UK Christmas number ones of the 1980s

Apologies if you were expecting to see ten entries spread out below. The official UK software sales chart didn’t begin until 1984, giving us just six games to cover.

If you’re wondering why we didn’t cover the Christmas no.1s of the 1990s instead, let’s just say a certain football game played a key part of ’90s Christmas lists.

The thought of ’80s gamers waking on a cold Christmas morning and finding one of the games below in their stocking is almost enough to fill us with seasonal cheer.

There was nothing quite like the anticipation of playing a hot new release for the first time, especially when most formats of the ’80s forced gamers to wait between 5-10 minutes while they loaded – tape read errors permitting.

1984 – Ghostbusters (Activision)

Movie tie-ins were a staple of the ’80s gaming landscape, so it comes as no surprise to find a licensed game on this list. This fondly remembered (and mostly well-received) classic wasn’t originally conceived as a movie tie-in – creator David “Pitfall” Crane was asked to change his currently-in-development title Car Wars into a Ghostbusters game after Activision acquired the license.

Rather than being an action game, it was more of a strategic business sim, complete with a slight learning curve. Gamers expecting to jump straight into battles with the likes of Stay Puft had a long slog ahead, as even capturing common ghosts took a degree of skill and experimentation, fencing them between two proton beams before ushering them toward a ghost trap. 

It was the Spectrum and Commodore 64 versions that propelled the spook hunter to the top of the chart in ’84 – a running theme for much of this list, such was the popularity of the micros in the UK.

1985 – Commando (Elite)

If movie tie-ins were the primary source of income for most publishers, then arcade conversions were the second biggest. ’80s arcades were wonderlands featuring the latest advances in gaming tech, from the likes of Dragon’s Lairs’ laserdiscs to SEGA’s sprite scaling wizardry.

The crack coders at US Gold, Elite, Firebird, and Ocean had the tricky task of bringing these coin-guzzling hits to home systems with as little as 48k of memory.

Capcom’s vertically scrolling shooter Commando, unrelated to the 1985 film of the same name, translated well to the Spectrum and C64. Not only did it score highly, gaining a 9/10 from Your Sinclair, but it also boasted an excellent extended Rob Hubbard theme tune.

1986 – Gauntlet (US Gold)

The arcade version of Gauntlet made its debut in 1985, initially available only as a colossal four-player cabinet. Indeed, it was impossible to miss when entering any seaside arcade. The Spectrum version of the top-down dungeon crawler went on to become the biggest-selling game of 1986 in the UK, fuelled by glowing reviews. Together with the Amstrad CPC and C64 versions, it had no trouble at all taking the UK chart top spot during Christmas 1986.

It sported some impressive tech, allowing numerous enemies to appear on screen at once. And while the Amstrad version had gloriously colourful visuals, the Spectrum version was no slouch either, with detailed artwork, recognisable colour-coded characters, and minimal colour clash.

1987 – OutRun (SEGA/US Gold)

SEGA’s legendary racer created a storm in arcades during the summer of ’87. It was up to US Gold – a publisher with a sketchy track record – to bring the sun-drenched super scaler to the micros, Amiga and Atari ST in time for Christmas.

Despite the likes of the Spectrum starting to show their age, big things were expected.

SEGA themselves handled the Master System version, meanwhile, which also launched in 1987 and was to become one of the system’s flagship games in a pre-Sonic era. Like Afterburner and Space Harrier before it, the racer turned out reasonably well, capturing the essence of its arcade counterpart.  

US Gold’s attempts weren’t as fortunate. The publisher was up against the clock to get all five versions ready for the festive season, a fact which severely impacted the C64 version in particular. Not only was it missing ‘Passing Breeze’ from its music selection but also the splits in the road, meaning there was just one linear path. OutRun without a choice of routes really isn’t OutRun.

The Amstrad iteration was billed as a travesty, while the Spectrum version caused a degree of controversy. Your Sinclair featured screenshots of OutRun that were in no way reflective of the final product, showcasing far superior visuals. In YS’ defence, it was likely publisher US Gold had simply sent out mocked-up screenshots, and the popular UK gaming mag had been hoodwinked into believing they were genuine. That said, YS’ 8/10 score for OutRun was a tad higher than other magazine’s scores, so perhaps a backhander took place. It certainly wasn’t uncommon at the time.

Regardless, the Spectrum version wasn’t all that bad. Definitely above average. The Amiga and Atari ST versions scored highly too. Both systems were far more capable of bringing the arcade hit home.

It’s likely US Gold paid a lot for the OutRun license, and it looks like they had no trouble making their money back (and then some) – over 250,000 copies were sold in the run-up to Christmas, leading it to become the fastest-selling game of the year.

1988 – Operation Wolf (Ocean)

Taito’s light-gun arcade shooter received a cracking conversion from Ocean. Even the humble Spectrum version was able to capture the look and feel, sporting super-sized sprites. A plan well-executed, it arrived in December of 1988 to rave reviews, taking the front covers of CVG, ACE, Crash, and more before effortlessly flying up the chart.

Like OutRun, the conversion graced all major formats – Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, Amiga, and Atari ST. Master System owners had to wait another two years for a conversion, though, forced to make do with the top-down Rescue Mission instead.

1989 – Chase HQ (Ocean)

As the ’80s transitioned into the fluorescent ’90s, Ocean’s conversion of Chase HQ – another arcade hit from Taito – took the UK chart top spot. Critics loved the fact that it wasn’t just another checkpoint racer – it brought high-speed cops and robbers car chases into the mix too. Who doesn’t love a good police chase?

The Spectrum version was (and still is) held in high regard, pushing the aging system hard. Review scores were only a few percent shy from top marks, including a lofty 97% from CVG and a stonking 96% from Sinclair User. When the Speccy entered its twilight years come 1993, it was generally remembered as being one of the computer’s finest hours.

The Amstrad, Atari ST, and Amiga versions went down a storm too. But like OutRun before it, Commodore 64 owners were left with a turkey once again, no doubt adding more fuel to the “my computer is better than yours” debate in school playgrounds.

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