The Top Eleven Old Skool Video Games in No Particular Order

In this Gilded Age of the motion-controlled Wii, the Internet-friendly X-Box 360, the mega-military hardware of the Playstation 3, the guitar and drum controllers, the upcoming Project Natal motion-capture controllers and all the rest, I find it somehow refreshing to delve into the “classics” on emulation (without needing to pay a cent by the way!)  See anything you haven’t played?  Now’s the time to become more gamer-literate!

1. Rampage (1986)Lizzie passive-aggressively clings to the building she destroys

Play George (a.k.a. King-Kong), Lizzie (a.k.a. Godzilla), or Ralph (um… Fenris or Amarok?) as they destroy major metropolitan areas and eat human beings while being shot at by military forces.  I distinctly recall first learning of the existence of cities such as Duluth and Toledo through this game, as well as the lesson that most U.S. cities look pretty much the same when they’re being kicked to the ground by giant monsters.  Requiring almost no brainpower, yet fulfilling a deep-seated wish to be in control over the destruction of one’s own civilization, Rampage will remain a pick-up game for all ages for years to come.

2. X-Men – The Arcade Game (1992)

Back when I was growing up, the malls still had thriving video-game arcades with an assortment of quarter-eaters to waste my disposable income.  The best of these was a 6-player, 2-screen beat-em-up extravaganza starring none other than Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler and Dazzler.  Few people might understand the joy of being one of 6 pre-pubescent boys crowding around a set of sweaty joysticks and beating the living tar out of a giant pile of mooks that come at you on-screen.  I’ll be this one would still make money in any surviving arcades today.  Not too many 6-player games came after this one, after all…

3. Full Throttle (1995)

“You know what would look good on your nose?”

“What?”  *nose ring grabbed and slammed down on the bar*

“The bar. Now don’t mess around with me.”

Probably one of the best animated adventure games released for the PC, Full Throttle showcases the best of LucasArts’ SCUMM engine while offering a meaty array of bad jokes and crazy biker action (including a climax involving a chase between a bike, a semi and a wing-less cargo plane).  I find I can just sit someone down at the computer and play through it in about 2.5 hours… the length of a solid, well-made animated movie.

4. Maelstrom (1993)

Ambrosia Software certainly didn’t invent Asteroids – the 1979 Golden Age game that served as part of Atari’s main stable of games – but they certainly brought it into the 90s for the Macintosh user.  Chock full of Simpsons, Beatles and other pop cultural references in its soundtrack and brightly colored, 3-D-looking sprites, this game plays like a hyperactive stepchild who found the meth supply… in space.  Now if only they were to option this for a movie!

5. Maniac Mansion (1987)

Not to spend this whole blog singing LucasArts’ praises, but they did produce some damn fine adventure games.  A group of hapless teenagers are off to save their cheeleader friend Sandy from a sentient evil meteor and the weird family it has corrupted in a mansion filled with surprises.  Maniac Mansion adopts much of the crazy object-based logic puzzles inherent to the genre (“So I need to grab the faucet handle in the garage to turn on the shower to move the corpse to find the number I can call Nurse Edna with so I can get her out of the room so another kid can get up to the telescope and steal her money while they’re at it.”) but it self-referentially mocks its own silly set of errands often enough.  You can stick the hamster in the microwave in some versions!

6. Super Bomberman (1993)

Many nights I slept not a wink because of this Super Nintendo game’s excellence.  In Battle Mode, 4 players have two minutes to be the last one alive in a grid filled with bombs laid by you and your fellow players going off every which way.  A 30-second looping soundtrack amplifies the tension in ways you wouldn’t believe.  Most of its sequels are actually not as good as this original, a fact for which I cannot account.

7. Cyborg Justice (1993)

1993 must’ve been a good year for video games in my mind… This Sega Genesis beat-em-up features a combination of excellent sprite graphics and over-the-top ultra-violence (i.e., you can rip off an opponent’s arm and use it as your own).  You’re a cyborg and you’re seeking, well, justice!  It’s too bad that Sega was never able to keep up with the other franchises – their game design was always above-par.

8. Return to Zork (1993)

’93 also saw Activision’s great adventure game release Return to Zork, which pre-dated Myst by several months and involved a much more interactive environment than said game.  In any given room, you can do like 50 things involving various objects you’ve picked up, etc.  What I really enjoy about this is the Neil Gaiman-esque dark fairy tale plot and the video-captured actors whom you can all kill if you get frustrated (and then you’re told by a guy in a funny coat that you can’t complete the game!)

9. XCom (1993)

Speaking of 1993, there was a turn-based strategy game for the PC produced by MicroProse that knocked our socks off.  In XCom, aliens have invaded Earth and you’re part of a worldwide task force sent to kick their ass.  The game features a sophisticated tactical engine copied by games like Fallout and later games like Freedom Force.  I watched fellow college students piss away whole semesters on this thing…

10. Marathon (1994)

So you’ve played Halo, right?  Let’s call it “Marathon 4″ and be done with it.  Marathon brought all kinds of innovation to the first-person shooter table:  network multi-player, a flexible map and sprite editor, and an intricate plotline of an almost literary quality.  You play a marine dispatched to a multi-generational colony ship that is under alien attack and has multiple AIs also vying for control of your activities.  We used to haul computers over to each other’s houses just for the opportunity to kill each other on maps we had created.

11. Hunt the Wumpus (1973)

The scariest game ever. You’re hunting a goddamn wumpus with these crooked arrows, and if you miss, it’ll come and eat you.  It fills your screen with its awful face.  I played this on my Commodore back when I was like 6, only to discover that the labyrinth is a cruel place.  The psychological environment of this deceptively simple game still gets me every time.

In summary, 1993 may have been a pivotal year in game development history – self-conscious, impressively addictive games made their appearance around that time.  But at least in 2009, we can still revisit all of these classics! After all, all our culture is nostalgia.

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6 Responses to The Top Eleven Old Skool Video Games in No Particular Order

  1. Mike says:

    And those of us playing at arcades in Duluth and Toledo were thrilled that Rampage made us briefly famous, Evan.

    I know this makes me a philistine, but after two serious attempts to finally get into XCom (in 2006 and 2009), I’ve never had the patience. It’s the video game equivalent of, um, Song of Ice and Fire — death is frequent to a fault. For those who get through it, though, I’m sure that only adds to the joy.

    I think of myself as an old-school game aficionado, but I’ve never heard of half of these, in part because I’ve never gotten into consoles or their emulators. I’d love to try Full Throttle, though. Any idea where I can find it at this date?

  2. Mike says:

    Oh, I should add: the fact that I’ve never heard of these proves your awesomeness, obviously, not the games’ insignificance.

  3. guyintheblackhat says:

    Hi Mike,

    XCom – as it turns out – is ridiculously hard until you gain control of the aliens’ mind-reading technology, then ridiculously easy after that. The thing about it was that it was genuinely scary, yet without losing its tactical slickness. Maybe I haven’t played it for a long enough time that there’s some vague nostalgia to my memory of it…

    As for the obscurity of the games, I did try to select games from fairly well-known companies and developers, but there are a LOT of games out there that got lost in the shuffle in the 90s. Try ‘em out and let me know what you think! Full Throttle, for example, you can get used on Amazon for $14.

  4. Alex Rudnick says:

    So much beautiful. I’m having flashbacks to playing the 6-player X-Men arcade game.

    True story! One time, as a kid, I fed an Arcade Prize Ticket into a token machine, and a ludicrously giant pile of tokens came out. It then became my duty to share the tokens with the other pre-pubescent guys in the arcade. I mean, I felt a little bad. And we had to give back all the tokens. We beat X-Men. It was moderately epic.

    I’m going to have to check out Full Throttle and Cyborg Justice…

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