The 15 greatest video games of the 80s
Maniac Mansion (1987, Lucasfilm Games)
The 1980s were crammed with wonderful adventure games – The Hobbit, King’s Quest, Leather Goddesses of Phobos – but the first point-and-click title to be designed by comic genius Ron Gilbert using the SCUMM scripting language is the classic that busted out of the genre ghetto. Filled with great jokes and B-movie cliches, the game made brilliant use of its accessible and intuitive interface, as well as seamlessly integrating cutscenes and non-sequential puzzles. The start of a weird and special era.
Jet Set Willy (1984, Software Projects)
Among the formative home computer platformers of the 80s – the likes of Lode Runner, Chuckie Egg and Pitfall – Jet Set Willy stands out for its surreal sense of humour and genuinely disturbing atmosphere. Like that other 8-bit pioneer Jeff Minter, Matthew Smith created his own idiosyncratic dream worlds with distinct rules and twisted logic, and as you battled through the bizarre house with its haunted wine cellars, priest holes and watchtowers, you had to contend with truly monstrous visions, from spinning razor blades to giant demon heads. Smith only made a handful of games, but with Jet Set Willy, he combined Monty Python and Hammer House of Horror to unforgettable effect.
Track & Field (1983, Konami)
Konami’s foundational athletics game was best known for bringing actual physical exertion to the arcade sporting experience, via the legendary button-bashing interface. Featuring six events, all requiring speed and timing, Track & Field allowed up to four players to compete against each other, inspiring the excellent sequel Hyper Sports as well as myriad home console multi-sports sims including Summer Games and of course Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, where a broken joystick or three was a sign of true commitment.
Impossible Mission (1984, Epyx)
“Another visitor … Stay a while. Stay FOREVER.” These crisply sampled words launched every adventure into Professor Elvin Atombender’s beguiling and ever-changing lair, perfectly setting the scene for this seminal adventure platformer. Players took on the role of a secret agent attempting to track down password pieces and foil the professor’s terrible plans. Each procedurally generated room is filled with tricky robot enemies and jump puzzles, and movement through the world is aided by beautifully smooth animation. It was a tough call between this and Paradroid, another formative Commodore 64 sci-fi adventure, but as was often the case, Atombender won out in the end.
Kung-Fu Master (1984, Irem)
With its crunching sound effects, giant character sprites and range of martial arts attacks, Irem’s scrolling brawler set the tone for later fighting games and beat-’em-ups such as Yie Ar Kung Fu, Final Fight and Double Dragon. Heavily inspired by the Bruce Lee movie Game of Death, Kung Fu Master brought the thrills and conventions of Hong Kong action cinema to arcades around the world.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985, Origin Systems)
It was tough selecting a representative role-playing adventure from a decade that also saw Bard’s Tale, Dungeon Master, Lords of Midnight and Knight Lore – all of which were on the long list for the top 15. However, with its groundbreaking emphasis on personal morality, Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV brought something new to the fantasy genre, with players relying less on killing monsters and more on exploring the world of Britannia and learning a wealth of virtues. It was like starring as a noble knight in your own vivid courtly love ballad.
OutRun (1986, Sega)
Blue skies, cool synthpop, the hottest car imaginable – Outrun practically bled 80s culture. Designed by Sega’s resident genius Yu Suzuki after a motoring tour of Europe, the game is fundamentally not a racer; it’s about the joy of driving, and its multistage layout and scenic complexity inspired arcade game design for the next decade.
SimCity (1989, Electronic Arts)
Will Wright’s urban design simulation took its authentic approach from dozens of textbooks (especially Urban Dynamics by Jay W Forrester), bringing economics, architecture, culture and law enforcement into its complex town-building engine – and it was a revelation. With its non-didactic design, which encouraged experimentation and self-expression, the game inspired a generation of students to become politicians and town planners, and more importantly, led to The Sims.
Robotron 2084 (1982, Williams Electronics)
I knew I needed to include a properly leftfield shooter in the list, and that I should probably choose between Zaxxon, Tempest or Berserk. So I went for Robotron. This multidirectional classic from Defender design team Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, pits players against invading robots and provides two joysticks: one to shoot and one to move. It wasn’t the first use of this revolutionary interface but it was the one that inspired the whole twin-stick subgenre. A perfectly executed action game that lulls skilled players into a flow state more efficiently than any other shooter in history.
Gauntlet (1985, Atari)
Four characters and a giant, multi-level dungeon filled with monsters, food and treasure: this was all Ed Logg needed to construct the most hectic and exciting multi-player action game of the decade. Utilising the staple elements of the role-playing genre while removing all the boring talking bits, Gauntlet ushered in the dungeon crawler genre, eventually leading to Diablo, The Binding of Isaac and Hades. It also meant that childhood me started every mealtime with the words: “Warrior needs food badly,” for which I apologise to my family.
Gradius (1985, Konami)
The scrolling space shooter was the star of the early to mid-80s arcade, and I could have included R-Type, Galaga, Xevious, Defender or many other beloved examples. But I went for Gradius, with its agenda-setting power-up system allowing players to customise their Vic Viper starcraft with a range of weapons and defensive systems. Beautiful crisp visuals and epic boss battles added to the package, which is just as challenging and seductive today.
Elite (1984, Acornsoft/Firebird)
It still feels like the plot of a Christopher Nolan movie: back in 1984, two Cambridge students managed to create a game that contained eight vast galaxies, thousands of space stations, a functioning economy and a complex upgrade system – all in sparse but beautiful 3D vector visuals. On a 32k computer. To this day, I recall the sounds of the Blue Danube that accompanied the docking computer, the prices of luxury goods in several systems and the shock of bumping into a Thargoid invasion fleet. It was, and still is, kind of miraculous.
Super Mario Bros 3 (1988, Nintendo)
There is another version of this article where Nintendo titles dominate the entire list. Donkey Kong, Metroid, Legend of Zelda and Mario Bros are all gigantic omissions. But I am a terrible contrarian, so here we are. Super Mario Bros 3 is arguably the greatest pure platformer ever made, a brilliantly constructed challenge introducing power-up costumes (including the famed tanooki suit), feisty enemies and myriad gameplay innovations. With its non-linear, often highly experimental design it set the tone for Nintendo’s modern era, preparing us for diverse and revolutionary Mario titles such as Super Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy and Paper Mario. In 2020, a pristine unopened copy sold at auction for $156,000. It was a steal.
Pac-Man (1980, Namco)
Famously designed by Toru Iwatani as an antidote to the prevalent shooters of the era, Pac-Man replaced spaceships and aliens with a cute sentient mouth and four lovable ghosts. Everything about the game is iconic, from its pill-littered maze, to its “waka waka” sound effects, to its brilliant kawaii character design. It was an arcade superstar that spawned a merchandising gold rush, a slew of sequels and, as I have argued in the past, the concept of survival horror. Whichever way you look at it, Pac-Man, like Space Invaders, will always be a universal symbol of video games and the pleasure they bring.
Tetris (1984, various)
Nintendo Gameboy computer game consoles with Tetris. Commissioned for Technology
Nintendo Gameboy computer game consoles with Tetris. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
How did a puzzle game programmed on an old Electronika 60 computer at Moscow’s Dorodnitsyn computing centre go on to seduce the entire world? How did seven differently configured tetrominos dropping into a confined space make addicts of an estimated one billion players? The rise of Tetris is the most fascinating story the games industry owns, and at the centre of it is coder Alexey Pajitnov, whose childhood love of shape puzzles forged a killer app that pretty much made the Game Boy and brought its object-sorting magic to every platform since. This isn’t a game about heroes, it’s a game about that most human of endeavours: tidying up and finding a place for things. Perhaps that is why we love it so much and why, when we close our eyes, we can still see an infinity of shapes falling gently into place.