I had a sudden flashback the other night to a game I played in the early 80s, and they kept on coming to me. These were video games that had minimal story in today’s standards, but a plot that seemed above all else for their time. They helped shape my passion for telling stories in books today. I figured I’d list just a few of them and would love to hear if you remember these or any others that stand out to you pre-NES era.
If you’re younger (because let’s face it I’m showing my age with this post), then you might want to check these out and let me know what you think (even if the controls are quite unnerving.) My brother Dan helped throw a few of these together, making the list complete.
Here’s my top 20:
20 – Ninja (Atari 8-Bit 1986) – I may have broken a controller playing this at one point because of the sometimes unresponsive controls, but it was still a cool game. As the ninja you could use your combat skills, throwing stars, knives, and sword to battle other skilled enemies in a fortress. I always died when having to battle more than three at a time, but it was still fun and different than any other game of its kind because each screen up down left or right brought you a different challenger(s) and layout.
19 – Pitfall! (Atari 2600 1982) – Pitfall was an easy way to satisfy someone wanting to play the role of Indiana Jones. The thing was you were Pitfall Harry and it was a totally different story. Regardless the feel was there and it was frustrating and fun at the same time. I remember always wondering if there was an end to the game. Apparently there is but I was never able to beat it in under the time required, so I lost out finding that final treasure. Its sequels were even better. “Pittfall II: The Lost Caverns,” Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure,” Pitfall: Beyond The Jungle,” and “Pitfall: The Lost Expedition” were all better evolutions of their predecessors and maintained that same theme that made the original so good.
18 – The Riddle of The Sphinx ( Atari 2600 1982) – As the Prince of Egypt armed with a sling shot, it was your goal in this vertically scrolling game to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx. It combined arcade style action and artifacts. While you fought off enemies, you had to collect the artifacts and take them to the right places to solve the riddle and gain access to the Temple of Ra.
17 – River Raid (Atari 2600 1982) – Dan reminded me of River Raid and I’m not sure how I forgot about this one. You flew a plane over a base and down a river to take out enemy forces. Simple I know, but it’s sequel “River Raid II” was even better and felt as a true continuation to its predecessor. Either way if you owned or played one of these, then you had to play the other to get the full experience.
16 – Enduro (Atari 2600 1983) – Dan chose this one as well and I can’t disagree. Enduro was way better than pole position or any other racing game of the time because it had changing times of day and visibility. It seemed like an endless racer at first, but there was a trophy you’d earn if you got so far. If I recall correctly you could even be entered into a drawing if your score was high enough for an actual real car for a limited time upon release (though no 5 or 6 year old was going to do that.) It was a great marketing ploy for parents to buy copies for their kids or even better yet themselves.
15 – Necromancer (Atari 8-bit 1982) – Necromancer is one of those mindless gems. You take control of a wizard and grow an army of trees to combat the evil necromancer and his minions. It’s a fast paced game that puts you center screen to rotate and destroy orc like creatures and more. There’s also a side scrolling level similar to Donkey Kong’s approach where you have to go up and down ladders. The trees you successfully grow in the first level join you in the second level. Make it through the next few levels and you face the Necromancer in a graveyard. (fitting I know). It was frustrating and yet somehow fun.
14. Aztec Challenge (Commodore 64 1983) – There isn’t much control-wise to this game. You basically have 3 heights of jumps (or movements left and right on some levels) which you can perform as the screen scrolls by and you have to make it past obstacles to reach the final challenge and qualify to be the Aztec people’s champion. I never made it halfway through this game I don’t think, but it was lots of fun and the music was catchy. Perhaps this garners a replay sometime soon.
13. Archon: The Light & The Dark (Atari 8-bit 1983) – Think chess, but with so much more. This utilizes goblins, wizards, a shapeshifter, a phoenix and more characters on a square chess board. Each movement you make is strategic, but when two opposing characters meet on a single square, it goes into a combat screen. There you move around and battle out who will be the victor of the area and who will be captured. It was done so well that it got a sequel called “Archon 2: Adept”. Even today and despite the graphics this game can be a lot of fun.
12. Forbidden Forest (Commodore 64 1983) – There seems to be a year and a fantasy theme running here, but stay with me. This by far has the worst graphics of any of the games I’m mentioning, but something about it mesmerized me and had me playing for hours even though it is sort of endless in a way. There are four levels that alternate between day and night as your lone archer fights through waves of giant spiders, bees and skeletons until you reach the Demogorgon boss, who you can only see in flashes of lightning, making it a challenge. There were two sequels, which I haven’t ever played, “Beyond the Forbidden Forest,” and “Forbidden Forest 3.”
11. Wing War (Colecovision 1983) – This game was extremely difficult because it required finesse when flying your dragon character. You had to compensate for your momentum and be careful where you landed or flew. Your extra lives came in the form of eggs hatching into dragons in your cave. The objective was to gather a crystal of each element and return in to your cave without countering the elements you already had (for example no water if you have fire in there first). Then you’d face off against a dark creature shown in the pic to get the final crystal and return it to win the game. There was a slightly different version for Atari, but the Coleco version was much better graphic wise.
10. Xevious (Atari 8-Bit 1983) – Plot? Fairly simple. You fly a craft from an above view and take out waves of Xevious forces threatening to destroy the Earth. This game was annoying when trying to avoid bullets, but the variety of enemies and replayability was great. It ended up having a few sequels, “Super Xevious,” “Xevious 3D,” and “Xevious Ressurection” as well as spinoff games.
9. Beachhead (Atari 8-Bit 1983) – I also include it’s sequel “Beachhead 2: The Dictator Strikes Back” in this because the four levels in each game can pretty much be combined into an ongoing story. Whether you are a boat navigating a mine field or shooting down enemy battleships, a tank driving with bad controls over and around obstacles and taking down a boss that looks like a dirt pile, or a ninja type guy throwing knives until the enemy dictator falls, this series was unique in the varieties of gameplay controls it had. There was a remake, but nothing is as nostalgiac as the first and second one.
8. Solaris (Atari 2600 1986) – Solaris was probably the best game graphically for the Atari 2600. In it you were a space ship with limited fuel in search of the planet of the title’s namesake. Along the way you’d warp to various sectors of space and planets where there would be alien threats, civilians to rescue, or corridors to traverse. My brother and I played this a lot in search of the planet and despite how many times we tackled it, we only ever beat it once.
7. Mail Order Monsters (Commodore 64 1985) – This game wasn’t that great as far as playing it went, but there was a certain degree of satisfaction in building your own monster and its traits, then taking it into combat against your sibling or friend. You could fight against the computer too, but it was much more fun as a multiplayer than anything else. It was also the closest thing you could get to Godzilla scale monster fights.
6. Karateka (Apple II 1984) – This game was very difficult because of the slow combat mechanics and pace of it, but the graphics were groundbreaking at the time and the animation was very smooth. It was fun and frustrating to spend the time to fight your way through the dojo and battle Akuma (the game’s boss). Worse than the fact that you could easily get your butt kicked by his henchmen, the villain also had a hawk that would occasionally fly into the screen and wipe you out. Sure, it had all that negativity and the stereotypical girl in distress, but there was something about it that stuck. I’m pretty sure the girl you are trying to save would have been better off and probably more capable of fighting the boss and his minions herself then just sitting there waiting.
5. Pepper II (Colecovision 1982) – You’re an angel who can change into a devil in a quest to zip up the grid blocks on each maze. It’s an endless game as far as I can tell, with increasing speed ala pac-man levels. To me it’s more fun than other games like it with a unique story that kind of makes sense. Just beware the zipper ripper and floating eyeballs that will be a thorn in your side, especially as you progress. Toss in the funeral theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a brief Zip-a-dee-do-da, and you can’t forget this one.
4. Space Fury (Colecovision 1981) – The lead alien in this game frightened me a little when I was just a young kid, but that’s what made this game so fun for me. I wanted to win to make it go away. The play itself was the fun part though. It took what Asteroids was and turned it into a colorful battlefield where you could upgrade your ship after each level to have different armor and weapon fire. The music was superb and added to the alien’s eeriness. Little did I know until writing this, that they made a sequel called “Ms. Space Fury,” which had the same music but was a platform style with a female alien.
3. Zaxxon (Colecovision 1982) – With a diagonal area to traverse and tons of colors, there was nothing unattractive about this game. Each area was a new base you’d invade until you got to the robot Zaxxon, who was difficult but not impossible to beat. No matter how many times I played through this I was always entertained and could play more. It had 3 sequels: “Super Zaxxon,” “Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000,” and
“Zaxxon’s Escape,” but none will top the original.
2. Mr. Do (Colecovision 1982) – I had the original version where the character looked like a snowman, but the main port’s main character was a clown. It didn’t really make a difference because the game was the same either way. It was a digging game with each map resembling the shape of a number. The goal was to collect the cherries so you can get your extra pass to the next level. Apples hung from above that you could use to crush the enemies, but you were also equipped with a bouncy power ball that you could throw and have reappear in your hand. If I were to pick my favorite childhood game of this era, Mr. Do might be at the top of the list for the amount of levels and variety of play. There were also 3 sequels: “Mr. Do’s Castle,” “Mr. Do’s Wild Ride,” and “Do! Run Run,” none of which I ever had the pleasure of playing.
1. Time Pilot (Colecovision 1982) – The version in the arcades actually had an extra level which would have just added to this game, but the four level version I had is still a game I keep hoping they will remake with a modern twist. I didn’t even realize it had a sequel without the time travel element called “Time Pilot ’84.” The original put you in the role of a pilot who traveled to different time periods (obviously), and battled with planes from each era. At the end of each level was a boss ship ranging from a zeppelin to bomber to a UFO in the version with the extra level. If you beat the boss flyer, then you’d be transported through time via a very cool looking (for the time) portal effect that stretched across the screen.
There is one final game worth mentioning, but it’s not in my top 20 because it was in my mind impossible to go anywhere. The difficulty level made it so unplayable that I never made it halfway through the first level. That didn’t stop me from trying. So, for my honorable mention I give to you The Last V8. It was released in 1985 for the Commodore 64 and had great graphics and sound. It was the control for the car and the fact that you had to do extremely fast navigation so that you didn’t run out of fuel that made this impossible. It turns out there were only two levels anyway, so apparently I wasn’t missing much. One version had a third level, but who cares because no one could really do it at least in some reasonable time frame.