When we talk about big years in video gaming, it’s hard to pass over 1985 – one of the biggest periods in videogame history in terms of both hardware introduced and games released to the market.
Some of the titles released during this year spawned series that have gone for generations, others have lived on in the memories of others as classics and examples of their form.
1985 was a big year for videogames, following the crash of 1983. Nintendo introduced its blockbuster Famicom console to the West as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Initially released only in a small test-market run, the NES would go on to become one of the best selling videogame systems of all time.
Accompanied by smash hits like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, the NES would capture the hearts and minds of gamers burned by Atari and introduced videogames to a whole new generation of players. That isn’t to say that Atari did not have some life left in it still. The company was still producing arcade hits even if, unbeknownst to the company, of course, their days as a hardware titan were long behind them.
In Japan, Sega released their Famicom competitor, the Sega Mark III to mild market success. It was big enough to compel Sega to develop the Mega Drive, but not quite the runaway hit that the Famicom was. The games for the Sega Mark III were generally high quality and featured beautiful graphics but its lack of arcade ports outside of Sega’s own coin-op games hurt the system in the long run. It was eventually ported West and renamed the Sega Master System in North America and other markets.
10. Paperboy, Atari
Published and developed by Atari Games, Paperboy was a sensation when it hit the arcade scene in 1985. Originally conceptualized with unique handlebar controllers, the game placed players behind the wheels of the titular paperboy on his route to bring the daily news. Obstacles included cars, crazy neighbors, dogs – you name it.
Presented in a comical yet definitively arcade-like fashion, Paperboy is some of the best of classic arcade gaming with that quintessential 1980s humor that lampoons traditional institutions. A paperboy route was traditionally seen in 1950s America as a way for enterprising youths to earn some money on the side, and was thus a respected role. It is anything but within the confines of the dystopia that is the Paperboy arcade game by Atari.
The game went on to have a Tetris-like existence, being ported across multiple systems, including both Apple and PC, and existing today in the form of a mobile game.
9. Gradius, Konami
The first iteration of Gradius hit the streets in 1985 and it became a series that lives on to this day. Konami’s ultra-addictive horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em up that put players in the position of a pilot of a fighter ship the Vic Viper as it blazes through a variety of distinct and somewhat macabre stages. The ship becomes more powerful as the game progresses through the use of upgrade items. Bosses tended to be fairly epic affairs, with some sporting visible weak points and other, more organic bosses having harder-to-detect soft spots.
The game always presented a thorough challenge but was also, at times, thoroughly unforgivable – a genre trademark that persists to this day.
Gradius helped introduced the iconic art style and gameplay many associate with shooter games and happened to come out in a pivotal year when videogames were transitioning from purely arcade-facing experiences to home-based consoles.
8. Hang-On, Sega
The iconic arcade racing game by in-house wunderkind Yu Suzuki is emblematic of Sega’s early rise in the arcades as a gaming powerhouse. Noted at the time of its release for its blazing fast graphics and crisp, booming sound, Hang-On went on to inspire legions of racing games by Sega, each of which employed the trademark arcade flash first introduced in this title.
One of the first arcade titles to make use of 16-bit graphics, Hang-On used an impressive scaling technique with pixels to give appearance of relative speed and distance from other bikers. In practice, this effect gave the illusion of blazing fast speeds. One gimmick that endeared it to many arcade-goers was that control was implemented via a motorcycle replica that shifted as the players weight shifted on the bike.
The game went on to become one of Sega’s biggest arcade hits of all time and was even baked-in as a feature game on some Master System consoles. The game still holds a special place in Yu Suzuki’s heart and he regards it as one of his most technically impressive games upon its initial release.
7. Commando, Capcom
A run-and-gun, vertical side-scrolling videogame from Japanese publisher Capcom, Commando stars Super Joe, a soldier on a mission to fight his way out of an enemy-infested jungle. The warrior can use several different weapons in his quest.
Each stage is capped with a fortress battle that sees Super Joe defeating wave after wave of enemy troops. Beloved for its challenging yet instantly understandable gameplay, Commando was a tough game during its life in the arcades. It went on to spawn ports across home consoles and is considered on of Capcom’s early arcade greats.
6. Ghosts N’ Goblins, Capcom
Another Capcom hit game from 1985 was Ghosts N’ Goblins, a side-scrolling adventure game from hell with a difficulty to match. Filled with demons and spectres, Ghosts N’ Goblins gets an A+ for atmosphere and a “what in the hell” for difficulty. There were games that ate your money in the arcades, and then there were furnaces like Ghosts N’ Goblins.
Like Commando, Ghosts N’ Goblins featured imminently understandable yet difficult gameplay. As the hero knight Arthur tasked with saving his would-be bride from Satan (literally), Ghosts N’ Goblins both cashed-in on the 1980s love for all things ghoulish and aped some of the more edgy culture of its day. If Arthur gets hit twice he’s dead. But no fear – there’s a range of weapons to help you in your quest. Some of them are actually helpful and others can condemn you to an impossible run.
Also, the game is notable for spawning a slew of home ports, all of which were as equally as impossible as the arcade game. The best part about the home versions, not to spoil too much for you, is that upon completion you are informed that you actually didn’t fight the real bad guy and you didn’t rescue the girl – you need to start all over again. Anyone who has made it through this game ONCE will tell you that’s more than enough. But for this game? That’s not enough.
5. Space Harrier, Sega
This technically impressive game from Sega is a tour-de-force for the arcades just like Hang-On was. Yu Suzuki initially conceived of an ultra-realistic military shooter but was limited by the technology of the day. The team changed the game’s setting to a fantasy one and made the character a rocket-propelled human armed with a weapon.
The game spawned the rail shooter genre and is considered among Yu Suzuki’s most influential works – no small thing considering just how many different games he worked on during his career. The game’s objective is simple – destroy all the enemies – and each stage ends with a boss encounter, a simple formula for success. Bright, colorful graphics with a distinctly Sega soundtrack round out this arcade classic.
4. Gauntlet, Atari
Gauntlet by Atari was another demonstration that the company that brought console videogames to prominence still had it in the arcades. The game is one of the first multiplayer gaming extravaganzas and features a concept mimicked in games from World of Warcraft to Diablo. Players delve into dungeons with their friends (up to four at one time) and have to wade through battalions of enemies to find the exit from the maze that comprises the stage. Each character has a different set of talents as well as strengths and weaknesses, making gameplay for each character unique. The game’s enemies draw upon a range of mythological creatures and, though there are no boss encounters, the most deadly enemy of them all is a demon called Death that is both difficult to defeat and the bane of any player he comes near.
3. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Broderbund
An educational videogame released for PCs in 1985 by Broderbund, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is one of the most iconic videogame series ever created, and this is made all the more impressive given its target audience as educational software.
The game put players in the role of a gumshoe detective on the case for one of Carmen’s many henchmen. Typically the henchman steals some kind of objet d’art and it’s up to you to get it back. Using clues, the player travels the world on the trail of the thief. Typically the thief is not far from Carmen Sandiego herself and, though the titular character features prominently in the game, she is rarely apprehended.
What made Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego so compelling as a videogame was its combination of educational purpose and solid gameplay concepts. These were the days before the Internet, so it was not as easy to find certain pieces of information to advance in the game. If a player guessed incorrectly and followed the wrong trail, the criminal could escape at which point the trail goes cold and the game ends since you would literally be searching for a criminal who could have gone anywhere in the world at that point. Some editions even recommended or came with a world almanac to help players decipher some of the clues in the game. Awesome stuff in hindsight and amazing at the time, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is an exemplar of educational gaming done well.
2. The Oregon Trail, The Learning Company
Learning Company’s The Oregon Trail is another example of an amazing game that came out of learning software. You may be familiar with the “dysentery” meme this game spawned but you may not be familiar with its deep gameplay and extremely accurate historical elements. Not quite a choose your own adventure game, The Oregon Trail is instead a historical simulation game meant to mimic conditions faced by actual pioneers on the Oregon trail.
Players have to weigh various concerns and camp needs throughout the game and their choices have an immediate impact on the success of their journey. Make the wrong choice and everyone starves to death, freezes to death, or dies of dysentery. The game’s harsh and unforgiving system has a logic but also has a huge element of chance that simulates the sheer luck some people had in surviving the grueling experience.
1. Super Mario. Bros., Nintendo
The biggest release of 1985 by far was Nintendo’s introduction of the iconic plumber to the market. The side-scrolling classic Super Mario Bros. was the system-selling software for the NES when it came West and the title character went on to become Nintendo’s mascot without challenge.
Spawning a series that endures to this day, Super Mario Bros. remains one of the quintessential gaming experiences. It is both timeless and of its time because it is immediately recognizable as both Mario and being from the 8-bit, NES-era. When gaming designers discuss execution and product quality, most reference the complete package that is the original Super Mario Bros. for the Famicom, a game that was released a mere two years after the collapse of the market in the wake of E.T.’s launch – 1985.