These are the best games of 1987 that didn’t quite make the cut to get their own spotlight. You might recognize a few.
Blades of Steel |Nintendo Famicom|
Blades of Steel was an excellent mix of realism and arcadey fun. Its music and judicious use of voice samples burned it into every player’s ears, and the spectacle of cutscenes, simple but effective animations, and arena ambiance made playing a match
unforgettably immersive. One unique feature of BoS is its fights. It was possible for a player you control and an enemy player to get into a fight during the game, and the losing player was forced to sit in the penalty box for a while, giving an advantage to the other team. BoS didn’t feature any real players, although the box art is based on a shot of Wayne Gretzky during a game.
The main problem with BoS is its control. The controls are wonky, and controlling the goalie is downright confusing at first. Moreover, there’s little gameplay overall, and what gameplay there is is very simple. On the other hand, you don’t need to have intimate knowledge of hockey or strategy or positions or anything like that–just get the puck in the goal. BoS is more than the sum of its parts. Everything comes together to make a charming package which was an instant classic.
Bureaucracy |Home computers|
Bureaucracy was another great Infocom text adventure written by Douglas Adams. In it, the player has to navigate a series of bureaucratic obstacles in order to fix the mess caused by a recent change of address. Undelivered mail, inaccessible bank accounts, and so on result from his current address being different from the one on file. As the player goes through the process of fixing things, a blood pressure monitor shows how you are handling the frustration. Every time an infuriating event happens, your blood pressure rises, and if nothing annoying happens for a while, it drops somewhat. If your blood pressure gets to high, you’ll die of an aneurysm and it’s game over. Before the game starts, the player is asked to enter their information into a form. The game then takes that information and mangles it, by referring to the player by the wrong gender, for example.
Contra |Nintendo Famicom|
Oh, man. Contra is pure 1980’s action, packed into an 8-bit cartridge. Right away you can see the game’s influences. The box art is based on images of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Commando,” the Xenomorph from “Alien,” and Sylvester Stallone in “Rambo.” The gameplay is for the most part a simple run-and-gun shooter. Enemies come running at you from the right side of the screen and you have to obliterate them (with several vertically-oriented levels). Occasional powerups provide you with a buffet of armaments. Boss levels are either from the normal side view, or from a behind-the-back perspective–these pseudo 3D levels were spectacular for the console gamer of 1988. Most of the bosses are huge, screen-filling monstrosities. Admittedly, they had limited mobility because of their size, but the bosses are meant to be intimidating showcases of graphics and pain. The final boss, a bigger version of the Xenomorph head, was especially awesome.
Most enemies die after one hit. Unfortunately, so does the player. You only get five lives and unless you are a talented gamer who’s also willing to dump many hours of practice into the game, you’ll need a little help. Fortunately, the now-famous Konami code can be entered at the title screen to give you 30 lives. The Konami code was used in many different Konami games. It didn’t do the same thing in every game, but it was always entered the same way. On the title screen you press Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right A B, then Start for a one-player game or Select Start for a two-player game. Starting the game with 30 lives, you’ll be empowered to tear through the game like an unkillable action star, jumping and flipping through the air while dealing punishment to interchangeable bad guys. (Of course, it’s still possible to get a game over. You can burn through 30 lives really quickly if you’re careless.)
The gameplay is fun at the most basic level. Front flipping and crouching while blasting away enemies is a blast. The stages and enemies are varied, with each stage having its own challenge and mood. It’s not difficult to understand why Contra is still remembered today, refusing to be eclipsed by its many sequels.
Final Fantasy |Nintendo Famicom|
You have no idea how badly I wanted to give Final Fantasy its own Games Appreciation article. I love this game dearly. For those who don’t know the story about Final Fantasy‘s name, here it goes. Square was facing imminent bankruptcy after a string of critically well-received but commercially unsuccessful games. With the resources for one final project, Square set out to make what they believed was to be their swan song, hence “final.” A young Sakaguchi Hironobu was given the unenviable director’s role. When deciding what sort of game to make, he said, “I don’t think I have what it takes to make an action game. I’d be better at telling a story.” He then envisioned a fantasy RPG with a rich story and world. Now that the Final Fantasy series is past its 15th entry, not to mention dozens of spinoffs, I’d say that this choice paid off for them. It’s a very hopeful and encouraging thing to see the name Final Fantasy followed by XV. It was meant to be their last game but was so successful that it’s still going. It warms my heart every time I think about it.
So why was FF successful? Well, for one thing, it challenged player expectations. You start off on a small island next to a castle. You learn that the princess has been kidnapped and the king asks you to rescue her. Now, the “rescue the princess” premise was popularized by Super Mario Bros. and by 1987 had already become cliché. It only takes about an hour or two to rescue the princess from the only other building on the island. But the king builds a bridge in your honor, linking the island to the mainland. Then a whole world opens up before you. And when you step on the bridge to leave the island, the opening credits play and you hear the glorious FF fanfare music for the first time. This was wholly unexpected at the time, and it assured players that this game was something special.
After that you venture to many different places with different problems that need to be solved. You come across pirates who give you their ship after you defeat them, and then you use your ship to sail to even further away lands and discover more things to do. At first you are confined to an inland sea and the lands around it, but when you find dynamite for a race of dwarfs, they destroy an isthmus and you can then take your ship out onto the high seas. The world just keeps getting bigger, with more and more interlocking puzzles to solve. You keep coming back to old places when something new opens up (for example, once you get the ship you can return to the first island and dock at the harbor). Eventually, everything leads back to the place where you rescued the princess at the beginning of the game. Honestly, words can’t describe how good a game FF is.
Unfortunately, words can describe how awful a game FF is. It’s full of bugs and grinding. You have to waste dozens of precious hours of your life fighting the same enemies thousands of times in order to get strong enough to advance. The difficulty curve is wildly erratic, everything is unforgiving, there are bugs all over the place (half of the magic spells don’t even work!), and backtracking can be a massive pain in the butt. What’s worse, remakes of FF (such as the one on Playstation or PSP) fix all these problems but with the modern graphics and sound, the game lose its wonderful 8-bit charm. Also, these remakes make FF too easy. Honestly, I love the high difficulty of FF and its particular quirks that make it even more difficult. But man, oh man, I can’t justify spending thirty hours fighting random encounters with palette-swapped wolves for the thousandth time. This is the same problem that I have with most other RPGs. They’re mostly a waste of time, so the rest of the game needs to be beyond excellent in order for me to recommend it.
Rock Man |Nintendo Famicom|
Finally, we have Rock Man, known as Mega Man in America. Rock Man was a run-and-gun shooter that differed from the competition in a few ways. First, it had cute characters. Everything has a cartoony appearance to it. Rock Man himself is, of course, adorable. Also, the stages can be played in any order. At the end of each stage there is a boss battle with a special robot created by the nefarious Dr. Wily. Each boss has a weakness to one of the other boss’ weapons. When Rock Man defeats a boss, he takes their weapon which he can then use on other bosses (or even regular enemies). The game doesn’t tell you which bosses have which weaknesses, however, so you have to either figure it out by trial-and-error, ask a friend, or just throw caution to the wind and pay no regard to the game of Rock-paper-scissors. It is possible to defeat every boss with your regular blaster, but the game is already difficult enough. Most players choose to play the stages in a particular order to maximize their firepower.
What most non-Japanese players never appreciate is the philosophy underlying Rock Man’s power mechanic. The idea of a warrior gaining inner strength is thoroughly Japanese in nature. When Rock Man defeats enemies he harnesses their strength, turning an obstacle into a tool.
Here’s a video of me playing the Elec Man stage.
Rock Man has terrific music, composed by newcomer Matsumae Manami. Here’s the whole soundtrack.
Now is as good a time as any to explain where the name comes from. Dr. Light wished for robots to be thought of as more than just disposable tools, and he created two special robots which he named Rock and Roll. Motivated by the success, Dr. Light then created six robots for specific industrial work. Dr. Light received a Nobel Prize for his immensely beneficial work, driving his colleague Dr. Wily to envy. Dr. Wily stole the latter six robots (but not Rock or Roll, since he felt that he had no need for helper robots) and weaponized them. Rock then suggested to Dr. Light that he be weaponized as well, so that he could take on Wily’s forces. Dr. Light agreed and Rock became Rock Man. (The American localization team didn’t know why he was named Rock Man and, thinking that it made no sense, replaced it with the alliterative Mega Man.)
Rock Man’s design was based on Astro Boy, who in turn was based on Pinocchio. Rock Man, like the other two, is an artificial boy who goes on adventures and comes into his own as a “real boy.” Rock Man is weak at first and grows in power as he overcomes challenges. Realizing his potential is made even more impactful by Dr. Wily’s assumption that he had no value as a mere “domestic helper.” Another thoroughly Japanese perspective involves Rock Man’s arm cannon.
Rock Man’s visual design was chosen to accommodate the Famicom palette.
Interestingly, Rock Man’s suit changes colors when he equips boss abilities, but starting with blue means that there was always flexibility. The distinctive color is helped by the form. Rock Man’s design is so iconic that even when he changes color he is immediately recognizable. (You can copy the Rock Man below and paste it wherever you like!)
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His animations are unambiguous and full of personality. Rock Man really does look like an adventurous little boy giving it his all. When he stands still he has a neutral facial expression which seems a little lonely. But whenever he jumps he looks like he’s having a great time. The creator Kitamura Akira envisioned Rock Man as a sad figure, reminiscent of a friendless boy playing alone in a park. The character designer Inafune Keiji explained, “We wished to make sure that the animation and the motion were realistic and actually made sense.” There’s a real weight to the way that Rock Man handles.
Perhaps he’s a little too weighty. Rock Man falls like, well, a rock. The game has many spatial puzzles requiring you to time your leaps and jumps exactly, and each one of them is unforgiving. There are often goodies stashed away inside alcoves that require pixel-perfect jumping to get out of again. There are several enemies and traps that you can circumvent with the right special item, but if you don’t have it yet then you’re almost guaranteed to take a hit. Your ammunition doesn’t replenish when you die, which makes you less likely to beat a boss if you die in the middle of the fight. Rock Man‘s high difficulty was criticized, and the team made Rock Man 2 easier… and many games journalists criticized the lower difficulty. It’s nice to know that games journalists haven’t mended their ways in the last thirty years.
I’ll leave you with the American box art for the game, which has gained infamy for being awful in every conceivable way.
The longer you look at it, the worse it gets.