Mini-golf, go-karts, pizza, and of course, a handful of tokens to spend on your favorite arcade games. These were the staples of grade-school birthday parties and family get-togethers.
The late eighties and early nineties marked the heyday of arcades. Kids could load their pockets with a few quarters and play their favorite machines until they ran out of luck (or money). Gaming consoles were so new that they weren’t household items, so the only place to play games was in an arcade.
The profusion of gaming consoles into every home fundamentally challenged the arcade. Was it now just a place for birthday parties, devoid of the wonder? Yes, for a time. But arcade games are making a fierce comeback in a plethora of ways, to be enjoyed by older gamers searching for a tiny slice of nostalgia and new generations who stare in wonder, contemplating why you need such a large machine to run such a simple game.
With an understanding of the impact of arcades and the games they housed on our culture, it’s time to look back at the best arcade games of all time.
The Best Vintage Arcade Games
Vintage arcade games are the most iconic. Many of these retro game classics have been ported to console for new generations to enjoy, but are fondly remembered as the arcade classics they are. Others might not be remembered as arcade classics, but spawned franchises of epic console games.
Regardless of how they are remembered, these are the games that started it all.
Pac Man (and Ms. Pac Man)
We couldn’t let the Pac family take up two spots, but both games deserve to be mentioned. The Pac-Man series is one of the most iconic in gaming history.
Pac-Man came out in 1980 and was one of the first major arcade games to gain popularity. Its sequel, Ms. Pac Man, appeared in 1982 with slight changes to gameplay, including changing maze layouts that made the game a bit more challenging.
The original video game villain first appeared in arcade games in 1981. The original Donkey Kong, sometimes referred to as Donkey Kong Classic, featured a proto-Mario character facing off against a giant gorilla to rescue a trapped princess.
Although the game mechanics were a little choppy, the super hammer made everything better. The hammer is so iconic that it’s still one of the most sought-after weapons in Nintendo’s fighter hit, Super Smash Brothers.
(Super) Mario Brothers
The Super Mario Brothers franchise is the most iconic in all of gaming. It all started in 1983 with an arcade game called “Mario Brothers”. Fans will most likely remember the gameplay from this arcade hit due to its presence in Super Mario Brothers 3 – where players could battle and steal each other’s cards.
This battle was the concept for the original Mario Brothers arcade game, where you could hit the pow to paralyze enemies then kick them to kill them.
Super Mario Brothers came to arcade cabinets as well. In 1986, Nintendo released the Vs Super Mario Brothers edition of the console classic. This game was slightly more difficult than the original and was ported to arcades across the country.
The Simpsons Arcade Game
The Simpson Arcade Game, released in 1991, is as ridiculous as it is fun. You can play as either Marge, Homer, Bart, or Lisa as you try to fight off Mr. Burn’s goons and rescue the Simpson’s baby, Maggie.
Each character comes with a unique weapon and fighting style. While Marge fights off foes with her beloved vacuum cleaner, Bart hits them on the head with a skateboard, and Lisa whips them with her jump rope. Homer sticks to the classics, using fists and feet to defeat his enemies.
The 1992 side-scrolling classic X-Men was great because you could choose between 6 characters and play with a bunch of your friends, as long as you all had quarters to spare.
I loved playing as Storm, creating havoc amongst my enemies with her hurricane that destroyed everything in its wake. You can also play as Wolverine, Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Dazzler. Each character has a unique super mutant power that would help clear the screen if the situation got dire.
Frogger, released in 1981, soon became an arcade classic. It was a hit with gamers of all ages, which was quite a feat at the time.
Players had to control a frog as he tried to cross a busy street. Using the joystick to dodge traffic, the player had to move left, right, up, and down to avoid getting hit by vehicles. Frogger was featured in pop culture in the show Seinfeld, where George had to use his Frogger skills to get a vintage arcade cabinet across a busy street in real life.
Time Crisis is a first-person shooter that came out in 1995. As a light gun shooter, this game used gun-shaped controllers to allow players to aim and fire at targets on the screen. Time Crisis was one of the first games that allowed players to reload their weapons and to use cover as a game mechanic.
The original Time Crisis spawned a plethora of sequels. Though most notable as an arcade game, it was also ported to PlayStation and in 2009, the first mobile version, Time Crisis Strike, appeared.
Space Invaders is a timeless classic. First appearing in 1978, it’s one of the oldest games on this list, and one of the most iconic.
Space invaders is a shooting game. Players operate a fixed cannon and shoot at the invaders coming from above. The aliens move across the screen, and then down one level, slowly getting closer and closer to the cannon. They move faster and faster as the game progresses, and the game ends if they reach the bottom.
Galaga, produced by Namco and released by Midway in 1981, was a major competitor to Space Invaders. Technically a sequel of Galaxian, released in 1979, this game blew both its original and its top competitors out of the water.
Although it’s also a fixed shooter, the better graphics and the varied enemy formations made it more fun and challenging than its predecessors.
Asteroids, released in 1979 by Atari, is another shooting game similar to Galaga and Space Invaders, but with one huge difference. It’s not a fixed shooter, meaning players could move their spaceship around the field.
This offered a new layer of difficulty to the concept of shooting games. Players could thrust forward to dodge asteroids, change direction, and shoot anything in their path. This layered approach to gameplay quickly made Asteroid a favorite, and it outsold Space Invaders to become one of the best-selling arcade games ever.
Centipede was Atari’s version of Space Invaders. A fixed shooter, this game featured a centipede that crawled across the screen, slowly descending towards the bug blaster canon. A key difference from Space Invaders is that Centipede included additional bad guys – fleas that would fall from the creature. Although the fleas wouldn’t kill you, they would add mushrooms to the screen that would help the centipede and make it more difficult for players to kill it. There are also spiders and scorpions that would appear and move across the screen, adding additional foes and another challenge to the game.
These various foes and their different behaviors added layers of difficulty to the game which made it more fun and challenging than its competitors.
Punch-Out!! was the first successful boxing arcade game. Developed by Nintendo and released in 1984, this game allowed players to box with the greats!
The gameplay was unique for the time. Players could view their character from behind, at the bottom of the screen, but the character was made in a green grid pattern, that allowed players to see through him to see the competitors moved. Timing was a key aspect of this game, so it was important to see what the computer-operated opponent was doing!
Punch-Out!! was also available on the NES console as Mike Tyson’s Punchout, and sequels were available on Super Nintendo.
Dig Dug is a maze digging game that was released in 1982. In order to advance, players have to defeat each enemy in the maze. This can be accomplished by either pumping them with air until they explode, or crushing them with falling rocks.
Players can move through the maze by digging the dirt out to find enemies. The character, Dig Dug, can move up and down in the holes that he’s dug to get to his foes. Enemies can chase you through the dirt, and appear in an open space to attack.
Street Fighter 2
Street Fighter is better than Mortal Kombat. I said what I said. Although Mortal Kombat, as a franchise, sold more console games than Street Fighter, Street Fighter destroyed Mortal Kombat when it comes to arcade cabinet sales.
It could be because Street Fighter is less gory than Mortal Kombat, so some places wouldn’t even consider the game. However, Street Fighter is an amazing game in its own right. Traveling to different countries to win competitions with the end goal of beating Bison added a complex story to an otherwise simple gaming concept.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The late eighties and early nineties was the era of the Ninja Turtle. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were everywhere, including the arcade.
The first Ninja Turtle arcade game was released by Konami in 1989. A beat ‘em up style game, players could choose their Ninja Turtle (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, named after famous Renaissance artists) and fight Shredder’s forces of foot soldiers as they try to rescue their friend April and their mentor Splinter.
The car games where you get to sit in an actual seat, hold a realistic steering wheel, and push real pedals to go were some of the best reasons to visit an arcade. Cruise’n USA delivered on this concept.
Released in 1994, this epic racing game featured tracks in iconic locations across the country. Although there weren’t a lot of car options, this game was one of the most popular arcade games in the mid-90s.
Modern Arcade Games
As a kid in the heyday of arcade gaming, I think the vintage games are the best. It makes sense because game makers focus more on online console gaming now than they do on arcade cabinets. They can sell millions of more copies to a much broader audience.
However, there are still some arcade games made after 2000 that deserve a mention. Here are the best modern games.
Dance Dance Revolution, affectionately shortened to DDR, is pushing the definition of “modern”. It came out in Japan in 1998, and the first version came out in the US in 1999. However, it was one of the most popular arcade games throughout the 2000s and even into the present day, so it counts.
This was one of the first movement arcade games on the scene. Players needed to use their feet to follow the dance video on the screen. The game was also made available for home use. Early versions were available on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Nintendo 64, and even PC.
Marvel vs Capcom
Marvel vs. Capcom puts a fun spin on fighting games. It’s a cross-over between two of the most iconic fighting teams of a generation, Capcom’s Street Fighter and Marvel’s X-Men.
Although the concept originally appeared in 1996 with the arcade game X-Men vs Street Fighter, it was perfected with Marvel Vs. Capcom II: New Age of Heroes, released in 2000. The concept was well-received and spawned a variety of franchises which were mostly released for console gaming.
Star Wars Battle Pod
Star Wars Battle Pod is a truly immersive arcade game experience. In the pod version of the game, players sit in a dome-like structure that mimics the inside of a ship. There, they fight the forces of the Empire, following famous space battles from the movie franchise. The pod almost encloses the player, making the gaming experience similar to watching a movie on Imax. There’s also an open version, which has the same gameplay but doesn’t provide the same atmosphere as the enclosed game.
Star Wars Battle Pod was released in 2014 and showed that modern arcade games are still relevant, but they need to offer something that players can’t get at home.
Mario Kart Arcade
Mario Kart Arcade brings the fun of the Mario Kart series to life with immersive arcade elements. This game is a sit-down car-like version of the console classic. Characters get to steer with a true-to-life steering wheel and can accelerate and brake using pedals, rather than controller buttons.
The major difference between the arcade game and the console game is the game mechanics. The courses, characters, and power-ups are all similar to the game you know and love.
Ghost Squad is one of the best modern arcade shooters on the market. Released in 2004, it featured a more realistic gun mechanic than many of its predecessors. The gun/controller has a stock, recoil, iron sights, and even an operational fire selector switch. It even offers a calibration mode!
The realistic qualities of the game helped it become a major arcade hit. A sequel was released in 2012, and the game was also ported to the Nintendo Wii in 2007.
Jurassic Park Arcade
The 2015 version of the Jurassic Park Arcade game offers stunning graphics, surround sound, and Imax-like immersion. The deluxe version of the cabinet even includes moving seats, which gives players a full-body experience.
The game is a shooter at heart. Players must traverse the treacherous Isla Nublar to capture each dinosaur species before the island is destroyed and the species are lost forever. They don’t come willingly, and you must fight off various dinosaur foes while dodging the dangers of the island.
Non-Video Game Arcade Games
One great thing about an arcade is that you will find more than video games. These classic games are technical not video games, but they are found in arcades across the country. Sometimes, these games are the only reason to even head to an arcade!
Pinball is an arcade classic. The flashing lights, the moving ball, the little spring, pushing buttons to keep the ball in play, it’s an exhilarating thrill ride of early arcades. There are thousands of types of pinball games, and I don’t think any are more extraordinary than the one before it. It’s impossible to choose a brand of pinball for the list of the best arcade games, but the genre itself deserves a spot.
In skee ball, you roll a little ball up a ramp, trying to get it into smaller and smaller holes to gain more points. This is a game of skill and strategy. Do you go for gold, trying to get the ball into the corner pockets for 100 points, or do you aim center, steadily gaining 40-50 points each roll?
Skee ball is an arcade staple. I found it boring as a child, but now that I’m an adult, I understand why it was my parent’s favorite.
The air hockey table is where the arcade jocks like to hang out. This game crowned the king of the arcade!
A two-player competition, this game consists of discs that lightly float on air that’s blown out of the goals. This disc speeds across the table, bouncing off walls, zipping back and forth until finally, a player is able to score a goal. The first player to 6 wins the game, and the title of Arcade King, until the next match.
Arcades are great places to win prizes. The claw machine is a staple of arcades, grocery stores, and small diners across the country. This game tests your skill in using a joystick (or just push buttons) to move a claw around a cage, hoping to center it just right above the prize you are after (usually a stuffed animal toy).
Claw machines aren’t as easy as they seem. The claw is usually flimsy, and if you don’t get the angle just right, it won’t close over the toy. Others don’t even close all the way, so you can’t go after a narrow part of the toy. It doesn’t mean they are unwinnable though – they are just harder than they appear.
What is the Most Famous Arcade Game?
Deciding which arcade game is the most famous is difficult. Pac-Man sold the most copies, and it was definitely the most important of its time. However, will it still be famous in another 10-20 years? Though the imagery of a small yellow head chomping up dots and running from ghosts is seared into pop culture, I’d argue that its relevance is slowly fading. Clearly, it was the most popular arcade game, and one of the most famous, but is it now?
Mario Brothers is another that comes to mind. Although one of the most famous video game franchises in the world and a pop culture icon, is it ever even remembered as an arcade game? Can we say it’s the most famous if no one even knows it was an arcade game?
Other top contenders would be Frogger, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong, which are all well known for being arcade games but also going the way of Pac-Man, circling the drain of our collective cultural memory. For now, I will give the title to Pac-Man, but who knows what the answer will be in another twenty years?
Arcades and their games are making a comeback, in a lot of new and unexpected ways. Here’s a look at how the arcade game concept has adapted for modern audiences.
Retro Arcade Bars
The famous bar Dave & Busters brought arcades back into the limelight and helped us take a stroll down memory lane. These “adult fun centers” mixed bar food, tasty adult beverages, and our favorite arcade classics for a night of booze and gaming fun.
Dave & Busters made a shift to be more family-friendly, a move that helps newer generations appreciate arcades more, but also limits the fun atmosphere of an adult-only bar. However, the success of the franchise has spawned smaller, locally owned arcade bars all over the country.
Lancaster PA, one of the hippest cities in Pennsylvania, is home to an adorable vintage arcade bar called Decades, and Savannah Ga is home to The Portal, a tiny bar filled with retro pinball machines and a few classic arcade games. Small bars like this are popping up all over the country!
Arcade Machines for Home Use
Instead of going to an arcade, many people are deciding to bring the arcade home to them. The newest, coolest, man cave trend is to have vintage arcade classics set up. These machines aren’t cheap. At approximately three grand a cartridge, it’s unaffordable for most. However, collectors and arcade enthusiasts are buying them for at-home use.
If you don’t care about the vintage look of the console, you can play old arcade games with your new gaming console. The Nintendo Switch allows you to play a variety of old arcade games.
Instead of spending money on an arcade cabinet or even a library of arcade games on a console, some people use an emulator to play. Emulators are computer programs that a member of the public builds as a sort of game simulator. It’s the exact same game, but it has been reprogrammed to work as a download file for your PC.
Many emulators are safe to download and use, but you have to be careful. This market is not regulated and not always legal, so do your research to ensure you are getting a safe, legal download before deciding to use an emulator.
Discord Arcade Bot
Even the chat app Discord is trying to cash in on the arcade game action! A Discord bot, aptly named The Arcade Bot, has been programmed to add games to your Discord server. Although these aren’t the typical games that you would find in an arcade cartridge (you won’t find Donkey Kong or Frogger on Discord!), they are fun text-based games that you can add to improve engagement and keep people on your server.
There are also various Discord servers dedicated to your favorite arcade classic, so if you’re a super fan, be sure to check out the servers available! Discord is a great way to connect with people who are as obsessed with classic gaming as you are.
An Ever-Evolving Industry
The arcade and gaming industry is constantly evolving. Modern technology is making at-home gaming more accessible and comfortable for most people, so arcades have to adapt to stay relevant. Gamers are able to play most classics at home and have put interesting spins on old ways to play with apps like Discord and the ability to modify old games with emulators.
What will arcades of the future be? Will they be limited to the family fun centers that they are now, small game rooms adjacent to mini-golf courses? Or will they be pioneers of new, immersive gaming experiences, places where you can experience 3D gaming, virtual reality, and games as interactive as laser tag? Only time will tell.