Best Arcade Games to Play Before You Die

Before home gaming consoles and PCs kept gamers playing in the comfort of their own homes, there used to be long nights by the arcade cabinet. Pouring quarter after quarter in, see if you could beat your friend’s high score; it was all exhilarating. Not only was the experience one of a kind, but the games you could play were unlike anything players had seen up to that point.

History, The First Arcade Game, and Atari

Before the golden age of arcade gaming, students at Stanford University rigged a machine to accept coins to play the game Spacewar. Spacewar itself was considered one of the first video games, having been developed and released in 1962 by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen at MIT. The students at Stanford set up this machine with Spacewar in 1971.

Soon thereafter, a pioneer in arcade gaming would emerge.

Nolan Bushnell, a game developer, formed the iconic Atari in 1972, opening the doors into the gaming golden age. Atari would become famous with the release of Pong, considered to be a high watermark in gaming history.

Games like Pong and Spacewar were set up in gaming cabinets; large compartments in which the electronic components of the game would reside. These cabinets and coin-operated machines would be found in malls, pizza parlors, and other social gathering spots in the late 1970s into the modern-day.

Why Do They Still Thrive?

Arcade gaming experienced ups and downs throughout the years, possibly more than any other video gaming medium. They nevertheless survived the flow of time. How do arcade games still thrive in today’s world in which a gamer can virtually have any game at their fingertips?

For many, it is a unique experience that they can’t get at home. The atmosphere, sounds, social aspects all appeal in some way. Furthermore, certain games are better designed for the arcade control scheme and environment.

With the rise of gaming tournaments, fighting games have found their home with arcade-gaming lovers. This is primarily due to the release of Street Fighter II. But more on that later on.

Arcades have been through so much, and some of their games defined the world of video games, influencing countless games to come. Here are the best.

Street Fighter II

No one remembers the first Street Fighter, which is fine. The sequel, released in 1991, is where this franchise shines. Along with colorful characters, tight controls, and a killer soundtrack, Street Fighter II defined fighting games. The second game in the series was released and rereleased an obscene amount of times; remasters of remasters.

If you have ever played the game, you will immediately understand why the game has such longevity. Just pick a unique character like the Brazilian Blanka and go to town on your opponents and I dare you to try and turn it off. You can’t!

Add this to the arcade environment where people crowd around the Street Fighter II cabinet, challenging foes, placing bets, and earning bragging rights.

The series is fully modernized now, with its latest iteration appearing in the form of 2016’s Street Fighter V for arcade, PS4, and PC. While it was favorably received, Capcom released an updated version, Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition in 2018. People enjoyed this update as it updated things like the user interface and gaming modes.

Pac-Man

If you were a gamer in 1980, you were about to have one of the most important moments in gaming unfold right before your eyes. With Namco’s release of Pac-Man, arcade gaming experienced one of the biggest booms it would ever see.

The game, where the player controls the titular little yellow circle Pac-Man, was a face-paced maze adventure. The player needed to consume all of the dots all over the maze while avoiding the different colored ghosts: Inky, Blinky, Pinky & Clyde. Level after level has you avoiding these cutesy foes, and it can get pretty frantic. Pac-Man can activate the energy dots which turn the ghosts blue, allowing Pac-Man to eat the ghosts, scoring even more points.

This is a classic game where people battled relentlessly over high scores. Over the years, Pac-Man found its way to many different platforms. I remember playing a browser version in middle school during study hall. I blame Pac-man for my terrible Algebra grades!

The interesting fact about Pac-man is that it was never designed to end. That’s right: no end.

You could theoretically just keep going until you lost all your lives. This has caused fierce competition, with people vying for the ‘perfect’ Pac-Man game, where one must not lose any lives while making it through 255 levels. The 256th level is a glitch, called the split-screen. It is the result of a bug in the system, and if one beats the 256th level, you would be counted among the skilled few to achieve this feat.

Player Billy Mitchell would be the first to accomplish this insane challenge, scoring 3,333,360 points in around 6 hours. The challenges to one-up other players have kept Pac-Man and its other variations on top of the heap in arcades.

Space Invaders

Even before Pac-Man, 1978 marked perhaps the biggest shakeup in gaming.

Space Invaders, developed by the Japanese company Taito, (and eventually Midway in the United States), is a graphically basic game in which the player is tasked with stopping the space invaders from reaching the bottom of the level.

You are a lone ship shooting up at a wall of enemies. The enemies increasingly pick up speed, adding a frantic, anxiety-driven form of gameplay that is a lot of fun. The enemies moving faster were the result of the computing powers of the developer.

While programming, the game designer noticed that the more enemies that were vanquished, the faster the remaining enemies would move. At first, he thought he should fix this but ultimately decided to keep it in the final game, adding to its legacy.

Even before 1980, this game sold extremely well. In Japan, Space Invaders made over $600 million and earned the equivalent of $1.7 billion by 1982. Today it is the highest-grossing game of all time, with profits of $13 billion between all of its versions.

What sets it apart from many games of its ilk is its simple yet addictive gameplay. You can just pick up and play and lose yourself in fast-paced gameplay.

Donkey Kong

This entry is significant for the fact that it is the first appearance of Mario, but it is also a great game in its own right. You play as ‘Jumpman’, (later to be our favorite Italian plumber), on a quest to the top of a twisted tower of girders to rescue the princess from the evil Donkey Kong.

It is strange to think of the loveable Donkey Kong as we know him today as the main antagonist of a game, but he was there at the top throwing barrels in our way. The player needs to dodge multiple obstacles to beat the level, testing hand-eye coordination and endurance.

This was the first designing effort by Shigeru Miyamoto, eventually becoming the mythical figurehead of Nintendo in years to come. Miyamoto’s colorful and humorous designs paid off: the game was a smash hit, absolutely killing it in the North American market.

An aspect that helped Donkey Kong stay so relevant wasn’t only its cast of characters that would go on to define the platforming genre, but its great sales of the game for home consoles. This helped the game receive new longevity outside of the arcade market.

I remember playing it on my Nintendo Entertainment System when I was 5 and devouring it, (all while being petrified of the goofy monkey trying to stop me in my tracks). Not only is this a solid game, but it proved to be an important game for Nintendo, as it spawned several well-known characters that would go on to star in award-winning franchises.

Shigeru Miyamoto strikes again!

Dragon’s Lair

Those familiar with the films of Don Bluth, (The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven), will immediately recognize the great cartoon animation involved in the hit game Dragon’s Lair. Don Bluth himself was involved with the production of the game, which was released in 1983. Those of you who are familiar with quick-time events, (QTEs), will see where they came from.

Dragon’s Lair puts you in the role of a knight in search of the abducted princess from the dragon’s lair. The player is treated to some beautiful cutscenes as they choose which path the knight takes on his harrowing journey.

This game is known for its humorous death sequences, which many gamers became intimately acquainted with; this game is HARD. You need to have lightning-quick reflexes to react to what is happening on the screen, pressing the right button, and choosing the right path.

It was the first game to use QTEs and was an interactive movie laserdisc.

Dragon’s Lair also breathed new life into the arcade industry. In 1983, the arcade industry was in dire straits; they were experiencing the infamous video game crash due to severe market saturation and other contributing factors. Many companies went bust and it wasn’t looking good for video games as a whole.

Dragon’s Lair jumped onto the scene and revitalized a threatened industry. It would win accolades like the number 7 spot on GameSpy’s Top 50 Arcade Games of All-Time list. It’s no easy feat trying to save a dying industry, but the game surely helped bring us back.

Thanks, Dragon’s Lair!

The House of the Dead

This game terrified me. I first played it at the movie theater before a showing of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. My excitement for the movie faded as I saw the crazy images on screen: fast-paced gunplay involving bloody zombies.

With gory images, ghouls and zombies, The House of the Dead, Sega’s 1996 release was an instant classic. It is an on-rails shooter, putting the player in the shoes of one of two protagonists, Rogan and ‘G’. Much like Resident Evil, they must stop evil scientists, all while blasting through the army of the dead.

Players use light guns, (controllers shaped like guns), to progress through the story while aiming and shooting at enemies. These enemies were unlike any we’ve seen before: fast-running zombies. Of course, by now we are more familiar with this terrifying concept. But before this, gamers only knew George Romero’s lumbering, slow zombies. This added a high-octane, adrenaline-filled style of play that many gamers would go crazy over.

The game offered three different endings, all based on how the player(s) performed in-game. This game has easily stood the test of time merely by staying relevant. It has had several sequels, and my personal favorite, Typing of the Dead.

No joke, Typing of the Dead has you kill enemies by completing typing segments, rather than light guns. It sounds ridiculous, but it makes it even scarier along with giving your brain some exercise. Along with its relevancy is its solid gameplay. It’s a ton of fun to partner up and grabs a light gun, blasting through the undead horde.

Tetris

This comes as no surprise. Tetris, the Russian wonder, has captivated gamers of all ages since the mid-1980s when it was released. This tile-matching game developed by Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov was an instant hit.

The game was the first game exported from the Soviet Union to the West, showing up in 1986.

This game supersedes all puzzle games. It even has the infamous ‘Tetris effect’, in which players, long after completing games, for example, can hallucinate seeing the Tetris shapes when their eyes are closed. It also bleeds into other aspects of their lives, like dreams and thoughts. But don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing!

People love Tetris so much that it seeps into their very being. What’s better than downloading Tetris to your phone or playing a quick game on your internet browser when you should focus on being productive? Okay, so maybe you should get your work done, but c’mon! It’s Tetris!

The game starts with a clear board. Then, slowly but surely, pieces of the puzzle come floating down. These come in the form of multiple shapes, (my favorite, naturally, being the straight line), and forming geometric blocks to keep the board clear.

It feels great to line up a bunch of blocks right when you think the screen will fill up, (ending in a game over) and seeing them burst, giving you a second lease on life. The more the player succeeds, the faster the puzzle pieces float down, giving the urgency that separates the hardcore players from the casual ones. Which are you?

Unfortunately for Alexey Pajitnov, he didn’t start seeing returns on his creation until well after a decade. He formed The Tetris Company and controls much of his creation. I think we all owe Alexey a great debt. Tetris, even today, continues to be a best-seller, particularly on mobile platforms, proving that it is one of the most revolutionary games ever created in history.