You Shoulda Been There: 1987 Strikes Back
In our last episode, I talked about some universally loved and incredibly influential games. You might expect this second part to be more of the same, and it is…kinda.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re going to continue our history lesson and talk even more about how awesome a year 1987 was in the history of video games. I’m going to go over several titles, talk about what they were, their impact, and what it’s like playing them today. It’ll be fun, or at least as fun as a history lesson can be. I’m pretty sure everyone will recognize most of these titles, which makes this even more fun.
A lot of these games are just as great and influential as the last article’s list. Some, not so much. There’s at least one game on this list I didn’t much care for (then or now), and I’ll probably get flamed for it. That’s okay. There’s another game that, despite it’s popularity, wasn’t really all that influential. They were important games in 1987 regardless, so I’m including them here. Just because a title was popular and remembered with nostalgia doesn’t mean it was actually influential, or even good for that matter.
In any case, on with the show. Or the writing. Or…oh, hell, you know what I mean, let’s just get to it.
Leisure Suit Larry and Maniac Mansion
Two for one entry! Yes!
I’m including these two together because they’re both what we’d recognize as “point and click” adventure games, even though one of them wasn’t point and click at all, and didn’t even have mouse support. Yeah, baby, nostalgia!
There had been many games before them, and the genre is still popular in a niche sort of way to this day. So, why are these two so important? Well, one of them was a pioneer in adult themed content and comedy. The other is the reason why the genre is called “Point And Click,” which is kinda important.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was created by a fairly brilliant fellow named Al Lowe and published by the once-unstoppable computer game juggernaut Sierra Online. Al wanted to make a funny adventure game. While Sierra had put out both King’s Quest and Space Quest, and while both had comedic elements, Al Lowe thought that it could be better. He thought the humor and themes of the game could be much more…well, adult is the right word. Also, he envisioned a game whose sole purpose was to be funny. And it is.
Maniac Mansion, meanwhile, was produced by Lucasfilm Games, which might have a familiar name. Also intended to be funny, designers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick wanted to make the whole adventure game genre more accessible. All similar adventure games up to this point had been made as what were essentially Text Adventures with pictures the player controlled. Ron and Gary wanted you to be able to use your mouse to just point at stuff to look at it, for instance, rather than type in “look tentacle” and hope you called whatever you were trying to look at by the correct name. So, in place of a text parser (which other adventure games used to interpret the nonsense folks typed into their keyboard) they created something they called SCUMM: Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion.
If SCUMM sounds familiar, then congrats! You’ve played a point and click adventure game within the last 30 years!
Huge. SCUMM is, and to this day, one of the preferred scripting languages for point-and-click adventure games. Even games in the genre that don’t use it use an incredibly similar interface to the one used in Maniac Mansion, albeit updated. I mean, one would hope it was updated, since SCUMM came about in 1987.
As for Leisure Suit Larry, well, it’s harder to argue for a great impact on that one. Larry Laffer brought us some risque laughs, and presented the idea that “adult” didn’t have to mean lots of boobs and blood. Although definitely sexually themed, there’s basically nothing explicit going on on screen. Still, it didn’t really do anything new. There had been adult games before, and comedic games, and adventure games. This was probably the first one whose entire plot was based around getting laid, and it had a fantastically hilarious text parser, but it really wasn’t anything new. What it was though was fantastically hilarious.
Playing Them Today
Okay, they’re still amazing. Dated graphics and interface aside, both games are funny, charismatic, and a joy to be around. You can play them online for free, thanks to Archive.org. Leisure Suit Larry can be found here and Maniac Mansion can be found here. Both are great games, even to this day. LSL‘s text parser, especially, is hysterical.
That having been said, they’re also remarkably dated. While they exude a certain nostalgic charm, they’re showing their age, and the years haven’t been kind. There was a recent re-make of Leisure Suit Larry that’s available on Steam; it looks great, and controls great. Alternately, for about the same price, you can jog over to Gog.com and pick up Leisure Suit Larry’s Greatest Hits (and Misses), a collection of the first six Leisure Suit Larry games including the original and VGA remakes of Land of the Lounge Lizards as well as a text adventure called Soft Porn, which is boring as all holy hell and not worth anyone’s time, but it was the basis for Larry’s adventures in Lost Wages. Still, that’s a ton of entertainment for ten bucks, and it includes LSL 6, which is regarded by many as the best of the series.
As for Maniac Mansion, just use the link I provided here. Sure, there was a remake, but it’s essentially the same game, no big changes and even the graphical update is minimal. Play the classic, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m personally not a huge fan of this one, but I appreciate it for what it is.
Surprise! You Were a Girl the Whole Time!
It’s Metroid. You knew that, right? Released in 1986 in Japan and 1987 pretty much everywhere else, it’s one of the most iconic games of the NES era. Creepy and lonely, the sense of isolation in the game is palpable. Even with the relatively primitive visuals, Metroid was a mind-blowing experience, and still is. Cast in the role of Samus Aran, legendary bounty hunter, you are tasked with taking down the Mother Brain and her small army of Space Pirates before they use the terrifying threat of the metroids to conquer the galaxy.
Fast and almost perfect platforming action, deep exploration, and so much atmosphere. What a game! And then at the end, if you’re quick enough, you make a fascinating discovery that I’m totally going to spoil. See, if you don’t know that Samus is a woman already, then you can’t actually call yourself a gamer, and you almost certainly aren’t reading an article about video game history right now. You also don’t have any real friends, but I’m sure the imaginary ones are of some comfort.
Well, when combined with another title I’ll be going over in just a bit, it forged an entire category of platformers called the “Metroidvania.” So, yeah. At least a bit of an impact. Samus Aran is (or at least was) one of the greatest names in video gaming history, up there with the likes of Zelda, Mario, Master Chief, and Gordon Freeman. With the noteworthy exception of one more recent title that turned her into a sniveling, whiny, codependent wuss, Samus stood for female empowerment in gaming. Along with all that, the exploratory gameplay and upgrade system has been echoed in so many games since, it’s impossible to list them all. Okay, sure, it was essentially the platformer sci-fi version of The Legend of Zelda, but it was still nothing short of historic.
Playing It Today
Kind of a pain in the ass, to be honest. You won’t hear me say this often, but if you’re gonna play this wondrous classic, play it on an emulator with save states. The twenty-four character password system is a complete mess, despite the now famous JUSTIN BAILEY —— —— password. You’re also better off using a modded ROM (like the one I suggested in my ROM Hacking article) that includes a save feature and much more importantly, a map feature. In-game maps, which we take for granted today, were thin on the ground in the 1980s and this game really needed one. It’s massive, to put it bluntly.
Alternatively, you can play Metroid: Zero Mission instead, it’s the same story with significantly updated visuals, a save system, and a bunch of other more modern bells and whistles.
Whatever the case though, if you haven’t played this classic yet, you’re missing out on one of the greatest games in history. Just my opinion, but as we established in Part 1, my opinions are closer to fact than most.
So, fun story. When I was a kid, I had a NES. I didn’t have a Sega Master System and while I knew someone who did, he wasn’t that into video games, and certainly not RPGs. So, I played my Dragon Warriors and my Final Fantasy, he played Space Harrier 3-D occasionally, and that was life. I didn’t even find out about Phantasy Star until I was in my 20s and out of the army.
I’m not going to say that I got the wrong system growing up. That’s crazy talk, just look at the rest of this list! That having been said, if I have one regret concerning console selection, it’s that the best RPG of 1987 came out on the Master System. With great, anime-inspired visuals and a massive science fiction plot, Phantasy Star was way ahead of it’s time.
This one’s a bit tricky. It’s obvious there’s been an impact; Phantasy Star games are still being made, there was an MMO (the first ever Console MMO, natch), and there’s still a legion of devoted fans. So…how did it effect gaming in general? It kinda didn’t a lot, which is sad. Phantasy Star and its sequel (the creatively titled Phantasy Star 2) went to a level of depth in storytelling that wouldn’t be seen in other console RPGs until the early 90s. Between manga-style cutscenes, a strong female protagonist, and an involved plot with memorable characters, Phantasy Star suffered from two major things holding it back from making more of an impression.
Problem one, and by far the biggest one, is that it was on the wrong system. The Master System, called the Mark III in Japan, wasn’t the big success that Sega was hoping it would be. It just didn’t compare to the Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom in sales, despite first party support from the leading arcade game manufacturer of the day and technically superior hardware. Although it did respectably in Europe and Brazil, it just never caught on the way they had hoped (which is kinda the story of Sega’s console-manufacturing life, but that’s a story for another article) in Japan or the U.S. which is too bad, really.
and Phantasy Star offered this:
there just wasn’t a market for the genre outside of Japan that would drive sales of the console.
Playing It Today
I wouldn’t. There are these 3D-ish first person dungeons that are an absolute nightmare to navigate due to the primitive visuals. The game is still great otherwise, still visually appealing, and although the action is a bit slow and repetitive, it’s still fun. But those dungeons bring the whole experience down to a crawl, and that’s just upsetting. The second game in the series is more of the same, but better in every way (well, except for the lead character, but we can’t have everything), play it instead. The other games in the series are all worth a look, too.
There was a re-release in 2003 that came out on the Playstation 2. While it never got out of Japan, some hardworking fans have made a translation patch which you can get here. You’ll have to grab an ISO of the original (by ripping it from a purchased copy, of course) and patch it yourself, and then use an emulator or a modded PS2 to play it, but it’s worth it. The game provides an expanded and much more visually impressive version of the original. For comparison’s sake, it looks like this:
So, yeah, there’s that.
Might as well have been called “Universal Monsters: The Game”
Castlevania is arguably Konami’s most famous contribution to the gaming zeitgeist. Platforming action, monsters straight out of a classic Universal creature feature, and an incredible soundtrack lead into a game that, to many, stands the test of time. Released in Japan in 1986, in the U.S. in 1987, and in Europe in 1988, Castlevania is an absolute classic. The hero, one Simon Belmont, whips his way through Dracula’s castle (the titular Castlevania in the original game), fighting hunchbacks, Frankenstein’s Monster, mummies, and even Death himself. This culminates in a final battle with Dracula himself, the vampire lord of all evil.
Much like Metroid, if you’ve never heard of this series, you’re probably not reading this article. Castlevania launched Konami into prominence, and once again demonstrated that, Phantasy Star notwithstanding, NES owners were correct in their choice in consoles.
Again, massive. The Castlevania series continues to this day, and continues to inspire awe from gamers. The series had its missteps, but the original vision of director Hitoshi Akamatsu, and the timeless music of composers Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima are still well loved. Many elements, like destructible environments and sub weapons, found their way into other games of the time. Moreover, it gave a real shot in the arm to the horror genre in video games. Sure, it’s not even a little bit scary, but the themes were there.
Playing It Today
Confession time: I don’t like this game. The controls are just plain bad as far as I’m concerned. The lack of control during jumps and the limitations of your primary weapon lead to a frustrating experience. How do you create a game that demands precision platforming, and then give the main character such a completely uncontrollable jump? It’s mind-boggling to me that this game was ever a success, much less that it’s attained legendary status. So, yeah – if you ask me, just skip this one. Play Super Castlevania IV instead, it’s beautiful, brilliant, and a shining example of what a SNES game can do.
There’s also Castlevania: Symphony of the Night…which is one of the greatest games of all time, in my humble opinion. Plus Portrait of Ruin, and pretty much every GBA and Nintendo DS Castlevania game, as far as that goes. So…yeah, I don’t hate the series. I just don’t much care for the first three games, and all the 3D ones are basically crap. Although, to be fair, the more recent 3D titles have fantastic soundtracks.
In the Arcades: Contra
Let’s take a stroll down to the local arcade, shall we? It’s 1987, and there we are, bopping along in our reeboks while carrying a preposterously large radio that sucks the very soul out of every battery that comes within fifty feet of it. We’ve got on skinny leather ties and excessively tight jeans. All the ladies are looking good with their big hair and band shirts. It’s a great day. And then we see this poster:
and we’re all like “Dude! We’ve gotta play that! I bet we can beat it! I’ve got five bucks I can use for quarters!
Ahh, you poor, delusional 1987 stereotype. You’ll need more than twenty quarters to clear Contra.
The classic in the run-and-gun platform genre, the arcade version of Contra provided an intense, quarter-devouring experience. Later ported to the NES, the original arcade Contra often goes under appreciated. With a difficulty curve that looks more like a straight vertical line, fun action, great graphics, and a killer soundtrack, it introduced us to the wonders of the Spread gun, and gave us more stuff to kill than pretty much anything else at the time. Between Castlevania and Contra, Konami was quickly becoming a name associated only with quality.
Gee, did it have an impact? I dunno. I mean, there’s a Run-and-Gun Platformer genre because of this game that’s still immensely popular today, so…yeah. Impact.
While the home console version might have had the greater influence, it couldn’t exist without this one, and I really wanted to include it because it’s one of my absolute favorite arcade games from the time. Later on I’d fall in love with the Ninja Turtles and (oh ye gods!) Mystara, but in 1987, this was just about the best thing in those poorly lit and funny smelling arcades that seemed to be everywhere.
Playing It Today
What can I say? It still holds up. If you can find a functioning cabinet with this one, pull out a roll of quarters and go to town. It’s a bit frustrating, yeah, but oh man is it fun.
Can’t find a working cabinet? I’m not surprised. They didn’t exactly grow on trees even in the late 80s. Still, that’s what MAME is for, isn’t it?
Too Close to the Sun
In this classic game, developed by Nintendo itself, you find yourself as a cute little bow-toting angel going up against…well, aubergine sorcery. Which is weird, to say the least. Hopping from platform to platform, you blast enemies that get to ignore walls and platforms, all the while doing your best to stay one step ahead of Death himself. You’re on a quest to find the three sacred treasures that will allow you to save the goddess Palutena and, in so doing, save the world.
Designed by Toru Osawa and Yoshio Sakamoto with a great soundtrack by Hirokazu Tanaka, Kid Icarus stands as one of the more memorable games from the NES era. Originally released for the Famicom Disk System in Japan in 1986, this one hit internationally around the same time Metroid did, and I am of the belief that its sales suffered against the juggernaut that was Samus Aran’s more popular bounty hunting adventures.
Yeah, I hate to say it, but Kid Icarus really didn’t catch on, and it didn’t add much to video gaming that other games (Metroid, Mega Man) didn’t do better at the same time. The only real reason the game is viewed so fondly today is because of Pit’s return in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Sure, it’s a great game, but it just didn’t have the resounding impact that we’d like to pretend it had.
Playing It Today
It holds up okay. The controls are tight, and it’s fun, but it suffers from Metroid envy. It’s essentially the same game, when you get right down to it, but Metroid has the more memorable lead character. It doesn’t help that the game is kinda cutesy. Personally, I’d rather keep my experiences with Pit in battles against other classic video game characters…but maybe that’s just me.
Yeah. So, I don’t have to talk much about this one, do I? Wait, I do? Well, hell, what can I possibly have to say about this classic of all classic puzzle games? Well, rather a lot, as it turns out.
Originally created by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 for the Academy of Science in the USSR, Tetris was intended as both a fun game and as a mind exercise. Funny story – the name is a portmanteau of “tetra” (the Greek prefix meaning four) and “tennis,” which was Pajitnov’s favorite sport. Tetris was inspired by polyominoes, a game dating back to the early 1900s that involved creating shapes using tetrominoes and other geometric shapes, similar to the shapes we see in Tetris every time we play.
And we do play. Oh, man do we ever play. Tetris is one of the most popular games of all time, and has been made available on almost every platform imaginable, including multiple instances of using the lights of office buildings to play (seriously, check it out on Youtube, it happens). Tetris was partially responsible for the incredible launch success of the original Game Boy, and still has legions of fans to this day.
“But student 20!” I hear you say. “Alexey made Tetris in 1984, and the Game Boy version came out in 1989! What does Tetris have to do with 1987?” Now calm down, guys. You know me well enough by now that you should expect me to get to that. You know, eventually. The first U.S. versions, released for the IBM PC and Commodore 64 home computers, were created by Spectrum Holobyte and released in, drumroll please! 1987! It then proceeded to take the whole frikkin’ world by storm.
Could it have been bigger? Almost every modern puzzle game genre, from bubble-shooters to match-3 games, owes this ultimate classic a debt. Tetris is on nearly every platform that’s come about since the mid eighties in one form or another. It’s been referenced across almost all media, and is still one of the few video games that my mother enjoys playing. The tetronimoes and their distinct shapes are a part of the world subconsious, and it still sells well today.
So, yeah, next time you’re playing Bejeweled, Candy Crap Saga (or whatever that boring-ass, slower, more manipulative version of Bejeweled is called), Puzzles and Dragons, Doctor Mario, Yoshi’s Cookie, or any of the other bazillion puzzle games out there, remember that it all started here, with this game.
Playing It Today
It’s timeless. This game, even ancient versions of this game, are still great fun. From the satisfaction of watching four lines vanish all at once to the controller-destroying frustration when you accidentally put a piece down wrong, it’s every bit as much fun as when it was originally dominating the world. If nothing else, you can be sure that you’ll be able to find a pretty good version on any given platform you try to play it on.
And That’s All She Wrote
So that’s the end of my two-part 1987 retrospective. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I didn’t cover every good game in 1987, there are still a lot left over. There are other great years in gaming, too, but I don’t think any of them are like 1987. Sure, I was 12, which made it kind of a special year for me in a Stand By Me kinda way. Even admitting to that, though, if you look at the legacies that began that year and the revolutions made in gaming, I think you’ll have to agree that 1987 was one hell of a year for video games.
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