Another 10 classics from our round-up of those 3D games that matter. Today we lock and load with nine amazing 3D action games and one heroic failure.
3D Deathchase (Mervyn Estcourt, 1983)
We’ve mentioned the phenomenon already, but it bears repeating that you have to admire the sheer lengths early 8-bit coders went to in order to achieve the impossible on classic home computers. Because no-one in their right mind would even attempt to create a game inspired by the Endor speeder chase from Return of the Jedi on a ZX Spectrum in first-person 3D, would they? It would be madness. Thankfully, though, that minor obstacle never occurred to Mervyn Estcourt, and he went ahead and did it anyway, fitting it into just 16K as well. The 3D’s basic but colourful and just convincing enough; the game itself makes regular appearances whenever anyone decides to create a list of the best Spectrum games.
Forbidden Forest (Cosmi, 1983)
Another early example of impressive effects being created with ingenuity and not a lot else. Look at screenshots of it and Paul Norman’s Forbidden Forest gives the impression of being an ugly mess, combining horrible expanded sprites and lots of character graphics. In action, however, it all worked; clever parallax scrolling and sprite scaling gave the forest and its denizens a real sense of depth, and Forbidden Forest used music and fading light levels to gradually ramp up the tension. It also forced you to watch your character do a stupid unskippable dance after every single level, creating a precedent for rubbish cutscenes that’s almost unforgivable.
Doom (id Software, 1993)
It would be far too easy for this round-up to include just about everything that id Software’s 3D engine genius, John Carmack, has ever done, and so in total we’ve restricted ourselves to just two of his games. After Quake 3 Arena, we’ve plumped for Doom. Even though it wasn’t quite fully 3D – the maps were in fact 2D planes with added height values, the game was displayed in two-point perspective and all the characters and items were 2D sprites – it was damn near close enough in 1993. The fully texture-mapped game world was a revelation, its variable light levels were used to great effect and, perhaps most importantly, it made it easy for players to create their own content. We’ve met a lot of people in the games industry who started out by creating their own Doom levels.
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996)
There aren’t really that many truly revolutionary games in existence, but Super Mario 64 is definitely one of them. Created as a launch title for the SGI-powered Nintendo 64, it took the 2D platform gaming genre and extruded it into the 3rd dimension, creating a template for countless games to follow and, amazingly, getting everything pretty much right first time. Just look at Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy; they’re prettier and more refined with their own special twists, but they’re both clearly from the same mould as their 13-year-old predecessor. Of course, Mario also introduced us to problematic third-person cameras, something that’s plagued the genre down the years, but nobody’s perfect.
Tomb Raider (Eidos, 1996)
We’re in two minds about Tomb Raider. On the plus side it created arguably the first 3D gaming superstar in Lara Croft, giving her a wealth of motion-captured character and setting her off through a series of brilliantly-realised environments in an excellent first outing that was almost, but not quite, as fantastic as the majority of reviews claimed. It was a bit rough around the edges, much of the gameplay was rage-inducingly fiddly, but on the whole a fine debut. The problem was that with a major hit on its hands, Eidos appeared to be terrified of developing its franchise in any way whatsoever, releasing a series of sequels that amounted to little more than a fresh set of levels released just in time for Christmas, year on year. In its original incarnation running on early 3D accelerators, however, it was pretty special.
Jurassic Park: Trespasser (Dreamworks, 1998)
In theory, Trespasser should have been amazing. It had an advanced 3D engine capable of displaying realistic outdoor environments filled with trees and foliage, it featured realistic physics and inverse kinematics, it had bump mapping and specular highlighting, it did away with the HUD for added immersive qualities and it had big 3D dinosaurs. Sadly, nothing at the time was capable of running it even remotely well, and this combined with a number of serious design flaws resulted in one of gaming’s great disasters. Full points for ambition, zero points for execution.
Unreal (Epic, 1998)
The 1990s saw 3D engines become big business, with a handful of engine developers doing very nicely out of licensing their technology to third parties. id Software was quick to capitalise on the middleware revolution, swiftly followed by Epic with its Unreal engine, originally showcased in 1998’s Unreal. Highlights of the tech included a software renderer that was capable of coloured lighting, and its use of detail texturing, superimposing a second high-resolution texture onto level textures to prevent things from becoming blurred when viewed close up. Unreal suffered from poor API support, looking its best using the 3dfx Glide API but suffering badly under Direct3D and OpenGL; despite a mixed start, however, the Unreal engine has become gaming’s 3D middleware of choice.
Far Cry (Crytek, 2004)
Far Cry started life as a technology demo for the Nvidia GeForce 3 called X-Isle, designed to show off the new hardware’s capabilities with an open landscape rendered with enormous draw distances and detailed vegetation, and swiftly grew into a full game. Notable for its open and realistic environment and cutting-edge looks, Far Cry also featured a powerful physics engine and smart enemy AI; its main weakness, at least in earlier iterations on less powerful systems, was that it couldn’t do indoor locations as well as outdoor ones. Give it a big empty skybox and it was perfectly happy on your mid-range PC; ask it to render a ceiling and things started getting choppy.
Galleon (Confounding Factor, 2004)
After Tomb Raider it took Lara Croft’s creator, Toby Gard, eight whole years to come up with his next game. Galleon switched platforms twice during its development, and when it was finally released for the Xbox in 2004 it barely dented the public consciousness. To be fair, on the surface it looked a little dated, and from a brief glance you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as a swashbuckling Tomb Raider clone. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see something quite special – proper use of inverse kinematics in a video game. As a result, Galleon’s character animation was something to behold, with your character interacting with the world in a wonderfully realistic manner. It’s a shame that so few people got to appreciate it.
Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico, 2006)
Video games as art, eh? Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that almost certainly qualifies as art, partly because it seems to provoke massively polarised opinions (one producer friend loathes it with such a passion that he has a special nickname for it so damning and so obscene that we can’t even hint at it here), and because it has such a keenly focused visual style that calls on a host of visual techniques to achieve its looks. Bloom lighting, HDR rendering, desaturation and motion blur are all called on with impressive results, and a powerful physics engine and painstaking design complete the package, resulting in a strikingly atmospheric experience, marred slightly by an unpredictable frame rate, tricky controls and repetitive structure. You’ll either be seduced by the whole experience or dismiss it as a triumph of style over substance.