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Origins of the Open World

Origins of the Open World

The open world, or sandbox, genre is fairly ten-a-penny these days, with some of the best games boasting a huge expanse to explore and the ability to experience the world as you see fit. The advent of the PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox brought a surge of sandbox games to our fingertips, as the technology was finally available to create living, breathing worlds and the capability for multiple paths, decisions and consequences.

Before this time though, there were a handful of games pioneering and shaping this genre we take for granted. I feel these games deserve a nod for being so visionary as to be part of a genre as yet uninvented in a time when making such games pushed the boundaries of what was imaginable and the capabilities of the technology available. Here are my top five retro open world games.


5 – Elite (1984)

It goes without saying that Elite is a massive achievement. A space trading game at heart, it boasts a vast universe to explore at your leisure as you fight, trade and dock your way through eight separate galaxies, each with their own encounterable planets and space stations. Considering the very limited memory of the BBC Micro and Acorn computers, it is handy that space is full of blackness with a few stars dotted about, as that is what you're looking at most of the time. Even physical objects, like spaceships, are black on black wire-framed models, but all can be forgiven easily when you consider there were very few 3D images at all at the time, and dogfighting against them drove imaginations wild in a generation only just coming down off Star Wars-induced euphoria.

elite roister

Despite necessary cutbacks on graphics and frame rates, Elite takes the player on a relaxed but exciting journey across galaxies as you become the ultimate space trader, amassing money buying and selling ships and artefacts, mining asteroids and straight-up piracy. But of course, how you make your money is up to you. Elite is a wonderful space sim, a little lacking in story but the scale of the game was unprecedented and offered an unheard of sense of freedom and wonder. Just add imagination.


4 – Grand Theft Auto (1997)

An obvious one, this, but the original Grand Theft Auto is the blueprint all present day sandboxes allude to. The criminal element of the game lends itself well to the nature of the open world, chiefly to do what you want, when you want.

We all know the format; you're a criminal undertaking a variety of jobs for gangs and mob bosses, and no police officer or felon can stand in your way. The controversy surrounding this game upon its release isn't news to anyone, and it is still receiving unfavourable announcements from groups in anticipation of this year's Grand Theft Auto V, some 16 years later.

GTA retro roister

The likes of GTA had not been seen quite like this before; sure, violence has been present in games for years, but not in a way where you are actually the bad guy, and the good guys (the Police) serve only as cannon fodder to be strewn across the street in a bloody mosaic of corpse and claret.

But hiding in plain sight beneath the outrageous concept is the sandbox environment it revolutionised, a refreshing change of pace amongst tired 3D hack 'n' slashers and JRPGs. GTA will always be remembered for the media storm it created, but the legacy it left for the gaming world is much more important than that, and should perhaps be considered one of the most important games in history.


3 – Ultima VII (1992)

Ultima VII: The Black Gate not only revolutionised the Ultima series, but also the RPG genre. The game is remarkably open, and story quests and subquests are to be undertaken at your leisure. This is the game that introduced concepts like AI auto combat, where friendly characters are given only basic instructions by the player and the characters fight based on these instructions, well or otherwise. Dialogue trees were a first too, giving players multiple options when interacting with NPCs.

ultima vii roister

Almost everything was tangible within the world of Ultima VII. Even today, most games, RPGs or otherwise, will have books nailed to tables, lamps nailed to walls, etc. Here, if you could see it, you could pretty much touch, move and mess about with it. Largely pointless as a feature, save for a handful of puzzles or mini-games, but it gives you an idea of the sheer scope this open world has for freedom.

If this isn't enough, you have to deal with morals and virtues of party members and the general public who react to your actions. Revolt in your group if you kill too many innocent people, friends who starve if you forget / refuse to feed them... Ultima VII is packed full of neat little features and personality that many of today's games lack; a benchmark rarely achieved since.


2 – Exile (1988)

Truly a unique being, Exile is essentially an adventure exploration game with a vast open world map to traverse, solving puzzles along the way to the final goal. You begin on your spaceship which has landed on an alien planet, and armed with just your space suit and jetpack you step out onto this land of low gravity and find your way around and about looking for your exiled friend.

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The game's original concept is its use of physics; I can remember it being jaw-dropping at the time and is still an impressive feat. Things like inertia, particles, feelings of low gravity and jetpack acceleration and deceleration were beauteous to witness, and the puzzles in the game reflected these concepts wonderfully. Carrying a beaker of water carefully past birds pecking at your head causes you to lose your balance and particles of water would ebb away; jetpacking full speed against gale force winds to get to a new cave opening is a matter of using your knowledge of physics and common sense to battle the elements.

The term 'open world' perhaps stretches the meaning with regards to Exile somewhat, as you still needed to solve certain puzzles to open up new areas, but you could go about them at your own pace and choose what to do first. You can even explore the expansive world, flying around in your jetpack and messing with teleporters, winds, space imps and frogs if you want to. It's not your typical by-the-numbers level-based game, and there is a marvellous sense of freedom to be had from the alien environment.


1 – Hunter (1991)

As close as the retro world has ever come in emulating its future counterparts, Hunter is a fully 3D open world adventure with guns, bad guys, vehicles and even wildlife.

You are given a certain amount of time to scout an archipelago as you see fit, be it by land, sea or air, and find the whereabouts of your target through cunning, bribery and detective work. The land is massive and vehicles are plentiful. There are plenty of places to see and things to do in Hunter, all in glorious unrendered, vectored, slow-moving 3D!

hunter roister

Despite its crude appearance, Hunter was incredibly ahead of its time. Ten years to be precise, when Grand Theft Auto III was to be released. It gave the player a job to do, and an unprecedented sense of freedom, weapons and transport with which to do it. Islands litter the map, as do houses to ransack and people to bribe or interrogate, and whether you are hunting your target or are being hunted by your enemies, it is all up to you how you escape your would-be captors or dispatch with your foes.

With three game modes offering three different insanely large landscapes (a total map size comparable to that of Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City), crossed with genre-defining gameplay and graphics which, while ugly by today's standards, pushed the Amiga to breaking point, it's hard to fathom quite how such an open world fit onto one floppy disc.

Gary Durston

Gary Durston

Staff Writer

Gary has been a gamer all his life and is a total retrohead. A lover of games, gaming and just about anything with a pixel, really.

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Platinum - 03:04pm, 18th July 2016

Elite was awesome, Massive fan of Frontier Elite 2 here :)

Platinum - 03:04pm, 18th July 2016

The other ones were shit, Yes GTA was shit. GTA London was the first good one, GTA3 the first great one.