You Shoulda Been There: 1987
The Best Year Ever for Video Games. No, really.
by student 20
So, if you read my reviews and such, you might know that I’m a bit of a video game history buff. I’m not an expert or anything, but I know my way around a time line and I’ve spent more hours than I’d like to admit just reading about the past in my second favorite hobby.
It’s hard to comprehend exactly how influential the year 1987 really was. Between the US release of classic Nintendo titles, to the Japanese release of several influential sequels, it was an amazing year to be a gamer. We’re going to cover a lot of ground here. Why? Well, like I said, it was an awesome year for gaming. Some of this stuff happened in the US and some of it happened in Japan, but either way it had a massive impact on the hobby we all love so well. In fact, so much happened that I can’t possibly cover it all in detail here… but I’m gonna try.
Now… where to begin? I know! Let’s start at the end!
Most Inappropriately Named Game Ever
Final Fantasy was supposed to be not only the first and last in the series, but also the last game from the company that created it, and the last game ever to be made by its designer. Hence the name. Incredibly appropriate at the time, perhaps, but not so much as time marched on.
So, things weren’t going so well for a little gaming company called Square. The Japanese game company was facing bankruptcy after only a year of existence. Founded as a separate company by Masashi Miyamoto in September of 1986, Square was originally the software division of a power line manufacturing company. Ironically, the company did fairly well before becoming its own separate entity, publishing games that were quite successful including The Death Trap (1985) and the NES version of the classic computer game Thexder.
Once it struck out on its own, however, Square started floundering almost immediately. As a final farewell, the company made one last push, creating an homage to the incredibly popular Dragon Quest series in the form of Final Fantasy. Basically, if Final Fantasy didn’t make it really really big, the company was going to die and Hironobu Sakaguchi (the series creator) was going to go back to being an electrical engineer.
Guess what happened? I’ll give you a hint: the next six sequels were among the greatest games ever made, and the series recently made three of the most unplayable (but pretty) pieces of crap ever.
It might seem incredible today, but it took 3 years for this seminal console RPG to be released in the United States. Which means that if I do another one of these articles for the year 1990, I’ll have to talk about it again…
Not as much as Dragon Quest, since this game wouldn’t exist without that one. Still, it was the first really successful JRPG in the U.S. Also, it eventually lead to the creation of Final Fantasy VI, one of the greatest games ever made.
Playing It Today
Like many NES RPGs, it’s… not great. The limits of the system have not led to the genre aging well, which is unfortunate. The visuals are unimpressive, and the amount of grinding required, even early in the game, is preposterous. The pacing of RPGs magnifies these flaws, making for an overall unpleasant experience in the here and now. Go for one of the many, many re-releases instead. My favorite is the one for the Playstation Portable – much better looking and with just enough enhanced content to make it worth your while. Plus, you don’t really have to grind for about the first third of the game.
The Legend of Zelda Strikes… Twice!
It’s one of the most iconic names in video gaming. It’s expansive, with a massive world to explore, non-linear gameplay, and more secrets than you can shake a controller at. It’s got nearly perfect gameplay. It’s one of the greatest games ever made.
It also has an iconic look and the most memorable music of perhaps any video game ever. Seriously, look at this picture. Tell me you don’t hear a song in your head almost instantly:
Now, I’m sure you’re looking carefully at that picture and thinking “Hey, student 20, what’s the deal? I thought this article was about 1987, but it clearly says 1986 right there on the best start screen in video game history!” except I imagine your version of those thoughts contains profanity and references to my parentage. That’s cool, I understand your confusion. Allow me to explain, in two paragraphs.
The original Legend of Zelda was released in Japan in 1986 for the Famicom Disk System – essentially a disk drive for the Nintendo Family Computer System, affectionately known as the Famicom. A year later – in 1987 – it was released in the United States for the Nintendo Entertainment System in a snazzy gold cartridge that contained a battery backup – the first of its kind. So, that’s how this game is in an article about 1987.
For paragraph 2, we go back to Japan and the Famicom… where a game that looks like this:
appeared. Yup – not only did the The Legend of Zelda come out in the U.S. in 1987, the The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link popped from the mind of Miyamoto in Japan. So, the greatest game series in video game history (an opinion, folks, but if you disagree with me you’re just plain wrong) got a double-start in 1987.
Beat that with a sick if you can. And you just can’t, so don’t even try. Oh, and Zelda II is an awesome game. That’s another opinion that’s really more of a fact. It’s not as good as the original of course, but then, what is?
Are you kidding? The impact was – is – massive. It laid the foundation for modern open-world gaming, and made action RPGs what they are today.
Playing It Today
It’s like hanging out with an old friend. If you played the original when it came out, this might be your favorite in the series. Personally, even though I played the heck out of this one back in 87, I prefer The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES. Still, the original is worth playing even to this day. It’s amazing fun, and a great challenge to boot.
As for The Legend of Zelda II, I think it’s pretty good, too. The game play is solid, and it’s visually appealing. It also has a difficulty curve that looks like a side view of a mountain: easy, then insanely difficult in the middle, then easier at the end. It’s a wonky dynamic, which isn’t great. Worth playing though.
World’s Worst Box Art
Ahem… a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a picture just says “Don’t Buy Me”, or perhaps “Oh, the Pain! Kill me! KILL ME!!!”
That’s the case for the U.S. cover art for the first Mega Man game. With non-linear game-play, a rock-paper-scissors inspired boss balancing, perfect controls, fast platforming, and intense action, Mega Man is one of the greatest series of all time. No matter what the original U.S. box art looks like.
Mega Man is known for the Blue Bomber himself (who is blue because the Famicom has more different shades of blue in it’s color palette than any other color, according to the artist in charge of his creation, Keiji Inafune… go figure), and his ability to use the weapons of his fallen opponents.
The thing is, what I remember best is the music (composed by the unstoppable Minami Matsumae) the amazing art style, and the spot-on platforming. I know this will sound weird, but I think it’s a better platformer than any of the Super Mario games from a control standpoint. Super Mario has always felt a little floaty and slippery to me, while the NES Mega Man has always been… well, as close to perfect as you can get.
Fun, fast, and fantastic, the Mega Man series got its start in December of 1987 in both Japan and the U.S. It did well in Japan, but sold poorly in the U.S. despite critical acclaim. Inafune-san blames the box art. I agree.
Nah, I’m just pulling your leg. This game introduced one of the most enduring characters in video games. Not only that, it redefined how action platformers were designed, and set a new standard for video game music. Stealing the weapons of the downed robot masters, figuring out which one to use on who, and being able to play the stages in any order are all neat features that have impacted the industry. Also, the music has a permanent place on my phone, both to listen to and as ring-tone fodder.
Playing It Today
It also is one of the reasons why the expression “Nintendo Hard” exists. This game is tough, but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s not as good as it’s sequel (the creatively titled Mega-Man 2) which was better in literally every way. That makes Mega-Man 2 my go-to Mega-Man game… but, yeah, the original is still worth playing. Just don’t ever look directly at the original U.S. box art. You have been warned.
So, once upon a time, there was this plucky Japanese home computer system called the MSX 2. Not especially popular overseas, the MSX 2 was the home computer of choice
in Japan, and for good reason. It offered great gaming. Lots of fantastic and original games came out for our plucky hero, all in Japanese, and so the people of that magical wonderland loved it. And then, along came Hideo Kojima…
Metal Gear is a stealth action game. What am I saying? Metal Gear is the stealth action game. It’s the one that defined the genre, as a matter of fact. With what were at the time groundbreaking controls and visuals, Metal Gear featured Solid Snake (a name that sounds like a metaphor for poop, a fact not helped by his opponent’s name, Liquid Snake) fighting to stop the Metal Gear, a massive mecha war machine. There was no way to beat the game guns-blazing. You had to stay out of sight and avoid combat using stealth, clever tactics, and a cardboard box. It was, when you really get down to it, a perfect blend of action game and one of those point-and-click adventure games.
Nowadays? Metal Gear games are passable movies occasionally interrupted by pretty good game play. But, oh, there was a time…
It didn’t invent the stealth-action genre (Castle Wolfenstein came closer to doing that in 1981, another important year in video gaming), but it helped to cement many of the conventions of the genre. It also redefined how stories are told in video games. It’s hard to express how deep this game was for its time. It’s huge, with level after level of bad guys to sneak past and stealth-kill. Combine that with a lot of secrets to find and an impressive storyline involving treason and megalomania, and you’ve got one hell of a game that has had a lasting impact on how games tell stories.
Playing It Today
I wouldn’t. It’s hard, but who cares about that? It’s visually dated, but so’s everything else from 1987. The real problem is that the U.S. version for the NES (released in 1988) kinda… hurts to play. Long passwords, questionable controls, buggy, and filled with bad translation work, the only real redeeming qualities of this port are that it includes adjustable difficulty and a tuxedo outfit for Snake. If you read Japanese, stick to the MSX 2 version. If you don’t… play Metal Gear Solid instead. Essentially the same game, but better in every way.
And More to Come
I didn’t plan it this way, but it’s what we’ve come to: I’m going to have to split this up into two parts. 1987 was an incredible year for gaming, and we’re really just getting started. There’s SO much left that this article would be twice the size it is now were I to finish it in one go, but who has that kind of attention span these days? Not I.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play an awesome Sega Master System RPG, be a platform hopping angel, go to the Land of the Lounge Lizards, and enter a “Manor House of Questionable Mental Stability,” all to get ready for You Shoulda Been There: 1987 Part 2. Along with a bunch of other stuff. Also, I might want to think about writing a game review or two along the way…
Nah. That’s just crazy talk, right there.
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