There’s something about stealth that makes you feel clever, like an apex predator cornering its prey. Sure, outwitting an enemy in an online shooter provides similar thrills, but doesn’t a flanking manoeuvre kind of loop back to stealth? You obscured your body with geometry and came at your opponent from an unexpected angle, like a cat in the long grass wiggling its backside before pouncing on a pigeon.
Some of my favourite moments from Sea of Thieves – a game about sailing across a vast ocean and digging up treasure – are grounded in stealth mechanics. Like the time another player stowed away on our ship and stole a vault key, or when I lost a pursuing player by pretending to turn around an island, only to turn back in the opposite direction as soon as we were obscured by a nearby volcano.
At their core, stealth games are about positioning – being in the right place at the right time and knowing when to leap into action. It feels as if, more than ever, the genre is poised to spring up from the foliage and take us all by surprise once more.
But let’s load up an old save and go right back to the start – back to a time before save states even existed.
Pac to the Start
While Metal Gear (1987) is often cited as the birthplace of stealth, you can see the foundations of the genre much earlier – in the arcades. Pac-Man was released in the US by Midway in 1980. A year later, around 250 million games of Pac-Man were being played in America each week.
Japanese games designer Toru Iwatani created Pac-Man as a response to the violent arcade games of the time, such as Space Invaders (1978) and Galaxian (1979). In those titles, the goal was to destroy the enemy with a hail of bullets. Pac-Man, for the most part, wasn’t an aggressor at all. The little fella just wanted to pop some pills in peace.
In Pac-Man the goal is to gobble up all the fruit you can while avoiding ghosts hunting you down. It’s a game about evasion rather than outright stealth – you never actually hide, you just intuit enemy patrol paths and make sure your route doesn’t intersect with them. Occasionally, you get access to a power-up that allows you to gobble up the ghosts, turning the tables and forcing the cherry-bothering phantoms to retreat from you.
When you boil it down to its core, Pac-Man grabbing a power-up and becoming the aggressor isn’t that different to The Last of Us Part II’s Ellie lying in wait before plunging a blade into someone’s neck.
After Pac-Man, Sega launched an arcade game called 005 in 1981. It holds the Guinness world record for being the first-ever stealth game. Using a top-down view, you infiltrate a series of warehouses to steal documents before escaping in a helicopter. While a good portion of the game is action-focused, it innovated within the stealth genre because it was the first game to give enemies a vision cone, allowing you to tell where the enemy is looking and find a route around their patrols. Unlike Pac-Man, where the enemy always knows where you are, 005 allows you to spring an ambush or let guards pass by without being seen.
You can also see the birthplace of modern, first-person perspective horror-stealth games that same year. Games like Outlast and Alien Isolation can be traced all the way back to a ZX Spectrum game called 3D Monster Maze (1981). The game takes you to a low-resolution labyrinth and asks you to escape while being hunted by a T-Rex.
The action takes place through the player character’s eyes and relies on text cues to tell you what the monster is doing. ‘He is hunting for you,’ and similar messages appear on the screen, asking you to interpret the dinosaur’s location in relation to where you are. You’re also able to outrun the beast when it gives chase. It’s a rudimentary precursor to much of the YouTuber-bait horror games of the modern era.
Around the same time, you see the genre evolve via the top-down Apple II game Castle Wolfenstein. This allowed players to dress as Nazi soldiers to evade detection, and it also introduced AI that reacted to the sound of gunshots and grenade detonations. You started the game with only ten bullets, which encouraged you to play it on its own terms – as a stealth game – and hold enemies up by poking your gun into the small of their back. This way you could force them to surrender rather than wasting your limited ammo.
Later, Metal Gear (1987) – another top-down game, this time for the MSX2 – popularised stealth games and truly highlighted their potential. Silenced firearms were introduced to the genre, as well as subtle noise detection and guards with multiple alert levels. Sneaky players could creep up on enemies and take them out silently with their fists. As well as dealing with patrolling sentries, Metal Gear asked you to slip past security cameras and infrared sensors.
It was followed by Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990), which added a radar window showing enemy vision cones. The sequel also introduced a timer to alert modes for guards, allowing them to return to their default state if you avoid them for long enough. The ability to crouch also gave players new ways to hide from anyone who was hunting them down.
On top of that, another staple of the stealth genre made its debut: lures. Using tiny, robotic mice, you could distract enemies and lure them to a specific location before striking, just like the bottles and bricks of The Last of Us.
There weren’t any noteworthy stealth games for a while after Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, but that all changed in 1998, the year stealth games went in three distinct directions.
Kirk McKeand is an award-winning game journalist from Lincoln, UK, where he lives with his partner and two sons. He has written for a variety of mainstream and specialist outlets, and you can find him today as Managing Editor for GLHF, a gaming content agency serving media partners around the globe.