5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 1

Pioneers have always been a very important part of the video game industry, they mark the few occasions where someone tried to do something different and that something different actually turned out to be cool enough for other people to rip-off. And if it turns out to be REALLY cool, then it eventually even becomes the new standard that everyone has to adhere to if they want to be taken seriously.

Screen vignetting, multiplayer perks, hidden collectibles, regenerating health, achievements, all features that a lot of us expect to find in modern games without question. But they weren’t always there; somewhere along the way there had to be a game that marked the beginning of that trend. A game where a bunch of smaller ideas came together in the exact right combination for someone to think “Hey, that’s a pretty good thing they got going on there. We should all probably copy that!”.

Sometimes the effects are instantaneous and publishers will start to shoehorn this new idea into every project they can overnight. Other times the idea will lay dormant for years until it finally clicks in someone’s mind what they’d been missing out on. Either way, in most cases the games are well remembered as pioneers of design. Just ask around, most serious gamers can tell you off the top of their head all the things that modern FPSs owe to Halo, why just about every multiplayer game is considered a Call of Duty clone or how MMOs are desperately trying to ape World of Warcraft.

But sadly, some get left out of the limelight and are only remembered by a relatively small number of people who try to preserve the memory of these gaming pioneers as best they can. So that’s what I wanted to write about in this 5 part series, I wanted to tell people about 5 games that I think represent significant moments in game design history that too many people don’t really know about. 5 games that I believe have pretty major resonance with modern gaming, and as such deserve to be remembered by more people than they are. It’s my hope that these articles can in some way spread the memory of these forgotten games and their developers, but most of all I hope you find this little history lesson both interesting and entertaining. So here we go, enjoy!

WinBack (N64/PS2)

Without it we might not have had: Gears of War, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid 2 onward (as we know it anyway).

What did it pioneer? The modern cover mechanic.

Here’s a little question for you: imagine you’re playing a run of the mill third person shooter and you’ve just walked into a gunfight. You’re taking a lot of damage so you need somewhere to take cover. All that stands between you and your assailants is a box that you think might be large enough to obscure the lower half of your characters body. So what do you do?

A) Press the crouch button (if the game even has one) then walk up against the surface of the box which may or may not actually cover enough of your body to prevent you getting hit. When you want to start shooting back you then have to un-crouch, take your shots, then crouch again before your health bar (remember those?) gets chewed up.

B) Run up to the box and have you character, either automatically or via button press “snap” to box’s surface in such a way that they will be full protected from oncoming fire. When you see an opportunity to shoot back, you simply press the aiming button to have your character pop out from behind the cover, and then automatically return to the exact same “safe” position behind the box when you feel you window of opportunity is up.

If you selected B, then congratulations! You’ve probably played a generic third person shooter made in the last 4 or so years. These days if you tried to publish one that didn’t have this sort of “Snap to cover” mechanic, then you’d likely be made laughing stock by the gaming community. It’s one of those features that most players subconsciously DEMAND be present, anything short of it is simply ridiculous right?

It can be a bit of a culture shock when you realised how quickly the cover mechanic became a standard. It really wasn’t too long ago that most third person shooters were of the run-and-gun variety, where the closest thing you had to the concept of “Cover” was the aforementioned rather haphazard crouching maneuver. Even then that only worked on objects approximately 2/3 the height of your character; the idea of being able to take cover behind anything taller was more commonly known as “accidently circle strafing behind a wall”

Tracking this mechanic’s origin doesn’t seem too hard at first, it’s undoubtedly late 2006’s Gears of War that made the whole thing popular, and lead developer Cliff Bleszinski unapologetically admitted that the cover system in that game was lifted from a 2003 title called Kill.Switch (another unsung gaming pioneer for implementing the “blind fire from cover” technique shown above). But to find out where this party really got started we need to go all the way back to 1999 and take a look at a game way ahead of its time, a game that saddens me so few people have heard of. WinBack for the N64.

What was it? A standard shooter.

WinBack‘s story can be summarised thusly: terrorists have taken over a military base housing a super weapon and the player takes the role of Jean-Luc, an agent of Special Covert Action Team (yes that’s right, S.C.A.T) who’s been sent in to shoot all the terrorists until they die from it. You may laugh, but I bet you there’s at least a hand full of “next-gen” shooters in development right now with the exact same premise. Anyway, the narrative is irrelevant in this context, just watch this little gameplay video and see if you recognize anything.

(Before any complaints about the quality, this isn’t my video it’s just the most illustrative one I could find on YouTube.)

Yup there it is. That cover system that we all know and (hopefully) love in all its glory. You may also notice its aiming mode is the sort of “precision fire” laser sight assisted type popularised by Resident Evil 4. While that never became a standard itself, it’s still pretty amusing to see it being used in such a similar way over 5 years earlier than most people would expect.

Speaking of RE4, I’d say WinBack’s 2006 sequel, WinBack 2: Project Poseidon is also worth a mention. It didn’t do anything new as such, but it was one of the first games to combine RE4’s “over-the-shoulder” aiming perspective with the cover mechanic its predecessor pioneered, a combination that most certainly DID become a standard!

Why was it forgotten? Really bad timing.

Despite the evolutionary leaps forward for the genre, the WinBack series was a victim of some truly awful timing on multiple occasions. By the time of its release in 1999 the PS1 had already spent a good few years beating the N64 into irrelevancy, destroying any chance WinBack had of stardom. It was eventually re-released in 2001 as an early PS2 game, but even with a significant graphical overhaul it came across as somewhat dated, and ended up being buried underneath the multitude of major blockbusters that came out that year.

WinBack 2: Project Poseidon ran into similar problems. When it came out in 2006 all three major 7th generation platforms had launched, meaning the expectations placed on any games that were part of the mighty PS2′s (and mighty huge Xbox’s) swan song were rather high. So despite yet another evolutionary step forward in gameplay mechanics, WinBack once again came across as lacking, especially when the revolutionary graphical bonanza Gears of War was only a few months away from release. But would Gears of War of have ever existed at all without WinBack? I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Where are the developers now? Hacking ‘n Slashing.

When I was doing research for this feature, I was totally prepared for this section to be ultra-depressing. I expected for these noble game developers to whom we owe so much to have faded away from memory just as their games did, and that their teams had been disbanded by mean old publishers never to heard from again. I was wrong. Oh so wrong. Because I’d forgotten who made WinBack; a small development team owned by Koei (now known as Tecmo Koei) called Omega Force.

So then, what did Omega Force do after their revolutionary third person shooter was a flop? Well it seems they decided to revisit their first title, a fighting game on the PS1 called Sangoku Musou. Don’t recognise the name? Well let’s just say westerners know it as Dynasty Warriors.

Calling Omega Force prolific would be a bloody understatement; since 1997 there’s been a mind blowing 40 titles bearing the “Warriors” name, and they don’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down (even though Capcom’s copycat franchise Sengoku Basara is WAAAAY cooler).

But just to make sure you realise that not all these stories have a happy ending; Cavia, who developed WinBack 2, didn’t have it quite so good. They spent most of the last decade developing a vast range of distinctly average tie-in games for pre-existing franchises like Ghost in the Shell and Dragon Ball Z, none of which received much critical acclaim. The only games they worked on that you’re likely to have heard of are Resident Evil: Darkside/Umbrella Chronicles and Neir Gestalt/Replicant. In late 2010 Cavia was disbanded, and I think I must be one of the few people who actually cared. You see, Cavia were also responsible for Drakengard on the PS2, which despite some awful gameplay had one of my favourite storylines ever! Rest in peace Cavia.

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