This story was originally published on Invisible Gamer on December 8, 2015.
The Game Boy came out in 1989. That’s a big deal. The handheld wasn’t terribly high-tech even when it came out, with its monochromatic (green) screen and relatively limited number of buttons. But its price tag, its portability, and, most importantly, its library made the system a worthwhile one to have for the better part of a decade. And it was really all started with one game, which will be on this list. Also released in 1989 in North America, Sega’s Genesis didn’t quite light the video game industry on fire in the same way, but would certainly go on to shake up Nintendo’s near-monopoly and the nature of the entire medium itself. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of the Pixies’ Doolittle, and Batman finally returning to the silver screen likewise sent ripples through their respective worlds. And, uh, in the case of the Berlin Wall, it sent ripples through…like, the world.
Note: Previous entries in this series were built with North American release dates in mind. From now on, games will be considered for the year they were first released, regardless of territory. Thankfully, there weren’t any major games lost in this translation. Additionally, due to the increasingly complex nature of this idea, it’s going to be difficult to write at length about every game I played. Some help will come in the form of fellow Invisible Gamer writers, however.
#10 — River City Ransom
Austin Clark: River City Ransom may not be the best looking, or best feeling beat ’em up out there. But man, it’s a hell of an ambitious title that involves an RPG leveling system to completely customize your fighter. Want to save up money for some sweet special moves? Go ahead. Or maybe you want to simply dump all your money into buffing your punches. No matter what, you can build your character and make him as strong as you want simply by going into one of the many stores and buying something. You can even save your unique character for later with an outrageously long password! And the absolute best part about River City Ransom? If you’re feeling down, you can buy a smile from a pretty waitress for no charge. My day feels better already!
#9 — Batman: The Video Game (NES)
Although released to coincide with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, Batman: The Video Game is only very loosely based on the movie. A pixelated Michael Keaton in full Batman garb on the title screen and a final boss battle against the Joker are really the only things that cement the game’s association, beyond its time of release. Batman fights a whole bunch of villains in this game, all of them not appearing in the movie (or any other one since); relatively obscure ones like Killer Moth, Firebug, and KGBeast face off against the Dark Knight. Ultimately, though, it stands as the first great Batman game and one of the first great superhero games. Sunsoft’s take on the Caped Crusader was really only topped by Rocksteady’s Arkham games in terms of how it put you in the shoes of Batman. While the sidescrolling, 8-bit action is limited compared to the Arkham games, the aesthetic, tone, Castlevania-style gadget subweapons, and Batman’s control was unmatched for quite a while. As it stands now, though, the game is still a great piece of difficult action from the beginning of the Batman renaissance in popular media.
#8 — The Final Fantasy Legend
The Final Fantasy Legend isn’t even really a Final Fantasy game. It was a common occurrence back in the ’80s, and even into the ’90s, to change a game’s entire name or assets to fit a different license or series. Super Mario Bros. 2 is a prime example, and I’ve covered it as part of this series before. In any event, The Final Fantasy Legend was in fact the first installment in the SaGa series, renamed to improve marketing overseas. It’s a little strange, considering only the first Final Fantasy game had been released in the United States by that time. Still, the rebranding doesn’t feel too disingenuous, due to Final Fantasy’s lack of established regularities at the time and the still-present variance in world and characters from title to title. Regardless, The Final Fantasy Legend was also the first Game Boy RPG, and set the stage for Pokemon, really. But how so? Well, The Final Fantasy Legend is certainly less hardcore than its console-based cousins. The turn-based RPG requires less grinding and is just generally easier. Equipment and magic systems are a little easier to manage, objectives are a bit more streamlined, and, not surprisingly, the world isn’t as large. Furthermore, a class of playable character, the monster, can change its abilities and appearance by eating the meat of defeated enemy monsters. These aspects, especially the idea of a rotating cast of monsters, ultimately made their way into Pokemon’s somewhat RPG-lite and “collect them all” approach. Beyond its simple yet fun turn-based action, however, The Final Fantasy Legend actually creates a fairly compelling universe, one where a massive tower leads to alternate worlds. The game begins in a typical medieval fantasy setting, but the party quickly finds itself in an ocean world, an airship-populated civilization among the clouds, and a modern cityscape decimated to the post-apocalypse by monster attacks. Oh, and it culminates in the party beating God (the Creator in the North American release). It’s certainly a unique premise, especially for the time, and one that holds a fair bit of commentary, made more evident by specific plot details and scenarios. The Final Fantasy Legend might have been somewhat primitive even when it released, but it’s still a great, simple RPG with an interesting world.
#7 — Final Fight
In keeping with the “not really being a game meant for this series” theme, Final Fight was originally developed as a sequel to the original Street Fighter. Eventually, though, it morphed into a separate property and a beat ’em up, and the result is one of the best in the genre I’ve played. First of all, Final Fight (in the arcades) is beautiful. That’s not a word I thought I’d use to describe a beat ’em up where a former pro wrestler turned mayor takes to the streets without a shirt to beat up members of a gang that kidnapped his daughter, but it’s true. Mechanically, though, Final Fight made me feel the most in control of any games in the genre at the time. Other beat ’em ups have trouble with depth perception, hitboxes, cheap patterns of enemies hitting you over and over right after getting up, and generally unsatisfying action, but Final Fight makes you feel like you’re kicking ass. What more do you want from a beat ’em up than to feel like you’re beating ’em up?
#6 — Ys III: Wanderers from Ys
Developer/Publisher: Nihon Falcom
The Ys series has been consistently featured on these yearly lists for the past few installments. A relatively obscure action RPG series, Ys makes grinding fun. Although Ys III: Wanderers from Ys is somewhat of a sidestep from its previous two installments, that core philosophy still makes up most of the draw. The first two Ys games were top-down, and featured a strange combat mechanic in which damage was dealt to enemies by bumping into them diagonally or from behind, no attack button necessary. Ys III makes the action sidescrolling and implements a dedicated attack function, making it more like its contemporaries and simplifying both the game world and action in the process. The plot of the game, as well, takes the simplification hit. While previous games dealt with the idea of “the chosen one” and flying islands, Ys III is a much more personal story about a friend’s hometown and the problem plaguing it. I usually like smaller scale stories, but some of the uniqueness of Ys’ fantasy setting is lost in the process. Nevertheless, for all the difference Ys III represented for the series, it retained its incredibly fast action, somewhat easy and fun grinding, and Zelda-like upgrade system core, making it a fun, satisfying, and quick action RPG to this day.
#5 — Super Mario Land
Super Mario Land was one of the launch titles for Game Boy. And much like Super Mario Bros. 2, it did some weird stuff with the Mario, uh, “canon.” Super Mario Land is really a portable rendition of the first Super Mario Bros., mechanically. But small differences make the game a fun part of Mario and gaming history. It introduced now-Mario-mainstay Daisy, and followed the mustachioed hero as he traveled Sarasaland to save her from an evil alien named Tatanga. Sarasaland is also just kind of our world, with Egyptian, Easter Island, and Chinese themed worlds. So initially, Super Mario Land is already kind of offbeat from what had come before. But in the actual moment-to-moment gameplay, the game demonstrates its weirdness. The slightly off geometry of familiar things like pipes, blocks, coins, enemies, and 1-UP mushrooms turned hearts let you know that Mario’s not in the Mushroom Kingdom anymore. The reasons for this are much more technical than artistically driven, most likely. The Game Boy, of course, was much more limited in its capabilities, especially when developers were still getting the hang of it before launch. As such, Koopa shells don’t bounce around, but stay in place and explode. Ironically, the fire flower-esque bouncing ball power-up does bounce, but doesn’t appear to explode in fiery, 8-bit brilliance. Still, the game is essentially a solid, Super Mario Bros. portable experience, a short escapade with interesting tidbits of Mario inconsistencies and even some sidescrolling SHMUP action featuring Mario in a submarine and a plane.
#4 — DuckTales
I guess I wouldn’t know what the mindset was at the time because I wasn’t alive, but it seems like licensed games in the ’80s were just as consistently mediocre or outright bad as they continued to be and are now. So licensed games that bucked that trend were especially valuable. But that qualifier “for a licensed game” doesn’t really do justice for Capcom’s DuckTales game, based on the water fowl-focused TV show of the same name. That’s partly because DuckTales was made by most of the team that made Mega Man, and features the same tight platforming, brilliant level design, and non-linear layout that defined that game. DuckTales, though, doesn’t feel like a rebranding of a Mega Man game, and has a distinct flavor to it. Part of that is the pogo stick-esque jumping mechanic. Uncle Scrooge, who players control, can jump, sure, but upon descent, can also bring down his cane in order to jump on enemies, get extra lift, and traverse hazardous terrain. When it comes right down to it, though, it’s just incredibly fun to bounce around the levels, which have branching paths that can either promise more loot for Scrooge’s collection or a quicker/easier route to the boss of the level. And those levels (and by extension, bosses) can be tackled in whatever order the player chooses, one of the more obvious influences from Mega Man. DuckTales is just one of those platformers that makes controlling the character a joy, and its level design, license, and vibrant art design serve to turn the game’s core mechanics into a delightful game worth playing whether you’re a fan of platformers, DuckTales/Disney, or both.
Austin Clark: Ah Woo Hoo!
#3 — Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is the best of Castlevania NES trilogy, and it’s the one I hear talked about the least. Castlevania III takes the best parts of the structure of the first two games while maintaining the core, slow, and methodical platforming action of Castlevania. First of all, Castlevania III is easier than its predecessors, which still doesn’t mean it’s easy. But whereas Castlevania was a linear game and Castlevania II is the reason we have the term “metroidvania,” Castlevania III breaks the action up into levels, which can be reached by branching paths on a world map. So there isn’t a set path, but there also isn’t (relatively) total openness; the game’s focused but offers players choices. That design makes its way into the moment-to-moment gameplay, which remains mostly the same…when playing as Simon Belmont’s ancestor Trevor. Different characters can be recruited to take part in Trevor’s quest to kill Dracula, and players can switch between Trevor and one of the three possible assisting characters at any time. Whether playing as the small yet agile thief-like character or the fire-throwing mage, the feel of the game shifts considerably from that offered by a sturdy whip-wielding character. Castlevania III (along with Castlevania: The Adventure for Game Boy) also brought to the series an implication of lore and history, being a prequel story about a different Belmont family member. Ultimately, however, the game synthesized what was done structurally with the first two games in the series, making the metagame flow that much more meaningful and enjoyable.
#2 — EarthBound Beginnings
Earthbound Beginnings is a game surrounded by stories. Known as Mother in Japan, the game was originally pitched by writer and director Shigesato Itoi to Shigeru Miyamoto, who denied the idea but ultimately gave Itoi a team to make the game. An English release was apparently all translated and ready to go, but the localization project was abandoned due to the belief that the game was not commercially viable in North America. But 26 years after Mother was released in Japan, the game was announced at E3 2015 and became available right then and there for download on the Wii U Virtual Console under the name Earthbound Beginnings, translated and all. And I’m sure the stories surrounding the inspirations for Earthbound Beginnings/Mother would be worth telling as well. But what even is the game? Well, it’s one clearly inspired by JRPGs like Dragon Quest (especially) and Final Fantasy. But it’s also one that clearly bucks the typical fantasy or even sci-fi setting of the genre, being set in a rural/suburban area of America. This move is one clearly influenced by ’50s and early ’60s Americana. But for all these clearly communicated things, it’s hard to describe Earthbound Beginnings. It’s an RPG that parodies RPGs, but it calls for extensive grinding and the navigating of obtuse tasks and hints to progress. It follows a group of children, some with psychic powers, beating up enemies like hippies and mad, personified trucks with bats and toy guns. It’s silly. But it tells a story with many adult themes, cutting to the core of love, friendship, loss, and nostalgia through its own distinct way. And from all accounts, it was Itoi (and his team) just getting started. Earthbound Beginnings is really considered a proto-Earthbound, and not just because it was the first in the series. Many of its ideas were significantly approved upon and made much more accessible; Earthbound Beginnings is not an easy game. But it’s an incredibly worthwhile one, and calls for much more thinking on the part of the player than is first let on. It’s also got some real good music, and a location that imparted an instant sense of mystery, peacefulness, and nostalgia in a way that not many other games have. Earthbound Beginnings, quite simply, is impactful in every way.
#1 — Tetris
Developer/Publisher: Nintendo (Game Boy version)
What can I say about Tetris that hasn’t been said already? It’s one of the best and most important games of all time. It was so addicting and simple that grown men and women who had never touched a video game in their life could be seen staring at a postage stamp-sized green screen in public. It represented the ingenuity of a man in the middle of the controlling culture of the Soviet Union, and the breakdown of that culture. It’s a puzzle game about fitting falling shapes together into horizontal lines so that they disappear. It’s about not freaking out when you get the sixth Z-shaped block in a row and you really just need a line piece right this second. It’s about timelessness, and being able to take a Game Boy and Tetris on the road in 2015 and passing it around in the backseat of a car. It’s about fun. Oops, I said a lot of what’s been said already. But those things have been said about Tetris for good reason.
EarthBound Beginnings almost took the top spot, but Tetris is too important and purely simple to ignore. Once again, although the Genesis/Mega Drive was starting to get going, no game on the system made its way onto the list. There’s always next year. In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1989? Let us know!