This story was originally published on Invisible Gamer on September 18, 2014.
The video game crash happened in 1983. You’d think that it would be hard to find some good games from that year, but truthfully, the crash affected western consoles and developers significantly, rather than bringing the entire industry to a screeching halt. The saturation of that market killed interest in a lot of consumers, leading many to believe that video games were a fad and that the medium’s bubble had burst. In hindsight, we know that is not the case, and we can get a little clearer look at the quality games of the time. Considering the part of the world most hurt by the crash, it’s no surprise that the best video games to come out of 1983 were made by Japanese developers. In fact, for many years to come, Japanese video games would rule the market both in terms of quality and financial success, and continue to occupy a large part of video game consumption by western players. Some believe that 1983 saw the true beginning of the internet, the release of the third-best Star Wars movie, and the greatest suggestion David Bowie has ever put to song. So let’s dance and take a look at the six best games of 1983.
Note: Due to the increasingly complicated nature of this idea, it’s going to be pretty difficult to write at any sort of length about every game I played. So I won’t, although some help will come in the form of fellow Invisible Gamer writers.
Honorable Mention — Spy Hunter
Developer/Publisher: Bally Midway
Seth Scott: So let’s get this out of the way right now. I have never beaten Spy Hunter. In fact, I don’t even know if the game can be beaten. What I do know is that the gameplay is about as fast and twitch-based as it can get and it’s a thrill every time I pop in the cartridge. Spy Hunter is an “endless driver” and puts you in control of one of the slickest cars to ever grace the medium. Most games nowadays have hour-long intros and boring cutscenes but Spy Hunter drops you on the side of the road and off you go. Your goal is to fend off other vehicles while picking up machine guns, oil slicks, and smoke screens. I always thought that, based on the box art, the goal was to save a girl at the end but, alas, I think it was all a ruse. You’re just supposed to “not die.” Regardless, Spy Hunter is a high-speed thrill ride with tight controls that take precise skills and practice to master.
Michael Burns: Damn, Spy Hunter is so amazing I need to say something about it too (and the NES version, to boot). I can still hum the theme song now… even if I wasn’t listening to it on YouTube while I typed this… though, it is only 20 seconds long. Doesn’t matter. That’s all it needs. As Seth said, this game probably doesn’t have an ending. I certainly haven’t seen it. You transition from one section of highway to another, navigating the roads with an entirely too fast version of KITT from Knight Rider, sometimes taking other cars out with oil slicks or smoke screens or machine guns, and sometimes driving into the back of a semi truck, from which you’ll emerge as a motorcycle that looks kind of like a burnt rupee. Doesn’t matter. This game is amazing and I have no idea why it’s only an honorable mention, but whatever…not my list.
#6 — Tapper
Developer: Marvin Glass and Associates
Publisher: Bally Midway
Tapper is such an adult game, guys. First of all, it’s called Tapper (snicker). Secondly, you serve alcoholic beverages! Like, Budweiser beer! But then Bally Midway had to go and ruin it with Root Beer Tapper, a kiddie version of the game without all the product placement and…well, it did have everything else. That game is essentially Tapper, though, and so it makes you hate impatient customers, almost as much as working a real customer service job does, through a balancing act of a game. Tapper’s sharp, cartoon-like visuals certainly set it apart visually, especially considering the time of its release, and its frantically challenging gameplay presents the right kind of action you see from other arcade greats. Just make sure you play and/or drink responsibly.
#5 — Gyruss
Publisher: Centuri (North America)
Gyruss is the lovechild of Tempest and Galaga. Essentially a tube shooter, Gyruss took the 3D perspective and circular movement of the Tempest, but exchanged the abstract aesthetics for a more recognizable space shooter theme. Additionally, waves of enemies enter the screen and dive bomb the player ship in a manner similar to Galaga’s foes. Of course, only describing Gyruss relative to other, more well-known games is doing it somewhat of a disservice, but it also reveals the game inherent quality and premise. Movement around the screen is downright fun and exhilarating, and the satisfying space shooter challenge ever-present.
#4 — Mappy
Publisher: Bally Midway (North America)
Namco has a quality track record of making adorable games in the early ’80s, pretty much yearly. In 1983, that game was Mappy. The mouse-cop’s war on the streets against the cat burglars is an underrated experience from a time when Namco’s Pac-Man, Galaga, and Dig Dug ruled the roost for the company. Like those games, a large part of the appeal is the impeccable aesthetic and sound design. Also like those games, and honestly to a lesser degree, the other part is the tight gameplay. Although Mappy is imbued with the power of the law, he can’t really do much against the criminal cats. Instead, the goal of the game is to collect all the stolen items, and the enemies can only be avoided while in motion from the trampolines. Even by today’s standards, Mappy is interesting because the player isn’t shooting or killing things. As compared to Namco’s other big hits, the gameplay is lacking that sprinkle of virtual cocaine that makes Mappy quite so addicting. Still, it’s hard not to play a game with a police-mouse for a bit, at least.
#3 — Donkey Kong 3
Donkey Kong 3 is unlike any other Donkey Kong game. And it’s not because it’s really good or bad. No, it’s kind of just because of Stanley. Donkey Kong 3 has almost no recognizable elements beyond the ape himself; the game doesn’t even play like the original series. Stanley the “bugman” has to drive away Donkey Kong, who has taken up residence in the very boring man’s greenhouse, and he attempts to do so by…shooting him with bug spray. Vertically navigating the platforms, the player must eliminate all of the insect enemies or push Donkey Kong towards the top of the screen. So Donkey Kong 3 is weird, especially as compared to its predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. With slightly less challenge and somehow more repetitive action, Donkey Kong 3 doesn’t hold attention for long, but it’s an interesting piece of Nintendo history and a fun game nevertheless.
#2 — Dragon’s Lair
Developer: Advanced Microcomputer Systems
Dragon’s Lair is barely a video game. But it’s certainly one of the best collection of quick-time events to be put to code. Oh, and it’s one of the best-looking video games ever. And, yeah, it came out in 1983. One man, and one incredibly short-lived media format, made that happen. Dragon’s Lair was ran on a LaserDisc, which had incredibly large storage space, especially for the time. This opened the door for ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, whose animated films in the ’80s were some of the few to significantly challenge Disney’s reign, to create a beautiful work of art. In terms of narrative and gameplay, Dragon’s Lair is admittedly not very impressive. Somewhat reluctant hero Dirk the Daring attempts to rescue Princess Daphne from the dragon, Singe, and the player’s input is limited to quick choices in a challenging, fast sequence. Player choice is entirely limited to going left or right, jumping or ducking, dodging or being murdered. And you will see Dirk murdered, due to the game’s difficulty, in morbidly comedic scenes. Scenes that, as mentioned, look like an animated feature. That ultimately defines Dragon’s Lair quality. The gameplay is fun yet repetitive and simple, but the artistic potential for video games was first proven by Dragon’s Lair, a beautiful, Don Bluth-animated experience standing among its pixelated competitors.
#1 — Mario Bros.
Mario Bros. introduced Mario in his “own” game, named after him. It introduced Luigi. It introduced the idea that the Mario Bros. were plumbers in the New York City sewers. And then everything became “super” and somehow stranger. The general themes of early Mario games were diverse, weird, and unrelated, and it stayed that way for a while. There wasn’t a comprehensive Mario “universe” yet, but there was a comprehensive Mario quality, which was further demonstrated by Mario Bros. Once again, a Mario series mainstay had not yet been established Mario couldn’t even jump on enemies! Instead, every enemy had to be bumped from below and kicked off the platforms in order to clear each phase. And nice touches really tie the basic gameplay premise together, like the final enemy speeding up and additions of new enemies and obstacles with new patterns and characteristics. The game’s addictive progression has made it one of the few arcade games that can hold my attention for an extended period of time. Certainly, that quality of Mario Bros. extends to a larger scale, as it attracted the attention that started a long-running and respected series of games, and for good reason.
1983 saw some important developments in the video game industry, not the least of them being the release of some really, really good games. Have you played any of them? What are your favorites from 1983? Let us know!