3D games have come a long way since their humble origins as wireframe arcade novelties like 1980’s tank battle simulator, Battlezone. It’s easy to forget that the road to next generation Xbox titles like Halo: Infinite was paved with decades of experimentation, innovation and investment. This is especially true for those who aren’t old enough to have experienced the sacrifices gamers once had to endure due to the poor design decisions and teething issues of early 3D titles. 7
Since the general release of the Playstation 1 in 1995 and the Nintendo 64 hot on its heels in 1996, 3D games have been a regular fixture of consumer gaming, but the new medium brought with it many fresh challenges that had to be overcome. From figuring out the best way to control a character in three dimensional space, to working out where to put the in-game camera in order to see what you’re doing, these creases had to be ironed out one-by-one.
Here we take a look at some of the most innovative and impactful games of the early 3D era, games that not only achieved critical and commercial success, but helped set the blueprint for game design that is still in use in 2021.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Square’s series of turn-based RPG games had already made a name for themselves for their ambitious scope and storytelling on Nintendo’s NES and SNES systems. With 1997’s Final Fantasy VII, the series boldly stepped into 3D for the first time. The game frequently makes top-lists of the best titles from the 90s, though its significance to the broader history of video games is only now beginning to emerge.
With a revolutionary blend of cinematic cut-scenes and mature story-telling, FF7 is considered an important landmark in the history of games and a harbinger that they could one day overtake films as a popular medium. With Activision’s Call of Duty franchise now outselling the combined profits of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, just how prophetic that prediction was now rings true. With platforms like Twitch, players even gain huge viewership broadcasting their gameplay.
The game was a major coup for Sony’s new Playstation console, a system originally designed to be the 32-bit successor to the SNES in partnership with Nintendo. To date it is one of the best selling RPGs of all time, with over 12 million units sold in its initial Playstation release.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
To this day many people consider Ocarina of Time to be the greatest game ever made. Over 20 years later, it holds the top spot on Metacritic as the most critically well regarded game in history. Truly a game of firsts, Ocarina of Time pioneered camera systems, world-building and control mechanics that are still in use to this day in 3rd person games.
The use of the in-game engine for story cutscenes, rather than 3D renders, was rooted in director Shigeru Miyamoto’s insistence that the game use a visual language of storytelling unique to the medium. Today it’s hard to find a game that doesn’t aim for this seamless integration of cinematics and gameplay, and they all have Ocarina of Time to thank for this initial spark.
GTA III (2001)
It would be no understatement to say that Grand Theft Auto 3, the first 3D iteration in the series, created the open world genre as we know it today. From the cinematic missions and cutscenes, to the massive, detailed free-roaming world, nobody had ever seen anything like it before.
GTA 3 effectively conjured the sense of participating in a living world that was indifferent to your actions (unless provoked). With a host of different weapons and vehicles to enjoy, three distinct islands that could be unlocked, and realistic physics, this game encouraged exploration and rule-breaking. Released in 2001, GTA3 has sold over 14 million units throughout the past two decades, and continues to be warmly regarded by gaming aficionados. While its successors, GTA 4 and 5, each pushed the envelope of 3D world-building, it was GTA 3 that made the first colossal leap into the future.