Some of you may find classic arcade games as an amusing look into the past. I am old enough to remember a time before consoles and PCs were just another household appliance and kids spent Friday nights at the arcade spending their allowance one quarter at a time. Now, these retro arcade machines are finding a renaissance in the form of retro arcade bars and cheap DIY cabinets. On a recent trip, I found myself in one such arcade bar, surrounded by the sounds and lights of my youth. And it got me thinking, which classic arcade game is the best? Well, for once I was able to come up with an answer. Below you will find my Top 10 Classic Arcade Games.
Fun fact before we begin…some of these games don’t have a proper ending due to bugs in the code yet they have generated millions of dollars in revenue. I think this is why developers today still think they can release a buggy game without consequence.
10 – Robotron: 2084
- Original Publisher: Williams Electronics
- Release Date: 1982
Robotron: 2084 is a twin-stick shoot ‘em up where the player must save the last human family from the robot overlords that have taken over the world. Unlike previous shoot ‘em ups like Berzerk that used a single stick and had the protagonist navigating through a maze, Robotron uses a single open level screen filled with various robots and obstacles. You must pass over the humans scattered about the level to save them before they are killed by the robots, with each level ending when all robots are destroyed. Later levels have faster robots and also introduce new robots with additional powers.
9 – Dance Dance Revolution
- Original Publisher: Konami
- Release Date: 1998
Dance Dance Revolution is the most iconic rhythm game to ever hit arcades. The player stands on a platform with four colored arrows at their feet. After choosing a dank tune from the list available, the player must ‘dance’ to the beat as a stream of arrows flows from the bottom of the screen, stepping on the matching arrow as the on-screen arrow passes through the Step Zone. Accurately timing the step fills your Dance Gauge, while missing a step drains it. If you complete the song you will receive a score and a letter grade. May the best dancer win!
8 – Street Fighter 2
- Original Publisher: Capcom
- Release Date: 1991
The sequel to Street Fighter (1987), Street Fighter 2 is the first game in the series to add multiple fighters for players to choose from. Each of the eight characters has their own fighting style and special moves. The solo mode pits the player against each of the other seven characters before tossing in an additional set of four bosses known as the Grand Masters. A second player can drop their quarter into the machine to begin a player versus player match. This ‘King of the Game’ battle allows the victor to continue on while the loser or their replacement must pay the toll for their chance at victory.
7 – Dragon’s Lair
- Original Publisher: Cinematronics
- Release Date: 1983
Dragon’s Lair is probably the most unique game on this list. To begin, it utilizes a LaserDisc to offer much better graphics than any other game of the time period. You play as valiant knight Dirk the Daring as he sets out on an adventure to rescue Princess Daphne. To do so you must navigate the many traps of Mordroc’s castle. These traps are presented as animated scenes, with a new scene unfolding when the player chooses a direction to move. Timing is critical with an incorrect move resulting in the death of Dirk.
6 – Time Crisis II
- Original Publisher: Namco
- Release Date: 1998
A co-op version of the original Time Crisis, Time Crisis II features side by side cabinets, each with a light gun and foot pedal. Pressing your pedal moves your avatar out of cover allowing you to freely shoot the enemies on screen. A flash on-screen alerts the player to an incoming attack, prompting them to release the pedal and duck back into cover before being hit. Don’t spend too much time in cover, though, as each level must be completed before time runs out.
5 – Gauntlet
- Original Publisher: Atari Games
- Release Date: 1985
Believe it or not, there was a time when arcade games cost a single quarter to play. The multiplayer dungeon crawler Gauntlet was obviously created to maximize revenue, allowing four players to simultaneously spend their hard-earned allowance. Each person enters the game as one of four fantasy characters with a straightforward goal: Kill monsters as you search for the exit to the level, collecting food (health) and treasure chests along the way. Each of the four characters has their own playstyle and players must coordinate their skills to quickly and efficiently find the exit. Time is of the essence as your health is always ticking down so the faster you progress the fewer quarters it will take to reach your goal.
4 – Mortal Kombat
- Original Publisher: Midway Games
- Release Date: 1992
Mortal Kombat is a 1v1 fighting game best known for its extreme violence and gore. Although the Fatalities of the original are nowhere near the intensity of the killing blows of 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11, they were still just as controversial. For the players who lined up at arcades to best their friends, the only thing worse than the walk to the back of the line after a defeat was doing so to a chorus of ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ as a player capable of pulling off a Fatality obliged the announcer’s call to ‘FINISH HIM!’
3 – Pac-Man
- Original Publisher: Midway Games
- Release Date: 1980
In Pac-Man, you traverse a maze gobbling up pellets while trying to avoid four ghosts – Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde. There are four Power Pellets, one at each corner of the maze. Eating one of these Power Pellets turns the ghosts blue, allowing them to be eaten as they run away in fear. The stage is complete when you eat all the pellets on the screen, with the pellets being reset for the next round. As you progress through the stages the ghosts become faster and the duration of the Power Pellet effect is shortened.
The predictable movement of the ghosts means there is an optimal pattern for completing each stage, but even so, most players can’t reach the end of the game. Never expecting a player to progress far enough to reach the end of the game, the never actually coded in an ending. Instead, at level 256 a glitch in the game prevents players from progressing any further, making for a perfect score of 3,333,360 for anyone capable of making it that far. Good luck.
2 – Donkey Kong
- Original Publisher: Nintendo
- Release Date: 1981
The feud between Mario and Donkey Kong started almost 40 years ago in the arcade hit Donkey Kong. It all started when DK kidnapped Mario’s girlfriend Pauline. To rescue her, you control Mario as he jumps and hammers his way through four alternating stages. At the end of the fourth stage, Donkey Kong falls to his demise and you are reunited with your love. The game then cycles back to the first stage, this time at an increased speed.
Donkey Kong is well known for being unforgivably difficult. Another game that doesn’t have an official end, Donkey Kong abruptly ends at the beginning of level 22, affectionately known as the ‘Kill Screen.’ Due to a bug in the game, it is impossible to advance any further, with Mario dying just seconds after the stage starts. Don’t worry too much about it though; with only a handful of players ever reaching the kill screen (sorry Billy Mitchell, we don’t count cheaters) your game will undoubtedly end much sooner.
1 – Galaga
- Original Publisher: Midway
- Release Date: 1981
The best-fixed shooter of all time, Galaga is possibly the most addictive game ever made. To this day I can’t walk by a Galaga cabinet without throwing a few quarters into it. Positioned on the bottom of the screen, you are the lone starfighter trying to fend off the attacking Galaga. Each stage begins with groups of Galaga flying into position, giving you a chance to dwindle their forces before they attack. Once in formation, the aliens will begin swooping down at you as their fire missiles towards you with you returning fire in the hopes of clearing the stage of enemies.
At the top of the screen is the Boss Galaga, aliens that require two shots to kill and equipped with a tractor beam that can capture your ship. This risk vs. reward mechanic can be avoided, but allowing your ship to be captured can be a boon. If you are skilled enough to destroy an attacking Boss Galaga with your captured ship in tow the action will pause as your reclaimed starship floats down and docks with your current ship. This doubles your firepower which is necessary if you plan on attaining a score high enough to land at the top of the leaderboard.