There was point in time where any and every prominent piece of pop culture got turned into a board game, and it just so happened to have overlapped with the emergence of video games as a fearsome new form of entertainment. In those days, a bunch of games leaped off the screen and onto the tabletop. The trouble is, part of video games’ allure is their physical impossibility. They let you exert bodily will on a wholly imaginary space. Trying to localize that experience for the language of a tabletop almost seems futile. Case in point: Milton Bradley’s Pac-Man. The mazes, the ghosts, the dots, and the little incomplete pizza man himself are all on hand but the furious panic and glee of Toru Iwatani’s arcade game are lost in this set. All you do is roll dice, and the resulting value determines how many dots Pac can eat. Land on a power pellet, and you send the ghosts back to their starting point. That’s effectively the same as in the arcade game, but the satisfaction of devouring those pesky poltergeists disappears. Good old Hungry Hungry Hippos comes closer to Pac-Man’s frantic course plotting, but it’s just not the same. Plus: board game Pac just looks wrong, with his weird uneven jaw. That is Nightmare On Pac-Man Street right there.
Dragon Quest, with its turn-based battles and leisurely pace, lends itself to the more methodical clip of a board game. Yuji Hori’s formative role-playing series was initially born as a My First Dungeons & Dragons experience, a gateway to the imaginative complexities of tabletop role-playing with fewer decisions to make. Released around the same time as Japan’s Super Nintendo remake of the first two Dragon Quests, Dragon Quest I & II does a decent job of capturing the series’ style, thanks in large part to Akira Toriyama’s iconic character and monster art. (That the backs of the characters are also depicted on the cards perfectly captures DQ’s playful spirit.) Moving around a world map, you battle enemies based on your character stats and augment them with weapon, spell, and item cards. All the parts are there. What’s missing, however, is the feeling of exploring a fantasy world, with Koichi Sugiyama’s score setting the mood. It’s hard to feel like a wanderer when your movement is bound to predetermined straight lines.
Milton Bradley’s Street Fighter II is, if nothing else, not as misguided as the mid-’90s Street Fighter II cartoon. At least it’s kind of about fighting. Players are ostensibly placing Ryu and company on streets wherein they engage in fisticuffs. You pick your world warrior, place them at a designated starting point, then roll dice to move them around a street before they run into an opponent and enter a Battle Arena. No punching or kicking or hadoukening happens in there, just more dice rolling to build up each individual’s power level. The first to build it all the way up—that is the first to move a peg on their character card—wins. You still have to beat M. Bison, though. He’s hiding in a cardboard box in the corner of the board. At least the character art is nice.
Tomy’s Tetris takes a smart tack in bringing Alexey Pajitnov’s definitive puzzle game into the real world by making it competitive. Like a post-peace accord Battleship board, two players face each other and both have tight little alleys to fill with tetriminos—those little Zs, Ts, Ls, and precious lines—just as in the video game. Players are given random blocks, and they take turns building structures on the field. When you clear away lines by filling in the horizontal space, a divider in the middle of the board edges toward your opponent, giving them less vertical space to work with. The speed and split-second decision making of the video game is absent, as is the feeling of serendipity when you finally get that block you’ve been waiting for, but it’s replaced with something great: dread!
Nintendo’s googly-eyed ape is no stranger to board games. Milton Bradley made an adaptation that has Mario scrambling up ladders turn-by-turn, like an ultra-slow version of the original arcade game. There’s even a Donkey-styled Jenga set, with the blocks painted like so many magenta girders. Donkey Kong Country Pog Pitchin’ is the weird one. Not quite a regular pog game, it was a collection of Country-themed boards with holes in them and players had to flick pogs through the holes to win. It’s the exact opposite of the video game that inspired it. Donkey Kong Country asks you to hop in the air and avoid falling in holes. Stop trying to trick people, Pog Pitchin’. (There is another, Japan-only Donkey Kong Country board game, but who the hell knows what’s happening here?)
Rather than trust some toy maker to mess with their baby, Brøderbund took it upon themselves to make a board game version of Lode Runner. However, handling the adaptation of the treasure hunting, survival game was not original mastermind Douglas Smith. It was designed by Donal Carlston, one of the founders of Brøderbund who helped birth video game classics like Myst and Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? Carlston actually designed multiple maps for the Lode Runner board game, hoping to capture the same rising challenge you’d get when progressing through the video game. Rather than programs operating the action, the board was set on a grid, making for a slower but still accurate version. With only four boards, it didn’t have the variety of Smith’s game, but it came very close to nailing it.
Nintendo’s Legend Of Zelda elicits a profound feeling of discovery. Every bombed-out hidden passage; every powerful relic found in some dank temple; every new vista uncovered by an expanding tool box; Zelda succeeds by forcing the brain to yelp, “Look! Look what I found!” Milton Bradley’s board game has none of that. What it does have, though, is most everything else. Like Candy Land reimagined by Ralph Bakshi, the Zelda board game has you moving through six dungeons on the way to defeating Ganon and saving the princess. You roll dice to move through each dungeon and uncover monsters and items on little tiles. Try not to lose your heart points, and uncover each dungeon’s magic tile. The sixth dungeon’s magic tile is—da-nuh-nuh-nuh—Zelda and the Triforce. Even if the satisfaction of exploration isn’t on hand, Zelda is pretty cool, thanks in part to its perfectly ’80s art. Just look at those tentacle-faced Pols Voices. Paint those on the side of a van, blast an Iron Maiden album, and you’re good to go.
Super Mario Bros. is, like some other notable entries here, distinctly ill suited to board gamification. Nintendo’s game of turtle-cruelty and mushroom consumption is all about momentum, timing, and spectacular sights. There are no running jumps in board games. If you eat mushrooms while playing board games, they are likely on pizza and will not make you huge. In the Terry Miller Associates-designed Super Mario Bros., four players hop between spaces each turn based on what’s written on a brick card they draw from a pile in the center. Some bricks move you forward; others make you lose a life. The ultimate goal is to land on a castle and rescue Princess Toadstool, but as in the original game, she may be in another castle.
Ed Logg and Dona Bailey’s arcade game Centipede was like getting to crawl inside the coolest parts of a Yes album cover. As a variation on Taito’s Space Invaders, it was inspired. There were tons of little mushrooms and obstacles between you and the enemies you were trying to shoot at the top of the screen, plus those enemies were snaking around through the foliage toward you. It was spacey and stressful and cool. It was, however, a solo affair. The Centipede board game knows it can’t replicate that sci-fi thrill, so it changes the stakes. Rather than trying to survive the oncoming centipedes, you have an opponent on the other end of the board. Both players get a centipede that can destroy the other, so to stop it from advancing you shoot it with a plastic gun or drop poisonous mushrooms. Little spiders and scorpions can also be used to mess up your rival centipede under special conditions. Accurate to the arcade game? Hardly. But still pretty spacey, stressful, and cool.