Greatest games of the 80s

Super Mario Bros artistic in 3D

Gather round, young whippersnappers. Uncle Jan is going to tell you about the time they say gaming almost died.

The year was 1982, and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial took the box office by storm.

This was in June, and by December, Atari released a tie-in video game that would set the precedent for games based on movies for years to come.

Regarded as the worst game ever made, E.T. was credited with damaging the reputation of the North American video game industry to the point that the whole thing came crashing down in 1983.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. And it is completely wrong.

While Howard Scott Warshaw did only have 5 weeks to design and build E.T., his former Atari designer colleagues came to his defence in the 2014 documentary “Atari: Game Over”.

E.T., they said, was far from the worst game ever. That title should really belong to games like Fire Fly and Trespasser.

It was a series of unfortunate events that led to the fall of Atari and the great North American video game crash.

A flooded console market, bad games that had poor sales, and competition from home computers all contributed to the crash.

Regardless of the reasons, Nintendo was waiting in the wings to step into the void Atari left, giving birth to some of best-known franchises in gaming.

Best-selling video games of the 1980s

Tetris score screen

Nintendo Tetris score screen

Rank Title Release Date Developer Units sold (in millions)
1 Super Mario Bros. 13 September 1985 Nintendo 40.24
2 Tetris No agreement on official release date (1984-1989) Bullet Proof Software 30.26
3 Duck Hunt 21 April 1984 Nintendo 28.31
4 Super Mario Land 21 April 1989 Nintendo 18.14
5 Super Mario Bros. 3 23 October 1988 Nintendo 17.28
6 Super Mario Bros. 2 01 September 1988 Nintendo 7.46
7 Pac-Man 01 March 1982 Atari 7
8 The Legend of Zelda 21 February 1986 Nintendo 6.51
9 Zelda II: The Adventure of Link 14 January 1987 Nintendo 4.38
10 Excitebike 30 November 1984 Nintendo 4.16

The Wikipedia article on the decade’s video games history contains the table above, summarising the best-selling games of the period.

However, it notes that outside of NES/Famicom titles, video game sales numbers were not that accurately reported.

For example, the Atari 2600 game “Pitfall!” may actually be in tenth place, as it was reported to have sold “over 4 million” copies.

In addition to Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Pac-Man, and the Legend of Zelda, the 1980s also gave rise to a number of other franchises. These are given an honourable mention below.


Final Fantasy (1987)

Final Fantasy


King’s Quest (1983)

Kings Quest 1


Leisure Suit Larry (1987)

Leisure Suit Larry


Mega Man / Rockman (1987)

Mega Man 1


Metroid (1986)

Metroid Samus Aran


Microsoft Flight Simulator (1982)

Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0


Prince of Persia (1989)

Prince Of Persia The Forgotten Sands


SimCity (1989)

SimCity Mac


Space Quest (1986)

Space Quest 1 bar


Wasteland (1988)

Wasteland death


Zork (1980)

Zork Grue


Main image by Justin Buonvino (NES–still-the-best on DeviantArt)

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