The Greatest Generation of Games

In the U.S., 1979 to 1982 are generally considered the “Golden Age” of gaming, the era when arcades dominated the American main street and Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong captured our imagination. The Golden Age ended on December 7, 1982, when Atari announced fourth quarter sales would be 35% under market expectations. Parent company Warner Communications lost a third of its market capitalization in one day and Atari went on to lose over $500 million in the next year.

A “Modern Age” of gaming arguably began in 1993, with the release of id’s Doom. In one swoop, Doom brought us the first-person shooter (the definitive genre of the modern era), multiplayer gaming, and free downloadable demos. And it became the symbol for excessive violence and gore in the minds of the mainstream – at least until Grand Theft Auto came along.

The decade between the Fall of Atari and the Rise of Doom was a dark age for many gaming companies, as wave after wave perished in an onslaught of returns and red ink. Arcade gaming vanished, seemingly, overnight. Computer gaming seemed like it was going to be relegated to geeks; console gaming, to children. But just as modern society was birthed only after the fall of Rome swept away Antiquity, so, too, modern gaming was born from the ashes of the Golden Age, with products from upstart companies like Nintendo, Sega, and Electronic Arts. To the games of 1983 to 1993, we owe an industry. They are our Greatest Generation.

Here then, year by year, are the most influential games of that era:

1983: M.U.L.E., designed by Dani Bunten and published by Electronic Arts. Revolutionary for its multiplayer gameplay, M.U.L.E. was like the Velvet Underground of gaming: Not a mainstream success, but it inspired a generation of designers.

1984: Archon, designed by Jon Freeman & Paul Reiche III and published by Electronic Arts. The great-great-grandfather of Rome: Total War, Archon, was the first game to hybridize turn-based strategy and real-time tactics. Its gameplay remains classic.

1985: Super Mario Brothers, designed by Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto and published by Nintendo. It would be impossible to overstate the impact of Miyamoto’s masterpiece. Super Mario Bros. defined the side-scrolling platform jumper and became the “killer app” for NES. It also turned Easter Eggs into a gaming mainstay and fixed Mario into the constellation of video game stars.

1986: Tetris, designed by Alexey Pajitnov and published by AcademySoft. A global phenomenon, Tetris fathered the casual game genre. Unlike many of the other games in this list, it remains as popular as descendants like Snood and Bejeweled.

1987: Legend of Zelda, designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and published by Nintendo, and released in the west in 1987. A free-roaming top-down RPG with a fairy tale storyline and Gauntlet-style action, Zelda created the Japanese action RPG genre and gave Miyamoto his triple crown.

1988: King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, designed by Roberta Williams and published by Sierra Entertainment. Perhaps the high water mark of adventure gaming, KQIV was the first adventure game to feature a female hero, and the first PC game to support a sound card.

1989: Jointly, Populous, designed by Peter Molyneux and published by Electronic Arts; and SimCity, designed by Will Wright and published by Maxis Software, Inc. Populous was the seminal “god game” and the predecessor to Civilization. SimCity birthed the Sim genre and brand that culminated with the best-selling game of all time, The Sims.

1990: Wing Commander, designed by Chris Roberts and published by Origin Systems. Wing Commander combined space simulator action with cinematic storytelling, pioneering the use of cut scenes in games.

1991: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, designed by Warren Spector and published by Origin Systems. UU revolutionized RPGs with its “simulation style” 3D graphics engine and free-roaming world environments. While not a financial hit, UU‘s breakthrough technology inspired John Carmack to create Wolfenstein 3D and thus indirectly birthed the 3D action shooter.

1992: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, designed by Joseph Bostic & Aaron E. Powell and published by Virgin Games. Dune II was not the first real-time strategy game, but it defined the genre with resource-gathering, base construction, and tech trees that would dominate designs until the Total War series.

And that brings us to 1993, the Year of Doom, and the beginning of the Modern Age. Game on.

Max Steele is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. When not actively being mysterious, he passes his time manipulating time and space to fit his plans for world domination.

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