The decade of the 1980s is remembered for numerous historical milestones, events, fads, and technological advancements. It was the era of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, cartoons with ridiculous PSAs, testosterone-filled action flicks, whacky hair bands, Hulkamania, and most of all, the fall and rise of the video game industry. It was difficult to believe that in 1986, video games would make a huge come back after going to Hell in a handbasket no thanks to ET for the Atari 2600.
It was a colossal failure to the point that unsold cartridges were dumped and buried in a landfill in a desert in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The savior of the industry would be Nintendo and their flagship franchise, Mario. Thanks to them, many companies came from the ashes and found success on Nintendo’s break out console. However, the success of video games is not exclusive to Nintendo, but to arcades and computers as well. With a combination of these contributors, what are some of the best games that came from this era?
10. Dragon’s Lair
- Platform: Arcade
- Publisher: Cinematronics
- Developer: Cinematronics
- Release Dates: June 1983
Kicking off this list is the animated arcade classic, Dragon’s Lair, which you may have seen in the second season of Stranger Things, the hit Netflix supernatural series that takes place in the 1980’s. Compared to most pixelated games of the time, Dragon’s Lair was considered state of the art by giving players control of an animated feature (directed by Don Bluth, famous for An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go To Heaven) and was one of the first games to use Quick Time Events, where you push a button at a certain moment to make Dirk do the proper action so he can save the princess, or get disintegrated into a skeleton. As easy it may sound, it was far from it since it really tested your reflexes.
What made this game possible for the time was LaserDisc technology, and the video game industry thought it would make great use of it through Dragon’s Lair. It paved way for other animated games with quick time events such as Space Ace (also released by Cinematronics), and Taito’s cult classics, Time Gal & Ninja Hayate. Older gamers who have experience with this game are likely to appreciate it, while with younger gamers, give it a try because nobody doesn't make games like these anymore.
- Platform: Arcade, Master System
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: Sega AM2
- Release Dates: 1985
While racing games are a dime a dozen no matter what era, the original arcade version of Hang-On is one of the first games to have a cabinet in the form of a racing motorcycle. Like a real-life motorcycle, players use the right side of the handlebar to rev up and go, and even uses a brake function when entering sharp corners. If you steer the motorcycle left or right, then the game would react by taking the player in that direction. While this is not at all unique by today’s standards, Hang-On, for its time, was the first to bring that feeling of realism by using a form of an actual motorcycle and established Yu Suzuki’s philosophies of making experiences through games as opposed to playing.
For kids who weren’t old enough get a license, this was the closest thing to getting that thrill of riding 100 mph. But its biggest contribution to gaming is that it helped establish the arcade industry in Japan. At the time, arcades were mostly associated with delinquents, and Hang-On helped bring in all kinds of audiences. While this game does have releases on home consoles, nothing compares to riding the arcade cabinet.
8. Prince of Persia
- Platform: Apple II
- Publisher: Brøderbund
- Developer: Brøderbund
- Release Dates: Oct 3, 1989
Rotoscoping was a common animation technique between the 1940s and 1980s for animated features, especially in Disney’s Peter Pan. But if there were one title that solidified it for gaming, it would have to be the original Prince of Persia. What makes the original Prince of Persia stand out is how fluid and realistic the animation and movement was for its time period thanks to rotoscoping. As you control the character, he would run and jump in a way that demonstrated the momentum necessary to make a jump. If the floor collapsed beneath the character as he ran, he would react by flailing his arms setting him up for a possible jump.
While this is common in modern adventure games, it was one of the first games that had characters jump onto the edge of ledges and climb them, which was something that stood it at the time. In addition to avoiding traps, you would engage in sword fights with palace guards and they would resemble the swashbuckler films of Errol Flynn. In fact, much of the basis of the animation came from the creator taking videos and pictures of his brother doing the movements and then tracing over them. And speaking of Errol Flynn, he actually used his role as Robin Hood to create the combat system.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Platform: Arcade
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Konami
- Release Dates: 1989
While the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has been a long-running multimedia phenomenon, many fans from the 1980s still have fond memories of the iconic 1987 cartoon. But if there were any game that expanded its presence in pop culture, it would be the 1989 hit arcade game. Thanks to multi-player beat ‘em ups such as Double Dragon and Final Fight, it paved way for a format to best represent the spirit of TMNT. You could get together with three others and fight through the sewers of New York to find the Technodrome and whether you won or lost, you could then get together and enjoy a pizza like the Ninja Turtles.
Every selectable turtle excellently represents their series counterpart and by working together, players can overcome the overwhelming obstacles and challenges this game has to offer. With Ninja Turtles as big as it was, the game naturally became a hit. While the NES release didn’t have 4-player support or have the same detailed graphics and sound effects, it makes up for it by providing new stages and bosses to fight. But if there is one thing this game is remembered for, is that you don’t fight one but seven Shredders!! So if you want a taste of the original TMNT with some 1980s style beat ‘em ups, the OG Ninja Turtles arcade game is it.
- Platform: NES, Arcade
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Konami
- Release Dates: Feb 1988
What makes this game so the 80s has to be its Western box art being an obvious nod to Schwarzenegger’s Commando and Stallone’s Rambo movies. For 1980s kids, taking the role of machine gun wielding macho men was the ultimate dream and Contra provided that. The game gets right to it as you go out and shoot some alien scum. While the gameplay was simple, the difficulty of the swarming enemies and intricate level designs didn’t make it easy. Heck, even playing two players with your friends or siblings at times didn’t make it easier, but the fact that it was one of the first console games to allow simultaneous two-player is what contributes to its legacy. While the game was frustrating, the game was still rewarding by giving you weapons of various kinds of usages and power and provided various kinds of level designs. While it is standard by most games today, Contra allowed players to shoot in mid-air while flipping or shoot while lying down on the ground.
Other than being a side-scrolling shooter, the game also offers parts where you move upwards as opposed to sideways to give some feel of 3D. As stated earlier, the game is famous for its difficulty but this can be overcome thanks to the legendary Konami code (up, up, down down, left, right, left, right, B, A) that would give players 30 lives. While it debuted in Gradius, Contra made it popular and the company would include it in many of its games for years to come.
- Platform: Game Boy
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Bullet Proof Software
- Release Dates: June 1989
As the Cold War was coming to its end, gamers worldwide were enjoying Tetris on their Game Boys. In fact, a Russian mathematician by the name of Alexey Pajitnov created it. While the game’s legacy stems from its Game Boy release, Pajitnov developed the game as a means to develop some new computer hardware capabilities for the university he worked for, and he took inspiration from a puzzle game he enjoyed in his youth that used blocks. The name Tetris itself is a combination of the words tetromino (shapes that have four squares) and tennis. The game became a huge hit around the old Soviet block and went international by 1987. Despite its PC roots, Tetris’ legacy goes hand in hand with that of the Nintendo Game Boy.
While the game is simple, it does require a lot of brainpower and concentration to get the high score you are aiming for. In fact, there is confirmed research showing that this game heightens brain activity. The game ends if you fill the screen to the top. Another notable quality the game is remembered for is its catchy theme song, Korobeiniki, a traditional Russian folk song that gets you in the mood. The game was perfect for the Game Boy and could be played by anyone of all ages. You could turn it on and off at any time depending on your personal situation whether you were home or not.
The game really has no definitive ending that you are obligated to get to. It was a good game to kill time if you were waiting at the DMV or waiting for your order at a busy restaurant. Or if you were on a long road trip, you could just sit in the back of the car and break your own personal record. In case some of you didn’t know, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is actually a huge fan and was Nintendo Power’s top player for months to the point they couldn’t take his scores anymore. Instead, he submitted his score under a different name by spelling his name backward.
- Platform: Arcade
- Publisher: Namco (Japan), Midway (US)
- Developer: Namco
- Release Dates: May 22, 1980 (Japan), Oct 26, 1980 (US)
Long before the days of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, players could enjoy Pac-Man at their local arcades. Each stage is constructed as a maze within the confines of the screen, and as the titular character, you navigate him to eat every single white dot (and the occasional fruit) while avoiding the ghosts. As you beat each stage, you progress to a new one with a new design providing diverse challenges.
What made this game popular is that it was one of the first arcade games that broke the trend of space shooters like Space Invaders and Asteroids. Its gimmick managed to capture a wider audience and people enjoyed it for its time. It was also one of the first games to have a sponsored competition in who can get the highest score. One winner even got a congratulatory letter from then President Reagan. Upon its release, the graphics were appealing and much smoother than most of the games of the pixilated and blocky games. Its sound effects and music also have this long lasting appeal that further gives a contribution to its identity and technology of the time.
3. The Legend of Zelda
- Platform: NES, Famicom Disk System
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Dates: Feb 21, 1986 (Japan), Aug 22, 1987 (US)
Inspired by Miyamoto’s childhood outdoor explorations is The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo’s main adventure RPG series. While there have been some cult adventure RPGs like the original Ultima, Zelda is the game to popularize the genre. You can level up Link’s life (expressed as hearts), expand his arsenal consisting of a sword, a bow and arrow, and bombs, and be paving the way that the world inside games can be explorable as opposed to being level oriented. The game popularized the concept of dungeons and the numerous puzzles that come in the form of traps. Heck, many of these elements are present in today’s Zelda games.
However, what makes this game novel for the 1980’s is for two reasons in context to its American and Japanese releases. In the US, Zelda debuted on a golden cartridge as opposed to a gray one to emphasize its majestic atmosphere and to capture customer interest. For the Japanese release, in case some of you didn’t know, the player 2 controller for the Famicom actually included a microphone and if you fight ghosts called Pols Voices, you can blow or scream into the microphone instantly killing them. Last, its US cartridge release paved the way for internal battery saving, which is its biggest contribution to gaming.
2. Mega Man (Rockman)
- Platform: NES
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Dates: Dec 1987
Another legendary platform that 1980’s kids loved is Capcom’s Mega Man. Mega Man is probably one of the first ever sleeper hit games. In case some of you youngsters didn’t know, while Mega Man has numerous installments, its US debut wasn’t that big of a success. Many people to even Keiji Inafune agree that the US box art is largely to blame for it.
If you look at it, it looks like a cheap version of Tron and is by no means a near accurate representation of the actual game. But beyond that, what makes Mega Man a distinction to this list is that it is one of the first games to allow players to select their levels in any order they want (as opposed to a predetermined order), and at the end of that level, they fight its respective boss. Upon defeating that boss, you can take his special ability as Mega Man’s. While the levels can be played in any order, once you get the hang of the game, you can learn what abilities other bosses can be weak to so it can give you an idea on how to strategize your own personal order. The design is simple and yet intricate, and its soundtrack and sound effects is another contribution to the wonder of 8-bit.
1. Super Mario Bros.
- Platform: NES
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Dates: Sept 13, 1985 (Japan), Oct 18, 1985 (US)
As shared in the intro, if there is one game that defines the industry of not just the 1980’s but throughout history, it would be Super Mario Bros. Despite Mario debuting in Donkey Kong as Jumpman, this classic would be his break out and cement his legacy. But what makes the original Super Mario Bros distinct and still stand out to this day is how you can just start the game and just jump right into it, which was the intention of Shigeru Miyamoto, the game’s creator. While a good portion of games today have tutorials to familiarize players with the basics, Mario takes you back to a simpler time of just learning as you go along. If you make a mistake and lose a life, you can go back and whatever enemy was there the first time, is still going to be there so you can defeat it. The game also allows players to familiarize with the game’s simple and yet rewarding power-ups such as the growing mushroom, the fire flower, and the invincibility star.
In addition, the game is the perfect gateway to the console’s 8-bit graphics and sound effects. The respective songs used for the main stage, castles, underground and underwater perfectly capture the atmosphere and can be used universally from stage 1 to stage 8. The main theme sparks your interest and relaxes you while the theme song of the castles has you on high alert to avoid its fiery traps.
Finally, we’d like to make some 5 honorable mentions to Galaga, Street Fighter, Frogger, Oregon Trail, and Tempest. To be frank, making this list was undeniably difficult to make that we wanted to make a top 20 or maybe even 100 if we could. We understand that a good number of you readers likely disagree with our list and we’re cool with that. In fact, we encourage having a fun discussion on what you all think some of the best games of the 1980’s happen to be. If you have your own idea, please leave them in the comments.