Top 25 Killer Apps
Format: Atari VCS
Released: January 1980
Although initial sales of Atari’s second home console had been sluggish- selling around 800,000 in its first two years – by the time Space Invaders was squeezed into cartridge form the machine’s fortunes had begun to pick up as competitors left the field. As with many coin-op conversions (many of which were blatant copies) Atari’s licensed edition of the Taito phenomenon didn’t much look like its arcade forebear, with overly-chunky sprites and only a mid-range squelch in place of the original’s iconic and ominous bass tones, yet the game launched the VCS into profitability, doubling hardware sales and helping to bring in $2bn in revenue in 1980. Moreover it locked Atari into a strategy of pursuing as many franchise exclusives as possible, culminating in the capture and first console release of Pac-Man in 1982 – the system’s biggest-selling game.
Format: ZX Spectrum
Developer: Ultimate Play The Game
While Jet Pac was the Stamper brothers’ first release, a Defender-inspired collect ‘em up that tempted many to pick up the cheaper 16K model Spectrum, it was the top-down survival horror of Atic Atac, marketed in full-colour magazine ads, that convinced prospective buyers that the 48K model was the machine of the future, especially given that the price had just been slashed to £125.
Format: Commodore 64
WhiletheCommodore64quicklybecamethe dominant 8-bit home computer across North America in the early Eighties, supplanting Atari’s ageing 400/800 series, it had a harder time convincing Europeans of its qualities in spite of its more robust exterior. To some degree, Impossible Mission helped change perceptions, for not only did it offer smooth and colourful graphics, it provided intelligible digitised speech for the first time in any home computer game. While the 1985 Spectrum version ended up a capable conversion, Impossible Mission was one of a number of games – followed by the likes of International Karate and The Last Ninja – that established the capabilities of the C64.
Format: BBC Micro
Released: September 1984
Developer: Ian Bell & David Braben
In spite of offering the finest arcade clones of any home machine, the hefty BBC Microcomputer, first launched in December 1981, suffered from an image problem on account of it being aligned with an overbearing establishment, unlike the cheap and informal Spectrum. All that changed in 1984 when one of the most expansive and ambitious games anyone had ever seen turned the Beeb overnight into a machine everyone wanted to play on, introducing gaming’s first 3D open world and offering months of play. Unfortunately, because the BBC Micro remained beyond the pockets of most parents, sneaking in a few minutes during computer science lessons was the best most could hope for, at least until the game was ported to the other home computers a year later.
Format: Atari ST
Developer: FTL Games
The Atari ST was intended to compete with more serious computers, like the Apple Macintosh, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it took a few years to become established as a serious games machine. Building upon the classic dungeon crawl template set by Ultima and Wizardry, FTL’s classic helped esablish a distinct western lineage distinct from the JRPGs that were arriving on consoles, remaining the most successful game on the platform.
Super Mario Bros.
Released: September 1985
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the NES in reviving a depressed console market in the mid-Eighties, just as it’s almost impossible to get across how integral to that revitalisation the release of Super Mario Bros. was. With a cast of charming and colourful characters, bright, side- scrolling levels and pixel-perfect gameplay, it’s a game that attracted a new generation into gaming, establishing Nintendo as the premier power in the industry for years to come. Whether or not Super Mario Bros. single-handedly saved the videogame industry, as some have suggested, the fact that it sold 40m copies and remains among the top three on most people’s best ever lists probably helps its case.
Released: July 1987
Developer: Hideo Kojima / Konami
While Commodore and Atari battled it out in the US, and Sinclair, Acorn and Commodore fought for European market share, across most of the rest of the world, the MSX was quietly becoming the dominant home computer format, providing a platform for Japanese developers to establish themselves before dominating the Nineties. Chief among this new breed of game designers was Hideo Kojima who, tasked with taking over the development of a military action game, decided the hardware was unsuitable and instead developed what would become one of the first stealth action games, enhancing the reputation of the MSX format and establishing one of gaming’s most enduring franchises.
Developer: Reflections Interactive
It took a long time for the Commodore Amiga to establish itself as the 16-bit home computer of choice, due to a lot of its games being ported over from the Atari ST. It was only when a game appeared on the Amiga first, that the difference between the two machines became obvious, as was the case with the action of the slick Shadow Of The Beast.
Released: September 1990
Developer: Origin Systems
Given that the IBM-compatible PC has been with us for 33 years and the ‘personal computer’ even longer, we could probably devote an entire feature to the killer games that have ensured the PC’s survival as a games machine, with the likes of Doom, The Sims, Half- Life 2 and World Of Warcraft all defining various ages of PC game development.
Wing Commander stands out from the crowd though, for even though PC games in 1990 accounted for a reported 60% of computer game sales (compared to the Amiga’s 10%) the PC was still perceived to be an expensive monster, providing far less gaming bang-per-buck than either the Amiga or ST. It was the gradual uptake of VGA graphics and dedicated soundcards that changed the perception, both technologies that Wing Commander took full advantage of, helping to shift thousands of Soundblaster cards and transforming an unattractive beige box into gaming’s most enduring platform.