Although the majority of today’s gamers would laugh up their sleeves in derision if shown a classic video game from the 80s, the fact remains that this was really the decade that started the video game phenomenon, and the games that were the pioneers of this phenomenon, though graphically far inferior to today’s offerings, were some of the most brilliantly craft, addictive games ever to grace a monitor or TV screen. Arcades ruled the day, with youth willing to do any odd job to earn a few quarters so they could run down to the local arcade and plug those quarters into games like Pac-Man, Defender, and Galaga. Most adults turned up their noses at these dark, musty caves with their overwhelming cacophony of beeps and blasts, but to kids these arcades were heaven on earth.
Video games in the 80s weren’t limited to the local arcades, however. Savvy companies saw the success the arcades were having and made the bold, shrewd decision to bring the video game to the comfort of the consumer’s own home. Personal computers, and simple home video game consoles brought not only ports of favorite arcade games, but brand new games into households, and gaming has never been the same since. Commodore, Atari, Apple, Nintendo all brought video games into our dens and living rooms, and parents grumbled as kids spent hour after hour starry eyed in front of their computers and game consoles.
Those were the glory days of video game programming, when graphics were simple, and gameplay was the only thing that mattered. A single, determined programmer could crank out a game in a matter of weeks or months, compared to today’s multi-million dollar projects that rival Hollywood in terms of resources and budgets. It is a shame today’s youth never got to enjoy this video game renaissance that those of us older folks did, but for those who were kids in the 80s and who know that it was the greatest time to be a gamer I’ve created this little walk down memory lane. Without further ado, here are my picks for the top 10 video games of the 80s. Enjoy.
10 – Lode Runner
This list is sure to generate a lot of controversy. Everyone has their favorites, and some will be scratching their heads at my inclusion of this game on a top 10 list. Still, I believe it deserves a spot. Simple, yet frustrating, challenging, and addictive this game featured more than 100 levels and had a built in level editor to create your own.
9 – Final Fantasy
Though not the greatest of the Final Fantasy games, this is the one that started a franchise that has now spanned two decades, with more than a dozen chapters, and hundreds of millions of dollars in game sales. This little 2D top down RPG for the NES truly spawned one of the most lucrative franchises in video game history.
8 – Ultima III – Exodus
Another RPG, and probably another controversial choice. Many would select Ultima IV when compiling a list of the top 10 video games of the 80s, but to me it was Ultima III that was the revolutionary leap forward. With the pencil and paper RPG, Dungeons and Dragons enjoying great popularity in the 80s, it was a natural transition to take the RPG to the video game screen. Games like Ultima III, Wizardry and the Bard’s Tale finally brought the action RPG’ers were picturing in their minds, onto the screen.
7 – Sim City
Another mega video game franchise that can trace its roots to the 80s. Will Wright could not possibly have predicted the amazing success this little Sim game would spawn. One of the truly great pioneering moments in home video game history.
6 – Donkey Kong
Up to number 6 on the list and we find our first entry from the good old arcade. This single screen platformer was maddeningly difficult, yet incredibly addictive. Fevered gamers would plug their allowances into this machine for just a few minutes of gaming goodness. The game required incredible timing, memorization and skill, and few ever managed to claim mastership of this title. Oh yeah, and it also was the coming out party for a little plumber named Mario. You may have heard of him. For an amusing retrospective on this game, rent the video game documentary, The King of Kong. Good for some nostalgia and lots of laughs.
5 – The Legend of Zelda
Though Atari was the first console to really hit it big in the living room, it was the NES system, or Famicon by Nintendo that hosted most of the greatest console video games in the 80s. Zelda, along with Mario, has been one of the flagship franchises for Nintendo throughout their history. Since day one this Shigeru Miyamoto creation has been known for its great storytelling, characterization and polish, and the Zelda games are some of the highest rated by reviewers in video game history.
4 – Super Mario Bros 3
The majority of classics on this top 10 list have been originals rather than sequels, but I feel compelled to make an exception in this case. While the original Super Mario Bros game was certainly a classic it was this third installment that really hit it big. This deep, incredibly addictive game is arguably the best platformer in the history of the genre. Who knew that determined little plumber from Donkey Kong would go on to be such a cash cow for Nintendo.
3 – Defender
Any number of arcade space shooters could have made this top 10 list, but in my opinion Defender was the best of a great genre. Another quarter-eating arcade title, Defender’s innovative side-scrolling game play really set it apart from games like Space Invader, Galaxians and Galaga. No longer confined to the bottom of a single screen, Defender gave you the ability to scroll sideways, moving in all four directions as you thrust your way through legions of enemies. Its inertia system also added difficulty and required great timing and finesse to be able to navigate. A true arcade classic.
2 – Tetris
Probably the most addictive video game ever released, this brilliant little puzzle game has shown its face on every nearly every computer system and videogame console ever released. With hundreds of licensed and homebrew spin-offs this puzzle game has seen little decline in popularity in the more than two decades since its creation.
1 – Pac-Man
No other video game sound immediately transports me back to the days of my arcade-dwelling youth like the “Wakka Wakka Wakka” of Pac-Man. This little yellow circle with a slice missing set the world of arcade games on its ear when it debuted in 1980. Previously dominated by space shooters and pinball machines the video game arcade suddenly got a breath of fresh air in the form of this pill-munching protagonist. Quick reflexes and pattern memorization were key to becoming a Pac-Man superstar, and many kids went home with aching wrists after an afternoon of steering Pac-Man through maze after maze, dodging ghosts and gobbling fruit in the quest to crack the high score list.
There you have it: my list of the top 10 video games of the 80s. Some might argue about omissions, inclusions or relative rankings, but no one can dispute these are some truly great video games, and stand strong even in today’s video game world where style often seems to trump substance.