10 of the greatest classic arcade games

Remember when you and a buddy used to run down to the local arcade with a pocket full of quarters? Yes, that’s right, you youngsters out there, there used to be establishments filled with nothing but big, boxy things that housed monitors that you put a quarter in so you could play a game for 5 to 10 minutes. Good times.

Those who do know of what I speak remember that everyone had their favorite arcade game (the one they were actually good at) and know that this list of classic arcade games really could have had about 100 titles on it, but I chose these 10 because they were the games I seem to remember wasting the most allowance and paper delivery money on. (The ancient art of delivering rolled up pieces of paper with news written on them to the doors of people’s homes will be a topic for another day, kids.)

Photo credit: YouTube/Nintendo

10 Donkey Kong

The game that got us all hooked on playing video games at home when it was licensed to Coleco started out in one of those big cabinets I spoke of in the intro. First released in 1981, it is believed to be the first arcade game with an actual storyline (RPG!). Try as I might I never could get the main character, a carpenter named Jumpman (who looked suspiciously like Mario) to the point where he could save “The Unnamed Lady” because that damn ape kept moving on to other levels every time I completed one. Also gave us the phrase, “It’s on like Donkey Kong.”

9 Punch-Out!!

I’m not talking about Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! or Super Punch-Out!!. I’m talking about the original. The one where your boxer looked like he was made of some sort of green mesh so you could see through him and attempt to hit your opponent. The one with boxers sporting super realistic names like Glass Joe, Piston Hurricane, Bald Bull, and Mr. Sandman. This was the original ultimate fight because you couldn’t even win by decision, you had to knock your opponent out to win. I still hear the words “Come on, stand up and fight!” in my nightmares. Damn you, Bald Bull.

8 Missile Command

Protect six “cities” from air attacks by wearing your hand out spinning a track ball, aiming the target at the most minute area on the screen where the missiles were dropping, then figuring out which of the three launch buttons to use, all while monitoring your missile supplies to make sure you havent’ run out in one area. Sound fun? It was. The kicker was you couldn’t ever win this game. Literally, you couldn’t defeat it. The goal was to stay alive as long as possible. That’s it. And not only could you not beat it, it had that ominous “you lose” closing screen. No wonder someone wants to make a movie out of it.

7 Q*bert

Probably the weirdest game on this list. Q*bert (what he was, I have no clue) had to navigate a pyramid of cubes by jumping diagonally, up and down, from cube to cube, causing each cube he landed on to change color, with the goal of turning every cube into the target color so you could move on the next level, and, ummm, do it all over again. Q*bert (seriously, what was he?) also had to avoid the snakes, gremlins, and other creatures that killed him with just their touch. (So violent.) I don’t know why I loved this game, because writing this out makes it sound pretty stupid, but it was awesome.

6 Joust

Check that. This was the weirdest game. In Joust, a yellow knight rides a flying (flying?) ostrich from platform to platform above an island surrounded by lava. Seriously. (Now that’s a movie I’d go see.) Your goal? Defeat the enemy knights… flying around on buzzards… by jousting with them. Oh, and avoid the pterodactyls. It’s as if this game was designed by someone on acid – or from Japan. The best part of the game? You could play this as a two-man team with one of your friends. Trust me, that was big-time stuff back in the day.

5 Pole Position

The racing game that started it all. Pole Position was one of the first popular racing games to use the cutting edge (at the time) rear-view racer format (meaning you finally weren’t looking at your car from above, but rather from behind). The fact that you had to run a time trial to determine your starting position only added to the never before seen realism of the game. (At the time, it was considered the first attempt at an actual driving simulation.) In addition to the rear-view format, it had actual AI cars to race against and a track based on a real racing circuit with billboards placed alongside the race circuit featuring 7-Eleven, Dentyne, and Centipede (another classic game) for even greater realism.

4 Popeye

Anyone who played this game based on the cartoon character Popeye knows just how badass it was. The object of the game was for Popeye to collect hearts, musical notes, or letters, depending on the level, while trying to steer clear of the Sea Hag and Brutus. The two coolest parts of this game were when you got hold of a can of spinach and could knock Brutus out by running into him; and the segment where you could hit a punching bag to knock a barrel loose so it falls onto Brutus’ head, earning you bonus points. Hmmm… it really doesn’t sound as cool as it truly was.

3 BurgerTime

I used to go to the local pool almost every day as a kid. They had BurgerTime there one year. I didn’t do a lot of swimming that summer. In BurgerTime, you controlled a chef named Peter Pepper who has to make four complete hamburgers out of 16 ingredients spaced over four different levels. You achieved this by having Peter walk over the length of each ingredient, such as bun, a burger, or some other condiment, to make it fall down a level. If it landed on another ingredient below it, that ingredient also fell one level. When you dropped every ingredient all the way down to the plate (making a hamburger sandwich), you moved on to the next stage. I’m convinced that if this came out on the iPad today, it’d be a top seller.

2 Spy Hunter

Today’s racing and spy games have nothing on Spy Hunter. (Sure, they’re more visually appealing with better story lines, but… where was I going? Oh yeah…) The object of the game was to navigate a road at high speed in your G-6155 Interceptor, blowing up enemy vehicles (who try to force you off the road) with your two front-mounted machine guns, earning extra cars and special weapons like oil slicks, smoke screens, and surface-to-air missiles, while protecting the general public from harm (i.e. not running their asses over). Plus the theme to Peter Gunn played in the background the whole time. (Look it up.) This game was b-a-d ass.

1 Track & Field

Being a sports fanatic as a child I spent more time and more money on this game than any other arcade game out there (I even won a wicked plastic trophy playing this!). Track & Field consisted of competing in six events: 100 Meter Dash, Long Jump, Javelin, 110 Meter Hurdles, Hammer Throw, and High Jump. It had three buttons, two for speed (simulating a step for each leg) that you had to tap at speeds faster than a hummingbird flaps it’s wings, and one “action” button that caused you to jump or throw. Controlling all three buttons effectively at the same time in events like the 110 Meter Hurdles meant you were truly a man among boys. This was also the first game I played that featured Easter eggs, almost an unheard of phenomenon back then.

Honorable mention: 1943, Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede, Defender, Galaga, Tempest, Tron

So which game that you loved to play as a kid did I leave out? Let me know in the comments below.

(Previously published on October 14, 2011.)