Super Mario figurine on brown surface

Our Top 10 Favourite Arcade Games of All Time

The golden age of arcade gaming was a special time for video games. It was like watching the birth of a universe. Genres formed over the course of a few months. Hardware development hit a crucial inflexion point, rapidly expanding what machines could do.

Everything was new, not least of all the games. With their pick of ideas to explore, developers were able to create many novel worlds. An afternoon in an arcade could mean hours spent playing as a knight on an ostrich, or as a dot trying to contain a bunch of spastic lines.

Amongst the hundreds of games published during the pinnacle of arcade gaming, a few not only reached commercial success, but shaped the industry itself. Here are ten of the best retro arcade games that are a must-play on any MAME arcade cabinet, JAMMA arcade cabinet, or emulator arcade machine.

Space Invaders (1978)

While Pong was an immense hit on its own and sparked the appetite for video games, Space Invaders turned the hunger into a phenomenon. Lasers, aliens and spaceships splashed across the cabinet’s side panels, a galaxy away from the veneered wood finish of early arcade machines. It was mesmerising, especially during an age enamoured by sci-fi.

But the fantastic cabinet art was only a prelude to what lay in wait for players out on the pixel frontier. Space Invaders is credited with many firsts: the first fixed shooter, the first to save scores, the first to ramp up the difficulty as you go and the first to use dynamic sound effects are just a few examples of what makes it one of the best arcade games ever.

Pac-Man (1980)

Just like Space Invaders, Namco’s Pac-Man chomped and shaped the arcade gaming industry by introducing many firsts. The eponymous yellow circle is the first video game character with a name and a story. It veered away from the violence common to video games of the time, which were usually shoot ‘em ups.

The innovation doesn’t stop with Pac-Man himself. The ghosts were the first enemies that followed unique and dynamic patterns through the earliest use of artificial intelligence (AI) in an arcade title. Players also had their first taste of power-ups and bonus items through power pellets and cheerful fruits.

Donkey Kong (1981)

The launch of Donkey Kong marked the beginning of an entire genre: platformers. Previously, characters were code-bound to only move in straight lines. Donkey Kong added the groundbreaking element of jumping. Mario could hop to avoid obstacles like barrels, making him the first character to have that ability.

Donkey Kong also made leaps in terms of the game environment’s design. It was the first game to introduce distinct levels with different layouts and challenges. It also advanced games as a medium for storytelling using cutscenes, as well as started the good ‘ole tradition of damsels in distress.

Super Mario (1985)

Following the success of Donkey Kong, Nintendo followed up with games that focused on the moustachioed hero instead of the villainous ape. The franchise started with Mario Bros, yet it wasn’t until the release of its sequel that it truly took off.

Super Mario expanded the world of platformers by making it a side-scroller, a feat that was initially impossible to do on Donkey Kong and Mario Bros because of hardware limitations. The feature changed platformers. Now players had to strategise as the world unfurled, instead of having a fixed screen to plan around.

Street Fighter (1987)

Street Fighter wasn’t the first brawler on the block, but it was the first that had more than one trick pony moves. The fighting game introduced the concept of special moves, pulled off by a combination of specific buttons and joystick inputs.

To accommodate all the new jabs, roundhouse kicks, and fireballs, arcade cabinets were fitted with six buttons instead of the usual two or four. Deluxe cabinets were installed with two pressure pads that players had to hit to attack.

Golden Axe (1989)

Released by Sega in 1989, Golden Axe was far from the first arcade video game set in a fantasy world. However, it still brought many notable elements to a genre dominated by gritty, urban games like Double Dragon and Final Fight.

Players were given access to three types of character classes, each with their own unique weapons and abilities. It was also one of the first beat-em-ups to use the concept of mounts. Like their riders, creatures have different abilities, from cockatrices knocking down opponents to dragons dealing heavy damage with fireballs.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)

Prior to the release of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, the only massively successful four-player romp to hit arcades was Gauntlet. TMNT provided the perfect source material for 4-player mayhem: an established and action-packed world and 4 beloved pizza-loving ninja turtles who had their own play styles.

Fans loved it. TMNT ushered in the era of popular arcade video games that are movie and comic book tie-ins. Following the success of TMNT, several others such as X-Men, Alien vs. Predator, and The Simpsons followed suit chasing the same hype-powered popularity from their fandoms.

Mortal Kombat (1992)

Mortal Kombat gripped the arcade gaming industry by the spine and yanked it out in one fell swoop. The game primarily gained notoriety for its gratuitous violence and gore. However, that’s not all that made this fighting game an arcade legend.

Street Fighter introduced the concept of unique moves and button combos, and Mortal Kombat took the mechanic one step further with the introduction of juggling. It also popularised the block, which added a new dimension to strategies and play styles.

Puzzle Bobble (1994)

Puzzle Bobble is a spin-off of another popular arcade great, Bubble Bobble. But while the sequel may feature the same characters, Puzzle Bobble is a completely different animal–one that made puzzles as addictive as flashy shoot ‘em ups and brash fighting games.

Puzzle Bobble melds real-time action play and puzzle mechanics into one thrilling experience. It was one of the first match-3 games that hit the scene, well before Bubble Shooter and Bubble Witch stormed mobile phones.

Time Crisis (1995)

Light gun shooters are always a good time, but Time Crisis added innovative features that made you feel like you were in the middle of the action. Objects in the world crumbled and exploded when shot. More notably, it introduced the use of foot pedals to take cover, giving players much-needed time to hide and recover.

But not too much time. Unlike its biggest competitor Virtua Cop 2, Time Crisis implemented timers for each stage, adding a sense of urgency that fit perfectly against a blockbuster-worthy plot that revolved around racing against the clock to save the world against terrorists.

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