how a common object became one of the best ideas in video game history


On the way to Madrid, a few kilometers from Zaragoza, my father’s car began to smoke causing us to stop on the side of the highway. When we were still wondering what the hell had happened to him, the flames began to appear on the hood. What I had seen so many times in movies and video games was now happening right under my nose.

Without really knowing how, in a matter of seconds I managed to grab my brother, pull him out of the car, jump the highway guardrail with him in my arms, and run up the hill trying to avoid what years of shooting red barrels I had been taught: those flames were followed by a cinematic explosion.

More fire than explosions

Luckily for everyone involved, the most spectacular thing that happened that night was watching a car burn for nearly an hour while the firefighters took time to show up for what I still remember to this day as a lifetime.

The only ones explosions that occurred were those of some wheels that, heated the air inside them to the extreme, burst from the pressure with an alarming but by all accounts harmless noise.

That night I learned that cars, like red barrelsThey don’t actually explode. After a shot they will begin to release the fuel that they carry inside, but even in the hypothetical case that it catches fire, it will only burn until it is consumed. It could only explode if, being almost empty, the vapors inside and the pressure generated did the same as those noisy wheels.

In essence, the thing about cars rising into the air and bursting into flames we owe to the creativity of the cinema. And those of the red barrels that burn momentarily before provoking a dangerous explosion, al video game design.


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But when did we learn that? In which movie did we see a sequence where a red barrel exploded? At what point do we first shoot a barrel with the intention of causing a flame and its subsequent detonation in a game? Who taught us to relate a red barrel with that outcome?

The first red barrel

It is difficult to find in the video game world a more iconic common object than the barrel. Do not count guns and weapons, of course, we are talking about something much more mundane. A car? Well, there are a few of those, but they have added value. Seen from a realistic and everyday point of view, it is difficult to think of a more bland object than a mere cylinder.

Go almost to the beginning of time, to one of the most iconic works in the medium, and you’ll find a barrel rolling towards you in the original Donkey Kong. Even before Mario was known by that name, there was already a barrel on fire. The first brown and the other blue, yes.

Speed Rumbler

For the color and the explosions, it would be time to wait a little longer. In Double Dragon and heirs like Final Fight or Streets of Rage you used them as a throwing weapon or hit them and picked up the food they left behind.

But although those games were guilty of popularizing the object at the time of the “me against the neighborhood”, the origins of explosive red barrel Ancient Ones go back a year further, to a not-so-famous Capcom arcade game from 1986 called The Speed Rumbler.

We owe her not only the first explosive red barrels, but also the first and still iconic two-stage mechanic. If our vehicle or enemy vehicles hit a blue barrel, it would be painted red. If we hit a red barrel, the resulting explosion would damage anyone nearby. Including ourselves.

Why red?

While it is true that we have seen explosive barrels of other colors -and that aforementioned blue is a good example of it-, any video game tends to cling to the color red like a straw (heh). At this point it is clear that changing it could even be confusing, dragging the player who faces him to a fateful error. But why was it painted red first?

At an anthropological level, elements such as blood or fire are cited to establish that learned relationship between red and danger, but the truth is that the level of reaction that it arouses is not exclusive to humans. Also manifested in other animals such as apes, the alertness produced by red is greater than that of orange, yellow or white in different species.

Beyond that, the use of red as a synonym of danger throughout our civilization is sustained by an even simpler principle. The color red is at the highest point of our visible spectrum because it has the longest wavelength.


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In our language? Which is the color that is least affected by air particles and the one we can see at a greater distance in case of adverse weather conditions such as rain or fog. That is why all danger signs, wherever you go, are red. And that’s why the barrels of that Capcom arcade machine went from a blue that said “everything is going well“to a screaming red”alert”.

An essential part of video game language

Although theirs were not red or had two phases, those of the first Doom were in charge of teaching us a rule on which the idea of ​​the explosive red barrels since then. Popped from afar, they were a superb aid in our journey against the forces of evil. A few meters from them, they could even mean death.

That sobering surprise was for many the first approach to a mechanic that did not take long to continue adding components. to the mere explosion the color would follow Red, already this one timer that would delay said ending further polishing the idea.

Half Life 2

Despite being a simple everyday object placed on stages to provide an industrial and decadent air, the explosive red barrel had become an element that at a playable level demanded not only the precision of the usual aiming, also a necessary foresight, agility and timing to flee from danger once the fuse is lit.

A tool in which the strategy, especially to be able to take full advantage of the range of his zambombazo, broke with the last ten minutes of continuous shooting introducing a different challenge. A mild challenge, yes, but much more elaborate than hitting shots without rhyme or reason. A murder turned into a puzzle that, as a prize, delivered an explosive and satisfying ending.


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The idea turned out to be good enough for more games to embrace, and while other mechanics faded over the years along with the cycle of life and death of the genres, the explosive red barrel it remained until it became a symbol.

A symbol born exclusively from the world of videogames and, as such, has become an essential part of its iconography. If today we assume that when shooting a red barrel is going to explode, it is because we have turned that video game symbol into part of our language.

Images | Darryl Johnson, Romain Albenque


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