On my never-ending quest to understand the industry I love to follow and be a part of, I’m going back in time and playing some of the best games the medium has ever seen. And some of the good ones. And the alright ones. And even some of the bad ones. Now, I’ve come to 1981, a year with more games, more women in the United States Supreme Court (with one more than the previous zero), more Harrison Ford, and more things in the air tonight. So here are my eight favorite games of the year…1981.
Note: Due to the increasingly complicated nature of this idea, it’s going to be pretty difficult to write at any sort of length about every game I played. So I won’t, although some help will come in the form of fellow Invisible Gamer writers. Every game will get some sort of blurb or opinion statement on my part as well, but only the Game of the Year will get a thorough treatment from me.
#8 – Tempest
Tempest is cool because it’s not trying to capitalize on some kind of easily-marketed theme. I guess it’s supposed to be a space shooter, and I suppose its theme could be “shapes,” but Tempest’s abstract approach to the genre still sets it apart. Enemy and level patterns serve up a pretty ridiculous challenge at times, but that makes it all the more satisfying to shoot down those evil shapes with your croissant blaster.
#7 – Centipede
Centipede took the usually disgusting task of killing insects and made it fun. It helped that there was no real life force involved, but the frustration involved with coming across pests in your home still translates to the game, albeit in a different form. Centipede is very hard, in no small part due to that incredibly dense field of mushrooms, charging spiders, and your target splitting off in two different directions every time you shoot it. But it’s also satisfying, even for a pacifist that regrets having to extinguish the incredibly small lives of real bugs.
#6 – Pleiads
Developer: Tehkan (now Tecmo)
Publisher: Centuri (North America)
Ever heard of Pleiads? Yeah, me neither. Well, I suppose I heard enough about it (enough being one mention), because I played it. And it’s an obscure, surprising hit. Developed by Tecmo, before it was Tecmo, Pleiads draws its misspelled name from the seven companions of Artemis in Greek mythology, so that obviously translates to a space shooter with green blob enemies. It’s also a star cluster, but I like to imagine the name is not relevant at all to the great gameplay and progression going on in Pleiads. The moment-to-moment gameplay is very similar to any other space shooter at the time, but the four stages induce a neat sort of progression that takes it a bit beyond repetitively shooting aliens. Granted, you can only defend Earth, shoot negligible minions, take on the mothership, and dock on Earth again so many times, but the variety is commendable, especially in 1981.
#5 – Wizard of Wor
Intentionally misspelled titles for no reason aren’t really my jam, but Wizard of Wor is a good game nevertheless. Best described as a maze shooter, Wizard of Wor is a satisfyingly difficult attempt to kill dragons and wizards with your out-of-place spaceman buddy. Of course, two humans playing this game make it quite a bit easier, but the game’s 1981 AI is so crazy that it just does kind of work — at least for the first few levels.
#4 – Frogger
Everyone (most likely) pictures the same image when they hear the name Frogger: a frog hops across a treacherous highway, attempting to avoid death at the hands of ruthless industry and the rush of human life..or something like that. In any event, it’s because Frogger provided a satisfying gameplay hook no one knew they wanted. You’re not shooting or eating in Frogger: you’re just trying to stay alive. The frantic dichotomy of the man-made road and equally chaotic natural river creates an amazing setting in which to attempt to stave off an unceremonious death. Regardless, you will see some pretty morbid loss of amphibian life.
#3 – Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
Platform: Apple II
Developer/Publisher: Origin Systems
Ironically, it’s hard to figure out where to start with Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, because it started it all, with “It” being RPG video games. Ultima is widely considered one of, if not the, first commercial computer RPG, and the industry owes a lot to it. As you would expect, an RPG from 1981 is a little outdated and obtuse by today’s standards, but there’s a lot to appreciate and enjoy. The anachronistic inclusion of things like blasters and space shuttles in a typical medieval fantasy setting separated Ultima apart from the clichés before they even existed in the medium. And at its core? It’s a solid RPG, even with all its relative limitations. Diving into the first-person dungeon crawler segments are incredibly fun, challenging, and rewarding, and so is most of the rest of the game. Did I mention that you go into space? Richard Garriott is weird, man.
#2 – Galaga
Publisher: Midway (North America)
I’ve written about Galaga’s predecessor, Galaxian, and mentioned how Galaga perfected the formula started by its older brother. It could be disputed, however, that Galaga perfected the entire space shooter formula, at least the simplistic one present in the early ’80s. Galaga is an incredibly tight and rewarding arcade game, and like any great arcade game, it has an interesting risk versus reward hook. The enemy Galaga space ship can abduct the player-controlled ship, but upon resuming the game, the Galaga can be shot down, rewarding the player with two ships fighting side by side. It’s really an early option system, which would become a fixture of shoot-‘em-ups in the years to come. But then there’s the harder to describe visuals, sound, and ever-ethereal feel that makes Galaga nearly unequaled in the genre and era.
Austin Clark: For me, there’s no better classic arcade game than Galaga. As a fan of games like Gradius, or Ikaruga, playing Galaga feels like playing the prototype that all other shooters are based on. Sure, there was Galaxian, and Space Invaders, but like Tristan said, Galaga perfected it. It’s pure, shoot-‘em-up fun. Even though I didn’t play this game until much later than its initial release, I still had that jaw-dropping moment when I found out you can fight with two ships at the same time. It was one of the greatest, most forward-thinking additions a developer could do. Upgrades! Just talking about it gets me itching to play, hearing that buzzing sound of advancing ships.
#1 – Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong may not have been one of the first successful video games, but it was the one that took the industry to a whole new level. It was the first appearance of the Italian plumber that the world would become infatuated with and his ape foe that would eventually — sort of — become his ally, the first platformer (that people would remember), and the first of Nintendo’s major successes at home and abroad. Donkey Kong set the stage for what Nintendo would do for years; that is, making quality, innovative games. As Jumpman, now known as Mario, the player attempts to save the Lady, now known as Pauline, from the big ape Donkey Kong…still known as Donkey Kong, even if the Donkey Kong of 1981 is very different from the Donkey Kong of 2014. The name and personality would even draw some legal attention from a certain movie studio at the time, but Donkey Kong’s eventual identity couldn’t be further from the one illustrated by this first game. But, of course, we hadn’t been able to sympathize and see things through the eyes of the Kong patriarch yet. We didn’t even know he was a patriarch of anything yet, although a rap would teach us all about it in later years. No, despite the name, we played as someone else, and jumped, jumped…and jumped our way to saving the damsel in distress. And it was glorious. Donkey Kong’s control may feel somewhat tight, even by standards set by the series it would start, but it still allows the player to experience one of the greatest video game achievements of all time. This game has a very large, very important place in video game history, and everyone needs to play it. Like, right now. Stop reading this and go play it — after you read the conclusion.
Michael Burns: Donkey Kong has meant different things to me at different times in my life. As I might’ve previously mentioned, I was born in 1983 to a family that had already been gaming for years, thanks to Mattel’s Intellivision console (for you young babies, that’s sort of like an Atari 2600… which is… kind of like half an NES…), and one of the very first games I can remember playing was the Intellivision version of Donkey Kong. And, okay, no, it didn’t look or play quite like the arcade version, but I didn’t know any better at the time. Besides, it marked my first introduction to a company whose products would consistently bring joy to me throughout the first few decades of my life. I never really got into the arcade version until I was an adult, but I did eventually move on to the NES version, which, like the Intellivision version before it, was the centerpiece of many nights of competition with my brothers and sister, back when we all lived together and gamed together. Even now, it’s the version I prefer, thanks to an official hack that re-introduced the missing pie factory stage to the ROM. Playing it with friends around a big TV with an NES Advantage joystick has become one of my favorite pastimes. I do try to stick a few quarters into a DK arcade cabinet every now and then, but cabinets around here are few and far between if you don’t want to be seen in hipster joints like Barcade (remember, I’m old), so I usually get my arcade Kong fix on by inviting new friends over for a screening of The King of Kong, which is both one of the most touching and most manipulative “David Versus Goliath” stories in all of gaming. So, okay. None of this really has anything to do with the arcade version… but none of these things would’ve happened without it. So Kong, I salute you.
1981 may have been thirty-three years ago, and, my god, these games are thirty-three years old, but they’re still great. They still look artistically sound, play incredibly well, and can afford the same sense of enjoyment that people experienced at the time, who coincidentally hadn’t even thought about HD graphics, intense cinematics, or incredible video game storytelling. There is, of course, a large part of the industry devoted to that, but sometimes it’s okay to just play a game that’s older than you, that’s about an Italian plumber jumping towards an incredibly large gorilla on top of bright red girders, and that’s fun for just 10 minutes or 100.