1986 wasn’t a very comforting year when it came to global events. The Chernobyl Disaster still stands as the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. The controversial United States arms dealing with Iran and support of Contra rebels in Nicaragua came to light. The potential to prevent such goings-on is still debated today, as it was in 1986. People could, however, turn to the antics of lovable hooligan Ferris Bueller, the funky stylings of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, and seven great video games for valuable escapism.
Note: Previous entries in this series were built with North America release dates in mind. From now on, games will be considered for the year they were first released, regardless of territory. Thankfully, there weren’t any major games lost in this translation. Additionally, due to the increasingly complex nature of this idea, it’s going to be difficult to write at length about every game I played.
#7 – Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels is an anomaly for North American audiences. Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2 didn’t come stateside until it was released in 1993 as part of the remake collection Super Mario All-Stars. Truthfully, North America’s Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan) was the anomaly; it’s essentially a re-skinned version of the Miyamoto-designed Doki Doki Panic. But why did Americans get that Super Mario Bros. 2? Because Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels — as we now call it — is incredibly, incredibly hard. Thankfully, however, it wasn’t totally lost. The game runs on the same engine as the first Super Mario Bros., and it looks nearly identical. Ironically, more elements of the “faux” Super Mario Bros. 2 found their way into the series’ recognizable traits than the true Super Mario Bros. 2, mostly because the latter follows in the footsteps of the culturally impactful game that came before it. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels plays like a DLC challenge pack before such a thing was ever conceived. It’s a collection of creatively mind-boggling platforming challenges that operate on nearly identical rules as its much more famous predecessor. As such, it’s a worthwhile piece of video game history that’s initially accessible yet ultimately difficult.
#6 – Bubble Bobble
Bubble Bobble follows the bubble blowing/bobbling antics of boys-turned-dragons Bub and Bob. Some later entries in the series may have eliminated the best elements of Bubble Bobble (the boys being dragons and the bubble blowing), but the satisfying core of the first Bubble Bobble is still strong today. As Bub and/or Bob, you (and maybe a friend) encapsulate enemies in bubbles, pop said bubbles, and doom your foes to a culinary transformation. Like any good arcade game, Bubble Bobble’s premise is simple, but the game ramps up the difficulty and level layouts fairly quickly. What ensues is intimidating action characterized by wonderfully adorable visuals … and dragon indigestion, I assume.
#5 – Dragon Warrior
Dragon Warrior comprises of a lot of walking around in circles and pressing “A” over and over. It’s also one of the most influential games ever made. Dragon Warrior (or Dragon Quest, as it was known in Japan and is now known everywhere) essentially created the modern JRPG genre. Dragon Warrior wasn’t the first RPG — it took much of its model from computer RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima — but it was the first that impacted a large audience. In retrospect, however, Dragon Warrior is incredibly simple, sometimes to a fault. There’s a lot of grinding; 90% of the game is spent fighting the same enemies over and over, and the rest is spent actually progressing to a new area and accomplishing an objective. But that’s how it feels when you know what to do. Dragon Warrior may have a host of simplistic mechanics by today’s standards, and it feels a little bare in that regard, but the world still feels expansive today. The mark of Dragon Ball Z creator Akira Toriyama, who produced Dragon Warrior’s art, is ever-present in the enemy designs. Goals are left ambiguous, beyond the ultimate and rote goal of saving the princess and defeating the “Dragonlord,” and the kingdom of Alefgard feels massive, especially considering the time of the game’s release. Dragon Warrior may require a little imagination to fully appreciate it, but it’s an enjoyable experience regardless.
#4 – Kid Icarus
The Kid Icarus team spent nights in an unheated development office, using cardboard boxes and curtains for bedding, in order to meet the game’s release date. That’s dedication, to say the least, and the product was hopefully worth it for the Nintendo R&D1 division and co-developer Intelligent Systems. Thankfully, it was worth it for players, even though they didn’t actually have to experience the horrible working conditions. Kid Icarus is a great action-platformer that effectively combines different genre elements. If Kid Icarus resembles fellow 1986 game Metroid, it’s because they share an engine, much of the development team, and a similar action template. Kid Icarus even turns its “fortresses” into mini-Metroid levels, which are mazes that follow the first three linear levels of each stage. Additionally, there are quite a few opportunities to upgrade Pit’s capabilities, such as his attack power. Some doors spread throughout the game even lead into stores in which items are purchasable with the heart currency you obtain from defeating enemies. Ultimately, it’s a strange game (see Eggplant Wizards above) with a strange mix of gameplay elements that’s supported by a solid and not-too-difficult core of action and platforming.
#3 – Castlevania
If Kid Icarus is about quick, fun action supplemented by different game systems, Castlevania is distinctly about slow, fun action supplemented by crushing difficulty. Clearly, that’s not a criticism: Castlevania is a very special game. The game follows Simon Belmont, who enters Dracula’s castle in 1691 with the goal of defeating the vampire lord. That’s much easier said then done, however. Simon’s stiff jump animation, which can’t really be manipulated mid-air like Mario or Mega Man, certainly contributes to Castlevania’s demoralizing challenge, but the game was certainly designed with that limitation in mind, as levels are crafted to lead you to make mistakes and chip away at your health. Much of the frustration behind Castlevania is being unable to get to the intimidating boss battles without enough health, and what boss battles they are. As great as Castlevania’s action is, it’s fairly one-note, although sub-weapons like holy water and knives supplement Simon’s whip attacks. But it’s the horror theme and atmosphere that place Castlevania so high on this list. Fighting Frankenstein, the Mummy, and, of course, Dracula are exciting propositions, and the whole game communicates a feeling of thrilling tension that is nothing short of extraordinary for an 8-bit game.
#2 – Metroid
Part of me wishes I was around in 1986 so I could see the start of so many incredible series. One such series is Metroid. Still, 29 years later, I have a whole lot of appreciation for everything Metroid accomplishes so well. The greatest games on this list all have one thing in common: they all create a palpable feeling in spite of the limitations of the technology of the time. Metroid is a mysterious adventure through alien tunnels, and the game’s mechanics, art, music, and more make you believe that. Metroid, at its core, is an action-platformer, but it’s, of course, much more than that. You don’t just run from left to right; in fact, you (should) start the game by going left. There’s a lot of choice present in Metroid, in spite of the definite goals the game has in place. But even if the game — and its designers — have knowledge of those goals, someone dropped into Metroid with no prior knowledge would not. And that’s part of the beauty of Metroid. The off-putting score, the bizarre landscapes and creatures, and the obvious influence of the Alien films also help to improve the atmosphere. The beauty only enhances the moment-to-moment platforming, shooting action, exploration, and satisfying upgrades that also compose Metroid.
#1 – The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most popular series, and certainly one of its greatest — it all started in 1986. As has been mentioned a couple of times now, the best of the best on this list impart an ambiguous and hard-to-explain feeling. No other game on this list does that better so many years after its release than The Legend of Zelda. Designer Shigeru Miyamoto took inspiration from exploring the fields and caves of Kyoto as a child when designing the game, and that makes perfect sense. The Legend of Zelda places you in the world of Hyrule with no means of defending yourself and only a vague sense of what needs to be accomplished. The princess needs to be saved, of course, but the game allows you to fail trying to obtain the most basic means of moving through any game world (a weapon), and that concept makes it one of the most special games, not only of 1986, but of all time. The gameplay systems, of course, also lend themselves to the feeling of ambiguity that permeates The Legend of Zelda. The pseudo-RPG progression that the game implements is incredibly satisfying and novel. Increased attack power, defense, and health aren’t solely obtained by accruing large amounts of something, whether it be currency or experience points. Things can be purchased, of course, but exploring the world can yield even greater rewards. Dungeons can be accessed perhaps before they should be, but the triumph of defeating the boss and retrieving the Triforce piece of Level 4 before you’ve even found Level 3 can be a powerful feeling. The number and intensity of similarly positive feelings that The Legend of Zelda can create ultimately make it the best game of 1986, and mark it as an incredible start to a consistently impressive series.
1986 appears to have been the year of Nintendo, as much of the late ’80s and early ’90s were. It really began an incredible era of experimentation and creation for the iconic company, and an era that many hope will be recreated once again sometime soon. In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1986? Let us know!