Landmarks of gaming: 1980 - 2011

In 1980, a perplexed and delighted public were getting their heads around Defender, the Mattel Intellivision and this new thing called videogames. Skip forward to 2011 and there's 30 years' worth of canon to revisit - but as with anything, the best-regarded games don't give the full picture.

Viewed through the sepia-tinged glasses of nostalgia, it’s easy to spot our favorite games for every year. But remove those glasses, and oftentimes the very best games aren't the most important ones. Our goal here: to uncover the one game that captures the essence of each year in gaming history.
So consider this a look back not at the best or worst games of the past 30 years, but at the titles that helped define their times, during the times they existed. And remember: this isn’t a comprehensive list. We challenged ourselves with picking only one title per year, so sometimes we focused on the zeitgeist instead of the very best game of that year—the game that reflected what happened, rather than the one that influenced gaming for years to come. Indeed, this is not the story of gaming's finest hours, but of themedium as a whole, as it happened...

1980: Pac-Man

The game: Not the first game by a long shot – but the first superstar. Cartoons have Mickey Mouse, comics have Superman, and games have Pac-Man. You know a medium's arrived when it gets a super-character whose likeness transcends the form itself.

Significance: It's not like games wouldn't have taken off without a mascot to grace cartoons and popsicles, but it sure didn't hurt. If Pac-Man hadn't done it, someone else would've – then again, they said the same thing about Elvis.

1981: Asteroids Deluxe

The game: A gussied-up Asteroids (the Gears of War to Space Invaders' Halo), Deluxe made the cover for issue #1 of the first gaming magazine, Electronic Games.

Significance: The game? Minimal. The publication that profiled it: Infectious (if injudicious) enthusiasm, star treatment of programmers and writers alike, and an inexplicable tendency to talk of “gamers” as a separate species. Which is to praise these intrepid shag-carpet nerds for inventing gams jarnalism as we know it.

1982: Q*Bert

The game: Having mastered sci-fi and fantasy, the logical next step for the young industry was a platformer with a diagonal joystick in which a swearing, sentient proboscis evades snakes and off-brand tribbles.

Significance: In '82, people just did things for shits and giggles: listening to Men at Work, watching Porky's, fighting the Falklands War. Amid this climate of frivolity, why shouldn't the infallible games industry produce the least-comprehensible hit ever?

1983: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Above: Yes, it came out at the end of '82. That's not the point

The game: Blocky turd/penis hybrid quests after chocolatey treats in the exhaustively-documented travesty that launched a thousand “have you heard about the landfill in New Mexico?” articles.

Significance: Players bitterly disappointed by the failure of early consoles to replicate the thrill of Hollywood blockbusters or arcade hits like Pac-Man abandoned gaming in droves; the resulting crash damn near killed the young industry.

1984: Paperboy

The game: Chastened by the preceding annus horribilis (not what you think, look it up), Atari scaled back the crazy grandeur to find novelty and challenge in the humble (yet still, apparently, stupidly difficult) job of, um, paperboy.

Significance: Continued the Burger Time/Root Beer Tapper project of broadening games' horizons by looking closer to home. Kids would complete their after-school jobs as fast as possible, so as to get home and play games about those same jobs.

1985: Super Mario Bros

The game: While the title implied a jazzed-up single-screen Mario Bros, Nintendo's ambitions were grander. You could play the new SMB on your new NES and think about how everything new in '85 rocked, as you cracked open an ice-cold New Coke.

Significance: '85 saw the world get bigger, with global events ignored in living rooms worldwide thanks to cable and satellite TV. Games like SMB, Ghosts 'n' Goblins and Gauntlet took players to new, richer places too – ones where We Are the World wasn't every second song on the goddamn radio.

1986: Dizzy – The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure

The game: Sentient egg with boxing gloves and stomping boots navigates a series of static platform levels that play more like Monkey Island-style item puzzles.

Significance: Dizzy – and his creators, the Oliver Twins – personified a warm-beer-drinking, left-hand-driving invasion force of British coders operating out of bedrooms and suburban nooks. With Ultimate bought up by US Gold and Ocean churning out profitable movie licenses, the New Wave of British Bedroom Coding broke big in '86.

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  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - September 12, 2011 1:18 p.m.

    I would have said Halo 2 for 2004, as it was the first huge online multiplayer game on a console.
  • carrotsauce33 - August 17, 2011 1:44 a.m.

    No Uncharted? Or Mass Effect? I also was surprised to see Bioshock wasn't on there either! Kick Farmville out and replace it with one of the latter. Or, if they don't fit in the timeline, one of their sequels. I know Mass Effect didn't come out in 2009 but Bioshock 2 or Uncharted did. And didn't AC 2 come out in 2009?
  • 435 - August 16, 2011 6:44 p.m.

    1991... Battletoads? Yeah, someone never had a Genesis. There was this little game called Sonic: The Hedgehog which came out that year, too. You know, starring that plucky blue character that ran really fast and punched Nintendo in the face for a few years.
  • glane88 - August 15, 2011 11:46 p.m.

    I agree with this list very much. It takes some giant balls to give the nod to Mario & Sonic instead of COD4, and it takes the spot rightfully so. Mario and Sonic have been franchise rivals since Sonic was born; the fact that they were featured in a game together vastly outweighs the historical significance of CoD4. It's landmarks of gaming, not what was most popular in gaming that year. I'm also fine with something like BioShock not being included. Sure, it was immensely popular, started a franchise, but nothing about it screams that it's a landmark in the history of gaming.
  • miningguyx360 - August 14, 2011 10:20 p.m.

    Some of this is really off IMO
  • Tomgoulter - August 14, 2011 9:20 p.m.

    Thanks for all your suggestions - some very good points made as to the exclusion of Street Fighter II (which, for the record, is one of your author's favorite games ever). To those wondering about 2011, I'd personally have picked Modern Warfare 3 for this slot. Not because I imagine it definitely being better than Battlefield 3 (or Gears 3, or LA Noire, or Portal 2, or...) but because the amount of conflict that game signifies -- global, commercial, legal, corporate -- and the series' willfully ambiguous relationship to technomilitarism and geopolitics are the most typical of our time any game has managed. And yes, Jaws Unleashed was a joke.
  • Hobojedi - August 14, 2011 8:46 p.m.

    I could complain, but I'm satisfied with Doom making the list.
  • r.c.leclaire - August 14, 2011 6:53 p.m.

    Very interesting article. Good read but some curious selections.
  • JBizFoShiz - August 14, 2011 6:50 p.m.

    As far as 2011 is concerned, there are SO many good games this year. Personally, keeping in theme with the article, my pick goes to Bulletstorm. In terms of media coverage on gaming's evil nature (hi Fox!), the resurgence of the worried-about-nothing conservative parents (hi Dead Space 2 ad campaign!), I think those owe a lot to Bulletstorm!* *Not calling it the best game of the year. Calm down. Make this list in 10 years, and Modern Warfare 2 will be on here for 2010. Fact. I don't like MW2, but you can't deny its impact on the mainstream - for better or worse.
  • JBizFoShiz - August 14, 2011 6:42 p.m.

    PEOPLE! Calm down. These are NOT GR's picks for the best game of each year - but the games that represented each year! Whether that be through the media, through critics' reviews, through the public response. In 2005, was there ANY game that was talked about/vilified more than San Andreas? 2004's EA-Madden exclusivity deal was HUGE and killed the NFL2K series, Blitz, and destroyed any and all future NFL games not called Madden. LOTS of great games didn't make the list (I see nobody mentioning the original Sonic the Hedgehog as Sega challenged Nintendo's control), but this list does a good job letting people know just WHAT was up during the last 30 years of gaming, especially people who know nothing of gaming!! That said, no Dreamcast game making the list makes me frowny face. I would personally rank Sonic Adventure above Everquest (1999) as that was THE Dreamcast game to make a real impact, and introduce the next generation of 128-bit graphics before the PS2. The Dreamcast itself could have been a gaming landmark.
  • nai1210 - August 14, 2011 12:31 a.m.

    seriously Jaws:Unleashed,you like that game?,and it had no impact or importence in video game history it was a piece of shit being flogged at full price,this list is poor overall some of the games on here don't define it's place in video game history,nor it's year or genre,think i'll re-read the start of the article to see what your point was,but i thought it was games that defined the year which they where release?p.s all donkey kong country games where piss poor at the time,sure they looked nice,but had no charm or gameplay to get excited about no wonder Miyamota dissed it,Rare made good games for the spectrum but I have only ever enjoyed one game from them since that time and that would be Goldeneye and yep I have played a lot of there games since the speccy days and find them overrated and annoying looking at you snake rattle n roll and rc pro am in particullar
  • oldschoolgamer - August 13, 2011 11:59 p.m.

    landmarks of gaming, and no myst, tombraider, age of empires, mechwarrior, diablo, starcraft, castel wolfenstien, gauntlet, Yet pokemon made the list.. Rollseyes, you things went bad after packman..
  • dragonchilde - August 13, 2011 10:06 p.m.

    Everquest landmark? Hardly. Ultima Online predated it by two years, and still goes today. Everquest didn't (doesn't) have the depth.
  • lemur - August 13, 2011 8:42 p.m.

    I think half-life was more of a landmark than pokemon.
  • AleeR - August 13, 2011 4:42 p.m.

    Honestly, I think 2010 is probably still too soon to tell what games really reflect what we were thinking then ( I think a few years of perspective is needed). Going back further, I think a big head scratcher was the omission of Street Fighter II in '91. I realize Battletoads encompassed the TMNT parodies, but SFII revived the arcade culture, and esentially defined the genre that would rule for years. Mortal Kombat's true contribution came in 93, not at the release of the arcade, but the Genesis and SNES ports.
  • RicePuddingUK - August 13, 2011 3:02 p.m.

    You know 2004 was a bad year for games when MADDEN is the best one
  • Gnilres - August 13, 2011 2:27 p.m.

    Where's 2011?
  • avantguardian - August 13, 2011 8:52 a.m.

    @nightcrawler_358: it would seem a basic understanding of the article would be required to feel like commenting would be necessary, yeah? its strange that people would take something with objectivity in mind personally. just because a game isn't on the list doesn't mean it isn't "good" enough;) also, i feel sorry for other blocky turd/penis hybrids. it seems one bad apple has spoiled the proverbial barrel...
  • Roentgen - August 13, 2011 8:32 a.m.

    Where was Alone in the Dark for 1992? It created an entire genre overnight and is one of the most beloved survival horror games of all time.
  • quincytheodore - August 13, 2011 6 a.m.

    Wha...? No MGS 1, RE4, Bioshock? Those gotta be some sort of landmark in gameplay or narrative. And Portal? You know the game you dubbed No.1 on Top 100? Whyyy...