In the fall of 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved became just as much a part of the college experience as ramen noodles, power naps and Natty Light. Bungie Studios’ baby reshaped multiplayer gaming for home consoles, defining the Xbox Live experience and exploding into a full-on phenomenon.
The original Halo, almost a decade old now, spawned two direct sequels—Halo 2 and Halo 3—along with a pile of other Halo-related paraphernalia: graphic novels, regular novels, animated shorts, live-action shorts, and very nearly a Hollywood film adaptation directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9). And as you read this article, a full-fledged video game prequel, Halo: Reach, is being transported to GameStops, Walmarts, Best Buys and every other retailer imaginable, set to hit store shelves at midnight and ensure the Halo brand lives on.
In a lot of ways, Halo is the western equivalent of Mario—everyone’s heard of it, gamer or otherwise. This sort of unparalleled success begs the question: what‘s the deal? What is it about Halo that makes it so insanely popular?
Halo’s most dedicated fans claim that Halo is the “story-lover’s First Person Shooter.” This is what initially convinced me to pony up for an Xbox and give Halo a shot. At the risk of editorializing too much: whatever makes Halo special, it ain’t the story. And while the Halo series does boast an epic soundtrack courtesy of composer Martin O’Donnell, nobody is playing Halo for the music.
That leaves only gameplay, a nebulous term as-is, as what defines Halo.
When all is said and done, it is universally agreed upon that Halo is, if nothing else, a solid, well-refined shooter. And for good or bad, there’s certainly no denying the popularity of its multiplayer. That’s what drew in so many college goers nine years ago: LAN (Local Area Network) parties with Xboxes strung together by ethernet cables amidst a cityscape of pizza boxes and caffeinated beverages. But by the time Halo rolled onto the scene, online multiplayer was hardly anything new; online play had been a staple of First Person Shooters for years in computer gaming.
Ultimately, what put Halo in the Hall of Video Game Fame isn’t anything new it brought to the table—because it didn’t. Rather, Halo brought the already set table to a larger audience. Computer gaming, at least in the 90’s, early 2000’s and even still to this day, is a niche swath of the gaming community. Only those willing to spend in excess of up to thousands of dollars to assemble gaming rigs populate that arena (World of Warcraft players aside). So regardless of whether PC gaming had online multiplayer well in advance of Halo, it was Halo that brought online multiplayer to the attention of mainstream, everyday gamers.
Many people—myself included—hate to credit Halo for popularizing online gaming on consoles. There were other attempts prior to Halo (see: Phantasy Star Online, which came out in January that same year for SEGA’s Dreamcast. It didn’t do so well). But Halo, not unlike a Stephen King novel or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, is what beat the odds and became a sensation, and so it is Halo that gets credit for succeeding where many before it failed.
Halo left a particularly deep imprint in college gamers for its social aspects. The bittersweet thing about college is that, for as much as it fosters new friendships, it also splits them apart. Childhood and adolescent friends get left behind when the crew splits up to attend their respective universities. And even though college comrades fill the void, they inevitably part ways upon graduation, either scattering with the winds to all four corners of the country or becoming encapsulated within their own professional spheres. But Halo, like Facebook, helped people keep in touch—to game together—no matter where they ended up.
That, in essence, is the spark that makes Halo great. That spark has since caught flame and become a conflagration—what maintains Halo as a phenomenon now is not as clear-cut as it once was. Eric Nylund’s Halo novels and all the other media that make up its canon carry the weight of the franchise’s import on their shoulders. Like some rogue A.I. that gained sentience from the accumulation of random, seemingly arbitrary bits and bytes of data floating around the ‘Net, Halo has evolved, mutating into something new altogether, something more than a video game franchise. Now it is pop culture. The erroneously named Master Chief is as recognizable as Pac-Man, Mario, Sonic or even Ronald McDonald—quite an accomplishment for a character who looks like an armored, bipedal television set on steroids and named after U.S. military rank that, in real life, is occupied by a desk jockey—not a space cowboy.
So maybe Halo is indefinable. Maybe Halo is something either you get or you don’t. But love it or leave it, Halo has left its mark, and will probably carry on long after Bungie moves on to bigger and better things. Come tomorrow, Halo: Reach will remind us all just how much of a Running Riot the franchise is.