This story was originally published on Invisible Gamer on July 31, 2015.
1988 saw a significant shift in the video game industry, even if it wouldn’t be evident for another three years or so. Sega released the Mega Drive in Japan (known in the States as the Genesis), and made a larger and bolder move to steal some market share from the dominant Nintendo. Releasing a 16-bit console two years before Nintendo can’t really be interpreted any other way. Unfortunately, Sega didn’t have the game(s) to take on Nintendo until Sonic the Hedgehog’s release in 1991. That being said, some might argue that Sega never rivaled Nintendo regardless. Our ability to offer such discourse in this forum was further developed in 1988, as the Internet received its first commercial email and chat services. That same Internet spawned a wide berth of fan art/fiction based on another 1988 creation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and allowed many to come together based on mutual nerdy interest in R.E.M. Probably.
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.
#7 — Ninja Gaiden (NES)
This entry really needs to be specified as the NES version of Ninja Gaiden, since the first game in the series (of the same name) is totally different. Ninja Gaiden (arcade) tells a different story and plays as a fairly competent and quick beat ’em up. Ninja Gaiden (NES), in a surprising twist for the time, is a better game in both ways. Ninja Gaiden’s plot, which deals with ninja families and stolen demon artifacts, isn’t necessarily the most compelling, but it’s interesting enough. And it’s noteworthy because of the way it was told. Ninja Gaiden utilized anime-esque cutscenes that were fairly new to the video game medium, and served as a satisfying complement to Ninja Gaiden’s fast paced gameplay. The game is an incredibly difficult action platformer that is at its best when the player knows what he/she is doing. Even then, later levels and bosses are near impossible without incredible skill and/or save states. Until those parts of the game are reached, however, Ninja Gaiden serves up intense and tight platforming and significant satisfaction upon completing a particularly difficult level or boss.
Frankie Millington: Ninja Gaiden was certainly a new title in terms of story for Tecmo. It was one of those games that caught my attention because of the title, and once I plugged in and played, I found so much more. Interesting story, stunning visuals for its time, fun and unique weapon mechanics, and characters that added life to the fun illustrations were just some of the great things the game had to offer.
#6 — Dragon Warrior III
Dragon Warrior III was certainly the best in the series when it released in 1988. Why? Most notably, it’s possible to progress through the game without grinding your brains out. Oh sure, Dragon Warrior III still calls on a few rigorous grinding sessions in order to triumph over key bosses. But they’re fewer and further between than they were in both previous installments of the series. But Dragon Warrior III also refined old mechanics and introduced new ones. The variety of equipment and spells are greatly increased, and new enemies and characters abound, with even more apparent Toriyama design. Dragon Warrior III’s battle system isn’t much different than previous games, but a full four-person party, which can be created from eight classes with the player’s discretion, changes the dynamic of battles considerably. A larger open-world based on real-word locations (Jipang is Japan, for instance) complicates the plot and sequence of the game considerably, and plays host to a collection of fun and interesting scenarios.
Frankie Millington: Dragon Warrior III is one of my personal favorites. I’m quite the sucker for lengthy RPGs, and this game is no exception. Dragon Warrior III was hands down one of the best RPGs of its time. It may not have had the most stunning graphics, but it certainly had some of the most creative art design. Being able to choose between eight different classes was amazing, and so was the ability to change them in the middle of the game. The story was reminiscent of many RPGs before it, including other Dragon Warrior games, which made choosing my party an easier task. The story was still wonderful, however, with many different subplots and choices complementing the game. Traveling wherever and whenever in the open world was fun and new for the time too. Dragon Warrior III will definitely remain as one of the better RPG titles out there.
#5 — Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished — The Final Chapter
Developer/Publisher: Nihon Falcom
The Ys series is starting to consistently and positively surprise me. Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished — The Final Chapter picks up where the first game left off, in complicated name, gameplay, and story. Ys II retains the RPG-lite, easy leveling system of the first game, as well as the initially bizarre bump-into-an-enemy-diagonally-in-order-to-inflict-damage mechanic. After awakening on a floating island in the sky, the titular Ys, hero Adol Christin picks up the new ability to cast magic spells. The magic opens up new boss battle dynamics and introduces new ways to solve puzzles and progress the story. Otherwise, the game’s base of satisfying and addicting bump-and-run combat makes grinding fun and facilitates the expansive dungeons.
#4 — Mega Man 2
Like most of the other sequels on this list, Mega Man 2 doesn’t necessarily change a whole bunch, but totally improves on the formula. Mega Man 2 is widely considered the best in the series; it certainly was the best when it was released! Mega Man 2 upped the number of Robot Masters and somehow took them in even weirder directions. That’s partially because, starting with Mega Man 2, the initial concepts/designs of the Robot Masters were submitted by fans. So that’s kind of why we got the likes of Bubble Man and Wood Man. Otherwise, Mega Man 2 just introduces Energy Tanks, which can be stored and used to strategically restore health. So why is Mega Man 2 so much better than the original? The game’s level design is extraordinary. It’s kind of an ambiguous value, but Mega Man 2’s design is impeccable, tight, and incredibly difficult. It’s the kind of game that just feels good to play. Plus: the huge enemy pixel art is incredible. Seriously. Look at that fish.
Austin Clark: Best Robot Masters. Best level design. Best Music. That art! Mega Man 2 is the best. Period. Gauntlet Thrown. #4? What!?
Frankie Millington: After the critical hit yet commercial flop Mega Man, Keiji Inafune and Co. decided to work on a second title. Although it wasn’t exactly in the company books, they did it anyways. Thankfully. Mega Man 2 takes everything from its predecessor and enhances it. New stages with new bosses to choose from, that same fresh feeling of freedom, and the return of absorbing abilities from beaten bosses were all exciting features. If it wasn’t obvious from the first Mega Man that it was going to be a long-lasting fan favorite, then Mega Man 2 ensured increased popularity of the innovative series.
#3 — Super Mario Bros. 2
Let’s get this out of the way: Super Mario Bros. 2 was not originally Super Mario Bros. 2. Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2 is much more similar to the original game, albeit much harder, and North America didn’t get it because it was believed it would be too hard for American culture. A couple years later, Nintendo made a game called Doki Doki Panic, based on Fuji TV mascots. Mario characters replaced the Fuji mascots, and America got its Super Mario Bros. 2. With that in mind, it makes total sense that Super Mario Bros. 2 is nothing like its predecessors or successors. The game features playable Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Peach, each with different stats and jumping styles. Jumping on an enemy doesn’t kill them; instead, players can essentially ride enemies for an indeterminate amount of time. This is, however, a crucial aspect of the game; the main conceit of the game, instead of the then-unusual abundance of vertical scrolling, is plucking things out of the ground. Enemies are included in that category of things. The necessity of the “plucking” mechanic, we’ll call it, can slow the momentum and flow that are generally present in Super Mario games, but Super Mario Bros. 2 nevertheless features tight and imaginative platforming situations. The game also offers a totally different aesthetic appeal, and even though it didn’t start out as a Mario game, it gave us characters and enemies that are now staples of the series, like Birdo, Bob-ombs, and Shy Guys. Super Mario Bros. 2, ultimately, is one of those special games where quality fun intersects with a compelling development story.
#2 — Final Fantasy II
The game pictured above is the actual Final Fantasy II, not the Final Fantasy II that North America received initially; that was Final Fantasy IV. Final Fantasy II didn’t even come to the States until the PlayStation remake was released in 2003. It’s kind of a shame, because Final Fantasy II is a significant step up from the first game. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 2, this sequel isn’t almost totally unrecognizable. Final Fantasy II’s battle system and dungeons are very much derivative of its predecessor, but the scenarios surrounding that core are much improved. Final Fantasy II tells a relatively more compelling story, with named, personality-driven characters and dramatic twists and deaths. The fourth slot in the party is filled by multiple characters in the game, some of which die permanently as a part of the plot. It’s clear that Square was aiming for a different kind of story with Final Fantasy II, and it paid off. Final Fantasy II also mixes up the leveling system; characters’ attributes are improved separately upon using said attributes. For instance, the characters’ HP is incrementally improved when being damaged, and a character’s sword skill is being leveled when he/she connects a hit with an enemy. It’s a satisfying system, but it’s also one that can be a little frustrating near the end of the game if a valuable skill hasn’t been improved enough. Regardless, it acts as a way of sneaking a class system into the game without explicitly laying it out. Players have to decide if they want Firion to be their swordsman and their white mage, or if Maria would be a bitter fit for that role. And it allows for change if it’s not working out, at the price of starting fresh with new skills. Final Fantasy II improved and changed enough of the Final Fantasy precedent to set the series precedent of having each game tell a different story in a different world, and feature some kind of different gameplay system.
Austin Clark: First of all, I want to thank Tristan for showing Final Fantasy II some love because it doesn’t get a lot of recognition within the series. I first played Final Fantasy II in the PlayStation collection Final Fantasy Origins and to this day, it still stands out to me. In my eyes, it began the whole idea that every game in the series could still be a fresh experience with completely new stories and mechanics. Sure, you could basically break the game with its leveling system, but that didn’t stop it from being fun and giving full customizable control to the player. To this day, I still hope to see that leveling system return in some way. Still waiting, Square Enix!
#1 — Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros. 3 is too good not to have in the #1 spot. It’s a platforming masterpiece that set the stage for Super Mario World, which was somehow even better. In any event, Super Mario Bros. 3 is truly a must-play game. Super Mario Bros. 3 is really much more of a sequel to the first Super Mario Bros. than 2 was, but it evolved the gameplay tremendously. At the core is a near-perfect tight handle of Mario’s platforming. Surrounding that very important factor is a beautiful and imaginative pixelated world, facilitated by an overworld map with secrets and minigames that can offer items to give Mario an advantage before even entering a level. Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced a great blend of metagame and moment-to-moment gameplay that is both simple and satisfying. Super Mario Bros. 3’s fun (and funny) new powerups like the Tanooki Suit, Hammer Suit, Frog Suit, and Goomba’s Shoe only add to the series milestones that the game contains. Super Mario Bros. 3 is simply fun, charming, and challenging to a level that transcends all other games released in 1988.
Michael Burns: The fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 are both on this list should tell you something about Nintendo’s fortunes in the late ’80s; namely, that the company wasn’t hurting for customers like it is today. While American players got what we know as Super Mario Bros. 2 in 1988, the true Super Mario Bros. sequel was something we didn’t even know was a thing until the end of 1989, when the one-two punch of Nintendo Power and the Fred Savage vehicle The Wizard blew the lid off the game’s existence. There were roughly 18 months between the October 23rd, 1988 Japanese and spring 1990 American releases of Super Mario Bros. 3, but Nintendo was in such a good place in its heyday that it could’ve waited another year or more if it wanted. And by the time the company finally shipped one of the last great NES games, Mario 3 practically sold itself: its yellow box was adorned with the now-iconic image of a raccoon-tailed Mario soaring into the foreground as if to say “I’m back, I’m all new, and nothing will ever be the same again.” And indeed, it wasn’t: the following year saw the release of the SNES, and the beginning of a whole new era of innovation in home gaming.
Despite the fact that the Mega Drive was released in 1988, none of the games on the system made it on the list for this year. Maybe that will change next year. Then again, uh, maybe not. In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1988? Let us know!