I realized the other day that I've finally read my last "Best 10 arcade games of all time" list. They're very limited, and they tend to have the same games, listed over and over. Usually I don't agree with the choices, either. The games that I've been most passionate about over the years are generally ones that don't make it onto such lists. So here, without further ado, is an off-the-cuff list of the Best Arcade Games Ever. These are the games that, had I room, I would purchase and rebuild for a home arcade, as I wouldn't get tired of playing any of them.
In the beginning, video arcade games were simple concepts where the player did one sort of thing over and over again.
There were no 'levels' as we think of them today - successive stages were different only by the speed at which the sprites moved, and there was no "end" to the game - you would play until you couldn't hack it anymore. "Space Invaders", "Missile Command" and "Asteroids" are good examples of this kind of game. The best game of this type is "Sinistar". "Sinistar" is a variation of "Asteroids" where the
asteroids are mined, rather than destroyed. Mining the asteroids gave the player a number of Sinibombs. The challenge came from other spacecraft trying to stop you, and then the eventual appearance of Sinistar itself, which could only be defeated by using the Sinibombs. Woe to the player who hadn't mined enough before Sinistar appeared... "Run, coward! I live!"
Some time after the advent of video arcade games, game manufacturers started experimenting with the idea of having games with distinct levels, where patterns would be repeated on specific screens but different patterns would occur on other screens, and sometimes even the layout of the levels would differ from one level to the next. "Xevious" is an example of this, as is "Tempest". "Tron" is an extreme example. The best game of this type is "Gyruss". In "Gyruss", you pilot a ship in a circular motion and fire down a tunnel as enemy spacecraft spiral toward you. While the levels of "Gyruss" are not laid out differently, the movement of the sprites attacking your ship varies significantly from stage to stage, making for a great variety in this fairly simple game.
There have been a few games over the years that didn't involve punching, kicking, shooting or crashing. Even though the main character still risked death in these games, they are categorized as non-violent because the player
was not performing the violence. "Frogger" and "Pac-Man" are good examples of this. The best game of this type is "Q-Bert" (which is probably the best known of the games on my list). In "QBert" you bounce your character around a series of cubes to change their colors while avoiding baddies who are trying to catch you. "QBert" has a greater variety of obstacles and opponents than other non-violent games, and the diagonal, hopping, isometric controls are unlike any other.
These games involve a character running and jumping to advance through levels and accomplish tasks.
Elevator Action II
Very popular on consoles, this is a type of game that you never saw much of in the arcade even decades ago, and really don't see at all in modern arcade games. "Donkey Kong" is a classic example, as is "Popeye" and "Kangaroo". But the best game of this type was "Elevator Action II". In "Elevator Action II" you control a spy infiltrating a building to collect secret files and then escape, all by jumping, sneaking, shooting bad guys and environmental objects, and riding up and down on elevators. "Elevator Action II" had improved graphics and sound from the original, and an impressive variety of different levels.
Kung Fu Master
Eventually the games moved from spaceships to a more personal level, where a single player would control a person, fighting either through a series of opponents on static screens or through a scrolling world of opponents. "Double Dragon", "Yie Ar King Fu" and "Dungeons and Dragons: Shadows over Mystara" are all examples of this type of game. The best was "Kung Fu Master". One of the first fighting games, "Kung Fu Master" is an horizontal scrolling beat-em-up game, where you wander through several levels, taking on all comers. One of the reasons this is the best one is the variety of opponents. At first, you just deal with knife wielding wushu practitioners, but soon enough you're fighting animals and robots! Classic.
Laser disc games
In the mid 80s, game manufacturers decided to embed laser discs into their arcade consoles to enable them to incorporate studio-grade animation into their games. "Dragon's Lair" and "Space Ace" are the most popular examples of this type of game. My temptation is to say "Cliffhanger" was the best of these, solely for the novelty of playing Lupin III in various sequences from the anime, but in all honesty, I didn't go back to play that again and again, getting admission to Great America and then wasting most of time not on rides or other attractions but in the arcade playing the best laser disc game ever. No, that was "Cube Quest". In "Cube Quest", you are trying to maneuver a spaceship across the galaxy in a number of warp jumps. You begin by piloting your space ship on the star map, which is a three-dimensional cube formed of many smaller cubes. You start in one corner of the large cube, and your goal is to make it to the far corner. Each edge of the smaller cubes represents one warp jump, but you have to plot your course around obstacles that block certain edges or big enemy ships which rove around the cube, blindly seeking you. Once you have selected a warp jump to make, the game transitions to the planet at that jump, composed of beatiful scenery, and a number of obstacles which you must destroy or avoid to make it to the next stage. It is a gorgeous game, and random elements made navigating the cube significantly different each time it was played: you couldn't just memorize patterns as you could in so many other games.
Early on, game manufacturers realized that the joystick wasn't the only way you could provide input to a game console. So the driving game was born. Most driving games involve racing through a course, trying to make it checkpoints before an arbitrary timer runs out and ends the game. "Crazy Taxi", "Night Driver" and "Cruisin' U.S.A." are all well-known, but the best game of this type was "Road Blasters".
"Road Blasters" involved a car racing down a country road, dodging or ramming other cars, some of which were also trying to get you. Certain cars would yield fuel, which was essential to collect to remain in the game. To make matters more interesting, occasionally your vehicle upgrade glider would fly past overhead and drop additional equipment for your vehicle, such as a roof-mounted cannon, which allowed you to pulverize the other vehicles with greater ease.
Shoot 'em ups
The antithesis of the non-violent game, the shoot-em-up is a straight action game, usually involving a spaceship of some kind blasting away at enemies without any possibility of a cessation in hostilities. "Zaxxon", "Centipede" and "1942" were all shoot-em-ups, but the best one by far is "Time Pilot '84".
Time Pilot '84
"Time Pilot '84", like "Xevious", allowed your spaceship to bomb ground-based targets as well as gunning down airborne opponents, all on the surface of alien worlds which always reminded me a bit of doing an attack run on the Death Star. The difference between this game and others that allowed you to bomb surface targets was that you could fly in any direction and there were secret targets which would give you bonuses if you bombed them. Like "Sinistar", each stage would end with a mothership hunting you down, in this case with homing missiles. At that point you could fire your own homing missiles to take it down and complete the stage. Unlike many other shoot-em-ups, "Time Pilot '84" had a real sense of place, and a good deal of variety of opponents.
At the same time the video arcade console was invented, consumers were already playing games with light guns with home consoles, shooting targets on their TVs, so it was only a matter of time before game manufacturers started making light gun games for the arcade. These involve holding some sort of wacky controller, aiming it at the screen, and pulling the trigger repeatedly. "Crossbow" and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" are two games of this type, but the best one by far is "Lucky & Wild".
Lucky & Wild
This is sort of a cheat, because it is also a driving game. As a single player, you could steer with one hand and wield your gun to shoot the bad guys with the other. In addition, a second player could ride shotgun, wielding a second light gun. The premise was that you are cops driving an interceptor, trying to incapacitate crooks and bring them to justice. To do so, you had to destroy their getaway car, both by ramming it and by shooting it. A great, fun game. While it is never clear how you could shoot through your own windshield, there's just nothing like steering with one hand and firing a pistol with the other. "Let's go, Mr. Driver!"
For a long time, multiplayer in arcade games meant "hotseat" gaming, where one player played until he lost a "life", at which point he would switch with the other player. This was modeled on pinball games, where you could only have one person playing at a time. But eventually manufacturers realized that you could have multiple people playing at the same time. "Ikari Warriors" and "Gauntlet" are examples, but "Heavy Barrel" is the best of these. In "Heavy Barrel" you could steer your little commando in any direction to proceed through the levels, firing at wave after wave of bad guys who attacked you. As you proceeded, you would collect power ups which gave you advanced weapons for a limited time: flamethrowers, lasers, wide shot, or one of six pieces of the Heavy Barrel. Once the Heavy Barrel was assembled, you were presented with 30 seconds of glorious mayhem as you fired an enormous energy beam from the gun, mowing down any enemies in your path.
After a while, the simple shoot-em-ups weren't enough for gamers or manufacturers. They started making shoot-em-ups and platform games where the players could grab items to enhance their abilities, providing more powerful attacks or defensive capabilities.
These games were generally made more difficult to compensate for the increased power of the players, and so they were best played with a friend as P2. These almost always involved a top-down view of the action as the players scrolled horizontally and/or vertically through the levels. "Aero Fighters" is a good example, but the best of them all is "Smash TV". "Smash TV" was loosely based on the action movie Running Man
, so in the game you play a contestant on an ultra-violent game show, trying to win as much cash as possible while staying alive. This was mostly accomplished by collecting power-ups to upgrade your weapons and then blasting the snot out of anything that appeared. The enemies were imaginative, well-rendered...and legion. "Big money, big prizes!"
3D cooperative games
Some games expanded into the third dimension of depth, in addition to heighth and width, allowing players to roam about more complicated levels. There were few of these, but the best is "Xybots".
Not only was "Xybots" an over-the-shoulder dungeon exploration game where you fought robots, but you could play with or against a friend on the split screen. Destroying robots allowed you to collect currency, which could be used to upgrade various stats of your character and/or weapons between levels.
As I mentioned earlier, in the beginning, most games didn't have an end. You'd either repeat the same stage over and over again, or you'd repeat a short set of levels over and over again, each time the levels would get a little faster, but you could, conceivably, play the game forever, as long as you were good enough. Not so with these games. They had a set progression, and if you were able to complete the game, the competition was then to see if you could do it faster or earn more points than the others who could also complete the game. "Street Fighter II" and "Mortal Kombat" are examples, but the best one by far is "N.A.R.C."
"N.A.R.C." had you controlling one of two special DEA agents trying to shut down the criminal organization of Mr. Big. You did this by walking through this horizontal shooter and blasting only the bad guys. On many levels, you could avoid gunfire by ducking into adjacent buildings in addition to dodging, crouching or jumping. This game has the most ridiculous, over-the-top final boss EVER. When you finally defeated Mr. Big and completed the game, there was a tremendous feeling, not just of satisfaction, but of colossal accomplishment. If you were able to complete this game, you deserve a medal. Seriously.
Manufacturers figured at some point that gamers would like to have a whole arcade console to themselves, and so they started networking multiple consoles so that multiple players could compete (or, rarely, cooperate) with one another. These are usually racing games - "Star Wars: Racer Arcade" and "Outrun 2" are great examples - but the best of them all is "Space Lords". While two players could play together on one console, multiple players could play head-to-head on different consoles as well. So you had the possibility of teams
as well as direct opposition. Like "Lucky & Wild", "Space Lords" had P1 steering a vehicle and firing a gun, while P2 would just operate as a gunner. But in "Space Lords" you piloted a customizable spaceship, with nuclear missiles, lasers, shields, an indispensable rear-view (and gun) function, and the ability to go in reverse as well as forward. On multi-console cabinets, P3 would be another pilot, and P4 another gunner, etc. On top of all that, multiple game modes allowed for unending entertainment.
Chaotic crazy fast action games
For hands-down, eye-glazing fun, with the most sprites moving on the screen and complete bewilderment, there is no beating "Strike Force". The third in the series of games starting with "Defender",
"Strike Force" was essentially the game of "Defender" made bigger in every way. Like "Cube Quest", you started on a map that you had to navigate, choosing which alien-occupied world you would attack next. Then your ship would fly down to zoom above the surface, trying to rescue other pilots who'd crashed on the planet, before they could be captured and transformed by the hostiles. Believe it or not, this game was faster than "Defender", had power-ups, ground-based enemies, hopping enemies, invulnerable enemies, enemies that would grab onto your ship to slow you down or inflict continuous damage, copious power-ups for your ship, and the downed pilots would also fight, providing cover fire, either from the ground or clinging to the underbelly of your ship. With all that on top of the addictive "Defender" game play, this is possibly the best arcade game ever.
Now, I realize that this is my list, and it may not be yours. Certainly I notice that my list tends to focus on shooting games involving space somehow, but...so?
What would you prefer, more Street Fighter