History of 3D Gravity Games

I thought it might be interesting to compile a little list of lunar lander-style 3D gravity games. I’ve discovered quite a few since starting work on OpenLander. To my surprise, I’ve found a wide range of 3D gravity games, the releases of which are spread over more than 20 years of gaming history. This genre may be a niche within a niche, but it has a longer and more illustrious history than I’d imagined!

What kind of games do I include here? My goal is to record games that broadly resemble (in all, or part of their gameplay) a 3D version of Lunar Lander. Specifically, I’m looking for:

  1. A rotating craft, with a single “downwards” thruster, allowing helicopter-like flight.
  2. Newtonian-style Physics (gravity, momentum, etc).
  3. Applying points 1 and 2 to fly around some kind of landscape, accomplish tasks, etc.

No doubt I’m missing some. I’m already aware of a few other candidates for this list. For the key titles I’ve been able to go into detail with I have tried to provide a summary and some links to external resources (which are by third parties and I cannot claim credit for). Details in the full article, below…


Released: 1987

License: Commercial

Platform: Acorn Archimedes

The great grandfather of 3D gravity games! Released on the Acorn Archimedes in 1987, this was the inspiration for the later game “Virus”, which ran on less powerful systems. Zarch featured a 3D landscape, with a thruster-based vehicle flying around it. Given the power of the hardware available, this was an extremely impressive piece of graphical work! The game was programmed by the famous David Braben (who had previously developed Elite).

Were there any 3D gravity games before this? I’m not currently aware of any older games within this genre. I assume that there was some kind of NASA-internal simulator for the Apollo Moon Landings but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an old-school hardware-based thing… Maybe Zarch is where it all began for this kind of software!


Released: 1988

License: Commercial

Platform: Various

Where Zarch is the great grandfather, Virus is the grandfather of 3D gravity games. Released back in 1988, this game featured a thruster powered craft, flying over a 3D landscape. Also coded by David Braben, Virus ran on cheaper, less powerful machines than Zarch. Eventually, to general surprise, it was even ported to the lowly ZX Spectrum by Steve Dunn!

The player’s mission was to fly around the world, destroying alien seeders, which were attempting to spread a deadly virus around the world. The linked YouTube videos show the DOS version of lander; the video information draws attention to a number of the special effects demonstrated – it’s amazing just how graphically capable Virus actually was.

It was sobering, having coded up an initial prototype of OpenLander, to discover that basically the same game had been done 20 years before on such limited hardware!

Microsoft Space Simulator

Released: 1994

License: Commercial

Platform: MS-DOS

I’m not really including general space simulators in this article – other such products being conspicuous by their absence. The MS Space Simulator was an awesome product with a wide variety of missions, great graphics, impressive physics handling and a generally high replay value (completely goal-free, open ended gameplay).

The reason I’ve snuck this reference in is that there were a couple of instances of the “3D Lunar Lander” gameplay that cropped up within Space Sim. One of the spaceships (Wikipedia reminds me it was called the “All Terrain Lander”) featured powerful vertical thrusters, permitting helicopter-style hovering flight. The manual suggested some challenges (such as flying at speed through canyons) which made use of these thrusters. In effect, this was a basic 3D gravity game within a wider game of space simulation.

MS Space Sim also included historical craft and missions – including an interactive simulation of the Apollo moon landing. Again, this is a sort of gravity game within a game!

This was a game that I owned when it was still current. It was cool stuff! Why did MS not continue with this product, as they did with Flight Sim? 😦

V2000 (Virus 2000)

Released: 1998

License: Commercial

Platform: Windows, Playstation

A sequel to the original Virus game, with more advanced graphics. Developed by Frontier Developments, a company founded by David Braben (author of the original Virus game). Released for PC and Playstation. Interestingly, the game appears to have a ground-hugging “hover mode” as well as the more conventional thrust-based flight (the YouTube video summary mentions the ability to convert during play between hovercraft and VTOL aircraft!). Looks like the ground-hugging mode makes it easier to shoot accurately, something which can be a problem in this genre!

The Youtube video / summary also depict rescuing villagers and setting them to work in your factories, producing more advanced technology – adding an element of RTS to the game.


Released: 1999

License: Commercial

Platform: Windows

A 3D gravity game by Psygnosis. This was the first game to be released on DVD in the UK. It included a campaign mission structure, the possibility of upgrading to progressively better ships, a networked deathmatch game.

I spent a lot of time playing the free demo of this game when it came out. It had rather good replay value, largely due to the challenge of flying as efficiently as possible! The mouse + keys 3D control system permitted some amazingly beautiful moves during gameplay. It’s a shame it didn’t become more widely known.

Eagle Lander 3D

Released: 2002 (development continued after initial release, the latest news on the homepage is October 2007)

License: Shareware / Commercial

Platform: Windows

A 3D simulation of the Apollo Lunar Module. This was a progression from an older arcade-style game, Eagle Lander. The game is, as the name suggests, fully 3D. It’s also a proper simulation, rather than an arcade game. From the video it is apparent that it’s an incredibly detailed simulation, complete with 3D cockpit – an amazing piece of work!

Levitar 3D

Released: 2005 (Levitar 3D) / 2006 (Levitar 3D: Evolved)

License: Freeware

Platform: Windows

Update: In the comments section, roid tells me that Levitar 3D actually has 2D style gameplay in a 3D environment. Technically that puts it in a different category to the other games here, which have fully 3D controls. Still, it looks pretty sweet and is one of few gravity games to have 3D graphics at all.

A 3D gravity game (really two games: the original Levitar 3D, followed by the rewrite, Levitar 3D: Evolved) by Les Bird who has written some other nice looking games. This looks like really impressive piece of work, with ODE-based physics, structured missions, a large variety of weapons, professional quality graphics, etc.


I’ve made heavy use of the English-language Wikipedia in researching material for this article and finding sites to link to – a huge thanks to all the contributors there. All of the YouTube videos I’ve linked were independently uploaded by others – a big thanks to them for providing this visual documentation of the history of gaming. World of Spectrum and The Your Sinclair – Rock n Roll Years both provide an invaluable resource for fans of retro gaming and ex-Speccie users, such as myself. Thanks also to the various other websites that pointed me in the right direction, filled out my knowledge or provided useful tidbits of information for the article. Thanks to David Braben’s Frontier Developments for putting information about their older games online. Microsoft‘s Space Simulator and (especially) Psygnosis’s Lander introduced me to the fun of 3D newtonian-style gravity games. Thanks to the independent individual game developers responsible for a number of the games listed here.

Other Links

9 Responses to “History of 3D Gravity Games”

  1. roid Says:

    Unfortunately both of the Levitar-3D games have only 2D gameplay – you can only move left and right.

  2. openlander Says:

    > Unfortunately both of the Levitar-3D games have only 2D gameplay – you can
    > only move left and right.

    Oh, that’s disappointing but understandable in terms of gameplay. Thanks for letting me know, I’ll add a note to the blog post.

  3. roid Says:

    here’s some more 3D lander games that i had bookmarked.

    http://people.ucsc.edu/~asue/lander/ <– very similar to yours


    http://www.gamedev.net/community/gds/viewentry.asp?projectID=326284 <– racing game concept

  4. roid Says:

    This seems interesting, fly a lander around city buildings.

    “LunarPilot for Microsoft Flight Simulator”

    do you mind if i just drop Lander things here as i find them?

  5. openlander Says:

    roid said:
    > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yYqXR2-Ivk

    Oh wow, that’s just awesome! The same people (http://www.things-to-come.com/) seem to have done all sorts of awesome videos and games. Interesting combination of aviation enthusiasm, games coding, video making and generally awesome / crazy sense of humour 😉

    Possibly even more awesomely, though, the “lander” in that video clip is actually a real life thing that was used to train astronauts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LLRV

    The LLRV / LLRT was designed to fly in earth gravity but to simulate the conditions of flying a lander-type craft on the moon. It had a downwards-facing jet engine which would lift the craft into the air, then throttle back to counteract earth’s gravity just enough to simulate lunar gravity. A control system onboard would also eliminate the effects of gusts of wind, etc using smaller thrusters. The result was a real aircraft, flown by astronauts in training, that actually behaved (in terms of “low gravity”, lack of air resistance, etc) exactly like a moon lander.

    That’s got to be the ultimate 3D gravity game!

    >do you mind if i just drop Lander things here as i find them?

    Please do. This post is about the most popular on the entire blog, so I think people are finding it useful. Would you mind if I rolled up your links into another blog post at some point, along with any more that I can find?

  6. roid Says:

    no prob.
    a while back i was a real Psygnosis Lander nut, and would scour the net for other fans and similar games.

    I still have a dream of a Lander racing game.
    (If they expanded the multiplayer in Lander. ie: ONE outdoor map at least, and improve the network code. It would have been so awesome).

    The game dynamics of multiplayer Lander racing would be so funny. It’d be hectic like the old micromachines games.

  7. Anthony Says:

    Maybe we need a forum or community for Lander games.

    Roid, I too have that dream of a Lander racing game. I’ve been thinking of it on a rather smaller scale though…

    I’ve emailed Mark about this project already. It’s got a surreal, original twist that could make it a lot of fun.

    Have you ever looked at an iron and thought, “that looks aerodynamic!”?

  8. roid Says:

    found another new game called “Hopper”

    i don’t know if it has a website. It seems to have A.I. , an in-game editor, and Racing.

  9. roid Says:

    whoops, looks like i posted the wrong video, i meant this one:

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