as one of the best video games of all time, with praise for its responsiveness and precision.
Pong – 1972
I know that 1972’s Pong is laughably simple when we look at it today. A digital reimagining of a table tennis game, each player controls one of two paddles that are really just medium-sized blips on opposite sides of the screen. Another little blip travels between them as the ball.
How could this possibly be one of the most influential video games of all time? It’s because Atari’s Pong was the game that spawned the home video game craze. When it was turned into a home console, it was the very first time people could play a video game on their TVs from the comfort of their own homes. It was so successful that new consoles started to appear soon after, paving the way for home gaming systems as we know them today.
In addition, it really got the ball rolling (see what I did there?) on the popularity of video game arcades compared to the electro-mechanical games there were popular in the ‘60s. Most arcades were filled with EM games like Periscope and Speedway. Pong came crashing in during the early ‘70s and started earning as much as four times more than other coin-operated games.
So the next time that you’re exploring the photorealistic world of Elden Ring, take a moment to give thanks to Pong and all the other video games that made it possible.