THE BEST 50 GAMES OF THE 1980s
10. Dungeon Master 1987
Atari ST, Amiga
Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale may have been the first to successfully twin Dungeons & Dragons-inspired adventuring with 3D visuals, but it was Dungeon Master that finally brought the genre firmly into the mainstream. Dodgy genre staples like orcs, magical arm and hit points are all present and correct, but with its mouse driven interface and revolutionary use of real-time exploration and combat, Dungeon Master proved accessible enough to become the most popular game ever released on the Atari ST, and a heavy influence on Eye Of The Beholder, Might & Magic, and the highly revered Ultima Underworld.
9. Maniac Mansion 1987
C64, Apple II, Amiga, ST, PC, NES
It’s easy to forget just how quickly the adventure game genre evolved during the 1980s. At the start of the decade the very idea of including graphics seemed outlandish. Indeed Zork and other groundbreaking early efforts from Infocom managed fine without them. Taking a cue from The Hobbit and the Sierra-On-Line graphic adventures, LucasFilm Games took a first dip into adventuring with Labyrinth before further developing its craft on the landmark Maniac Mansion. Featuring multiple protagonists, in-jokes galore, several possible endings and the innovative SCUMM scripting system, it laid down the blueprint for the Monkey Island games, Sam & Max, Grim Fandango, and a dozen other classics.
8. Prince Of Persia 1989
Having already made a name for himself with 1984’s karate title Karateka, Jordan Mechner returned to close combat with his sophomore Apple II effort, this time swapping the fist for the blade and amping up the graphic fidelity through the use of rotoscoping. It’s doubtful that Mechner was the first person to use live footage for reference when punching in pixel data, but at the time nobody had created such meticulously natural-looking animation in a humble computer game. Sadly Mechner only ever coded two further titles, although he did serve as a consultant on 2003’s Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time.
7. Sim City 1989
Amiga, Mac, PC, C64
Few game design legends have had to fight so hard for success as Will Wright, but it’s the fact that he struggled for four whole years to get this seminal title published that really beggars belief. Initially inspired by the map toolkit in his game Raid On Bungeling Bay, Wright originally coded ‘Micropolis’ in 1985, but faced rejections from all the major publishers, until new outfit Maxis finally agreed to bring it to market. Ironically, it’s the very features that were deemed commercial poison – no way to win the game, no set objective, and no right and wrong way of doing things – that made Sim City such a milestone title and so resoundingly popular.
6. Defender 1980
Coin-op, Atari 2600, Colecovision, Atari 5200, C64
With its daunting array of controllers (five buttons and a joystick), a range of bad guys sporting complex behaviours, plus a weird control system drenched in inertia, it’s little wonder that so many chose to admire Defender from afar when it first arrived in arcades. Even today Eugene Jarvis’ uniquely challenging creation for Williams remains one of the most difficult-to-master video games ever conceived. Yet it’s also one of the most elegant and inspired narrative-and-character-free coin-ops ever created. While several Defender games finally made it to consoles and home computers, only the unofficial BBC version Planetoid really came close to recreating the finely tuned gameplay of the arcade original.
5. Donkey Kong 1981
Coin-op, Colecovision, Apple II, C64, TI-99, PC, Atari 400/800, NES, MSX, Intellivision, Atari 7800, VIC-20
The fact that it pretty much invented the single-screen platform genre (while simultaneously helping Nintendo to break the American market) is reason enough to justify a top ten rating for Donkey Kong. But what really seals the deal is that it still remains one the most recognised and fondly remembered coin-ops of the day. Starring the eponymous ape and Jumpman, later be renamed Mario, the game was the work of veteran Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi and a first-time designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto. Talented guy. We think he’ll go far.
4. Tempest 1981
Coin-op, ST, BBC Micro, Spectrum
Created at Atari by Missile Command author David Theurer, Tempest was – much like Defender – often viewed with suspicion by many arcade fans in the 1980s. With an unfamiliar control system, an insanely steep difficulty curve, and those abstract vector graphics, it’s easy to understand why. And yet these are the very things that continue to endear it to the hardcore gaming fraternity, and have even prompted a 21st century re-evaluation that’s led to a spate of games sporting Tempest/Tron-indebted line art. Tempest remains both beautifully simple and simply beautiful.
3. Super Mario Bros 3 1989
Who at the time would have guessed that it would be the plumber, rather than the ape, that would emerge from Donkey Kong to become the official Nintendo mascot? While it was the original Super Mario Bros that introduced a groundbreaking platform-based action adventure formula, it was the third in the series that really turned the moustachioed one into a fully-fledged superstar. Evolving the format with the addition of minigames, map screens, and a range of now-familiar power-ups and environment designs, Super Mario 3 went on to sell over 18 million copies in its original NES format, before going on to enjoy SNES success in the ’90s, and more recently reaching the GBA and Wii platforms.
2. Tetris 1985
NES, Spectrum, C64, BBC, Gameboy, PC, ST, coin-op
Smartarse pundits may have initially compared Alexey Pajitnov’s maddeningly addictive falling blocks puzzler to the Rubik’s Cube, but Tetris has ultimately proved to have far greater longevity, despite the fact that it’s been the subject of more (and more ridiculous) legal battles than just about any other leisure product of the last hundred years. Originally developed at the Academy of Science in Moscow for the Elektronika 60, the game that most famously helped Nintendo turn the Gameboy into a multi-million seller has since been released on just about every computer, console and portable format imaginable, up to and including the iPod.
1. Elite 1984
BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, C64, Atari ST, Spectrum, Electron, NES, PC, Apple II, MSX, Archimedes, ST
Sacrilege? Heresy? Lunacy? All of the above? A lack of commercial success in the USA means many sadly never got the opportunity to appreciate Dave Braben and Ian Bell’s masterwork, so will doubtless view its top ranking in disbelief. But those lucky enough to experience the wireframe thrills back in the day know that nothing else came close to providing such an immersive, one-more-hit, all-consuming experience. Blending complex physics, trading elements, and plenty of Star Wars indebted shoot-’em-up action, and framing the action in an open-ended universe, Elite is the spiritual predecessor of everything from Wing Commander through to the Grand Theft Auto series. Elite at number one? Damn right.
DISAGREE? EMAIL US… We’ll publish the best responses in a follow-up feature.