The gaming arcade is the birthplace of video games. Before people were playing Temple Run and Subway Surfer on their cell phones, the gaming arcade was the place to be. The dimly lit and noisy dens of arcade cabinets were a place to escape for the first generation of video game enthusiasts. This was the time before home game consoles, gaming laptops, and handheld gaming devices. If you wanted to play video games, you had to visit a gaming arcade. Because of that, arcade games became extremely popular and stayed that way for a long time. However, as home gaming consoles started becoming more and more popular, arcade games started fading into obscurity and now serve more as a nostalgia trip than the cutting edge of video gaming experience. However, there is a certain charm of arcade games which can never be replicated by home game consoles. With its massive list of influential titles, bizarre peripherals and gaming firsts, the gaming arcade is still a remarkably fun place to spend some time. Just remember to take a lot of change with yourself. As a celebration of the great place of entertainment that is the gaming arcade, we will take a look at some of the best arcade games of all time. Let’s get started.
Here Are the Best Arcade Games of All Time
Computer Space (1971)
Kicking off our list of the best arcade games of all time, is the granddaddy of all arcade games. The one that started it all, Computer Space. It was the first ever arcade gaming machine. Year zero for gaming across the globe. Designed by Atari legend Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney (right down to its futuristically-curvy cabinet), it’s not much more than a basic, bare bones precursor for Asteroids. Your spinning rocket ship took on UFOs among a starfield. All kinds of games, whether arcade or home console, owe something to this incredible game.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Pong. Though it’s often wrongly considered the first video game (that contentious accolade should probably be reserved for Computer Space), Pong may well be the most famous video game of all time, and was certainly the most important in terms of popularising the format. A simple take on table tennis, much of its success was because of the fact that it seamlessly transitioned from arcades to home consoles.
Space Invaders (1978)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Space Invaders. One of the most iconic arcade games of all time, Space Invaders was also one of the most stressful. With its clever sound effects increasing in speed as the waves of alien foes moved purposefully towards your spaceship’s fortifications, it was a race against time to blast your foes into oblivion. Revamped and released many, many times, its memorable alien baddies are as famous as gaming itself.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Asteroids. This game gave you unprecedented control over your craft. Like a retro take on Bruce Willis’ Armageddon, you had to blast asteroids into increasingly small chunks, dodging them using your thrusters as they propelled towards you. A more advanced take on Computer Space, the godfather of games, Asteroid’s subtle controls made it a great challenge.
Donkey Kong (1981)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Donkey Kong. Love Mario? Then you owe it to the great plumber to go back and visit his first adventure, facing off the mighty Donkey Kong and his steel-girder hideout. Donkey made his debut in this puzzle-platformer too, in which Mario must jump barrels and other hazards to race to the top of the tower and save his beau. A true arcade classic.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Joust. Sure, we’d had Pong and a handful of other two player games at this point, but Joust made that competitive action into a sport. It’s also the best game in which you play a knight riding a flying ostrich, taking on buzzard-riding dark knights. As fiendishly addictive today as it is bizarre.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Mercs. Continuing in the fine tradition of games like Commando, this up-scrolling shooter boasted great co-op shoot-em up action – and a knock-off Arnie as the lead character. Ported to many consoles and computers, it landed at the height of the Hollywood obsession with testosterone-fuelled action films, and is perfect for serving up that macho, kill-anything-that-moves fix.
Ikari Warriors (1986)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Ikari Warriors. Two mini Rambos working their way through enemy territory to the village of Ikari, Ikari Warriors had a cracking soundtrack and great co-op action, being the inspiration to many multiplayer military shooters on this list. Another spiritual successor to Commando, its limited ammo drops and 8-way directional shooting made it not for the faint of heart.
Guitar Freaks (1998)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Guitar Freaks. Before there was Guitar Hero in every other house, there was Guitar Freaks. Konami’s arcade hit kickstarted the plastic band fad as characterised by console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Many young fans of rock and metal music played the hell out of this game. Sadly, they learned quickly that the only way to learn how to play the real guitar, is to play the real guitar. Button mashing on a plastic guitar wasn’t going to turn you into Joe Satriani.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Galaxian. With its dive-bombing aliens, iconic sound effects and twitch-perfect arcade action, this wave shooter was a superb evolution of the idea that was birthed with Space Invaders. The amazing name adds more to its appeal.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Licensed games, believe it or not, were once pretty damn good, and Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was among the best of the bunch. Pitting the four amphibious heroes against their cartoon foes, it had a versatile combo system and a groundbreaking 4-player mode that let a whole gang of pals take on Shredder and the Foot Clan. Cowabunga!
The Simpsons (1991)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is The Simpsons. See a theme developing here? Just like its Turtles game, Konami took a great license with The Simpsons and turned into a 4-player beat ’em up, letting you and your chums duke it out as Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa on a quest to save Maggie. It had hilarious animations that were a good match for the cartoon visuals, and it was bloody tough, too. No arcade visit was complete without a few coins going into this machine.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is X-Men. With X-Men, Konami perfected the art it started with Turtles and The Simpsons. Letting not one, not two, but SIX players take on Magneto’s gang as a full complement of X-Men heroes, this premium cabinet was a sight to behold, packing in two screens to accommodate a full complement of six simultaneous players. It wasn’t a bad beat ’em up either, with giant sprites, ass-kicking combos and a risk/reward life-draining power-up system.
Ms. Pac-Man (1981)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Ms. Pac Man. Pac-Man may take the cultural limelight, but it’s Ms. Pac-Man that was actually the better game. With more maze types, randomised ghost movement and flexible warp paths, it was a fairer game with more fun than its predecessor. However, it’s also frustratingly tough to reach the final ‘kill screen’ – the point from which the game cannot continue. Bugs and glitches mean that emulation is the only way to truly finish Ms. Pac-Man.
Sega Rally (1994)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Sega Rally. The ultimate arcade racer, Sega Rally saw Sega on fire in its golden arcade era. With force-feedback steering wheels, muddy tracks and responsive turn feedback, you knew you’d won a race by pure skill when playing Sega Rally. It’d later be ported to the Sega Saturn and other machines, though a linked arcade tournament is the way purists choose to play.
After Burner (1987)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is After Burner. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore – presumably because health and safety would veto any blueprints for a fit-inducing shooter that straps you into a recreation of an F-14 Tomcat with a spinning chair and vertically rotating cabinet. This was as close to a highway to the danger zone as it was possible away from the cockpit of an actual F-14 Tomcat. This game was best enjoyed if you didn’t eat a heavy meal right before the arcade visit. Oh, and seat belts were compulsory, for very obvious reasons.
Virtua Cop 2 (1995)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Virtua Cop 2. Before it was a rage on every kid’s PC in the 90s, Virtua Cop 2 rose to popularity in the gaming arcade. Sega’s second edition of the series had branching paths through its criminal-filled levels. It featured incredibly advanced lightgun technology which could keep up with the game’s demand of precision shooting to succeed. The spectacular 3D visuals added even more to the game’s appeal.
House of the Dead 2 (1998)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is House of the Dead 2. It’s another lightgun legend. It took the concept of Virtua Cop and placed it in a gore filled zombie universe. House of the Dead 2 had crazy monsters, fast paced action and memorably hammy voice acting. It was the B-Movie king of arcades for a long time. It spawned an incredibly popular franchise of the same name. This game’s sequel gave players a pump action shotgun which took the game’s fun quotient to another level.
Dance Dance Revolution (1998)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Dance Dance Revolution. If you consider dancing an activity that only requires movement from the waist down, then Dance Dance Revolution (aka DDR) is for you. A modern arcade staple, it popularised the rhythm action/dance mat genre, making your feet of flames pull off increasingly complex steps as you smash out moves in time with the onscreen prompts. It’s still a sight worthy of drawing a crowd when an expert takes to the cabinet, with feet moving seemingly faster than the speed of light. It’s still the highlight and biggest crowd puller of any gaming arcade in Asia.
Star Wars (1983)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Star Wars. Star Wars games are a dime a dozen these days, but back in the early days of the arcade, they were an absolute rarity. The fact that, with such primitive technology, Star Wars arcade so perfectly captured the essence of the film’s Death Star trench run is an amazing feat. Using vector graphics, the speed of the X-Wing fighter was recreated amazingly, and the use of digitised voiceover work from the film helped bring the whole thing to life.
Out Run (1986)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Out Run. Games don’t come much cooler than Out Run. A Sega classic, it puts you in a deluxe moving cabinet, letting you cruise through sun-soaked time trial stages to one of the classiest chiptune soundtracks of its day. It was massively influential. Count yourself particularly lucky if you ever got to play it in one of the ultra-rare, full-size Ferrari convertibles that were sometimes rolled out to promote the series.
Street Fighter 2 (1991)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Street Fighter 2. This game is considered by many as the best fighting game of all time. From Tekken to Soul Calibur to Smash Brothers, everything that’s come after Street Fighter pays homage in some way. From its accessible specials to its instantly-iconic cast of fighters, Street Fighter 2 set the stage for what was quickly to become a cultural phenomenon, and is as enjoyable today as it was three decades ago.
Daytona USA (1993)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Daytona USA. These days even the most advanced machines struggle to maintain a solid 60fps frame rate. And while Daytona USA’s visuals seem primitive by today’s standards, its texture-mapped vehicles were mind boggling at the time, making the fact its single player races were locked in at a consistent 60fps all the more impressive. The graphics look somewhat respectable even today. It’s staggering to believe that this game came out in 1993. Throw 8-cabinet multiplayer into the mix, and Daytona USA rightly earns its place among the most well respected racing games of all times.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is tekken. If you liked your martial arts more Bruce Lee than Chun-Li, then Tekken was for you. Doing away with many of the excesses of the fighting game genre, it focussed on hand-to-hand combat instead of projectiles and flashy specials, letting the king of the combo seize the day. It looked brilliant and had some awesome character models which took Virtua Fighter level character designs to the next level.
Dragon’s Lair (1983)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Dragon’s Lair. It had incredible visuals, but dreadful gameplay. Unlike other games at the time, Dragon’s Lair made use of Laserdisc technology, allowing for visuals that, quite literally, looked like a Disney film, helped along by the fact that ex-Disney animator Don Bluth worked on its animations. However, it’s really more of an interactive short film than a game – and a cripplingly difficult one, to boot. It was probably the Dark Souls of the arcade universe, a game where you spend more time dying than doing anything else. Like a QTE mini-game without the on-screen button presses, you’d pop a coin in and die almost instantly for not knowing which exact frame to hit the attack button or which side of the screen to move hero Dirk the Daring too. However, it did wonders towards pushing the arcade gaming world forward and deserves a lot of credit for that.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is 1942. It may not be the most realistic military shooter by today’s standards. But in an age where the space invader dominated, its WWII theme set it apart. Taking down waves of enemy fighter planes, and being rewarded with ever-more powerful weaponry for decimating squadrons, it was a great example of risk-reward gaming at its best.
Crazy Taxi (1999)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Crazy Taxi. If you don’t remember it for anything else, you must remember it for its incredible pop-punk soundtrack at least. The Offspring’s musical career was hardly a glittering one, but they still strike a nerve with gamers of a certain age for providing the majority of the soundtrack to Crazy Taxi. Ripped off by everything from Burnout to GTA, Crazy Taxi had you breaking every rule of the road while trying to make as much money ferrying passengers around as possible. Which were, incidentally, amazingly adept at avoiding being crushed beneath your motor. A great Dreamcast port and sequel followed, but it’s still a game best played with its arcade wheel.
Golden Tee Off (1989)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Golden Tee Off. Think esports is a new phenomenon? Think again. Golden Tee Off, released way back in 1989, was generating big-money competitive matches way before Counter Strike or DOTA elevated the art to new heights – and it’s a friggin golf game! Golden Tee Off had a unique trick up its sleeve though – a kinetic trackball built into the cabinet that had to be rolled at speed to pitch and putt the ball. This simple interface gave it the Wii Effect, making even your non-gaming dad give it a go. A staple of the US bar circuit, the ubiquity of Golden Tee led to nationwide, prize-money tournaments.
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Rampage. When the 9-to-5 world is getting you down, the suit collar chafes and the office tower blocks are blocking out that beautiful blue sky, sometimes you just want to tear it all down, Kong-style. Rampage let you do just that. A comical take on classic monster movies, it lets you scale and smash down skyscrapers, take on the army and nab tasty onlookers as a quick snack in the guise of a giant snarling beast.
Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road (1989)
Before there was Forza Horizon, or even Sega Rally, there was Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road. A racing game with attitude, it had you racing pick up and monster trucks around hilly, jump-filled dirt tracks. It had amazing visuals (Micro Machines took a thing or two from this), while its unique stand-up cabinet let three players face off on one screen – and still have a wheel each to drive with.
Final Furlong (1997)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Final Furlong. If you think horse racing is cruel, you should reserve more sympathy for someone who had the privilege of playing Final Furlong. This machine was brutal – popping you astride a giant plastic horse, you’d propel yourself forward by “geeing up” your steed, rocking manically forwards and backwards to speed the beast up. Best played with two players, the marathon-like events would last so long you wouldn’t be able to walk for a week. It’s rumoured that a lot of people used this game as the “leg day” of their workout regimen.
Track and Field (1983)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Track and Field. Modern day video gaming might involve chilling out on a lazy boy chair and button mashing on the controller, but that isn’t necessarily the case. If people can make it to the end of the 100m dash without breaking a sweat, they truly are superhuman athletes of the highest levels. This was as much a video game as a test of endurance. The only way to win was to button mash your opponent into submission.
Marvel vs Capcom 2 (2000)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Marvel vs Capcom 2. It’s considered as one of the best 2D fighting games of all time. Marvel vs Capcom 2 allowed you to orchestrate fantasy fisticuffs between the finest heroes from Marvel’s comic universe and Capcom’s superb gaming lineage. Spiderman versus Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine? You’ve got it. The Incredible Hulk vs Chun-Li? Fight time. Yes, you could do it all. You didn’t have to be a master to pull off impressive moves, either. The “Endgame” before the actual Avengers Endgame movie.
Aqua Jet (1996)
Next on our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Aqua Jet. this game allowed its players to live out parts of a beach holiday from within the dimly lit corners of an arcade. This incredibly fun arcade game put a full-size jet-ski at your disposal. Players could twist and rock the recreated vehicle to navigate NAMCO’s super-fast race tracks. The waves made handling the heavy jet ski physically challenging. Perhaps a good way to get in shape for the summer holiday on an actual beach.
Mortal Kombat (1992)
Finishing up our list of the best arcade games of all time, is Mortal Kombat. While Street Fighter and Tekken might have had better gameplay, the drama and theatricality of Mortal Kombat is unmatched. It starts with the name itself. Every fight in Mortal Kombat was a fight to the death. You didn’t just knock your opponents out to win, you had to kill them. And it wasn’t a clean death like a lance through the opponent’s heart. Players would literally rip their opponent’s hearts and spines out (and those were just two of the many brutal ways to die in Mortal Kombat). The game was a massive success, which eventually led to a lot of controversies because of the extremely graphic levels of violence and bloodshed. The possible negative impact of video games on children’s psyche also started being discussed. However, all of that is a topic for another day. For now, let’s just finish the article, Mortal Kombat style.