The Top Ten Most Iconic 8-Bit Video Game Characters

By James Hawkins in Lists!
Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 11:00 am
The video game world is now flush with thousands upon thousands of deep, multidimensional characters. But there was once a time when those thousands were closer to dozens, and the characters had only one dimension. That was the 8-Bit era, and most of our greatest video game icons originated with that generation.

Some of them barely made it out of the 1980s, while others have spawned entire genres and franchises that propel entire corporations to the top of the video game food chain. And we're here to look at those 8-Bit characters that defined gaming's early years. Please enjoy our look at the top ten most iconic, blockiest, and most memorable characters from ages and ages ago.

10. Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson is the iconic 8-Bit villain. He signifies what the 8-Bit era was all about -- extreme difficulty, over-the-top gameplay, and seriously, seriously goofy visuals. And Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!! was innovative, especially in terms of character design.

The ugly, gap-toothed mug of Tyson still circulates the internet rather frequently -- on "Greatest Of All Time" lists and retro pieces. He came rather late to the 8-Bit party, but his presence as the final boss made him into a legend.

9. Mega Man
Mega Man
Mega Man has had an unprecedented lifespan considering it has been decades (literally) since he's starred in a truly great game. But in his day -- when Mario was hot and the arcade games were slowly fading and deep, memorable characters were only beginning to surface -- Mega Man was something very different.

His quests had multiple missions, and the level select option gave the game an open world feel. But the true beauty of the Man himself was his relationship to other secondary characters. That was an innovation, and one that has been persistent. Also, his impact on pop culture was substantial -- TV shows, movies...the whole shebang.

8. Simon Belmont
Simon Belmont became the face of action games when he premiered in Castlevania for the Nintendo Entertainment System. He was a dashing, vampire slaying badass who roamed the halls of Dracula's castle. And his side-scrolling self has endured in the hearts of action game fanatics for years. He even dipped his toes into RPGs with Simon's Quest for the NES.

Through its many releases and re-releases, the Castlevania franchise has all but slowed to a half of late, but Belmont's earliest excursions remain as some of the deepest, most enjoyable, most atmospheric action games and RPGs to date. And Belmont will forever be remembered as a blurry, 2D man.

7. Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong has long been one of the juggernauts of the arcade era. His barrel-throwing, Mario (ahem, Jumpman) impeding, level-ascending ways have gone down in history as some of the most memorable. But it actually wasn't until a certain rivalry and a lawsuit came up that the beast's 8-Bit form became his most definitive.

Of course we're talking about King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Since that documentary has dropped, the arcade game has become a symbol of competition, fame, and the crux that balances the scales of good and evil.

6. Kirby
Kirby's Dream Land/Kirby's Adventure
This pink protagonist had his humble beginnings at the end of the Nintendo Entertainment System era. It wouldn't be long before he made the jump to 16-Bit, but the impact he made in the 8-Bit world was remarkable. Particularly in his second game, Kirby's Adventure.

Kirby, as a character, is known for his distinctive look. But outside of that, he is always adorned in bright, artistic surroundings, in fanciful dream worlds that play out almost like children's stories.

5. Link
Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda franchise didn't really boom until the 16-Bit era, but the inaugural adventure resonated heavily with the gaming community when it released in 1986. Gamers loved the open world, nonlinear story and early RPG elements. But, even more, they loved protagonist Link.

He was simple -- a fairy boy journeying on a seemingly impossible quest to save the noble kingdom and the girl. But he became the true "hero" of gaming. And he has remained there ever since.

4. Dog
Duck Hunt
The Duck Hunt dog is arguably the biggest asshole in all of video gaming history, and that is plenty of reason to be labeled an icon. For a whole generation, uncertain, zapper-toting hands lunged awkwardly at rounded screens in attempts to kill virtual ducks. And when those unlucky gamers couldn't, their frustration was loosed in even jerkier, more awkward attempts to shoot the dog.

Yet, to many people. this dog was the first recognizable video game character rendered on home consoles. Outside of arcades, in the living rooms of thousands the Duck Hunt dog taunted and judged, impervious to virtual bullets and vitriol.

3. Space Invaders
Space Invaders
The multicolored, many-limbed 8-Bit aliens are among the oldest and most recognizable video game characters to date. Space Invaders are icons of pop culture -- they symbolize retro gaming totally, and have come to define a major, major genre innovator of the late 1970s.

The way that first-person shooters dominate much of the gaming landscape today, these action-shooters were the arcade blockbusters of the earliest age of popular gaming. Until Pac-Man, these enemies were the face of gaming. And now, over thirty years later, they still adorn the hats, t-shirts, and hoodies of gamers from each generation.

2. Mario
Super Mario
Many fans might be surprised to see the venerable Mario outside of first place on this list, and for good reason. No other video game character quite encapsulates the essence of "video games," not has any other video game character does as much to pull gaming into the mainstream. There will never be another Mario.

He is, without a doubt, the single most iconic video game character in the history of video games. Outside of the game realm, he is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. Inside of it, he is far and away the most franchised and well-known character. But that's with thirty years of reputation building and succes. He doesn't quite define the 8-Bit era like our number one choice does. He's close, but not quite.

1. Pac-Man
Not only is Pac-Man symbol synonymous with "video game," he is easily the most recognizable 8-Bit character out there. He symbolizes, pretty thoroughly, the entire 1980s, a flagship image of pop-culture. He has been followed by tons of derivatives -- from remakes, to TV spin-offs, to sequels, to hit songs. Pac-Man was the first character to really become the mascot of the video game industry.

And while Pac-Man didn't really make it outside of arcades and early platforms, he owns the 8-Bit era. We still see his likeness on merchandise, and his game defines the arcade era. There isn't another character that quite embodies a whole generation the way Pac-Man has. And there probably won't be again.

Honorables: ExciteBike, Samus Aran, Bo Jackson, Frogger, Yoshi
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