Throwback Thursday: the best video games of the late 70s-early 80s

(Commodore International)

I’ve decided to involve PopMythology in the Throwback Thursday trend and as one of the oldest contributors to the site, I thought I’d have some fun “walking through the park and reminiscing” about some of my favorite past video games. So be prepared to go long on this one, because I’m going to through way the hell back to the late 70s and early 80s.

Yes we did have computers back then! They may have been quite large, but some of themwere styled like hip lounge furniture like this Cray Supercomputer at my alma mater, University of Illinois.

NSF Gallery
(NSF Gallery)

So, without further ado, let’s game old style!

M.U.L.E  (Commodore 64)

This game is the mother of Minecraft, played most heavily on the much ridiculed but highest selling computer model of all time, the Commodore 64 (the 64 comes from the whopping 64 Kbytes of RAM this baby had).  M.U.L.E. was my first lesson in economics- commodities trading, cost-of goods, supply and demand, all that good stuff.  Throw in some marauding space pirates and what you had was a recipe for a good time.

Electronic Arts
(Electronic Arts)

Incidentally, the Commodore 64 still has its loyal fans, a fact exemplified by this grin-inducing ditty by the geek band Debs & Errol, a parody cover of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”  Errol says it best when he sings, “That kind of gaming just soothes the soul.”

Combat  (Atari 2600)

The classic of head-to-head multiplayer gaming.  Gravely, vaguely tank-like sound effects, square pixels roughly the size of dice, and shots that moved so slowly across the screen that you could easily dodge them before they arrived, that is unless your sibling hadn’t elbowed the controller out of your hand, the cheater!  This game was almost guaranteed to escalate into a brawl until Mom intervened to spoil the fun.



Wizardry I:  Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord  (Apple II)

The star of the nursery for role-playing games. This game was bare bones- black and white, simple line drawn graphics, and you even had to draw your own maps on graph paper so you wouldn’t get lost- especially on dungeon level 3 with the rotators. But this game was as addicting as crack and taught some life lessons, such as to make sure you select evil for your character alignment so you could wear the +3 armor.  Oh, and “P.S., Trevor sucks!”

Sir-Tech Software
(Sir-Tech Software)

 Zork I  (multiple platforms)

I would be sorely remiss if I didn’t include a hat-tip to delightfully maddening world of the text-based adventure games.  Zork  was a quirky upgrade on the original Scott Adams Adventures that only accepted two word verb-noun commands (e.g. “go hole”).  Zork  allowed such sophisticated discourse as the following:

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
> what is a grue?
The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.

Famously difficult to beat without a guide, here’s Debs & Errol again to helpfully get you past the toughest parts of the game:

Miss the part you needed? You’ll just have to listen again.

Dig Dug  (Arcade)

Dig Dug and Donkey Kong were some of the US’s first experiences with the psychedelic, acid-trippy world of Japanese designer gaming.  The game play objective was to dig tunnels and clear the level of underground-dwelling Pookas and Fygars. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves the use of a deadly, .45-caliber bicycle pump which you use to inflate your enemies and cause them to explode. Far freakin’ out, man.


Ultima I  (Apple II)

Another trend-setter in the early days of RPGing, Ultima had the standard line-drawn dungeons, but with added complexity of overworld play, complete with battles and various modes of transports and individualized towns.  Ultima was also one of the first video games to introduce quests as part of the play, but there was no computerized log or directional indicators, you had to remember which king told you to do what, where.  Accurate paper note-taking was a key strategy!  I think there are still mildewing folders of this stuff somewhere in my parent’s basement.

(Origin Systems)

Avatar  (PLATO system)

This is one gem that most have missed unless you were lucky enough to attend a university that had PLATO systems.  PLATO was the first computer assisted learning mainframe and by day administered chemistry and physics quizzes on weird orange plasma display terminals to hapless undergrads.

Control Data Corporation
(Control Data Corporation)


But by night, it became a platform for one of the first MMORPG games, avatar.  Fully ten years before the world-wide web even existed, gaming geeks like yours truly were pulling all-nighters in the basements of university buildings slaying orcs and leveling up.  This was no primitive system where you were sitting in a room with other people playing independently.  You, or rather your character, could form a party in the town with anyone on the system that evening and then go traipsing off together in the dungeon.  There were text entry tools to allow for instant messaging to a single player or snarky open game chatter on the party line.  The sys admin could even serve as the dungeon master and modify monster placement for added challenge or create new creatures for special occasions such as pumpkins for Halloween.  Let me tell you that this game was truly a menace to the GPA, but one heck of a lot of fun!

Created by Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira, and David Sides
(Created by Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira, and David Sides)

About Andrea Sefler

Andrea Sefler
Andrea is a consultant and technical writer for various scientific software and instrumentation companies. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley and has never met a genre of music or books that she hasn’t liked. As a gamer since the days of the Apple II, Andrea can relate any number of hair-raising tales about role-playing games stored on 360 kB 5.25” floppy disks and may, someday, put them to paper.