Bright flashing lights, the hard chirp of electronic music, the metallic clang of tokens, the clicker-clacker of buttons tapped with furious abandon. The arcade, much like the local comic shop, remains a sacred destination for some. For others it’s a treasure trove of nostalgia. Arcade patrons could spend hours and scores of quarters on a machine just for the bragging rights of a high score. Or maybe the local champ settled into a fighting game to knock out any and all challengers.
In any case, the following list offers the best of the best arcade games. These are the games that showcase the heights of what the arcade had to offer, not just as games, but as experiences. Beat ‘em ups, racing games, sports games and fighters are all represented on this list. (For the record, light gun games are getting their own list.)
“Boomshakalaka!” “From downtown!” “He’s heating up!” Midway’s "NBA Jam" is the pinnacle of sports games in the arcade. Fast-paced action, real players from real teams, an announcer who comments on your plays in real time, and yes, exotic and exhilarating dunks. There’s nothing quite like teaming up with a partner for some sick alley-oop plays. Do well enough and your player gets "on fire" to drain nasty three pointers from nearly anywhere on the court.
The experience of playing and doing well in "NBA Jam" is not dissimilar to playing sports in real life. You get into the zone. You anticipate plays. Admittedly, the biggest knock against the game is how staggeringly cheap the CPU players are. You’ll have to fight tooth and nail against the CPU to earn your win. The rubber band effect is infuriating. But when that win comes, it is one of the most glorious feelings in the world.
A hack and slash dungeon crawler RPG for the arcades, "Gauntlet Legends" offers a deep and satisfying experience for one to four players to destroy all the baddies in their way. The game features the four base characters from previous "Gauntlet" games – Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie and Archer – as well as cosmetic skins for those four characters. Players can comb through the levels to find special items to help their quest to collect all the magical runestones to defeat the big boss, Skorne.
Of course, since this is a "Gauntlet" game, players race each other to pick up the treasure and gold scattered on the ground. The most innovative part of the game is a password system that let players save their progress. Nearly unheard of in the arcades, this save system allowed players to come back to characters time and time again to level them up. It’s this hybrid experience of arcade and home console that places Gauntlet Legends on this list.
This is the granddaddy of 3D fighting games. Sure, fighters in which players could move in a 3D space existed before "Soulcalibur," but it was this game that took that mechanic and perfected it. Players can select one of 16 elite fighters, but unlike fighting games like "Mortal Kombat," "Street Fighter" or "Tekken," characters in "Soulcalibur" explicitly uses weapons to fight. Kilik’s bo staff, Maxi’s nunchakus, Mitsurugi’s katana and Ivy’s snake sword are all iconic weapons in the "Soulcalibur" pantheon.
The fights in "Soulcalibur" feel balletic. The punches, kicks and weapon swings swoop through the air, connecting to the opponent with quick bursts of speed. Your opponent sails sky high allowing for a juggle or follow up chain combo. Push the enemy up to the edge of the stage – all of which are gorgeous – and you could kick them out, ending the match immediately. As a fighting game "Soulcalibur" feels larger than life and playing it in the arcade is a perfect match.
The top-down bullet hell shooter is a staple of arcades. Players pump in quarter after quarter to dodge incoming bullets and bombs all the while swiftly juking across the screen to land shots on the enemy ships. "1941" offers an experience that is satisfying for both casual and experienced bullet hell games. There are tougher top down shooters out there, but for all but the most experienced players they can be nigh impossible to play.
Rather, "1941" is a fun experience that still challenges players of all skill levels. The graphics in this game are beautiful. Unlike a shooter set in inky black space, this game sells the idea that you’re in a WWII plane by featuring clouds, the ocean, and warships under the player. The design of the planes is both retro and futuristic. "1941" is one of those games that players keep coming back to time and time again, sometimes for the thrills of the game play, sometimes to chase a high score.
"Mario Kart" in an arcade? You better believe it! The first iteration of "Mario Kart Arcade GP" was released in 2005, 13 years after Super Mario Kart on the SNES. Namco perfectly ported the "Mario Kart" experience to the arcades. Everything that is loved about "Mario Kart" is still present in these arcade games: a cast of favorites, crazy tracks, beautiful music, fun items and even drifting (aka, the power slide).
The difficulty is upped, however, because now players must use a steering wheel and gas pedals to navigate the twisty turning courses. A fun feature added to the arcade versions is a camera that takes players’ faces and puts their picture in the game as they are racing. Playing "Mario Kart" with four friends is fun. Playing with four friends in an arcade while everyone sits in bucket seats is even more fun! Fortunately, Nintendo and Namco know they have a hit because the most recent version came out in 2014.
SNK’s "King of the Monsters" has one of the all time great hooks for a video game. Two (sometimes three) monsters duke it out against one another all the while causing mass destruction in Tokyo. The game is a hybrid of fighting games and wrestling games. Players can win by getting a three count pinning an enemy. "King of the Monsters" features loving homages to characters like Godzilla, King Kong, and Ultraman.
It’s a game like "King of the Monsters" that gives players an immersive experience to feel like they are in fact giant kaiju, destroying property with no regard for anything. The animation of the characters faithfully replicates the look of men in monster suits awkwardly maneuvering through a miniature set. "King of the Monsters" should always be celebrated, but with the resurgence of giant monster movies, it is bound to be rediscovered as the arcade classic it is.
Another game with a great premise. "Crazy Taxi" asks its players to not race on a track, but rather, against time to pick up and deliver passengers to their respective destinations in a faux San Francisco setting. Like a lot of arcade games, "Crazy Taxi" is addictive, stressful, eats quarters like no tomorrow, and above all else is a blast to play. This game just oozes personality, as each of the four playable drivers has their own unique car and characterizations.
The passengers you pick up either complain or praise your driving. Meanwhile the driver character will talk back to the passengers. The soundtrack by The Offspring and Bad Religion is a perfect fit for the frenetic fast-paced game. Walk into any arcade with a "Crazy Taxi" machine and you’ll know it. The game makes itself known to all and beckons players to try their hand at driving a taxi.
The beauty of the arcade games from the late 1970s and '80s is their deceptive simplicity. A cute little frog sprite must make its way across traffic and floating logs to the safety of a lily pad. But "Frogger" is no simple game. It is a game that demands perfection from its players. You need to have the utmost precision when maneuvering the frog to safety. One false jump means death either by drowning or being flattened by a giant semi-trailer.
As was common of the time, the game is perfect for those chasing high scores and bragging rights by being on the top of the leader boards. The legacy of "Frogger" extends to even today. There’s been remakes, HD remasters, sequels and ports to every console imaginable. Most recently, the popular mobile game "Crossy Road" is a riff on "Frogger." This game has most certainly cemented its legacy as one of the all time great arcade games.
T-shirts, toys, cartoons, cameos in other video games, novelty songs, children’s cereal, a board game and more -- all of this stemmed from a video game that featured a hungry yellow circle eating white dots while being chased by four colorful ghosts. It’s hard to imagine just how big "Pac-Man" was in its day. Arguably the single most popular game of the 1980s arcade heyday, "Pac-Man" is a shining example of an arcade game that is easy to understand and hard to master. You drop a quarter into the slot, hit start and the game begins, and there's no time to settle in.
Panic sets in as you realize these ghosts are coming for you. You deftly zip and zag out of the way of the ghosts to collect pellets and fruit. The four power pellets in the corners of the stage offer mild relief, but every game of "Pac-Man" is filled with the same stress whether it’s your first time or 1000th. The soundtrack, the character designs, even the levels all have become iconic to not just video game enthusiasts but our whole culture. For April Fool’s Day 2017, Google even made a version of "Pac-Man" to play on Google Maps!
"Top Skater" is one of the most unique games to grace the arcade. The game asks players to stand on a fake skateboard that pivots left and right and can tilt up or down. Players hang onto safety rails for dear life while racing a downhill course, hitting ramps and popping tricks by manipulating the skateboard controller. To observe someone playing "Top Skater" looks like they are using an exercise machine from the future.
The style of the game is fully committed to its extreme sports roots. The graphics and music are a time capsule into the rad late '90s. "Top Skater" anticipated the boom in extreme sports games from the early 2000s. It was released two years before the first "Tony Hawk Pro Skater" game. "Top Skater" earns its place on this list by offering a truly interactive video game experience that could never be replicated on home consoles.
Presentation matters in the arcade. How better to get some kid’s money than to build an arcade cabinet with a cockpit and giant screen for the one, the only, "Star Wars." The "Star Wars Trilogy Arcade" machine is a behemoth. The giant screen and cockpit lend themselves to getting lost in the game. The biggest version of the cabinet featured a 50” rear projection monitor, and it was glorious, not least because of the content of the game itself!
"Trilogy" faithfully recreated some of the most iconic battle scenes from the movie. Ride a speeder bike on Endor. Circle AT-ATs while in a snowspeeder on Hoth. Navigate through the Death Star and eliminate TIE Fighters. There are even bonus stages in which you wield a lightsaber to battle against Boba Fett or Darth Vader. "Star Wars Trilogy Arcade" is one of the most immersive and exhilarating games to play in an arcade. It is unparalleled in its ability to recreate the "Star Wars" experience.
With the rise of home consoles, the arcade’s popularity started to wane. Home consoles reached a point in which they could offer graphics and audio that surpassed the arcade experience. It’s hard to overstate how important "Dance Dance Revolution" was to injecting life into arcades. The rhythm-based game play, along with a wildly inventive control scheme, gave arcades a stay of execution – for a little while at least.
The challenging nature of "Dance Dance Revolution" means players are always striving to be a little more perfect. The song choices – unknown to most – also offered a novelty for players to experience. What were these strange songs they were dancing to? After the initial success of DDR, there was a boom of rhythm-based games like "Amplitude," "Just Dance" and even "Guitar Hero." All these games owe a debt of gratitude to "Dance Dance Revolution," because without it, the beloved arcade might not have lasted as long as it has.
While ostensibly based on the movie "Die Hard," this game shares almost no similarities to the action classic. Rather, this game exists is as if the developers remembered the movie through a fever dream. The lead character is vaguely Bruce Willis-shaped. He’s joined by a female partner who is not based on anyone in the movie. Together, they fight through waves of enemies that become increasingly strange: giant men with bug helmets, deranged firefighters, spider robots and other oddities. These details might seem like a turn off, but the game play is so solid and innovative for a beat ‘em up that it is elevated to one of the classics of the genre.
In the game, players can pick up and use nearly everything as a weapon: guns, chairs, brooms, hairspray / lighter combos, and more. The game features cut scenes with quick time events in which the players must swiftly tap the correct button, lest they encounter more hardships. Many, many beat ‘em up games were made for arcades. "Die Hard Arcade" rose to the top for being a great, albeit wacky, game.
Two people duke it out against each other. A crowd forms around them. Are they waiting to see who wins? Maybe. The more likely reason is they’re all waiting with bated breath to see if the winner will be able to pull off a fatality. While the first game is what prompted the creation of the ESRB and the second game cemented the legacy of the series, it was the third "Mortal Kombat" game that truly refined the game play.
It looked better than the other two. It played better than the other two. It had more characters. There was a built-in tournament mode for eight players. There were fatalities, babalities, friendships and brutalities. The character animations, while still rooted in the FMV roots, looked far better than MK 1 or 2. All in all, "Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3" was the height of the 2D "Mortal Kombat" franchise.
"Donkey Kong" deserves a high place on this list for several reasons. It was one of the most punishingly difficult classic arcade games. As evident in the instant classic documentary, "The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters," people are still battling over who reigns supreme for a high score in the game. It launched the careers of two of Nintendo’s most popular characters, Donkey Kong and Mario (nee Jumpman). Mario, of course, would end up being the face of Nintendo.
Donkey Kong, however, was no slouch himself, and appeared in his own games and across all Nintendo properties. The game can be considered one of the first ever platforming video games – a genre that would define video games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The iconic level design has permeated pop culture so much that the pink-ish steal beams, rolling barrels and super hammer are instantly recognizable. "Donkey Kong" is a classic game in every single sense of the word.
“X-Men! Welcome to DIE!” There is nothing more awe inspiring than seeing a six player cabinet of "X-Men Arcade" in the wild. Even after all these years it's a magnificent sight to behold. The six player version of this cabinet is an awkward, beautiful behemoth, and getting together six friends to play this game is still a blast. Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Dazzler are the playable characters, and while you may argue over who gets stuck with Dazzler, even that person is going to have a good time playing this game.
The character sprites and backgrounds are absolutely stunning. This music is phenomenal. The roster is deep for who you fight against, and includes most of the greats, like Pyro, Emma Frost, Blob, Juggernaut, Mystique and of course, Magneto. This game is punishing in its difficulty, but it’s hard not to have a good time playing it. Not only is "X-Men Arcade" a fun beat ‘em up, its innovation at being a six-player cabinet gives it this high of a place on the list.
You might have had the high score on a pinball table. You might have been on the top of the leader boards for Donkey Kong. But there was a time in which if you were the local hotshot at "Street Fighter" you were king of the arcade. There was a time in which people would line quarters up along a machine to hold their place in line to challenge the king. As such, it cannot be understated how influential "Street Fighter" was on the arcade scene, nor how big an impact it had on the development of the fighting game genre.
"Super Street Fighter II Turbo" was the last iteration of the "Street Fighter" games before they started the Alpha series. At the time, Turbo featured the most characters in a "Street Fighter" game with 16 playable characters. "Turbo" also introduced a few core mechanics that have been mainstays of the series ever since. Most notably, this game introduced super meters and super combos. While fans of the series can argue until the cow comes home which "Street Fighter" game is the best, it is hard to argue that SSFIIT is one of the most influential arcade games of all time.
"Turtles in Time" was released in 1991, one year after the smash hit live action movie, and still firmly in the height of TMNT fever. There was a two player version of the arcade cabinet, but the real attraction was the four player one, and much like the earlier arcade game released in 1989, four friends could argue over who got to control Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo or Raphael. The plot of the game took players through a smorgasbord of different level designs from the far past to the far future, the combat felt smooth and responsive and the graphics were gorgeous.
Some might claim this game is number one for nostalgia reasons – which is certainly part of it – but it stands up as one of the greatest beat ‘em ups ever made. It’s one thing to play a great game as a generic character. It’s another to get to live vicariously as your hero and smash through enemies like the Foot Soldiers, Metalhead, Baxter Stockman and Shredder. This game deserves to be the top of the pack of greatest arcade games of all time.
What were your favorite arcade games? Is there a glaring omission on this list? Feel strongly about the placement of one entry? Comment!