We're churning through the years at a rate both terrifying and beautiful. We've flown past Pac-Man, past Ultima, past Duck Hunt, and we're now coming gently to rest in the year 1986 - a year troubled by a dark shadow, and yet poised poignantly against a coming sunset like a lady on a balcony. Everywhere, everywhere, the cherry blossoms falls and dust forms words amongst the clouds.
But you'd only notice those things if you looked out the window, and why would you? The Sega Master System is making its shiny debut, Nintendo's churning out hit after hit, and the arcade is continuing to rock like the golden days will never end. So pick up your light-guns, and your reassuringly non-ergonomic two-button controllers, and let's take yet another walk down a brightly lit and softly "bloop"ing memory lane.
1) The Legend of Zelda (NES)
This was the Year of Nintendo. In 1986, Nintendo released more genuinely groundbreaking and original best-selling games than most companies produce in their entire lifespan. And this is on top of a not-too-shabby 1985 which included Super Mario Bros, among other classics. But even amongst such a wealth of excellence, one game clearly stands out, and that game is The Legend of Zelda. This is the first Zelda game, and it's also the first one I played. Admittedly, I played it in 2002 on the GBA port, with the aid of a walkthrough and a map, but still, I loved it to bits. A gigantic map, the illusion of open-ended gameplay, one of the most memorable musical scores in the history of gaming, a wealth of new abilities acquired from items that opened up more of the map, and some cute-as-buttons characters and enemies all combined to make this game the gaming genius that it remains today. If you've never played a Zelda game, go grab yourself an emulation of this at your first opportunity.
2) Metroid (NES)
Either of Metroid or Zelda would be enough for Nintendo to gain a spot in gaming history for all time, but Nintendo went one better and released them both in the same year. Metroid saw a huge range of innovation - password saves, a four-directional scrolling platforming world that you could explore non-sequentially, a range of power ups each of which drastically changed the entire feel of the game, a half-decent plot that advanced as you went, and the first big surprise twist ending of action gaming. If you can't stand to replay the original (although it's highly recommendable), there's a very excellent remake available on the GBA called Metroid Zero which keeps everything that made the original good (including the plot), while featuring slightly remastered levels and neater graphics and controls. (Plus a variety of modern Nintendo games including Metroid Fusion, Metroid Prime and Animal Crossing include the entire original Metroid as a bonus unlockable.)
3) Bubble Bobble (Arcade)
This is a game that's still endlessly fun to play today, two decades after its release. It's theoretically possible to play this game solo, by why would you want to when it's such a two-player cooperative masterpiece? You and a friend control the hapless Bub and Bob, who've apparently been turned into bubble-blowing dragons by an evil witch or something. Anyway, you don't need much of an excuse to start bubbling your way through level after level of puzzle-platforming madness. The great thing about the game is how your inherent abilities can be used in conjunction with a friend to add a whole extra dimension to gameplay - whether it's jumping on a friend's bubbles to reach higher than you normally could, or just coordinating efforts to beat the punishing time limits. You have no excuse for not having played this game.
4) Defender of the Crown (Amiga)
It is a time of gorgeous graphics... I mean, er, of civil war. Or, well, just war. England is under invasion from Norman hordes and it's the duty of every good Saxon to give them what for and send them home in time for a refreshing spot of tea. This largely consists of conquering and managing territories of England, laying sieges, the odd bit of recreational jousting, the occasional saving of a damsel in distress, and larking around with that cad Robin of Locksley, also known as Robin Hood. This all occurs in the midst of some absolutely lush graphics, well ahead of the tech curve for '86, giving console owners everywhere just a tiny bit of Amiga envy. I had a lot of good times with "that Crown game" as we called it. (Well, we might have called it that; 1986 is all a bit of a blur.)
5) Rampage (Arcade)
There have been so many sequels to this game - and yet none of them ever captured the magic of the original. Play a giant monster! Destroy buildings! Fight other giant monsters played by your friends! That's really all there was to it, but that was enough for Rampage to be unique, rewarding, and a heck of a lot of fun. I played the fairly decent Sega Master System port to death, and I long for the day when Midway sells the rights to someone who actually employs talented staff so we can get a decent modern version of it that isn't inflicted with the same Midway-itis that's ruined every recent incarnation of Mortal Kombat, Gauntlet, or Rampage.
6) Alex Kidd in Miracle World (Arcade)
Jan! Ken! Pon! I know at the heart of every strategic game lies a basic scissors/paper/stone methodology, but Alex Kidd took it to ridiculous heights by making the level bosses have heads shaped like giant fists making the scissors, paper or stone symbols. Actually, this was a fairly decent platformer for the time, which mixed a rewarding and easy to grasp gameplay with some fairly unique bicycling and swimming sequences, and really nice pacing throughout. I hated Mario, but I loved this enough to finish it (but then, I was an unpaid Sega thug from the dawn of the Master System until the demise of the Megadrive). It didn't hurt that it came built-in to the Master System II, either. Sega were clearly learning from some of Nintendo's successes.
7) Castlevania (NES)
Another NES hit, albeit produced by Konami rather than Nintendo. It's a horror-themed platformer. And by "horror", I'm not talking about vampires and bats (although those did make an appearance) - I'm talking about the reaction of the average gamer to its hideously unwieldy controls, its sadistic instant-kill traps, and its cripplingly horrendous difficulty overall. This was the platformer's platformer - if you considered yourself a macho man in the platforming circle, this game was always out there to take you down a peg. I honestly don't know what people saw in it, but it's so ubiquitous today that you have to at least play it until you run out of life once (don't worry, that won't take long).
8) Dragon Quest (Famicom)
Released as "Dragon Warrior" in the US; not released in Australia in any fashion whatsoever. I don't know, this franchise got really big in Japan. Yet another installment in it was released recently. I guess it looked kind of nice, and it did have alternate endings... I really don't get it, but if you're going to talk games I guess you'd better know how crazy they go over this in the Land of the Rising Sun.
9) Wonder Boy (Arcade)
Loincloths! Tomahawks! Skateboards! Together at last! This game had several key elements that made it really stand out in the arcades. One was an attractive, clean graphical style. Another was the slightly larger than average size protagonist, which made it easy to see the game from further away in an arcade. Another was the simple, focused platforming gameplay which seemed so easy to pick up and start playing... at least, until the machine had eaten your first coin. It should be clear by now that the platformer was beginning to take off as the mega-genre of gaming - and history showed that it would not be easily stopped.
10) Arkanoid (Arcade)
You know the gameplay better as Breakout, but Arkanoid is the version that made all the money (and besides which Breakout predates my 1980 starting point for this article series). There's a wall of bricks; you have a paddle, with which to direct a bouncing ball to smash the bricks. Simple, uncomplicated gameplay deriving naturally from the elements presented on screen - the Holy Grail of gaming.
Number 11... oh, wait, I stop at ten. I guess it's time for the runners-up, then, and this year our honourable mentions go to:
* Out Run: classic driving action
* Dizzy: the most lovable egg of all time
* King's Quest III: it only needed to be more of the same in order to be more of the best
* Silpheed: classic shoot-em-up action
* Leather Goddesses of Phobos: commercial adult interactive fiction
Join me for 1987, wherein I talk Phantasy Star, Double Dragon, and Leisure Suit Larry!