• This is the second 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 (as that was a very impressive and diverse year), but that's a few blogs away.

    Previous entries:



    On 1986:

    If '85 was the arrival of games as a true fixture of the household, then '86 was the arrival of something about games.

    Every game is a journey in some respect. They elapse and change over an uncertain amount of time and take someone with them. However, my favorite games of '86 almost all exhibit how it feels to adventure. That they span a large castle, the bowels of an alien planet, or entire continents are of course important, but even more important is that they investigate how their space communicates with the player over time.

    To say that a game's pleasures primarily stem from progressing seems redundant, but the means of journeying, of moving through an environment and everything that comes with it is what I love best about these titles. These games are so present, so in their moment, that they're refreshing even today, when many games often pester you about things that have happened and especially what's going to happen next.

    '86 was the year where the voyage mattered.


    An Honorable Mention:

    Rolling Thunder (Arcade)

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    When I was little, and I used to play with my GI-Joes, I would take the most generic looking Joe (or Cobra), and make them fodder for my personalized hero. They would be mowed down, kicked off cliffs, and bowled over by vehicles, but always as different combatants; the moment one was dispatched, my hand holding him would whip to another position and he would become another faceless goon. An army represented by one toy, existing only to test my proxy's might.

    I was reminded of this experience playing Rolling Thunder---a game that seems to anticipate Shinobi in its side-scrolling, multi-level shooting. You play as a nimble red shirted agent trying to retrieve his distraught love interest (like so many videogame heroes of this time), but the game consists of shooting your way through henchmen with different attack patterns and wacky color palettes.

    The fluency of movement (jumping up and down from balconies, crouching, shooting) is what works best, but I always find myself thinking back on that faceless army of goons who look like they're villains straight out of Hanna-Barbera. They're actually fairly capable, able to whisk between platforms and the floor, and come armed with guns and bombs. In some ways they remind me of the Foot Clan with their masks and color-coding, not to mention how good it feels to churn through them.

    Not even close to a masterpiece, but a personally fixating distraction.


    Castlevania (NES)

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    One of the best looking and sounding games (and series) of its era, Castlevania has always been narratively benign. It's clear from the first game that Castlevania prides itself on its presentation, the feelings it brings out of its player with hardly any context. Konami really broke themselves in as the premiere colorists of the NES, with lurid color combinations that really pop. The title screen is a sign of the game to come, with pronounced, old-fashioned lettering in neon green set on a dark red and blue plate.

    The castle that houses the entire game is lined with blue and orange bricks and sheltered by a dark blue sky. The greys that do appear only seem to make all these coloring decisions more overt. If there's a big grey wall, you can expect windows to that deep blue sky framed in dark green and curtained in crimson red. It's a flamboyant world far more inspired by Giallo and Hammer Horror than the Universal films it more blatantly borrows its iconography from.

    What helps this colorful atmosphere is the excellent soundtrack, which riffs on horror theming and instrumentation but leans more towards symphonic rock with catchy tunes and driving tempos. It builds the game into an audio-visual force of forward momentum.

    This momentum is reflected in Simon Belmont as well, whose walk cycle appears more as a determined march than a run or a stroll. And yet Simon is human, unlike everything else. The delay on his whip and his knockback aren't just minor quirks, but they're built into the fabric on the game. A small, easily traversed pit becomes something much more when an axe-throwing night is pushing you in its direction.

    Castlevania is an almost overwhelming formal treat; a game of addicting visual and auditory rhythms.


    Metroid (NES)

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    This is an immensely lonesome game. To try to complete it with guides (or even to complete it at all) almost runs contrary to what this game does so well. This isn't as much a game about exploring an environment as it is about being lost in it, which is something few games have the bravery to focus on.

    Enemies in Metroid work on their own terms. They scuttle over surfaces, fall from the ceiling, emerge from pipes endlessly. Samus' means, even with upgrades, aren't synchronous with the creatures' attack patterns, and most of these enemies are better left ignored than combated. This is a world that Samus is barely equipped to deal with; an ambivalent world made up of unfamiliar material---one of the few truly alien environments crafted in gaming.

    And so the way to progress through the game is also, fittingly, alien. Many of the required pathways and items are found by bombing walls---walls that do not look any different from any other and are to be destroyed without instruction. I don't have a problem with this in theory. It makes sense, but it also turns the game from a sensual experience to a systematic one. When a game does not provide systems for progression, the player must create their own.

    Yet I'm perfectly happy being made to feel alone, to feel like I'm retracing my steps for the fifth time to Tanaka's beautiful, tonal soundtrack, appreciating all the deep colors emerging from the darkness.


    Dragon Quest (NES)

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    Dragon Quest is lovely. There really isn't a better word for this game or the series it's a part of. The entire franchise seems built upon the idea of a 'pleasant journey', which sounds simple or slight, but it's actually a very hard thing to do correctly.

    How Dragon Quest is pleasant is a culmination of everything the game gives its player. Visually, the game is simply drawn with, even for the NES, crude sprite work. But the bright, eye-catching color combinations and quaint high-fantasy world design build a universe that's weirdly distinct and alive. Smartly, the sprites in Dragon Quest don't stand still, but walk and move in place to add to this liveliness. Most immediately recognizable are the monster designs, which are cartoonish and frequently come across as friendly. This is a world where even the monsters out to kill you look like they're just playing along.

    All of this is aided by one of the best soundtracks on the NES (along with the other three games in the series on the system), which sidesteps portentousness and goes for a far jauntier, classic style than other games of its time. This Baroque-influenced music by Sugiyama is every bit as infectious as the way the game looks, and if you haven't checked out the symphonic arrangements of the soundtrack, you totally should because they're fantastic.

    But it is, after all, a journey; a game with a goal. And this is what sticks with me the most. This first Dragon Quest spans continents just to reach a castle that's visible from the moment you step out into the overworld. It's scope is a good deal smaller than the games that follow it (which often remind you, sometimes blatantly, that they're bigger than the first game). You are alone on this adventure, and much of the game time is spent working up the strength to venture to the next town, which provides emphasis on community and place; a string of voyages from one group of people to the next. Its manner of adventure isn't something decided by how grandiose it is, but how much its able to get into your heart with its own.

    Unfortunately it is an early JRPG, which means its prone to a lot of grinding, some cryptic means of progressing, and some maze-like dungeon layouts; though I wouldn't say it's the worst offender in its series or genre, it can make it a little hard to appreciate when compared to the heyday of JRPGs that would appear in the next generation.


    Outrun (Arcade)

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    Racing games have been around forever, and they're a genre I don't care for a whole lot. But I love Outrun, one of the most important works in this genre. My defense is simple: Outrun isn't a game about racing, it's a game about driving.

    Like SEGA's precursory Hang-On, Outrun implements a checkpoint system, time limit and primarily involves turning either left or right at the correct time and avoiding other drivers. To pass a checkpoint is to be rewarded with more road. Like Hang-On or Space Harrier, it is a 2D game with scrolling bitmaps that imply impressively fast movement.

    What makes Outrun special to me is its focus on minutiae, on the details that help build Outrun's distinctly breezy, radiant tone. The game doesn't start on a checkered line, but on the dash of a car with a beach visible through the windshield. The driver's hand rests on the knob of the radio. This is how you select the music you want to listen to as you drive: in a way that can hardly be called a menu, but rather a statement of tone.

    When the checkered line is revealed, it appears with the simultaneous information that you're driving a convertible with the top down, and that there's a woman riding shotgun. Suddenly Outrun becomes less of a race and more of an abridged, romanticized road trip. The time limit and checkpoint system are so contrived they can only exist for a player.

    The world enforces this with a number of branching paths. What race has so many finish lines, miles apart from one another? And these miles are gorgeous, with scenery whizzing by and the horizon blending impressionistically as each new zone is entered---an aesthetic choice that would be pushed further in subsequent games.

    Outrun is one of the best racers created, because it isn't obsessed with other racers, or winning, or even the road itself. Outrun is about how it feels to be on a road.


    The Legend of Zelda (NES)

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    If this is the year of the voyage, then I suppose there is no other game that could have represented that as well as The Legend of Zelda. It is, of course, an adventure game, but rarely ask ourselves what that means. It's an odd designation, something that can be applied to just about any game without discrimination. All games rely on progression, all games are an adventure in some respect.

    But it is, of course, about the nature of this adventure, which is what The Legend of Zelda focuses on so eagerly. This game famously opens in a canyon with three exits and an empty cave; a jet-black rectangle that demands inspection. Entering opens up a new, dark space, where a friendly NPC gives you a sword---the most useful of all items in the game. But the question remains upon exiting: where to go?

    That this canyon, this first screen, has three exits serves as a synecdoche for how the game operates, how it's built. Had this canyon two exits, it would imply that it serves as a path between two points, but it doesn't, and none of these exits has anything particularly special about them. There is no choice but to aimlessly walk.

    This aimless walk can lead to any number of surprises: enemies, more hidden areas, dungeons---ones that can be accessed out of order. Death and stuckness aren't indicators of failure, but a kind of incremental success, as the player's arsenal and familiarity with the game space accumulate.

    The world is vast, and as pointless as it is meaningful, with screens that unfurl nothing and others that fiendishly hide details needed to progress. It's a world that doesn't exist for the player, but despite them, and for that it feels like one of the first breathing, living worlds in gaming. A world actually worth adventuring in, which is, in my mind, what being an adventure game means.



    So what games do you like best from '86? What did this year mean to you guys?

    Personally, '86 is probably my favorite year for games in the 80's other than '89. '87 and '88 I'm finding a little tougher to write about as enthusiastically.

  • Nice writeup. I'm guessing there are very few allies that were gaming (or even around) in 1986. Hopefully blogs like this and the mini nes thats coming out soon will get more people into retro gaming. Actually, I really hope that a mini snes is on the way too.

    Would you recommend going back to these if people enjoyed more current versions? symphony of the night>castlevania, link to the past>zelda 1, super metroid>metroid. I happen to think that the old versions are outclassed in almost every way by the new.

    Anyway, I got into gaming in the mid/late 80s when my dad brought home a box with an nes and a bunch of used games. We had a few of the games on your list (zelda, metroid)....but I couldn't appreciate them at the time (too slow paced I think). I was pretty young so I don't know what year games came out....but according to google 1988>1987>>>1986

  • Thanks for reading!

    And yeah, I think I would recommend the original Zelda and Metroid to people who have only played the Super Nintendo, or even 3D iterations. There's still something uninhibited and risky about them, especially when compared to their SNES successors. Personally, I prefer The Legend of Zelda to A Link to the Past and Metroid to Super Metroid. I'll probably write a little about why once I get to the year Super Metroid came out. In short, I think the SNES made the games more handsome and gratifying, but far less mysterious and challenging.

    Castlevania I think is much easier to appreciate going back than the other two would be, given that it's a pretty straight-forward action platformer with wonderful music.

    And also, I guess it makes sense that '87 and '88 could be seen as better? I mean, all five of the entries in this blog are near or straight up masterpieces in my eyes. Also I think there are games in '87 and '88 that I'm just not as big on as some other people are, so I'm sure that's contributing to my ambivalence.

  • This thread just popped up on NeoGAF today about a bogus review of the nes in 1986: http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1250775

    They say to pass on the nes in favor of atari 7800 or the soon to be released sega system. I don't know if we can post links on here but I thought it was too timely to pass up.

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