At the beginning of the 1980's, the video game industry was in the midst of its second major transformation. The early 1970's saw the industry transition from university technical demos with no major audience to wildly popular arcades that brought video games to the masses. The Magnavox Odyssey, released in the late 1960's, was the first system to try to bring video games to a home market, but it did not reach much success. But the Atari 2600, released in 1977, succeeded where the Odyssey couldn't. It single-handedly brought the video game industry into living rooms across the country, and became the first truly successful home console. But while the Atari 2600 was set up for incredible initial success due to the innovative concept, early game library and reasonable cost, more subtle aspects of the business plan nearly guaranteed an eventual industry failure. The trend in the late '70's toward a home console market would hit an incredibly roadblock, and where most people expected gaming to move exclusively into living rooms by the mid-'80s, the console market had basically dissipated as sales shrunk 97% from 1983 to 1986. Widely credited with reviving the industry is Nintendo in 1986, but as we'll see, there wasn't a video game vacuum in the interim: arcade games experienced a minor resurgence, but it was during these years that computer gaming experienced its own miniature explosion. But the trend toward home consoles would bounce back later in the decade, bolstered by a plumber in red overalls -- but not until after Nintendo received a boost from sales for its own Atari 2600 games.

While the 1980's are characterized by a transition from arcades to the home video game market, the first game of the year came on the old medium. When talking about the truly classic arcade games that sparked the creation of the video game industry, three typically come up: Pong, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man. These three games are without a doubt the three most popular, iconic games from the golden age of arcades. When Pac-Man came along in 1980, most arcades games were spiritual derivatives of Space Invaders or Pong; Pac-Man went in a complete other direction, drawing from the handful of maze games in existence to basically create its own new genre. No, really -- what genre would you put Pac-Man in? It's the most genre-less game I think there has ever been. Since its inception, Pac-Man has become arguably the single most popular game ever. That might sound like an overestimation, but there are statistics to back it up: a study showed that more Americans recognize Pac-Man than any other video game, including the Mario series. A large portion of Pac-Man's quality and popularity could be attributed to the development time: Pac-Man was in active development for a year and a half before release, a very long time for a game in those days, and a direct point of comparison to several games a few years later. Overall, Pac-Man has become such a popular, visible and entrenched element of popular culture that it's almost belittling just to try to describe it. Pac-Man was not the only notable release of 1980: others included Rogue, a popular dungeon-crawler game that popularized its genre; Radar Scope, a semi-3D Space Invaders-style game; and the now-iconic Defender, one of the first horizontal-scrolling shoot-'em-ups.

1981 is one of the only years in this series where there is a true competition between two clearly deserving games; most years have a clear favorite or have several evenly-matched and non-iconic games, but 1981 has two of gaming's best. The tilt in this case goes to Donkey Kong. Released for arcades in 1981, Donkey Kong is the game of the year for no less than five reasons. First and most obviously, the game was wildly popular. It ended up being re-released in multiple forms, and ranks just below the iconic triumvirate mentioned above among popular classic arcade games. Secondly, the game is essentially single-handedly responsible for creating and popularizing the platformer genre, which would go on to dominate the next decade of video games. Thirdly, the game was the first major commercial hit by a little former playing card company named Nintendo -- you might have heard of them. The game's success was largely responsible for the company dedicating nearly their entire business plan to gaming, setting the stage for a much more important development a few years later. Fourthly, the game introduced a character that would later be re-named Mario -- you might've heard of him too. It is largely considered the first game in the Mario series, which clearly would go on to become one of the biggest series ever. And finally, the success of Donkey Kong gave a man named Shigeru Miyamoto a shot at a big-time game designing job. He would go on to create the Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Star Fox series. He's kind of a big deal. The other major game of 1981 was Galaga, a wildly popular improvement on the Space Invaders formula, but Donkey Kong is clearly the more impactful choice for game of the year for 1981.

Picking a game of the year for 1982 is difficult. In case you're not aware of why, here's a history lesson. In 1982, the library of games for the Atari 2600 exploded -- and not in a good way. Legitimized by a court case between Atari and the newly-formed Activision, every company from movie producers to dog food companies (no, really) got in on the game, hiring inexperienced programmers to cobble together terrible games with an 8-week development time, reselling them at a huge profit. It only took a few months of this for the market to realize, "hey, these games suck", leading to what is commonly referred to as the video game crash of 1983. Fortunately, arcade games, due to the already high distribution costs, were somewhat immune from the crash, and thus kept the market alive for a while. None of the arcade games released that year quite measured up with the classics like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, but Q*bert stands alone among 1982 games. Starring a blob with arms, legs and a huge tube-shaped nose, Q*bert involved the simple gameplay of said character hopping around a pyramid, changing the colors of tiles as he went. The simple yet strategy-driven gameplay quickly took Q*bert to success and a role in popular culture. It would go on to spawn numerous sequels, remakes and rip-offs for various consoles, and become almost as recognizable at the time as other classic games, though time has largely dissipated that. 1982's other notable releases include one of the earlier movie tie-ins in Tron, the first simulation game Utopia, the Atari 2600's only RPG Dragonstomper, and the first Star Wars game based on the second movie.

With all the attention given to the video game crash of 1983, something gets missed: while home consoles like the Atari 2600, ColecoVision and Intellivision suffered greatly with the crash of 1983, they weren't exactly the only area of the gaming industry. Computer games had begun to find an audience, augmented by the fact that people were buying computers for other reasons too, and arcades were still fairly popular. So while the crash of 1983 basically destroyed the console industry (and it did -- sales plummeted 97% over the next three years), it didn't have as big an impact on arcades and computer games. Computer gaming hadn't quite reached a truly significant level of popularity, but that was soon to change, bolstered by the release of games like my 1983 game of the year, Ultima III: Exodus. The Ultima series as a whole has largely developed alongside the enhancements to PC gaming; it was among the earliest PC games, and continued to make use of the newest hardware until its ultimate demise in 1999. Although Ultima III: Exodus was the third in the series, it reached the most notable audience, especially at a time when other game mediums were dying off. It was also among the first games to be honestly labeled award-winning, as the mid-'80s saw the first gaming-based magazines released, many of which recognized Ultima III as the best game out at the time. Based on its success, Ultima III was eventually released on a total of 14 systems. Other notable releases for 1983 include Spy Hunter, originally an arcade game ported to other systems as well; Dragon's Lair, one of the first games with true animated content; World Series Baseball, notable for its multiple camera angles; and Manic Miner, an early example of a platformer game.

With the home console industry still reeling from the previous year's crash, and arcade games on a slow decline in popularity, it was up to computer gaming to pick up the slack. Fortunately, it did not disappoint: 1984 saw several great releases for the various computer systems of that time period. It's difficult to choose a best from all of them, but in retrospect it's easy to say that Knight Lore, originally for the ZX Spectrum system, would go down not only as among the most popular, but also the most influential. Released by the company that would go on to become Rare, Knight Lore was considered at the time of its release to be quite revolutionary, but more importantly it withstood the test of time. It provided major innovations in two areas: while it wasn't the first isometrically-displayed game, it was largely the first to make isometric projection actually look 3D rather than just a different 2D angle. Secondly, it revolutionized its puzzle/adventure genre, simultaneously showing how many traditional genre elements could be translated to a 3D game and introducing new features that would go on to become standard in future 3D platformers. The game was widely praised at the time of its release, and has since garnered even more praise as its impact has been felt. As mentioned, though, 1984 was a great year for computer games as console gaming's famine became PC gaming's feast. Other great computer games of the year included The Lords of Midnight, an influential strategy game; Elite, a space trading game with some of the most advanced graphics of its time; The Ancient Art of War, one of the first real-time strategy games; and King's Quest, the prototypical adventure game. And despite their general decline, arcade games found a couple more winners in Paperboy and The Tower of Druaga.

In case you're wondering, I'm basing release years for these lists on the North American release date. Up until now, that hasn't really mattered, but for 1985, another popular game might come to mind. That'll be next year, though. Subtracting the Japanese releases for 1985, it was actually quite a quiet year, which makes it the perfect year to go with a personal choice. The Adventure Construction Set, released by Electronic Arts, was inspired by the first game creation suite, 1983's Pinball Construction Set. The Adventure Construction Set, though, tapped into a more popular genre that was just beginning to take off: the early action/adventure/RPG genre championed by the Ultima series. The designers of the suite realized that in the future, games would not be designed strictly in code; rather, engines would be written in code, and games would be written in software. Why not take that game creation software to the gamer themselves? So, the Adventure Construction Kit was born, and quickly became one of the biggest hits of 1985. Its popularity was augmented by contests run by EA for game development in various genres, but unfortunately the winners were not released for public play. At a broader level, this was an extremely early example of the type of user-generated content that would characterize the Web 2.0 revolution almost 20 years later. Among the other quiet successes in 1985 were the first installments of two major educational game series, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and the first commercial release of The Oregon Trail; Gauntlet, one of the earliest hack and slash games; and Ghosts 'n' Goblins, the arcade flavor of the year. Elsewhere in the video game world, 1985 marked the first creation of the incredibly popular Tetris, as well as the founding of Square Co. (Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger series, Kingdom Hearts series among several others) and Bethesda Softworks (The Elder Scrolls series).

The majority of this decade has been spent dabbling in PC games that most people haven't heard of or played. With the home console market dead, there was no other real place for popular games to go besides PCs and arcades: until 1986. Capitalizing on their success as a peripheral and game developer, a little company called Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States in 1986. The rest is history, basically. The Nintendo Entertainment System and its smash-hit Super Mario Bros. basically single-handedly rescued the console industry. With a stricter licensing agreement to ensure a minimum quality for games released on the console, the NES would go on to become the most popular console yet released by a longshot. Super Mario Bros. would become the best-selling video game of all time, and would retain that title for an incredible 20 years until it was eventually overtaken by another Nintendo bundled game, Wii Sports. Super Mario Bros. also was responsible for catapulting the platformer genre to the 'default' video game genre, and essentially introduced Mario to the world, on his path to becoming one of the most recognizable characters of all time. The success of the game and the console would basically present industry dominance to Nintendo on a silver platter, a control they would not relinquish for another ten years. There were other notable games in 1986, including Arkanoid, essentially a popular Breakout clone and Bubble Bobble, another popular Taito arcade game; but no game comes anywhere close to Super Mario Bros. It was not only the game of the year for 1986; it was the game of the decade, of the century, and perhaps the single most popular, important and influential game of all time.

And the hits keep coming for Nintendo. Releasing a smash-hit game for a home console wasn't the challenge to guaranteeing the NES's popularity and market dominance; the challenge was following that up with additional popular games, while preventing any total clunkers like E.T.. They got off to a great start the following year with the release of the original Legend of Zelda game. The Legend of Zelda is notable for inspiring one of the most recognizable console series of all time (easily one of the top three), and for thrusting the adventure/RPG hybrid genre to the forefront of the industry. But those aside, The Legend of Zelda is easily the game of the year for 1987 simply for its own merits. It was the first game to feature a substantially non-linear element of gameplay, and was among the first to feature item gathering, equippable armor and weapons, a battery-powered save, and a 'New Game+'-style game. It was re-released several times, and remained one of the most popular games ever for years after its release. It garnered numerous awards, and many of today's most popular franchises can trace their inspiration directly back to The Legend of Zelda. On a larger level, The Legend of Zelda was part of a full library of NES games released in 1987 that really cemented the NES as a solid system and highlighted the strengths it made out of the Atari 2600's weaknesses. Metroid, Castlevania, Contra, Punch-Out!!, and Mega Man all were released this year all would go on to become wildly popular games and multi-installment series. The NES's legacy was cemented within a year of its release: it was a console of high-quality games, not the low-budget trash that plagued the later days of the Atari 2600. The year's only notable releases weren't NES games, though: 1987 also saw the first installment of the Street Fighter arcade series, Dungeon Master for Atari ST, Head Over Heels and Driller for computer systems, and Sega's Phantasy Star for their own Sega Master System.

Following the abundance of smash hits in 1987, 1988 was a relatively quiet year on the NES front. The game of the year for '88 likely would've come in behind several of '87's releases, but nonetheless it was one of the great games of all time. Originally released for the MSX2 home computer system in 1987, it reached its eventual level of popularity once it was re-released for the NES system a year later. Following the eventually-iconic character Solid Snake, Metal Gear is characterized as the first stealth genre game on a mission. While other games involved an underlying plot, the plot of Metal Gear was over and beyond what any other game had attempted to do story-wise before, encompassing several characters, plot twists and a realistic back story. The game introduced a wide variety of gameplay innovations, and largely was one of the most original games ever released, moving on to inspire a genre of similar games as well as one of the most popular game series of all time -- indeed, the most recognizable element of the original Metal Gear game for most gamers is likely the simple fact that it spawned the Solid Snake character and Metal Gear series. For its own merits, it was rated one of the top NES games and top games ever on a Nintendo console. The game was also one of the most memorable games musically yet released, elevating video game music from a simple background diversion to an actual enhancement to the game experience. Among the other notable NES releases in 1988 were Double Dragon by Tradewest, Super Mario Bros. 2 (itself a modified version of the Japanese game Doki Doki Panic) by Nintendo, Castlevania II by Konami and The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link by Nintendo.

1989 was a busy year for NES releases as well, but all were overshadowed by another new development: the release of the Nintendo Game Boy. While the Game Boy was not the first portable system, it was easily the first to meet a major audience, and that popularity was largely because of a simple little game called Tetris. Tetris itself didn't spring into existence in 1989 -- it was created five years prior by a designer in Russia, but it was the Game Boy release that propelled it to widespread popularity. "Widespread" is a ridiculous understatement: Tetris would become the second best-selling video game of all time behind Super Mario Bros., and today stands at #3 behind that and Wii Sports. The game has also been called the most-rereleased game of all time, with incarnations on basically every single console to come out since the mid-'80s. Searching GameFAQs gives 17 hits for the simple name 'Tetris', not even taking into consideration the alternate names and sequels given to the game over the years. Tetris did for the Game Boy what Super Mario Bros. did for the NES, making it the standard portable console. But where the NES would have to be replaced a few years later, the Game Boy would remain the dominant portable console for a miraculous 12 years, far longer than any other console ever released. And even as other consoles have taken its placed, Nintendo's early success with Tetris and the Game Boy have ensured its continued dominance of the portable industry even in the face of challenges from Sega and Sony, and even as it fell behind in the console races. Among the other great releases from 1988 are the original SimCity, Mega Man II (widely recognized as even better than the original), Prince of Persia, Bomberman, Dragon Warrior, John Madden Football, and even Minesweeper for the first Windows machines. Super Mario Land is another notable release this year for the Game Boy, but Tetris surpasses even the famous Mario's appeal in this case.

The move toward home consoles was as irreversible as it was suspected to be in the late 1970's -- the delay, however, was not exactly anticipated. In the early '80's, it looked as if home consoles had all but tanked, but a series of brilliant moves by Nintendo in the later '80's revived them. Nintendo did more than just release a great console: they took all the necessary business steps to ensure that the games remained high-quality, that the market didn't get over-saturated, and that they would retain exclusive control over anything that could appear on their console. This time, the move toward home consoles really was irreversible -- but the delay and game opened the pathway for another competitor in PC gaming. As time would go on, PC gaming would emerge as a viable competitor for console gaming in general, although each would certainly start to have their own niche games. Portable gaming was just starting to find an audience as well, but as we'll see only one portable game after Tetris received the time of widespread acclaim as console games, although generally speaking portable games retained the same level of general appeal as console games, especially to casual gamers. From a more specific standpoint, Nintendo entered the 1990s with the industry firmly in its pocket, a control it would not relinquish the middle of the next decade.


List by DDJ
(10/12/2009)

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