We all have a certain bit of nostalgia when it comes to video games. Whether it is the fun games we used to play at the local arcade, like Pacman, or the major console games 15 to 20 years ago. Retro Video Games have a certain appeal that connects to all of us in the Millennial Generation, Generation Y, or even Generation X.
Yet retro games have a certain place in our hearts today more than ever before.
There’s a reason why companies like Nintendo have released “classic” yet new versions of their Super Nintendo in recent years. Retro games connect to many of us, but the way it does will differ. For this writer, it was the love of playing them alongside his father while others may love them for the simple fun they brought to the table.
Regardless of HOW one enjoys them, the fact is that we still loved playing them.
The question then has to be, what are some of the best games during this time period of the 1980s & early 1990s? There are a ton of games, some of which were part of major franchises. We managed to narrow down a list of favorites. Although, the team behind this did nearly kill each other accomplishing it.
Ultima I: The First Age Of DarknessUltima 1 and the overall franchise are known for appearing on PC yet this particular version was also released on the Atari 8-bit. The original version was released in 1981 while a re-code of it came out in 1986. Of course, the later versions are obviously better known but Ultima itself was a special game that very well could have truly started the RPG genre.
This was also the first true open-world video game. It is one of those retro video games that now stands out as legendary due to being the first to accomplish this.
The ability to do pretty much whatever in this large sandbox, with tons of creative options to choose from, stood out to a small child like myself. It made me as well as most of my friends feel like we were truly part of the land of Sosaria. There are versions of this game still out there, so if you can find it to play again…we highly recommend it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in TimeArguably the greatest Ninja Turtles game ever made, the Turtles in Time video game was released in 1991 for the Arcade world. A version was then released for the Super Nintendo console in 1992. This was a multi-person game, allowing you to play it with your friends. You could be one of the 4 turtles while your buddies played alongside you to save the world.
The story is a bit crazy if we’re honest here. It revolves around Krang stealing the Statue of Liberty. Shredder is involved in all of this as well. Now you and your friends, playing as the Ninja Turtles, must rescue the statue all while having to deal with the Foot Clan and eventually Shredder & Krang.
It was incredibly fun every single play-through. Retro video games like this were made to play with friends, so it was always fun to play when you had a rainy day out.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s CurseCastlevania now has a Netflix series you can check out, but before this was ever thought of, the video game series was making us excited to get home from school every day. Perhaps the best of the series, at least in the early 90s, was the third installment, Dracula’s Curse.
Released in North America in 1990, the game revolved around Trevor C. Belmont. He’s the ancestor of the franchise’s original protagonist, Simon Belmont. While Castlevania II had more RPG elements to it, the third installment went to a more platform friendly concept that the first excelled with.
For some of us, this was an easier thing to fall in love with at the time. Today, leaving some RPG elements behind would be suicide. In the early days of gaming, especially for youngsters like us, just a nice compelling game could be interesting. Castlevania III accomplishes that.
Super Mario Bros.Don’t worry, Mario is all over this list. However, if there is one game that truly made us fall in love with video games, it was likely the Super Mario series itself. Of course, it all had to start somewhere. Super Mario Bros. was one of the retro video games that everyone remembers for good reason…it’s awesome. We’re STILL seeing Nintendo release titles around it.
The Mario Bros. arcade game was first out in the early 1980s but then it finally hit the console universe in North America around 1987. It has remained a Nintendo exclusive console game franchise ever since.
More than 40 million copies of this game have been sold, and this has nothing to do with the updated classic system version of the game. It also has one of the most iconic video game soundtracks in history! Super Mario Bros. will always stand out as one of the greatest games ever, period.
Phantasy StarOh yes, we’re going deep-cut for this one. Phantasy Star was one of the first truly big hits for SEGA. It came out on the SEGA Master System in 1988 (North America) and has since spawned several more in a franchise. It is now over 20 years old. The reason it seemed to land so well and remain such an interesting franchise is likely due to what it contained.
It’s often called a science fantasy game, as it uses both science & magic within the story-arc.
Being the first game, it goes through the story slowly to set up all the characters. Such as our main in Alis Landale and her attempt to get back at the tyrannical government who killed her brother, Nero. Run by King Lassic, Alis has to find a way to track him down and end him.
Yet we find out that the King was controlled by the infamous Darkfalz! Alis and co. defeat him but then more things come about, obviously, in the games that follow.
Tecmo BowlHate us all you want for including this, but this writer could not put a retro video games article together without including it. The Tecmo Bowl game was released in 1987 for the Arcade. Nintendo would get it for the NES in 1987 & Gameboy in 1991.
Before the Madden franchise, THIS was the pro-football game that everyone fell in love with. It was actually the first ever to include NFL players in it, which is why it was even licensed by the NFLPA at all.
We all know the Family Guy sketch where Peter uses Bo Jackson to beat everyone. This was based on reality, as the developers seemed to make Bo impossible to tackle. Therefore, when playing with your friends, you’d always agree that no one would be the Raiders (Jackson’s team) when playing together.
There was always one who attempted and was then automatically punched for his decision. I’m talking to you, Tommy!!
Star Fox 64Star Fox 64 released in the late-90s while its original came out in February of 1993. This was the first time we were introduced to the characters Fox McCloud along with his teammates. It was so amazing to little kids like us looking at this futuristic world that somehow involved animals in space combat missions.
We did not question it, because that would ruin the magic. It was also very different for Nintendo, as they had to use a Super FX chip to even allow you to play using the 3D Graphics. Obviously, this was a time period of 2D gaming, so the fact that we could play in 3D at the time was pretty much life-changing to kids all over the world.
This was one of the single greatest retro video games ever. People loved it then, and it can even hold up now for many gamers.
Prince of PersiaPrince of Persia was invented by now infamous game artist and developer, Jordan Mechner. It eventually released on a ton of consoles but upon its release in 1989, it was only available on Apple II. While considered to be a computer game today, at the time, the Apple II was a console the same as Nintendo. Of course, the series later moved to more established platforms.
However, the story of this game was incredibly interesting. It took place in Ancient Persia where you, as an unnamed guy the Princess loves, must save her. She is going to be forcibly married to Jaffar, a wizard who has taken the land while the Sultan was away.
We know, it screams “Aladdin,” but it came out before that movie….so who truly copied who here? That said, your mission is to save the Princess in the span of 60 to 120 minutes, depending on what console you played it on. It is truly one of the best retro video games ever. The movie that hit theaters later? Not as good.
Early Final Fantasy FranchiseThe game that started it all! Final Fantasy has just about re-made everything now. However, the original game came out in 1987 and seemed to be a big hit right away. They’d go 6 games deep by the mid-90s and everyone seemed to be into what they’d do next.
They were originally only available in the Arcade but then ended up in North America on the NES in 1990.
While other games had been in the role-playing genre, Final Fantasy truly introduces home console gamers to the multi-person RPG concept. They have remained dedicated to their multi-person concept ever since. Square or Square Enix, depending on when you asked them, have still kept up the quality for years.
The first games were impressive and sucked us into their incredible world as kids. We’re now still sucked into it all as adults!
Street FighterAlso originally released to be just an Arcade game, the original Street Fighter game eventually made its way to the home console later on. It was among many Arcade games ported to the popular systems of the day. Released originally in 1987, they had around 10 to 12 fighters you could play-as at the time.
A fighting game, Street Fighter was all about player vs player. However, you could easily play against the intelligent CPU too.
One thing Street Fighter as a franchise did that shocked some is that their early titles remained in the Arcade. In spite of being one of the better retro video games of its time, the franchise kept putting new games in the Arcade. This was likely due to its massive success there.
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Thus, you could often see new versions and players there at times, before you played them in home consoles. That was one of the main draws for Street Fighter in the Arcade too. Who might be new? Is there a bigger story element? You’d find out first in the Arcade, which is cool to look back on.
TetrisWe know, how could Tetris possibly be here? Tetris is one of the most notable games in history, whether people like it or not. You weren’t upset when you were playing Candy Crush on your phone at the doctor’s office, were you, Sharron?!? Tetris released in 1984 as mostly a computer game.
In fact, it was actually made by a Soviet Union man named Alexey Pajitnov, who then had it released on the Electronika 60. For those unaware, that was a Russian-made computer.
It was the first-ever game made by the Soviets that was then released in the United States. Upon coming to the United States, it landed on the Gameboy in 1989 and has been in use ever since in some mobile form or another. Of course, Tetris is a puzzle game that you could literally waste several hours playing and not even realize it.
Although the neck pain we now have from looking down sucks, we turned out fine barring the twitches!
MetroidReleased in 1986 for the NES, Metroid quickly became a fan-favorite almost immediately. The game follows bounty-hunter Samus Aran, who is going throughout space to hunt people down and take them out or bring them in. Aran must also protect the galaxy from Space Pirates as they try to harness the parasitic Metroid creatures.
The story brings you in easily and if released today, it would be just as big of a hit as it was in the 80s. It played similar to other games and had the action-adventure element like them too. However, it stood out in all of these areas, and games following the original always seemed to step on a notch every single time.
The original might be one of the best retro video games ever but the franchise is also iconic overall too. Brie Larson has been pitching to play Samus in a movie for the video game in 2020. Time will tell if we end up seeing it make the big screen. If it does, another game will surely come out of it, right?
Chrono TriggerReleased in early 1995, this game just made the cut for us. Chrono Trigger is legendary among gamers, likely due to the sheer scope of the game itself. The team at Square just killed it with the original, allowing more games to follow it.
While it may sound like a simplistic shoot-em-up, it was actually an action-adventure game with an interesting story and compelling artistry. You smash through various historical periods from prehistoric times to the medieval period, all the way to a futuristic post-apocalyptic time as well.
It is truly an interesting game that will suck you in easily and likely will always stand out to gamers as one of the best retro video games ever. While it sold much better in Japan than in the United States, people in America that gave it a shot are glad they did.
Super Mario KartWhile it is now commonly called “Mario Kart,” the original title in the series was “Super Mario Kart.” This was likely due to the series in Mario still being known as Super Mario. Nintendo knew they had a ton of characters to play around with, and they knew it too. It then only made sense to put them into cars and have them race each other, right?
However, you cannot just have a racing game with these wacky characters, can you? Oh no. They felt they had to throw in special abilities into the cars themselves with random power-ups, banana peels, and everything in-between. Pretty much everything is legal and you could spend hours playing this with friends.
It was on at every sleepover and it was always a first-play when friends just dropped by for a bit. No matter the age, the original Super Mario Kart and those that followed are iconic.
Mega ManMega Man was made by Capcom like many other iconic video games. However, the system the games played on will differ depending on the version. The original released in 1987 for the NES, but it also ended up in Arcades too. Other titles for Mega Man were not exclusive to the NES however, as they landed on SEGA platforms as well as Gameboy models.
The original is iconic and introduces us to the world we’ll soon get to know a lot more about in later games. This is where we see Mega Man for the first time, but we also find out about the 200X time period and the evil scientist, Dr. Light. You have 6 stages to complete, with a “boss” at the end of each one that the player has to take down.
Completing these, you then take on Dr. Light. The simplistic concept of the game was great for kids like us but the intriguing nature of the story was cool to see for people of all ages.
Mortal Kombat FranchiseIt is hard to hate the Mortal Kombat series, right? Also more of an Arcade game, Midway eventually went to console with it. Mortal Kombat 1, 2, & 3 all released from 1990 to 1995, each with great success. All three on the Nintendo to PlayStation 1 consoles are worth a nice chunk of change on the open market too.
The original featured the most well-known characters in the series, such as Liu Kang, Raiden, Kano, Shang Tsung, Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, and Goro. You could spend hours playing through the towers in this alone.
While fun, the following games added more and then began to slowly take it from a simple fighting game to one with a killer story along with it. We’d see the three come out and finally have a game called Mortal Kombat Trilogy release with everyone as well as every stage of the game by 1996.
Thus, if you want to play at any of the levels or as any of the characters from those, then the Trilogy title had you covered.
Donkey Kong FranchiseOriginally released in 1981 for the Arcade, Nintendo then released a Donkey Kong game for every single console they have ever had, except for the recent Switch model (as of now). The original 6 games all came out in the 1980s with only a few more in the early 1990s.
Why did they not make more during this huge break? The originals were too freaking good.
Sure, it was an A to B type of concept all revolving around Donkey Kong and his various family members. Yes, barrels were commonly thrown at you while you could throw some too. If you laid all of this out, the game would seem nuts. Yet each game was so much fun, especially for kids in this era, that they still hold up to this very day.
Pull one up on the “Classic” consoles and you’ll see what we mean. The early Donkey Kong games are royalty in the retro video games genre, and always will be.
The Legend of Zelda FranchiseWe’re not sure we have to mention this to gamers but others may need to know. The game revolves around Link in his attempt to save Princess Zelda from numerous different enemies, depending on the game. Of course, we later find out she can handle herself quite well. Thus, we’re not really sure why we, as Link, needed to save her so often.
The original released in 1986 for the NES. In fact, it was one of the few early Nintendo retro console games to not be given the arcade treatment ever. Several Legend of Zelda games have come out over the years too. Nintendo pretty much had one for every console they have come out with
All are visually gorgeous, especially today. However, check out some of the earlier versions again and you’ll see some amazing artwork. In the end, this action-adventure franchise is legendary simply due to how fun it is to play. We’ve followed it for decades for a reason, it’s that freaking awesome!
The Legend of Zelda games taught other retro video games a lesson when it came to visuals and storytelling.
Sonic the HedgehogSEGA was not really a match for Nintendo for many years. However, the reason they could even compete at all was simply due to Sonic the Hedgehog video games. It makes no sense to see a hedgehog that can run incredibly fast. It also does not make sense that he’d need all sorts of rings.
However, as a kid, you did not question it as you were given one of the most incredible games ever.
The original Sonic the Hedgehog game released in 1991 with more games following in 1992. It randomly ended up on Windows PC in 1993. However, it then became exclusive to SEGA consoles in the following 5 games before crossing into the mid-1990s.
While Sonic was fun to play with, we were eventually introduced to his friend Knuckles too. All of this was also while still trying to get past the evil Dr. Robotnick, whom we often called Eggman. As kids, all of these games were amazing but the first does still hold a special place in every person’s heart who played it.
Super Mario Bros. IIIA true stand-out among retro video games, Super Mario Bros. III was released in Japan in 1988 but North Americans would get to play it by 1990. Of course, it was the third installment in the Super Mario Bros. series. In this game, you could play as either Mario or his brother Luigi as you save Princess Toadstool.
It was the very first of the Mario games to introduce a World Map that helped you navigate through levels. This was eventually included in other Mario games too. Some other games copied this concept afterward too, especially RPGs.
This was also the game that introduced us to Bowser’s kids, who have been in other games since. It obviously included the special powers and abilities, as well as stomping in innocent turtles. However, it was the first to introduce the ability of flight in a Mario title too. It is so good that Nintendo released a version of it online for their Switch console.
It is likely the most legendary of all Mario games, making it one of the best retro video games ever. Perhaps, THE best.