Space-themed games have been around for almost 60 years and in all that time there have been innumerable titles worth celebrating. However, it's the relative few that have defined or dominated the genre - or often benefitted all of gaming - that are acknowledged below. The following aren't just games that have been best-selling, ground-breaking or widely venerated, their creators went above and beyond the efforts of predecessors and contemporaries to take gamers to unseen heights.
I should point out that while many of the games listed below are great fun to play, even those that are considered ancient by modern standards, this list isn't intended to offer a rundown of the most enjoyable space games right now. The following are the tiles that have proved to be the most important to the genre's evolution and development. Predominantly they are the games by which many of those we do enjoy today might never have existed.
My knowledge on such matters clearly isn't definitive, so If there's a game that I've ignored or overlooked, please enlighten me in the comments below as a lasting record of my nescience.
HOMEWORLD (Relic Entertainment/Sierra Studios, 1999)
Though it wasn't the first 3D real-time strategy game, Homeworld's outer space setting ensured it was the first to take advantage of the extra dimension without clumsily crashing through it. It was a necessary evolution given the verticality the game offered, but it was an innovation that was elegant and tactile - perfectly appropriate for a protagonist fleet commander.
What was more significant, certainly in the broader context of space gaming, was that Homeworld quickly spawned, not just a cadre of similar games (Haegemonia, O.R.B., Nexus among others), but a route along which other combat-orientated space games could move forward. Eve Online is a perfect example of a game that might not have existed or survived as long as it has without Homeworld blazing a trail. While CCP's game was intended to be a massively-multiplayer Elite, had players been given first-person views and direct control of their ships, infrastructure demands might not have made New Eden quite so dynamic a playground as it's become.
ELITE DANGEROUS (Frontier, 2014)
It's difficult to gauge the importance of a game when it's only been out a couple of years, but Elite Dangerous deserves to sneak into this list for a number of reasons. Leaving aside its obvious lineage, the scale and beauty of its universe are staggering, especially given how accessible the game is as a simulation. Beyond that, we have to recognise the game's importance in hastening the current revival of the space genre, which although is being dominated by the funding successes of Star Citizen, is perhaps better represented by the importance and popularity of Elite Dangerous as a leading virtual reality game.
Not only was it among the first games to support 21st Century VR efforts, but Elite Dangerous is also one of the most substantial VR experiences you can find. Where other developers struggled to adapt to the tech or understand the limits of its market, Frontier made VR integration seem effortless by not letting it stifle the core gameplay. Needless to say that whatever fate has in store for VR as a platform, Elite Dangerous will forever be seen as one of it's most pioneering and symbiotic games.
DESCENT (Parallax Software/Interplay, 1995)
Though it wasn't obvious to most people, in the early 1990s the space combat sim (as it was often referred to) was doomed. Thanks to those rockstar upstarts at id Software, the first-person shooter genre was firmly established and Doom was the verifiable new kid on the block. Yes, space games were first-person shooters too, but they were the prog' rockers in comparison - overly intricate, bloated, cliched and needy. Someone needed to break the genre out of its fusty ways to keep it from exiting stage left.
Fast forward to 1995 and Descent blasts into the arena, a game that looked like a space sim, but that was more technically advanced and just as intense as any FPS. It's claustrophobic subterranean corridors were populated by demonic robots, which, combined with the thrill and subsequent nausea of being tossed around by explosions, showed that the space game wasn't just able to keep up with more visceral upstart genres, it could show them a thing or two as well.
EVE ONLINE (CCP Games, 2003)
Eve Online has been a successful MMOG for more than 15 years, but much more on its own terms than against its dominant contemporaries. It's never been able to boast of millions of players, nor is it ever likely to as it settles into its twilight years. So why is it included here?
The answer is entirely down to its open systems and steadily evolving design, combined with its vast single shard universe. Such aspects, as well as community innovations like the Council of Stellar Management, have inspired the game's players to collectively become a powerfully creative force that is often the equal of the game's designers. You only have to read of the daily subterfuge and sabotage that goes on, or grasp the significance of the game's massed fleet engagements, to realise that it's the playerbase that has done the most work to establish Eve's importance and to establish its unprecedented longevity within the genre.
STARFLIGHT (Binary Systems/EA, 1986)
As much as Star Wars has influenced space combat gaming, Star Trek has been the basis for spaceship command. From early variations on the Battleship format to intricate grid-based tactical encounters on room-sized "personal" computers, numerous iterations on the Trek format were developed and circulated throughout the 70s and 80s. This culminated in the release of Starflight - probably the best Star Trek game there's never been.
In successfully combining tactical combat, RPG-style progression and a level of narrative exploration that was largely unprecedented outside of text adventures, Starflight was a glorious amalgamation of dreary exploration, dramatic encounters, mystery and humour. It directly lead us to the likes of Star Control and Mass Effect and has inspired some of the most critically and commercially acclaimed franchises in sci-fi game history. Had the makers of some of the more ill-advised Star Trek games taken their cue from Starflight, it might be higher up this list.
SPACE INVADERS (Nishikado/Taito, 1978)
Until the arrival of Space Invaders in 1978, gaming was mostly the preserve of geek students and dorky kids who didn't go out much, with most commentators putting "TV games" on the same plane as Dungeons and Dragons as a pastime for the socially-awkward.
Such attitudes still abound, but perceptions about gaming certainly changed when Space Invaders made planetfall in bars and arcades. By the start of the 1980s, it had helped turn videogames into a verifiable global phenomenon and had established arcades as the go-to place for the first generation of gamers.
From being the best selling videogame, Space Invaders quickly became the best-selling of anything in global entertainment. It helped quadruple sales of the Atari VCS, delivered gaming's first cultural icons and inspired so many clones as to constitute a second invasion. True, the "space" from which the invasion came was simply a dark screen born out of necessity, but it established an environment in which future games could thrive.
FREESPACE 2 (Volition/Interplay, 1999)
Freespace 2 is probably the best game that nobody ever bought, reportedly selling only 30,000 copies and thus taking the death blossom of the genre's dying anguish full in the face. It is also the game that gets wheeled out whenever space games are judged on their combat aptitude, setting the high-grade military standard by which all space games are continually judged.
Less celebrated but equally as important to genre fans has been Freespace 2's persistence. Not in the sense that it hasn't really been bettered in its specialist subject, but as the foundation for others to build and distribute their own space adventures. Thanks to the efforts of modders and the continued evolution of the Freespace 2 Source Code Project, we've been able to enjoy more Freespace 2 enhancements than anyone could ever want, not to mention mods for the likes of Wing Commander, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica that are equals of any aborted commercial endeavour. So it is that in spite of the fact that Freespace 2 seemed to bring on the space gaming apocalypse, to a very large extent, it was also the game that helped us survive it.
WING COMMANDER (Origin Systems/EA, 1990)
As we all know the PC as a gaming platform has been around almost as long as videogames themselves, but it was the release of Wing Commander in 1990 that largely transformed perceptions of the beige box into a bleeding-edge must-have gaming machine. With it's fast and colourful graphics, unrivalled sound, cinematic storyline and branching campaign, Wing Commander succeeded in adding a much-needed dose of Star Wars-style spectacle to gaming that had never really been seen before, least of all on a machine more readily associated with word processing and data entry.
As well as raising the profile of the PC, Wing Commander pretty much started the arms race in development budgets that persists to this day, going on to spawn two of the most-expensively produced games of the 1990s - namely Wing Commander III and IV. With the creator of Wing Commander now masterminding Star Citizen, the most crowdfunded game in development, it's clear the impact of the series has enough force left in it to generate enough interest to finance a sprawling big-budget successor.
STAR RAIDERS (Neubauer/Atari, 1979)
If Space Invaders was The Beatles of videogames, spawning a global cultural phenomenon and a string of imitators, Star Raiders was its Velvet Underground, a game that inspired as many people to make their own games as it did to play them. That the game would find itself among the first batch of games to be recognised by the Library of Congress as having historical and cultural significance speaks volumes.
Though it wasn't as immediately arresting as its arcade contemporaries, Star Raiders established itself as having what would soon be termed "replayability". It also established many firsts, being one of the first games to put players in a cockpit and generate a starfield around them to help generate a sense of speed. The galaxy that needed saving, meanwhile, can be recognised today as one of the earliest free-roaming or open worlds. That the entire game only required only 8K of RAM was nothing short of amazing.
ELITE (Bell/Braben/Acornsoft, 1984)
Elite was a remarkable achievement in almost every department, but especially in terms of its procedurally-generated world, the smooth 3D graphics and all the bits and pieces that came in the box. Thanks to these three elements especially, not only was a deep and abiding open-world established, but the player enjoyed a sense of belonging and place within it that no other game had offered. You could set your own goals and follow numerous paths to fulfilling them, whether by battling pirates for bounties, trading goods between systems or mining minerals in the depths of space. Instead of a few hours, here was a game that took weeks, months and even years to exhaust.
Selling a reported million copies across almost as many platforms as existed during its long lifetime, Elite has inspired so many similar games in the years since release that it's a wonder the space game genre hasn't been rechristened in Elite's honour. Beyond the likes of the X series, Privateer and Eve Online, Elite has also been namechecked by the developers of Grand Theft Auto as an inspiration. Influences don't get much bigger than a $3.3 billion franchise!
SPACEWAR! (Russell/Graetz/Wiitanen, 1962)
While "electronic brain" games had existed in a tightly huddled mass before it came into being, Spacewar's migration across university campuses and explosion into geek culture in the early 1970s is recognisable today as the big bang from which all commercial videogames can trace their origins.
At it's most basic level Spacewar offered a multiplayer duel between spaceships, but it was the added complication of inertia and gravity that really elevated the gameplay beyond anything previously seen. That it would later spawn what can be considered the first esports tournament shouldn't be undervalued in the context of today's competitive gaming market.
Still playable after almost sixty years, what's remarkable is that the number of games that continue to be inspired by Spacewar continues to increase. Spacewar gave us the likes of Lunar Lander, Asteroids and Thrust, of course, as well as more contemporary classics like Star Control and Escape Velocity. However, today, the number of independent games in active development that either reference or inadvertently borrow from Spacewar is vast, suggesting that while gaming's big bang is long over, its echoes will be forever felt.