Read on as we wrap up our selection of 50 milestones in 3D gaming with a selection of ten great adventures that made their mark through advances in 3D technology.
3D Monster Maze (Malcolm Evans, 1981)
To call 3D Monster Maze an achievement is something of an understatement; the world’s first first-person adventure, it somehow managed to fit in a 16K ZX81, a machine not often noted for its graphical prowess. By using the ZX81’s limited character set to great effect, 3D Monster Maze managed to create a random maze complete with an enormous T-Rex looking for a tasty human snack. The gameplay was a simple case of getting to the exit in one piece, with text warnings of the T-Rex’s proximity to you (no sound on the ZX81, remember), but the result was surprisingly immersive and occasionally frightening.
Ant Attack (Sandy White, 1983)
You just know a game’s going to be good when it gives a name to its rendering technique, don’t you? Ant Attack, we were told on the title screen, saw brought to you in SOFT SOLID 3D (pat. pending), and that’s fair enough, really. Described by creator Sandy White as the first true isometric 3D game, Ant Attack presented you with a sizeable 3D city created out of cubes, viewable from four directions and inspired by the work of M.C. Escher, something that becomes apparent when you realise that some of the structures couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. And in an early piece of sexual equality in gaming, it enabled you to play as a boy or a girl – truly ahead of its time.
Knight Lore (Ultimate Play The Game, 1984)
Ant Attack was technically impressive but suffered from programmer’s graphics; they did the job but not much more. It was a year later that Spectrum legends Ultimate Play The Game (now known as Rare) managed to couple full isometric 3D with decent graphics in their Filmation engine. Knight Lore was its first outing, a 3D quest to find the magic potion to stop you from turning into a werewolf, and it revolutionised 3D on home formats, its cartoon-like isometric style becoming one of the most copied techniques ever.
Mercenary (Novagen, 1985)
Mercenary gets off to one of the best starts in gaming, putting you in deep space before a guidance systems fault occurs, a planet looms out of nowhere and you’re forced into a crash landing, at which point the fun’s only just begun. You find yourself in the middle of a civil war, and the only way to escape the planet is by taking paid missions for the opposing sides in a vast, open 3D world with multiple routes to success. The wireframe 3D is basic, but this is more than compensated before by Mercenary’s sheer scope and ambition. If you’d prefer something better-looking, check out its 16-bit sequels, Damocles and Mercenary III.
The Sentinel (Geoff Crammond, 1986)
Geoff Crammond’s usually associated with realistic 3D driving sims, but he took a brief diversion in 1986 with The Sentinel, a unique and stylised first-person game of strategy and energy management. Set across 10,000 procedurally generated 3D landscapes, the aim was to take control of each level by absorbing objects, gradually working your way upwards until you can absorb and usurp the Sentinel who stands at the very top of the level. It was a bit slow at creating the full-wrap-around view for each position – especially on 8-bit systems – but it was always worth the wait.
Driller (Major Developments, 1987)
With a fully 3D environment created with filled polygons, and 360 degrees of free movement, Driller was definitely a major development in 3D gaming when it appeared on the ZX Spectrum in 1987. Its impressive 3D came at a price though, in the form of a frame rate in the region of 1-2fps, making Driller more of a slide show than a game. Despite that it proved remarkably popular, spawning sequels and other games using the Freescape engine, which finally started performing acceptably when it moved onto 16-bit platforms.
Dungeon Master (FTL Games, 1987)
Before 1987 RPGs were never the most visually arresting or action-packed games, generally featuring functional graphics and dividing the action into turns. That was before Dungeon Master, of course. It spruced the genre right up by doing away with the prose and replacing it with a 3D view of your adventure, and added a degree of urgency to the mix by having everything take place in real time rather than in turns. It was a potent development that proved monstrously successful; the original ST version is estimated to have had a market penetration of over 50%
Midwinter (Maelstrom Games, 1989)
It had to happen sooner or later; this is the only game in the list that we’ve been unable to find any video of whatsoever, and tellingly it’s also the one that we had absolutely no recollection of. It comes highly recommended to us, however. Created by Mike Singleton, who made his name on 8-bit systems with Lords of Midnight, a sprawling adventure/wargame cross, Midwinter is similarly massive and genre-straddling. Most notably it features a 160,000 square mile polygonal landscape, which sounds a little too large for our liking, but the enormous open world lends itself to numerous approaches and strategies, which probably explains its appeal 20 years on.
Alone in the Dark (Infogrames, 1992)
The popularity of the fixed 3D survival horror game has always baffled us slightly. We get how the use of fixed camera angles enabled developers to put a lot more detail into their worlds by overlaying polygonal characters on bitmap locations, but the trade-off is that you always feel disconnected from the action, especially when the game uses a deliberately obtuse camera angle. Perhaps it’s to make things feel more like watching a horror film, but we’ve never really got on with. Resident Evil, of course, popularised the genre, but Alone in the Dark was there five years earlier with nearly all the elements in place; it was possibly a bit too early, since there’s a massive gulf in quality between the detailed locations and the extremely low-poly characters.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2002)
This is going to annoy a number of people who’ll be upset that we’ve including The Wind Waker and not Ocarina of Time. Too bad, because this is about the 3D, and in that regard The Wind Waker triumphs utterly. For the Gamecube’s Zelda outing, Nintendo opted for cel-shaded 3D in a move that divided fans of the series, and completed the look with the liberal use of depth of field blur and lighting effects. The result is a game that looks like a painstakingly animated cartoon and that’s still visually impressive seven years down the line, even if the game itself, with its focus on sailing all over the place, hasn’t aged quite so well.