It’s easy to forget that there was a time when video games were much more linear than they are today — and when one came along that broke the existing barriers, it was remarkable indeed.
Here are three examples from the days of 8- and 16-bit Nintendo gaming:
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987)
Maybe Nintendo felt that the follow-up to its adventure tale The Legend of Zelda had to be radically different — so instead of an overhead exploration game with RPG elements, we got an overhead exploration game with RPG elements that turned into a side-scrolling action game when you encountered foes or entered dungeons.
And it was hard.
Link was heavily influenced by the side-scrolling exploration that made Metroid so popular — many of the environments even looked and felt like parts of that game’s Planet Zebes.
The Adventure of Link introduced the social element of civilization to the Zelda franchise — no longer was Link’s sole human contact an encounter with a hidden crone in the corner of a dungeon or a hermit in a cave waiting to gamble for your money. Instead there were towns throughout the countryside — and when Link needed healing, he could visit the village floozy! (Come on, you know you were thinking it too.)
In Zelda II, the goal was not to kill the evil warlord Ganon — he was already/still dead from your encounter in the first game. Your goal was to stay alive, for Ganon’s minions needed your blood to resurrect him.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES, 1987)
Konami’s follow-up to its hugely popular arcade port shook things up quite a bit: Gone was the level structure and timer of the first game. You could explore the world of Castlevania freely, day or night — and things were different depending on the time of day. Towns — an element missing from Castlevania — were empty at night, their doors barred against the evils of the night — and in the countryside you faced different foes in the light and the dark.
Similar to the goal of Zelda II, this time around the objective of vampire hunter Simon Belmont was not to kill Dracula. However, the twist was you were trying to resurrect the Prince of Darkness so you could kill him the right way this time — in a way that wouldn’t result in an eternal curse upon your head. To this end, you scoured the lands in search of Drac’s body parts so they could be reassembled and ritually destroyed all over again. What fun!
Super Empire Strikes Back (Super NES, 1993)
Super Star Wars was fun, but it was a little weird. There were elements of this arcade-style side-scroller that just didn’t fit in the Star Wars universe — creatures and droids made up just to kill you, it seemed.
Super Empire had some of that, but it was much more true to the source material than its predecessor — and a lot more fun, and devilishly difficult at times. But the most striking part of the game was its richly detailed environments: For the first time in a video game, it felt like you were actually visiting Hoth, Dagobah and Bespin. The Dagobah levels, in fact, are so atmospheric graphically and aurally that it’s easy to forget you’re playing an action game — until the Gundark rips you in half, or course. And Luke’s lightsaber just burst out of the screen and speakers. Cloud City is swarming with security droids and merciless bounty hunters — and the final duel with Darth Vader, while somewhat anticlimactic, still manages not to disappoint. The Force is with this classic.