What is your favorite video game of all time? If you’re a child of the 80s, you probably instantly have one coming to mind and are seeing the character or multi-colored shapes moving in front of your eyes. You may also distinctly remember the first video game you ever beat. But what were the best games of the 80s? This decade changed video games forever, and there are a lot of legendary options when narrowing down the ten best.
I still remember the moment I first got an NES–sorry, the moment my brother, sister, and I got an NES.
It was Christmas morning and as I heard the sound of the wrapping paper rip and tear as I opened it; I remember holding my breath, hoping that what I was opening really would be what I dreamed of. When I saw that image on the box and then those words; “Action Set,” I think I blacked out. This felt like one of those out-of-body experiences and felt like I was hovering above my body, watching this all happen.
As overly dramatic as that probably was, I’m sure your experience with your first video game system was similar. In the 1980s, we were ushered into a new era of video games. The sounds of the games, the images that we controlled on the screen, it truly was a new era for home entertainment.
So, were the 1980s the best decade ever for video games? If they weren’t, they may well be the most important. This era was when video games seemed to peak, crashed in spectacular fashion, only to rise again to heights no one could have predicted.
The advancements in technology from the start of the decade to its end possibly changed the most compared to any other era. The difference in gameplay, graphics, sound, and overall game experience in 1989 was night and day from 1980. In 1980, games like Pac-Man ruled the roost but were incredibly simplistic. Processing power was limited and hugely popular games from the start of the decade, like Space Invaders, really had little to speak of when it came to graphics.
This is where Atari made a smart move. If you remember your old Atari games, you recall they had incredible artwork on the box and cartridge to depict the game. Even when you flipped through the instruction booklet, you continued to see this incredible representation of a game that was pretty much just simple lines and shapes.
Atari used this elaborate artwork to help get you in the frame of mind to truly experience the game. They created a world that you translated over to the game. So, in Space Invaders, for example, instead of just shooting a dot at a random shape on the screen, you now knew that you controlled a high-power laser to take out aliens trying to take over the earth. Imagination was key to fully experiencing the video games of the early 80s.
By the end of the decade, we no longer had to rely on our imaginations. The leap in graphics, gameplay, and overall presentation was astounding. By 1989, we had mind-blowing games like Super Monaco GP, Dragon ball 3, The Batman video game, and possibly the greatest advancement Nintendo ever put out: Super Mario Brothers 3.
Do you remember how startling the difference was between the original Mario and Super Mario bros 3? It wouldn’t be released in North America until early 1990, but had already come out in Japan in 1988/89. Super Mario Bros 3 is ostensibly an 80s game, and we all got an early look at it in what was essentially a 90-minute commercial: The movie, The Wizard starring Fred Savage. It came out in mid-December 1989, and to show you how far video games had come since the start of the decade; Super Mario 3 had a marketing budget of $25 million dollars. That’s about $60 million when adjusted for inflation. By comparison, the marketing budget for Pac-Man in 1982 by Atari for the 2600 was only $1.5 million. Even the Legend of Zelda–just three years before the release of Super Mario 3, and one of the greatest games of all time–only had a marketing budget of about $5 million.
The change in video games–in every aspect–from the start of the 80s to the end is simply night and day. This gives us a wide range when determining the best. But I’m still going to do it. This top ten list obviously comes from my own perspective, but I also entered in other factors such as gameplay, originality, overall popularity, financial success, and legacy.
And I also want to give out some very Honorable Mentions, including
- Final Fantasy, Metroid
- Blades of Steel
- OutRun, SimCity
- Prince of Persia.
10. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out
Was there a video game that had as much lore as this one? Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out appeared to be the unbeatable video game. Sure, we all had heard stories of some kid who made it right to the end, but we knew this was next to impossible. Mike Tyson ruled the 80s when it came to boxing, and an obvious marketing connection was made.
If you know your arcade-game history, you probably remember the game Punch-Out! Like they did with many other classics, Nintendo wanted to take the arcade game and turn it into a home version. We’re already past the mid-80s and as much as video game technology had advanced, they simply couldn’t compete with their arcade counterpoint. But they had to do something to make it work.
I loved the original Punch Out, and if you played it, you may remember how different the gameplay was to Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. The arcade version featured a transparent fighter. This allowed for better gameplay and let you see everything that was happening. The NES couldn’t handle this game design, so they needed to find an alternative approach.
The solution was pretty simple: make the boxer that you controlled shorter. This would free up more screen space and let you see the opponent you were fighting. They even gave this short character you controlled a name: “Little Mac.”
In addition to the physical change, the NES version would also have new music, cut scenes, and even a backstory. But at this point, Mike Tyson wasn’t even involved. In Japan, The Famicom–the original version of the NES–already had a home version of Punch-Out. The end boss was called “Super Macho Man.” No connection to the wrestler: RIP Randy Savage.
After this Japanese version came out in 1983, the founder of Nintendo America, Minoru Arakawa, got the chance to see a young and up-and-coming fighter by the name of Mike Tyson. Like everyone else, the power, intensity, and ferocity of Mike Tyson blew him away. It was almost like he was unbeatable–sort of like the final boss of a video game. This was around 1986, and Tyson–only 20 years old at the time–accepted a relatively low $50,000 to use his likeness.
Tyson wasn’t a household name yet, so it was still somewhat of a risk. But both Tyson and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out would explode into popularity. The characters in the game are great, such as Piston Honda and Glass Joe, but Tyson at the end of it would be almost unbeatable. Kids would spend hours–and sometimes days–not only trying to get to Mike Tyson, but trying to beat him.
By the end of the 80s, Tyson was starting to get into some trouble, and there were debates on resigning him. But the game had already grown in popularity and had taken on a life of its own. And then Tyson got knocked out by James ‘Buster’ Douglas. And that’s a whole other story for another time.
Here’s a much more in-depth article I wrote all about Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, including tips on how to beat him.
Gauntlet is an interesting one, but definitely deserving of a spot on this list. With Gauntlet, we are looking at a straight-up arcade game. It came out in 1985 and is pretty instrumental in the history of video games. Gauntlet is recognized as being one of the original games classified as “multiplayer dungeon crawl.” This simply means that more than one player can play in the same game environment at the same time.
This type of gameplay is obviously common today and is used in games like World of WarCraft and Call of Duty. But this wasn’t really a thing back in the early to mid-80s. We know gauntlet as a “hack and slash” style of game–you may immediately think of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle games as an example of this.
There is also some Dungeons and Dragons influence as it’s a fantasy game where the player takes on the persona of characters like Wizards, warriors, and elves. Interesting, the original working name of Gauntlet was actually “Dungeons.” If it’s been a while since you played Gauntlet, you simply had to make your way through mazes to find the exit. That’s it. But it required teamwork and advancing levels of skill as each maze became harder.
When Gauntlet came out in November 1985, it was a massive hit. According to National Play Meter–which ranked video game usage–Gauntlet was by far number one for 1986. They also listed it as the number 2 highest-earning arcade game. Was this because it used multiple players, each having to pay to play? That doesn’t really matter, as Atari–the manufacturers of Gauntlet–had inadvertently stumbled on a gold mine.
You can still watch playthroughs of Gauntlet on YouTube, and the graphics, gameplay, and sound effects hold up pretty well. So for these reasons; originality, gameplay, popularity, and uniqueness, Gauntlet comes in at number 9 on the top ten video games of the 1980s.
8. Duck Hunt
At the 8-spot, we have Duck Hunt: The original first-person shooter. Duck Hunt actually goes back to the late 1960s and was actually seen as the key ingredient for the success of the NES when it was launched in North America. In those early days, Mario wasn’t even a factor–it was all about Duck Hunt.
Duck Hunt was going to be a game-changer: it was completely interactive and made use of a new technology and accessory in the Light Gun–or Zapper. Duck Hunt has its roots in Back to the Future 2-important plot device: Wild Gunman as interactive target shooting games like these were big hits in Japan. It then has roots in a clay target shooting system from 1976. Bowling was also a big hit in Japan, but as that fad faded in the 1960s, bowling alleys would need to make use of their now empty spaces. Enter this novelty light-based shooting simulator like the clay target games.
And an early iteration of Duck Hunt existed in a game called Beam Gun: Duck Hunt. This would be the influence for the version we now know.
In 1984, an arcade version was released simply called: “Vs. Duck Hunt.” It featured the light guns and allowed two people to play at once. But with the forthcoming release of the NES in North America, the goal was to take all this technology and shrink it down for home use. But it was important to change the look of the gun. The previous versions had been based on classic Smith n Wesson 6-shooters. But the NES was changing how video games were presented.
After the video game crash of 1983, Nintendo wanted to distance itself from anything to do with video games–even though that’s the business they were in. They preferred to be seen as a toy instead of a video game. This required a change in language–to quote the great 20th-century philosopher, Don Draper, “if you don’t like what people are saying; change the conversation.”
- Video games would now be called game paks
- Instead of a control deck, you had a console that was front-loaded to appear like a VCR
- The joysticks were now called control pads
- And it was no longer a video game system but an entertainment system
They also introduced the Nintendo ROB as a way to promote Nintendo as more of a toy, and this also required a design change for the light gun. They gave it a more futuristic, space-aged appearance. It looked like something RoboCop would use. And they changed the name from “Light Gun,” to the “NES Zapper.”
And kids like us love it. We got to actually shoot ducks right in front of our eyes. We never had anything like this in our homes before. Duck Hunt was critical to the success of the NES launch in North America and the game would go on to sell nearly 30 million copies.
Here’s my full article all about Duck Hunt.
7. Street Fighter
Many people may have Street Fighter as their favorite game of all-time, but I have it at number 7 for a few reasons. The main reason is there have been many iterations of this game, and many people’s favorite version came out after the 1980s. But the original goes all the way back to 1987. The original may not be everyone’s favorite version, but it was the start of one of the most popular–and highest-grossing–video games in history and, therefore, is deserving of the number 7 spot on this list.
And when I mean highest-grossing, we’re talking in the $12 billion dollar range. Between the video games and the arcades, Street Fighter has sold nearly 50 million units. It also led to the terrible Street Fighter movie starring Jean Claude Vandam. And what more is there to say about Street Fighter that you don’t already know? This is a straight-up, simple fighting game, but it’s one that featured many unique characters including:
- E. Honda
- Chun Li
- M. Bison
Over all the different versions of Street Fighter, there are now 80 characters. Street Fighter also introduced us to the Hodoken, and many specialized killing maneuvers. And this is what caused some controversy. Was it good for kids to control players who were beating the ever-living crap out of each other?
Street Fighter was released in the arcades by CapCom in 1987. And a lot of the format of it was based on the 1972 Bruce Lee movie: “Game of Death.” The game would be based around “boss fights.” The design of the game, and fighting style and imagery, were also based on another Bruce Lee classic: “Enter the Dragon.” Basically, most of what you see in Street Fighter was taken from other sources, including the Hodoken itself; this came from an anime series from the 1970s called “Space Battleship Yamato,” which featured an energy attack called the “Hadouho.”
The original Street Fighter set in motion the beginning of an all-time great franchise, leading to one of the greatest games of all time; Street Fighter 2, which would be released in 1991. What began in 1987 would lead into the 1991 edition that became the best-selling game since the golden age of video games, which was that glorious period from the late 70s to the early 1980s.
6. The Legend of Zelda
This is another one you may have had higher on your personal list. The Legend of Zelda is one of the all-time great video games, and characters. The Legend of Zelda was like the Lord of the Rings in video game form. It was a genuine fantasy adventure. It was one of the few games that you could argue with your parents about being “good for you to play.” The Legend of Zelda took creativity, puzzle solving, and planning.
It was also based on the childhood of its creator; Shigeru Miyamoto. He would spend his days exploring the hillsides, caves, and forests near his home in Japan. As a kid, his adventures would take him to nearby lakes and rural villages; along with the caves. The setting for The Legend of Zelda would take us back in time to Medieval Europe and would be based around Link. And the game was drastically different to simple fighting or racing games. You needed time to properly play The Legend of Zelda. It took careful exploring and side quests. You actually had to use your brain to play it properly. At its core: The Legend of Zelda was a treasure hunt.
The Legend of Zelda was released in February 1986. The design of the game was relatively simple, but still made great use of the graphic capability at the time. It also felt vaguely familiar, design-wise to Mario. Some of the layouts and backgrounds looked very similar. The game didn’t even really need too much as far as graphics and design went. This was all about the story. The origin of the game actually started with just moving a white square around a black background. At the time, Nintendo was dividing their prospective game design into two categories: Athletic (like Mario) and exploration. The trial with the white square was intended for athletic, but it was seen as having great promise for an exploration game.
There is also a bit of Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey to it. Similar to Luke Skywalker, Link is a simple person who grows to become a hero as he goes through unique experiences. Zelda was also interesting from a technical perspective. Nintendo was experimenting with increased memory and technology to put into their game paks. They wanted better audio and for players to be able to save their progress. The Legend of Zelda’s immense landscape and detail would be perfect for this improved technology. They had even been experimenting with the ability for players to create their own dungeons that their friends could explore. The disks had writeabiltiy, but they scrapped this idea for better gameplay.
To say that The Legend of Zelda has a deep history is an understatement. It’s now been over 35 years since it was released, and in that time, the mythology and backstory has only continued to grow. If you have about three years to spare, you can start watching all the incredibly in-depth, Legend of Zelda lore videos on YouTube. This franchise is so deep and layered that it really is like a modern-day Lord of the Rings.
5. Super Mario Bros. 3
We touched on Super Mario Bros. 3 already, and I have it at the number 5 spot–and not higher–as I always feel sequel games–as great as they are–are not necessarily providing anything new. Yes, there is much that is new, including the gameplay, graphics, and overall presentation that were light years ahead of the original Mario Brothers, but it’s still the same familiar characters and premise.
But the number 5 spot is nothing to sneeze at–and neither was this game. We’ve covered how much more advanced it was than its predecessors, the marketing budget, the movie “The Wizard,” and Nintendo was now a global powerhouse. But what else went into this game to make it the juggernaut it was?
With all the technical advancements, they still wanted to keep the gameplay simple. This was, after all, an “Athletic game.” How could they make it even more athletic? Mario could now fly, slide down hills, and pick up and throw things. And everything would look different. All the characters, worlds, accessories; you name it, were completely redesigned. Everything in every level was actually first drawn by hand. The Gaming Historian YouTube channel shares how Disney World was actually an enormous influence on the new worlds created for Super Mario 3. They also made the characters look a bit more cartoony.
Fun Fact: one plan with Mario 3 was for him to ride on a dinosaur companion, but they just couldn’t pull it off. To compromise this, Mario could instead turn into an animal such as a raccoon or frog. And the raccoon could make him fly. This was mind-blowing if you were my age. Despite the memory storage advancements, they couldn’t do everything they wanted–but were still able to accomplish quite a lot. To give you an idea of how much the game memory had changed from Mario 1 to Mario 3; the original game took up about 320 kilobits of memory. Super Mario 3 would be 3 megabits: more than 10 times larger.
This type of computing power seems absolutely minuscule when you compare it to the average modern game, which can take up anywhere from 30 to 50 GB of space. This means that the average modern game is around 30,000 megabits–Mario 3 was barely 3 megabits. Also, consider that today, an average 3-minute song takes up around 30 megabits. The entirety of Super Mario Bros 3–every single thing contained in that cartridge–was only 3 megabits. It’s honestly astonishing to see how much they were able to design and create with such small storage. It’s like how a simple modern calculator has more processing power, RAM, and memory, than the computers used to get us to the moon during the Apollo era.
They also made massive changes to the music and by early 1988; after nearly 2 years, the game was getting close to finished. The goal was to make the ultimate Mario game, and it looked like they were going to do it.
Super Mario 3–thanks in part to the movie, “The Wizard,” came out with incredible hype. In a pre-internet age, announcements of new games and movies were genuine surprises, and I can remember the feeling of utter shock when the game was unveiled in The Wizard. Many parts of North America wouldn’t get it until early 1990, but it would go on to sell over 18 million copies and earned the modern equivalent of $2 billion dollars. According to CNBC, this makes it one of the highest-grossing games ever, and few other titles have even come close.
4. Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong may be the most important video game ever created. For several reasons. It had simple, but very addictive gameplay. Donkey Kong didn’t take long to learn the skill, but you could also hone and refine it. It was one of the very first versions of the “platform game” genre. The sound of the game is unmistakable and was the cornerstone of many arcades.
And it all wouldn’t have been possible without Popeye.
The Popeye character had been famous for decades. And its characters were instantly familiar. Besides Popeye, you had Olive Oyl and Bluto, who was always trying to steal her. Popeye himself wasn’t a traditional superhero, but still shared those superhero attributes such as strength and bravery. In 1978, The All New Popeye Hour debuted on CBS. This well-known property could be perfect for an upstart video game company called Nintendo.
Nintendo had an arcade game called Radar Scope, which failed to catch on. Stuck with warehouses of unbought cabinets. They needed to create a new game with all those existing cabinets if they were to be successful in North America.
Shigeru Miyamoto–who we just met in the Legend of Zelda–would help to design a new game. He was more in tune with American culture and noticed how popular Popeye was. He thought a game based on the love triangle between Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto would be perfect for an arcade game and how Popeye would have to rescue her from Bluto–you can probably see where this is going…
ANd since everyone was already familiar with Popeye–and the backstory between the characters–it would be easy for people to just dive right in. But they couldn’t get the rights to Popeye.
Miyamoto kept the premise, but adopted more of a “Beauty and the Beast” along with King Kong. Bluto could be easily swapped out for a giant ape, and the character of Olive Oyl would eventually just become “Pauline.” Instead of Popeye, they would use a carpenter simply called “Jump Man.”
Instead of just using one screen like Pac-Man, there would be variations between screens, or “boards.” The game was designed and called “Donkey Kong.” The sales managers for Nintendo of America reportedly hated it, but they really didn’t have a choice. And you obviously know how this turned out. They released Donkey Kong in 1981 and remains one of the most beloved video games of all time. And that little Jump Man character would go on to define Nintendo when he simply became Mario.
Here’s a full article all about the importance of Donkey Kong when it came to the video game industry, and the importance of Popeye for the success of Nintendo.
What do you get when you combine a simple game called pentominoes and the Cold War? You get one of the most addicting video games of all time, and my number three entry for best video games of the 1980s: Tetris. When Tetris first came out for the Game Boy, I remember sitting in school and having images of the shapes in my head. I actually couldn’t think of much else. And it turns out this was happening to millions of people. This was an actual thing dubbed the “Tetris Effect.” The Tetris Effect is when you devote so much time to an activity that your thoughts, mental images, and even dreams become influenced by it. Scientific American also called this sensation “Tetris Dreams.”
As mentioned, the origins of Tetris go back to Russia in the early 80s. Alexey Pajitnov was an engineer working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Russia. He loved a game called pentominoes, which was a simple game involving putting shapes together without any spaces between them. The game had been around since the early 1900s and was popular with mathematicians.
He wondered if this might work well in video game form. Early iterations worked ok, but the screen filled up too quickly. But what if each completed line disappeared, allowing the game to continue? His version, now called Tetronimoes, also had many different shapes. It used 7 shapes, but he eliminated three to a version that would just have four. For the name, Pajitnov combined the word ‘Tetra,’ meaning “four,” and his favorite sport–Tennis–to create Tetris.
Early versions of the game would be shared on floppy disks. If you’re 25 and under, you may have to ask your parents about what a floppy dish was. Everyone who played it was getting instantly addicted and even neglecting their work. Eventually, the game made its way to Budapest, where a British software company came across it. But since Pajitnov worked for the government, they owned the intellectual property.
Tetris became a rights way between some Western companies and the foreign trade organization of the Soviet government. Game manufacturers were hesitant to produce a game with Soviet origins, but no one could deny the addictability of this thing. One of the first versions would be released for Microsoft in 1987. It then appeared on things like the Amiga and Commodore 64. Eventually, despite some incredibly complicated legal battles, Nintendo would acquire the rights as Tetris would be perfect for the new portable console they were planning to release: The Game Boy.
When it was fully released on June 14, 1989, Tetris took the world by storm and many of us began to walk around in a Tetris-induced haze. Tetris remains one of the best-selling video games in history with 43 million units sold for the NES and Game Boy and another 100,000,000 mobile downloads. That puts it third all-time. The number one game? By far, is Minecraft with 238 million.
Here’s an article I wrote that goes much more in-depth on the fascinating story of Tetris.
2. Pac Man
Possibly the most famous video game image of all time, Pac-Man actually started out as a pizza. Let me explain. Toru Iwatani was the man behind the Pac. Going into the 1980s, arcades were the place to be. And he noticed that most of the games were all about killing aliens. And it was all the same demographic playing them. This seemed to be isolating a lot of people. What if there was a video game that appealed to everyone?
And also, none of us can relate to killing aliens. What about something we all have in common: eating? It needed to be simple, colorful, and musical. Some of the influences for the game would again include Popeye. The main character in his game would need enemies like Popeye had. Iwatani would also take influences from Japanese comic books, and Casper the Friendly Ghost.
He also combined the idea of ghosts from Casper with the fighting aspect of Tom and Jerry. The Pac-Man character would also eat pellets to give him power the same way Popeye did from eating spinach. There would be four ghosts, all with their own personality and name. If you’ve never heard of this before, the ghosts from Pac-Man are named Inky, Blink, Pinky, and, for some reason, Clyde.
The name Pac-Man comes from on-a-mat-a-pee-a. This is a word that sounds like the noise it describes and Iwatani has explained that they have a word called “paku Paku,” which is similar to the sound of “gobbling something down.” From that came Pac-Man.
When it was released in 1980, Pac-Man was an instant hit. In its first 15 months, it quickly reached 100,000 arcade units and took in a staggering $1 billion–that’s all in quarters. Pac-Man was everywhere, from toys to a cartoon show, to even a song: Pac-Man fever. Pac-Man was easy, fun, and also addicting. People of all ages could play it. More than 40 years later, Pac-Man remains one of the most important video games ever made.
1. The E.T. Atari Video Game… I’m Kidding, it’s Obviously Super Mario Bros.
No surprise here. What more can we say about Mario that hasn’t already been said? The Original Super Mario Bros is so influential to this history of video games–especially in the 80s–that we’ve already discussed it through half of this list. It’s crazy that this game is over 35 years old. To put this time difference in comparison, the length of time between now in 2022, and when Mario came out, is the same as from the release date of Mario back to 1948. The second World War had only ended a few years prior. This is 6 years before Elvis even released his first song. We don’t even have to say much more about the incredible advancement in game play, influence, and success–because we know all of that.
But let’s look at some more interesting facts that went behind arguably the most important video game ever made.
- They put together the entire game in only a year
- The character is named Mario because employees of Nintendo thought the character looked like Mario Segale who was the Nintendo of America warehouse manager where all those cabinets were kept that would become Donkey Kong
- One of the first standalone appearances of Mario was in 1983 in the arcade game, Mario Bros,” and then on the Game and Watch which also featured Luigi for the first time.
- Mario wears a red hat so the game designers didn’t have to design and program a forehead, eyebrows, and also didn’t have to animate hair moving every time he jumped
- Mario gets flower power and the ability to throw fireballs as a tribute to Nintendo’s history. They started as a trading card company back in 1889. The cards were called “Hanafuda;” meaning “Flower Cards.”
- According to the Guardian, the original sketch for Bowser had the character in the form of an Ox, but the game animators thought it was a turtle
- Mario’s ability to grow from the mushrooms is taken right from Alice in Wonderland
- 35 years later, it remains the 6th best-selling video game of all time with 48 million copies
Today, there are now 19 different iterations of Super Mario over 14 different systems. According to IGN, all the versions of Mario have now sold over 510 million copies. But besides all this, the original Super Mario Brothers redefined what video games could be and is the easy choice as number one for the best video games of the 1980s.