Why 1985 was a golden year for videogaming

Odd List Ryan Lambie 24 Apr 2014 - 06:38

From technical innovation to the advent of Super Mario Bros, we look at 9 reasons why 1985 was a vital year in games history...

The games industry is a constantly changing landscape, where advancing technology, artistry and programming genius conspire to create exciting new experiences. Yet the middle part of the 1980s was arguably a vital era in the development of videogames, where every year seemed to bring with it a new genre or a fresh idea.

This was particularly true of 1985, a time when the industry had finally shaken off the dust of its first financial wobble, and programmers all over the world were pushing videogames in unusual and surprising directions. Here, then, is a list of the reasons why 1985 was such an important  year in gaming, with a closer look at the titles and systems that made it so special.

1. The British games industry was thriving

The arrival of cheap computers such as the ZX Spectrum had helped to usher in a British games industry explosion in the early 1980s. Up and down the country, cunning programmers were pushing at the boundaries of what was possible with 8-bit processing technology, resulting in wonderful homegrown games like these:

Saboteur

In terms of pace and atmosphere, Saboteur was the 8-bit equivalent of an action thriller blockbuster. Cast in the role of a ninja, the player’s task was to sneak into a heavily-guarded, high-tech facility, locate a floppy disc and sneak back out again. For the time, Saboteur contained some great ideas, courtesy of programmer Clive Townsend. The ninja could defend himself with his fists, feet and one piffling shuriken, but other weapons could be found tucked away in the facility (the house brick was our favourite). There were stealth elements, too, which were practically unknown at the time.

Shadowfire

This sci-fi action RPG was distinguished by its clean and brilliantly thought-out approach to icon and menu control. Tidy and beautifully presented at a time when most RPGs and strategy games often looked cluttered and amateurish, Shadowfire felt like something from a future age.

Tau Ceti

A static image doesn’t really convey just how good Peter Cook’s Tau Ceti looks in motion, nor how groundbreaking it was at the time. In essence a 3D action game, it was the sheer quality and ambition of those 3D graphics that made it so special: Elite, Battle Zone and Gyron may have got their earlier, but none of them contained this much detail. The sun cast shadows on the game’s title planet, which shift with its orbit. In an age of blocky pixels and warbling sound effects, Tau Ceti managed to simulate the atmosphere and danger of a desolate alien world.

Chaos: The Battle Of The Wizards

This wasn’t the first game by strategy specialist Julian Gollop, but it was surely one of his most important. Essentially a fantasy death match for up to eight players, this was addictive multiplayer gaming for a pre-internet era. Warring wizards attacked one another with spells ranging from mythical beasts to gooey blobs, and Gollop’s cleverly-programmed rules gave the game a poker-like sense of tension. Still as playable today as it ever was, Chaos got its first sequel in 1990 (Lords Of Chaos), and Chaos Reborn (recently funded on Kickstarter) is set to bring this cult classic right up to date.

Alien 8

Ultimate: Play The Game were among the top-ranking developers of the mid-1980s, and it was their ability to craft games like Alien 8 that got them there. Alien 8 took the then-stunning isometric perspective from the previous year’s Knightlore, launched it into space, and added a more complex objective: circuits, dotted around a space ship, had to be found and returned to their correct computer nodes. The result was another action adventure masterpiece.

Back To Skool

In a modern era of gigantic, ‘go anywhere, do anything’ titles like GTA V, Back To Skool might seem laughably quaint, yet it’s arguably here that the notion of sandbox gaming began. Although designer David Reidy’s game had a clear objective - tearaway protagonist Eric had to sneak his school report into his headmaster’s safe - you were essentially free to explore and do what you wanted. You could write on the blackboard, fire your catapult, let off stink bombs, and sneak into the neighbouring girls’ school. As an expansion of Reidy’s own Skool Daze, released a year earlier, Back To Skool was technically superb. As an interactive, quintessentially British comedy, it was top of its class.

2. It was a great year for unusual ideas and innovation

It was during the 80s explosion of personal computer-driven creativity that truly innovative and downright strange mechanics and concepts began to emerge. Sure, computers and consoles were still awash with derivative Pac-Man and Space Invaders clones, but nestled among them were shining gems like these...

Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Still one of the weirdest games ever made, Denton Designs’ Frankie Goes To Hollywood emerged like a bolt from the blue. A licensed game it may be (based on the hugely popular 80s band of the same name), but Frankie Goes To Hollywood was far from a hastily-made piece of shovelware; instead, it was a surreal adventure game where the player had to search an ordinary terrace of houses for a way to become a ‘100 percent full person’. There were mini-games involving mazes and the disembodied heads of politicians. There was a murder to solve, and an atmosphere we can only describe as ‘8-bit David Lynch’. To make things really interesting, Frankie came in a large, lavishly-illustrated box with an accompanying soundtrack tape, but no instructions.

Little Computer People

Such games as The Sims, Spore, Animal Crossing and Nintendo's forthcoming Tomodachi Life all owe a debt to David Crane and Rich Gold's Little Computer People. Widely regarded as the first life simulator, it introduced players to the tiny characters lurking inside their computers. As the little computer person pottered about his house - cooking, playing piano, reading the newspaper - the player could interact with him by typing commands (which he'd often ignore). Although its appeal might seem limited to modern eyes, Little Computer People was a boldly experimental game with a far-reaching influence.

3. It was a great year for RPGs and adventures

By the 1980s, programmers had begun to explore new ways of squeezing ever more detailed fantasy worlds into the tiny memories of contemporary computer systems. What the RPGs and adventures of 1985 lacked in sparkling graphical beauty, they more than made up for in terms of storytelling and sheer innovation. And if you were a gamer in the mid-80s, you may have encountered at least one of the gems below.

The Bard's Tale

Michael Cranford’s seminal dungeon crawler is one of those games that is still talked about in reverential tones today. A story richly told and brought to life with then-cutting-edge graphics, The Bard’s Tale was absorbing from start to finish.

Deja Vu

Think back to the most famous examples of the point-and-click games from the genre's golden era, and you’ll probably come up with names like Maniac Mansion, The Secret Of Monkey Island or Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis. But two years before Maniac Mansion, along came the trail-blazing Deja Vu, a hardboiled detective adventure game which featured pretty much all the features you’d expect from the genre. Sequels and ports to other systems followed, yet Deja Vu remains a lesser-known point-and-click game, perhaps because of its obscure origins on the Apple II.

Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar

Another RPG initially released for the Apple II, Ultima IV was soon ported to just about every mid-80s system you could name. More complex and narratively mature than the previous titles, Ultima IV not only proved to be the best entry in the series up to that point, but also one of the best RPGs of all time. That Ultima IV still tops lists of the best RPGs ever made, and in 2013 received a modern-day online homage (Mythic’s Ultima Forever: Quest For The Avatar) is proof of its enduring brilliance.

Doomdark's Revenge

In 2012, the British games industry lost one of its greatest talents: Mike Singleton, the creator of the astonishing Lords Of Midnight. At the time of its release in 1984, the scale and visual quality of Singleton’s strategy-adventure hybrid was unprecedented; with a piffling 48K to play with, he managed to craft a sprawling fantasy landscape that stretched off for seemingly miles in every direction. Doomdark’s Revenge followed a year later, and was even more remarkable; here, Singleton’s virtual realm played host to five warring factions, some 6,000 locations and around 100 player-controllable characters.

Singleton planned to create a third game in the Midnight series, Eye Of The Moon, which would have been more ambitious still. Sadly, this never happened, and all talk of a Midnight sequel ended when Singleton tragically lost his battle with cancer, aged 61.

Gauntlet

Compared to some of the other fantasy games released in 1985, Gauntlet was a bit of a blunt instrument, with its tiny heroes charging around a maze in a constant hunt for food, treasure, stuff to kill, and ultimately, the nearest exit. Yet in Gauntlet’s mechanical simplicity lay its huge appeal; Ed Logg’s game took the trappings of high fantasy (wizards, barbarians, elves and valkyries) and married them to the quick-fix requirements of the 80s arcade. Most significantly, Gauntlet was among the first multiplayer brawlers, with up to four players able to crowd round the chunky coin-op and join the fray. Seemingly overnight, “Remember, don’t shoot food!” became a ubiquitous refrain in arcades the world over.

4. It was a seminal year for shooters

Space Invaders may have been the ground zero for the arcade shooter, but its bare-bones formula evolved rapidly in the years that followed. Galaxian added colour and attacking invaders in 1979. Galaga added more varied patterns and even an early power-up system in 1981. It’s fascinating to look back and see just how rapidly shooters developed in the space of seven years - by 1985, the genre had evolved far from the black-and-white austerity of Space Invaders...

Gradius

Konami’s Gradius (known as Nemesis in some territories) was itself an evolution of games like Defender and Scramble, yet it added a range of innovations of its own. Not least of these was its unusually extensive power-up system, which included a range of weapons, shields and drones which could be built up into a bristling arsenal of lasers and dancing blobs of plasma. Then there were the end-of-area bosses - a relatively fresh idea at the time - and sheer invention in the level design, with its lava-spewing volcanoes and deadly Maoi heads lending a constant sense of forward momentum.

Sequels and spin-offs followed, plus a legion homages from rival companies - among them Irem’s R-Type, which took the shooter to visually dazzling new heights two years later.

Space Harrier

“Welcome to the fantasy zone. Get ready!" was a familiar sound in mid-80s arcades, and few coin-op experiences were as fast or as psychedelic as Yu Suzuki’s Space Harrier. Entirely lacking the test of memory or the hints of strategy introduced by Konami’s weapon system in Gradius, Space Harrier instead offered a straight shot of adrenaline. Its central character’s dizzying flight into the fantasy zone was punctuated only by the protagonist’s shuddering halt and groans of pain when the player made a mistake. Enemies included one-eyed mammoths and gigantic serpents, and the frenetic pace of Suzuki’s rail shooter is still mesmerising even today.

Performan/Tiger Heli

In its decade-long existence, Japanese studio Toaplan emerged as the master of the 2D shooter. The team's highlights included Slap Fight, Tatsujin, Hellfire, Fire Shark, Zero Wing and the barking-mad Batsugun. Its style was difficult to describe yet nevertheless obvious within seconds of play: small, detailed sprites, relentless action, and colossal explosions were all hallmarks. Performan and Tiger Heli were Toaplan's first ever shooters, both released in 1985. In many ways, they're relatively unremarkable, coming at a time when the studio was still finding its feet. But as an opening salvo in a decade-long assault of white-knuckle shooters, they were an exciting statement of intent.

5. It was a formative year for Capcom

By the late 80s and early 90s, Capcom became one of the biggest players in the global videogame market with the success of titles such as Final Fight and (most significantly) Street Fighter II. But in many ways, Capcom’s path to its huge success later in the decade began in 1985, when it was still a relatively small company creating some incredibly tough arcade games.

Commando

Although not the first up-the-screen shooter, Commando was arguably the most influential. Its premise, of a lone soldier (Super Joe) wading into combat against an entire army, tapped into the gung-ho mood of the Reagan era, where films like Rambo: First Blood Part II and, erm, Commando were making waves in cinemas. The game itself was properly addictive, too, with the assault from tiny enemy soldiers running in from all angles proving both relentless and exciting to repel. Sequels and spin-offs followed (most famously Bionic Commando in 1987) yet they were as nothing compared to the invasion of rival military shooters that followed in its wake. The best of these included Ikari Warriors, Cal. 50, Jackal (which was essentially Commando in a jeep), and ironically, a Rambo: First Blood Part II tie-in with suspiciously similar gameplay to Capcom’s shooter.

Ghosts ‘N Goblins

If Commando was difficult, then Ghosts ‘N Goblins was downright nightmarish. Starring a hapless knight named Arthur who displayed an alarming habit of losing his armour in battle, Capcom’s horror platformer presented the player with an overwhelming landscape of zombies, killer birds and demons which could kill with a touch or two; Arthur’s ability to fling lances clear across a graveyard evened the odds a little, but the horizontal difficulty level was downright intimidating. Yet somehow, Ghosts ‘N Goblins remained oddly compelling despite its sometimes cruel design. Ghouls ‘N Ghosts followed in 1988, with even better graphics, catchy music, and an equally devilish level of challenge.

1942

This up-the-screen World War II shooter actually came out in 1984, but it’s the 1985 port for the Nintendo Famicom we’re referring to here. 1942 gave Capcom its first arcade hit the year before, spawning a franchise that would be returned to many times in the future. Yet the 1985 port for the Famicom was an equally important moment for Capcom; the company’s first game for Nintendo’s system, it marked the moment where Capcom began to branch out into the home computer and console market. Ports of its other arcade hits followed (including Commando and Ghosts ‘N Goblins), and Capcom’s growth continued apace through the remainder of the decade.

6. It saw the emergence of the first female protagonists

Metroid is widely credited with featuring the first female protagonist in videogaming, yet two other Japanese titles beat it by approximately one year. One of these was Namco’s Baraduke, a scrolling shooter where the player controlled a character named Kissy (real name Toby Masuyo, we're told), who is revealed at the game’s conclusion to be a woman.

Although Baraduke failed to garner anything like the following of Nintendo’s Metroid, its protagonist continued to turn up in other Namco games in the years afterwards. Namco even made up a quite hilarious interconnected history between Kissy and the characters in other games; she was apparently married to the protagonist in Dig Dug for a while, before getting a divorce and appearing in such titles as Burning Force, Mr Driller and Namco X Capcom.

Also in 1985, Sega released Ninja Princess (sometimes known as Sega Ninja), an up-the-screen arcade action game which made no secret of its protagonist’s gender. Ninja Princess was created by Rieko Kodama, one of the few female game designers working in an industry dominated by men, and she played a key role in such classic titles as Alex Kidd In Miracle World, Altered Beast, Sonic The Hedgehog and the Phantasy Star series.

Sadly, Kodama’s refreshingly different female ninja character design didn’t survive the transition to home computers; by the time her game appeared on the Sega Master System as The Ninja, any signs of femininity were long gone.

7. It was a golden year for brawlers

The increasing technology of the mid-80s allowed designers to explore ever more sophisticated graphics, sound and mechanics - all the better to simulate the ancient art of kicking people in the stomach. The release of Kung-Fu Master and Karate Champ in 1984 may have established the genre as we now know it, but it was surely the games released a year later that showed off its true violent potential.

The Way Of The Exploding Fist

This 8-bit one-on-one brawler wasn't the first of its type, but its main innovation was its superb animation and sound design. Like Jordan Mechner’s seminal Karateka released one year earlier, The Way Of The Exploding Fist’s smooth movements and bruising impact noises accentuated every punch and click. The two player mode offered hours of fun, too.

Yie Ar Kung-Fu

If The Way Of The Exploding Fist evoked the serious side of martial arts, Konami’s Yie Ar Kung-Fu was its cartoony antidote. Its anonymous, Jackie Chan-like hero faced off against a range of colourful opponents, from (surprisingly agile) sumo wrestlers to deadly pole-wielding warriors. The strategic depth of Street Fighter II was still a good few years away, yet tucked away in Yie Ar Kung-Fu’s apparently simplistic action, all the elements are already beginning to come together: the varied cast of characters, the range of punches and kicks, and the thrill of beating an enemy with only a sliver of energy still remaining...

International Karate

An early game from designer Archer MacLean, International Karate was another one-on-one fighter which, like The Way Of The Exploding Fist, took inspiration from 1984‘s Karate Champ. International Karate’s animation wasn’t quite as smooth as The Way Of The Exploding Fist’s - at least, not on the ZX Spectrum - but it was still a playable brawler, and paved the way for the superior IK+ in 1987.

Shao-Lin’s Road

As much a platformer as a fighting game, Shao-Lin’s Road again showcased Konami’s ability to craft comically manic action games. The object was to simply beat up every enemy character on the screen, with some dropping useful weapons while others proving extremely tough to beat. Colourful and endlessly addictive, Shao-Lin’s Road was ported to several home computers yet failed to garner much long-term affection - a shame, since its fast-paced, knockabout violence remains as entertaining now as it did almost 30 years ago.

8. It was a key year for hardware

Having survived the American industry crash two years earlier, gaming was beginning to bounce back by the middle part of the decade. Many of the old systems - the Atari 2600 and the Colecovision, for example - had either been severely weakened or swept aside altogether. The world was ready for something new.

Hang-On

First appearing in arcades in July 1985, Hang-On was a masterful amalgam of programming and hardware design. Sega’s racer was the first of designer Yu Suzuki’s so-called “full-body experience" games, and attempted to give players a taste of what it might feel like to hurtle down a track on a terrifyingly powerful motorcycle.

The deluxe version of the game - essentially a mechanical approximation of a motorbike with the arcade screen mounted at the front - represented a bit of a risk for Sega. Would the otherwise reserved Japanese public be comfortable climbing aboard a novelty arcade cabinet with half of Tokyo watching them? As it turned out, they would. Both Hang-On and Space Harrier (released in October 1985) were arcade hits all over the world. Other full-body games designed by Suzuki - Out Run and Afterburner to name two - followed, and arcades would never look the same again.

Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and Sega Mark III (later the Master System elsewhere)

The playground rivalry between Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum owners was in full swing by the mid-80s, but it would soon be joined by other opposing factions. The Atari ST and Amiga 16-bit computers were released in 1985, and would soon unleash a new epoch of smoother graphics and fresh arguments over which system was best. Then came the Sega Mark III, a console which failed to take off in Japan or America, but sold remarkably well in Europe and Brazil. Nintendo may have ruled the roost in Japan, but Sega beat the company in other territories - thus paving the way for the Sega Mega Drive at the end of the decade.

9. It was a decisive year for Nintendo

While Commodore and Atari were ushering in the 16-bit computer era, Nintendo made its dramatic debut in America. US toy stores were still reeling from the videogame crash of 1983, which is why Nintendo planned its entry into American living rooms with extreme care; the Japanese Famicom, with its distinctive red and cream colour scheme, was redesigned to look like an anonymous grey box. The exterior of the rebranded Nintendo Entertainment System didn’t advertise that it was a games machine at all, and the range accessories available for it - the Zapper, a remote-controlled robot called R.O.B - made it look more like a cheerful novelty than a traditional console.

After a slow start, Nintendo’s strategic approach paid off; the NES would go on to sell around 34m units in North America alone. Nintendo had made its mark on the world stage - all thanks in no small part to an unassuming Italian plumber, who made his most famous appearance to date that same year...

Super Mario Bros

Just as the NES was gearing up for its American launch, so Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros was preparing for its own debut. Nintendo’s seminal platformer has become so perfectly assimilated into our consciousness that it’s easy to forget how cheekily inventive and off-the-cuff its ideas were: jumping on turtles, climbing flagpoles, collecting mushrooms to grow in size. Put together relatively quickly, Super Mario Bros is nevertheless an example of a game that seems perfectly wrought, without a pixel out of place - its sounds, sprite designs and slippery physics are now part of the gaming landscape.

Going on to sell 40m copies worldwide, the Nintendo Entertainment System had its killer app, and in Super Mario, gaming had a new icon.

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