The 20 Greatest Video Games of the 1980s

The 80s was a rollercoaster ride for video games. The decade hit off with a ‘video game crash’, with revenues peaking at around $3.2 billion in 1983 and falling to around $100 million by 1985, while the years after the fall were witness to the incredible rise of the video game industry as we know it today.

Although it would be the 1990s that would see graphics fidelity and intricacy far greater than anything before, many influential titles were released during the 80s. Here are some of the best.


20. Contra (1987)

This unashamedly big and dumb game was a go-to for fans of running and gunning, mostly due to the brotastic two-player co-op. Contra is about as gung-ho as video games can get and pitted the player(s) against the evil ‘Red Falcon Organisation.’

There wasn’t much in the way of cooperative experiences in 1987, so Contra (which also boasts one of the greatest videogame soundtracks in history) became a staple in every gamer’s collection.

19. Ultima IV: Quest of The Avatar (1985)

Its predecessors already led the innovation of RPG gaming, but Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar saw the genre pushed further than ever before: not only could you now kill monsters, but you could also make moral choices and contemplate philosophy.

Many publications correctly predicted that the game would prove to be a watershed moment for RPGs, and many modern titles (including the likes of the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy) owe a lot to Ultima’s influence.

18. Boulder Dash (1984)

Before Minecraft brought the joys of excavation to a whole new audience, there was another sedimentary phenomenon: Boulder Dash. The game puts players in the shoes of Rockford, who mines through underground caves in order to grab gems and reach the exit before either time runs out – else he’s killed by horrible creatures.

This simple idea was incredibly fun and addictive, so it’s no surprise Boulder Dash still has many imitators and homages even today, such as roguelike Spelunky.

17. Pac-Man (1980)

Pac-Man is arguably the most famous and influential game to emerge from the 80s. Developed by Namco, Pac-Man is still widely played today on about every device imaginable.

Pac-Man led the industry away from mere space shooters and sports games, essentially inventing a whole new genre in the process. The game was so popular that, by the 90s, Namco revealed that it had made $2.5 billion dollars from quarters alone.

16. M.U.L.E (1983)

At first, Mule was met with a muted critical response and poor sales. However, in recent years, the game has been reappraised as one of the 80s’ most influential games due to the strategy involved, one that ended up inspiring the likes of StarCraft.

The game requires players to harvest resources and form economic strategies; it also was the first of its kind to implement a clever single-screen multiplayer mode.

15. Mega Man 2 (1989)

It perhaps wasn’t as innovative as the others on the list so far, but Mega Man 2 makes up for this in perfectly designed fun.

Whilst the first incarnation of the game didn’t really take off, the follow-up was a commercial success and the best-selling entry in the Mega Man franchise. The lessened difficulty of the game meant that it was much more approachable than its predecessor.

14. R-Type (1987)

Arguably the most famous side-scrolling shooter of the 80s, R-Type has gone down as a classic of the genre. With its intense difficulty and brutal level design, it’s still considered one of the hardest games ever made.

It was particularly innovative due to its complex weapons system, which allowed players to unlock new abilities and charge shots. But even with all of those tools in their arsenal, players still found themselves losing life after life as they tried to figure out the best way through R-Type’s devilish levels.

13. Wasteland (1988)

The predecessor to the legendary RPG series Fallout, Wasteland is set in a post-apocalyptic America and allows players to overcome tasks using more than just brute force. Just as in Fallout, players are encouraged to talk their way out of potentially hostile situations – sometimes even avoiding them entirely.

One of the game’s major boasts was its memory management system: players can return to an area and find it just as they’d left it many hours before.

12. Prince of Persia (1989)

This franchise might be best known for the 3D spectacular titles that began with The Sands of Time back in 2003, but this hit series began life as a 2D platformer. It puts players in the shoes of the titular prince as he adventures through a series of deadly dungeons and catacombs.

It was breathtakingly stunning for its time, with smooth animations that give players slight visual cues to help time their tricky jumps. Prince of Persia was the first video game to make use of motion capture techniques when animating its sprites (made most famous by Mortal Kombat), resulting in the fluid, realistic movement that appears in the finished product.

11. Metroid (1986)

Metroid has offered alien-blasting fun since 1986, but it remains most remarkable for its non-linear levels that players revisit after acquiring new powers. It also features a gaming icon in the form of protagonist bounty hunter Samus Aran – who, before Lara Croft, was arguably video gaming’s most recognisable heroine.

Whilst Super Metroid for the NES polished and expanded on the original, and has to some extent eclipsed Metroid in the eyes of critics and audiences, we still have fond memories for where it all began.

10. The Legend of Zelda (1986)

Mario wasn’t the only massively iconic Nintendo character to come out of the decade. The Legend of Zelda franchise has achieved such huge success since its release, both commercially and critically, that it’s become a household name right next to the portly Italian plumber.

Inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto’s childhood exploration of forests and caves, 1986’s The Legend of Zelda was revolutionary in its gameplay and its technology. Did you know that it was the first game to use a built-in save system, as opposed to convoluted password inputs (if level select existed at all)?

9. Tempest (1981)

There’s nothing more 80s than an arcade – and every good arcade had Tempest. One of Atari’s best-remembered games, Tempest has players control a spaceship as they jet down a futuristic tunnel, all the while loosing their blasters on foes. Sure, the graphics required a bit of imagination, but this was 1981!

Atari’s SkillStep technology was one of the first examples of level select in videogame history – partly because its levels were a lot more varied than those that came before. In Pac Man, for example, the level layout is retained but made progressively harder; Tempest offers much more variety.

8. Defender (1980)

At the time, Defender was one of the most complex games ever to be released. It required a total of five buttons and a joystick to control. That’s why, for many gamers, Defender was an overwhelming experience when it launched.

It has since been recognised, however, as one of the most important arcade games ever released. Players control a spaceship across a rocky terrain by adjusting its elevation and direction, all the while firing off weapons.

7. Donkey Kong (1981)

Donkey Kong has become a cultural icon. This is the game that made Nintendo go big-time in the U.S., with the originator of the single-screen platforming experience becoming one of the most-played games of the decade.

The object of the game is simple: jump over moving obstacles and make your way up the ladders to save the princess from the evil Kong. The first game to be designed by industry legend Shigeru Miyamoto, Donkey Kong is truly a piece of gaming history.

6. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1989)

It may not have been the first in the series, but Super Mario Bros. 3 is the one that really sold Mario as a franchise and proved that it would live forever. The game retains the control and addictive gameplay of the first two games, but expands on the formula with a level-select map screen, a more varied, detailed environment and a series of fun mini-games.

The new power-ups, which included the gravity-defying Tanooki Mario and the nautical Frog Mario became fan favourites, even if they wouldn’t return to the series for decades.

5. Maniac Mansion (1987)

George Lucas isn’t just a legend of cinema! The Star Wars impresario also brought his enthusiasm for technology and storytelling to the videogame world, with LucasArts becoming the go-to point-and-click game studio.

Maniac Mansion lets the player control multiple protagonists and experience several different endings based on their decisions throughout the game, combining mind-melting puzzles with sarcastic humour. Whilst not as refined as later efforts by the company, such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, it’s still immensely playable and a testament to the talents of the LucasArts team.

4. Elite (1984)

If you’re a videogame connoisseur, you’re more likely to associate spacefaring and wire-frame models with StarFox – but it was Elite that did it first. A space simulator that combines the thrill of interstellar flight with moral choices, Elite was originally released for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers.

Elite is credited with inspiring several hallmark franchises – everything from the obvious, like the space exploration game No Man’s Sky, to the open-ended worlds of Grand Theft Auto.

3. SimCity (1989)

The original SimCity was released at the very end of the decade, effectively inventing a genre all on its own. In particular, SimCity promised a game that could, in theory, go on forever, with the city becoming more and more optimised.

Even in the first incarnation of the game, the number of options sometimes proved overwhelming to many players, whose every decision had an impact on the little citizens of their simulated city. Perhaps most importantly, it showed that video games didn’t all need to be about alien invaders or evil monsters.

2. Super Mario Bros (1985)

Super Mario Bros. is, without doubt, the most important platformer ever released – even more than Bubsy. The game pioneered a number of features that in today’s gaming world are taken for granted, such as smooth sidescrolling. That’s right: before Mario, you’d reach the edge of the screen and have to wait for the new one to load in!

One of the things that made it such a hit was its incredibly fluid controls. They had more control over Mario than any other character before. So, what could possibly have pipped Mario to the number one spot? It’s…

1. Tetris (1985)

This game might ‘just’ be a puzzle game, but we cannot overstate how important of an impact Tetris had on the gaming industry as a whole. It is often attributed as the game that made the Nintendo Gameboy the huge success it has become, with the game being packaged with the iconic handheld.

Instantly accessible, yet incredibly deep and challenging, the puzzler defines the concept of ‘pick up and play’. Thanks to the game’s longevity, intricacy and accessibility, Tetris may well be the most perfectly elegant example of game design in history.