1989 was the year that changed the world. The year when millions of people, tired and angry, tore down the systems that kept them under the boot of a few lunatics for almost half a century. And yet, millions more couldn’t achieve that.
Welcome to the end of a decade. In this show we’ve witnessed the end of the 60’s, that brought us to the moon, the end of the 70’s that brought new things to be afraid of, and now the end of the ‘80s. 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. The disillusion with communism of Europe, though, that wouldn’t be the right word. A better expression would be, when the powder keg of build up resentment and rage exploded, and dictators found themselves alone, surrounded and betrayed by even their lackeys. But it wasn’t a bloodless revolution everywhere, hundreds were killed in Romania, the actions of the state being blamed on nameless, shapeless, formless terrorists. In China, in Tiananmen it ended tragically. But the courage to stand in the face of power did not falter.
And sure, while in some cases things didn’t turn out that great under democracy either, mostly because the ones who took over were the very same lackeys that turned their backs on a dictator, who was shot along with his wife on Christmas day, it was better then the alternative showed itself capable of being for the past decade.
The crumbling of borders between east and west led to a blending of culture like never before. Where as up until now, we here would get the odd tidbit of western media, screening VHS tapes for the whole neighborhood in dark rooms with blankets on the windows and someone keeping watch outside. Now the opposite could happen. And it was all thanks to a Japanese company called Nintendo, that needed a really good game for its upcoming mobile game device, called the GameBoy. It came with only a handful of titles at launch, but one of them was Tetris. A game that transcended language, culture, age and yet was still stylized to be unmistakably Russian, so that its origin would not be erased, so that people could understand that such beauty of design could come even from a place that to some was still considered the enemy.
The home console market was booming at this point in time, it was a juggernaut that only got bigger by the day. The Sega Genesis was getting ports of arcade games that looked almost as good as the original, like the classic Golden Axe, again made by Sega. Herzog would get a sequel for this platform, in the form of Herzog Zwei, another example of a proto-RTS game where you could command units in combat, while still technically being one yourself. While the NES was still going strong, getting its own slew of games either ported from the arcades, like Capcom’s Final Fight, a beat-em-up that forever cemented the idea that trash cans were full of whole cooked chickens. It also got a bunch of licensed games, like another Capcom creation, Ducktales. Alongside an infuriating Ninja Turtles Games, by Konami, that had nothing to do with the arcade version also made by Konami that very same year. And while these were easier to sell, due to the appeal of the licensed property and the branding, it still got a few original titles as well. One was River City Ransom, a spawn of the ancient by now Renegade, that also created the Double Draogn Series. This game would be the one that truly established the popular Kunio-Kun series, were a bunch of high-school thugs go out and beat everyone up, but do so with good intentions. The NES also got the first of a very strange series of RPGs from a developer called Ape. It was named Mother, and partly meant as a parody of the JRPG genre, while still being one itself. The series would go on to delve into complicate themes and philosophy at a level that you could say goes beyond even what Ultima tried to do.
Several of the worlds most popular games were created this year for home computers. Wes Cherry wrote Solitaire, a game that would soon be bundled alongside Windows, leading to a severe reduction in office productivity. And if Solitaire wouldn’t do it, then Minesweeper, made by Robert Donner that same year, would certainly finish the job.
Jordan Mechner’s greatest creation was finally sent out the door this year. Price of Persia. An hour long cinematic platformer, with a simple story told through visuals, with very detailed spectroscope animations, and a long development history, filled with trials and tribulations. If you ever get the chance to read Mechner’s journals about the game’s production, do so, they great. It’s in this game that we can truly see the birth of the cinematic game, and the beauty it could bring… before being corrupted decades later.
Adventure games continued to grow, Sierra putting out both sequels and new titles like the first game in the short lived Laura Bow series: The Colonel’s Bequest. It also tried its hand at a different kind of adventure game, one that tried to blend the genre with the RPG, in the form of the much more well know Quest for Glory series, starting with what was initially called Hero Quest: So you want to be a hero. Lucasfilm Games was soldering on with more adventure games as well, this time one based on a very successful film released that same year, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Another Scumm game that helped pave the way towards a new age of in just a few short months. And they weren’t the only ones making adventure games anymore, far from it. This was when Access Software released the first game in the Tex Murphy series, called Mean Streets. A game that tried to blend the noire styling of a detective story with the trappings of Sci-Fi, bringing joy to fans of Blade Runner and to many others.
However, when it came to computer games, two in particular dominated, two strategy games. Not that Prince of Persia wasn’t great, if Broderbund had actually put any effort into selling it. A small studio called Bullfrog released one of those titles. The definition of a God Game, with one of Peter Molyneux greatest creations, Populous. A game where you’d play the role of a god, leading your people to greatness and smiting those who failed to believe in you.
The other game was Will Wrights masterpiece, Sim City. A game that built upon so many other achievements from the past, including some of Wrights’ own technical accomplishments, and created something with the potential to change gaming forever. No longer was this just a toy, it was a city building and management simulator. But not in the obtuse, text based way that most economical simulators were in that age. It had a slick and easy to use interface, with a mode of play that wasn’t difficult to understand, but took a while to fully appreciate and master. But most of all, it wasn’t a game with a defined length. Not with a set challenge. Not with an enemy to crush. It was playing for the pleasure of building your own city, seeing it prosper, and eventually brought to ruin by a disaster, natural or not.
SimCity paved the way for a new genre, and a new style of game. It was the blueprint for some of the most satisfying and long lasting experiences in gaming. And at the same time, it was a game that taught the player a thing or two about how a city is run and managed. And that is why it is the game of 1989… but, it is not alone. As I said a few weeks ago, there was a game who’s time would soon come, and now was that time, and that game was Tetris. Since becoming a launch title for the GameBoy, Tetris was transformed into global juggernaut.
And so ends 1989. The year that gave us Tetris, Sim City, that brought democracy to Eastern Europe, a massive oil spill to a bunch of really surprised birds, otters, seals, and a bunch of whales. And it brought an end to the ‘80s. A decade for which a lot of people are nostalgic. But not people from around here, well at least not the ones that didn’t have relatives in the upper echelons of the party.
Next week we move on to the ‘90s, a decade of hope for some, a decade of strife for others, and a decade of many changes.
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