Video games are a huge component of modern American life. They have solidified themselves not just as an industry but as a multi-billion-dollar piece of the global economy.
Of course, with all the decades it's taken for that level of success to build up, there have been gaming touchstones every year along the way. Some are still remembered among the best games of all time - and may have even spawned long-running, lucrative franchises or evolved into other storytelling mediums. Others have slipped into obscurity, relegated to footnote status as successors took their place in the public consciousness. Either way, looking back at the most popular video game from each year can be an instructive history lesson - a record of not only the evolution of the form but the tastes, trends, and popular demands that helped shape it.
Or, if you were wondering what game your parents might have been playing when you were on the way - or when you'd just entered the world - this list just might give you a clue. Whether we're talking stand-up arcades in the '80s or consoles like the Nintendo or Sega Genesis, these games were hits that defined an era. What game was everyone playing the year you were born?
When it comes to retro arcade games, you can't get much better than the original Namco classic, Pac-Man. Originally titled Puckman in Japan, the American port quickly became a dominant force in American arcades. The game is simple enough: take control of the title character, navigate a maze, eat pellets, avoid ghosts. The ghosts moved in a pattern that could be memorized, but the difficulty gradually increased as play continued.
Few people have ever "beaten" Pac-Man, making it one of the most challenging arcade games ever designed. But it remains one of the highest-grossing, having pulled in a whopping $2.5 billion in quarters by the late 1990s alone.
- Photo: Nintendo
Donkey Kong may be the rare game of its era named after the villain rather than the hero, but that's far from its only claim to fame. This was the first arcade game to actually tell a story. With rudimentary cinematics and levels that allowed for progression toward a final goal, this was a literal game-changer, its narrative innovation setting the stage for decades to come.
As for the gameplay itself, kids would storm arcades looking to take control of Jumpman (who would eventually become the much better-known Mario) and save Pauline (who would become Princess Peach in later games). It was a huge success and easily the most popular game of 1981 - and of course, the DK name was far from finished. As a franchise, Donkey Kong evolved into dozens of ports and variations - and eventually even allowed players to take control of the eponymous character himself.
There were hundreds of games sold for the Atari 2600, but the most popular of them all was definitely Pitfall! The adventure game featured a character who could run either left or right to navigate traps and collect treasures. As an added challenge, there was a time limit; players had just a 20-minute window to get through it all.
One of Atari's best-selling games, Pitfall! sold more than 4 million units. After its April 20, 1982 release, it remained at the top of the Billboard Video Game charts for most of the year. Its innovative gameplay made it one of the most influential side-scrolling platformers ever.
- Photo: Limited Run Games
Dragon's Lair was an early laserdisc video game produced and animated by Don Bluth for arcades back in 1983. The famed animator was already an established film director at the time, having released The Secret of NIMH a year earlier, and he went on to helm An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and The Land Before Time.
Bluth's Dragon's Lair animations included directional arrows indicating what a player should do - and when. Fail to act quickly enough and Dirk the Daring would be slain in one of a number of comically frustrating ways. While playing a AAA game in the 21st century generally means you're in a cinematic environment, back in the early '80s it was all pixels and vector graphics. Dragon's Lair actually let players be the cartoon; that level of interactivity, even with its difficult gameplay, helped make it a huge commercial success.