10 of the best games from 1981

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Previous 10 of the Best Tuesdays have been quite specific in their focus — so we thought it might be fun to look a little more broadly at the gaming landscape this time around. So we’re going to take a look all the way back to 40 — yes, 40 — years in the past, and the best games from 1981.

This was a pretty good year for video games, all told, with lots of great games appearing both in arcades and in the home. So without further ado, let’s pick out 10 of the best games from 1981 — and as always, this list is not intended to be in any way exhaustive, so if you think we’ve missed any, let’s hear about ’em in the comments or via the usual social channels!

Scramble (Konami, arcade)

Best games from 1981: Scramble

Who doesn’t love a scrolling shoot ’em up? Without Konami’s Scramble, this genre might not have become what it is today, as it pioneered the idea of forced scrolling games with distinct levels. While it’s pretty simple by modern standards, it still has plenty of interesting ideas — most notably the distinction between shooting threats ahead of you and bombing things on the ground beneath you. And, as such, it definitely qualifies as one of the best games from 1981.

Scramble is one of the most widely cloned games out there; the 8-bit home computer platforms in particular were absolutely full of attempts to recreate the arcade experience to varying degrees of success.

Caverns of Mars (Atari, Atari 8-bit)

Best games from 1981: Caverns of Mars

And much as Konami’s Scramble pioneered the horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up, Caverns of Mars by teenage programmer Greg Christensen did the same for vertical scrollers. Essentially, the game was effectively Scramble rotated through 90 degrees, but there were some interesting additions to the formula, too — most notably the requirement to “reverse” back out of the cavern once you’d reached the bottom and planted a bomb!

Caverns of Mars was originally released through the Atari Program Exchange or APX label, which allowed users of Atari computers to submit their work to Atari and get it published and distributed. Caverns of Mars ended up being the best-selling APX title of all time, and as a result was republished by Atari, initially on diskette and later on cartridge. The numbers don’t lie: this was, beyond a doubt, one of the best games from 1981.

Kaboom! (Activision, Atari 2600)

Best games from 1981: Kaboom!

One of the most popular games for Atari 2600, and one of the best games from1981, Larry Kaplan and David Crane’s Kaboom! is the very definition of “easy to learn, hard to master”. Essentially an unauthorised adaptation of Atari’s 1978 arcade machine Avalanche — which Atari appeared in no hurry to port themselves — Kaboom! tasks you with catching a stream of cherry bombs dropped by the Mad Bomber using your buckets of water.

Kaboom! makes use of the Atari 2600’s iconic paddle controllers, which have a knob on top rather than a joystick; by turning the knob, you have full analogue control over your horizontal position. Modern ports of Kaboom attempt to simulate the paddle controls using analogue joysticks — but there’s nothing quite like the real thing.

Snafu (Mattel, Intellivision)

Best games from 1981: Snafu

The “Snake” genre was invented by Gremlin with their 1976 arcade game Blockade, but it became somewhat more refined over the course of the following years. Snafu for Intellivision is both one of the best games from 1981 and one of the most enjoyable multiplayer titles for the Intellivision, offering 16 variations on the basic “Snake” formula (“try not to crash into anything before your opponent does”), a customisable speed factor and the ability to play against either a friend or computer opponents. Oh, and it’s also one of the first ever video games to have a full musical soundtrack.

Snafu is part of the upcoming Intellivision Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade — so if you have a VS, you’ll be able to enjoy the game’s multiplayer fun on your TV without having to cramp your hands around a classic Intellvision controller!

Gorf (Midway, arcade)

Best games from 1981: Gorf

Gorf is a fixed shooter by Midway that became noteworthy for having five distinct levels in each “loop” of the game; this made it stand out in comparison to Space Invaders and Galaxian, though two of those five stages are pretty shameless clones of both Space Invaders and Galaxian respectively! The others see you battling formations of enemies with powerful laser beams, warping through space and shooting enemies coming “out” of the screen at you and finally, confronting the enemy flagship in a rudimentary boss battle.

Gorf got a lot of ports to home computers of the time, though most of them omitted the Galaxian stage to avoid copyright issues with Namco; exactly how Midway managed to get away with it in the arcades remains something of a mystery. If you were wondering, the game’s name is “Frog” backwards; “Frog” was the nickname of game designer Jamie Fenton.

Wizardry (Sir-Tech, Apple II)

Best games from 1981: Wizardry

One of the best games from 1981 was the first release in Sir-Tech’s immensely influential Wizardry series. It was the first party-based role-playing game — earlier RPGs such as Epyx’s Dunjonquest series had focused on a single character — and helped to define what we know today as the “dungeon crawler” or “DRPG” subgenre of RPGs. These are games where the emphasis is on mechanical mastery and character development rather than narrative, and typically unfold from the same grid-based first-person perspective that Wizardry offered.

Wizardry went on to be particularly influential in Japan; it’s cited as a key inspiration for both the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. In fact, the series was so popular in Japan that long after western developers and publishers had lost interest in it, Japanese developers and publishers acquired the license and continued to produce games under the Wizardry name!

Fantasy (SNK, arcade)

Best games from 1981: Fantasy

This unusual arcade game, developed by SNK, is noteworthy for being one of the first ever games to feature a “continue” function; the other game which is also often brought up in that regard is Vanguard, another SNK title from the same year.

Fantasy is a peculiar multi-stage game in which you must complete various, increasingly ridiculous tasks in order to save your girlfriend from being kidnapped by all sorts of unpleasant people. While it starts on a pirate ship, it moves on to the jungle and concludes with a climactic battle atop London Bridge. Now that’s the sort of nonsense we like to see from our old video games — and this attempt at rudimentary storytelling makes Fantasy one of the best games from 1981.

Astrosmash (Mattel, Intellivision)

Astrosmash

Astrosmash is a fixed shooter for the Intellivision that is noteworthy for its unconventional scoring system and enormously addictive nature; it’s not at all uncommon to lose an hour or more at a time to this one once you get in the zone, so by definition this is absolutely one of the best games from 1981 — and one of the best-sellers, too; it sold over a million copies, which is a hell of a lot for the time.

Rather than being a straight Space Invaders clone, Astrosmash instead incorporates elements of Asteroids such as objects that split into smaller pieces and bonus objects that can be as dangerous as they are profitable. Like Snafu, you’ll be able to play this one on Evercade once the Intellivision Collection 1 cartridge releases.

Turbo (Sega, arcade)

Best games from 1981: Turbo

One of the best games from 1981 is without a doubt Sega’s Turbo, which essentially kickstarted the third-person “vanishing point” racing format — though said format would be refined considerably by Namco’s Pole Position the following year. Turbo is still worth a go if you get the opportunity, though, since its straightforward but addictive “overtake as many cars as you can” gameplay is enjoyable and compelling.

Turbo was ported to Intellivision and Colecovision, and Activision’s 1983 title Enduro for Atari 2600 can be seen as an evolution of its formula.

Jump Bug (Alpha Denshi, arcade)

Best games from 1981: Jump Bug

Regarded as one of the first scrolling platformers, Jump Bug is a peculiar game in which you control a constantly bouncing car as you work your way through various different environments. Unlike most platform games, you don’t control exactly when you jump — rather, you have a limited amount of control over how high you jump and how quickly you fall. Its constantly moving nature makes it somewhat akin to today’s “endless runners” — or Irem’s Moon Patrol, which followed in 1982.

Jump Bug isn’t all that well known in the west, but in Japan it was tied with Scramble and Space Panic as the 14th highest grossing arcade game of the year. One of the best games from 1981? Your mileage may vary — but it was certainly a reasonably big deal on home soil at the time!


So that’s that! As always, these are just our picks — feel free to add to this list down in the comments or via our social media channels! What do you think the very best games from 1981 are?

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