The History of Video Games: Action, Fighting, and First-Person Shooters

This is a recurring, limited series where I discuss the history and evolution of video games. I will discuss general history as well as history of various genres and their ties to culture.


Platformers might be one of the most important video game genres to push gaming forward, but there is another variety that is equally important for how video games were viewed in the future: action. As previously discussed, platform games more or less evolved into the action genre, including popular titles such as Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, and more. Though while platformers might have evolved into action-adventure games, there are other types of action games, as well. There are Beat ’em Ups, Fighters, and First-Person Shooters. These are the types of games we will be looking at here.

Space Invaders can be considered the first major, important action game–we’ve already discussed how crucial it was for gaming just in general. Let’s start with a company called Data East out of Japan. Originally created in 1976, Data East was a video game manufacturer. In 1981, three staff from Data East created Technōs Japan, which would later go on to partner with Data East and put out games together. The biggest of these was a game called Karate Champ (and later that same year, Karate Champ–Player vs. Player) which would be the first major fighting game, which also included Best-of-3 style matches, specialized moves, and Player vs. Player (PvP) fighting. In 1984, Data East released Kung-Fu Master (aka Spartan X), the first major side-scrolling Beat ‘Em Up. These two games would more or less become the Godfathers of the genre.

Kung-Fu Masters, aka Spartan X

Data East would go on to release another popular side-scrolling Beat ‘Em Up 3 years later with Double Dragon. The Beat ‘Em Up subgenre would continue mildly over the years with superhero and Ninja Turtles titles and other side-scrolling punchers, but it would ultimately die down before a revitalization in 2000. However, the same year as Double Dragon, another title was released. This game was also, at least in part, inspired by Kung-Fu Master: Capcom’s Street Fighter. Though while the original Street Fighter is beloved, it wasn’t until Street Fighter II in 1991 that the franchise exploded. The game became the basis of almost every fighting game to follow.

One of the most important games for the fighting genre.

Other fighting games would come out during this time, including SNK’s Fatal Fury: King of Fighters (1991), but it was the following year, in 1992, where video games would change everything. Street Fighter II was massive, and people wanted to compete with it, similar to Sega’s competition with Nintendo and Mario. Midway came along and were like “We need a fighting game. Now!” Inspired by Karate Champ, Ed Boon and John Tobias first created a ninja-based action game, though Midway turned it down. They wanted something similar to the film Universal Soldier with a digitized Jean-Claude Van Damme. Unfortunately, he was already in talks with another company, so that idea was also scrapped. Tobias and Boon merged the two ideas with ninja-based fighters and an egotistical action movie star character and created Mortal Kombat. Fighting games, such as Street Fighter, included a game mechanic called “Dizzy,” which left characters swaying around, open for a free hit from the opposing fighter. Boon hated this mechanic and instead moved it to the end of the fight where the winning fighter could perform a secret move to kill their swaying opponent–this came to be known as the ever-controversial, ultra-violent “Fatality” mechanic.

Sub-Zero Wins. Fatality.

In the 10 years from the Video Game Crash, the world had shifted from Super Mario Bros to Mortal Kombat. 1993 also, coincidentally, saw a peak year in gun violence in the US with an estimated 7 shootings per 100,000 people. And by December 1993, the US government began having Congressional hearings (led by Joe Leiberman and herb Kohl) about violent video games and their effects on children. While Mortal Kombat was the leading issue, there were other games involved (such as an interactive movie-type game, Night Trap, and a Light Gun game called Lethal Enforcers).

Representatives from Nintendo and Sega were brought in. Keep in mind, both companies were on the top of the gaming world at this point. Nintendo saved the industry in 1986, and Sega had released Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991 and was still sailing on their success. Nintendo didn’t want a repeat of the Crash of ’83 and were cautious of the games they released. Sega, on the other hand, worked with many third-party developers and would released just about anything in order to compete with Nintendo’s catalog. Both companies would port Mortal Kombat, though Nintendo censored the blood and gore, while Sega embraced it. Three guesses on which port did better. (These issues led Nintendo to repeatedly blasting Sega in court.)

These hearings would eventually result in the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which worked similarly to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) in that it gave ratings to games, letting parents and store-owners know who should be able to buy certain games.

But before we can talk about what happened next, we have to pause and go back in time. Let’s travel all the way back to 1973, Maze War was a basic computer game where you traveled through a maze and shot at other players. Atari’s Battlezone (1980) placed players behind a tank barrel and Midway’s Wizard of Wor (1981) saw a 3rd person top-down view for players shooting monsters or each other. There were also many light gun shooters over the years, where you actually held a laser-firing toy gun to shoot at the screen–one of the most well known being Nintendo’s Duck Hunt (1984). 1987 gave us MIDI Maze, where multiple players could be in a maze at once, bringing in an early version of online PvP and being basically one of the first Battle Royale style games that are popular as of late.

Then iD Software joined the game. John Carmack was able to figure out how to easily render 3D surroundings, and in 1992, Wolfenstein 3D was born. It was a massive success and almost single-handedly spawned the First-Person Shooter (FPS) genre. And then iD, big on their success, released Doom the next year. Doom (inspired by a mix of D&D, Aliens, and Evil Dead II) would become one of the biggest and most influential games ever created, solidifying newfound graphics, technology, networked gaming, and an entire genre. Doom had realistic-looking violence, blood, and gore (especially for the time), also including demons and Satanic imagery (since you were fighting demons, after all). Doom was released the day after the first congressional hearing on video game violence.

Look at all this horrible, realistic violence Doom brought.

Doom wasn’t part of the hearings, however. It wouldn’t come into the equation until 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed the Columbine massacre. The boys were avid fans of the game (among others, such as Duke Nukem 3D–another FPS, which came out in 1996). Many cite that the video games themselves did not spawn the violence or behavior but rather inspired certain how the violence occurred (similar to saying “Harry Potter and my love of Hagrid didn’t make me buy and sell dangerous animals, but I did name my dog Fluffy after the three-headed dog from the book”). The shooting would likely have happened with or without the games.

Speaking of controversy, more would begin later that decade when DMA Design came around. They wanted to create a car racing game entitled Race’n’Chase in 1995 using similar ideas as Pac-Man. The game would see you taking cars, running over people (Pac-Man dots), and being chased by police (ghosts). The game would release in 1997 as Grand Theft Auto (GTA). DMA would later be acquired by Take-Two Interactive, and some of DMA’s developers would shift to one of Take-Two’s subsidiaries, Rockstar Games. Rockstar would go on to establish the GTA franchise as one of the biggest open-world action games ever. They would also go on later to create another beloved action game franchise, Red Dead, which would spawn the open-world, award-winning western Red Dead Redemption in 2010 (and later a prequel). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

It’s like the car is saying “waka-waka-waka.”

In 1993 and 1994, we would get Sega’s Virtua Fighter and Origins’ System Shock (respectively), both being influential to even bigger games later. 1994 also gave us a new fighter from Namco, Tekken, which would go on to become another popular franchise alongside Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Sega also released light gun shooter Virtua Cop in 1994, which would also go on to become another inspirational game. Namco’s Time Crisis and Sega’s House of the Dead were two more light gun shooters that came out over the next couple years. But the next massive game also came from iD, this time in 1996. Originally inspired to put out another fighter like Virtua Fighter, iD turned around and shifted the game to be another FPS: Quake.

Its success was big, though it would soon be overshadowed by a company called Epic Games and their release of a new gaming engine and game: Unreal (1998). This would also soon be followed up by Unreal Tournament in 1999, which was one of the first major multi-player FPS games.

FPS games weren’t all massively online multi-players, though. Nintendo hit it big by teaming up with company Rare yet again. Rare had brought Nintendo acclaim with the Donkey Kong Country platformers and were now developing another game for the Nintendo 64. It was a shooter inspired by Sega’s Virtua Cop: Goldeneye 007, a James Bond FPS that is still considered one of the greatest console shooters ever made. Nintendo would also go on to introduce another game for the Nintendo 64 that would become an important franchise for the fighting genre: the cross-over hit, Super Smash Bros. (1999). The franchise would see various Nintendo characters coming together to fill out the fighter roster, such as Mario (and connected characters), Donkey Kong, Link/Zelda, Kirby, Pikachu, and more.

Look at that tiny roster.

But FPS, which had been big on action and short on story, decided to try a new direction. In 1998, Valve released Half-Life, a story-focused FPS, to much acclaim. Half-Life would then inspire Counter-Strike the following year, a FPS game that did not include re-spawning (re-appearing on the game map after death to continue playing). And the war-based FPS concept truly began with EA and Steven Spielberg’s Medal of Honor franchise in 1999.

The 21st Century brought the Beat ‘Em Up back (and its sister-genre, the Hack ‘n Slash) into popularity. Games like Capcom’s Devil May Cry series or even Viewtiful Joe saw stylized violence with bigger in-game rewards the crazier the violence was. Ninja Gaiden, which was originally a Beat ‘Em Up from the 80s, saw a revitalization in 2004. The God of War franchise kicked off for the PlayStation 2 in 2005, which saw the player as Spartan warrior Kratos, out to fight mythological monsters on his mission to gain vengeance on Ares, the Greek god of war (the franchise would later turn to Norse Mythology in 2018). Bayonetta would continue the Hack ‘n Slash genre in 2009; the same year, Rocksteady would release Batman: Arkham Asylum, the first in their critically acclaimed Arkham franchise. And there wouldn’t be another solid superhero franchise until Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018, adding open-world exploration to the action. And although the Beat ‘Em Up genre was (and still is) highly popular, it didn’t revolutionize gaming the way First-Person Shooters did.

The FPS genre put computer gaming on the map as a real contender against consoles. But nothing would match the sheer massiveness as the game to come in 2000, where the computer and the console would come together. Microsoft released its first major gaming console, the Xbox in November 2001. Two weeks later, they released Halo: Combat Evolved in partnership with Bungie. And Halo essentially did for Xbox what Mario did for the NES, making Microsoft one of the Big 3 contenders in the modern console wars. When they released Xbox Live in 2002 and Halo 2 in 2004, massive multi-player online console gaming was born. (Bungie would also go on to create Destiny 10 years later.)

Halo.

The FPS explosion continued with the Call of Duty franchise 2003, beginning the frequent release of war-based FPS, to which there are currently 16 CoD games over the last 17 years. Some of the people who worked for Infinity Ward (creators of CoD) had also worked on Medal of Honor. These games are consistently seen as (and sometimes mocked for being) synonymous with modern FPS gaming and modern gaming culture. Epic Games would return again in 2006, after focusing on the Unreal franchise, with Gears of War for the Xbox 360.

But everyone else was not out of the running yet. Nintendo revitalized the Metroid franchise in 2002 with Metroid Prime, a FPS game for the Gamecube that highlighted exploration more than non-stop shooting. It wasn’t the only FPS that focused less on violence and more on other qualities. Portal (and its sequel) focused on shooting a gun to create portals that helped solve puzzles, while Mirror’s Edge focused on parkour and movement.

Valve returned in 2004 to give Half-Life 2, a game so popular that the gaming world has been waiting for a proper sequel for the last 16 years with no hint to its possible future existence. Take-Two returned with their subsidiary 2K Games releasing two horror/survival FPS games in 2006 and 2007. Prey was released first to computers and Xbox 360. And then, inspired by System Shock (and considered a pseudo-successor), 2K released Bioshock, a science fiction dystopian horror game where you explore an underwater haven that had become overrun with genetically modified people who have been driven insane.

Bioshock

The FPS genre would continue to grow, changing the direction and focus of console gaming, specifically gearing toward more online game play and interaction. Games like Team Fortress 2, Overwatch, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG) would dominate the culture, the latter popularizing the Battle Royale style of gaming which would take Counter-Strike‘s perma-death concept until only one remained, but on a much larger scale. Finally, Epic Games would return once again in 2017 to dominate the Battle Royale style game (and force obsession with annoying dance moves onto kids everywhere) by releasing the third-person shooter, Fortnite.

Very few video game genres have been tied so closely to modern culture as action games and all its subgenres. From their influence over culture and behavior (from government hearings and the ESRB to Leroy Jenkins and flossing) as well as gaming addiction (second only to perhaps MMORPGs, which we will discuss in the future), action games are the most popular genre of gaming, hands down. But there is still one subgenre of action-adventure gaming briefly mentioned that deserves its own discussion, a subgenre also pushed into popularity by Capcom, much like it did for fighters with Street Fighter.

Next on Video Game History: Survival Horror

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