It’s a rare feeling when a game pulls the rug from under your feet and drops your jaw in amazement. It usually happens only once per generation, and it could be anything from the graphics to a groundbreakingly real gameplay innovation to something as simple as a surprisingly human expression on a fictional 3D head.
Here’s some of the moments in my gaming past that I will never forget, the ones that gave me that sense of wonder, amazement and immersion that has kept me gaming to this day.
I will never forget the first time I saw Mario double jump his way into the third dimension. It was the launch week of the N64 and i was standing in the now-defunct GAME store on Dublin’s Grafton Street, watching the demo video over and over again. I just couldn’t believe it, it absolutely blew my mind (I was 12). When I finally got my hands on an N64 and sat in my bedroom stretching Mario’s ears and nose on the title screen, I almost shat myself with excitement. The game, as we all know, was and is amazing, but that initial feeling of pure joy at seeing what next-gen graphics were capable of has never since been matched for me. Yes, video game graphics got exponentially better every gen, but that leap from SNES to N64 really felt like the future had arrived.
I was very excited about the Rumble Pack and was so amazed by the immersive experience of the controller being shaken in my hands that I didn’t even notice all the faults of Lylat Wars (Starfox 64). It was like videogames had reached out and were shaking me and it was a wonderful thing. And while it has become so bog-standard now (I honestly can’t remember the last time i even noticed it), there was something significantly powerful about plugging that giant pack into the back of your controller. I always imagined I was loading a gun. Because I’m a loser and had probably played too much Goldeneye.
I loved the first GTA (couranga!) and I even loved the minor improvements of the second one. So when the third one showed up, I was expecting another fun, top-down car-stealing experience. What we got was a massive open world that we could experience right there on the ground. You could see yourself in the driver’s seat and feel bones break as you grabbed a stranger and kicked them senselessly in the middle of the street. GTA 3 dragged you out of the sky, brought you down to the street and made everything so incredibly real and involving that I’ll never forget it. Nowadays though, GTA3 is on my phone and I never even play it because my attention span is gone.
Splinter Cell came about halfway through the life cycle of the Xbox so it certainly didn’t arrive with the fanfare of next-gen graphics. But it stood out to me as being the most natural lighting I’d ever seen in a game. And the motion of simple fabrics like curtains or sheets was impressively real for the time. Not to mention that Sam Fisher’s first adventure was a great action-stealth game with some superb voice work from the indefatigable Michael Ironside.
This game was amazing for many many reasons, but what really stood out in my mind (the mind of a teenage boy) was that you could flirt with members of your party and even have sex with them! Granted, having sex meant exchanging coy dialogue, then saying “see you in my room” and watching the fade to black as it magically became morning, but it was amazing nonetheless. What’s more, it even had consequences. I remember the next morning being particularly awkward as the young elfen mage I had bedded wouldn’t talk to me and wanted to just be friends. I don’t know what my guy did up there, but she clearly wasn’t a fan.
My favourite part of Halo was the beach landing at the beginning of the first level. I remember looking at the faces of the marines as we rode thedropship towards the island and I marvelled at how realistic they looked. I remember thinking it was a far cry from the painted, blocky faces of Goldeneye on my previous console. Then came the beach landing. Watching from the chopper as you land into an ongoing firefight, I remember being amazed at how much AI was at work down there. It was my favourite level in Halo and the one I replayed the most.
Making a world truly interactive was the stuff of fiction before Half Life 2. Valve’s revolutionary gravity engine meant you could pick up almost anything and with the gravity gun, the most innocuous object became a deadly weapon. Once you started thinking of the environment as active and reactive, you would start to notice the little opportunities that valve cleverly dropped in, like dropping a plank of wood on a soldier’s head or shooting a door so it releases explosive barrels.
I’m a massive Star Wars fan and for this universe to be combined with my favourite game genre, the RPG, was pure joy. And this was an incredible accomplishment by Bioware. The story, environments and characters were all fiendishly engrossing, the gameplay had depth and it even had a decent twist. Knights was one of those games that stole my life away and it was a powerful moment for the progression of the medium that a video game could surpass a trilogy of movies it was based on (you know which trilogy I mean), in pretty much every way possible.