Best Arcade Games: From The '70s Through The '90s
Let's take a look back at the heyday of arcades.
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 from Arcade1Up and iiRcade to console ports on Switch, PC, and more. And because they're such classics, you'll definitely want to.
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 iconic enemy designs and ships despite the downright archaic technology, it's no wonder it's still a common reference point for classic arcade games today. 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.
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 Arcade cabinet.
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 Arcade1Up's Atari Legacy cabinet.
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.
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. 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: a countercade, gaming table, and pub table.
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.
After Ms. Pac-Man released, there wasn't much reason to go back to 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. Ms. Pac-Man has been featured in multiple Arcade1Up cabinets, including this eye-catching 40th Anniversary edition.
The game that truly put Nintendo on the map--at least as a video game developer rather than an instant noodle and love hotel purveyor--also gave us two of its most legendary mascots. 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.
Frogger gave us one of the best Seinfeld scenes of all time, and there's a reason George spent 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 quarters into the cabinet.
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 40th Anniversary edition.
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 Quarter Arcade from Numskull.
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.
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.
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.
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 Atari Legacy Edition Arcade1Up cabinet comes with Tempest.
Mortal Kombat II
The original Mortal Kombat set the stage for its superior sequel, which packed in more characters and the same ridiculously graphic blood and gore that fans knew and loved. 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.
The House of the Dead
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.
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.
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.
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 featuring three versions of the classic game.
Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike
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.
Strikers 1945 II
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 and plenty more classic arcade games are available in the iiRcade library.
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.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time
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. Once again, Arcade1Up has a modern solution for TMNT fans with its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles countercade and cabinet.
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 MVSX arcade cabinet.
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