Like any other entertainment medium, games are iterative by their very nature. Years go by, and we get developers coming along and building on what’s come before, gradually improving things and taking them to their zenith. But that’s not how it always goes, of course. Every so often, we get new games that try something completely new, completely different. And that’s a gamble, of course. It always is. You never know if an experiment is going to work out. But every so often, experiments work out spectacularly, and end up setting trends that endure for years and years, and go on to define entire genres or even the medium as a whole. In this feature, we’re going to talk about a few games that did just that.

3D MOVEMENT AND CONTROLS (SUPER MARIO 64)

Super Mario 64 - Bowser

To say that Super Mario 64 is responsible for 3D games as a whole would be an exaggeration (to say the least). No, there was a whole slate of games in a 3-4 year period that helped lay down the foundations for playing games in a 3D space- but if we were to make a pie chart for that group, Super Mario 64 would get a whole massive slice of that pie all to itself. Launching in 1996, Nintendo’s seminal platformer defined the simplest things and actions, showing how to do 3D movement and camera control in games and establishing extremely fundamental things that are now taken completely for granted.

FIRST PERSON SHOOTERS (WOLF 3D)

When you point to a single game and say that a genre as massive and popular as first person shooters would not have existed without it, you know it’s an important game- which is a massive understatement, really. The game took the industry by storm, delivering blistering action played from a first person perspective.

MODERN OPEN WORLDS (GRAND THEFT AUTO 3)

gta 3

No, Grand Theft Auto 3 did not create the concept of open world games. Of course it didn’t. Open worlds have existed in games, in some form or another, for nearly as long as games have existed. But modern open worlds, as we know them today, all stem from GTA 3. Its size, its scope, the incredible freedom it offered players to do whatever the hell they wanted in an immersive and reactive sandbox- all of these things and more came together to deliver one of the biggest gaming revolutions of all time. We had a whole generation of console gaming full of games that were dubbed “GTA clones.” That should tell you something about the impact this game had, and continues to have.

SURVIVAL HORROR (RESIDENT EVIL)

We know, we know- Resident Evil is not the first survival horror game. It took a lot of cues from Sweet Home and Alone in the Dark. But though it was not technically the first of its kind, it was the game responsible for popularizing the survival horror genre. Because what it did with the elements that it brought together to craft its unique experience was unlike anything else any other game had done before. Atmosphere, horror, level design, puzzles, exploration, and more combined in a momentous package that single-handedly helped coin the term “survival horror” and pushed the genre itself into the mainstream.

OVER-THE-SHOULDER PERSPECTIVE (RESIDENT EVIL 4)

Resident Evil is one of few franchises out there that has shaken the industry not once, but twice. Resident Evil 4 switching to a third person perspective instead of the fixed cameras of its predecessors was one of its many bold steps into a new direction. But it wasn’t just any third person perspective. It was something completely new- zoomed in, restrictive, over the shoulder. It defined everything from movement to combat in the game, helping heighten tension and atmosphere, but on top of that, the over-the-shoulder camera was adopted- well, basically by very nearly every single third person game that was made by anyone from that point forward, shooters especially.

COVER SHOOTERS (GEARS OF WAR)

Stop and pop shooters, cover shooters, whatever you want to call them- they’re everywhere, so widespread that you don’t even think about it anymore. And it all started with Gears of War in 2006, that introduced snapping to cover and peeping out to fire shots at enemies as a central mechanic. This central mechanic was then adopted by a whole host of major games for years afterward, from Grand Theft Auto to Red Dead Redemption, from Uncharted to Mass Effect, and so, so many more- so yeah, it’s fair to say that Gears of War was pretty influential.

METROIDVANIA (SUPER METROID)

Super Metroid (and all of Metroid by extension) has a whole genre named after it (at least partly), so this one was sort of obvious. The lock-and-key design that sees you traversing a large interconnected map that loops in around itself, gradually collecting power-ups that allow you to access parts of the map that had been inaccessible before- all of these things are the basic tenets of any metroidvania game, but Super Metroid pioneered all of this. It established a whole genre, and that genre in turn has made an impact on many other genres and game design as a whole as well, so really, the legacy of Super Metroid simply cannot be overstated.

LOOT (DIABLO 2)

diablo 2

“Loot” is a very general word, but of course we’re not saying that Diablo invented the very concept of having loot in a game. Diablo 2 took the formula of its predecessor, however, and reinvented itself in genius ways, and ended up delivering the loot game that we now see dominating games in today’s day and age. Rarities, running dungeons and beating enemies and bosses to get better loot, revolving entire character builds on gear and gear sets, and pouring dozens (if not hundreds) of hours into a game all because of that- Diablo 2 was really the first game that properly established that formula.

MMOs (WORLD OF WARCRAFT)

world of warcraft shadowlands

Taking a beloved real time strategy series and turning it into an MMORPG was a bold move by Blizzard, but obviously, it paid off big time. Of course, it’s not like MMOs weren’t a thing before World of Warcraft came along, but WoW was the game that truly put the genre on the map, turned it into a juggernaut of the industry. MMOs went from being a popular niche to becoming one of the biggest sects of the entire industry at large almost overnight, and it owed all of that to World of Warcraft. The fact that Blizzard’s seminal MMORPG is still on top of the genre should tell you something about its enduring legacy.

SOULSLIKES (DEMON’S SOULS / DARK SOULS)

Again, much like Metroid, FromSoftware’s Souls games created an entire subgenre by themselves- and they did it at a time when the industry seemed to be running out of creative juice. Boldly adopting challenge instead of holding players’ hands, taking a unique spin on checkpoints with corpse runs and punishing deaths, reworking how progression works in an RPG, Demon’s Souls and then Dark Souls a couple of years later firmly established an absolutely genius formula that has been aped countless times since then- and probably will be countless times more in the years to come.