When counting down the milestones in 3D gaming, there’s only one place to start: the arcades. For many years this was the place that the general public could see the most cutting edge advances in real-time 3D technology.
Night Driver (Atari, 1976)
Generally held to be the very first 3D video game, Atari’s Night Driver managed to conjure a 3D experience out of very little computing horsepower by stripping away all non-essentials. The car was a plastic overlay stuck to the screen and the night setting did away with the need for anything other than the illusion of a fast-moving 3D road, made solely out of strategically placed side markers. An elegant solution that still looks quite reasonable today, in a minimalist kind of way.
Battlezone (Atari, 1980)
More from Atari in the form of its seminal tank battling title. Again taking the minimalist approach, Battlezone used monochrome vectors to create a stripped-down 3D environment populated with basic geometric solids and, more importantly, vectorised tanks and other opponents that need blasting before they blast you. As with many of Atari’s vector titles its basic but sharp graphics set it apart from its raster-based arcade counterparts and it remained a favourite for many years, as well as being adapted into a tank gunner training version for the US Army. Original versions of Battlezone had the player viewing the action through a periscope attachment; because of this it’s often cited as being the first virtual reality game.
Turbo (Sega, 1981)
1981 saw the arrival of colour raster 3D arcade games, creating a pseudo-3D look through the judicious use of cleverly scaled sprite graphics, in the form of a pair of racing games. Namco’s Pole Position was arguably the most successful with its workmanlike recreation of the Fuji Speedway and big, detailed cars, spawning a sequel and even a cartoon series. But Sega’s Turbo came first and achieved impressive results out of not very much, with an assortment of driving environments complete with scenery whizzing past and a busy road littered with other vehicles to overtake. Its sprite scenery often scaled strangely and the high-up view didn’t catch on, but by being less of a slave to realism it proved a lot more fun than Pole Position.
Zaxxon (Sega, 1982)
Isometric 3D proved to be a popular technique in the 1980s. It enabled developers to create amazingly rich-looking pseudo-3D environments without the computational demands that other 3D techniques required. It proved especially popular on home computer formats, but Sega’s Zaxxon pioneered the technique in the arcades, taking the gameplay of titles like Scramble and forcing it into an isometric view as you piloted a fighter ship through a detailed and colourful space fortress. Its looks made it an instant success, but it Zaxxon lacked variety and its appeal turned out to be fairly short-lived.
Star Wars (Atari, 1983)
Before George Lucas felt the need to go back and slather CG all over Star Wars, Atari came up with its own CG recreation of the film’s climactic Battle of Yavin sequence. Once again Atari opted for a vector display, this time using its Color-QuadraScan technology previously seen in Tempest and Space Duel, resulting in a colourful, fast and action-packed game that put the player into the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing to battle TIE Fighters in space, fly low over the surface of the Death Star and then belt down the trench to deliver fiery death into the exhaust port. Truly immersive and rightly regarded as a classic, original Star Wars machines are much sought after by collectors.
I, Robot (Atari, 1983)
If you’re of a certain age then chances are you’ll have encountered every single one of these classic arcade games in person at some time in your life. Except, we’ll wager, for this one. Dave Theurer’s I, Robot is possibly the most groundbreaking title in this selection – it delivered, in 1983, filled polygons, flat shading and an adjustable camera, as well as a chill-out doodle mode as an alternative to the blasting, jumping, colouring-in and giant eye-avoiding of the slightly surreal and bonkers main game – and it was an immense commercial failure, with between 750-1500 units ever being produced. We’ve only ever seen one, ever, about 25 years ago in a Weston Super Mare arcade.
Marble Madness (Atari, 1984)
Stepping back from I,Robot’s polygonal achievements, 1984’s Marble Madness relied on tried and trusted isometric 3D to create a bright and cartoony look, but also managed to add immersive qualities to the mix. Your aim was to steer a marble through a series of Escheresque courses, and rather than use traditional joysticks Atari opted for trackballs, delivering precise and often extremely physical control over your marble. There was also a semblance of real-world physics, with your marble’s direction and momentum being affected by slopes and undulations as well as different surface types, the ability to use ramps to jump over gaps, and the threat of your marble smashing if it fell too far.
Hard Drivin’ (Atari, 1988)
Our last Atari offering heralded the move away from scaled sprite 3D prevalent in arcade racing games ever since Turbo and Pole Position and towards polygonal 3D. Promoted as the world’s first authentic driving simulation game, Hard Drivin’ featured a fully 3D polygonal environment seen through the windscreen of your car, realistic physics and instant replays of crashes (and polygon explosions) from an external camera. The simulation aspect made it somewhat unforgiving, but its lovingly-modelled world, complete with jumps, loops, other road users and hidden easter eggs, set a template for other games to follow.
Virtua Fighter (Sega, 1993)
Beat-em-up games were a genre dominated by Capcom’s determinedly 2D Street Fighter 2 games, and to a lesser extend Midway’s Mortal Kombat series, until Sega came along with its Model 1 system (previously seen in Virtua Racing) and Virtua Fighter. Instead of large 2D sprites, Virtua Fighter modelled its fully-animated characters out of lots of flat-shaded polygons, and put them into a 3D arena rather than have them fight on a 2D plane. Crucially, it also sported fluid controls and a large variety of moves for each character, giving it lasting appeal beyond the novelty of its 3D looks, and enabling Sega to release a series of sequels, each pushing the graphical boundaries ever further.
Daytona USA (Sega, 1993)
Sega’s Model 1 hardware was a short-lived technology with only six games to its name, and was quickly superseded by the much more powerful Model 2 board, which made its arcade debut in 1993 powering Daytona USA. Daytona instantly stood out thanks to its completely texture-mapped world running at a constant 60fps. Model 2 also enabled diffuse reflection, a technique that Daytona was able to show off to great effect with the sky reflected in the rear windows of its cars, and the realism was further enhanced with a rudimentary form of damage modelling and a choice of viewpoints, an option first seen, of course, in I, Robot.