Tuesday’s Top Ten: Sandbox Games


The definition of “sandbox” in gaming is an unclear one; it gets used interchangeably with “open-world” and “free-roaming”, though the latter seem to apply best to games without artificial borders.  Think of the Grand Theft Auto games after unlocking every area.  Sandbox games tend to be similar, though also offering a lack of strict mission-progression system.

In modern parlance, “sandbox” tends to include that definition as well as the ones generally ascribed to “open-world” and “free-roaming”.  It’s under that all-inclusive definition that we’re going to go through the top ten sandbox game in today’s Tuesday’s Top Ten.

Gamers tend to argue about just what is and isn’t a “sandbox” game.  Some stick to the strict definition of not offering clear mission-progression in an expansive world, such as Minecraft, while others tend to lean toward what would, as said before, be best described as “open-world”.  I think the best definition is a more general one.

The reason for this is the origin of the word itself and how it came to be used in the strict definition.  Sandboxes are the pits of wonder that are nearly omnipresent in children’s lives around the world, from what I can tell.  Big or small, square or round, they were little, well, boxes of sand that young kids could play in and let their imaginations run free.  No limits, no restrictions, that sandbox offered complete freedom.  That’s why the word became associated with games that offered total freedom.

The problem with that is that total freedom is, itself, kind of a restriction.  You don’t have the option to complete missions because there really aren’t any.  Even in a game like Minecraft, there aren’t missions or even goals as much as necessary steps to stay alive.  That total lack of structure actually takes away some choices and, as such, inhibits—if only a little—the freedom of the player.

Something like the Grand Theft Auto franchise offers more freedom in that you can play through missions or—not.  If you choose not to, there are still tons of other things to do and places to explore, but if you do want to go through missions, they’re there, too.  That’s more freedom, which is closer to the origin of the word.

That’s why you won’t see totally free-form, goal-less games like Minecraft or Garry’s Mod or the like, here.  It’s with that understanding that we go through this list of games that offer more freedom to gamers.

10. Super Mario Bros. 3
At first glance, this game seems an odd choice for this list, and there is a reason it’s number ten—but it’s on this list in the first place because it offered something the previous games didn’t: A branching system where you could completely bypass some areas.

That gave a taste of exploration; you didn’t need to visit every single area to complete the game, and even if you did it rarely gave you much of a leg-up on enemies you’d face.  However, it all was interesting.  Sure, they were hard as heck, but that didn’t stop gamers from trying to see every single bit the game had to offer.  While it didn’t offer total freedom, it helped foster that spirit.

09. Driver 2
The first game handed you some cities to drive around in, interesting enough things to see, and that was about it.  Its sequel, however, Driver 2 added something more—the ability to actually leave your car.  Remember the era that we’re talking about, so while it wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, it was certainly an interesting and very welcome concept.

Compared to today, of course everything looks bad and the on-foot controls are—difficult.  However, developer Reflections really put their “all” into it, as this clip showing off the Take a Ride mode (free-roaming, really) shows.  For the era, and considering how much data space when to driving physics and such, everything looks downright wonderful.  It made just mucking around worth it.

08. Metroid
By the time this game arrived, players were used to games like Super Mario Bros., where players ran continuously to the right, stomped enemies, went further to the right, stomped more enemies, maybe get a single ranged attack, and continue going to the right.

Metroid wasn’t the first exploratory game, but it was one that turned player expectations upside-down.  When you started the game, if you immediately went right, you’d be face with a low ceiling that couldn’t be passed—unless you went left at the start to get the power-up that turned Samus into the small ball.  The game would continue to work against player expectations based on other games at the time, and made exploration popular.

07. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
To this day the best-received of the franchise, Symphony of the Night took some of the concepts that Metroid established and embellished them.

For one thing, it helped popularize the idea of having a “fake” ending first, more game play, then the “real” ending.  For another, it made running through manor corridors interesting.  Everything looked simply neat, and made it worth just running around looking at everything like a tourist that got really lost.  It also made exploration interesting by literally turning everything on its head.  Since the second castle basically the first but upside-down made it a fun challenge to go through.

06. Todd’s Adventures in Slime World
The Atari Lynx’s history is an interesting, if somewhat sad, one.  One of the better games for it that, sadly, wasn’t as popular (even though it later came out on the Genesis and TurboGrafix C.D.) was Slime World.

The Lynx version was slightly more robust than the others, featuring numerous secret areas, an abundance of oddities, and a maze with a secret exit that if the player found, they were given a physical address they could write to.  Another boon was the multi-player, supporting up to eight players.  Not many games even today can claim the number of features Slime World had, and that’s on top of numerous modes—including Exploration, Suspense, Action, and more.  They completely changed the way you would approach the game, giving you so much more freedom.

05. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
I reviewed the game yesterday, as if you read it you would know why I rather enjoy the game.  It really did give you freedom—including the freedom to go bat-guano nuts on the world itself.

Sure, the world may not have been as huge as the next two entries on the list, but you could ignore the story for as long as you wanted, and you didn’t run out of things to smash.  Sure, there were challenges to complete and such, but the smashing was where it was at.  Unlike any Hulk game before, it gave you the freedom to do just that.

04. Nearly Any Final Fantasy Ever
It’s rather hard to pin down one Final Fantasy game that is the best at exemplifying the concept of an open world with the freedom to pursue missions or just muck around.  With Final Fantasy XIII being a prime exception, most games handed you a world, a small amount of “here’s what this does”, then lets you go nuts.

They feature grand worlds that rarely feel like they were created solely for the player’s character, side-quests out the wazoo, and plenty of neat things to just look at, including non-player characters wandering about the world for their own reasons, irrespective of the character and their goals.  Gamers could ignore the main plots for as long as they wanted and never feel less than entertained.

03. Nearly Any Dragon Quest Ever
Generally less popular than its competitor, the Final Fantasy franchise, the Dragon Quest series pioneered a lot of the concepts taken for granted in modern R.P.G.s, including the point-based leveling system.  As a system, it had been around before Quest, but that was the first game to really try and give it more attention in the video game world.

It’s ranked one notch higher than its competitor series because without it, Final Fantasy wouldn’t have come about, and without it setting the tone for a lot of concepts that Final Fantasy adapted and even enhanced, we wouldn’t have Final Fantasy in the first place.  The Quest series proved that an expansive world could immerse the player and make it fun.

02. Grand Theft Auto III
The game certainly wasn’t anywhere near the first sandbox game around, but one that popularized the idea the most and one to show how it can work well.

As we’ll get into tomorrow, there are a few downsides to the concept as a whole, but D.M.A. Design (which later became Rockstar North) deftly side-stepped them or purposefully dove headlong into them to turn potential weaknesses into strengths.  III as a whole brought more gamers into many of the conventions it put forth, but I dare say none more than the concept of exploration and putting stories on hold while the player just mucks around.  There’s a reason that, for a few years, sandbox games that came out after that were called G.T.A. clones.

01. Elite
Number one is a game you’ve probably never heard of, but without it the entire concept of an open-world/sandbox game wouldn’t exist.  Most ideas you find in modern sandbox games were started with Elite.  It was originally on tapes; those gamers out there who might think cartridges are old-fashioned, tapes were cutting-edge gaming technology back then.

It has an interesting history, but above all it was ground-breaking.  Literally, without this game it’s likely the concept may not have caught on.  If nothing else, it would have been delayed and we’d hardly have any sandbox games.  It’s a tribute to Elite that franchises like Grand Theft Auto and the like even exist to be popular in the first place.

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2 Responses to “Tuesday’s Top Ten: Sandbox Games”

  1. Great Post! I wonder, even if you refer to Minecraft a lot, why is it not one of the Top Ten? Terraria is good too.

    • I realize I may be giving up a bit of game-nerd-cred with this, but I just don’t think it was as good as the other entries. It’s a good game, to be sure, but it’s still rather simplistic–you build and avoid enemies. Unless you have friends there’s really nothing else to see or do. On its own, I felt it just doesn’t stand up next to the entries on this list.

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