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Open-World Games That Defined the Genre

Open-world games are everywhere these days, but the genre has come a long way since its inception in the late 1970s. Today we're looking at the ten most influential open-world games in the history of the genre!
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The open-world genre is one of the most compelling approaches to designing modern video games. While everyone loves to play a tight, focused indie title now and then, it’s hard to match the freedom you feel when a game promises to let you explore a massive map full of fun activities. 

GTA3
Rockstar Entertainment | Take 2 Interactive

Some of the best games ever made fall in the open-world genre, from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to Grand Theft Auto III. Today, we’re looking at the ten most influential open-world games that defined the genre as we know it today. This list is presented in release order to highlight the impact each entry had on the industry as a whole.

Read More: Love video games? So do we. Check out all our great gaming content right here.

The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda wasn’t the first open-world game. That honor probably lies with a text-based game, Colossal Cave Adventure, released in 1976 for the PDP-10. The Legend of Zelda wouldn’t hit store shelves until a decade later, in 1986. While it sported much more robust graphics than its word-only predecessors, The Legend of Zelda’s core gameplay isn’t very different from classic open-world text-based games. 

Players control Link, a silent hero on a quest to save the devastated Kingdom of Hyrule from a beastly tyrant named Ganon. The game invites the player to explore caves and dungeons on their own initiative. There are no story missions or requirements for entering dungeons, though some challenges are easier if you tackle them with a full inventory of items from smaller dungeons. 

The Legend of Zelda helped define what an open-world RPG could be. While its sequels became more linear and formulaic over time, the most recent entry in the series returned the stellar franchise to its open-world roots.

Metroid

Metroid took the gameplay template of Super Mario Bros and fundamentally reworked how the character moved in 2D space. Whereas Mario always moved to the right of the screen, occasionally jumping over obstacles, Samus could move in any direction. In fact, doing so wasn’t just possible–it was a requirement. 

Metroid challenged players to memorize the layout of a sprawling underground labyrinth, presenting them with insurmountable barriers that required upgrades from deeper in the maze to unlock. Players would backtrack to these locked doors later in the game with the proper upgrades to find further secrets, like health or ammo upgrades.

The game also carried with it an unmistakable moody atmosphere curbed directly from the Ridley Scott masterpiece Alien. The game spawned an unparalleled sci-fi series, and some of the best games ever made bear the named Metroid.

Super Mario 64

Nintendo continued defining the meaning of “open-world” into the 1990s with the release of Super Mario 64. While Zelda continued to slide into linearity with Ocarina of Time in 1998, Mario kicked off 1996 with a game renowned for giving players the freedom to do whatever they wanted.

Super Mario 64 was released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64 and showcased the console’s defining features. It sported full 3D movement, thanks to the N64’s unique analog stick, as well as sprawling levels that players could explore at their leisure. 

The game set a standard for 3D platformers with its genre-defining camera, which holds up to this day as one of the best cameras in the history of the medium. It also introduced the concept to players expertly, playfully pointing out that Lakitu with a camera on a string was following Mario around to record his heroic.

Shenmue

Sega released Shenmue in 2000 for the ill-fated Dreamcast system and the open-world title functions as a microcosm of everything that worked (and didn’t) with Sega’s final home console. The game tasks players with solving a murder mystery, putting them in control of Japanese teenager Ryo. Ryo is free to explore the countryside and cities of late 1980s Japan, though it’s up to the player to choose how they want to tackle his daily activities.

The game can be tedious due to its commitment to realism. Shops close in the evening, and Ryo has to trek home to sleep once the sun goes down. Players can spend their time training in the park to learn new moves, or they can go to the nearby arcade and try their hand at various classic Sega titles.

Shenmue is a flawed masterpiece, an ambitious example of what open-world games could become with more focus and better technology. In this way, it reflected the Dreamcast: an ambitious system that predicted the future of gaming by focusing on internet connectivity a decade too early.

Grand Theft Auto 3

When you say the words “origins of open-world gaming,” most gamers will think of Grand Theft Auto 3. While the first two GTA titles were critical darlings, they received little mainstream attention. The third entry brought the anarchic crime simulator into the third dimension with an explosive dive into the seedy underbelly of American life. 

Players control Claude, a silent protagonist who aspires to a life of luxury in the fictional Vice City. Claude can wield a slew of weapons, drive numerous vehicles, and, of course, battle with various rival factions for dominance of the city.

The game introduced players to the concept of open-world games with tentpole story segments, solidifying a formula that remains popular to this day.

Just Cause

If GTA was a shot of adrenaline to the open-world genre, 2006’s Just Cause was a car battery hooked up directly to the genre’s eyelids. Players control Rico Rodriguez, an operative for The Agency, as he fights to topple a dictatorial regime in the fictional Caribbean nation of San Esperito. 

Just Cause is essentially a giant sandbox that allows players to get creative in creating unmitigated mayhem. The game’s name functions as a double entendre and a mantra. Rico brings chaos for a just cause, to break the grip of a totalitarian government. Players, on the other hand, are doing it “just ‘cause,” because destroying virtual cars and buildings is a blast.

The series continued escalating its over-the-top action in sequels like the excellent Just Cause 2 in 2010 and Just Cause 3 in 2015.

Crackdown

Crackdown used a similar formula as Just Cause, embracing GTA III’s open map approach but ditching any semblance of realism in exchange for over-the-top action. Players control a superhuman law enforcement agent who enacts the titular crackdown on crime in the fictional Pacific City. 

The Agents, as the game calls them, are simultaneously superheroes and villains, terrorizing the people of Pacific City with their unparalleled physical prowess. Crackdown also serves as an early example of the open-world collect-a-thon, something the next game on our list would flesh out in the coming years.

Assassin’s Creed

Ubisoft released the first Assassin’s Creed game in late 2007 to middling reviews but solid commercial success. The game followed modern-day bartender Desmond Miles as he worked with a shadowy organization named Abstergo. Abstergo encourages Desmond to unlock “genetic memories” by using the Animus, a mysterious machine that allows him to relive the lives of his ancestors.

One ancestor, the assassin Altair, lived in the Middle East during the Third Crusade. The bulk of Assassin’s Creed’s gameplay takes place in the 12th Century as Desmond relives Altair’s unbelievable life, exploring the countryside and eliminating his targets. 

The Assassin’s Creed series has become synonymous with open-world adventures. Ubisoft essentially created a paint-by-numbers open-world template from the game’s sequel, Assassin’s Creed 2

Red Dead Redemption

Uninspired critics might describe Red Dead Redemption as “Grand Theft Auto with horses.” While this gives you a general idea of what Red Dead is about, it misses the point. Yes, Red Dead is a sprawling open-world game about outlaws who clash with society. However, where GTA is a game about chaos, Red Dead is more concerned with the passage of time.

Players control John Marston, an aging outlaw who wants to atone for his past sins. The game takes place in 1911, so modern inventions like telephones and automobiles are already creeping in around the edges of the not-so-old west. 

As John struggles to stay relevant in a changing world, players can’t help but feel a twinge of secondhand sadness for a simpler time they never experienced firsthand. What’s so great about progress, anyway?

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best video games ever made, full stop. It also just so happens to be the most influential open-world game since GTA III, with its “go anywhere, climb everything” ethos creating an entire subgenre of video games. Genshin Impact is basically Breath of the Wild: The MMO, and Immortals: Fenyx Rising is Ubisoft’s take on the formula. 

The game returns The Legend of Zelda to its open-world roots, allowing Link to tackle challenges in any order the player chooses. If you want to make a beeline straight for Hyrule Castle to defeat Ganon, you can. If you’d rather take things slow and explore the sprawling kingdom, the game lets you move at your own pace. 

The most impressive thing about Breath of the Wild is that it runs on the Switch’s handheld hardware. Picking up a tablet console and exploring the Hylian wilderness is a magic trick that never gets old.