The 80s was a decade like no other for video games. Creativity zipped and zapped across the scene like a projectile through Galagan space. Hardware and software had endless room for innovation and growth, and there was no lack of concepts for developers to explore.
Jet planes, kung-fu fighters, barbarians on dinosaurs, moustachioed plumbers–play came alive in hundreds of different ways in cabinets of every type and size. Whatever your poison, whether racing or all out brawl, the 80s had an answer.
Of course, some games were better than most. A handful of them are veritable legends that influenced and shaped the very culture of video gaming. Below are 10 quintessential 80s games that continue to leave a mark on young and old gamers alike.
It’s the pizza-shaped wedge recognised by millions around the world. Developed by Namco in 1980, Pac-Man goes down in history as one of the best-selling arcade games of all time. To date, it has sold over 40 million copies, putting it just behind Tetris and Super Mario Bros.
The mother of all power-ups!
Pac-Man established many mechanics that we still see in video games today. The Power Pellet that allows Pac-Man to turn the tables on the ghosts and chomp down on them instead is the earliest use of a power-up in games. Enemies that adapt to player behaviour may be the staple in modern games, but at the time, Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde were the first monsters coded with deterministic enemy AI.
The big bad in his own game, Donkey Kong was anything but a villain in real life. Recognised as the game that saved Nintendo from financial ruin, Donkey Kong earned $180 million in revenue just a year after its release in 1980.
About £1.6 million in coins high
Donkey Kong was the first game to integrate a narrative across its levels, and the first to allow players to run, climb, and move around the screen. Games that adopted a similar mechanic were dubbed “Kong-style” games. Eventually, these would be called platform games.
Super Mario Bros
Donkey Kong’s legacy is a franchise that would span numerous sequels, remakes, and spin-offs. One of the spin-offs, Super Mario Bros, would define the future of an entire genre. Released in 1985, it wasn’t the first game that featured Mario and Luigi. Mario Bros, which came out in 1983, had similar elements but limited play to a single screen.
Mario and the jump heard ‘round the world
Super Mario Bros expanded that screen into colourful side-scrolling worlds and introduced the video gaming world to some of its most iconic characters, such as Bowser and Princess Toadstool. It also set the standard for how to make modern platformers, surpassing everything else at the time with its tighter controls over jumps and masterful level design.
First swearing its way into arcades in 1982, Q*bert quickly became a massive hit with gamers. Critics praised it for its unique objective and vivid colours. There were no opponents to clobber, nor princess to save. All players have to do to progress is turn all the cubes on the pyramid to the same colour.
It’s all fun and games until you get hit
Part of the game’s success is due to Q*bert himself, as quirky and whimsical as the premise of the game. Q*bert never says a single word in English, rather talks in garbled curses written as a string of symbols. No one really knows what it is. Yet gamers loved him, and Q*bert became one of the most merchandised games of the time, second only to Pac-Man.
Galaga first blasted into the scene in 1981. Waves of aliens, the unending void of space as the background to every level, a fighter jet–it had all the hallmarks of a space shoot 'em up from the 80s. But unlike the many that sprouted in the wake of Space Invaders, Galaga flew higher than its contemporaries with its bold colours and fast paced action.
A harder, more vivid riff on space shooters
Fans of bullet hell games will recognise familiar principles in this forty one year old classic. Enemies dive bomb and zip in from all angles, all the while popping off a hail of bullets. The difference between a game over the next stage is often a split-second. It made for difficult albeit addictive play that kept the coins dropping in arcades.
The start of the arcade era was a time of spaceships, apes, sports games. If you wanted to see more wildlife, you went to a zoo. That is, until Frogger leaped into arcades and charmed $135 million in cabinet sales in the US.
Splat or safety: Just a regular commute in the life of a video game frog
Developed by Konami in 1981, gamers quickly became enamoured with the little pixel frog who only wanted to cross the street. Obstacles moved at different speeds and players were only given one minute to get to safety, making gameplay exciting and infinitely replayable.
The genius of Tetris isn’t immediately apparent. Unlike Pac-Man or Q*bert, there are no cute characters to root for. No flashy level design of barrels and ladders, no cosy lily pad waiting for you across the river. It’s just the player and geometric blocks falling from the sky, with no determined end point other than your own failure.
Deceptively simple, endlessly addicting
Yet with 520 million copies sold over its lifetime, it’s clear that Tetris scratches a fundamental urge. Some scientists attribute the game’s timelessness to the Zeigarnik Effect, where the brain feels rewarded simply for finishing a task, even if that task is clearing a line in Tetris. With no end in sight, it’s a task players would gladly puzzle through again and again.
Following up Space Invaders isn’t easy. But Atari struck gold again with Centipede. Released in 1981, the fixed shooter became the publisher’s second best selling game of all time. Centipede was also one of the first titles that had a large female fanbase, perhaps likely due to the involvement of Dona Bailey, then the only female game developer at Atari.
No more enemies lining up politely and waiting to get shot at
Around half of Centipede’s players were female. As to why a game about bugs became such a hit with women, the How To Win Video Games guide from 1982 hazards one theory: “Cuteness overcomes most people’s squeamishness about bugs”. Entophobia is crippling, but you can’t resist the bite of fun and good game design.
Defender is one of the most popular shoot ‘em ups to come out of the golden age of arcade gaming. Released in 1981, it distinguished itself from other space shooters of its time by expanding the game world and giving players a clear objective beyond zapping everything that moved: protect astronauts or they get turned into more aliens.
Trust us, you don’t need any more aliens
Like Space Invader, Defender’s distinct visuals and gameplay has rooted it firmly into the zeitgeist of gaming pop culture. The game is frequently referenced in movies today, from Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Guns, explosions, extremely buff stars the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stalone–the 80s was a decade big on action and gritty violence. That fervour spilled out onto arcades, sparking a golden age of its own for urban side-scrolling brawlers.
Whips, baseball bats, knives–there’s no shortage of ways to kick assFew landed a punch as strong as Double Dragon. Distributed into arcades by Taito in 1987, the game introduced new elements that would become mainstays in the genre, like the ability to play co-op with a friend and use melee and throwable weapons strewn about the level.