For many people around the world, the golden age of video games didn’t come in the ’70s; it came in the 1980s. That’s the decade the Sega Genesis, Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Nintendo Gamy Boy were all released.
The ’80s featured some of the best arcade games ever made, many of which continue to pump out sequels decades later. The ten games on this list are some of the most important ever made because their impact didn’t just shape the ’80s; it built the video game industry.
10 Street Fighter (1987)
Towards the end of the decade, innovations in graphics processors made the competitive fighting game one of the biggest draws for arcades. They popped up throughout the decade, but the one title that influenced the genre the most was Street Fighter. The Capcom game was released in 1987, and it set the standard for every fighting game that followed.
The game was directed by Kung-Fu Master’s designer Takashi Nishiyama, who wanted to explore a fighting game centered around boss battles. The concept left the beat ’em up style behind, so players no longer had to make their way through hordes of minions to get to the real battle.
Street Fighter was successful, and its impact can be seen in just about every fighting game that followed. It established conventions found in fighting games today, with the use of a six-button player control being the most important.
Street Fighter was successful, though it does pale in comparison to its sequel. Street Fighter II (1991) is an infinitely better game than its predecessor. Still, it didn’t come from nothing. While Street Fighter may not be considered a classic like its sequel, its importance in the fighting genre is undeniable.
9 Final Fantasy (1987)
Before gamers had the chance to play Final Fantasy, they had several options when it came to role-playing games. After all, it was a relatively late entry in the genre, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. In fact, many gamers would argue that it’s the most important RPG to come out on the NES and possibly, the 1980s as a whole.
In the game, four young Light Warriors, each representing one of the world’s four elements via elemental crystals, must restore their light. The crystals were darkened by the four Elemental Fields, and the quest to defeat them takes the player all over the world.
Final Fantasy featured some innovations in the genre, but that’s not why it’s so important. The year before Final Fantasy dropped for the NES, Dragon Quest smashed records in Japan with more than two million copies sold. The game was titled Dragon Warrior for the North American market, but it didn’t make much of an impact.
Conversely, Final Fantasy absolutely killed it in North America, as it managed to draw in American players far better than its predecessors. Final Fantasy helped popularize RPGs outside of Japan, and the impact of that can be seen in every RPG released in the past 30 years.
8 SimCity (1989)
In the late-1980s, Will Wright spent a great deal of time working textbooks on economics, architecture, and city planning into the world of video games. This was back when simulati0on games were in their infancy, and most players were more interested in the latest fighting games or PRGs.
Despite this, Wright’s SimCity would go on to entertain millions of people who probably never imagined they might be interested in a city-building simulation. That’s pretty much what SimCity is, but it took some work getting it published. Because it was so different from everything else, Wright spent nearly four years finding a publisher.
When Brøderbund finally agreed to distribute the game, it didn’t sell well. It took a little time, but it caught on, mainly through game reviews and word of mouth. By 1991, it had been ported to the Super NES, where it blew up in popularity, selling nearly two million copies. Of course, that was only the beginning.
SimCity’s success led to the establishment of a franchise, which eventually resulted in The Sims, which is one of the best-selling game franchises of all time. Additionally, SimCity has been credited with inspiring people to work in city planning, politics, transportation management, and more.
7 Prince Of Persia (1989)
By 1989, video game graphics had evolved to better approximate complex shapes like human bodies. This made it possible for game designers to take advantage of the tools available to deliver games that looked more realistic. The first title to do so was Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia for the Apple II.
Prince of Persia is regarded as the first cinematic platformer, and it used a great deal of innovation in its development. Mechner used rotoscoping to transfer filmed movements and render them as characters on the screen. This process would evolve through the ’90s with games like Mortal Kombat (1992) and into modern uses of motion-capture technology.
Prince of Persia’s graphical innovations completely changed video game animation forever by offering more realistic movement. The game hit the Apple II around the tail end of its life, so it wasn’t immediately successful. It took a little time and some porting to other systems, but the game eventually found success, spawning a franchise.
Prince of Persia is widely regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time. Its innovative graphics, immersive gameplay, platform mechanics, and excellent story drew players into the experience of playing the game. Every cinematic platformer that followed owes a great deal to the innovations made by Mechner’s Prince of Persia.
6 Duck Hunt (1984)
On the surface, Duck Hunt isn’t an incredibly detailed or complicated game. Sure, it’s fun, but other than infuriating the player every time the dog pops up to laugh at their poor aim, what did it do for the industry? As it happens, Duck Hunt did a lot, but not because it was the first video game shooter (it wasn’t).
Duck Hunt proved that shooters could work in the home, which was something nobody thought was possible before Nintendo released the NES Zapper. Before Duck Hunt, the only way a player could interact with their games at home was through a joystick or keyboard, but that all changed in 1984.
The Zapper offered up something new by giving players a way to immerse themselves in the games they were playing. There were other games released on the NES that used it, including Hogan’s Alley and Wild Gunman, but none have the legacy or lasting impact as Duck Hunt.
The game also offered up a two-player mode of sorts by giving control of the duck’s flight to the person holding the controller. Duck Hunt and the Zapper’s success led to numerous innovations, resulting in gaming platforms like the Nintendo Wii.
5 Donkey Kong (1981)
In 1980, Namco released a little game called Pac-Man, and every developer scrambled to catch up. At the time, Nintendo was trying to break into the North American market, and Pac-Man’s success only pushed them harder toward that goal. Initially, Nintendo wanted 0to release a Popeye game but couldn’t secure the license.
Nintendo opted to create new characters, so Shigeru Miyamoto got to work. He came up with characters and a backstory, which he based on elements taken from Popeye, King Kong, and Beauty and the Beast. Miyamoto was just getting started in the industry, but he was already innovating in ways that would shape video games forever.
One of the things that make Donkey Kong so special is the story Miyamoto crafted. Before the player can play, a quick cinematic reveals that a giant gorilla kidnapped the hero’s girl, and it’s up to the player to rescue her. This was the first time a video game featured any type of cutscene, and it was the first game to prioritize the story before gameplay.
Before Donkey Kong, any story attributed to a game or its characters was added as an afterthought. Miyamoto changed that with his first game, and the legacy of Donkey Kong can be seen in every video game that came after it.
4 The Legend of Zelda (1986)
When gamers first got their hands on the gold cartridge for The Legend of Zelda, they had no idea what they were about to experience. In the ’80s, video games didn’t feature an open-world concept like they do today. Zelda changed that, establishing a norm found throughout the action-adventure RPG from that point forward.
To be fair, Zelda isn’t the first open-world game, as the concept first arose in 1970’s Jet Rocket. Zelda used games like Jet Rocket, Courageous Perseus, and Hydlide to refine it into a far more immersive and enjoyable experience. Still, the open-world adventure wasn’t the only innovation Zelda brought to the table.
The gold cartridge held something sacred inside — an internal battery-powered RAM made it possible to save a player’s game progress. Before Zelda, NES titles created long and complex passwords players had to enter to resume their previous games. Still, it wasn’t anything like saving a game to pick it up later.
The Legend of Zelda’s innovations in open-world mechanics and the inclusion of an ability to save made it one of the best games ever released on the NES. Additionally, it spawned a massive franchise and influenced every open-world action-adventure RPG that followed.
3 Tetris (1984)
In 1984, Alexey Pajitnov created a little puzzle game on the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Electronika 60. The game had no real graphics, leaving Pajitnov to render what he could by using spaces and brackets. The game had no scoring system, but its addictive gameplay was apparent from the beginning.
Tetris became incredibly popular throughout the U.S.S.R., but Pajitnov wanted to export it to other countries. The process was far from easy, but after a great deal of work, Tetris made its way to the United States in 1987. The game was quickly ported to other platforms, but it wasn’t until Nintendo came along that Tetris really took off in the west.
Nintendo developed a version of Tetris to be packaged alongside the Game Boy, which it released in 1989. The innovation of making the game portable and competitive (with the Game Link Cable) hooked people who had never played video games. The Game Boy was a success, but a lot of that had to do with Tetris.
Millions of people bought the system just to play that game, making Nintendo the absolute king of portable gaming. Tetris has since spawned numerous ports and adaptations, with more than 125 million copies sold worldwide by its 25th anniversary in 2009.
2 Pac-Man (1980)
Throughout the 1970s, the vast majority of video games were shooters of one type or another. Players controlled a ship and blew up enemies, which appealed to men more than it did to women. Seeing this, Toru Iwatani wanted to do something different, so he focused on creating a game featuring cute, cartoonish characters.
Pac-Man was developed with all of that in mind, and the game was an instant success. With its cute pie-shaped protagonist and the adorable ghosts, Pac-Man was a game anyone could enjoy, and it quickly became a cultural phenomenon.
Pac-Man’s impact on popular culture is widespread, and the image of Pac-Man himself has since become synonymous with all types of gaming. What’s so fascinating about Pac-Man, besides its enduring legacy, is the fact that more than 40 years after it was released, it’s still the highest-grossing game of all time.
More than 400,000 Pac-Man cabinets were sold worldwide, and they brought in a total of $2.5 billion by 1990. That’s the equivalent of 10,000,000,000 quarters, and when you adjust the numbers for inflation, Pac-Man grossed a whopping $5.1 billion as of 2021.
1 Super Mario Bros. (1985)
There are well over 700 games on the NES, but none have had as much of an impact on the industry as Shigeru Miyamoto’s beloved title, Super Mario Bros. The game had something no other game had at the time it was released in 1985 — it was a launch title for the Japanese Family Computer and the NES.
Super Mario Bros. features an impressive soundtrack, bright and well-rendered pixelated graphics, and entertaining gameplay. Its scoring system offered up competitive play for a second player, and the game was packed with tons of hidden items, secret areas, and warp zones.
While Super Mario Bros. influenced side-scrolling games, its most significant accomplishment centers on how it saved the video game industry. In 1983, the industry suffered a major crash. It looked like video games might be more of a passing fad than the eventual juggernaut it evolved into.
The release of Super Mario Bros. and the NES changed all that by showing there was still a market for consoles and well-made titles. Many credit the game with saving the industry, making it one of the most important games of the 1980s and of all time.