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Written by Layden   
Thursday, 08 October 2009 00:00
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The Evolution of 3D Gaming

The purpose of this article is to look at how 3D games have evolved over the years.  We are not just focusing on the rendering technology, but also how the use of 3D has opened up the style of gameplay available to the player.  To do this we will pick what we feel are some of the more notable 3D games in the videogaming world over the years.  Eight 8-bit titles and eight 16-bit titles are featured here.  Perhaps you disagree or feel we overlooked a particular title. If so, please post a comment and let the debate begin!  For now, let us rewind the clock back to 1980...

Battlezone - (1980) Coin-op

This is a landmark title.  No more 2D "Space Invaders" or "Asteroids", this game offered a full 3D landscape for the player to travel in.  Taking control of a tank (with authentic forward/reverse levers for each tread), the player must simply destroy enemy vehicles on the landscape.  The graphics are very simple.  Green vectors on a black background.  Strangely, the graphics still look rather neat, probably due to their sleekness (the minimalist approach also leaves much to the imagination, which helps).  Also important, enemy vehicles explode in a rather satisfying way!  The gameplay is equally slick - kill or be killed.  While it is simple, the feeling of being in a tank in a hostile terrain is convincing.  It was so groundbreaking at the time that the US Military used a customised version for training.

Star Wars - (1983) Coin-op

Not the videogaming industry's first movie tie-in, but "Star Wars" was actually one of the better early efforts.  Graphics are still vector-based but are multicolour and are quite clearly recognisable as their movie counterparts.  The game drops the player into the cockpit of an X-Wing Fighter with 3 scenes from the movie played out: Deathstar approach, surface flyover and final trench approach.  The latter in particular is incredibly immersive.  The sound was good for the time, with synthesised phrases from the film and the usual film themes.  It all sounds a bit twee these days though!  The game is still fun to play today, but gets repetitive very quickly.  Still, the feeling of immersion remains impressive, although it is inevitably best experienced in the sit-in cabinet version.

Rescue On Fractalus - (1984) Atari 5200

Not so much a leap forward as a massive step sideways, Lucasfilm Games' "Rescue On Fractalus" used a highly ambitious fractal based graphics engine to generate its 3D landscape.  The idea came from one of the designers of the Project Genesis segment of the Star Trek II movie.  He also had an interest in the then up and coming videogame industry and wondered if it would be possible to create a real-time fractal engine on such a machine.  The result was a surprisingly realistic (for the time) landscape which possessed very smooth movement considering the hardware it ran on.  It was not just a gimmick either, as it helped to create an extremely absorbing game environment for the player.  The basic idea of the game was to cruise the landscape and locate survivors from crashed ships, while avoiding enemy attacks.  The player would then land and the stranded pilot would knock on the ship's hull to enter.  Again, a very simple concept but flawlessly executed.  The same fractal engine would be used in two other atmospheric Lucasfilm titles; "Koronis Rift" and "The Eidolon".

Elite - (1984) BBC Model B

Not content with one world?  How about exploring a whole galaxy (and more!).  "Elite" was an astonishing achievement for the time, both in terms of technical excellence and of game design.  The game offered a convincing space flight element (with combat) and an in-depth strategy element.  Starting the game as a lowly trader docked in Lave space-station, the player must fight and trade their way through the galaxy to raise their bank balance and status.  As the game progresses, the player can upgrade their ship.  There are special missions to carry out also, and there is also the possibility to warp to another galaxy.  The fluid wireframe graphics were used to depict a credible environment.  There are busy spacelanes with other ships going about their business.  There are many types of spaceships (both friendly and hostile), as well as realistically simulated solar systems.  The sound is functional with basic effects, but then space is a quiet place.  Gameplay is both freeform an open-ended - very unique for its time.  "Elite" was successfully converted to just about every mainstream 8 and 16-bit home computer platform around.  Sequels have been and gone, but were never as popular.  "Elite" remains as timeless classic which, for sheer depth of gameplay, still puts most modern games to shame.

Mercenary - (1985) Atari 800 XL/XE

Detailed 3D graphics.  Numerous ways to complete the game.  Interaction with game characters which influences the gameplay.  These are features that games like "Deus Ex" and "Halflife" would boast about, but "Mercenary: Escape from Targ" (to use its full title) by Paul Woakes used all these ideas long before.  After crash landing on the planet Targ, the player must somehow find a means of escape.  The planet has one main city with many roads and structures scattered on the surface.  Beneath the surface is an array of underground chambers and corridors.  There is much mapping and exploration to do.  There are many objects to find which can assist you.  There is also some action involved as the planet is in the middle of a civil war between the Palyars and the Mechanoids.  Choosing which side to join influences how the gameplay develops (and will make the player an enemy of the other side).  On the surface there are many vehicles to hop into in order to explore the environment, on ground or by air.  The graphics are very fast and very detailed.  Mountains, buildings, bridges, signs (the Atari version gives you bonus points for destroying Commodore signs and vice versa for the C64 version!) are all neatly depicted.  However it is the gameplay that is the real winner here.  While there is an objective, the gameplay is largely freeform.  If you're not interested in the adventure side then you can even just grab a spaceship and simply play the game as a shoot-em-up!

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