If you’re lucky, this year you’ll see into the future. Your vision won’t come from any palm reader or from psychedelics, but through a video game that breaks the mold. It happens rarely, but it does happen; a new engine might be developed that opens a lot of creative doors for future developers, defining gameplay elements from genres that once seemed mutually exclusive may combine to form new possibilities, or maybe NPCs will be given such convincing personalities and lives that they rival the best supporting cast we’ll see in the cinema. 2016 is looking to be a groundbreaking year for gaming, but we have some pretty high standards. Here are five games that broke new ground when they released and left legacies that are hard to live up to, but meant to be exceeded.
I was so hyped for Shenmue in the months leading up to its release. I don’t think I’ll ever be as hyped for another game as long as I live, and the game lived up to my expectations in every way. I don’t think the rest of the world was ready for Shenmue. When exploring your home, every drawer could be opened and every light could be switched off and on. Every NPC had his or her own personality and independent, daily schedule, and Shenmue was the first game that really played up variable weather effects. You could even set the game’s weather pattern to mirror that of the real-world Yokosuka, Japan in 1986 when the game takes place. If you got bored of playing Shenmue , you could walk down to the arcade to play some classic Sega arcade games or practice those newfangled quick time events. I mean, how meta can you get?
System Shock 2
System Shock 2 will forever be hailed as one of the greatest stories ever told on the PC. Storytelling wasn’t done directly through narration or by interacting with characters. Instead, you had to piece things together by exploring your star ship, the Von Braun, listening to audio logs, and seeing crew members’ ghosts enacting their final moments. This kind of indirect storytelling is fairly common now, and we’ve seen it in more modern games like Bioshock Infinite and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. System Shock 2 also showed us how you can combine classic RPG and FPS elements to create something original and engaging.
Phantasy Star Online
Phantasy Star Online made the dreams of thousands of lonely, console-loving RPG nerds come true. The Dreamcast really was a trail blazer with its built-in modem, allowing us connect to SegaNet through our dial-up connections and meet in lobbies before going to slash some beasties together. Interacting with strangers through weird emotes in the PSO lobby felt so, so awesome, even though without a keyboard we had no real way of communicating anything meaningful in real time. Surprisingly, online play in PSO was really solid. Game servers were connected directly into SegaNet’s internal network and this made for almost unnoticeable latency.
The Source engine changed everything. Technically we saw Source in Counter-Strike: Source first, but the engine truly shined in Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode 1. Half-Life 2 raised the bars for voice acting, animation, physics, and storytelling for all games, forever, and I can’t think of a single weapon more iconic than the gravity gun; maybe Cloud Strife’s sword? Everyone remembers the exact moment that they got to take control of the overpowered, light-blue, glowing, super gravity gun. I’ve never wasted so much time playing with a weapon in a game as I did playing with that thing. Without Half-Life 2, we’d never have played with Gary’s Mod, and the physics sandbox as we now know it might never have come to exist.
Jet Grind Radio
Yes, this is the third Dreamcast game on my list. What can I say, the Dreamcast was amazing, and Jet Grind Radio ( Jet Set Radio in Japan) was the game that proved once and for all that the Dreamcast was a bastion of creativity, quirkiness, and novelty in the video game industry, for better or for worse. Jet Grind Radio was so funky and fresh I just couldn’t believe it. When my older sister would have friends over or throw a party, I’d make sure I was playing Jet Grind Radio with the volume turned up so I’d look cool. No one had ever seen anything like it: this was the first game to feature cel-shaded graphics. Colors were vibrant and exciting, and all of the characters were brilliantly animated as they bladed across Tokyo-To tagging and battling for turf. The soundtrack is still dope. I’ll still find tunes from the JGR or Jet Set Radio Future soundtracks to bump in my car when I’m cruising. I hope to god Sega makes another one of these games.