The Revenge of 1989
by PrimeOp (Dec. 15, 2009, last edited February 22, 2017)
Many huge moments in pop culture aren't recognized as they're happening. I can't speak for everyone else who lived through this but it wasn't like I knew that we were living through some kind of gaming renaissance in the mid-to-late 1980's. Some gaming historians speak about the infamous 1983 Video Game Crash as if video games just magically stopped being popular and no one touched a console again until the NES hit. Look, I lived through that era and, other than noticing that more video game were a bit more disappointing (the Atari 2600 Pac-Man game with THREE ghosts or how E.T. seemed to fall in holes when he shouldn't have), I didn't really notice this historic, catastrophic crash that I kept playing video games through. That's just how it goes. Most normal people didn't say, "Hey, this is historic!" during MTV's midnight premiere of Michael Jackson's Thriller video, when NBC locked up Thursday night by airing most of it's best on the same night, or when comic readers discovered that Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" was full of wild ideas and content that couldn't be found in a regular Batman comic. It isn't until much later that you can really see how important certain moments in time are. So while U.S. gamers thought of the debut era of the Nintendo Entertainment System (1986) and the Sega Master System (1987) as a huge leap ("Damn, man, they're even better than ColecoVision and that better Atari I couldn't afford!"), it was actually a sign that the home console market made a huge comeback that is now recognized as a shining moment in video game history. It took a bit of distance to see that.
Fans also like to break things down into years. "Can It All Be So Simple Then?" from the Wu-Tang's 1993 debut album starts with members talkin' about the good old days, never suspecting that their own album would eventually build the case that 1993 was one of the best years for Rap. Many modern comic fans point to 1986 as an amazing year, with the Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Daredevil's Born Again storyline, and the reconfiguring of the entire DC Universe itself with the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths. So what's the big year for video games? Which year was so filled great games and important changes that the year itself is a legend all its own? Personally, I'd like to make a case for 1989.
Look, I can just imagine people huffing and puffing in poutrage over this for all sorts of reasons, and it's completely understandable. Having said that, it's just too damned bad for those folks, because 1989 is the best. Yes, there were other amazing years out there. Both the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn were first released in the same year, blessing Japanese in 1994 and the United States in 1995, so those are two important years for the "Fifth Generation" of consoles. 2006 was another huge year with both the Wii and PS3 being released. Even 2013 was huge, thanks to debuts of both the Playstation 4 and X-Box One. As the year in which the Super Nintendo Entertainment System hit the U.S. and games like Street Fighter II, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (in Japan), Final Fantasy IV (again, Japan), Streets of Rage, Battletoads and many more hit shelves, 1991 is easily one of the most beautiful video game years. But 1989? That year changed things.
You wanna talk about games? The 1989 list has DuckTales, Double Dragon II for the NES (one of the best of the series), the Revenge of Shinobi, Shadow Dancer (the arcade version), the NES version of Ninja Gaiden, Akumajou Densetsu (the Japanese version of Castlevania III), Sunsoft's Batman game for the Famicom (the NES version arrived in early 1990), Prince of Persia, Cadash, Wonder Boy III, both the arcade and NES versions of Strider, and many more. We also got to play Mega Man 2 for the NES. It's only one of the best entries in one of the greatest game series of all time. But having one of the best video games of all time isn't enough to make this one of the best gaming years ever, because some other games actually improved their genres. The Beat 'em up formula moved beyond merely apeing Double Dragon with the release of three special games: Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (a.k.a. River City Ransom). Golden Axe also came along with it's own formula for Hack 'n Slash that hovered between its pure platforming forefathers (like Rastan), the Double Dragon-style beat-em-up and the RPG-inspired touches from Atari's Gauntlet. Hey, that's a lot of stuff. Surely that's enough for a year to be considered great and 1989 has proven its wo - - wait, what? That's not enough for you? Well, guess what? There's even more.
Two of America's most well-known game magazines, Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro, made their debut in 1989. They weren't the first or the last, but both of them were great independent sources of video game info. EGM gave many game fans their first glimpses at Japanese video games before they came to the States, if they made it at all. Games were popular enough to have tie-in cartoons again, so DiC produced The Super Mario Bros. Super-Show for weekdays (with the princess-excusing Legend of Zelda cartoons appearing on Fridays) and Captain N: the Game Master for Saturday mornings. No, they weren't completely accurate, but they were fun to watch (c'mon, Captain Lou was a GREAT Mario) and another sign that games were popular here again.
Sure, this list won't be persuasive to everyone. Any gamer who has ever seriously considered fondling an Ouija board to enter the spirit realm for the sole purpose of pestering Roger Ebert's ghost by constantly asking him, "Isitartyet? Isitartyet? Isitartyet? Isithuhmister?" probably won't be moved by this section. This is just my humble little tribute to an year that I feel deserves a bit more attention than it gets and I hope you enjoy it whether or not you agree.
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