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Reminiscing fondly on a time now passed, the latest Question of the Week takes a look back at arcade games and presents the answers to: “Now that the Western market is largely finished producing video games specifically for arcades, what are your favorite arcade games of all time, and why?”

Quang Hong, Blogger

August 5, 2005

23 Min Read


In a walk down memory lane, the latest Question of the Week asked of our audience of game professionals: “Now that the Western market is largely finished producing video games specifically for arcades, what are your favorite arcade games of all time, and why?"

Many respondents waxed nostalgic with anecdotes of their extremely old school arcade memories from the early '80s, while others reminisced happily about the technical innovations or experiences of slightly later-dated games that created experiences you could only enjoy in arcades. And, from Joust to Street Fighter II, from Afterburner to Bionic Commando, your favorite games are likely mentioned here.

Robotron 2084

A particularly big hit among our respondents, Robotron 2084, Eugene Jarvis' predecessor to Smash TV, was the original title showcasing dual joystick controls and a overwhelming flood of enemies to fight off - truly frenetic.

Illustration by Erin Mehlos

Robotron has the perfect blend of mayhem and simplicity. The controls are extremely simple but difficult to master requiring a zen-like meditative state to fully exploit. The varied swarming enemies require split second reflexes to identify and react to. The first brain wave is enough to chill the most jaded player's blood. It's also an interesting, if bleak, commentary on runaway technology and genetic engineering in the not too distant future.
-John Leffingwell, Xot

Personally, my favorite, which was one I liked back in the day, is Robotron. Frantic, points based craziness that can't last much more than 10 minutes. To me, one of the main things left in the memories of arcades is points. A straight up ranking system that gives you a goal and bragging rights. Today it's more about finishing a game or seeing some big event or goal. Back in the days of the arcades, putting in your 3 digit "name" was an honor and could lead to back and forth battles with someone you never met. Not to forget another, strictly point-based platform for gaming that I will miss as much as any of the greatest arcade games: PINBALL!
-Tony Dormanesh, Midway

Favorite arcade game from the “golden era”: Robotron: 2084. Why? Dual-joystick move/shoot controls - overwhelming enemies - 'extra life' sound effect - I have the 3rd place Twin Galaxies High Score (Tournament Settings).
Favorite arcade game from the recent past: Dance Dance Revolution series
Why? Dancing stage input - simplicity: up, down, left, right - gawkers.
-Stephen Riesenberger, Electronic Arts - Redwood Shores

Robotron (Williams): this classic game is one of the deepest in strategy and dexterity, challenging all of your senses. Peripherial vision is a necessity and you have to process so much information so quickly. The positive and negative feedback is superb, making you feel that it is "your fault" when you die, thus making you want to continue. The playfield is crisp and clear, letting you know what you can and cannot interact with. All-in-all, one of the best examples of game play design and execution. I have one at my house, and it still gets frequent play from myself and all visitors.
-Jeff Peters, GearWorks Games

Ms. Pac-Man

Interestingly enough, a few of you chose Ms. Pac-Man as one of your favorites, with little mention of her male counterpart - perhaps the increased speed and differentiated gameplay woo-ed game developers more than the fetching bow?

Ms. Pac-Man was the best, and it inspired me to create and sell games for the Commodore 64 when I was 8. I still play the game, and each session lasts about an hour.
-Nicholas Turner, TREX

Ms. Pac-Man is high up on my list of favorite arcade games. When I was about seven years old, my father left me in a hotel lobby while he attended a driving school in one of the hotel's meeting rooms. There were two games to play in the lobby - one was Ms. Pac-Man, which I must have spent twenty dollars on. The other game I played once and never again, and I cannot recall the title. The female Pac was easy to start playing, yet almost frustratingly difficult as time progressed. There is something indescribably special about running through a maze eating little white pellets. These days, when I step into an arcade and find the game sitting next to the latest police simulator or DDR box, I drop in at least one quarter and aim for the fruit power-ups. That's the only way to play.

Ms. Pacman. She's hot. Rawr.

Fighting Games

Credited by some for the resurgence of arcade games in the early '90s, a sizable group of respondents chose Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat, particularly remembering the fierce competition involved, the crowds that gathered just to watch, and watching the local expert take on a long line of challengers all on one quarter.

Street Fighter II. This game almost single-handedly created a new genre (I said almost, because I know there were a few fighting games before SF2), and began the fighting game craze. This true competition of skilled (and unskilled) players brought back the energy and exciting atmosphere missing from the arcades for a long time. And the electricity in the air was not limited to the two combatants, nor the long line of eager challengers, each wanting to upset the current champ - watching the contests, simply as a spectator, became popular. Whether you were there to cheer on a friend, checking out the competition, learning new techniques or simply enjoying the fight, everybody in the arcade was a part of the game. Street Fighter II made the dank arcades of the time come alive. Playing games was again cool for "older" people, and the battles were breathtaking.
-Adam Doyle

Mortal Kombat. It wasn't groundbreaking as a fighting game (not in high level concept, anyway) but it did bring to the table a stylistically rough edge - not cartoony and not photorealistic. The visuals moved videogames out of washed-out black-lined graphics. Digitized artwork had been used before, but never before as effectively as MK did. Working within the confines of what would now be somewhat primitive hardware, the designers carefully worked the supplemental art assets and bone-crunching sound effects to make it brutally honest (like an 'unplugged' cover of a hard rocking hit) and in turn produced an amazingly immersive fighting game.
-Ian Biggs, Catalyst Digital Solutions

Mortal Kombat II -- the lines I had to wait in to play this game were always unbelievable, but it was always worth it. To me, fighters were the main attraction of any arcade, and the little traditions and quirks that go with them will always be remembered fondly. (e.g., placing your quarters on the dash board to signify that you're next.)
Street Fighter II Turbo - fun to play, and almost as fun to watch!!
-David Craddock

By far...the Street Fighter II series....best all time would have to be Super Street Fighter II Turbo. No other game has had the longevity of this title, and if it was affordable, I would have a cabinet with this game in my home now.
-Joshua Morton, Electronic Arts

Street Fighter II/Mortal Kombat: I think they kept arcades profitable for years longer than they would have been otherwise.
-Patrick Lister, Infinity Ward

Other Favorites

The vast majority of other respondents picked from a gigantic array of favorites, which included such classics as Joust and Defender along with more modern games like Dance Dance Revolution and Time Crisis. Sit back and enjoy the nostalgia.

My first favorite would have to be Defender - partly for the amazing sound it made when you started each level, but also because it was so responsive and so addictive. And because of smart bombs. My only other real contender is Gauntlet, because of many hours as a university student playing it outside the student bar - my first experience of multi-player gaming and probably one of the best, with NO LAG to worry about!
-Robert Dibley

I'm a big fan of the classics and own a couple of machines myself. Favorites include some of the classic ones with very clean gameplay mechanics (Marble Madness, Asteroids, Super Sprint, Mario Bros.) and some of those with great co-op or combative multi-player modes (Joust, Gauntlet, Warlords, and of course Space Duel which had both types of play). I love the aesthetics of some of the color Vector games, in particular Major Havoc. Of them all, I think that Centipede and its sequel Millipede deserve extra credit for being, in my opinion, the best balanced games ever made. Required play for any aspiring game designer! Every element in the game has both good and bad elements to it such that play becomes an exercise of "all things in moderation". Simply a brilliant game.
-Kim Pallister, Microsoft Corp

Bust-A-Move (aka Puzzle Bobble) is, hands down, my favorite arcade game of all time. Bub and Bob are cute. The music is great: it's light-hearted and it's easy to listen to it for long periods of time. The sound effects are also very good. The graphics are very appealing. It's challenging without being frustrating. It's a great game to play either single-player, against the computer, or against friends.
-Cari Begle, Stardock

Games I grew up with and make your heart skip a beat when you see them. Going through my local arcade: Donkey Kong/Donkey Kong Jr., Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Juno First, Bombjack, Defender, Scramble, Ladybug… All these games have one thing in common: They're easy to pick up and play. No manuals, a zillion buttons or death-moves. Just drop in your quarter and go. Ever wondered why you never felt BAD when you stuck in a quarter and you died within minutes (seconds?) All of these games have what today's games lack: gameplay. It's something that draws you in and wants you to do better!

Gyruss - I really like how they took the tried and true formula of successful shooters like Space Invaders and Galaga and improved on it with innovative circular movement, great action, great music, good “story”, and a trek through the solar system enough to give you a reason to put your next coin.
-Maher Mamhikoff, Clever Entertainment

Joust. I loved the flapping mechanism.
-Jeff Johannigman, Fusion Learning Systems

Gauntlet... I was a D&D player at the time and it was the first time that I got to experience playing in a dungeon with three pals in a videogame. I sometimes still wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat with the words "Wizard needs food, badly..." ringing in my ears.
-Alex Amancio, Ubisoft Montreal

Gauntlet by Atari is the reason I am in this industry. Period. Others that swallowed immense amounts of this young boy's pocket money, while fuelling his dreams would be: the immaculate Shinobi, Super Hang On, Wonderboy in Monsterland, Bubble Bobble (Taito had some awesome arcade platformers!), Nintendo's Punch Out and the ridiculously hard Ghost 'n Goblins. Oh, the memories.
-Marque Pierre Sondergaard, Powerhouse

Dungeons and Dragons 2: Shadow over Mystara - There's no credible competition for best side scrolling fighting game. Highlights include: leveling up your choice of 6 characters (fighter, dwarf, cleric, elf, mage, thief) - each with a unique playstyle, swapping equipment and weapons, multiple weapon types (one handed swords, two handed swords, dual swords, maces, wands), all your favorite D&D monsters, incredible spell effects, best boss dragon ever, multiple pathways, traps, secret doors . . . what's not to love?
-Chris Proctor, SSG

I, Robot blew me away when I first saw it. I had been experimenting with wireframe 3D graphics as a student at the University of Illinois and when I saw the smooth, solid-filled 3D, I went crazy. Frankly, I don't even remember the gameplay... I just remember the fluid 3D control and being in awe of a game that could produce a 3D environment like that.
-Matthew Harmon, eV Interactive

One arcade game that I still regard as a small milestone in video game development is Strider. It has tight controls and a very dynamic move-set that provides a fast and furious ninja-slicing acrobatic experience. The artwork is very impressive for the time; boasting large character sprites, multi-screen size bosses, and rich detailed backgrounds. The melodies are very distinct, coupled with meaty "arcade" sound effects. Two key moments that sticks with me are the giant multi-screen robot gorilla boss (Mecha Pon), sweet action, and the segmented Urobolus boss that is made up from an assembly of Russian Ministers. Truly inspired! I love it so much I bought a stand up Strider arcade machine for my home.
-Jools Watsham, KingsIsle Entertainment, Inc.

Afterburner, for its fighter jet theme and addictive intense action gameplay.
-Peter MacMurchy, Side Effects Software

My top 3 games were Afterburner, Outrun, and Hang On, specifically the version that had the full cabinet experience. You couldn't get the same immersion on a home console with these three games. I've actually fallen off Hang On once because I tried to lean farther than the machine would allow. You really felt like you were in the game because your entire body was part of the experience.
-Carlo Delallana, Ubisoft

Gotta be Dance Dance Revolution - I didn't play it much, but I love to watch players that step on it like crazy on the hardest level. Amazingly entertaining!
-Tuang Dheandhanoo, Giant Mantis Interactive

For me, ExciteBike epitomized everything that arcade games had to offer: A simple and easy to learn control set, a memorable character on an impossible mission, and enough depth to gobble up a simply obscene amount of quarters. Plus it had those awesome sound effects!
-Coray Seifert, Large Animal Games

Galaga and Donkey Kong - both because their formulae are simplistic, yet have withstood the test of time. These two games are also some of the first games I recall playing as a child; I deem them largely responsible to planting the gaming passion seed. There aren't many games today (if any at all) that can appeal to younger children with such simple game mechanics and non-offensive content.

Asteroids - I can remember playing this game for hours as a kid. The arcade was near a Carl's Jr., and I used pick up a bag o' fries and head over to the arcade until my mom would come and make me go home.

Daytona USA - a brillant car racing game to go head-to-head against your friends. I really loved the fast-paced action combined with the skill in mastering the corners. I can still visualize which gear I should be in for each part of the track.

I remember Donkey Kong being the first true arcade game that I ever saw. I couldn't have been barely more than 3 or 4 at the time, and was just happy putting in a quarter given to me by my grandfather and watching the big ape throw barrels at the hapless Mario. Later, when I got older and wiser, I still fondly remember that game, and have the NES version just in case I feel the need to get nostalgic again. My other favorite arcade games were the Konami series of beat 'em up games based off licensed characters. These included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, TMNT 2: Turtles in Time, The Simpsons, and The X-Men. Along these lines, I also got a big kick out of Sunset Riders and the little known, but immensely fun Wild West C.O.W. Boys of Moo Mesa. Similar to Sunset Riders, but with a large collection of interesting bosses, large attention to level design and artistry, and a great fun factor. (It was always amusing for your character to turn into a steak after losing a life)
-Stephen Broida, Rochester Institute of Technology

My favorite is still Space Wars. However I still have very fond memories of Gauntlet, and I own Battlezone. Battlezone, I feel, was on the forefront of first person shooter. The first first-person view ever done in vector graphics really put people in the game.
-Kent Simon, Novalogic

Marble Madness. It had unique gameplay, a great soundtrack, an incredibly intuitive UI, and some pretty impressive graphics and physics for its time. I'm always amazed there were never a steady stream of imitators...
-Ian Schreiber, Cyberlore Studios, Inc.

Frenzy - a little bit cooler than Berserk, and captured that "one man against the whole world" vibe. Always tense, but with a steady, deliberate pace. When I used to play Frenzy in the arcade as a 10-year-old, I didn't realize it would essentially foretell my life as a game programmer. Enemies on all sides... merciful death always a minute away... nothing to rely on but your own skill and wits. Nods should also go to Gauntlet, Asteroids, Millipede, Street Fighter 2, Tron, and Donkey Kong.
-Vince Dickinson, EA-Tiburon

When I was a kid, I think I loved all arcade games equally... it didn't matter, as long as you got three lives for your quarter. But there are a few that still draw me in to this day, for which I genuflect at the altar of MAME.
1) Galaga: Easily one of the most ubiquitous stand-up units ever; you still see Galaga machines in bars, airports, and the arcades that still remain, and for good reason. Its superficial formula was a little riff on Galaxian, but the element of risk in going for the double-ship (and the bonanza of points made possible in its bonus rounds) got you hooked but good. I still play Galaga whenever I have the chance, and I'm pretty sure I'm but one of a slew of responders who put this game at the top.
2) Time Pilot: Who didn't love spraying a stream of bullets around the screen at enemies from different epochs? The play was very finely tuned, movement and both the player's vessel and the enemies was smooth and fluid, and going after the parachutists and squad formations gave the player interesting ways to choose priorities. The idiosyncracies of each time period meant that the game never got too repetitive, and the Time Pilot theme music was very catchy. Its sequel-in-name-only, Time Pilot '84, was also a worthy game, one that I feel has been overlooked.
3) 1943: I love shooters like this. 1942 was fun, but this game perfected the action in almost every way. The power-ups, which had to be chosen very carefully, gave you serious destructive power; wiping out waves and waves of enemies was pure delight, and finding the hidden bonuses in the game for points or the laser power-up made every play special. The boss battles in the form of battleships, carriers, and giant aeroplanes were outstanding; with so much happening on the screen at once, playing 1943 was a hypnotic frenzy.
-Edward Swan, ITA, Inc.

Defender - the game that sets the model for learning curves. When you first play, it you think the starting levels are impossible, but as you master it the controls - which at first seem confusing – it's like a part of you. There is no way you could start on a later level and pick it up. Watching a good Defender player is entertainment. Soon 10K becomes a recurring bonus. There are lots of tricks to master, like collecting falling men to keep them safe and patrolling the last man to protect him.
-Simon Rockman, Motorola

Joust (Williams): This game includes a unique game play mechanism that you don't even see in today's games. For the setting and theme, it works perfectly and the collisions and playfield react as expected. With the subtle changes in playfield, it also has deep stratagies. This is a play mechanic that once again needs exploring in current console games due to its unique and intuitive nature.
Other favorite games from the era with an emphasis on solid game play: Assault (Atari/Namco), Gravitar (Atari), Tempest (Atari), Sinistar (Williams), Rampart (Atari).
-Jeff Peters, GearWorks Games

I started arcade gaming back when it started to die off, so my two picks are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 the arcade game and both Jurassic Park games. TMNT2 was a blast, mostly because I was able to angrily yell at my younger brother to quit messing up and help me win. I'd almost always play the whole way through every time. But then when it came out on the NES my arcade days were mostly over. Fast forward a few years later, and I'm at a Chuck E. Cheese and I see a game based on Jurassic Park. I couldn't get this experience at home, no matter what, because I didn't have a giant TV or seats that moved along with the action. Blasting all those dinosaurs in the frantic action and fighting a T-Rex was insanely fun. Then later came the sequel to the game which took everything from the original and blasted it into hyper mode. I have probably literally spent hundreds of dollars in those two arcade machines.
-Angel Vargas

Zaxxon: One of the great early 3D shooters of the 1980s. I invested many hours and quarters in that game. Bionic Commando: Simply because you can't jump.
-Patrick Lister, Infinity Ward

I didn't get in to arcade games until way after I'd begun playing on home machines, so my favorite arcade title is relatively modern. The owners of my local Megabowl must have made a killing from the coins my friend and I stuck into the Virtua Cop machine. I think it was so popular with me because back then, arcade machines still had a lot to offer that home-machines couldn't possibly compete with, in this case it was the traditional arcade high score table, the enormous screen, the two guns, the smooth graphics and the sheer joy of showing off to anyone watching. I realize there was a Sega Saturn conversion sometime later but I certainly couldn't afford the game and two guns. Saying that, at the arcade I probably paid for the game several times over.
-David Deeble

The Time Crisis series, the 2nd title in particular. The simple addition of a foot pedal to dodge onscreen hazards increased the game's immersive quality exponentially, challenged the player to keep up, and provided the necessary innovation to keep the light-gun genre relevant. Sadly, few arcade shooters caught on to that spirit of keeping things fresh - with the exception of Police 911, which stepped interactivity up a notch with a dive-inducing motion sensor attached in the player's pistol.
-Ben Serviss, Creo Ludus Entertainment

I was always a fan of the Time Crisis series of arcade games. It encapsulated everything a great arcade game should have: a familiar premise, good replay value, a unique interface, and great pickup-and-playability. The use of a pedal to duck your character around a corner was a cool addition to the standard formula and the gun recoil helped with immersion. Together, it was an addictive action fix. Another one of my favorites is the Soul Edge/Calibur series. I never played these much, but watching my fighting game loving friends become totally overwhelmed by the balance and skill in a weapons fighter was astounding. It changed 3D fighting as we know it.
-Anthony Nichols

My favorite of all time has to be Gunbuster from Taito. There was a point where I had gotten so good, I would play for three hours straight without putting in another quarter if there was a line of people behind me waiting to play. If there weren't many players, I'd lose on purpose so people wouldn't leave because it was only fun playing against other people. I believe Gunbuster was a revolutionary First-Person Shooter game. There was a joystick where you could move forward/backward/strafe, and a gun where you moved the aiming reticule and turned. There was the primary machine gun fire and a secondary special fire (Mines, Laser, Spark, and Fire) which had different recharge rates and speed of movement. There was also an invincibility shield on every map which lasts 15 seconds at the 45 second mark always at the same location, but it was never a good idea to camp and wait for it. Plus, there were walls and glasses that you could shoot out, and columns to use to dodge in and out of. Gunbuster was before its time. If an upgraded version was out today, many FPS enthusiasts would flock to it and tournaments would be held. At least, that's what I wish would happen.
-Ebon Kim, Volt

Tempest, because the concept is so simple and yet gameplay is so fast and challenging. Discs of Tron, as the first film/game crossover that made sense to me. The vector graphics Star Wars, because the controls were great and shooting down TIE Fighters is always fun.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - arcades, to me, were all about multiplayer mayhem, and this one delivered. Up to 4 players at a time, tons of enemies based on the # of players, fantastic graphics... it was co-op fun at its absolute best.
-David Craddock


[Article illustration by Erin Mehlos. Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.]

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About the Author(s)

Quang Hong


Quang Hong is the Features Editor of Gamasutra.com.

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