A Brief History of Collectibles in Videogames

Jake Theriault
Dec 3, 2019 · 5 min read
Tiny Doomguy figures you can collect in DOOM (2016)

This article was originally published on July 15, 2019 in video form by Subpixel.

Collectibles have become part and parcel of today’s videogame experience. From the biggest AAA titles to the smallest Indies, today’s players will likely stumble upon a handful of ancillary collectibles during any given foray into today’s popular titles. These collectibles can come in a variety of forms, from objects that trigger bonus narrative content to tiny versions of the protagonist that unlock 3D models of game assets. Sometimes the collectible is nothing more than box to check.

I’ve never been the kind of player to actively seek out collectibles. Getting that max gamer score or platinum trophy is usually not worth the time and effort needed to seek out all those little hidden goodies; but as I was playing through Horizon: Zero Dawn in the early months of 2017, I was surprised to find myself willingly seeking out that world’s myriad collectibles. I should repeat that I’m not a completionist by any stretch of the imagination, but all the collectibles in H:ZD served to unlock tiny bits of additional story details, so I found myself compelled to find every little bit of world building and lore available to me. It was worth it.

After that little platinum trophy dinged across my screen I got to thinking: where did these kinds of collectibles originate? I decided to do some research.

Collecting, in the truest sense of the world, has always been a part of gaming. Pac Man collected little orbs, Mario collected coins, Sonic collected rings; but all these things served necessary functions within the game. They had a purpose. We seem to have evolved past that point to one where many collectible items in modern games have no purpose at all apart from fulfilling a sense that you’ve truly “completed” the game. These are the collectibles I want to look at.

By this metric I was considering a ‘collectible’ to be any item able to be collected by the player that doesn’t advance the player’s progress in any way. Any consumable object was right off the list, no matter how rare or obscure it might be. I was interested in determining the history of supposed “useless collectibles” like the little mini Doomguys in 2016’s DOOM, the dead Ghosts in Destiny, or the skulls in the Halo franchise. So with those conditions in mind, let’s dive in:

As far as I can tell, the first instance of a useless collectible item in a videogame can be found in the 1980 Atari 2600 title Adventure. In a certain segment of the game the player can collect a grey pixel, allowing them access to an Easter egg room containing the text “Created by Warren Robinett”. Entry into this room is not necessary to complete the game, and the grey pixel serves no function other than to allow the player into that singular space in the game, so for all intents and purposes it is the first of these types of collectibles ever to appear in a videogame.

But for the next ten years or so, these types of collectibles were largely missing — at least until 1996 with the release of Super Mario 64. This game became an important stepping stone on the road to modern day collectibles. While previous titles in the Mario franchise had Mario collecting coins and mushrooms and flowers — all of which directly affected gameplay — Super Mario 64 introduced something that would become a Super Mario staple: the star.

And while the stars in Super Mario 64 still were not the functionless checkbox collectibles we all know and love, their existence in the game heralded the arrival of a new type of player: the completionist. Videogame replayability suddenly became a thing not just about overall enjoyment of a game, but about collecting all the shiny things the game had to offer. In this moment we begin to see the introduction of modern collectibles.

Two years later, The Legend of Zelda: Ocirina of Time allowed players to track down one hundred Golden Skulltulas, which didn’t affect the outcome of the main story other than by the reward of rupees you received for completing your assignment of arachnicide.

By 1999 this push for additionally collectible content reached something of a zenith with Rare’s Donkey Kong 64 — the 2008 Guiness World Record holder for most collectibles ever in a game. DK 64 had so many things to collect that one writer for Den of Geek called reaching the game’s absurd 101% completion rate “submitting [yourself] to the mouth of madness”. And all bets were off about the true nature of DK 64’s breadth of collectibles when in 2017 a player found an as then undiscovered 977th rainbow coin.

But the first time I really noticed collectibles of this nature was in 2002 LEGO Island spinoff Island Xtreme Stunts. There were a whole host of things dotted around the island that I could collect, not least of which were a seemingly limitless number of red LEGO bricks (called Brickmal bricks), which when paired with a gold “Brickmal heart” would spawn a variety of specially built LEGO creatures at specific points around the island; but you could also collect trading cards of the island’s many characters and tiny LEGO-ized Academy Awards called LAFTAs. You can earn many of the LAFTAs just by playing through the main story, but everything else is completely ancillary and unnecessary to the completion of the main game.

At one point I had 104% completion logged in my save file, but an incident of sibling ignorance and mistyped keys sent that save file off into the void of all lost save files — never to be seen again. I don’t know at what percentage Island Xtreme Stunts can truly be considered complete, but I must’ve been close.

The march toward today’s modern collectathons continued in 2004’s Halo 2 with the introduction of “Skulls”, which once collected could be toggled to change the gameplay of Halo in various ways. But it was in 2005 when the Xbox 360 introduced the Gamerscore system that completionism and collectibles truly found their time in the sun.

The Assassin’s Creed series would soon become one of the most infamous purveyors of collectibles, beginning in 2007’s inaugural title with the collection of myriad flags from around the game environments. The flags did not affect gameplay or story and only awarded players a handful of achievements for their trouble. Ubisoft followed up AC’s flags with a series of feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2, feathers that could float away from you — cementing this particular series of collectibles as “another level of ridiculousness” in the minds of some Gamespot forum users.

Also in 2007, after Xbox launched the Gamerscore system, Valve implemented an Achievement system on Steam, followed a year later by Sony with the implementation of trophies within the Playstation ecosystem, giving their respective player bases the same kind of completionist support the Gamerscore system provided to Xbox users. From this point we can pretty easily follow the collectible trail to today’s titles.

Now we can debate all day long on whether or not developers have gone too far recently with collectibles in their games, but there’s no denying collectibles are an important part of videogame history. And until we stop trying to get that maximum gamerscore or new platinum trophies, collectibles are here to stay.

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