Innovation comes in many forms. Some of the most notable innovators in history earned their notoriety by refining or popularizing an idea rather than strictly inventing it. Even still, there’s something special about those who did it “first,” especially when it comes to video games.
While video game companies haven’t always done the best job of preserving the medium’s history, we always have to remind ourselves that gaming really isn’t that old. As such, we actually know who to credit for a surprising amount of video game firsts. For that matter, many people were probably still alive when many of those firsts occurred. Yet, we rarely give credit where credit is due when it comes to video game firsts. Innovation may come in many forms, but understanding the earliest day of certain concepts is an important part of understanding and appreciating how the modern gaming industry came to be.
With all of that being said, it’s important to note that there are early parts of video game history that are still being discovered. While we have a pretty good idea of who has the best claims to certain “firsts,” there’s always room for debate and discussions. If you feel like you know a first we may have overlooked, join the discussion and let us know about it in the comments below.
15. First Arcade Video Game – Computer Space
While projects like 1954’s Auto Test (an interactive driving instructor that was also used for entertainment) experimented with basic arcade video game concepts, arcade gaming as we know it didn’t really take off until the 1970s.
1971’s Computer Space put players in control of a spaceship and asked them to shoot down incoming flying saucers. Its gameplay was as simple as could be, but everything about Computer Space‘s technology and “insert-quarter-to-play” commercial release would soon form the foundation of the arcade video game industry. But of course, Computer Space co-creator Nolan Bushnell’s next major project, 1972’s Pong, would end up being far more successful.
14. First Female Video Game Protagonist – Billie Sue (Wabbit)
The first game to star a named and playable female character was 1982’s Wabbit for the Atari 2600. That unique title featured a farmer named Billie Sue, who was tasked with defending crops from rabbits.
Interestingly, Wabbit was also an early example of a game designed by a woman (Vietnamese programmer Van Mai, then Van Tran). Unfortunately, because she was mistakenly identified as Ban Tran for quite some time (and left the gaming industry shortly after Wabbit‘s release), her contributions to the industry were nearly forgotten. Thankfully, researchers helped restore her and Billie Sue’s place in history.
13. First Video Game Cheat Code – “xyzzy” (Colossal Cave Adventure)
You have to go all the way back to 1977’s Colossal Cave Adventure to find the very first cheat code. In that text-based adventure title, players are able to type the phrase “xyzzy” at a certain point in order to skip a large section of the game.
Interestingly, designer Will Crowther implemented the “xyzzy” command at the request of his sister, who was helping him test the game. Crowther left it in the final game as he figured that there were probably “a lot of impatient people out there who would appreciate a shortcut.” Many early cheat codes were actually implemented to help developers test their games more efficiently, and fans just happened to discover them through publications, word of mouth, and experimentation.
12. First Secret Character – Reptile (Mortal Kombat)
Many modern developers use the idea of a secret character to not only reward curious gamers but entice us to explore every inch of a digital world. As popular as the idea of secret characters is these days, it’s not nearly as old as you might think.
The first documented secret character in video game history was Reptile: the green ninja from the controversial 1992 fighter Mortal Kombat. The process of unlocking that hidden miniboss was so convoluted that many players didn’t believe he existed. Even as an urban legend, Reptile contributed to Mortal Kombat’s powerful cultural mystique.
11. First Video Game That Let You Jump – Frogs
Mario may have popularized jumping in video games by virtue of his debut in 1981’s Donkey Kong (where he was initially known as “Jumpman”), but the first video game that let a playable character jump whenever they wanted predates that game by a few years.
Yes, the first game that let you do as Van Halen asks and simply “jump” seems to be the 1978 arcade game, Frogs. This incredibly simple game put players in control of a frog who was tasked with jumping into the air in order to catch nearby flies. It wasn’t much, but in its own way, it was an innovator.
10. First Video Game Shown in a Movie – Computer Space
Video games are a common sight in most modern movies. Even Avengers: Endgame included a surprisingly long scene of characters playing Fortnite. While video games weren’t commonly featured in movies until the 1980s, a few ’70s movies did acknowledge gaming’s growing cultural presence.
In fact, the first video game to ever appear in a movie was the 1971 arcade game Computer Space which made its big-screen debut in 1973’s Soylent Green. Computer Space‘s futuristic cabinet design fit perfectly into Soylent Green‘s vision of that far-off year, 2022.
9. First Video Game Power-Up – Power Pellets (Pac-Man)
Super Mario Bros.’ mushrooms arguably elevated and popularized the power-up concept, but the first game to ever let you consume an item for an immediate performance boost was actually a different ’80s classic.
Pac-Man‘s Power Pellets are generally considered to be the first true video game power-ups. Those powerful pills allowed Pac-Man to turn the tables on his ghostly pursuers and consume them for bonus points. Pac-Man‘s developers even had to use one of the earliest video game cutscenes to show players what those items actually did.
8. First 3D First-Person Shooter Game – Maze War
First-person shooters are one of gaming’s biggest blockbuster genres. While the mainstream rise of the FPS can easily be traced back to the popularity of 1993’s Doom, the concept is actually much older than that.
1973’s Maze War allowed players to navigate a pseudo-3D environment from a first-person perspective. The technology was impressive, but Maze War‘s gameplay (which allowed players to hunt down eyeball-shaped avatars of each other over networked computers) was truly ahead of its time. In a way, Maze War imagined the online multiplayer deathmatch concept that would change the industry forever.
7. First Arcade Game Joystick – Missile
The joystick is so much more than an instantly recognizable part of video game history. It was the input device that made video games both more accessible and, gradually, more complicated. It’s also the preferred way to control certain modern games (most notably fighting games).
While video game pioneer Ralph H. Baer is credited with creating the basic joystick concept, the first commercial game to utilize what we now consider to be a joystick was Sega’s 1969 arcade title, Missile. That game asked players to use the built-in joystick to both fire their missiles at enemies and control the paths of the projectiles. While Missile‘s lack of a proper “video” component (it was actually an electro-mechanical machine) disqualifies it from consideration for other innovations, it still left its mark on the gaming industry at large.
6. First Video Game Sequel – Pong Doubles
Finding the first video game sequel is surprisingly tough. These days, video game sequels are often more successful (and better than) their predecessors. However, there was a time when video game sequels just weren’t a big deal. As such, records of the earliest sequels are spotty, at best.
However, this honor seemingly belongs to 1973’s Pong Doubles: a four-player version of 1972’s Pong. Doubles was actually created as a way for the Pong developers to stay ahead of the many Pong imitators they were certain would follow. Interestingly, Doubles was also the first four-player video game.
5. First Horror Game – AX-2: Uchuu Yusousen Nostromo
While 1972′s Haunted House for the Magnavox Odyssey is sometimes called the “first horror game,” that was just a generic puzzle title that came with a haunted house-shaped overlay for your TV. Other early titles could have scared players but weren’t necessarily designed for that purpose.
That’s why the 1981 ASCII title AX-2: Uchuu Yusousen Nostromo is considered one of the first “true” horror games. Essentially a rip-off of Alien, the game asked you to escape an invisible monster aboard a spaceship. 1981/1982’s 3D Monster Maze (which saw you run away from a dinosaur in a 3D maze) was another early genre innovator.
4. First Handheld Game – Auto Race
Handheld video games didn’t really come into their own until Nintendo released the Game Boy in 1989. However, the concept of gaming on the go is much older than that. Actually, handheld gaming is about as old as console gaming.
1976’s Auto Race is generally considered to be the first handheld electronic video game. Though the “video” part of the game consisted of little more than lines and dots, the concept proved to be popular enough to quickly inspire a wave of imitators and follow-ups. From there, handheld gaming was off to the races.
3. First Video Game Competition – Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics
While modern competitive gaming (or “Esports”) is bigger than anyone could have dreamed, gamers have been competing against each other for as long as games have been around.
The first recorded video game competition happened way back in 1972 when five Stanford students competed in the “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.” The winner received a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Later, in 1980, over 10,000 people participated in a nationwide Space Invaders tournament. That was the earliest preview of the kind of large-scale competitive gaming tournament we often see today.
2. First Exploding Red Barrels – The Speed Rumbler
The exploding red barrel is one of gaming’s most strangely popular cliches. Developers know that they can use the simple visual of a red barrel to convey both danger and opportunity (depending on who is standing near it).
Weaponized barrels have been around since Donkey Kong, but one of the first games to use exploding red barrels was the 1986 Capcom arcade game, The Speed Rumbler. That game was filled with exploding red barrels that served as one of your primary obstacles. 1993’s Doom would later popularize the idea of exploding barrels as both a hazard and a potential tool (though its barrels were gray).
1. First Video Game With Human vs. Human Combat – Gun Fight
1975’s Gun Fight is one of the most innovative arcade games ever. It was the first arcade game to use a microprocessor, the first to use stereo sound, and even one of the first to utilize cinematic storytelling elements.
Most importantly, Gun Fight was the first game to depict human vs. human combat. That game’s dueling digital cowboys weren’t much to look at, but they paved the way for some of the most successful (and controversial) video games ever. Gun Fight could also be considered the first “violent” video game ever, despite its lack of gore.