The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Seven – Video Games
The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Seven – Video Games by Jerry Whitworth
The earliest video games arose in the 1950s for the computer before expanding into the arcade market in the early ’70s and the at-home consoles that came soon after (making the newfound medium accessible for most people). While Magnavox and Coleco were early developers of consoles, undoubtedly the bigger success story was Atari. Founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the company found early success with the game Pong before manufacturing the Video Computer System (VCS) console to the mass market. Launched in 1977, the VCS would be the best selling Christmas gift of 1979 (with the newly released game Adventure for that console that year selling a million copies becoming one of its top sellers of all time). The success of the VCS and growing popularity of video games inspired Mattel to develop the Intellivision as a direct competitor to Atari’s console which proved to be another hit (in a real way establishing the idea of one household having more than one gaming system). Atari, undeterred, had a move of its own in 1980 by porting the popular arcade game Space Invaders from Taito to the VCS (Williams Electronics would spawn the game Defender, which used Space Invaders and Asteroids! as inspiration, for the arcade in 1980 which was ported to the VCS two years later). Further, Atari continued producing arcade games as well, releasing the popular game Missile Command for the market that year (a port made for the home market that same year). However, a game would premier in the arcade market in 1980 that changed everything.
Namco, founded in 1955 (as Nakamura Manufacturing), acquired Atari Japan in 1974 and began producing popular games like Gee Bee and Galaxian. 1980, however, saw Namco create a franchise that became an icon in America. Developed as a new type of game appealing to both men and women, Pac-Man (Puck Man in Japan) featured action-adventure elements as players tried to evade and attack ghosts while including puzzle elements by traversing a maze giving gameplay depth most other titles lacked at the time. The result was not only a hit, but a cultural phenomenon. One of the most famous arcade games of all time, Pac-Man became one of the highest grossing games ever produced (making $2.5 billion in quarters from the arcade alone with 400,000 arcade cabinets, retailing around $2400 each, sold by 1982) as the main character became one of the most identifiable video game characters ever created. Indeed, Pac-Man was a merchandising machine with his image replicated on apparel, school and home supplies, and much more. Ported to the VCS the following year (the console version considered a shadow of the original due to its limited available memory, causing an underselling of cartridges and spoiling Atari’s reputation), Pac-Man spawned some half dozen or so clones/rip-offs/homages and several dozen sequels/spin-offs from Namco (like Ms. Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man, and Pac-Land) across three decades. In fact, Pac-Man is one of only a few video game characters to be consistently published across such a span of time. In 1982, Hanna-Barbera would produce an animated series based on the franchise for ABC, airing for two seasons with Halloween and Christmas specials, which was one of the earliest cartoons based on a video game. Its success inspired rival broadcaster CBS to order from Ruby-Spears Productions Saturday Supercade, an animated anthology series featuring adaptations of seven different games from the likes of Konami, Nintendo, Gottlieb, Activision, Advanced Microcomputer Systems, and Sun Electronics. Pac-Man would return to television as recently as 2010 in the animated series Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures.
In 1981, Atari would continue its rise in the newfound world of video games. They would port the popular arcade game Asteroids! to the VCS and had a hot game in Kaboom! from Activision for the console (Activision being the first third party developer for the VCS made up of former disgruntled Atari employees founded in 1979). In the arcade market, Atari produced the popular game Centipede (which was one of the first games that appealed to female gamers following Pac-Man), which was ported to the VCS the following year. Konami, a Japanese jukebox rental/repair business founded in 1969, expanded into manufacturing arcade games in 1973 finding success in 1981 with the game Frogger. A game of timing and strategy, Frogger is regarded today as a classic of the golden age of video games inspiring almost half a dozen clones and over two dozen sequels/spin-offs (the overwhelming majority of which made in the last decade). Frogger would also be one of the series adapted for Saturday Supercade. While Frogger and other Konami games like Scramble and Super Cobra were successes for the company, Konami wouldn’t really begin to see its star shine until later consoles emerged. Speaking of later consoles and arcade game premiers of 1981, a Japanese game and toy company would make moves that would see them change the very fabric of the video game industry.
A Japanese playing card company founded in 1889, Nintendo expanded in 1956 under the guidance of the company founder’s grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi. Moving into many varied and unrelated ventures that nearly ruined the company, Nintendo would find success as a toy designer and manufacturer in the 1960s. In 1973, the company entered the arcade scene using technology they developed for light gun toys to be adapted for electro-mechanical games. By 1974, Nintendo became the official distributor for the Magnavox Odyssey video game console in Japan before producing its own console in the Color TV Game three years later. It was around this time Nintendo made a decision that changed the company and industry forever by hiring student product developer Shigeru Miyamoto. Producing several of their own video games, Nintendo would have a breakout hit in Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong released in 1981. In the game, carpenter Jumpman kept a pet ape named Donkey Kong whom he mistreats leading Kong to escape, kidnapping Jumpman’s girlfriend Lady. Today, Lady is better known as Pauline and Jumpman as the heroic plumber Mario (named after businessman Mario Segale, landlord of one of the warehouses Nintendo used in America). Based in part on the comic strip Popeye (which Nintendo sought a license for), Donkey Kong was Miyamoto’s first foray into designing a game (as his time at Nintendo to that point was industrial design). The game would be a huge success in both Japan and the United States, becoming a licensing juggernaut akin to Pac-Man and was ported to the ColecoVision in 1982 (only available as part of a bundle with the console). Coleco, who had the US distribution license, sold licenses for the game to be ported to the VCS and Intellivision (making Coleco and Nintendo millions of dollars). The game spawned about half a dozen clones and whose sequels and spin-offs formed the foundation of Nintendo’s video game empire (Donkey Kong Jr., Donkey Kong 3, and Mario Bros. a few games to follow soon after). Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. would be the subject of two adaptations in Saturday Supercade. Donkey Kong would also be a featured antagonist in the animated series Captain N: The Game Master.
While companies like Namco, Konami, and Nintendo were finding their feet to go on to become huge players in the home console market, the franchise that in several ways gave birth to the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) genre was getting its start. Following the surprising success of Akalabeth: World of Doom (a role-playing game, or RPG, for the Apple II), Richard Garriott went to work on a spiritual successor in Ultima. Featuring the mysterious Stranger and his bid to destroy the Gem of Immortality and free Sosaria from the rule of Mondain, Ultima would be a commercial success going on to sell 50,000 copies (making it an early success for the growing personal computer market). Originally for the Apple II as well, the game would be ported to several systems like Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and DOS. Ultima would become a monster franchise in PC gaming with over a dozen sequels and spin-offs (its latest release, Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, emerging last Summer). In 1997, Origin Systems released Ultima Online, an early success story in the world of MMORPGs (that largely became a model for later such games), drew attention to the MMORPG scene, and continues to run even today. A year after Ultima made its premier, the video game industry would reach great highs and success before everything fell apart.
The arcade scene in 1982 exploded with several new and popular games. Joust from Williams Electronics was another hit for the company following its success with Defender that would later see a sequel produced and was ported to various systems including the VCS. Namco’s Pole Position was a racing game that the following year would be the most popular coin-op arcade game in the industry. The game would also get a sequel and was ported to other systems as well as being very loosely adapted into an animated series by DIC Entertainment. Namco would also produce the popular game Dig Dug featuring players digging beneath the earth to combat the monsters that dwell below. One of the biggest success stories at the arcade in ’82 was Q*bert (the only hit for the company Gottlieb). A platform/puzzle game, Q*bert had to turn all the surfaces on a pyramid the same color to advance to the next stage (reminiscent of a Rubik’s Cube) while avoiding enemies. Spawning two sequels, ported to various systems, and appearing as part of Saturday Supercade, the character Q*bert would become an extremely popular merchandising icon akin to Pac-Man and Donkey Kong featured in board games, coloring books, and as a stuffed animal. Q*bert would appear in the film Wreck-It Ralph as one of the many characters living in the arcade the story takes place within. The home market would see some of the most developments in the industry in ’82.
Sometime in the early ’80s, Microsoft would obtain the license to port the popular subLOGIC Flight Simulator series to IBM compatible systems. Significantly improved graphics and gameplay, Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0 was released in 1982 and was the first in a series of such games for the company that would be extremely successful. Demon Attack (which bore a strong resemblance to Taito’s Phoenix) from Imagic was released across several systems (console and computer). Likely the biggest development for the home market that year was the premier of two game consoles. Coleco, who previously released the Telstar and Mini-Arcades, premiered the ColecoVision in the Summer of 1982. ColecoVision offered near arcade-quality graphics and gameplay for the home market. As mentioned, the console came with the port for Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (which was the only way to get the game which was a massive boost for the system) and sold more than half a million units the Christmas of its first year. Atari, who had been the king of consoles, premiered its own updated system in the Atari 5200 (the VCS renamed the Atari 2600). The premier console of its generation, the 5200 was a commercial failure. From its high price to lack of backward compatible with older games to its starting catalog largely rehashing 2600 titles, few saw a reason to upgrade to a new system. Atari would run into another significant snag that same year.
A number of games premiered for the VCS in 1982. In addition to the popular Demon Attack, Imagic also released the fixed shooter game Atlantis. Activision would offer up River Raid and Pitfall!, the latter the second most popular game released for the VCS (behind Pac-Man). Pitfall! would also be adapted in the Saturday Supercade series. A rather infamous release for the year was the adult game Custer’s Revenge simulating the rape of a Native American woman by a player character based on General George Armstrong Custer (Atari had no licensing system or ways to prevent other companies from making games for their consoles). As already mentioned, Atari would poorly port the popular arcade game Pac-Man which was a major blow to its reputation. Its adaptation of the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial largely sank them. Commonly referred as the worst video game ever made, rumor has it Atari buried millions of unsold copies of the game in a landfill in New Mexico as E.T. the game was the biggest commercial failure in the history of the industry. Terrible gameplay, atrocious graphics, confusing in-game items, E.T. demonstrated a distinct lack of effort on the part of the company seemingly as a cheap money grab to cash in on a popular film. It’s believed by many the failure of E.T. had a direct impact on the video game crash of 1983, a recession that threatened to wipe out the industry (a similar event occurring in 1977 when Pong clones flooded the market largely leaving Magnavox and Atari as the lone console developers).
Certainly, 1983 was a dark time for video games. Almost a dozen gaming consoles were on the market, each with their own library of games as Magnavox and Atari already announced new consoles for the following year. Again, Atari had no way to prevent companies from producing games for its systems leading to a flood of poor and unsavory games. Coupled with the several failures by Atari, the standard in the home console market, and it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, not all was bleak. Don Bluth, one of the most legendary figures in American animation (alongside the likes of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones), entered the video game market becoming a pioneer in the field of video game graphics and animation. Advanced Microcomputer Systems wanted to make waves in the growing video game market and created the Fantasy Machine. Going through various incarnations, the apparatus would have to employ laserdisc (LD) technology to achieve the amount of memory required for the graphics AMS wanted to employ in their games (even then, the strain on the players used, built for simply playing movies, saw early models burn out quickly). AMS would realize what they needed to set them apart from virtually all other gaming companies was high quality animation. Video games up to this point used sprites made up of a series of pixels. Enter Don Bluth whose company essentially animated an interactive film where players had to make quick decisions that either unlocked the next cutscene or resulted in their character’s death (as indecision also lead to death). While this limited gameplay, compared to what video games to that point had to offer, the technique very much seemed to be a leap into the future (giving rise to optical disc technology almost a decade before Sega CD, high quality animation, and cutscenes to move along the story). AMS’ first hit on the Fantasy Machine was the game Dragon’s Lair. The first month of the game’s premier, AMS sold 1,000 machines with a backlog to produce 7,500 more. Dragon’s Lair would be rated as the number one arcade game of the year. AMS would produce another hit within four months of Dragon’s Lair, again featuring Don Bluth’s company, in the Sci-Fi adventure Space Ace. Dragon’s Lair would spawn two sequels, an animated series, and comic book series. Space Ace would be featured in Saturday Supercade.
Prior to the crash of the video game industry, Disney had produced a film putting video games front and center. Tron was a Sci-Fi film that began development in 1976 during the height of Pong’s popularity that wouldn’t make its way to theaters until 1982. In the movie, software engineer Kevin Flynn (portrayed by Jeff Bridges) uncovers a plot by the artificial intelligence Master Control Program (MCP) to take over the world and is digitized, forced to fight for survival on MCP’s terms. Bally Midway would produce an arcade game based on the film with a sequel the following year. A video game sequel arrived in 2003, the film Tron would spawn a sequel in 2010 (with a third film in development) that itself spawned an animated spin-off and several comic book series. By 1984, Universal Pictures distributed a double feature in The Last Starfighter and Cloak & Dagger that would be produced to continue to play on the popularity of video games (despite being released the year of the industry’s crash). The former, the more successful of the two, told the story of a young man scouted by the arcade game Starfighter as a recruit for the Rylan Star League in order to defend the Earth and surrounding systems from the Ko-Dan Empire. The film would be adapted for a Marvel comic and an arcade game from Atari. Cloak & Dagger told of a young man (played by Henry Thomas of E.T. fame) obsessed with a gaming franchise called Cloak & Dagger (with tabletop role-playing and video game components) who becomes embroiled in real life espionage. Atari would take a game it was developing called Agent X and cooperated with the film’s producers to alter the game into both an adaptation for the film and a game that was featured in the film.
As the home console market was suffering from the industry’s crash, personal computer games remained strong. The Oregon Trail, produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974 for the Apple II, would gain new life in 1985 due to its popularity. Its graphics improved significantly, the game continued to be a huge hit for MECC as the title was updated over the years with its latest release in 2012. Another educational computer game that continues today that would begin in 1985 was Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? In the game, the player must track down Carmen and her associates across the globe by collecting clues that reveal where in the world the criminal being chased is trying to escape to in order to capture them. Currently, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is hosting an alternate reality game to track down Carmen Sandiego through social media (the station having aired two game shows based on the game in the ’90s as DIC Entertainment/Program Exchange adapted the concept into a cartoon). A popular fantasy role-playing game would also emerge in The Bard’s Tale for Apple II. Loosely based on Dungeons and Dragons gameplay, the game made use of groundbreaking 3D graphics as the player composed a party of six characters that must adventure in dungeons, castles, temples, and more in text and round-based combat. Considered a triumph for its genre, the game would spawn two sequels and a novel series based on its world. Likely the greatest triumph of 1985, however, was the rebirth of the home console market that has thrived to today.
In Japan, Nintendo had produced the home console Famicom (short for Family Computer) in 1983 with ports for their popular titles Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. By the end of the following year, the system was a huge success and the company wanted to break into the much bigger American market. Nintendo entered talks with Atari to distribute the Famicom in the US as the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System but the deal fell through when Coleco illegally demonstrated Donkey Kong on its Coleco Adam at the Consumer Electronics Show leading to Atari becoming hesitant to work with the Japanese developer. As Atari’s infrastructure fell apart, Nintendo would decide to distribute their console them self in America. Released in New York as a test market in 1985 and nationally released in the States in 1986 as the Nintendo Entertainment System, the line was launched with eighteen initial titles. Packaged with the console was a game based on the hero that brought Nintendo to the show. Super Mario Bros. starred Mario with his brother Luigi as they battled across the Mushroom Kingdom to save Princess Toadstool from Bowser, the King Koopa. It’s difficult to quantify the impact of the game. As the NES was the premier console of its time and the popular game included with it, Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. were almost interchangeable terms (also meaning if the NES was the hottest console, Super Mario Bros. would be the hottest game). Mario would be the face of the company forever since and the game made side-scrolling platform games the standard for decades after.
Following the success of the NES and its Super Mario Bros., it wouldn’t be long before there would be sequels. However, the second game in the Super Mario series in Japan would be deemed too challenging for American players, including elements like deadly Poison Mushrooms, warp zones sending the player to earlier levels, and windstorms that could knock the player off ledges. Instead, the game Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic (in a world with a distinct One Thousand and One Nights feel) would be adapted into America’s sequel (as well as re-released in Japan as Super Mario USA with elements and enemies from it added to later Mario games). Intriguingly enough, Shigeru Miyamoto was more involved in the development of Dream Factory than the original Super Mario sequel. While the success of Mario was seemingly an unstoppable force, it was hardly the NES’ only success story. If Mario would be the king of Nintendo, Link would be the prince. Combining elements of role-playing, puzzle, and action/adventure elements, The Legend of Zelda (co-created by Shigeru Miyamoto) featured the hero Link who sets out to save the land of Hyrule from the evil Ganon by reassembling the Triforce of Wisdom, save the princess Zelda, slay Ganon, and regain the Triforce of Power. The game was a smash hit, selling over 6.5 million copies and was the first NES title to sell over a million copies. To this day, people still argue between Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda as being the best series of games produced for the NES. Zelda would form the basis as Nintendo’s second greatest franchise spawning countless imitators and many several sequels or re-imaginings. The first two Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda games would be adapted in the television series The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! As Nintendo won over the spot Atari once held as the world’s leader in video games, a competitor would rise as the company’s main rival for the late ’80s and better part of the ’90s.
Service Games was a Honolulu-based coin operated machine distributor that moved to Tokyo and took the first two letters of the company’s name of two words to be re-branded as Sega. In the early ’80s, Sega was a major developer of arcade games in the Japanese market that expanded into at home consoles. After some restructuring in the company, Sega jumped into the fray of the re-emerging gaming market in America thanks to Nintendo to produce the Master System in 1986. However, the console ran into hiccups from Sega subcontracting toy company Tonka to market the system (for a company with little to no experience in gaming) to its hesitation to permit third-party developers (keeping its selection small). The following year, Sega would release its top selling game Alex Kidd in Miracle World (which would later be included with the follow-up console Master System II). The first and most popular game in the Alex Kidd series, the title was a platform game where Kidd must save his brother Prince Egle from the evil Janken the Great while traversing the amazing Miracle World Aries. However, the game failed to compete with the works of Shigeru Miyamoto (such would be the company’s fate until a super-fast blue hedgehog named Sonic changed everything).
While the home market continued to grow, Taito would continue to produce high quality arcade games. In 1986, Bubble Bobble was the company’s latest offering featuring bubble dragons Bub and Bob who must save their girlfriends from robots and other enemies across a hundred stages. Proving to be very popular, it was one of the first games to include multiple endings dependent on how the final boss was defeated and if the crystal in round 99 was collected. The game would be ported to multiple systems, including Apple II, Commodore 64, NES, and Sega Master System. It would also spawn multiple sequels like Rainbow Islands: The Story of Bubble Bobble 2 in 1987 and Rainbow Islands Extra Version in 1988 with the latest Bubble Bobble Plus! in 2009. The characters from the game would appear infrequently in other titles from Taito, notably the tile-matching game series Puzzle Bobble. The arcade continued to be a thriving market in 1987, seeing such titles as Konami’s Contra, Technos Japan’s Double Dragon, and Capcom’s Bionic Commando premier (all games ported to the NES shortly thereafter). Contra would spawn several sequels and spin-offs (its latest in 2011), Double Dragon also produced sequels (its latest in 2013) and spin-offs (including a crossover with Rare’s Battletoads) as well as adaptations in a live action film, comic book series, and animated series, and Bionic Commando had several sequels and spin-offs (its latest in 2011) and was novelized as part of the Worlds of Power series of books for young children.
The personal computer market would also continue to expand, notably with 1987’s Sid Meier’s Pirates! The first game to use Meier’s name in the title (to attract fans of his combat vehicle simulation games), the game detailed the life of a pirate and broke new ground as an open-ended game that influenced the industry for generations to come (including Meier himself in works like Civilization and Railroad Tycoon). Made for the Commodore 64, it would be ported to Apple II and NES. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear would also emerge in 1987, released for the MSX2 computer in Japan and was heavily edited and brought to America the following year for the NES. Considered the progenitor of the stealth game genre, the game featured special forces operative Solid Snake who must sneak behind enemy lines and destroy the nuclear-equipped walking tank Metal Gear before it can be used to hold the world for ransom. The game would be a hit in Japan and one of the most successful franchises for Konami moving forward spawning various sequels and spin-offs (currently, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is in development) and was adapted for Worlds of Power. Also in 1987, Lucasfilm would dip their toe into the video game market developing the adventure game Maniac Mansion. Released for the Commodore 64 and Apple II, the game was critically acclaimed with its gameplay and use of animation and graphics inspiring many games to come after (both at Lucasfilm and beyond). The game would be heavily edited and ported to the NES. Maniac Mansion would also be very loosely adapted into a live action sitcom that ran for three seasons and saw a video game sequel in 1993. As the arcade and PC market expanded with such memorable titles in 1987, the NES was no exception.
Released the previous year in Japan, Castlevania would be another hit game for the NES and its developer Konami in the US market of 1987. Featuring vampire hunter Simon Belmont with his signature whip hunting down the dreaded Dracula, Castlevania became Konami’s other hit franchise spawning many several sequels and spin-offs (Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 currently in development) often featuring descendants of Belmont battling the forces of darkness through the ages, notably featuring Dracula. Though, Dracula’s son Alucard would also become a notable protagonist in the series beginning in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989). Simon Belmont and Dracula would become featured characters in the Captain N: The Game Master animated series (Alucard would also appear but was almost nothing like his video game counterpart). Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest would be adapted for Worlds of Power. Nintendo would produce another smash hit series for the NES in 1987. Along the lines of Mario and Link as royalty, Samus Aran would be the empire’s princess (though, the kind that would rescue herself). Inspired by Ridley Scott’s film Alien, Metroid featured one of the earliest female protagonists as bounty hunter Samus Aran must battle through a world filled with space pirates and deadly parasitic Metroid organisms. An element the game popularized was obtaining power-ups to enter areas previously unavailable to the player that has been replicated in other games innumerable times. The first game’s antagonist Mother Brain would be adapted as the main antagonist for Captain N: The Game Master (for the comic book adaptation, Samus Aran would join the N Team). Of course, Metroid spawned many several sequels with the latest in 2010. Another Nintendo series, Kid Icarus, would initially run on the same engine as the Metroid series. The game’s protagonist Pit would be a member of the N Team on Captain N: The Game Master but would be referred to as the game’s title. In 1987, Nintendo would port elements of two of its hit arcade games to the NES.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was a mash-up of Nintendo’s arcade games Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!! ported to the NES. Minoru Arakawa, founder and former president of Nintendo of America, attended a match of up-and-coming boxer Mike Tyson and thought he would be ideal to help promote the game (a considerable risk considering Tyson to this point had yet to win the world title). The game would premier in America almost a year to the day after Tyson won the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight championship. Due to the limited capabilities of the NES versus the arcade models, graphics in the game had to be significantly downgraded including sacrificing the see-through boxer the player controlled instead replaced with a small boxer. Referencing his height, the character was named Little Mac (a nod to McDonald’s Big Mac). In the game, Little Mac had to work his way through the ranks of the boxing world until finally getting his title shot with the undefeated, undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World Mike Tyson (when the three year contract with Tyson expired, this character was replaced with Mr. Dream from the arcade version). King Hippo, one of Little Mac’s opponents, would feature prominently in the series Captain N: The Game Master. Punch-Out!! spawned several sequels and spin-offs, the most recent in 2009. For Christmas 1987, Capcom would introduce one of it strongest franchises in the company’s history.
In the future, many of mankind’s needs are met by robots where scientist Dr. Light develops a series of androids that would take on even more of mankind’s labors (especially replacing dangerous jobs that risk lives). However, his assistant Dr. Wily saw an opportunity to use these androids to gain power and turned them against humanity as the Robot Masters. Light is forced to send his bionic “son” Mega Man (reminiscent of Pinocchio) to defeat these Robot Masters and bring Wily to justice. Unlike most games, the player decided what order to track down the villains and when each Robot Master is defeated, Mega Man gained an ability from the fallen foe (which could be important to help pass a stage or defeat another enemy boss). While the game, considered quite difficult to complete, didn’t do well initially in a commercial sense, Mega Man would be featured in the Captain N: The Game Master series and see several sequels eventually making the character a major figure in the video game industry in America. In fact, Mega Man would become one of Capcom’s strongest franchises spawning many several sequels and spin-offs, the latest in January 2013 in a crossover with one of Capcom’s other popular franchises in Street Fighter (as a spiritual successor in Mighty No. 9 is in development). The series and its spin-offs would also be adapted for several animated series over the years. Mega Man 2 would be adapted for Worlds of Power. Also for Christmas in 1987, Wizards & Warriors would premier for the NES leading to three sequels, the main protagonist Kuros and antagonist Malkil featured in the animated series The Power Team (as Malkil also appeared in Captain N: The Game Master), and a novelization as part of Worlds of Power.
In 1988, TSR would decide to adapt its expansion Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ( AD&D) for the video game market (the company’s first time awarding a license to adapt D&D), one such title situated in the burgeoning campaign setting of Forgotten Realms. Pool of Radiance would be praised for its use of graphics and combat aspects (based on the AD&D model) featuring a player creating a group of six characters who band together to clear monsters out of the ruins surrounding the city of Phlan. Drawing parallels to Ultima and Bard’s Tale, the game would be a hit becoming the first in a series of Pool of Radiance games. Earlier that year, TSR released Heroes of the Lance based on the Dragonlance setting that did well, but was overshadowed by the later release. Still, seven games would be produced within a handful of years based on Dragonlance after Heroes premiered. The same year TSR started seeing its primary franchise adapted, Japanese developer Tecmo would cash in on the ninja craze taking America and develop one of the biggest franchises in its history.
Ninja Gaiden featured side-scrolling platform action for the NES in a manner not unlike Castlevania but with a built in ability to bounce off of walls (which could be used to ascend a tight vertical space). The game would come to be known for its use of anime-like cutscenes, high level of difficulty, and catchy soundtrack. In a growing field of ninja games, Gaiden stood head and shoulders above the competition as one of the most memorable titles for the NES. The success of the game spawned many several sequels and spin-offs (as the game’s universe would be combined with later franchise Dead or Alive) with the latest game in the series, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, currently in development. The first game would be adapted for Worlds of Power. A month after Ninja Gaiden made its way to America, an unexpected hit would make its way to the NES. Sunsoft was a relatively new developer who, despite thinking they produced a hit, saw the game Cho Wakusei Senki Metafight (or simply Metafight) flop in Japan. Plans already in motion to bring the title to the US as the game Blaster Master, there was little hope for the game when it surprised the company doing well at market. Indeed, the game was so successful, many of the titles the company produced (known for making games for licensed properties) were made in the same mold as their newfound hit. In the game, a young boy named Jason searches for his pet frog that escaped only to discover an otherworldly tank and radioactive mutants trying to kill him. Getting into the tank, Jason must explore the underground levels and defeat the Plutonium Boss. The game is remembered for its smooth gameplay and high level of difficulty. The game would get a direct sequel for North American alone and spawned several other sequels (Sunsoft would play an April Fool’s joke in 2010 claiming another sequel was on the way). The game would be adapted for Worlds of Power (where the game developers would actually take new, original material from this adaptation and apply it to the series).
Coming towards the end of the decade, the video game industry had absolutely exploded with virtually every year seeing the market grow ever since. Two months into 1989, the popular franchise Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would find its way into the video game world. Becoming a phenomenon in animation and toys (not to mention casting an eye to independent comics), Konami ushered the franchise in as a popular video game series as well. Selling four million copies and one of the best selling third-party video games for the NES (earning Nintendo Power’s game of the year), TMNT was in the same vein as Castlevania gameplay-wise with the ability to pick up secondary weapons. Later that year, Konami unveiled a TMNT arcade game that would be ported to the NES as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game the following year (which itself was followed by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time). Directly for the NES, Konami would develop Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project using the same mechanics as the second game. In all, Konami would produce fifteen TMNT video games. Currently, Activision has the license for the franchise and released a game based on the current animated series in October of this year. While the Ninja Turtles were taking the US by storm, Nintendo would add a new item to its arsenal that has largely kept the company alive during some of its lows.
Introduced to the US in August 1989, the Game Boy was a portable gaming device with its own unique games rendered in shades of black and gray across a green background. Quite similar to the graphics on the NES within reason, the game was a juggernaut at retail. The Game Boy would sell 40,000 units in one day when it premiered in America with the device selling over 64 million units worldwide before the next generation of Game Boy premiered. The Game Boy device would actually become a featured character in the series Captain N: The Game Master as a member of the N Team. As alluded to, in time the presence of the Game Boy would even outshine the home consoles produced by Nintendo (especially following the creation of the franchise Pokemon, which is almost exclusively available for the Game Boy series of devices). Just as the NES was packaged with Super Mario Bros. creating a symbiotic relationship, so was the relationship between Game Boy and its prepackaged game Tetris. A Russian puzzle game that was the first exported software from the USSR to the US, Tetris was an absolute hit for both Nintendo and its creator as it was the most popular game for the unit (the game would be ported for the NES). The success of Tetris is alive and well today, especially in the world of portable media available in many several formats. Tetris would be a featured world in Captain N: The Game Master. The same month America gained Game Boy and Tetris, an RPG for a home console would catch on with gamers.
RPGs like Ultima, Bard’s Tale, and Pool of Radiance were all popular games for its genre developed for the home computer and often ported to consoles but it wouldn’t be until Dragon Warrior that the gameplay style caught on for game consoles. Despite not doing well commercially in America originally, it ushered in the Dragon Quest series in the US and opened the door for the likes of Final Fantasy to flourish. Akira Toriyama, famous around the globe today for his Dragon Ball series, produced the game’s artwork (something he would do again later for the legendary RPG Chrono Trigger) and this artwork was adapted for the animated adaptation of Dragon Warrior, thirteen episodes of which were edited, dubbed, and brought to America in syndication by Saban (famous for bringing tokusatsu series like Power Rangers to the US). A month after Dragon Warrior made it to American shores, Capcom would premier their game based on Disney’s animated series DuckTales for the NES (becoming Capcom’s best selling title for that console) and Captain N: The Game Master would air on television (running for three seasons beside different versions of animated adaptations of Mario for its last two seasons in The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World). In the Fall of 1989, computer games would get two extremely memorable franchises released on the same day.
A city building simulation game designed by Will Wright, SimCity was a phenomenon in the field of video game simulations. Essentially giving the power of a god to the player, the game’s popularity saw it ported to dozens of systems and spawning an almost incalculable number of sequels, spin-offs, and clones (likely the most famous of which being The Sims which itself became a cultural phenomenon). Part of the appeal to playing SimCity and many of the games to come after it is that there is no end. You could literally invest years in developing your city that will undergo prosperity and growth and then suffer disaster necessitating a period of rebuilding. As implied in its title, it’s a simulation of life and in this manner will last until it dies (where either you stop playing or you shuffle off this mortal coil). Before there was virtual reality or augmented reality which have since gone on to be huge concepts in gaming culture, there was SimCity and the legacy it developed. The same day the world gained SimCity, it also gained Prince of Persia. Developed by Jordan Mechner for the Apple II, Prince of Persia is considered a leap forward in the field of gaming animation. Employing the technique of rotoscoping used in animation (taking film of someone performing an action and animating over the movement), Mechner added a level of realism that largely did not exist in video games at that point. Despite its groundbreaking achievements, the game was a commercial failure but was ported to other systems where it gained new life. Since then, the game has spawned many sequels (the latest in 2008) and was also adapted for a live action film.
In December 1989, video games returned to American cinema in what many call a glorified ninety-minute commercial in The Wizard. When Jimmy Woods, a boy with a mental disorder following the death of his sister, is institutionalized, his brother Corey (Fred Savage from The Wonder Years and The Princess Bride) breaks him out and the pair run away. Along the way, the brothers are joined by a young vagabond named Haley and Jimmy learns he’s a wizard at playing video games. With a national video game tournament in Los Angeles days away, the trio make their way there as the boys’ parents desperately search for them. In a very big way, the film is an advertisement for the Power Glove accessory for the NES and the then upcoming video game Super Mario Bros. 3 (the film the US’ introduction to the title). But still, featuring such actors as Beau Bridges (whose brother of course was the star of Tron) and Christian Slater (who gained fame the following year as a heart throb in films like Pump Up the Volume and Young Guns II) as the boys’ father and brother, respectively, the film was a touching story of family told in the outlandish style of the ’80s, which the decade was largely known for (considering films like Over the Top and Flight of the Navigator in a similar vein). As a kid growing up in the ’80s, The Wizard was one of those films that was just so cool to see. When you spent your free time playing video games, developing a love for the medium, seeing a movie that featured them while telling a story about family was really something special. Just as many were cynical about American animation turning into toy advertisements, so were they critical of The Wizard. But while there is certainly truth to it, the film will always hold a special place in my heart.