Continuing our overview of some of the most important 3D games ever, here are 10 titles that took you up into the air and even into space.
Flight Simulator 1 (SubLOGIC, 1980)
It’s not much to look at these days but Bruce Artwick’s Flight Simulator for the Apple II, with its monochrome wireframe landscape and basic instrumentation, is the ancestor of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series. It kicked off as a series of articles on computer graphics by Artwick that proved so popular that readers wanted to buy his software, and so SubLOGIC was born and, a few years later, Flight Simulator was released. Microsoft soon bought a license to produce a PC version, and the longest-running series of PC games came into being.
Elite (Acornsoft, 1984)
Had we decided to order this week’s round-up as an ordered top 50, rather than taking this much more egalitarian, genre-based approach, chances are that Elite would be at number one. From a purely technological point of view, Ian Bell and David Braben created a marvel: a space trading game set in a massive procedurally-generated universe, featuring space flight and combat rendered in fast wireframe graphics complete with hidden line removal for that added feeling of solidity, all crammed into the BBC Model B. And if that’s not enough for you, someone even wrote a musical based around it.
Rescue on Fractalus (LucasFilm Games, 1984)
Let’s be blunt – we’ve been aware of Rescue on Fractalus ever since it was released, we knew all about its fractal landscape generation, enabling the display of a solid and realistic – by home computing standards – landscape, and yet, having played it on the Commodore 64 we came away distinctly underwhelmed. Nice idea but man, it was slow. It wasn’t until we looked it up on YouTube that we realised what we’d been missing; that it was an American game developed to run on 60Hz NTSC systems, running on a 50Hz PAL system with a concomitant 17% performance hit. It all makes perfect sense now.
Starstrike II (Realtime Games, 1986)
The astonishing thing about the 8-bit era is how far programmers went to wring results out of fairly meagre hardware that shouldn’t, in all fairness, have been possible. Realtime first made its mark on the ZX Spectrum with 3D Tank Duel and 3D Starstrike, impressive wireframe clones of Battlezone and Star Wars respectively, and then went on to create a sequel to Starstrike of its own design. Ignoring the fact that the Spectrum clearly wasn’t capable of it, Starstrike II managed to use filled polygons – not exclusively, but enough to look good and still maintain an acceptable framerate.
After Burner (Sega, 1987)
Getting away from cutting-edge techniques for a while, we have to give a mention to this arcade offering from Sega. We’re back in the world of scaled sprites again, simply because by this time arcade hardware was becoming powerful enough to shift a lot of them around really quickly, and in the mid to late 1980s Sega was the absolute king of creating fast 3D arcade games in this manner with the likes of Out Run, Space Harrier and of course After Burner. It’s not making any claims to realism, but really: this is what flying an F-14 really ought to feel like.
Zarch (David Braben, 1987)
Initially appearing on the Acorn Archimedes and therefore only ever played on the sly in school computer labs, Zarch was notable for two important reasons. Firstly, it had the most difficult and twitchy control system ever seen, whereby you piloted a ship with a single downward-pointing thruster, moving it by tilting it with the mouse and firing the thruster. Simple, elegant and monstrously difficult to master. Secondly, it featured a fully 3D light-sourced polygon landscape, which you often saw close up as you once again smashed your polygon ship into it after overcooking the controls. A move to the ST and Amiga saw it renamed as Virus, losing the lighting effects at the same time.
Starglider 2 (Argonaut, 1988)
Of all today’s games, this is the one we’re least sure about including. It has a lot going for it; a massive 3D universe where you can zoom around in space and then swoop down to a planet for some low-level dogfighting, and all displayed in colourful filled vectors. It was created by Argonaut Software, who went on to make their own contribution to 3D console hardware, of which more in a bit. It was like Elite but without all the boring trading. But most of all, in a nod to Star Trek IV it featured giant space whales complete with their own space whale song, and we have a nagging feeling that it’s the whales that fuels our particular fondness for Starglider 2. Which, on reflection, is fair enough.
Star Fox (Nintendo, 1993)
With 3D gradually gaining in popularity in the early 1990s, the two main players in the console business had a bit of a problem in that their current machines – Nintendo’s SNES and Sega’s Megadrive – couldn’t do 3D particularly well. Nintendo came up with a nifty solution – they hired Argonaut to create a coprocessor chip and co-develop a game to showcase its capabilities. The resulting chip was the SuperFX, the first consumer graphics accelerator, and the game was Star Fox (known as Starwing here thanks to trademark issues). Moving literally hundreds of polygons simultaneously, its looks were more than enough to take your mind off the annoying animal characters.
Descent (Parallax Software, 1995)
Quake generally gets held up as the first textured and fully polygonal video game outside of an arcade, but let’s hear it for Descent, which did almost as much as Quake a whole year earlier and gave you a full six degrees of freedom as you flew a little spaceship through a series of labyrinthine space caverns. It wasn’t quite fully 3D, using bitmaps for explosions, power-ups and hostages, and instead of BSP trees it used portal rendering to cleverly create its levels out of a series of cubes. It did however feature simple dynamic lighting and scalable detail levels to enable it to run remarkably well on slower systems – all in all, not a bad achievement.
Incoming (Rage, 1998)
Oh, lens flare. A handy component in the 3D toolbox, but also the one that’s been most overused, especially in games. We’ve lost count of the number of games in the last decade that have been guilty of reckless lens flare abuse, and we were more than a little relieved when developers started moving away from it and slapping loads of bloom on everything instead. We asked around some knowledgeable friends to try and ascertain the first appearance of lens flare, and Rage’s Incoming came up as the likely perpetrator. Rage, of course, were quick to cotton on to the possibilities of 3D accelerators, and Incoming was their first 3D extravaganza, putting you in control of an assortment of air and land vehicles in an epic strategic shooting match against alien aggressors.