Best arcade games of the 80s: Old school video games

Once upon a time, arcade games were king when it came to video game entertainment. Sure console systems like the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision were around at that time. But if you really wanted to play top quality games, you had to visit your local arcade and pop some quarters in your favorite game.

Best Arcade Games of the 80s

The video game industry is estimated to be an $81 billion dollar operation.  The industry has come a long way and many things have changed along the way.

By today’s advanced hardware standards, the games of yesteryear seem extremely primitive, limited in scope, and unattractive.

You know what they aren’t? They’re not boring. In fact, in many titles, the fun factor is off the charts! So let’s look back in time at all of the wonderful arcade games from the 80s.

Best Overall: Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong is the most successful franchise of all time and considered classic arcade game royalty. Afterall, it did launch several sequels, the massively successful Mario Brothers franchise, and the Donkey Kong Country Series.

Donkey Kong is a Nintendo title, released in 1981. The premise of the game is very similar to the King Kong story. Donkey Kong has kidnaped the princess. You play as Mario the plumber who must rescue her.

Donkey Kong the ape, rolls barrels your way to try to prevent you on your quest. In addition to barrels, you must also dodge fireballs. Once you make it to the top, Donkey Kong whisks the Princess away and you must attempt to rescue her on the next challenging level. Once you complete all level, you have to repeat them again and again. The speed of the game increases each time to make the game more challenging.

Best Action Packed: Centipede

Released in 1980, Centipede is an extremely fast-paced game that is meant to be played with a trackball. The premise is pretty straight-forward. You use a laser cannon to try and shoot the centipede coming your way.

Part of the challenge is that the centipede is not always in one piece. As the centipede approaches, you must also avoid the giant spider. When the centipede makes it all the way down the screen, it will crash into your laser cannon and causes you to lose a life.

Centipede is widely regarded as one of the all time classic video games.

Best Flying: Joust

Released in 1982 by Williams Electronics, Joust features two-player action. The main character is a knight riding an ostrich. Pressing the button flaps the wings of the ostrich. The goal of the game is to knock the other enemy knights off of their buzzards.

Not only must you avoid getting knocked off your ostrich but you must also prevent yourself from touching the lava down below. Luckily the game provides many rock platforms to land on.

Best Dodging: Frogger

Originally developed by Konami in 1981, Frogger requires you to navigate a frog through a multitude of obstacles. Each push of the joystick causes the frog to hop in that direction.

The screen is divided into a busy traffic intersection and a wild river. Each frog must safely venture across traffic without getting hit by the various automobiles. Once across, the frog must then jump from log to log, turtle, or alligator without falling into the water.

The premise is extremely simple but the fun and addiction factor is what makes this game an arcade classic game.

Best Tunnel: Dig Dug

Originally developed by Namco in 1982, Dig Dug is an underground adventure that requires you to kill the underground monster by inflating them with your air pump or by dropping rocks on them. There are many types of arcade games from the 80s but Dig Dug was truly unique and set itself apart from others in its presentation. 

The enemies in the game are Pookas or Fygars. Dig Dug will lose a life if either character caught him or in the case of the Fygars, breaths fire on Dig Dug. Dig Dug can also die if a rock falls on him.

Best Fun Factor: Pac Man

Pac Man is another Namco title that was developed in 1980. The title was a cultural phenomenon that changed the face of gaming forever. Famous arcade games didn’t exist until Pac Man. Video games were novelties that never really gained much of a following that you might find in a bowling alley or pool hall. Early arcade games like Pac Man lacked multiple layers and advanced graphics but they were always addicting and fun. 

When it comes to vintage arcade games, there is only one king of popularity. The massive hit Pac Man was what really got things moving.

As a kid, I can recall seeing a crowd of kids, huddled around the Pac Man arcade cabinet watching their friend being chased by ghosts. Part of the fun was trying to complete the level by memorizing the patterns on each stage.

Pac Man was so popular there was even a corny pop song (Pac Man Fever) dedicated to its name. There was a Saturday morning cartoon as well.

Video game developers began churning out a flurry of titles hoping to capitalize on the fame that Pac Man had garnered. Titles like Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, and Mario Brothers became hits which also brought on the advent of the local video game arcades.  What a great time to be alive!

The game consists of a maze filled with dots or pellets that Pac Man must eat. Once all the pellets are consumed the level is over and a new one begins. a host of ghosts will try to stop Pac Man along the way. Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde will chase you until you eat one the four larger pellets. After eating larger pellets, Pac Man gets to turn the table and potentially eat the ghosts. This, of course, is only temporary. Once your invincibility wears off, you are vulnerable again. If you were lucky enough to eat any of the ghosts, they will regenerate after a short time.

Best Innovation: Dragon’s Lair

Developed in 1983, Dragon’s Lair was the first video game to incorporate real animation. The animation was produced by ex-Disney artist Don Bluth. Unlike other pixel-based games at the time, Dragon’s Lair took advantage of Laser Disk technology that allowed for a larger storage medium. Dragon’s Lair instantly became one of the most sought after and famous arcade games of its time. 

The protagonist is Dirk the Daring. Dirk is a knight who must rescue Princess Daphne from the evil dragon Singe who has locked her away in a castle. The graphics and animation are absolutely gorgeous but the gameplay is the big limiting factor. Unlike other games at the time, the game action does not take place in real time. Instead, the player watches each scene unfold. At the end of the scene, the player must decide the action to take. By pressing the joystick in a specific direction, the scene will play out accordingly. Sometimes you live, sometimes you die. After a few tries, you soon memorize the correct path to choose for the next time you play.

Dragon’s Lair was the first of its kind is considered a classic 80s arcade game.

Best Multiplayer: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game

Konami released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1989. TMNT is a side scrolling beat em up game that allows you to play up to four players.

TMNT became a famous arcade game because of its source material and ability to play all four turtles at the same time. As in the cartoon source material, the Ninja Turtles must face off against Shredder and his long list of goons in order to save their friends April O’Neil and Splinter.

The bosses include the likes of Rocksteady and Bebop, Krang, Granitor, General Traag,  Baxter Stockman, and Shredder himself.

Best Movie Themed: Star War

Atari produced the arcade version of Star Wars in 1983. Based on the uber-popular movie, the game takes place during the attack on the Deathstar.

You play as Luke Skywalker piloting his X-Wing Fighter. This title is all about survival.

In the first part of the game, you square off in a dogfight against the evil Darth Vader as well as other Tie-Fighter members of the empire.

The second level has you streaking above the surface of the Deathstar.

The third phase has you navigating down the trench leading to the exhaust port. Once you successfully launch your photon torpedo at the precise time, the Deathstar will explode and the game resets back to the first level. The difficulty increases each time the game resets.

Best Racer: Pole Position

Namco was prolific in the 1980s. Another popular title was Pole Position which was released in 1982. The arcade cabinet included a steering wheel and a gear shifter for both high and low shifting.

The player controls a Formula One race car. The first challenge is a qualifying lap which is based on time. Once the player qualifies, he must compete Championship race against seven other computer controlled racers.  Avoid running off the road and be sure to watch the clock.

Best Animation: Space Ace

Another great title from the former Disney artist Don Bluth. Space Ace was released in 1984 to huge fanfare. Like Dragon’s Lair before it, Space Ace took advantage of laser disk technology allowing for much greater storage.

The gameplay is also identical to Dragon’s Lair. As the scene plays out, the player must choose the path that the character must take. If you choose wisely, you will continue. If you are unwise, you will die.

The protagonist is Dexter who will transform into Ace at certain points in the game. Unlike Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace will allow for multiple correct paths to take.

Best Food Based: Burgertime

In 1982 Data East developed Burgertime. Players take control of Chef Peter Pepper.

Chef Peter Pepper must successfully make a complete hamburger without being caught by the various enemies Mr. Hot Dog, Mr. Pickle, and Mr. Egg in the game.

In total there are six levels. Each level increases in difficulty.

Best Space Shooter: Defender

Defender is an arcade classic title that was developed by William’s Entertainment and released in 1981. The game was inspired by the popularity of Space Invaders and Asteroids.

Defender is a game that takes place on an unknown planet and allows the player to defend the planet from an alien invasion. Unlike games before it, the ship could fly around freely while scrolling horizontally.

As the game progresses, the alien ship will abduct astronauts from the surface. Your goal is to shoot those alien ships and rescue the astronauts and return them to the surface. Failure to protect the astronauts will result in the planet exploding.

Best Smash Up: Rampage

Released by Bally Midway in 1986, Rampage is a title that features giant monsters smashing things like, buildings, tanks, helicopters, and police cars while trying to avoid the attacks from the military.

The game allows up to three players to control either:

  1. George, the giant King Kong-like ape.
  2. Lizzie, the giant Godzilla-inspired lizard creature.
  3. Ralph, the giant werewolf.

The monsters must scale buildings, punching and eating things (even people) along the way. The goal is to advance to the next level by smashing the buildings until they are reduced to rubble.

The monsters energy level is reduced from taking bullets, falling off buildings, punches from the other monsters, and sticks of dynamite. Eating items in the game will replenish your energy level.

Interesting enough, Warner Brother’s has recently made a movie inspired by the classic video game and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Best Female Lead: Ms. Pac Man

Ms. Pac Man was released by Midway in 1981. Like it’s male counterpart, Ms. Pac Man instantly became one of the most famous arcade games of all time.

The gameplay is identical to Pac Man aside from the new mazes. The player must eat all of the pellets on the screen while being pursued by ghosts in order to advance to the next level. Eating one of the larger pellets makes Ms. Pac Man temporarily invincible and allows her to turn the tables and eat the bad guys.

When the temporary invincibility wears off, the ghost return to chasing and previously eaten ghosts regenerate.  Ms. Pac Man boasts different color schemes for levels and contains four warp tunnels instead of just two.

Unlike the original Pac Man, the ghosts are more random in their movements. This prevents the player from memorizing patterns.

Best Space Fighter: Zaxxon

Developed and released by Sega in 1982, Zaxxon was a massively popular space shooter. The game incorporated isometric shapes that created a pseudo-3D effect.

The gameplay was simple. Shoot as many objects as possible without being shot or running into something. One of the most difficult aspects of the game was passing through the openings. In order to pass through, the ship had to be at the exact altitude and spot.

Best Cartoon Based: Popeye

Popeye was released in 1983 by Nintendo. Based on the cartoon of the same name, The Popeye arcade game featured familiar characters including Brutus, Olive Oyl, Swee’Pea, and Wimpy.

Unlike other platform games, Popeye could only punch, walk, and climb. No jumping.

The object of the game was to collect all of the items that Olive Oyl drops including hearts and music notes while avoiding the Sea Hag, Brutus, and other obstacles and objects.

As you might expect, eating spinach gives Popeye temporary invincibility and super punching ability.

Best Spy Themed: Spy Hunter

In 1983 Bally Midway released Spy Hunter. The game is a James Bond-inspired title that takes place in a high tech spy car.

The title is a verticle scrolling driving game. The goal of the game is to destroy various enemies with your advance high tech spy car. Unlike other car-based titles, Spy Hunter opted for a flight stick yoke instead of the traditional racing wheel.

Best Co-op Fighter: Final Fight

In 1989, Final Fight released by Capcom. Capcom arcade games dominated big in the 90s. The game is a street brawl beat-em-up.

The goal of the game is to rescue the mayor’s daughter Jessica from the Mad Gear gang. The player takes on the character of either:

  1. Mike Haggar, the current Mayor, and former wrestler.
  2. Cody, The Mayor’s daughter’s boyfriend.
  3. Guy, Cody’s best friend.

Final FIght also features a cool two player co-op mode and allows for a who slew of combo moves.

Best Side Scroller: Mario Bros.

Based off his very famous outing in Donkey Kong, Nintendo decided to give Mario and his brother Luigi their own title in 1983.

Mario and Luigi star as plumbers tasked with investigating and fighting evil creatures in the sewers of New York City. The level ends when all of the creatures are defeated.

Unlike future Mario titles,  Mario and his brother must jump from below their enemies to knock them on their backs. Once turned over on their backs, Mario and Luigi just need only run into them to knock them off the board permanently.

The game also features a POW block that can only be used three times per level. When one of the brothers hits the POW block from underneath, all enemies on that platform are automatically knocked up-side-down.

The level ends when all enemies are cleared off the board.

Best Boxing: Super Punch-Out

Nintendo was on a hot streak when they released Super Punch-Out in 1984. Like it’s predecessor Punch-Out, Super Punch-Out used the same gameplay mechanics.

The player takes on the role of the green-haired boxer Little Mac and faces a series of competitors with different skills and difficulties including:

  • Bear Hugger
  • Dragon Chan
  •  Vodka Drunkenski a.k.a. Soda Popinski
  • Great Tiger
  • Super Macho Man

Like the previous title, Super Punch-Out made use of two monitor screens in its arcade cabinet. The all too familiar phrase, “Body Blow!” became synonymous with this title.

Best Original Character: Q*Bert

Q*Bert was released and published by Gottlieb in 1982. Like Zaxxon the title included isometric graphics to create a pseudo-3D graphics experience. Q*Bert has earned the right to be included with other classic arcade games like Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and Dig Dug.

The gameplay takes place on cubes arranged in a pyramid shape and is simple and straightforward. Q*Bert must jump diagonally from cube to cube, changing each cubes color along the way.

Along the way, Q*Bert must avoid a series of enemies. A collision with any of them will cause the player to lose a life. Once all the cubes colors have been changed, the player advances to the next level.

Best Overall Racing: Out Run

Sega released the widely popular title Out Run in 1986. Back in 1986, Out Run was considered a technological marvel due to its non-linear gameplay and rich colorful graphics. It also allowed the player to select from a multitude of songs to play.

Your player takes the wheel of a Ferrari Testarossa Spider to race through a wide variety of landscapes. Running into things causes the Ferrari to slow down which in turn, effects your time. If you make it to your desired destination before the timer expires, you move on to the next level. Along the way, the player will encounter checkpoints that will add more time to the timer.

Best Space Defense: Galaga

Galaga is the direct sequel Galaxian and was released in 1981 from Namco. Galaga is one of the most commercially and critically successful arcade classics of its time.

The player controls a starfighter against an invading army of insect-like alien creatures. Like other space shooters like Space Invaders, the player can only move left and right while firing on those pesky aliens. Unlike its predecessor, Galaxian, Galaga allows the starfighter to shoot two successive shots at a time. Another feature found in Galaga is the enemies ability to capture your starfighter.

As you fight off the swarms of enemies, the game will become progressively harder. Getting shot or getting run into will cost you a life. Once all of your starfighters are depleted the game ends.

Final Thoughts

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