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1/08/2020

21 Best Games of the Decade (1980-1989)

The '80s were both a great time and a terrible time for gaming.  On the one hand, you had that whole video game crash thing, which just about did console gaming in for good.  But with the NES's launch and subsequent massive success, gaming was of two worlds for quite a long time, with faster paced arcade-style games mostly appearing on consoles and more slow, cerebral games on various home computer platforms.  Both attracted quite large followings in their own way, and both had quite a few quality releases before the decade ended.  I'm of course more of a console gamer, but I've since gained an appreciation for several PC classics as well, so I'll attempt to pay my respects to both here.  Though I will have one caveat in that I am limiting myself to one game per franchise.

21. Simcity (Maxis, 1989)

Taking the virtual city element of Raid on Bungeling Bay and developing it into a full-fledged city planning simulator, Simcity was a slow-seller at first, but quickly became one of the best-regarded games of all time.  It certainly doesn't sound like the stuff of great video gaming - trying to expand a virtual metropolis while managing crime, pollution, traffic and cleaning up after natural disasters - but its addictive and ambitious design made it a game you could easily lose hours to.  It's also since had its source code released (though under the name "Micropolis" due to copyright issues), allowing it to be played on numerous newer platforms or even free in your web browser, so if you haven't checked out this gem yet, well, now you have no excuse.

The original DOS release is also playable for free on the Internet Archive!

20. The Oregon Trail (MECC, 1985)

An enduring classic among edutainment titles that has seen countless updates, remakes and ports over the years (and is even now playable online via the Internet Archive), the fact that it's existed in some form since 1971 is proof that it has some serious staying power. The goal is simple enough - reach Oregon - but resource and risk management are key elements of the journey, with numerous random events (both helpful and not) giving it the feel of a roguelike in some respects. A few minigames appear too - hunting and river travel require some good old twitch skill, ensuring it holds appeal to arcade/console gamers as well.


19. Phantasy Star (Sega, 1988)

One of the very first JRPGs to make its way to the west, and for those who owned a Sega Master System, it was a worthy adventure indeed.  Basically a mashup of Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars, it combined a first person dungeon crawling experience with a colorful and dense science fantasy world that spanned three planets and a number of different vehicles to traverse them all.  Detailed and colorful graphics, smooth scrolling, innovative design and even some surprisingly good music for the Sega Master System all helped to make it one of the platform's defining games, and a classic RPG that formed the basis of an equally classic series.

18. Maniac Mansion (LucasArts, 1987)

Adventure games were many throughout the early days of computer gaming, and when graphical engines started gaining traction, they only took off even more, propelling several game franchises and companies into stardom. LucasArts had many of their own, but by far my favorite was Maniac Mansion. A strange but humorous send-up of cheesy B-Movie plots, you picked a group of three teenagers and entered the titular mansion, trying to rescue Dave's girlfriend Sandy from the mad Dr. Fred. And depending on who you choose, the means you take to reach that goal are completely different - from getting record deals to publishing contracts to fixing radios to enlisting the aid of Weird Ed, there were many ways to win and even more endings to see, giving it more replay value than most games of its kind.  The 1990 NES version remains my favorite, though - despite famously being censored, it made up for it with an outstanding soundtrack that realized numerous genres with surprising accuracy on the hardware.

17. Ninja Gaiden II (Tecmo, 1989)

Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden was only a modest hit in arcades but a huge success on the NES, providing a trilogy of games with detailed graphics, amazing music and sounds, highly polished controls and tons of challenge, and even a surprisingly good storyline told through cutscenes between levels (with limited but nevertheless impressive animation).  2 is considered the high point by most, tweaking the design to perfection while adding in a cool new twist in Ryu's shadow clone power - up to two doubles who follow his movements and attacks and can absolutely devastate enemies when used properly.  It's still an exceptionally difficult game, but it's well made enough to be worth the frustration.


16. The Guardian Legend (Compile, 1989)

Compile is a company probably best known for their shmups, creating fast-paced, crazy games like Zanac, Gun-Nac and MUSHA across various platforms.  One game of theirs that often goes overlooked, though, is the Guardian Legend.  Basically a mashup of that formula with Zelda or Metroid, the game alternates between traversing dungeons full of secrets and traps and "corridor" segments where your character transforms into a spaceship and battles waves of aliens and monsters. A strange combination for sure, but very well-executed and fun, with plenty of different weapons to try out and power ups to find. Oh, and stock your bullet erasers for the final boss - you will need them!



15. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (Nintendo, 1987)

A lot of Nintendo's early sports games are mostly forgotten these days (and rightfully so), but Mike Tyson's Punch-Out is a definite exception. Less a sports simulation and more of an action-puzzle game, you were putted against a number of opponents (all of whom towered over your character) and had to analyze and counter their attack patterns effectively in order to overcome them.  Managing yout stamina and highly-damaging "star punches" quickly becomes essential, as does dealing with some of the crazy special moves your opponents perform, like Bald Bull's charging uppercut or Magic Tiger's teleporting flurries. A little odd considering they licensed a well-known boxer's name for the game, but nobody complained because it was extremely fun.



14. Ducktales (Capcom, 1989)

One of Capcom's many Disney tie-in games, and like most of the titles they produced on the NES, this one is a masterpiece that remains highly-regarded even today (enough to see re-release on a compilation and even a full remake by WayForward, at least).  While the game isn't especially long at only five levels, the gameplay was solid enough to keep it fresh for numerous playthroughs.  Scrooge can pogo on his cane to take out enemies or cross hazardous terrain, each level is expansive and  laden with numerous secrets, and some creative boss fights ensured that it was a captivating experience throughout.  Moreso when one considers that the game has two different endings to achieve, and that the better of the two will require quite a lot of expert treasure-hunting.


13. Metroid (Nintendo, 1986)

Ridley Scott's Alien was of course a hugely influential work, inspiring numerous games, movies, comics and other media that tried to copy the heavy atmosphere and creepy design of the titular alien.  Nintendo got in on that too with Metroid, though they made some changes to the formula.  The game was not set on a spaceship like the film, but instead left you isolated on a planet full of hostile creatures.  The game proved to be very immersive with a foreboding soundtrack and numerous eerie, organic environments to explore, while the planet itself was vast and intimidating - you really did feel like you were lost in an underground labyrinth and desperately trying to escape with your life.  The replay value was immense thanks to it containing plenty of hidden secrets and even alternate endings depending on how quickly you completed it, so completionists and casual gamers alike had plenty to enjoy.  Metroid is still a well-regarded franchise today, and there's a good reason that it gets so many copycats from studios big and small even now - it really is that good.

12. Ms. Pac Man (General Computer Corporation, 1982)

Pac-Man needs no introduction to any serious gamer; its simple concept (eat all the dots, avoid the ghosts) but addictive design has made it into an immortal classic, and the fact that it continues to get ports, updates and sequels even today says more about it than I ever could.  Ms. Pac-Man was one of many Midway-produced spinoffs of the franchise, but unlike most, it actually caught on well with fans, adding enough improvements to the design to keep things fresh without upsetting the delicate balance the original was built on. It was enough to make the game a classic in its own right, and it even far surpassed the original game's popularity -  original Pac-Man cabinets are relatively hard to come by, but Ms. Pac-Man is a staple of almost every arcade, bar and pizza place I've ever visited. Such is the power of the red bow.




11. Bionic Commando (Capcom, 1988)

"A platformer where you can't jump" sounds like the worst concept ever on paper, but Capcom made it work thanks to some truly ingenious design.  Instead of a dedicated button for that purpose, you're instead given an extendable bionic arm that can be used for a variety of things - stunning enemies, grabbing and swinging over gaps, pulling yourself up to platforms, and even blocking bullets with a well-timed swing.  Used in combnation, you'll traverse numerous stages, dispatch foes, unlock secrets and earn new weapons and items along the way to enter areas you couldn't before.  It's easy enough to learn, but utilizing your tools to the fullest and making it to the end to deliver that iconic bazooka blast to the big bad's face is a true challenge.

10. Bubble Bobble (Taito, 1986)

One of the strangest, yet most undeniably entertaining arcade games of the period, Bubble Bobble has up to two players take the role of bubble-blowing dinosaurs, trap monsters in bubbles and then pop them to collect fruits and powerups.  Which is simple enough at first as the screens are relatively simple in layout, but they quickly become quite complex.  You'll have to deal with air currents, enemies that toss projectiles, various bubbles that drop fire, lightning and water to blow away enemies you can't otherwise reach, and of course deal with an ever-present time limit; take too long and the enemies all move much faster while the ghostly Baron Von Blubba appears to make your life even more difficult.  There were many ports, remakes and sequels made (the Sega Master system version being a personal favorite), but the original arcade game is where it all began.

9. Batman (Sunsoft, 1989)

It's rare for a movie tie-in game to make an appearance on any Best Of list, let alone one counting down the best games of an entire decade.  But I say without a hint of irony that Batman is worthy of the honor. Sunsoft did an excellent job capturing the dark and moody atmosphere of the film with stylish graphics and a musical score that still ranks among the NES's best, and it's complemented perfectly with its design.  Platforming gameplay at its finest, starting off simple enough but ramping up quickly in challenge, and ensuring that you will need to master proper use of all the weapons and movement tools you're given to defeat the Joker. Great stuff.



8. Final Fight (Capcom, 1989)

Beat-em-ups were very prevalent during the '80s with games like Double Dragon, Renegade and Golden Axe quickly becoming fan favorites, but my pick for the best one of the decade has to be Capcom's Final Fight.  Originally billed as a sequel to Street Fighter (though they later downplayed that because of player feedback at trade shows), Final Fight certainly had style to spare with its large and fluidly-animated characters modeled on various famous personas.  The gameplay was solid too, allowing for three distinct playable characters, each of which wielded their own weapons, as well as having tons of secrets to find and a high degree of challenge that never manages to feel "cheap" or unfair.  Many of its characters have become gaming icons too, appearing in numerous other games like Street Fighter Alpha and even the Marvel VS Capcom franchise.

7. Contra (Konami, 1988)

Konami was known for making home ports that somehow surpassed their arcade counterparts in playability and overall quality.  Contra is the perfect example of this; hell, ask anyone who was alive in the era of the NES what their favorite games from that period were, and I can guarantee you one of them will be this game.  There's little question as to why once you play it - the environments, creepy enemy designs and sounds are simply sublime and the gameplay is brilliantly designed, melding platforming and run-and-gun action with enough polish to ensure it never feels "cheap" or unfair despite its high difficulty.  It took most of us many years to beat without relying on the thirty-lives code, but we had a blast every step of the way.


6. Starflight (Binary Systems, 1986)

A game as influential and groundbreaking as it was fun to play, Starflight makes you the captain of a starship and has you roam the galaxy, searching for habitable planets and tradable resources to upgrade your ship and train your crew.  Throughout it all, you're also searching for a means to stop a series of devastating solar flares that have left numerous star systems barren of life, so there's definitely an overarching sense of urgency to your quest, too.  But most impressive is just how enormous this game feels - while most of the planets you encounter are procedurally generated, there are hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets to visit.  A grand quest with a lot of dangers to encounter and tons to see, Starflight is still the gold standard for space exploration games.

5. The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1987)

Another title that made the NES console into an unstoppable dynamo and launched an equally unforgettable franchise, the Legend of Zelda was not just a game-changer for RPGs, but game design as a whole.  The game was anything but a slow-paced grind like many others of the period, instead taking place in a large, open world and letting you explore at your leisure.  Secrets were numerous - almost every screen on the overworld has at least one interesting thing to find, and even more are tucked away in the dungeons - and the sub-weapons you found throughout not just allowed you to defeat enemies more quickly, but find even more hidden areas around the world.  But if even that's not enough, there was an entire second quest to unlock once you finished the first, adding a new layer of challenge as it shuffled almost everything around and had a completely new set of dungeons to conquer.  Later games in the series expanded on its ideas but kept the core concept the same, and it's yet another game that continues to inspire countless copycats to this day, speaking to its everlasting appeal.

4. Mega Man 2 (Capcom, 1989)

The first Mega Man was a modest success, though it drew criticism for its high difficulty and some player-hostile elements (notably the lack of a password system).  2 took these complaints to heart and ramped the design quality up to eleven.  Eight new bosses showed themselves this time, as did some useful utility Items that granted the player temporary platforms, the ability to scale walls and fly over long gaps to bypass certain obstacles.  And of course, the franchise's ever-present gimmick of stealing boss weapons to use against later enemies and do heavy damage to specific bosses was used to great effect here - each boss has multiple weaknesses to utilize, and the "intended" order through the game is still a subject of great debate among fans.  It also didn't hurt that the game features spectacular visuals for its period and some fantastic music, but the core gameplay was always Mega Man's main selling point.

3. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems, 1986)

One of the most important and unique RPGs of all time, and given how vast the genre is, that's saying a lot.  Rather than trying to power up and defeat some big bad guy to save the world, you were undertaking a more grounded goal - to improve yourself and become a shining example to the people of an entire world.  To that end, you had to master the eight virtues - Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Honor, Sacrifice, Justice, Spirituality and Humility - and this entailed much more than just fighting enemies.  You'd have to be honest in your dealings with townspeople, be humble when presented with the chance to brag or defend yourself from insults, and donate blood to healers, to name a few.  There is still quite a bit of questing to be done - finding the eight Runes, the stones, the key to the final dungeon and completing the final gauntlet to gain the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom - but the complex and thought-provoking morality system at play is something few games today even dare to put a fraction as much thought into.

2. Tetris (Nintendo R&D1/Bullet Proof Software, 1989)

Spin the blocks, fill in lines and earn points for clearing more than one at a time.  A simple concept that took the world by storm and became the best selling video game franchise of all time for its addictive design and deceptive depth.  Countless versions of Tetris licensed and otherwise have been made for just about every platform imaginable, but easily the most iconic and well-known of them all is the Game Boy version, which launched with the system, included two-player competitive play (suspiciously absent from the NES port) and made both into household names in no time flat.  Hell, it's even Alexei Pajitnov's favorite version, so they definitely right by his game.  But regardless of your choice of platform, Tetris is simply an untouchable classic.


1. Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985)

Yes, you guessed what #1 would be the moment you read the title of this article.  But to be fair, there really could be no other choice for the top of this list.  Not only did Super Mario Bros. save the entire game console industry from the terrible reputation it built up over years of low-quality junk games flooding the market, but it was a timeless game in its own right.  You really felt like you were going on an adventure in a virtual universe - there was a lot of creativity and variety in Mario's worlds, enemies and the hazards he faced, and the sheer number of secrets to be found and different routes through the game lent it a ton of replay value. It can also be argued that this game was the forerunner to speedrunning, as once people discovered two level warps, they would race to see who could finish the game as quickly as possible. Hell, it even has probably the most well-known glitch of all time in the Minus World, opening the gates for breaking game rules in creative and interesting ways.  Super Mario Bros. is a legendary title, and it's still a blast no matter how many times you've played it before.