The 8-bit computer era was regarded by many as a golden time for gaming. It gave us endless classics that have stood the test of time remarkably well. Games that are still being played even now and are loved the world over. Yet if we look back at the games of the time, many of them fall into just a few limited game genres that seem to have been revisited over and over. Here are the most common that Commodore 64, Spectrum and Amstrad owners would have been most familiar with…
We all loved arcade games and longed for the school holidays. A time when we’d have our annual trips to the seaside and visits to the arcades to play the games we could only dream of playing at home. It’s no wonder that these were frequently the source of inspiration for software publishers. While we were never going to get copies of the latest state-of-the-art games for the home, we could be guaranteed to get plenty of clones of arcade classics such as Galaga, Space Invaders, Pac-Man while we waited for official versions to land at our feet.
When you think about Platform Games, I’d hazard a guess that your first thought would be a small Italian plumber. The platform genre is much more than just Mario though. It’s one of those game genres that can be incredibly diverse and it’s why it’s endured for so long. Whether the game was a side-scrolling epic adventure, or a single screen game, there was something for everyone. Some games were tougher than others but within what seemed to be a limited format, we saw an incredible variety.
A basic idea of walk, run, climb and jump lead to a wide range of classics. Matthew Smith’s Manic Miner introduced us to a monochrome hero and an adventure and exploration gameplay mechanic. The timeless Impossible Mission brought speech and puzzle solving to the mix. And as for the perennial fan favourite Chuckie Egg… that gave us killer chickens!
Another throwback to the arcades, there wasn’t a single system during the 8-bit era that didn’t have a fruit machine game released for it. Programming tutorial books had listings in them so you could learn how to create them from scratch. Budget software publishers like Mastertronic, Codemasters, Atlantis and more all released their own and often several variations of them. It’s easy to see why as at the core of them, they were easy to develop. At the core, home versions were based around slightly weighted random number generators, with a visual element added. Entire games could be written in just a few kilobytes running on even the smallest of computers.
More complex features were added as the years progressed – multiple winning lines, nudge features, bonus spins – all building on the core reels. While none of them ever reached the complexity of online slots games, it remained one of the more popular game genres throughout the 8-bit era.
Shoot Em Ups
You can see a pattern emerging here when we look at the 8-bit era. Simplicity. Across all game genres one thing remained constant. Gameplay took priority over everything else. Developers focused on that and with limited hardware resources available, some games were easier to produce than others. By their very nature, arcade shoot em-ups are fairly straightforward and despite being somewhat formulaic when done well they can be incredibly addictive in their simplicity.
The pick up and play gameplay and fast adrenaline inducing action is what makes them so appealing. While it’s a genre that has been in decline in recent years, the 8-bit (and 16-bit) era really knew how to keep gamers entertained.
While it was easy enough for publishers to make unofficial copies of arcade games, the real money for them came from producing officially licensed home conversions. The early games weren’t necessarily better than their clones but the very notion of playing something official made them feel better. Official versions of older games were quite straightforward to produce. However the most popular and biggest hits both commercially and appealing to gamers were the “big hitters” in the arcades. Everyone wanted to see all of the major releases from Capcom, SEGA, Konami and Atari make their way to the home.
For software houses, it was a challenge to see what popular titles they could license as well as what they were capable of adapting. Squeezing high end arcade machines in the 48k and 64k RAM of 8-bit computers was an astonishing feat and in many cases it failed dismally. When it worked we had fantastic games that gave us years of enjoyment. But when it didn’t we were left feeling ripped off. That didn’t stop us buying the next port of our favourite arcade classics, hoping that it would be better than the one before it!
Film / TV Tie-Ins
Manchester-based developer Ocean Software were probably the biggest pioneer in the UK when it came to realising the potential of a major brand name for video games. Instead of spending money on arcade licenses, they focused their efforts on acquiring the rights to film and televisions franchises. Their gamble paid off and allowed them to compete in a way other publishers couldn’t at the time. Instead of spending money on marketing to promote their games, the brands did that for them.
When we saw games in stores with a brand we already knew, that was half the battle won already by Ocean. In a way it didn’t matter whether a game was good or bad as we were often likely to buy it just because it was based on a favourite film or TV show. We genuinely didn’t need to see other adverts or even reviews. Even games that didn’t get favourable reviews such as Knight Rider and Transformers still did well when their fans saw them in stores.
While these days we’re all used to sprawling arcade adventures, and the 16-bit era had a plethora of point-and-click adventures, 8-bit owners were lucky enough to be there at the beginning… Early adventures were text only, where worlds were presented as paragraphs of descriptive prose. We controlled our interaction with the game world with a few words or simple phrases. Solving puzzles and exploring had to be thought out, maps drawn out (unless we were able to memories exactly where we were going). Games were mentally challenging but rarely dull.
What made them work so well was the diversity of them. Whether you were a fan of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery or historical stories, text adventures were written with everyone in mind. There were games to suit all abilities, drawing inspiration from classic literature, well know franchises, and even parodies. Graphics were added over time, although aficionados would argue that the best of the genre were those from the early text-only era where our imaginations played a bigger role in the games.
Wrapping up, I can’t forget a run down of the most popular 8-bit game genres without talking about racing games. Early games were quite primitive top down affairs but things quickly progressed, inspired by the arcade classic Pole Position. From that point, gamers were treated to an endless supply of 3D racers. It didn’t matter whether you were a car enthusiast, a lover of motorcycles or even a fan of futuristic vehicles, there was a racing game out there for you. While the 8-bit machines didn’t have the power of their arcade counterparts, clever programming and use of colour gave systems the ability to provide the illusion of speed remarkably well.
Gamers still have fond memories of some of the classic racing games released in the 80s and 90s. While many think of Pole Position as being a true leader at the time, Pitstop II with it’s split screen multiplayer mode, refuelling and tyre damage is regarded as being one of the best. And while Atari took things in a different direction with their top down multiplayer game Super Sprint in the arcades, Codemasters recreated the same excitement at home with the classic BMX Simulator.
A Golden Age
It’s been said by many that games were better back in the 80s. Certainly we didn’t have to worry about wading through vast manuals before playing them. The gamplay was more basic but that’s why many still hold their appeal today. While most can be narrowed down to a handful of game genres, those hold up well as examples of addictive, fun gaming that strip away non-essential window dressing. Games back then were fun and developers focused on that.
We think that those were the most popular genres but what did you think were your favourite 8-bit games? Let us know in the comments below.
Husband, father and lifelong geek. Originally from the West Midlands, now spending my days in South Wales with my family and a house full of animals. Passionate about video games, especially retro gaming, the Commodore 64 and PlayStation Vita. Love pro wrestling, sci-fi and I’m an animal lover and vegetarian.
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