This story was originally published on Invisible Gamer on May 12, 2015.
1987 was an important transition year for gaming, in retrospect. It was the year that I noticed an emerging dominance of console experiences, this far into my ambitious quest. Whether they were exclusives or ports, 1987’s best games were mostly defined by consoles (the NES, really), not the arcades. Arcade games’ popularity were yet to decline, and they still reigned supreme technically. But it seems gaming at home was strengthening its pull by 1987, as the NES really started to infiltrate the United States’ mainstream. The NES and 1987’s eight best games joined the Unabomber, RoboCop, and N.W.A. in parents’ conversations about where this world was sadly headed.
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.
#8 — Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished
Developer/Publisher: Nihon Falcom
To be honest, I hated Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished when I first started playing it. The game’s combat is totally unlike something I’ve ever played before, and that was a bad thing until I got past its learning curve. Quite simply, as main character Adol Christin, you do damage by bumping into enemies. But if you don’t do it at the right angle, Adol will take damage as well. It was a frustrating and entirely unplayable mechanic…at first. But once I understood the feeling of controlling Adol and the way enemies react, that combat became satisfying. It’s an absolutely simple feeling that contributes to the entire action RPG’s streamlined form. Adol’s max level is capped at 10, there are only a few upgrades for his equipment, and the world isn’t really all that large. Even for 1987, Ys I feels a little small, and that makes the action all the more cathartic.
#7 — Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a very important game. It’s also a very frustrating game. In that regard, it’s quite similar to its predecessor, but most of the similarities end there. Castlevania II was the precursor to the “Metroidvania” genre, especially as it would come to be recognized within the Castlevania series itself. Unlike the linear, level-based game that the original Castlevania was, Simon’s Quest requires players to navigate an unfriendly world and find the five parts of Dracula’s body in order to end the vampire lord’s life once and for all. Confusion abounds. Simon’s Quest is a notoriously obtuse game; characters constantly give misleading hints, platforms seem to be there but aren’t, and there are no maps available to help navigate the world, which is made up of similar environments. Still, the core, understandable, and fun Castlevania action-platforming is present, stiff jump animations and all, and the structure of the game helped spawn a whole host of (admittedly) much better games.
Austin Clark: Castlevania II is one of those games that is incredibly ambitious in what it tries to achieve; you can level up, collect hearts and buy upgrades, and explore a fairly large world all wrapped up in glorious visuals and a rocking soundtrack. It’s a fantastic game in a lot of regards, as long as you look past one glaring problem: Castlevania II hates you. It doesn’t want you to succeed. It wants to take all you love about games and crush it into dust right before your eyes. (excerpt from Retro Weekend)
#6 — Contra
Contra is the ultimate video game embodiment of ’80s action movie craziness. Buddy cops? Kinda. Jungle? Check. Aliens? You betcha. Like the movies that clearly influenced it, Contra’s action is just pure dumb fun, at least until its difficulty leads you to believe that Contra is just…dumb. After a little break from the game, however, it’s clear to see that few games of 1987 offered non-stop action with such high quality and tight control.
#5 — Punch-Out!!
Punch-Out!! is a puzzle game wrapped in a fighting game disguise. Every fight between Little Mac and whatever racial stereotype he comes up against is a carefully choreographed dance of jabs and uppercuts…if you know what you’re doing. The joy of Punch-Out!! stems from learning exactly how to beat someone like Great Tiger and the satisfaction of finally pulling it off. Getting to that point, however, may leave you with a black eye.
#4 — Metal Gear
The legacy of Metal Gear is an interesting one. The first Metal Gear is most often associated with the NES, but the superior and original version first came to the MSX2 in Japan and Europe. That version is thankfully available as part of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. In any event, Hideo Kojima took his love for movies and his genius and created one of the first modern stealth games. The first Metal Gear also somehow tells a fairly compelling story, one that involves the snakes, bosses, mercenary hideouts, bipedal tanks, and ridiculous foes that the Metal Gear series would come to be known for. The path to experience all of these things isn’t always clear, though, which seems to be a common 1987 game trait. In any event, sneaking through the halls of Outer Heaven and occasionally breaking out into frantic shooting is a fun way of accomplishing goals within a point-and-click-adventure-esque structure.
#3 — Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is the worst Zelda game, which means it’s the least great Zelda game. Zelda II is definitely the black sheep of the series, and certainly the closest to being an actual RPG. Link levels up with experience points, sidescrolling battle encounters are triggered by enemy icons on an overworld map, and the towns of Hyrule are full of NPCs. It’s an experience that’s totally unique to the series. Unfortunately, the game’s intense difficulty is also totally unique to the series. Zelda II blends what I call structural and operational difficulty; you often don’t know what to do and, even when you do, it’s hard to actually do it. Thankfully, Zelda II’s action is satisfying and fun, and actually informed a lot of the combat that would be present in the 3D Zelda games.
#2 — Mega Man
Mega Man is really good. I know that’s a controversial opinion. Mega Man, while being one of the weakest entries in the original, classic series, set the precedent of incredibly tight platforming action. There aren’t many games that are as close to control perfection as Mega Man is. And it’s totally different than the kind of control perfection in Mario’s NES games, for example. Mega Man just wholly represents the retro appeal. The pixel art is cute and appealing and is, thankfully, nothing like the North American box art for the game and the music is incredibly catchy and fitting. Mega Man, as you might expect due to its placement at #2 on this list, is simply a must-play.
Austin Clark: Mega Man didn’t just begin one of the longest-running and cherished series of all time by a stroke of luck. Like Tristan already said, the tight controls, precise platforming, and rocking soundtrack were fantastic parts of the game, but one of Mega Man’s most exciting elements was how open-ended it was for a platformer. This game was way more innovative than we give it credit for. The ability to pick whatever stage we want, in any order, still feels fresh in modern games. And stealing each boss’ power for your own, and using them to exploit other bosses weak points? Genius. Later entries may have perfected the formula, but Mega Man started something incredibly special that still has trouble being replicated nearly 30 years later.
#1 — Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy was literally going to be Square’s final fantasy. Square was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and finally decided to allow Hironobu Sakaguchi to make an RPG after Dragon Quest’s great success. And what an RPG he (and others) made. Final Fantasy is an epic adventure that, along with Dragon Quest, essentially gave birth to an entire genre. Honestly, platformers and action games speak to me more than granular RPGs, especially JRPGs. So it speaks volumes that Final Fantasy is at the top of this list. There are so many gameplay elements to Final Fantasy that it would take an essay to explain the full scope of the game. But the variance and importance of the player classes, diverse weapon and armor options, simplistic leveling system, a fantastical world made up of numerous real-world cultural influences, and much, much more make Final Fantasy a very special game.
Frankie Millington: The original Final Fantasy is definitely one of the most well known and influential games out there. It set a standard for how turn-based RPGs should play and feel. Although it takes a lot of grinding like any game in the genre, it’s still a very enjoyable experience. Ultimately, Final Fantasy is one of the best RPGs of its era because of its simplicity. And it introduced me to my favorite game genre, leading me to other personal favorites Chrono Trigger and Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya. But Final Fantasy takes the cake for being one of the best RPGs. It may take a little bit of getting used to, but it’s worth it.
1987 was also the year of the third party. I noticed, while compiling the list for 1986, that first-party Nintendo games took it over. That wasn’t really the case this year. In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorites from 1987? Let us know!