• This is the third 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 and do my best to explain why these games are special to me. 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.

    Previous entries:



    On 1987:

    1987 is not a great year for games. It doesn't have the invention, the heart-stopping greatness of the two prior years. Just about everything on my list was bettered by their respective teams in subsequent entries or works. But there is something that 1987 is in my eyes, and it's a year of promise.

    Although the majority of these games were improved upon, they acted as prototypical titles, as vessels for new ideas and strategies. Many series and genres, especially in this era, started with a whimper. These started with a proclamation, and it's inspiring how much some of these games got right with their arrivals.


    An Honorable Mention:

    Maniac Mansion (PC)

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    The first game made on Lucasarts' SCUMM engine is also one of the most compelling titles in their library because of its focus and tone. Adventure games, text-based or with imagery, are one of the oldest genres in gaming, but Maniac Mansion brought a lot of new stuff to the table. What's most obvious is the engine; which pairs down the amount of commands available, arranges them visually and gives detailed feedback. This of course helps the work to be more accessible, but a lot of the strange logic and roadblocking the point-and-click genre is infamous for of course persist.

    What I like most about Maniac Mansion is focus on time and space. The mansion in question is so nicely realized, with multiple solutions to the many problems it poses for its explorers. Visually, the game still exists in DOS-land, with too many subtractive colors and a somewhat simple art style, but its characters are very expressive and animated---something that would become the norm for Lucasarts adventure games.

    Beyond visual style though, this game has a surprisingly open design compared to other point-and-click adventures. The previously mentioned multiple solutions are one thing, but the villains moving about the mansion, or doing things at certain times builds a sense of spacial persistence, unpredictability, and danger that's unique for the time.

    Maniac Mansion doesn't have the sterling art or engaging plot or characters some of the following Lucasarts games became known for, but it is a clear, involving expression of adventuring in a dynamic and dangerous space.


    Final Fantasy (NES)

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    What is probably the most visible JRPG series started this year, and like Dragon Quest and the game directly below this one, it started off by building a distinct and evocative identity for itself and the games that followed it.

    In many ways, what's unique about Final Fantasy is its universality. It's a game that translates very easily between different cultures, which isn't always the case for other JRPGs. It's the tale of a band of vague heroes fighting a vague evil, who travel about to restore the MacGuffins and vanquish darkness or something.

    Really though, this vagueness, this unfocused narrative, becomes something special when it's paired with the options at the player's disposal. You get a a whole group of heroes with different classes and abilities, you obtain means to better travel the globe, you fight monsters with unique elemental weaknesses; this game isn't about towns and the pathways between them like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy is about a vast world, which is precisely what you're trying to heal and understand.

    Final Fantasy is an epic. What it doesn't have in personality it more than makes up for in scope and opportunity. It has a grandiosity about it that other JRPGs flirted with but never confirmed with flexibility instead of space.


    Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (FC)

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    The Megami Tensei (or MegaTen) series started a lot earlier than most people would think, given that it rose to cult status in North America a good fifteen years after its initial release. Unlike so many of its cohorts, the MegaTen series doesn't subscribe to high-fantasy in its world building; the series is instead known for its postmodern science fiction which focuses on the merging of the digital and physical, the real and imagined.

    The MegaTen games have also carried a far more heavy emphasis on dungeon crawling as opposed to quest fulfillment and geographic exploration, which sets it even further apart from other console efforts in its genre. Megami Tensei is a dungeon crawler with a weak story and less than stellar map system, but it's also one with such a firm grasp of tone and central mechanics.

    It's a game of murky hallways and disturbing monsters, monsters that can be reasoned with, intimidated, bribed, and most importantly, recruited. This isn't true for all monsters, as some don't speak your language, just want to fight, or even give you a healthy dose of attitude, but that's wonderful. The idea that characters encountered in battle screens are ambivalent, varied beings to be interacted both with and against your benefit is refreshing, and that it was executed with such elaboration in the first MegaTen game is sort of astounding.

    Recruited monsters can be fused together to create more powerful party members, which is necessary given that you only have two human protagonists, and gives the game a rag-tag, nearly improvised sense of survival. There isn't a whole lot to the game given that it's entirely set in a demon tower and consists of straight dungeon crawling, but there's still something attractive about snowballing your power through its dark hallways.


    Life Force (Arcade)

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    Life Force (or Salamander) is a weird item. It's a spinoff of the first Gradius game, but its many ports and versions provide different names and experiences. Still, the premise remains the same. This is a Gradius with unique boss fights, simultaneous co-op, and a mix of vertically and horizontally scrolling levels.

    This varied perspective is made great advantage of, especially on the stronger hardware of the arcade cabinet. In the vertical stages, enemies frequently emerge from the distant ground to approach. The most impressive of which being the volcano level, which plays like a recontextualized, claustrophobic version of Gradius' first level. Other environments are built out of mounds of flesh and membrane, with teeth and other organic foes emerging from the walls. While this is nothing new for Gradius, a series known for its environmental danger, it shifts the tone pretty drastically from a silly space jaunt with Easter Island heads into something more dire and abstract. In some ways it has more in common with R-Type, released in the same year.

    The inclusion of co-op also changes the feel of the game as well. The obvious reason would be playing with another person, but I've never had that privilege. What two people playing simultaneously really means to the central design philosophy of the series, is that it can't have a checkpoint system. If one player dies, the entire game can't stop and place both players back a few steps---and this choice carries over to single player. The rigorous test-driven nature of the first Gradius is gone, but somehow I don't miss it all too much. It results in a faster game; one with hornet's nests of enemies and a freeness led by its shifts in direction and tone.

    Life Force is the kind of successor I like. Something familiar but also drastic, something that carries the spirit but shifts the purpose.


    Contra (Arcade)

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    At this point in game history, we had already had many run n' gun titles, but had any felt this good?

    Contra is speed, control, and fragility personified. There's a fluidity to Contra. It's a wash of projectiles which pass through the scenery, and, with the spread shot, cover most of the screen. Every jump is floaty, superhuman, tumbling, and yet refuses to restrict the player's ability to change direction. Even more surprising, jumping allows the player to continue shooting in any direction.

    The sense of forward momentum is constant. In other games in this genre stopping, staggering attacks, and purely avoiding are legitimate, encouraged strategies. Contra wants you to move forward like a wall of fire. Bosses seem to be the only thing that can stop your march; it's only suitable that several of them are literally walls.

    And yet the player characters are weaklings. One shot and they melodramatically flip onto their backs, dead. It's ironic given their tough-guy image (lifted from Rambo and The Predator for the cabinet no less), and it comes off as almost endearing. It's probably my favorite use of the derivative Hollywood-inspired imagery that makes up most of the game. Unfortunately the blatant zenomorph imagery in the final stage doesn't fare as well.

    It's a bit uneven (every game on this list is), but its fundamental ideas shaped an entire genre and proposed some unique new modes of player control.


    Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)

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    The best Zelda sequel. What that means is cryptic at this point with all the pseudo-sequels and timeline headcannon. Some might even say it's the only Zelda sequel given it's numerical value contained in the title. What I mean by 'best sequel', is that it refuses to be iterative. It works as a successor and not as a reassessment.

    It's the only Zelda that can be confidently labelled as an RPG---a game closer to other side-scrollers on the system like Faxanadu and The Battle of Olympus, but a good deal better in my mind. One of the prime reasons is its battle system, which rewards spacing, reaction, and timing; Link can attack high and low, time jumps to attack weak points, use magic, and special learned abilities in order to defeat enemies. It can feel like trading blows at times, but a good fight feels truly like a duel: a battle equal parts patience and reaction.

    Although it might look completely unlike the first Zelda, they're connected in their attitudes. Both are hard-fought games with enemies more than capable of kicking your ass (which alone divides them from the rest of the series), but their representations of their respective worlds are similar. I don't mean this literally, clearly they're different, with Zelda II operating via a world map and 2D sidescrolling. What I mean is that their worlds aren't (as) contrived for player experience. Secrets exist below the surface, and the ones that push the game forward seem just as mischievously placed as the ones that award you with supplementary resources. It's frustrating, but also wild and believable, especially when compared to the codified, easily recognizable dead-ends of following Zelda titles.

    The worldbuilding of Zelda II compliments the danger of the world and the complacency that arises from being stuck. This Zelda game is about prevention. The world is not in a good place, and Ganon is coming back. Yet the improved scale of the game includes towns, where people carry on, only vaguely aware of the imminent danger. This inclusion makes the journey more urgent. This isn't a trek into the wilderness or an unfriendly world, it's the wilderness and danger taking over a living one. Dying means letting more than yourself or some vague heroic responsibility down, it means the loss of multiple communities. One of the greatest of all 'Game Over' screens seems to confirm this, all by simply depicting a foreboding, silhouetted Ganon.

    I coined this as the year of promise, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link seemed to promise a game series that continuously reimagined itself from the ground-up. Unfortunately, sometimes promises go unfulfilled.



    So what games do you like best from '87? What did this year mean to you guys?

    As I said in my intro, this year isn't my favorite. I like all the games I've written about, of course; but in all likelihood, it's the weakest year I'll be covering. '88 is stronger, and a year with some pretty neat trends. It's also the last year that I'll be writing about in a top 5 format.

  • I always enjoy your lists, but this time I must admit that I haven't played any of your favorites. Doing a google search I found a bunch of games that released in 87 that I really enjoyed

    Double Dragon, Punch Out, Mega Man, Castlevania 2, blades of steel, jaws, bases loaded..... Now that I look I gotta agree....87 kinda sucked.

  • Global Moderator

    Brilliant list! also Contra series are on of my favourite "run and gun" games out there!

    also wish I would get my thumbs out and play the original Final Fantasy game! I have played most of the others, but not the first one funny enough

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