The 20 Greatest Video Games of the 1980s

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The ’80s was a rollercoaster ride in terms of video games! The decade hit off with the ‘video game crash of 1983,’ a large-scale recession in the video game industry.  Revenues peaked at around $3.2 billion in 1983, then fell to around $100 million by 1985 (a drop of almost 97 percent.) The ten years between 1980 and 1990 was witness to both the fall and incredible rise of the entire video game industry.

As well as changes in the commercial industry, the ’80s also saw a huge technological and creative shift. During the early years of the decade, games were mostly arcade-like, simple and had little complexity. By the end of the decade, games had become a far more complex affair with sprawling narrative and high levels of interactivity.

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. Many of these were thanks to newcomers Nintendo. Here we take a look at 20 of the greatest video games to come out of the ’80s, from legendary icons of the gamings world, to underrated gems. Is your favourite on the list?

20. Contra

Screenshot from Contra

Platform: Arcade, NES, C64

Year: 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 gun-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 co-operative experiences, but it capitalised on this and was driven by one of the best soundtracks in video game history.

19. Ultimate IV: Quest of The Avatar

Opening Screen of Ultima IV

Platform: Apple II, Amiga, PC

Year: 1985

This series was already leading the innovation of RPG gaming, but Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar saw the genre pushed further than ever before. It added humanity to a game which was about killing monsters and the narrative arch was one of the first to offer moral choices and contemplative philosophy. Many publications correctly predicted that the game would be something of a watershed moment for RPGs and many modern RPGs owe a lot to Ultima’s influence.

18. Boulder Dash

Boulder Dash

Screen grab from Boulder Dash video game

Platform: C64, Apple II, NES

Year: 1984

You may not think that mining would make a particularly gripping idea for a video game right now, but at the time, Boulder Dash was all the rage. The game put players in the shows of Rockford, who needs to mine through underground caves in order to grab gems and reach the exit before either time runs out or he’s killed by horrible creatures. This simple idea was incredibly fun and addictive. Boulder Dash still has many imitators and homages even today, many years later.

17. Pac-Man

A screenshot of Pacman

Platform: Arcade

Year: 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 lead the industry away from mere space shooters and sports game, essentially inventing a whole new genre in the process. Its simplicity means that anyone can pick it up in seconds and appeals to a far broader audience than anything else released up until that point. The game was so popular that by the ’90s, Namco revealed that it had made of $2.5 billion dollars from quarters alone.

16. M.U.L.E

A screenshot from M.U.L.E.

Platform: PC, NES, Atari 800

Year: 1983

This video game was very much under-appreciated. Its release was met with muted critical response and poor sales. However, in recent years, the game has become more and more recognised as one of the most groundbreaking games of the ’80s due to the strategy involved. It is a formula that Dune II perfected many years later. The game requires players to harvest resources, form economic strategies and implements a clever single-screen multiplayer mode.

15. Mega Man 2

The opening screen of Mega Man II

Platform: NES

Year: 1989

It perhaps wasn’t as innovative as the others on the list so far, but Mega Man 2 made up for this in perfectly designed fun. Whilst the first incarnation of the game didn’t really take off, the followup 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

A screenshot from R-Type

A screenshot from R-Type

Platform: Arcade, PC, Gameboy

Year: 1987

This was perhaps the most famous side-scrolling shooter of the ’80s, R-Type has gone down as a classic of the genre. R-Type is a game that required the player’s utmost dedication due it it’s intense difficulty. It is still listed as 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. The levels themselves were just as deadly as the enemies, with players having to die multiple times in order to learn the ‘correct’ route.

13. Wasteland

A screenshot from Wasteland

Platform: PC, C64, Apple II

Year: 1988

This game was the predecessor to the legendary game series ‘Fallout,’ being set in a post-apocalyptic America. Wasteland allowed players to overcome tasks using more than just brute force. Just as in Fallout, Wasteland allowed players to talk their way out of potentially hostile situations, or just to avoid them entirely. One of the more groundbreaking features of the game was that players could revisit areas of the world and find them in the same state as they’d left them hours beforehand!

12. Prince of Persia

Gameplay from Prince of Persia

Platform: Apple II

Year: 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 game began life as a 2D platformer. It puts players in the shoes of the prince as he weaves a series of deadly dungeons and catacombs. It was breathtakingly stunning for its smooth animations, giving 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 the sprites, resulting in the fluid, realistic movement that appeared in the finished product.

11. Metroid

The opening screen of Metroid

Platform: NES

Year: 1986

Metroid has offered alien-blasting fun since 1986, the game is remarkable in that it allowed players to explore non-linear levels that could be revisited and uncovered further using unlockable abilities. Whilst Super Metroid for the NES polished and expanded on the original, Metroid is a game that is incredibly playable even today.

10. The Legend of Zelda

The opening screen of The Legend of Zelda game

Platform: NES

Year: 1986

Metroid and Mario weren’t the only massively iconic Nintendo characters to come out of the decade. The Legends of Zelda has achieved huge success since its release, both commercially and critically. Even amongst non-gamers, Zelda is a household name. The game introduced three cornerstones that every game in the series has followed since; action, adventure and narrative. People loved it for its strong sense of exploration around a fantasy world. The character of Link soon became an icon to about as much scale as Mario.

9. Tempest

Gameplay from Tempest

Platform: Arcade

Year: 1981

This is a game that can stand up and say that it is a pioneer of the industry. It is completely different from anything else that came before it, Tempest featured a new control system and futuristic-looking vector graphic based on a fixed, 3D perspective. Tempest was notorious for its high level of difficulty and was one of the first games in which players could select a difficulty level.

8. Defender

A screenshot from the Defender game

A screenshot from the 80s Defender game

Platform: Arcade, Atari 2600, C64

Year: 1980

At the time, Defender was one of the most complex games ever to be released. It required a total of five buttons and the joystick to control. For many gamers, Defender was an overwhelming experience when it launched. It is since been recognised, however, as one of the most important arcade games every released. It required players to control a space ship across a rocky terrain by adjusting its elevation, direction and weapons.

7. Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong gameplay

Platform: Arcade, CS4, NES

Year: 1981

Donkey Kong has become a cultural icon. This is the game that made Nintendo go big-time in the U.S. It was the first popular single-screen platformer and one of the most played 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 the industry legend, Shigeru Miyamoto, Donkey Kong is truly a piece of gaming history.

6. Super Mario Bros. 3

SuperMario Bros gameplay

Platform: NES

Year: 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 retained the control and addictive gameplay of the first two games, but expanded 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 Raccoon Mario and Frog Mario went on to be classics, helping the gameplay keep fresh.

5. Maniac Mansion

Gameplay from Maniac Mansion

Platform: C64, PC, NES

Year: 1987

This may surprise you to learn that LucasFilm, famous for its Star Wars series, produced this hilarious game. It is a graphical adventure game and lets the player control multiple protagonists and experience several different endings based on their decisions through the game. 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 talent of the LucasArts team.

4. Elite

A screenshot from Elite

Platform: BBC Micro, C64, Spectrum

Year: 1984

Whilst one of the least commercially successful games of the list, it is perhaps one of the most ambitious games of the decade. The game was a space trading simulator and featured a procedurally generated universe that players were able to get lost in.

3. SimCity 

Start-up screen from the first Sim City game

Platform: PC, Mac, Amiga

Year: 1989

The original Sim City was released at the very end of the decade. It was remarkably popular and offered a unique, open-ended experience to players. It allowed them to design and build cities without a certain goal or endgame. Even in the first incarnation of the game, the number of options were insane. Perhaps most importantly, it showed that video games didn’t all need to be about alien invaders or evil monsters.

2. Super Mario Bros

Gameplay from Super Mario Bros

Platform: NES

Year: 1985

Super Mario Bros. is without doubt the most important platformer ever released. The game pioneered a number of features that in today’s gaming world are taken for granted. 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

Tetris gameplay

Platform: NES, Spectrum, Gameboy

Year: 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. It is 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 one of the most perfectly elegant examples of game design, ever.

So do you agree with our list? Are there some that you think should have been featured that aren’t? Leave your comments and let us know.