First seen in: Atari Football (1978)
Important because: Do you like your 2D action to unfold in something bigger than a single, static arena that doesn’t do anything aside from take up the entire screen? Then scrolling, which moves a much larger background to follow the action, is pretty essential. Surprisingly, this technology didn’t debut in the glorious Defender or the abysmal Pac-Land, but in an ugly, black-and-white football sim from Atari.
True, teams of X’s and Os chasing each other across a bunch of vertical lines and bars is an anticlimactic far cry from scrolling mountains or obstacles. But every cool technology has to start somewhere.
Legacy: In finding an elegant solution for displaying a football field – a seamless environment too big to be contained by a single screen, with action that wouldn’t make sense spread across several static screens – Atari Football blazed a trail that would be followed by most of the games of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And that’s to say nothing of every complicated, league-endorsed sports game that followed it.
First seen in: Fire Truck (1978)
Important because: Playing games by yourself is always fun, sure, but add a friend’s input and they become completely different experiences. It’s even more fun when they’re helping you out, but while plenty of early arcade games featured head-to-head competition for two players, it wasn’t until Fire Truck that someone had the idea to force them to work together. Specifically to steer both ends of a fire truck.
It wasn’t exactly Gears of War. Hell, it wasn’t even Double Dragon. In fact, just looking at it is enough to provoke a knee-jerk “ugh” from all but the most enthusiastic old-school gamers. But we can see how teaming up to steer a high-speed emergency vehicle could be fun, even if said vehicle is only represented as a little gray sprite.
Legacy: Fire Truck, whether it directly influenced other games or not, set the stage for an integral part of some of the most influential and important games of the last 25 years. The option for two-player co-op made shooters like Contra much more fun than they are as solo experiences, and kept brawlers from being too daunting or repetitive. It also gave rise to four-player co-op in games like Gauntlet and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and eventually gave us one of the most sought-after online features in modern games.
First seen in: Adventure (1979)
Important because: You see that “Cheats & Guides” section at the top of this page? It exists only because of people like Adventure designer Warren Robinett. Cheats weren’t really around during the Atari 2600 era, and putting hidden, optional things in games for players to find was totally unheard of. Adventure changed that by squeezing in a super-secret hidden room that was damn near impossible to find accidentally. What treasure did it hide? Why, Robinett’s own name, written in huge letters!
This also made Adventure the first Atari game to credit one of its developers, something the company didn’t do as a matter of policy (allegedly because it wanted to keep its talent safe from being headhunted by rivals).
Legacy: Countless thousands of games with hidden secrets and cheat codes, ranging from Gradius and its famous Konami Code, to all the semi-secret collectibles that keep the game-guide industry chugging along. All thanks to one man who had a well-deserved fit of vanity 31 years ago.
First seen in: Rally-X (1980)
Important because: If your experience with videogames only extends back a decade or two, this might seem like another no-brainer; nearly every commercial game uses background music, and it’s noticeable when they don’t. A good soundtrack can add to the experience of playing games immeasurably; hell, that’s why we’ve got a daily feature dedicated to especially memorable tunes.
However, until Namco’s Rally-X came along in 1980, continuous background music in a videogame was unheard-of – and even afterward, it wouldn’t really become a standard feature until the rollout of the NES. Maybe that had something to do with the repetitiveness of Rally-X’s little chase ditty. Or not – it’s nothing to write home about today, but it was nonetheless a revolutionary idea for the time, and one that helped bring games closer to our current idea of what they should be.
Legacy: Did we mention the daily feature? Videogame music is an art form unto itself, whether we’re talking about Castlevania’s iconic soundtrack, Bioshock’s haunting score or the work of game-inspired chiptunes artists like Anamanaguchi. To think it’s an art form that started with a single game (much less a game as unassuming and unsung as Rally-X), rather than with some sort of grand industry consensus, is a little mind-boggling.
First seen in: Stratovox (1980)
Important because: Like music and sound, speech has become an important (and unintentionally hilarious) way to make games and their characters more interesting and lifelike. Before we got used to it, though, the idea of a game that could actually talk to us was a huge draw. It was also the only reason we can imagine anyone wanting to play Stratovox in 1980.
Like a Galaga without the charm, Stratovox tasked players with protecting a row of humans against squads of dive-bombing, kidnapping aliens. Thanks to the arcade machine’s speech-synthesis capabilities, its human victims could bellow “HELP ME,” VERY GOOD,” “WE’LL BE BACK” and “LUCKY.” It wasn’t recorded speech (that wouldn’t happen until later, with games like Sinistar and Star Wars), and frankly it was grating and horrible, but still – a game that could talk? In 1980, that was a big deal. Big enough to carve out a place in history for a decidedly mediocre space shooter, at least.
Legacy: Once Stratovox and other games like Berzerk upped the ante by making their characters talk, arcade-machine developers had a new way to stand out and draw players to their games – which, of course, would mean that speech became increasingly common over the next several years, giving us immortal phrases like Gauntlet’s “BLUE VALKYRIE NEEDS FOOD, BADLY!” and eventually bleeding into console and PC games. Thanks to the storage space of disc-based media and the general demand for high production values, fully voice-acted games have become commonplace. Sometimes this has led to horrifying results, but it’s still hard to imagine going back to reading unending lines of text without someone to act it out for us.
First seen in: Pac-Man (1980)
Important because: If you haven’t yet caught on, 1980 was kind of an important year for big strides forward in gaming, and one of them would play a key role in turning games into a storytelling medium. Cutscenes, love them or hate them, appeared for the first time in Pac-Man, of all games.
While it spent most of its time as a relatively straightforward dot-muncher, completing a couple of levels opened up brief, comical interludes about Pac-Man and the ghosts chasing each other around. They couldn’t really be called a “story,” exactly, but they were entertaining enough, in a silent-movie kind of way.
Above: Haven’t seen this? Then play past the second maze sometime
Legacy: They also set the stage for cut-away story sequences in countless future games, giving birth to what’s either the most compelling or most irritating thing about story-heavy games, depending on how patient you are.