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The Greatest Game: Prince of Persia (1989)
Long before he was messing with the Sands of Time or getting his ass repeatedly saved by Elika, the Prince had to escape from a trap-filled, guard-infested dungeon and rescue a princess from an evil vizier in the space of one hour. And the first time he did it, he did it on the Apple II.
The first game to really use rotoscoping in its animation (that is, drawing frames of animation over actual film of a person in motion), Prince of Persia was a stunning technological achievement for the Apple II, which by 1989 was on its last legs, and it represents the pinnacle of what the old computer can do.
It was also a damn fine game, and became popular to the point that it was ported to no fewer than 14 different platforms (most recently as a download for the PS3 and 360) and kicked off a multi-sequel dynasty that’s since been rebooted and repackaged twice.
The second greatest: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
The Ultima series was the template on which all modern RPGs are based, from Final Fantasy to The Elder Scrolls, and Ultima IV is where the series really began to take off. IV began the story of the Avatar, gave the Apple II one of its biggest, most sprawling adventures, and still holds up as one of the most impressive, iconic achievements of its era.
The Greatest Game: K.C. Munchkin! (1981)
Known simply as Munchkin in Europe, KC Munchkin was clearly a shameless knock-off of Pac-Man. Sure, the maze had only three ghosts (sorry – munchers) and far fewer dots, and the blue main character sported both antennae and visible eyes… but this was clearly Pac-Man. And it was really good. Add in bonus features like support for a speech module and a maze construction mode, it became great.
Atari obviously thought so too – having purchased the exclusive rights to the home version of Pac-Man (which it hadn’t yet released), the company sued successfully to have KC Munchkin removed from store shelves. This was a brutal blow to the already struggling Odyssey 2. KC would return shortly in KC’s Crazy Chase, in which he rolled through the maze eating trees and biting pieces off a giant caterpillar. But the Odyssey 2’s chance at gaining a foothold against the market-dominating Atari 2600 was over.
A small bit of justice would prevail. When it was released the next year, the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man sucked so badly that literally millions of cartridges would go unsold, a tank job of historic proportions.
The second greatest: Pick Axe Pete! (1982)
What do you do when copying Pac-Man got you sued? Make a graphically crude copy of Donkey Kong, or course! But not all of it – just the part with the hammer. That’s the most fun anyhow.
The Greatest Game: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1982)
Intellivision’s sports games blew away those on its closest competitor, the Atari 2600, and sold a lot of systems – to parents. But if you were playing solo, none of those games were as compelling as the proto-RPG Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
The game cast the player as a bow-wielding adventurer charged with retrieving both halves of the Crown of Kings, which was guarded by two evil winged dragons that lived in a mountain dungeon on the far side of the map. There were mountains, forests, and rivers in the way, so you had to explore the caves along the way to find supplies like a boat, an axe, and extra arrows. And of course, there were monsters. Lots of them.
That was really all there was to it. You can see the entire game played front to back in less than six minutes here. But before you mock it for its simplicity, take careful note of the viewpoint, the randomly generated maps, and the way each dungeon’s layout is only revealed as you move through it. Remind you of anything? Maybe a beloved PC franchise?
Well, it should. This is totally Diablo.
The second greatest: Astrosmash (1981)
Although Utopia could be considered the earliest Civilization-type game (created by Don Daglow, of the late Stormfront Studios), the Intellivision’s biggest hit had to be AstroSmash. It was basically Asteroids with your ship moving on the ground instead of in space, but it was nonetheless incredibly fun.
The Greatest Game: Donkey Kong (1982)
Back in the day, a decent arcade port was more than enough to put a game console on the map. Space Invaders and Asteroids sold a zillion Atari 2600s. Is it any wonder that the first game everyone thinks of when they hear “ColecoVision” is Donkey Kong?
The Atari 2600 had Donkey Kong, but the jumping was strange, Kong looked like a gingerbread man, and two entire levels – the conveyor belts and the elevator level - were missing. Intellivision’s version had all the same problems and even worse graphics – Kong just looked like a giant turd with legs. ColecoVision had far better graphics and included the elevator level (though still no conveyor belts). It was the way to go.
It didn’t matter than the Atari 800 version was better – that was a computer, not a console. And it didn’t matter that the NES version was better – that wouldn’t come to the US for years. No, if you wanted to play the best home console version of Donkey Kong in 1982, you needed a ColecoVision. And fans of the system never let their competitors forget it.
The second greatest: Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle (1982)
Venture and Donkey Kong Jr. were far better, but somehow, despite truly awful controls, this cutesy technical showpiece became one of the “must have”, marquee ColecoVision games of its day. Urgh. On the plus side, a glitch let you see Smurfette “topless”, so there was that.
The Greatest Game: Archon (1984)
With a library literally thousands of games deep, the C-64 defies you to pick its best or most influential game. So, we just went with the office favorite, which led on Atari computers but made its largest mark on C-64. You know those incredibly gaudy, yet wonderfully cool wizard-and-dragon chess sets you always see in that gift store in the mall that also sells disco balls and black light posters? Archon, from then-fledgling art-house developer Electronic Arts, was that chess set come to vivid, glorious life.
Led by a noble wizard and a wicked sorceress, the light and dark armies were composed of all the coolest fantasy creatures. Dragons and djinn, basilisks and banshees, goblins and golems, unicorns and… a phoenix.
It was a mythology fan’s dream, but with added violence; when two pieces landed in the same spot, they were transported to a battlefield where mortal combat would determine whether light or dark would win the square.
The playfield shifted colors, giving one side or the other extra life, and magic spells could summon elementals, revive dead units or teleport living ones. And through it all, Archon was perfectly balanced. It’s sometimes hard to remember that publisher EA was originally all about innovation and creativity, but Archon is a timeless reminder.
The second greatest: Summer Games (1984)
Back when games based upon the Olympics didn’t automatically suck, this was the best. The C-64 version hit first with eight events: Pole Vault, Diving, 4x400m Relay, 100 Meter Dash, Gymnastics, Freestyle Relay (swimming), 100 Meter Freestyle, and Skeet Shooting – and we played them with the intensity of real Olympic athletes.
The Greatest Game: Elite (1984)
What is Elite? It’s a space-opera shoot ’em up. It’s a trading game with a pan-galactic economy obeying the laws of supply and demand. It’s a game so deep it comes with its own novella.
As a freelance space trader, you start with an obvious strategy: begin trading. What happens next is up to you, not the game or the government. Upgrade your ship with beam lasers or a fuel scoop that lets you skim gas from a nearby sun. Scrapes are inevitable. Traders will be ambushed by pirates or – and this is the joy of Elite – you may decide to become a pirate yourself. That fuel scoop can gather the cargo of a disintegrated ship or even its pilot, who you can sell into slavery. (Other unsavoury contraband includes narcotics and firearms.)
All this is superbly realised by Elite’s breathtaking 3D vector-graphics engine. There are spinning space stations and distant planets. Defender comes to mind, but while that game implemented the first offscreen world, Elite gives you a snapshot of an entire universe. Ironically, Elite’s closest cousin is perhaps D&D-style roleplaying. Never before has a computer gamer been able to so fully inhabit an alternative self. Scanning the cockpit while climbing out of laser shot with a cargo of goods, you forget you’re playing a game at all.
The second greatest: Granny's Garden (1983)
Load up Granny's Garden today and it all comes flooding back. The text questions, the crappy graphics, the blue raven… and of course the old witch herself who always “sent you home.” Bitch. The game was educational, teaching computer literacy at the dawn of the home computer… and scary as hell when you're six years old. Hilarious now, mind.
The Greatest Game: Magicland Dizzy (1990)
Before Sonic and Mario, there was Dizzy. He's an egg who tumbles around platform worlds (simply because the game's creators, the Oliver Twins, had a sprite rotation program and wanted to use it), picking up items and dropping them somewhere else to solve puzzles. Imagine a text adventure but with arcade gameplay and you're there. After a dodgy start, every subsequent Dizzy adventure has been worth a look, but we believe his finest hour has to be Magicland Dizzy, effectively Dizzy IV.
As always, the evil wizard Zaks has been terrorizing the Yolkfolk, turning Dizzy's friends into various oddities. It's your job to save them. The game is charming, with a sense of mystery, but also of humor. If you get bitten by Zaks' vampire grandmother, the game asks, “Who says you can't teach your grandmother to suck eggs?” There's a reference to Pac-Man, too, as a Power Pill makes the ghosts in the swamp start flashing blue, enabling you to kill them on touch.
Magicland Dizzy is devastatingly challenging by today's standards, with only three lives and limited health regeneration over a lengthy sitting, but this decent remake has a save feature. We just finished it again after a 16-year gap and loved every minute of it.
The second greatest: Manic Miner (1983)
Everyone thinks of Manic Miner or its sequel Jet Set Willy when the Spectrum is mentioned. Manic Miner is, without doubt, one of the most enduring examples of the platform genre… and rock hard to boot. Collapsing platforms, one-hit kills and a cast of memorable enemies (seals balancing balls in uranium mines?) make this an unforgettable game.
The Greatest Game: Blazing Lazers (1989)
It would be pretty easy to argue that the TurboGrafx-16 was the best 2D shooter system in history. Names like Super Star Soldier, R-Type, Fantasy Zone, Air Zonk, Raiden, Psychosis and Gate of Thunder might not send a shot of adrenaline through many of today’s gamers, but they were absolute heavyweights in their day. And the vertically scrolling blastathon Blazing Lazers was widely considered the best shooter of them all.
Blazing Lasers had “it”, that tangible-yet-unnamed quality that let the player know the game had been expertly designed, playtested until fingers bled, and polished to an absolute mirror sheen. It just moved so quickly and fluidly – not necessarily a given in those slowdown-addled days – and the power-up system and its various weapons were so well balanced, so creative, and so empowering. It’s pure craftsmanship in motion. Even the soundtrack music was unrelentingly good.
To this day, a quick look at the game’s Wiki page reinforces its revered status. But forget the nerdy research – grab your Wii remote, head over to Virtual Arcade, and download Blazing Lasers for yourself. And while you’re at it, grab those other titles we’ve listed as well. They’re some of the Wii’s best games.
The second greatest: Bonk’s Adventure (1990)
Head-butting cave boy Bonk borrowed Mario’s purity of heart and Sonic’s effortless cool, pumped it full of Flintstones vitamins and unbridled tenacity – he would actually gnaw his way up cliffs with his teeth – and came up with three classic side-scrolling platformers.
The Greatest Game: Ys: Book I & II (1990)
We’ll fess up to being ardent fanboys of the tremendously old-school Ys series. It’s no-frills RPG gaming at its finest; top-down sword-swinging nonsense with a silly plot, cardboard characters and some of the most demanding level grinding in all the realms. The first two entries appeared on myriad platforms (most recently Virtual Console and soon the DS), but the best edition was the twofer that combined Books I and II into one package, and tied them together with (at the time) amazing cutscenes and new-fangled CD music. Anyone else remember Redbook Audio?
It was the CD tech that made Ys stand tall as the Duo’s best offering. Even though the graphics looked silly even next to latter-day NES titles, it was the combination of animated cutscenes, spoken dialogue and again, an amazing soundtrack that declared “this is what CD-ROM technology can do for games.” It’s a lesson better taught by Final Fantasy VII, but we still proudly honor a series that was making huge waves on a system the vast majority of us never knew existed until the internet came around… or possibly until you read this entry just now.
The second greatest: Lords of Thunder (1993)
First place was easy to choose, as there wasn’t a lot of worthy competition on the system. But when it comes to 2D shooters (real shooters, people), the Duo was nearly unmatched in both volume and sheer excellence. Lords of Thunder tops our list for its guitar-melting riffs and kick-your-dick-in-the-dirt difficulty. It too is on Virtual Console, so now you have no reason to ever track down the failure that was the TurboDuo.
The Greatest Game: Samurai Shodown II (1994)
If you’re lucky enough to own a Neo Geo, then you’ve never wanted for top-quality (and ridiculously expensive) 2D fighters. But if you know the system well, then you know that the best of that lot isn’t one of the many King of Fighters installments, or even the amazing Garou: Mark of the Wolves. No, the Neo Geo’s greatest and most sought-after fighter came relatively early in its lifespan, and its name was Samurai Shodown II.
Bigger, faster, bloodier and prettier than the first Samurai Shodown (as well as most of the sequels that followed it), SS II starred a roster of 16 medieval badasses of the samurai, knight, ninja and weirdo persuasions, who wielded swords, staffs, boomerangs and in one case a giant stone obelisk. It was like Street Fighter II with better visuals and a death wish; the fights were short, unpredictable and bloody, often ending with the loser gushing a fountain of arterial spray or being sliced in half.
It was, in short, the most awesome thing to hit arcades in the mid-‘90s, and the fact that it never really hit other, cheaper home systems until fairly recently helped keep its mystique alive. Even with its laughable Engrish translation, it still manages to outshine all of its sequels and every other game on the Neo Geo, and on a system this crowded with fighters, that’s no small accomplishment.
The second greatest: Bust-A-Move (1995)
People sometimes forget that the Neo Geo was host to things other than fighting games, but Bust-A-Move/Puzzle Bobble has managed not only to stand the test of time, but to become one of the most widely ported and ripped-off puzzle games since Tetris. We’d like to see any game in the King of Fighters series pull that off.
The Greatest Game: The Need for Speed (1994)
Most players don’t remember that this now-classic racing series actually got its start on the infamous 3DO. The original game was more sim-like than almost all of the installments that followed, thanks to the developer’s partnership with Road & Track magazine. Still, the series’ trademark style was already present in full force; it was filled with flashy cars from all parts of the globe, recreated to look and sound as realistic as possible (given the technology of the time, at least), and big police chases.
Thus, as tempting as it was to go with a sci-fi hit like Out of this World, Star Control II, or Wing Commander or the motorcycle mayhem of Road Rash – by the way EA, where the hell is our new RR? – only one 3DO game has spawned 15 sequels and counting. Looks like we all have the need.
The second greatest: Road Rash (1994)
The Road Rash series didn’t debut on 3DO – that honor goes to the Genesis version. But on 3DO, the series got a full makeover, with new mechanics and wildly different graphics. It was the best in its day, and we’ll take a chain to the skull of anyone who says differently.