Over the years, “Game of the Year” has evolved into a fairly prestigious and sought-after title with some of the best games of all time having earned this award. However, in the early years of gaming, it’s notable that the industry was not nearly as popular or respected – and with it, far less competition.
While the first commercially available video game (Pong) was released all the way back in 1972, the title of “game of the year” did not exist until several years later in 1979. At this time, the term obviously had far less weight to it.
When viewing the yearly game awards winners through the 1980’s, a period that experienced significant growth, it’s clear that the industry was very much still in its infancy. But towards the end of the decade, games started becoming more complex, intricate, and advanced, both in their design and functionality.
While this era is arguably where the industry was at its lowest – the video game crash happened right in the middle of it, after all – it was also where some of the greatest gaming franchises of all time first began. Here’s a look back at the history of the “game of the year” award and its many recipients.
1979: Space Invaders
Video gaming was still a very new concept in the 1970’s. The interactive medium was still viewed as more of a novelty rather than an actual respected piece of entertainment, with very few actually noteworthy games. Aside from Pong and Breakout, there were very few other noteworthy arcade games during this time. But out of all of the games of this era, the most noteworthy is Space Invaders. Released in both Japanese and American arcades in 1978, Space Invaders was the very first game to ever be awarded the title “game of the year.”
Electronic Games magazine’s Arcade Awards, later to be known as the Electronic Gaming Awards, was the very first game award show, and in their 1980 debut, they awarded the space shooter the grand title of game of the year. And honestly, it’s not hard to see why.
Space Invaders was absolutely groundbreaking at the time of its release, and laid the foundation for countless other games that came later and also kickstarted the golden age of arcade video games. The game inspired many game designers throughout the decade that followed it, with games like Galaga, Galaxian, Gradius, and countless others drawing clear inspiration.
Though you could argue that Space Invaders won the first GOTY award simply because it lacked much competition, we’d argue that the title is well-deserved simply because it continues to be well-remembered and loved, even 45 years after its original release.
The following year, Electronic Games magazine awarded Asteroids GOTY. Like Space Invaders, Astroids had an immense cultural impact and was a very influential arcade game at the time of its release. The game grew a massive audience and went on to inspire other arcade hits throughout the decade.
Asteroids introduced many unique game mechanics. This included a wrap-around world, where the player could move from one end of the screen to the other seamlessly, as well as realistic world physics which made the game feel much more challenging and engaging. The game also used vector graphics, which made the game appear more crisp and detailed.
The game’s influence can be spotted in many other games, including twin-stick shooters such as Geometry Wars, Super Stardust, and countless others.
Other GOTY winners:
- Superman (Electronic Gaming Awards, console & computer category)
What can be said about Pac-Man that thousands of others haven’t already? The little yellow puck-shaped dude has had countless iterations, sequels, and reboots over the years, but nothing quite beats the original arcade game. At over 43 million units sold, it remains one of the highest-grossing games and one of the most recognizable gaming icons ever.
If Space Invaders and Asteroids are what lit the fuse that was the golden age of arcade games, Pac-Man was the dynamite that made it truly explode into mainstream success. Pac-Man garnered popularity like none other, and without it, gaming may not be what it is today.
Other GOTY winners:
- Star Raiders
Galaxian took the space shooter genre to new heights, with the game taking Space Invaders’s premise and adding some extra bells and whistles. Not only was this Namco sci-fi shooter one of the very first games to feature parallax scrolling, but it also added in new gameplay mechanics, like power-ups and more aggressive enemy AI.
Galaxian would later be overshadowed by its sequels Galaga and Galpus, but at the time of its release, there was nothing quite like it.
Other 1982 GOTY winners:
- Demon Attack
- David’s Midnight Magic
1983: Pole Position
Namco continued to knock it out of the park throughout the 1980’s, releasing hit after hit. Their arcade success continued into 1982 when they released games like Xevious, Dig Dug, and – 1983’s game of the year – Pole Position.
One of the very first racing simulation games, Pole Position became one of the most successful games of its era, with the game spawning various ports, sequels, and even a cartoon television show. The title was incredibly influential, with ground-breaking gameplay and graphics. While some of the other GOTY awards winners certainly have their place in gaming history, none of them left a mark quite as major as Pole Position.
Other 1983 GOTY award winners:
- Ms. Pac-Man
- Lady Bug
1984: Ultima III: Exodus, Star Wars
Due to the video game crash of 1983, the following year was understandably a slower year for gaming – and arguably the worst year for the entire industry. As a result, there really weren’t that many noteworthy game releases in the year. While Nintendo launched their Famicom in Japan way back in 1983, North America and other regions wouldn’t get it until 1985 – so hits like Duck Hunt, Mario Bros., and Balloon Fight wouldn’t hit home systems until later.
As a result, the big GOTY winners of 1984 are largely forgotten arcade titles including Zaxxon, Space Shuttle, and Knight Lore. Ultima III: Exodus is arguably the most interesting of the bunch – an early RPG for home computers, this title featured 11 different playable classes, turn-based gameplay, and explorable dungeons that featured various enemy classes. Though rudimentary compared to today’s standards, the game takes clear inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons – with gameplay mechanics players continue to see in modern releases such as Baldur’s Gate 3.
The Star Wars arcade game was another noteworthy GOTY winner in 1984. Created by Atari one year prior to coincide with Return of the Jedi’s theatrical release, Star Wars is a first-person shooter that used 3D color vector graphics, which were incredibly impressive for its time. The player stepped into the role of an X-Wing pilot in the assault on the Death Star from the original Star Wars film. Not only did the game feature impressive visuals and gameplay, but it also laid the groundwork for 3D rail shooters.
Other GOTY winners:
- Space Shuttle
- Knight Lore
1985: Way of the Exploding Fist
In a year chock full of classics, it feels very strange to see a much lesser-known title – Way of the Exploding Fist – as the year’s sole GOTY winner.
For those unfamiliar with it, Way of the Exploding Fist is a fighting game that was released for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, and Acorn Electron. The game is noteworthy for being one of the very first fighting games and undoubtedly served as the inspiration for future genre definers.
While Way of the Exploding Fist was a technical marvel at the time of its release, it hasn’t aged well compared to some of the other major releases from the same year such as Ghosts n’ Goblins, Gradius, and Super Mario Bros. It serves as a great example of how quickly video games have advanced over the years, and how quite often the industry values technical achievements over gameplay.
1986: Dragon Quest
1986 delivered an even better year of gaming than any year prior, with major hits like Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 2, Castlevania, and Rampage all releasing within the year. And while none of the following titles received a game of the year award, the two games that did were both well deserving of it.
The grand prize winner from the first annual Famitsu Awards, Dragon Quest is considered one of the most important and influential games ever made. The game helped to establish many conventions and mechanics seen in JRPGs, with it combining the overhead movement of the Ultima games with the first-person random battles seen in Wizardry. As a result, the game essentially created the JRPG subgenre, with it preceding other classics like the long-running Final Fantasy series. The game has been honored by countless gaming publications, with GameSpot naming it as one of the fifteen most influential games of all time.
Other GOTY winner:
1987: Dragon Quest II
Dragon Quest II continued what its predecessor started, with a great JRPG that builds upon the original in every way. While it may be gruelingly difficult and a bit rough around the edges for today’s standards, it was highly innovative for its time and continued to help innovate in a genre that was still very much in its infancy.
Enix’s JRPG trilogy managed to knab the GOTY award three years in a row, with the third entry winning the following year – that’s an achievement that no other franchise can boast!
Other GOTY winners:
- Out Run
1988: Double Dragon
The first entry into the Double Dragon series was one of the first successful beat ‘em up games, with it becoming both Japan’s third highest-grossing arcade game of 1987 and the most financially successful arcade title in the United States the following two years. It’s no surprise that it received Electonic Gaming Monthly’s GOTY award in 88’, as the title was both a wildly successful and influential arcade game. While the beat ’em up genre had yet to hit its stride, later games like Final Fight and Streets of Rage drew influence from Double Dragon and its sequels.
Other GOTY winners:
- Dragon Quest III
- Gradius II
- Operation Wolf
Another packed year, five different games won GOTY in 1989. The grand prize winner of the Famitsu Awards, Final Fantasy II continued the series, introducing new innovations and series staples that would later go on to influence later RPGs. Unfortunately, the game is seen as one of the weaker entries into the series nowadays, but its impact on the JRPG genre has not been forgotten. Ghouls n’ Ghosts was another winner of the year, and was an excellent follow-up to the tough-as-nails platformer Ghosts n’ Goblins from a few years prior.
However, Tetris was the biggest and most influential GOTY winner of 1989, by a landslide. A launch title for the original GameBoy, Tetris was the first hugely successful puzzle game, and essentially created the “falling block” puzzle genre which has since become an entire subgenre of games. The game was also one of the first “pick-up-and-play” style games, which is now ubiquitous with mobile games.
Nearly 40 years after its inception, Tetris remains incredibly popular – the game has had more iterations than one can count, and even recently received a feature film. The title is one of the biggest names in gaming, with BBC even referring to it as the ‘perfect’ video game.
Other GOTY winners:
- Final Fantasy II
- Ghouls n’ Ghosts
- The Untouchables
Nominate Your Game Today
Nowadays, the Game of the Year award stands as the highest honor a game developer can receive. Presently, NAVGTR extends an invitation for entries to its annual game awards. We encourage you to submit your game as well – nominate your game today!