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Best Arcade Games: From The 70s, 80s and Through to the 90s

Let’s take a look back at the heyday of arcades.

The birthplace of all modern video gaming, the dimly lit, chirruping dens of arcade cabinets were wondrous places to intrepid gamers.

The arcade may be nearly a complete relic of the past in 2022 –especially post-COVID– but if you play video games, you owe it a debt of gratitude. Not only were some of the biggest video game franchises of all time birthed in the arcade, but these enormous wooden cabinets kept the medium afloat after systems like the Atari 2600, Intellivision, and ColecoVision went belly-up in the early ’80s.

Arcade games offered a sense of community, competition, and intense excitement. They’re inseparable from the story of video games as a whole, and we’ve rounded up the very best from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Many of these can be played on alternative platforms today, ranging from home arcade cabinets to console ports on Switch, PC, and more. And because they’re such classics, you’ll definitely want to as this is where modern day game got the inspiration to create the games you all love today.

Let’s take a look back at the heyday of arcades.

The birthplace of all modern video gaming, the dimly lit, chirruping dens of arcade machines were biggest places to intrepid gamers to gather, compete for high scores & spend coin after coin…

70’s

Pong (1972)

Is there a more iconic game of the ’70s? Has anything more defined the creative spirit of early video games more than Pong? Ping Pong in its most basic form, two players move dials back and forth and try to direct a ball–though it’s more of a square–over the other side of the screen. wrongly considered the first video game (that contentious accolade should probably be reserved for Computer Space), Pong may well be the most famous video game of all time, and was certainly the most important in terms of popularising the format. It spawned countless ports and standalone home versions, and it remains an absolute classic today. There are plenty of ways to play Pong today; multiple Arcade1Up cabinet styles are available: tall cabinets, bar top & full coffee table sets tall cabinets, bar top & full coffee table sets.tall cabinets, bar top & full coffee table sets tall cabinets, bar top & full coffee table sets.

Breakout (1976)

Simple in premise but brutally difficult, these elements have kept Breakout just as playable now as it was at launch. Essentially a game of Pong against yourself, growing more difficult as you destroy blocks from an enormous wall, Breakout is different every time you play, which is perfect for long sessions if you buy a cabinet for your home.

Space Invaders (1978)

One of the most iconic video games of all time, Space Invaders wasn’t the best of the classic arcade fixed-shooter games, but it set a standard that all others had to match. With its clever sound effects increasing in speed as the waves of alien foes moved purposefully towards your spaceships fortifications, it was a race against time to blast your foes into oblivion. Revamped and released many, many times, its memorable alien baddies are as famous as gaming itself.. While Arcade1Up’s Space Invaders cabinet is no longer available at retail stores, you can get this tiny Space Invaders cabinet with a backlit marquee or of course see these classic full Arcade Cabinets.

Galaxian (1979)

Its sequel is better known–and rightfully so–but Galaxian is no slouch in its own right. Namco’s shooter featured noticeably better graphics than Space Invaders, some of the most memorable sound effects of its time, and just enough challenge to keep players stuck to the control deck as their ships exploded in a mess of pixels. Is Galaga better? Undoubtedly, but before you run, you have to walk. If you want to play Galaxian today, we’d highly recommend Numskull’s Quarter Size Arcade cabinet or one of these bartop machines.

Asteroids (1979)

A unique take on the shooter that isn’t filled with deadly enemies vying to destroy you, Asteroids is instead focused on a single spaceship trying to avoid the titular asteroids constantly floating through the void. Physics force you to use your thrusters for a boost in any direction as you blast the rocks you can’t dodge, and just like Star Wars, the smart use of blank space has made it age gracefully. Asteroids is one of the 12 games in one of these full size 300 games modern machines.

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80’s

Donkey Kong (1981)

The game that truly put Nintendo on the map–at least as a video game developer -also it gave us two of its most legendary mascots. Love Mario? Then you owe it to the great plumber to go back and visit his first adventure, facing off the mighty Donkey Kong and his steel-girder hideout. Mario (then known as “Jumpman”) climbs up seemingly endless levels of a tower as he chases Donkey Kong and tries to rescue Pauline. It’s simple, it’s easy to pick up and play, and it can take years to master. There are few better traits in an arcade game than that, and Donkey Kong was hugely successful as a result. It’s a stone-cold arcade classic, and one that’s sparked many a gamer rivalry.

Ms PAC Man (1981)

Pac-Man may take the cultural limelight, but it’s Ms. Pac-Man that was actually the better game. With more maze types, randomised ghost movement and flexible warp paths, it was a fairer game with more fun than its predecessor. Despite starting as a player-created mod, Ms. Pac-Man was given an official release and is widely considered superior to the first game. Faster, more fluid gameplay makes it a better challenge for players today, and that bow is just adorable. 

Defender (1981)

Take the wave-based space combat of Space Invaders, mix it with the deft control of Asteroids, and you’ve got something quite close to Defender. With amazing sound effects and (for the time) a wide-open scrolling battleground, Defender had layers of complexity that its Golden Age bedfellows lacked.

Frogger (1981)

Look left, look right, leap out in to the road… Squished. Frogger was a frighteningly addictive game about amphibian mortality, seeing you guide a frog across motorways and waterways. Frogger gave us one of the best Seinfeld scenes of all time, and there’s a reason why everyone wanted to spend so much time getting a high score. The basic “don’t get squished” gameplay was novel for 1981, and who doesn’t like a cute little frog? Jerks, that’s who, and they don’t get to play Frogger when we start dumping coons into the machine. IF you dont fancy dumping coins then check out this mini arcade for £30 by Super Impulse

Tempest (1981)

A novel shooter that has spawned imitators, sequels, and spiritual successors, Tempest’s rotating control scheme gives it the illusion of physical depth despite using basic vector graphics. It’s wickedly difficult, as well, and a great alternative to the scores of maze, brawling, and fighting games that dominate so many arcades. If you’re looking to play Tempest on an arcade cabinet, The All in one – Legacy Edition Arcade1Up cabinet comes with Tempest.

Galaga (1981)

Not quite as famous as Space Invaders but an improvement on Taito’s basic concept, Galaga has aged better than just about any fixed shooter from the classic arcade period–especially if you count Galaga ’88 from several years later. Intentionally letting a ship get captured only to pull it back down and start blasting with a mini armada is an exceptionally cool trick, and the difficulty level is absolutely ideal. Galaga has been re-released on many, many home arcade cabinets, including multiple Arcade1Up models such as the legacy all in ones or mini- bar-top arcades for £30.

Robotron 2084 (1982)

The game most responsible for the still-relevant twin-stick shooter genre, Robotron 2084 is one of Eugene Jarvis’ masterpieces. The limited graphical power of the time meant the evil robots you’re rapidly blasting are mostly powered by your imagination, but the silky-smooth controls and ramping difficulty make it a prime example of arcade action at its finest. It’s just a shame Jarvis would top the game with another twin-stick shooter several years later, but we’ll get to that soon.

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Dig Dug (1982)

It takes a real weirdo to design a game where you are armed with a bicycle pump and track down monsters to literally explode via inflation, but that’s exactly what Dig Dug is, and against all rationality and reason, it’s incredibly fun. The gameplay is ideal for a square-gated joystick, letting even younger players succeed, and it’s a great alternative to more conventional maze games like Pac-Man. Dig Dug is available in multiple Arcade1Up cabinets as well as this countercade with Dig Dug art. Alternatively, check out this Dig Dug Mini-Arcade from Numskull.

Joust (1982)

We had Pong and a handful of other two player games at this point, but Joust made that competitive action into a sport. It’s also the best game in which you play a knight riding a flying ostrich, taking on buzzard-riding dark knights. As fiendishly addictive today as it is bizarre.

Star Wars (1983)

Using vector graphics to replicate space combat despite releasing in 1983, Star Wars is still impressive today. First-person battles are difficult to nail, but Atari did it with both the original game and its sequel, and there’s something charming about seeing the little technical tricks the developers had to use to make such a high-tech experience with such decidedly low-tech tools.

Dragon’s Lair (1983)

For it’s time Dragons’s Lair had graphics way ahead of it’s time but awful, awful gameplay. Unlike other games at the time, Dragon’s Lair made use of Laserdisc technology, allowing for visuals that, quite literally, looked like a Disney film, helped along by the fact that ex-Disney animator Don Bluth worked on its animations. However, it’s really more of an interactive short film than a game – and a cripplingly difficult one too, it was a matter of memorising and timing your movements exactly at the right moments to be able to move on to the next room. Like a QTE mini-game without the on-screen button presses, you’d pop a coin in and die almost instantly for not knowing which exact frame to hit the attack button or which side of the screen to move the hero, Dirk the Daring. Still, it pushed the medium forward in ways that can’t be understated.

Bubble Bobble (1986)

Bubble Bobble had maybe the most catchiest theme music in the arcade. if you’re looking for gaming’s best dinosaurs, look no further than Bubble Bobble’s Bub and Bob. A platformer that saw you trapping baddies in bubbles before jumping on them to send them off into oblivion, it paved the way for multiplayer titles like Towerfall Ascension. And it had a cracking theme tune too – give it a whirl on YouTube, and we challenge you to not be stuck humming it for days, also if you did fancy it as a mini-arcade or bar-top.

Out Run (1986)

Games don’t come much cooler than Out Run. A Sega classic, it put you in a deluxe moving cabinet, letting you cruise through sun-soaked time trial stages to one of the classiest chiptune soundtracks of its day. It was massively influential. Count yourself particularly lucky if you ever got to play it in one of the ultra-rare, full-size Ferrari convertibles that were sometimes rolled out to promote the series. Fancy 240 classic aracade games in a hnadheld Arcade machine including Out-Run for under £30? Have a look at the ORB Minicade

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Rampage (1986)

When the 9-to-5 world is getting you down, the suit collar chafes and the office tower blocks are blocking out that beautiful blue sky, sometimes you just want to tear it all down, Kong-style. Rampage let you do just that. A comical take on classic monster movies, it let you scale and smash down skyscrapers, take on the army and nab tasty onlookers as a quick snack in the guise of a giant snarling beast.

R-Type (1987)

A stellar arcade shooter (with some pretty good console ports, as well) Irem’s R-Type managed to shake up the shoot-’em-up formula without needing a complicated control scheme. It all comes down to having two different shots and a handy drone-like device for aiding your main ship, and you need all the advantages you can get. Like most shooters of the era, R-Type is very difficult, but it doesn’t feel unfair.

After Burner (1987)

They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore – presumably because health and safety would veto any blueprints for a fit-inducing shooter that straps you into a recreation of an F-14 Tomcat with a spinning chair and vertically rotating cabinet. Even if you managed to survive the Top Gun-inspired action, you’d have to work hard to keep your lunch down. Definitely worth popping a coin in at your local retro arcade if you have never played After Burner – provided its seat belts are intact.

Double Dragon (1987)

The follow-up to the less well remembered game; Renegade, Double Dragon is perhaps the most famous side-scrolling brawler of all time. Playing as two martial art master brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, you stalk the mean streets laying the smackdown on nefarious gang members. It was one of the first games to let you knock a weapon from an opponent’s hand and use it against them, too, adding an extra layer of strategy to encounters (as well as letting you get a cheap shot in on your co-operative partner).

Final Fight (1989)

Beat-’em-up games became wildly popular in ’80s arcades, but few were better than Final Fight. Capcom’s brawler featured an intuitive weapon system, over-the-top enemy designs, and killer visuals. Oddly, it never got an arcade sequel despite its success, with two follow-ups releasing as console games and a terrible successor also releasing in 2006.

Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road (1989)

Before there was Forza Horizon, or even Sega Rally, there was Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road. A racing game with attitude, it had you racing pick-up and monster trucks around hilly, jump-filled dirt tracks. It had amazing visuals (Micro Machines took a thing or two from this), while its unique stand-up cabinet let three players face off on one screen – and still have a wheel each to drive with.

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Golden Axe (1989)

A fantasy hack-and-slash with tons of charm, SEGA’s Golden Axe is a masterclass in co-op, sword-swinging ass kicking. With three memorable heroes, each with their own unique magical powerups which was visually great at the time and great levels that included battling skeleton warriors on the back of a giant flying eagle, Golden Axe’s world will stick long in the mind, even if its side-scrolling battles are relatively samey. For those that have never seen it, I won’t spoil its ending, but Golden Axe’s final post-win scenes were the arcade gaming equivalent of Inception.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)

Licensed games, believe it or not, were once pretty damn good, and Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was among the best of the bunch. It also came to the game boy too. Pitting the four amphibious heroes against their cartoon foes, it had a versatile combo system and a groundbreaking 4-player mode that let a whole gang of pals take on Shredder and the Foot Clan. Cowabunga dude!!!

90’s

Smash TV (1990)

Released almost a decade after Robotron 2084, Smash TV feels like the fully realized vision Eugene Jarvis had from the beginning. Set on a game show similar to the setup in The Running Man, the game uses twin-stick controls as you blast through rooms full of enemies and inch closer to the legendary Pleasure Dome. Or you might just get a free toaster.

Mercs (1990)

Continuing in the fine tradition of games like Commando, this up-scrolling shooter boasted great co-op shoot-em up action, it’s excellent weapon selection for it’s time (and giant hams) – not to mention a knock-off Arnie as the lead character. Ported to many consoles and computers, it landed at the height of the Hollywood obsession with testosterone-fuelled action films, and is perfect for serving up that macho, kill-anything-that-moves fix.

The Simpsons (1991)

See a theme developing here? Just like its Turtles game, Konami took a great license with The Simpsons and turned into a 4-player beat ’em up, letting you and your pals duke it out as Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa on a quest to save Maggie. It had hilarious animations that were a good match for the cartoon visuals, and it was bloody tough, too. No arcade visit was complete without a few coins going into this machine. It was probably my own childhood favourite.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (1991)

Can you see that game title without singing the song, either? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time is nearly a perfect beat-’em-up game, simple enough for younger players to enjoy alongside older kids and adults. The iconic four turtles all play differently, and you’re sure to have a favorite like the party animal Michelangelo or the objectively superior Donatello.

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X-Men (1992)

With X-Men, Konami perfected the art it started with Turtles and The Simpsons. Letting not one, not two, but SIX players take on Magneto’s gang as a full complement of X-Men heroes, this premium cabinet was a sight to behold, packing in two screens to accommodate a full complement of six simultaneous players. It wasn’t a bad beat ’em up either, with giant sprites, ass-kicking combos and a risk/reward life-draining power-up system.

Mortal Kombat II (1992)

The original Mortal Kombat set the stage for its superior sequel, which packed in more characters. Street Fighter may have mastered the one-on-one arcade fighter art, but Mortal Kombat had the guts to do things a little differently. Blood and – gore were thrown around the screen as you knocked seven shades out of your opponents, concluding in Fatality finishing moves which saw you rip the still-beating heart out of a foe, among other unpleasant ends. Mortal Kombat 2 was more than just a talking point for lawmakers, however, with intense one-on-one fighting gameplay and a goofy sense of humor that was rarely seen in fighting games at the time. Arcade1Up has multiple Mortal Kombat cabinets, including this 12-in-1 Mortal Kombat II cabinet that’s available for a great price.

NBA Jam (1993)

Ridiculously unrealistic in the best way possible, NBA Jam was the basketball fan for everyone–especially those with no interest in the sport. The two-on-two games, backed by some of the best commentary audio in history, played out like a child’s dreams of what it would be like to be in the NBA. You could literally catch fire, and that was a good thing! Boom Shaka Laka! The coolest way to play NBA Jam now is on Arcade1Up’s stylish cabinet or Bar-Top featuring three versions of the classic game.

Daytona USA (1993)

Can you even see that game title without singing the song? Daytona USA is the perfect ’90s-era racer, oozing positivity as you zoom around the circuit and past the other cars. That revving engine sound just makes the whole thing feel more real, even if the 3D graphics have shown their age over years.

Tekken (1994)

If you liked your martial arts more Bruce Lee than Chun-Li, then Tekken was for you. Doing away with many of the excesses of the fighting game genre, it focussed on hand-to-hand combat instead of projectiles and flashy specials, letting the king of the combo seize the day. It also looked fantastic, with character models that put rival Virtua Fighter to shame.

Sega Rally (1994)

The ultimate arcade racer, Sega Rally saw Sega on fire in its golden arcade era. With force-feedback steering wheels, muddy tracks and responsive turn feedback, you knew you’d won a race by pure skill when playing Sega Rally. It was known to be just like the real thing. It’d later be ported to the Sega Saturn and other machines, though a linked arcade tournament is the way purists choose to play.

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Metal Slug (1996)

The Neo Geo was an odd system, allowing owners to swap enormous cartridges out to mix up the game lineup in an arcade. If your local arcade had Metal Slug on that marquee, you knew it was going to be a good day. The run-and-gun featured–for the time–mind-blowing visuals that have aged well thanks to their exaggerated 2D pixel art, and the action got even more hectic when a friend joined. Metal Slug is one of the 50 SNK classics included with the Neo Geo 40 game mini-arcade cabinet.

The House of the Dead (1996)

Perhaps more famous than any other light gun game, The House of the Dead is arcade action at its best. Armed with a gun and surrounded by waves of zombies, you must carefully land shots so they cannot swarm your position. Sega followed it up with several sequels, and a full remake released on Nintendo Switch in 2022, not to mention House of the Dead 3 which instead of having lightguns you were given a cool shotgun.

Time Crisis II (1997)

Lightgun games were (and still are) hugely popular in the arcades of the 90s. But they all pretty much followed the same formula – unleash your trigger finger fast enough to prevent the baddies shooting you down. The first Time Crisis added an extra degree of strategy – a foot pedal that’d let you take cover from fire, making the shootouts all the more intense as you poked your head above the barricades for a quick headshot. Time Crisis II was the best game in the series, adding additional co-operative play that let you cover a friend from taking fire.

Strikers 1945 II (1997)

The expanded follow-up to one of the most underrated shoot-’em-up games of all time, Strikers 1945 II is similar to Capcom’s 19XX games, but even more over the top and with an even steeper difficulty spike. Psikyo was a master of the vertical shooter for years, and this sci-fi-infused take on WW2 dogfighting saw the company at its best. Strikers 1945 II.

Guitar Freaks (1998)

Konami’s arcade hit kickstarted the plastic band fad as characterised by console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band – and there’s no post-beer game session better than slamming those Rock Band drums and wailing into its karaoke mics. However, it meant a whole generation of gamers swapped real guitars for finger slapping plastic buttons instead of maplewood neck shredding. So now we’ve got Ed Sheeran instead of Eddie Van Halen or Slash.

Dance Dance Revolution (1998)

If you consider dancing an activity that only requires movement from the waist down, then Dance Dance Revolution (aka DDR) is for you. A modern arcade staple, it popularised the rhythm action / dance mat genre, making your feet of flames pull off increasingly complex steps as you smash out moves in time with the onscreen prompts. It’s still a sight worthy of drawing a crowd when an expert takes to the cabinet, with feet moving seemingly faster than the speed of light otherwise you look like your an idiot dancing whilst beyond drunk.

Crazy Taxi (1999)

Racing against other cars is fun, but Crazy Taxi offered a new spin on driving. Take people to where they need to go as quickly as possible, even if that means weaving through traffic or going off ramps. It might be a trip to a delicious international pizza chain, and Bad Religion and The Offspring will be the soundtrack to your entire work shift. Definitely inspiration for Burnout to GTA, Crazy Taxi had you breaking every rule of the road while trying to make as much money ferrying passengers around as possible. Which were, incidentally, amazingly adept at avoiding being crushed beneath your motor.

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike (1999)

The first game that comes to mind when you hear “fighting game” is probably Street Fighter II. That being said, the game that plays best today is Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, an updated version of the sequel that includes several returning characters alongside a whole bunch introduced for the first time in Street Fighter III. It’s fast, the visuals are great, and it gave us one of the best moments in competitive gaming history.

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