These days, we expect our action games to allow us to flatten our backs against a wall to avoid enemy gunfire. It’s become about as standard as being able to crouch.We take for granted that it wasn’t terribly long ago that the concept of ducking behind cover and then popping out to shoot off a few rounds before hiding again was such a novel concept that entire games could be built around it as their primary selling point.
Join me on a journey through the history of games that let you take cover rather than simply having to out run–or absorb–bullets.
Taking Cover in Two Dimensions
Being able to take cover in a game in order to avoid enemy fire is actually about as old as video games themselves. We all remember the bunkers that you could hide under in Space Invaders that would absorb a certain amount of damage before breaking, helping to keep your ship safe from the lasers raining down from above. However, developer Taito had already let players hide behind cacti, trees, and stagecoaches during shootouts three years earlier in the Old West shooter Gun Fight (Western Fight outside of the U.S.). Of course, simply being able to walk behind an object isn’t quite the same as having an actual cover mechanic, but you have to acknowledge that the seeds of it were planted in those early games and others like it.
The first game to get a little bit close to what we more consider to be a cover system is likely Namco’s 1986 arcade action game Rolling Thunder. The spy-themed side-scroller let you not just duck behind crates and boxes but step behind closed doors in the background to avoid enemy fire. That might sound like a stretch in terms of a “cover mechanic,” but that was the era of run-and-gun shooters like Contra and Ikari Warriors that were mostly about offense and using twitch reflexes to avoid bullets. So any game that let you actually hide from gunfire rather than just outrunning it was definitely revolutionary.
After Rolling Thunder and its sequel, other side-scrolling action games adopted similar light cover systems, most notably Sega’s Shinobi games–which finally let a ninja be somewhat “stealthy” for the first time in video game history. Sega would also be responsible for one of the first video games that ever let you actually flatten your back against a wall when sneaking and avoiding bullets with its lesser-known 1990 stealthy action game Bonanza Brothers. A later 2D game to also let you flatten against walls–and probably more famously so–was the 1994 adventure platformer Blackthorne, which used cover mechanics and wall-flattening to a much deeper effect (with enemies also notably utilizing the same tactics).
Cover Systems Go 3D(ish)
Konami’s 1988 arcade game Devastators can be considered one of the first third-person shooters. The run-and-gun action game uses forward scaling to give the impression of three dimensions (an effect used more famously in their later G.I. Joe arcade game). As you ran forward, you could hide behind sandbag walls and other field debris to help you avoid enemy fire. Cabal, released the same year, also let you hide behind cover as you fired “toward” enemies, but as you only played the game one static screen at a time, the cover system felt a little more superficial than in Devastators.
In 1994, System Shock would bring cover mechanics into the first-person shooter genre, giving players a previously-unseen amount of movement options, including the ability to duck behind cover. Previous FPSs let you stafe behind walls and objects in a general sense, but their fast pace and ever-advancing enemies made it a temporary breather more than a legitimate tactic. System Shock also featured the revolutionary ability to let players lean left and right, so they could actually slightly peek out from behind a corner without completely exposing themselves to danger. Unfortunately, all of this freedom came at a price, and System Shock earned a reputation for its incredibly steep learning curve, which may be what scared most FPS developers from exploring those movements themselves for years after.
Finding Dark Cover in Light Gun Games
One genre that seemed like it would never be about anything but offense is light gun games. I mean, you are just pointing a gun at a screen and the game is controlling where you move–kind of hard to do anything but try and shoot the bad guys before they shoot you. That all changed in 1995 when Namco released Time Crisis. The TC machine had foot pedals built into it that, when pressed, let you jump behind cover. This simple innovation completely changed the way light gun games were played as they were no longer just about shooting at things while a camera that you had no control over swooped and panned around an environment. Besides its several sequels, the Time Crisis series had a spin off called Crisis Zone that was a much faster-paced version of TC (and armed you with a heavy automatic instead of a hand gun). To keep things moving more quickly than the deliberately-paced core Time Crisis series, pressing the foot pedal in Crisis Zone didn’t have you jump behind anything but instead had you simply raise a riot shield to protect yourself.
Five years later, Konami released an arcade light gun shooter called Police 911 that featured cameras to track player movement. If you wanted to duck or dodge gunfire, you literally moved your body as such. It was a neat concept, especially in the pre-motion control days–although your knees killed after spending two-thirds of the game squatting (not to mention how ridiculous you looked playing it).
Cover as Stealth–More Hiding, Less Seeking
1998 would become the year that stealth in games went from an occasional superficial option to a major gameplay mechanic. The three-hit combo of Thief, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, and of course, Metal Gear Solid completely changed the way we thought about action/adventure games. The latter two games in particular took the use of cover to a whole new level, as for the first time in video game history you would spend just as much time with your back against walls and peaking around corners as you would actually engaging enemies (if you wanted any chance of success, that is).
Interestingly though, those games’ emphasis on sneaking over fighting also completely changed the way we thought about cover mechanics. Whereas they had previously been a way to take a quick breath between rounds of action, they were now used almost exclusively for non-action purposes as you couldn’t easily move in and out of cover in order to attack. Having action movie shootouts where we got to jump out, fire a few rounds, and jump back behind the corner as the enemies fired back would have to wait another year.
Modern Cover Mechanics Are Born
In 1999, a rather unassuming-looking game hit the Nintendo 64 with little fanfare, but it was about to completely change action games forever. WinBack – Covert Operations took MGS‘ concept of a secret agent moving around with his back flattened against walls and added the ability for the player to pivot into and out of cover and shoot. You still had the option to shoot at enemies out in the open (though not while moving), but the bulk of the game was spent recreating classic Hollywood-style gunfights. Sure, it was a foregone conclusion that games would eventually incorporate this mechanic, and Metal Gear Solid 2 surely would have with or without WinBack ever existing. But the game still deserves credit for being the first game to have a pop-out-and-shoot cover mechanic especially in an era where stealth over action was typically the focus of games with cover.
The other game that set the stage for how we play pretty much any modern game where we shoot a gun is 2003’s Kill Switch. Again, the game wasn’t super hyped and kind of got lost in the shuffle in a year with some especially huge action/shooter games–GTA: Vice City, Deus Ex, Max Payne 2, and the first Call of Duty to name a few–but its impact is not to be taken lightly. What Kill Switch brought to cover mechanics was the ability to “blind fire” from behind cover–meaning that you could stay completely hidden and just stick out your gun and shoot (with an accuracy penalty, of course). Full disclosure: Sony’s GTA-esque The Getaway came out earlier in the year and also allowed you to fire from behind cover, but it wasn’t implemented as fully as it is in Kill Switch and it certainly wasn’t that game’s core mechanic.
You’d be hard pressed to think of too many recent action games that don’t allow you to fire off a few rounds while still behind cover, and when a game doesn’t have it now, you definitely notice and miss it.
Parting Shots (From Behind Cover, Of Course)
As I mentioned, the ability to take cover, to pivot out and shoot from cover, and to blind fire from cover have all become standard features in action games. In fact, Gears of War is likely the last game that will ever be able to tout itself as an action title built around a cover mechanic and have that be a novel concept. So the next time you are playing a game that isn’t entirely about running full speed at a hail of bullets without any way to protect yourself, remember the games that gave you a place to hide.
Check out the slideshow below of all the screenshots in this article to see the progression of cover mechanics over time: