When I first started this series, which takes a look at the best games of yesteryear, I thought I would be entering the modern age of video games once I got to 1985. For whatever reason, I thought that the 8 bits the video game medium had to offer twenty-nine years ago was “modern.” To some extent, I still do. The Nintendo Entertainment System was tentatively released in North America at the tail end of 1985, an event that essentially revived the video game industry from its brief lull following the consumer’s loss of faith in it in 1983. But that’s not necessarily why I associated it with a more relatable time in video games for me. I still wasn’t alive in 1985, by the way. No, I suppose I associate that time with the beginning of the modern video game because we still regularly see new Marios, Zeldas, Metroids, and other games from series that saw their start on the NES, and I’ve had some no-research-required experience with them. While they didn’t all come out in 1985, it was the year that started a period of incredible amazement in the nostalgia-filled North Americans of the ’80s that still permeates today. In some way, the releases of Windows 1.0, Back to the Future, and hit single “We Are the World” are also still entrenched somewhere in the public consciousness.
Note: Due to the increasingly complex nature of this idea, it’s going to be difficult to write at length about every game I played. So I won’t, although some help will come in the form of fellow Invisible Gamer writers.
#10 – Gauntlet
Gauntlet is essentially an action-filled Dungeons & Dragons game. First of all, it has dungeons, and in spite of the absence of dragons, there are warriors, elves, ghosts, and magic. Sure, it has no story or world-building elements, but what else do you want from an arcade game from 1985? Gauntlet is the pure progenitor of the dungeon-crawling genre, and it’s pretty addicting. Upon selecting one of the four unique playable characters (Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie, and Elf), you delve into a never-ending succession of dungeons, shooting and slashing your way through massive swarms of enemies. The primary goal is to get to the exit, but as many arcade games of the time emphasized, going out of one’s way to recover treasure for points or food for health is a powerful incentive; this feeling of risk is only compounded by the fact that health is constantly being depleted. Despite the lack of clearly defined characters, Gauntlet has a charm all its own due to the synthesized narrator voice’s delivery of lines like “Warrior needs food badly.” And if warrior needs old-school arcade, dungeon-crawling action badly, Gauntlet is the way to go.
Austin Clark: Warrior shot the food. What an idiot.
#9 – Commando
With a name like Super Joe, it’s hard to imagine Commando’s hero not succeeding in his mission to…uh, kill a bunch of guys. But rest assured, Super Joe’s abilities are sorely lacking when faced with the soul-crushing difficulty of being one man against an entire army. The game doesn’t really give you a power-trip because it’s so gosh darn hard, at least until success is achieved. Commando is a run and gun shooter that was obviously built to painfully extract every quarter from children’s hands, but playing it in a modern setting (with unlimited continues and different difficulty settings as a part of Capcom Arcade Cabinet) reveals that it’s a well-built game. The fairly generic presentation, especially by today’s standards, is initially off-putting, but the cathartic payoff of shooting Nazi-esque bad guys in an ’80s arcade game is pretty much all you need to get out of Commando.
#8 – Excitebike
Excitebike is the first NES launch title on this list, and even today, you can tell that it was made in the early days of the extremely popular console. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, however. Excitebike is a very simple game. Controlling the pitch of your dirt bike is about as complex as it gets. Otherwise, the even quicker accelerating option can overheat your vehicle. The goal of doing such things? Going fast. Duh. One game mode is essentially a time trial option, while another pits you against other riders, who really just serve as extra obstacles. Perhaps most famously, however, is Excitebike’s create-a-track mode. The tracks made can then be played in either of the two action-based modes. But when it comes down to it, Excitebike is a simplistically impressive game that denies modern expectations of game content. It’s just plain fun to sit down with the classic every once in a while, even if it’s not for very long.
Austin Clark: Whether it’s on NES, through Virtual Console, or in Animal Crossing, I’m going to play Excitebike. Being one of the very first video games I ever played, there’s something about this little racing game that brings a smile to my face and fills my heart with joy. It could be the sound of your bike at top speed, or maybe it’s the accomplishment of pulling a wheelie at the peak of a jump and landing perfectly on the other side, but I’ll never get enough out of Excitebike. Keep re-releasing it Nintendo. I’ll get it.
#7 – Ice Climber
Ice Climber is generally kind of…disliked. Despite the Super Smash Bros. appearances of the titular climbers of ice, Nana and Popo, the only game they’ve actually ever starred in is mostly relegated to the “let’s try to forget that thing” corner. My hypothesis is that a modern expectation of Nintendo games paints Ice Climber’s relative mediocrity in an even worse light. But the game is actually fairly enjoyable devoid of comparisons to other, tighter platformers of the era like the NES’s more popular launch title, Super Mario Bros. Sure, Nana/Popo’s jump trajectory is a little stiff and uncontrollable at times, and it’s true that it becomes increasingly difficult to scale each of the 32 mountains. The Ice Climbers’ hammers break the tiles that make up the platforms overhead, offering openings to continue moving up. The yeti-like creatures’ tendency to undo all that back-breaking work and replace tiles becomes frustrating, of course. But there’s some level of charm and fun to be found in Ice Climber’s simple and difficult design. The game even lets you skip to any one of the levels from the onset, which is instantly refreshing for a game on the NES.
#6 – Space Harrier
Space Harrier is, and continues to be, an insane game. In 1985, Space Harrier was insane because it was one of the first 16-bit arcade games and its pseudo-3D sprite scaling system made the game look like it was being played in a, well, 3D environment. Today, Space Harrier is insane because of the apparently shirtless, sunglasses-wearing cool dude flying through the Fantasy Zone and shooting dragons and cyclops mammoths. Besides being advanced graphically, Space Harrier proved its gameplay was also forward-thinking; the game was one of the first third-person shooters. While a different type of game receives that label today, Space Harrier influenced games like 3-D WorldRunner (a close resemblance) and Star Fox. Otherwise, it still stands as a challenging, and eventually frantic, shooter that can still catch my eye because of its unique presentation. Attempting to avoid the obstacles (trees, pillars, and the like) eventually becomes more difficult as Space Harrier (probably not his name) kicks his flight speed into overdrive and the game continues. And I’m still in awe of the beautiful simplicity of the cyclops mammoth design.
#5 – Section Z
Beyond the jetpack spaceman wearing a red skin-tight jumpsuit, Section Z doesn’t really have any identifiable feel or charm. Enemies are mostly just strange, robotic shapes and environments are typical space station corridors. When I reached the climax of the game and the sterile environment design gave way to an organic, insect-like infestation and a Mother Brain-esque final boss, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit disappointed that the majority of the game didn’t take after the appearance of the ultimate, titular Section Z. Regardless, that feeling was a middling blip underneath my general appreciation and enjoyment of the game’s fundamental SHMUP mechanics. Character improvement opportunities are pretty sparse (power-ups only increase speed and power), but Section Z is a solid shooter because of the then-revolutionary ability to fire in eight directions and the satisfying nature of doing so. It adds an intricacy to enemy patterns and locations not necessarily seen before in the genre. There’s also something undeniably cool about flying backwards with a jetpack and shooting at the same time.
#4 – Gradius
More than quite possibly any other shooter on this list, Gradius was the most influential on the modern SHMUP genre. Gradius is an incredibly solid side-scrolling space shooter with unforgiving level design and a slight degree of presentational charm. What was with Moai heads in the ’80s? But the unique power-up system of Gradius truly sets the classic apart and made the gameplay experience something to write home about, if the people at home did in fact want to hear about video game mechanics. Unlike with pretty much every other game at the time, acquiring the power-up item in Gradius doesn’t grant a pre-determined ability. Instead, it allows the player to select any one of the admittedly pre-determined improvements presented along the bottom of the screen. While it may seem incredibly simplistic for the time, such an apparently minor tweak to the formula offered a whole new level of player strategy, agency and style, and imparted a new element of game design to the genre and industry.
Austin Clark: I’ll never forget the first time I heard it. GRAH-DEE-US. Have I been saying it wrong for the past 20 years? You know what, I don’t care. GRAY-DEE-US will always be a highlight of what we now call “SHMUPs.” Like Tristan stated, the ability to customize how you wanted to power up was revolutionary. It not only gave the player a strategic choice throughout one game, but it gave players the ability to change their experience by choosing different power-ups at different times. Figuring out the perfect time to use a shield rather than an option could be the difference between life and death. Gradius has it all, from fun and challenging combat to interesting levels with big bosses to a killer soundtrack, tied together with creative mechanics.
#3 – Gun.Smoke
Publisher: Romstar (North America)
Gun-dot-Smoke unfortunately has almost nothing to do with the longest-running prime-time television drama program, Gunsmoke. I guess the Wild West theme will have to do because, thankfully, Gun.Smoke is an incredible run-and-gun shooter that is only bettered by its aesthetics. To this day, Western video games are pretty unique, and the prominence of space and fantasy games in 1985 certainly enriches Gun.Smoke’s artistic choices. Gun.Smoke doesn’t stand tall based on novelty alone, however. Progressive power-ups allow bounty hunter protagonist Billy Bob to increase his movement speed, firing rate, and range up to five times past his base abilities. As you might expect, though, one bullet can put an end to the intrepid manhunter’s life, but acquiring a horse grants some much-needed protection and the opportunity to reach the wonderfully designed bosses much more quickly. Being a Capcom game from the ’80s, Gun.Smoke is merciless, much like the era and location it depicts, but there are rewards to be reaped from the tight and timeless outlaw shooting action. And they’re worth it, too, at least until you realize Gun.Smoke will take you in dead or alive.
#2 – Ghosts ‘n Goblins
Ghosts ‘n Goblins is considered one of the most difficult games of all time. Infamously, it takes two completions to see the “true” ending to the game. In keeping with the narrative quality of video games of the time, the finale is totally not worth the torture you’ll put yourself through trying to essentially beat the game twice. Beating it once, though? That’s a little more reasonable, but just a bit. Completing any portion of Ghosts ‘n Goblins is incredibly satisfying and almost entirely justifies the frustration suffered from missing key jumps because of Sir Arthur’s stiff jumping style and being overwhelmed by a large number of enemies, big and small. Quite frankly, the design of Ghosts ‘n Goblins is built to drain quarters from pockets, but the side effect of validating gameplay is worth it as far as your psyche can go. Playing it as part of the Capcom Arcade Cabinet can also potentially reduce the cost and difficulty factors, revealing the epic adventure at the core of the sadism.
#1 – Super Mario Bros.
Could you imagine any other game from 1985 closing out this list? The impact of Super Mario Bros. alone warrants its placement at #1, but (surprise!) it’s also, to this day, an incredible game. This strange, semi-sequel to 1983’s Mario Bros. (sans Super) has entirely overtaken the popularity of that game, and even the one that gave Mario his start, Donkey Kong. Platformers before Super Mario Bros. weren’t, for the most part, side-scrolling. Super Mario Bros. presented a cohesive, massive world, complete with secrets and possibilities to explore. It’s easy to take modern games’ expansiveness and the internet’s information capabilities for granted. It’s something I do every day. But Super Mario Bros. was a game that offered something completely different from any other. Not only was its imaginative Mushroom Kingdom and a plumber’s role in the land an important thematic outlier from the instantly recognizable space or high fantasy games, but the game emphasized an incredible level of platforming control the genre hadn’t yet seen. Even other Mario adventures hadn’t quite gotten it down; our hero had always been dedicated to his jump trajectory as soon as the button was pressed. Super Mario Bros’ simplistic addition of a run ability and increased jump maneuverability offered new potential for level design and came to define a genre, one that would come to saturate the market as years continued. The mascot platformer was essentially born from the success of Super Mario Bros. When a game is the best-selling single-console title for twenty years at 40 million units sold, developers generally try to make something at least passingly similar to hook that massive market as well. Of course, nothing in the same realm came close financially, but the foundation that Super Mario Bros. built would lead to the creation of incredible follow-ups, from Nintendo itself and others so fundamentally impressed by the fun the game could offer.
Notice all the SHMUPs? That seemed to be the popular genre in 1985, but our very own #1 changed that for quite a few years to come. This installment in our look back at the many years of gaming also yielded our first list of ten! Don’t necessarily count on that being the norm, however…In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1985? Let us know!