This is the first part in a series that I'll sporadically work on over the next couple years as I go back and play every game I have interest in and access to, and attempt to catalog my favorite games of each year. I've decided to stick to 5 for now, as I prefer to write about games that I'm passionate about, and have no intentions of padding these lists. It's likely that once I reach 1989 I'll expand the list to a solid 10 (as that was a very impressive and diverse year), but that's a few blogs away.

Why start at 1985?

A lot of people compare games to film, given that they're both hugely popular, technology-focused mediums, so I suppose I'll do the same here. 1985 for games is sort of like 1915 was for film. It marks a drastic shift in both the language of the mediums themselves and means through which they would be consumed afterwards. Just like games, film was thought of as merely a parlour novelty, relying primarily on short experiences that were coin-oped. This is not to say that there weren't brilliant games released prior to '85, just as it wouldn't be fair to do the same in pre-1915 film and ignore the Lumieres, Melies, Sjostrom, etc; however, the frequency, scope and modernity of both mediums matured so greatly with these years that I think it's a good jumping off point.

Note: Duck Hunt was released in Japan in '84. Normally I would think of this as a game from that year, but I didn't realize this until just prior to publishing.

List items

  • An honorable mention.

    An honorable mention because this one doesn't entirely factor into 1985, as it's a game that's existed in some form since the early 70s. 1985 featured a popular port of the game that helped spread it's popularity so I thought I'd talk about it here.

    The Oregon Trail was created for educational purposes, and it absolutely feels like it. It's a didactic, simple, somewhat close-minded game based around RNG and text-based decisions.

    It is also one of the best, most profound intersections of history and gaming we have. Perhaps this speaks unfavorably to the weaknesses of modern-made games that incorporate or base themselves on history, which are too obsessed with anachronism or just general Hollywood-esque production values to actually work as pieces of historical fiction.

    The Oregon Trail works because it's just a simple work about settlers. To survive the trip is just as historically accurate and important as to die.

  • I don't think Space Harrier is a great game, it has too much obviously wrong with it. It wears itself out pretty quickly, but there's something about its technicolor spectacle that's still very catching today. Sprites zip in and out of frame, the ground flies past, every shot results in a large explosion or mushroom cloud.

    The player character not only continues running a ridiculous breakneck speed, but going up allows him to fly uninhibited in any direction. This free, unhinged dialogue between abstracted space and continuous movement holds up, and is only made even more enjoyable by the game's gonzo art direction.

    This is, of course, a work by SEGA master Yu Suzuki, and I think it's one of his strongest, strangest works.

  • In a medium where almost every weapon is meant to draw blood, Nintendo makes a conscious effort to take us back to the more practical use of firearms. Still, I think this game is one of the best light gun games created despite being bare-bones mechanically.

    The heart of the game is undoubtedly the dog, which initiates the hunt, retrieves your downed ducks, and also, famously, laughs at the player's incompetence. The Duck Hunt Dog is the ultimate gatekeeper; fewer game characters have made a complete tool out of the player---someone who happens to be armed with a gun.

    It's minimal, no-frills visual imagining (a tree, shrub, grassline, clear blue sky) is simple and effective; as is the image of a duck, suspended in the air and then cork-screwing into the grass. These images stick in my mind more strongly than perhaps any other found on a screen in my early days.

    Curiously, Duck Hunt isn't just duck hunting. There's a second mode centering around skeet shooting, and again it's simple and rewarding. The clay pigeons are vulnerable at more than one distance, and the droning sound design makes the experience as aural as it is visual.

    In all it's a strange, minimalist, oddly calming game where all you do is shoot things.

  • Ok, so I love 'shmups'. I'm not sure I like the word much, but I'll use it simply to differentiate between the many different types of 'shooters' one could find in an arcade, and 'shmup' is an oddly specific label. Anyhow I love shmups (despite not being very good at them) because of how gratifying, eye-catching, and responsive they are. They're one of the few genres that was pretty much perfected by the mid 90's, and if I continue writing these there will undoubtedly be a lot more in future lists.

    Gradius is a tough one. It, unlike a lot of other shmups features a checkpoint system that forces the player back to a given point upon death as opposed reanimating them with invincibility time like so many other works in the genre. This design decision forces players to understand the entirety of the game in front of them, which runs contrary to the common arcade business decision: let the player pump in quarters to progress through the tough stuff.

    What makes Gradius a special game is its graciousness. Its famed upgrade system, which allows players to customize the speed and firepower of Vic Viper is still stupendously satisfying, but what sticks in my mind most is the razor-like hitbox of Viper itself. Its slim, horizontal frame isn't just great for dodging projectiles, but also maneuvering the game's overbearing environmental hazards as well. There's nothing like blasting through a dangerous field of muck and threading your ship through the hole confidently.

    Also this is the second (and last) game in this list that lets you explode Easter Island heads in space. Neato.

  • This game is so obviously a pain in the ass. Infamously, it asks you to beat it twice, but it's made all the more annoying by how much pitch-perfect movement and patience is required in order to pass even the early stages.

    But Ghosts and Goblins is just downright goofy, and I love it for that. Arthur animates like no other character in the medium, with clumsy, broad movements and an incredible throwing arm. He's one of the earliest game characters I can think of that controls as a personality. His attitudes, and thus the journey and story of the game are reflected so lovingly in his character design and mechanical limitations. He's a man who can jump, turn in midair and chuck a torch behind him, destroying a pursuing red devil, and a split second later be reduced to scampering about in his underwear.

    The red devil is also an important character in my mind (apparently Capcom thinks so too, as one of them got a trilogy of games in the early 90s). There aren't many enemies in gaming i can think of that so thoroughly test a player's competence in everything that the game is. Air movement, dives, fast ground movement, projectiles; the red devil is a hell of a foe, exhibiting behavior that most bosses rarely have in any era of gaming. Every encounter is a true duel.

    Capcom's presentation is also really commendable here, with backgrounds that seem to emerge from the darkness, all rendered in a muted color palette. It can look a little lame in the later stages, but I don't think I've seen many crypt/cave levels in games from this era that are very pleasant to the eye. The music is wonderfully composed as well, but it's tinny and oddly distorted because of the machine's sound capabilities.

    Ghosts and Goblins, like Gradius, featured a really excellent NES port the following year which hits all the same great notes, and it's the version I've played the most of.

  • If 1985 is the 1915 of games, then Super Mario Bros. is the The Birth of a Nation of video games, except it isn't thematically inexcusable. This game changed a lot of things, so naturally a lot has been written about why this game is so important. All I can do is speak to what strikes me the most.

    I love Super Mario Bros. because it sublimates player control in a way that builds its own logic. Control is taken away from from you in the way of Mario's momentum. To stop an input is not to stop Mario himself, he continues moving and slows down. This is realistic. Control is given to you in the manner of jumping. Each jump has a variable height dependent on how long the jump button is held down. This is unrealistic, but empowers the player.

    This forms a language of movement that's unique, and that the world of Super Mario Bros. is in full support of it in ways that few games, then or now, are. Every enemy, pit, patch of blocks, and string of coins is arranged in a way that is harmonized for all the variable jump arcs Mario can perform. On a spacial basis the game communicates so clearly with the player, so that they're always aware what must be jumped to or on. The flagpoles and especially Bowser are designed in a way to compliment jump arcs and timing.

    But this world isn't just in support of Mario's movement in a mechanical way. The relationship between realism and skewed logic is apparent in the look of the Mushroom Kingdom as well. Lined with bricks and navigated by pipes, it features materials familiar, but arranged in a unique way; a completely nonsensical one for anyone but Mario, whose profession concerns the insides of walls and pipes.

    Mostly though, I just can't talk about this game without mentioning the sense of wonder it provides. That every horizontal-scrolling screen likely has screens above and below it with different soundtracks and color palettes, and that each level will open with a matter-of-fact white-on-black statement of your progress before leaving you at a standstill to discover what's to the right of Mario. Calling it a masterpiece seems redundant at this point.