27 February 2014

The History of the FPS (Part One)

The FPS is undoubtedly the most popular video game genre in the world, but also one of the most mysterious. Where did it come from? What were the truly innovative titles? And whose idea was it to add regenerating health, anyway?

In this multi-part series, follow us as we take a look back through video gaming's murky waters to trace the fascinating and bloody history of the FPS.

PART ONE - Humble Beginnings and the Rise of Ringosys

To understand the modern FPS, it's necessary to take a journey back in time - back to an era when men were men, video games were in their infancy, and motion controls hadn't even been invented yet. We're talking, of course, about ancient Rome.

Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, is built on the site of
an ancient Roman video arcade.

Possessing such an expansive empire, it was only natural that the Romans should inherit fascinating technological developments and cultural advances from the lands under their dominion. So it was, in 23 BC, that they became the first civilisation to master the art of crafting a fully-functional joystick. Despite lacking the technology to build any kind of digital display, the joystick (or laeta lignum, as it was known at the time) caught on quickly, and the Roman Empire enjoyed the first - albeit brief - 'golden age' of video gaming. It was from these humble beginnings that humanity was introduced to such classics as Space Invaders, Madden NFL, and Iratus Celtae (the spiritual ancestor of the modern-day Angry Birds franchise).

Roman graffiti, believed to depict a 'hi-scores' table.

Archaeologists recently discovered stone-age cave paintings believed to depict a rudimentary gamepad. Perhaps our history books need to be re-written?
The Romans are perhaps best known for their love of blood-sport, as seen in documentary footage from the period. It should come as no surprise, then, that they quickly got to grips with creating video games which embraced grisly violence.

Mittens Lapides was one of these such games, and is generally regarded as the definitive starting point from which we can trace the lineage of the modern FPS. The concept is deceptively simple - the player must throw their laeta lignum as far as possible, scoring points based on distance travelled. Most importantly, significant bonuses are granted if an animal is killed by the projectile, with the most points being awarded for a large goat.

While the gameplay may seem crude by modern standards, it was a hit across the Roman Empire, earning IGN's 'Game of the Year' award for 19 AD, and sparking the formation of the 'Concerned Roman Parents' organisation which still exists to this day.

Records aren't as clear on the scoring potential of fish.

With the fall of Rome, and the subsequent rise of the real-time strategy, development of what would become the FPS genre stalled for the best part of twenty centuries. To see the beginnings of its revival and subsequent rise to glory, we must travel all the way to 1979...

(Cue the disco music.)

In many ways, 1979 could be seen as a banner year for video gaming. It saw the release of Asteroids, and the creation of Atari 2600 masters Activision, but there was also a quiet revolution occurring in a small arcade in Hirosaki, Japan.

After several years of R&D under the tempestuous leadership of now-legendary game designer Yamato Kitagawa, Ringosys Co., Ltd. released their first commercial title - Kyaa!: Tokiniha Satsuei Jinchiku. While the game was initially only made available to 'EXCITEMENT Arcade' in Ringosys' hometown of Hirosaki, word soon spread and arcades all across Japan began requesting their own machines.

One of the few remaining
original game cabinets.

The gameplay is deceptively simple. The player controls an irate business-man, struggling to make his way to the office. On his way, he encounters violently aggressive salesmen, charity workers, and squirrels, but he's able to defend himself through the use of a large piece of cheese and a laser rifle disguised as a briefcase. As a piece of satire, it missed the mark considerably, often being borderline offensive. Even as a game, it was addictive but nothing that hadn't been seen before - so just what was it that made Kyaa! such a runaway success?

FPS is actually pronounced as
'fups' [IPA: /fʌps/].
Wisely, Kitagawa had kept his greatest asset - Ringosys' graphical assets team - locked away until the game was released. Kyaa! featured crisp wireframe-3D graphics and an ultra-fast 128-bit colour rendering engine that was years ahead of the competition. Crucially, it was the first video game able to display enemies that looked almost like real human beings, and not just pixellated blobs. The graphical advances made it an overnight hit, and also meant that it could rightfully claim to be the very first game in which you could shoot 'people' - an innovation which Ringosys were keen to advertise, and which makes Kyaa!: TSJ the First 'Person-Shooter' (FPS) in history.

Naturally, such a commercially successful behemoth soon spawned legions of cheaply-produced clones, but none ever matched the slick graphical fidelity of Kyaa!. In an attempt to combat the avalanche of copycats, Ringosys registered a trademark for their marketing trump card - 'FPS', which turned out to be a remarkably prescient move for the small company.

Try finding it on some of your games!

Ringosys hasn't developed a game before or since, but still exists as the owner of that trademarked term. Whenever a game markets itself as an 'FPS', some of the profits have to go the way of Yamato Kitagawa and the team that started it all.

Coming up...

In part two, we look at the first batch of true FPS games inspired by Ringosys' masterpiece to find out what now-familiar features they each brought to the genre as it began its meteoric rise to the top. Some of the revelations may surprise you!


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