The 1980s was a great decade because it aspired to that which it was not. It thought it was the future and it wasn’t; it claimed the stock market would make everyone rich and it didn’t. And after all the promises of wild monetary wealth and servant robots, all the 1980s mostly delivered were a bunch of “Rocky” sequels and a plasma globe from the Sharper Image. But aside from the kitsch—and the ‘80s produced a substantial amount—it will go down as a period of time notable for great optimism, great music and, of course, great video games. This was the time of the arcades and the rise of the home video game console; and for those of us who grew up during this era it was our decade, rendered in 8 bits.
With that in mind, here is a list of games that defined a generation.
There isn’t much to say about “Pac-Man” that hasn’t already been written about ad nauseam over the years. Still, this arcade machine will always earn a top spot on any ’80s-video-game list not only for the iconic status of its protagonist, but because it was released in 1980 on the nose, kicking off an arcade revolution and setting the creative tone of video-game character development for generations to come. Fun fact: Japanese game designer Toru Iwatani didn’t set out to make a title that appealed to the target demo of arcade-dwelling adolescent boys. No, Iwatani and developer Namco wanted to welcome young girls into the gaming tent, so they created a brightly colored world populated by a cute hero and mostly harmless villains. It was all soft-lines and femininity—and boys everywhere ate it up.
Super Mario Bros.
Another obvious choice, but one that would be a crime to omit. “Super Mario Bros.”, released for the NES in 1995, is at least the most famous platformer of all time and is still regarded as one of the best. The title was that rare sequel that improved on its predecessor (1983’s “Mario Bros.”) by injecting the story with a wild fantasy narrative that saw mustached Mario and his Brother Luigi jumping their way through Mushroom Kingdom and looking to rescue Princess Toadstool. Bear in mind that “Super Mario Bros.” was released at the nexus when arcades were dying and the home console market had yet to take off, so video games were all but dead—until an Italian plumber and his bro saved the day. Need further proof of Mario’s influence? You know you’ve reached the pinnacle of video-game fame when you spawn a truly awful Hollywood movie.
Surprisingly, this game’s titular and nasally endowed hero wasn’t designed by a creative team of Japanese forward-thinkers. It was American-made all the way, conceived by U.S. designers and published by Gottlieb, a Chicago company. As if “Pac-Man” didn’t blow enough minds in 1980, Q*bert, released in 1982, solidified the Golden Era of arcade gaming with its 3D-like isometric graphics that worked perfectly with the game’s objective: bouncing the orange hero around a pyramid of cubes. In the end Q*bert was one of the best arcade-joystick machines of the ‘80s and is still addictive to this day. And you know you’ve reached gaming’s hallowed ground when a late-90s/mid-2000s scratch DJ takes his stage name after you.
“Pole Position” was Toru Iwatani’s other legacy title at Namco. In a day and age where slick racing games spawn slick Hollywood racing films and all of it generates unthinkable amounts of cash, it’s strange to think that an aesthetically dinky 1982 Formula One simulator started it all. As an arcade machine it became wildly popular across the U.S., and by 1983, after being licensed to Atari, it conquered the home market as well. Gamers loved that it was based on a real race, with real time trials and Grand Prix competition races. So despite the technological limitations of the time, it produced a surprisingly realistic driving experience, made even more fun by the addition (on the arcade machine at least) of a steering wheel, gearshift and pedals.
The feature film “Tron” was as much a product of the 1980s as the video game version “Tron” was a product of the feature film. That is to say, this decade and this title were made for each other, inexorably linked for all time. But that’s probably misleading—in reality, both the 1982 film and game were moderate successes but their quality level wasn’t exceptional (hey, this is a list of games that defined the ‘80s, not the best games of the ‘80s). The film story centered on a computer programmer who gets sucked into his own game, and the arcade coin-op machine focused on that game. Like the movie, arcade “Tron” featured “light cycles” that the players controlled in order to outmaneuver enemies while leaving light trails in their wake. There was certainly potential here to create a great title but, sadly, “Tron” the game didn’t even manage to live up to the coolest thing about it: its translucent blue joystick.
This list represents a small sample of the most iconic games of the 1980s. Make sure to check out part 2 of our retro gaming in the 80's articles, including some other retro video games that remain popular today, as well as some little-played gems that deserve their time in the spotlight.