The eighties were troubled times for the American market of this beloved form of entertainment of ours and it all began with publisher and developer Atari becoming way too greedy for their own good and temporarily destroying the interest in home consoles. Of course, this isn’t the whole story, merely the biggest piece of the puzzle.
In terms of video games, in the early eighties over here in Western Europe we were pretty happy with our Commodore 64s, and later on, Amigas, to be bothered by what the hell happened in Northern America. Japan was doing its own thing, as usual, and consoles plus their respective games have never seen a real financial crisis over there either. I’m assuming Soviet territories were way too enamored with some game about blocks, but you’re cordially invited to tell me otherwise. For the American market, it was a bit different.
1983 came and brought upon a devastating event retrospectively accepted as the so-called year of the North American video game crash. In short: Video game related releases were way up, the quality of the releases was way down, and consumer interest was nowhere to be found. The result? Heavy losses all around and some voices going so far as to declare video games dead in North America.
Then Nintendo came and New York saw that it was very good.
The Big N was keen on expanding their market beyond Japan and undertook a major redesign of their highly popular Famicom for a release in North American and European territories. Nintendo recognized the fragility of the market place in America and the frustration of the consumers in regards to anything video game related. The plan was to keep the console’s similarity to gaming as small as possible with a heavy focus on differentiating the fresh platform from the stale stank of yesterday.
And their bargain paid off.
First released in 1985 in a limited test run in New York the newly dubbed and redesigned Nintendo Entertainment System was widely released in 1986, both in North America and in big parts of Europe. Needless to say, Nintendo changed the face of gaming forever, while some of the games released that year in one form or another have made an impact that is still resonating until this day. Here are some of the absolute highlights of Nintendo’s 1986.
Super Mario Bros. (launch title on widespread North American NES release, 1986)
If any video game on this planet needs no introduction it might just be Super Mario Bros. As the successor to Mario Bros. the all-time classic established the gold standard for platform games and the series itself for years to come. Some, like Giana Sisters, have tried to emulate the gameplay at the height of its popularity but none came close. Nintendo themselves still pay homage to the formula from the days of old in the form of the New Super Mario Bros. series.
While not the first of its kind, Super Mario Bros’. interpretation of the platform genre laid out the blueprint. The simple and streamlined gameplay is truly timeless, with an instantly recognizable art direction and melodies each and every one of us can hum along to. Over the years and decades, the almost archetypal struggle between plumber and turtledragonwhatever has inspired countless game developers and I can’t imagine where gaming would be today if our beloved Mario would have never existed.
And I still suck at it.
The Legend of Zelda (first released for the Famicom Disk System, Japan, 1986)
If any video game on this planet needs no introduction… wait.
With The Legend of Zelda Nintendo took the action-adventure genre and molded it into something of their own. Puzzles, a top-down perspective, progress through items and a (by today’s standards not so) huge, sprawling open world, where each direction meant adventure and most likely death was on the menu and gamers were and still are hungry for The Legend of Zelda’s brand of epic quest to this day. The game itself is very difficult and only gives you few pointers to your actual objectives in addition to being generally cryptic. Yet the game paved the way for many of the action RPGs that came afterward in terms of progression systems beyond simple experience points and for being ingrained with a blend of genres to create a more varied type of game.
The Legend of Zelda and its importance to game design as we know it today is sheer immeasurable and its influence is oozing across genres, with Edmund McMillen’s roguelike hit The Binding of Isaac being heavily inspired by the classic dungeon structure and the Darksiders series taking the traditional Zelda gameplay loop and enhancing it with a wildly different environment and a heavy focus on combat. Of course, the effect The Legend of Zelda had on gaming, in general, could be elaborated upon in much greater detail, but 1986 had even more to give us.
Metroid (first released for the Famicom Disk System, Japan,1986)
With Metroid Nintendo stepped into yet unknown topical territories, painting a science fiction world filled with alien creatures, space pirates and an eerie atmosphere heavily inspired by the horror sci-fi classic Alien. Similar to The Legend of Zelda, players are free to explore the planet as Samus Aran on their own volition, roadblocks on the side-scrolling action-adventure to be overcome through an ever-expanding arsenal of equipment and abilities. Also similar to The Legend of Zelda, the original Metroid hasn’t aged particularly well, missing many basic commodities usually implemented in modern video games, most prominently a map. Nonetheless, its influence is omnipresent, being one of the namesakes for the Metroidvania subgenre, as one of the first instances of item and ability based progression through an open world unveiled via exploration. The series’ rocky history and at times radical reimaginings weren’t easy on the patient fan base, yet Metroid has its fair share of followers making Metroid Prime 4 one of the most anticipated upcoming titles for the Nintendo Switch.
The year 1986 may have been dominated by Nintendo’s success and their ability to revitalize a dying industry in America, but at the same time, other companies have made their mark on history in that year. Sega has released their Master System in North America, sparking a long-running console rivalry between the two Japanese video game giants that would take years to run its course. Konami released Castlevania in Japan, pitting the horrific Count Dracula against the Belmont clan of vampire hunters for the very first time.
LucasArts (then known as Lucasfilm Games) released their first adventure game, titled Labyrinth: The Computer Game, marking the beginning of their highly influential run on the genre, with games like Monkey Island 2 and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis being especially close to my heart. Bethesda Softworks and Ubisoft were both founded in the same year and have both grown into huge entities in the video game sector.
Not all of the games released in 1986 may have stood the test of time, but many of them certainly laid the groundwork for video games released even decades later and the revitalization of the North American video game market is an event of such historical significance imagining a world without it would most likely be a bleak vision. Many of the most influential titles from 1986 are still playable on modern systems in celebration of simpler times and who knows what is yet to come from the classics of old.
You can find more of our “Best Year in Gaming” articles right here.