Sid Meier's Civilization
Long before Will Wright showed us the joy, and tedium, of watching aimless computer generated Sims leading lives almost as exciting as our own, Sid Meier was hard at work making what would become perhaps the most highly rated history simulator of all time.
Loosely based on a board game, Civilization was released by MicroProse in 1991 to rapturous applause from every quarter - it won the Origins Award for strategy in 1992, and was voted the top computer game ever by Computer Gaming World magazine in 1996.
Strangely enough, a board game has been made from the computer game, neatly completing a circle of oddity.
Despite trifling gameplay issues (such as militia units defeating battleships due to mathematical odds rather than tactical ability), there simply wasn't any game that came close to the addictiveness of what Sid Meier had produced. My parents actually bought an Amiga 500 so I would play Civilization at home, rather than having to have to pick me up from my friends house because it was too dark to cycle home.
For a long time, it was the only game I played - in actual fact I've lost months of real life to Sid's little foray into empire building. Not many people can say they've started on Earth as the English and defeated every possible civilization on "Emperor" prior to 0 A.D., but if I told you how long it took, you might consider becoming fluent in Mandarin a more worthwhile use of that time.
I vividly recall endless debates in Third Form economics class - was it better to lay siege to a large city and attempt to sabotage the city walls? Or should you push everything towards science research and hit it with a nuke? Were the Mongols really backward, or was pumping out about a billion Phalanx units all part of their strategy?
Any teacher overhearing talk like this in our post 9/11 world would probably feel the need to inform various security agencies; to us, it was far more intellectual - nay, exciting - than any supply or demand curve drawn on a crusty blackboard. Sid Meier taught us not only geography, but history, politics, military strategy and engineering, and just when you thought you had the game nailed, you could up the ante and try the next difficulty level, where you'd learn a thing or two about humility as well.
Civilization will always be proof that you can have all the shader models, rag-doll effects and DirectX 10 you like, but to elevate a good computer game to legendary status, you're going to need a compelling, balanced and believable foundation, along with clearly defined goals.
Sid nailed it back in 1991 - very few have come close since.
Wait! Hold it right there! Before you close your browser window in disgust, allow me to play devils advocate just for a second. The first time I played Counter-Strike, it was a largely unknown modification for Half-Life, in its third beta. There were no wallhackers, n00bs or AWP-whores. The colt rifle had a scope, bunny-hopping might have existed, but nobody knew about it, and Jenny Shipley was still Prime Minister.
A friend of mine had downloaded it, and considering we all played a fair bit of Half-Life Deathmatch back then, nobody thought twice about installing it and playing a few rounds.
Of course, a few rounds became hundreds. Which in turn became thousands, and by the time I finally looked up from my screen it was 2004.
I don't really think anyone could have predicted the global phenomenon that Counter-Strike would become. It's not often a game modification from the community actually becomes more popular than the host game itself, not to mention the effect it must have had in driving broadband uptake in the early part of this decade.
Those with popular Counter-Strike servers were revered as the Gods they were. Entire communities (not entirely dissimilar from the one you're reading this article on) were created to satisfy the incessant craving for frags, born out of hunched shoulders, furtive eyes, a black dot in the middle of your screen, and a keyboard with two missing Windows keys.
Counter-Strike has always had a huge appeal to a great number of people, but unfortunately it's also despised by an equally large number of ex-players, who think nothing of trolling forums and insulting people who happen to be more likely to hit their mouse button a fraction of a second faster. Although the game itself largely invites these criticisms, it will always be remembered as the one-time most popular online game in the world, and despite a huge number of patches and tweaks, it's still great fun to play today, although really it's best on a LAN with your mates.
At least then you can accuse them of screen-watching and convince yourself it'd be a different story if you were sitting three feet closer to the switch.