1. Mario Bros.
The year 1983 is often portrayed as the onset of a brief dark age in video games—especially in the United States—and with good reason. A glut of shoddy games, including high-profile failures like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, combined with a mess of competing consoles to bring about the collapse of Atari’s overextended console empire. That had ripple effects throughout the industry, sending it into a two-year depression, but that’s not the entire story. While many studios were hit hard, industrious creators did continue to make games and advance the contours of the art form. Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, for instance, spent 1983 refining the character that would soon become a global icon. Mario Bros. marks a transition between the humble Mario who dodges rolling barrels in Donkey Kong and the more fantastical fireball-spewing dynamo who stars in Super Mario Bros. It’s also the debut of Mario as a plumber—prior to Mario Bros., he was a carpenter—a change prompted by the fact that the game involves fighting mutant creatures in the depths of the New York sewer. It might seem odd that Mario’s first starring role is not so widely remembered today (compared to the Super follow-up), but while Mario Bros. establishes details of the character, the game lacks the fantastical spirit and variety of future entries. Mario Bros.’ legacy has also been hampered by the fact that whenever Nintendo re-releases the game, it uses the NES port instead of the original, superior arcade version.
2. Ultima III: Exodus
No 1983 game left more of a mark than Ultima III, whose innovations are still reverberating in games made today. Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons had provided a model for a number of video games before this one (including the previous two entries in the Ultima series), and while many of those works broke their own ground, their battles and character development lacked the intricacy of their cardboard forebears. Ultima III marked a moment when it became clear that fantasy games on the computer had the potential to develop a complexity of their own. Rather than playing as a single hero, in Ultima III you commanded a party of four, each with their own talents (determined by your choice of 11 character “classes”). More importantly, Ultima III introduced turn-based combat, in which you select a command—you might “Attack” or “Cast” a spell—and then the enemy fighters get their turn. Because this approach became ubiquitous and has only recently begun to fall out of style, this may not seem like such a genius innovation in retrospect. But it was a major break from past computer role-playing games, in which battles were comparatively crude affairs consisting mostly of “HIT!” or “MISS!” binaries, and it laid the groundwork for more sophisticated battlefield strategy in series like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and countless others.
M.U.L.E. is one of the earliest examples of a multiplayer game that was more complex than its brutish reflex-testing arcade contemporaries. Heavily influenced by Monopoly’s transformation of dry subject matter into a dynamic, social competition, M.U.L.E. is a competitive economic strategy game. Four players take turns buying up land and worker drones called “multiple use labor elements” (M.U.L.E.s) to harvest resources from their new property. The real action takes place in the auction house. At the end of every turn, players with a surplus of resources can sell to a store that acts a lot like Monopoly’s bank. If you don’t have enough food or energy to make your next turn effective, you have to buy some. If the store doesn’t have what you need in stock, you’re at the mercy of the players with resources to spare. Naturally, this can lead to all sorts of conniving, with greedy players driving up food and energy prices. M.U.L.E. is a predecessor to empire-building strategy games like Civilization, and Shigeru Miyamoto considered it an inspiration for Nintendo’s Pikmin series. But the most outspoken M.U.L.E. fan has to be Will Wright, the creator of SimCity, which has a number of holdovers from the earlier game, like random disasters that could doom your people. Despite the acclaim, M.U.L.E. is a largely forgotten game, overshadowed by the story of its designer, Dan Bunten, who later underwent sex-change surgery and went by the name Danielle Bunten Berry. Berry died in 1998.
4. Pinball Construction Set
Pinball and video games could be considered opposing forces in 1980, competing for space in arcades and representing a larger philosophical divide between the appeal of the physical and the allure of the virtual. There were moments, however, when they came together. The product of these unions was often strange and misbegotten, like Atari’s 1978 arcade cabinet Video Pinball. But in 1983, designer Bill Budge took a different tack by inviting users to build their own pinball games in Pinball Construction Set. The game simply gave players a toolkit of flippers, pop bumpers, and the like; then it set them loose on the blank canvas of an empty pinball playfield. The designs could be saved to a floppy disk and shared, which makes Construction Set a sort of proto-Little Big Planet. But the game’s influence extends beyond mere construction games—even Will Wright, the aforementioned designer of SimCity, cites Budge’s work as an influence.
5. Crystal Castles
Many early 1980s arcade games were influenced by the hallucinatory kids’ entertainment of the previous decade—think Sid and Marty Krofft—and Crystal Castles is among the stranger fare. Not only does it cast you as a crystal-obsessed bear tormented by sentient trees and hovering bowling balls, but the game also featured trippy color schemes, intricate pseudo-3D mazes (a far cry from Pac-Man), and a trackball in lieu of a joystick. Crystal Castles’ most enduring innovation, though, is its most prosaic: It ends. Plenty of text adventures before Crystal Castles had endings to their stories, of course, but for arcade-style games, it was anathema. If players completed all of a game’s levels, the machine would either loop back to the first level or glitch out with an unwinnable “kill screen.” (Donkey Kong was among the games that famously ended with the latter.) But when you complete the 37th level of Crystal Castles, the machine cries uncle. “I GIVE UP: YOU WIN,” it says on a spartan ending screen, “YOU MUST BE A VIDEO WHIZ.” Okay, it’s no BioShock Infinite, but it did introduce the idea that arcade games could be self-contained narratives rather than infinite loops.
6. Star Wars
The enormous success of Atari’s Star Wars adaptation was a short-term win for the industry, but it helped give rise to the endless parade of film-to-game conversions that continues to disappoint players to this day. Still, taken alone, the 1983 Star Wars game holds up. The designers’ masterstroke was to recognize the part of the movie that translated best to the technology of the time—the outer-space dogfights—and completely ignore everything else. Using wireframe 3D graphics, Star Wars essentially runs the climax of the film over and over again, casting the player as Luke Skywalker and inviting you to blow up as many Death Stars as you can before dying. Unlike so many half-assed film adaptations that followed, Atari treated Star Wars with reverence, packaging the game in lavishly designed cabinets that were awash in art—the faux-cockpit style is especially hard for a would-be Skywalker to resist. The game’s programming features little touches that show an appreciation for the source material, too: If you hold your fire until you reach the exhaust port in the Death Star trench (following Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice to “use the force”) you get a 100,000-point bonus.
7. Dragon’s Lair
If arcade games exist to siphon money from players, then Dragon’s Lair is the form’s peak. Fresh off The Secret Of NIMH, animator Don Bluth and his studio lent their cartoon chops to Lair and put together what is essentially a short animated film. The story follows Dirk The Daring, a gallant knight who is on a quest to save Princess Daphne from an evil dragon. The arcade cabinet contained a laserdisc player, which spat out the individual scenes from Dirk’s adventure. During each scene, the player has to pick the right direction or push the sword button at the right time to get through one of the castle’s traps. Make one mistake, and Dirk suffers some (usually) humorous death. Imagine seeing a game that looked like this tucked away amid the sea of traditional arcade games. How could you not play it? Dragon’s Lair’s eye-catching visuals and strict trial-and-error nature ensured its success, but its sequel and Bluth’s follow-up, Space Ace, fared worse. That didn’t stop Dragon’s Lair from finding its way onto nearly every video-displaying medium ever created. Nor did that stop its more infamous design trope of quick-time events—those moments where a game tells you to PRESS THIS BUTTON NOW or suffer the consequences—from bleeding into many games over the past decade. The true legacy of Dragon’s Lair falls to works that have sought to meld movies and games with an emphasis on the movie part, like those of Quantic Dream, the studio behind Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy.
8. I, Robot
Atari’s maze/shooter hybrid I, Robot was the product of an intense development process that aimed to give players their first-ever taste of true 3D polygon graphics in a mass-market game—as opposed to the hollow 3D wireframe graphics that Atari and other developers had dabbled in before. (Star Wars, above, is an example of the latter.) Lead designer Dave Theurer and his team succeeded in their ambitious goal, and their reward was near-total apathy when the game reached arcades. But game historians have revived interest in I, Robot (which is not associated with the Isaac Asimov story), and not just because it’s a technical milestone. The colorful design is beautiful in its own right. There’s whimsy in the form of your character, a plucky little servant robot who rebels against its master, and there’s intimidation in the form of the all-seeing eye. The terrifying outer-space head who appears in some shooter levels is an aesthetic ancestor of the fight with Andross that would conclude Nintendo’s Star Fox 10 years later. But even if players at the time didn’t appreciate I, Robot, the designers knew their visual effects were special. They even included a mode called “Doodle City” in which players can use the game’s polygons to sketch trippy patterns on the screen.
9. The Portopia Serial Murder Case
Japanese designer Yuji Horii would later gain his greatest fame as the creator and impresario of the Dragon Quest games, but in 1983, Enix published his second commercial work, a murder mystery that cast players as the investigating detective. Though popular in Japan (especially when it was released for the Famicom console in 1985), The Portopia Serial Murder Case wasn’t released in the United States, in part because its themes didn’t fit the family-friendly vibe of the American game industry at the time. Although the game’s edgy material seems quaint now, it is definitely written for grown-ups. For instance, one suspect in your investigation ends up hanging himself, and there’s an off-screen visit to a strip club, complete with moans of ecstasy. Portopia’s willingness to incorporate adult themes into a callow art form has echoes of Japan’s gekiga alternative comics movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima has repeatedly called the game an inspiration for his own career, saying that Portopia helped him understand how a game could create drama. Regrettably, Portopia still hasn’t seen an official English-language release, but there is a bootleg translation of the Famicom version.