Gaming’s golden age: top 10 retro-vintage arcade classics
Image credit: Alamy, Dreamstime
Before you could fight dragons, sail the seven seas, experience war, or transport yourself to another world in the comfort of your living room, there were amusement arcade games, one of the biggest successes in 1970s and 1980s pop culture.
If we want to take a lightning run and a complex sequence of jumps through the history of arcade gaming, we need to begin as far back as the 1940s. This is when American businessmen Martin Bromley, Irving Bromberg and James Humpert formed Standard Games (now Sega) in Hawaii and made coin-operated amusement machines for US military bases. It was a series of early mergers and a US ban on military slot machines that led to the Japanese incorporation in 1952.
In 1966, the company released ‘Periscope’, an electro-mechanical arcade game. ‘Periscope’, which was instantly successful in North America, Europe and Japan, was an early submarine simulator and light-gun shooter. The arcade game was the first of its kind to cost a quarter (25¢) per play.
A year later, Taito introduced electro-mechanical arcade game ‘Crown Soccer Special’, which is a two-player football simulation. In 1971, Nolan Bushnell developed ‘Computer Space’, the first mass-manufactured game, for Nutting Associates. Then in 1972, Bushnell and Ted Dabney formed Atari and the company essentially created the coin-operated video game industry with the highly successful table-tennis game ‘Pong’.
The late 1970s to mid-1980s is said to be the ‘golden age’ of arcade games, when this type of entertainment was a superpower in popular culture. ‘Space Invaders’ (1978), vector-based ‘Asteroids’ (1979), and ‘Pac-Man’ (1980) were highlights of this period. The decrease in cost of computing technology led to an arcade explosion and video games popped up in songs, cartoons and film, such as the pioneering ‘Tron’ (1982). Unfortunately, the novelty of arcade games began to wear off in the late-1980s.
After a brief rebirth in the early 1990s, the decline of the arcade industry came partly as a result of the explosion in home video games consoles such as Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox.
However, James Anderson, commercial and sales director at Bandai Namco Amusement Europe says, “For the past 20 years I’ve worked in this industry, everybody said since the dawn of the home market – PlayStation, Xbox – [that] has put a nail in the coffin for our business.
“That’s not the case at all. Developers for Xbox and PlayStation are looking to make 18-28 hours of game-time entertainment for a one-off purchase fee. We’re looking to give you three minutes of entertainment for a smaller denomination, with repeat play.”
For each brand of coin-operated arcade game, custom hardware was often used, with multiple central processing units, costly computer graphics display technology and specific sound and graphics chips.
Modern arcade games (2010 onwards) extensively use solid-state electronics, integrated circuits and cathode ray tube screens. Many are modified video game console or PC hardware (like ‘Halo’). There are even adapted smartphone app games available to play, like ‘Candy Crush’. VR is also more integrated in the modern market.
Anderson says Namco has developed VR Zone Portal, which include games like ‘Mario Kart VR’, coming to the UK in August.
“It’s just like the original, but instead of driving over question marks to pick items up, you have to reach out with your hand to pick them up. You can physically throw tortoise shells at your opponents.”
Anderson says there’s still definitely a market for arcade games, “But it’s diversified a lot. It’s become more of a secondary market. For example, you go to a bowling alley and while you’re waiting, you play the games. It’s become part of the larger entertainment mix.”
Arcade games: the top 10
From Goliath.com, here are the most successful arcade games of all time.
Pac-Man (1980) NAMCO
Cabinets sold: 400,000
Revenue by 1985: $3.5bn
Adjusted for inflation: $7.96bn
This highly addictive world-famous maze game with the infamous ghosts Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde is an icon of 1980s popular culture.
The simple circular Pac-Man eats pellets for points. Eating ‘power pellets’ turns the pursuing phantoms into the pursued, and Pac-Man noms them for more points. If a pursuing ghost hits Pac-Man, he loses a life, and when you run out of lives, the game is over.
‘Pac-Man’ is one of the most influential video games ever made – it founded the maze chase game genre, is said to have opened gaming to female audiences (credited to the non-violence), and the yellow character was the first gaming mascot. This appeal has made it the most profitable arcade game ever made.
Space Invaders (1978) Taito
Cabinets sold: 360,000
Revenue by 1982: $2.7bn
Adjusted for inflation: $6.85bn
Credited as having kicked off the ‘golden age’, ‘Space Invaders’ is one of the earliest 2D shooters, and inspired many in this list.
Simple yet addictive, it was the best-selling video game and highest-grossing entertainment product of its time. It took a year for Tomohiro Nishikado to design the game, making custom hardware to complete it.
The aim is to destroy wave after wave of descending aliens with a laser cannon. They counter-fire at you as they get to the bottom of the screen. As more aliens are annihilated, the critters’ movement speeds up, making it increasingly difficult to bullseye them and stay alive.
Bonus points are awarded if you destroy the ‘mystery ship’ that sometimes moves across the top of the screen.
Space Invaders helped expand the arcade gaming industry from a novelty to a global phenomenon, and is seen as one of the most important video games ever made.
Street Fighter II (1991) Capcom
Cabinets sold: 200,000 (60,000 SF II, 140,000 Championship Edition)
Revenue by 1995: $2.31bn
Adjusted for inflation: $3.71bn
This competitive fighting game is what caused the brief resurgence of arcade games in the 1990s. The sequel to ‘Street Fighter’ (1987), ‘Street Fighter II: The World Warrior’ has multiple playable characters, each with a unique fighting style, command-based special moves, a six-button configuration, combo system, and competitive two-player mode.
You fight in one-on-one combat with your opponent in a ‘best-two-out-of-three’ scenario. Each round, you must drain your enemy’s life before the timer ends. There are bonus stages for additional points, such as car breaking and barrel breaking.
The game was the ultimate in 2D fighting game design, and is still viewed as one of the best games in the competitive scene.
Donkey Kong (1981) Nintendo, Atari
Cabinets sold: 132,000
Revenue by 1982: $280m
Adjusted for inflation: $710.2m
A pioneer of the platform genre, this game makes you move the main character, Mario, through platforms while avoiding obstacles, all to save a damsel in distress, Pauline, from Donkey Kong, the giant ape (he’s not part donkey).
Nintendo broke into the North American market with ‘Donkey Kong’, the first game created by designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who would go on to make heavyweights such as ‘Super Mario Bros’ and ‘The Legend of Zelda’. Miyamoto designed the game with Nintendo’s chief engineer, Gunpei Yokoi.
It is the first platform game to require jumping, as you must leap over obstacles and enemies. With four stages, Kong was known as the most complex arcade game at the time.
Points are awarded for completing a stage, jumping over obstacles, destroying objects with a ‘hammer power-up’, collecting items like parasols and purses, and taking out rivets from platforms.
You generally get three lives, and you lose a life if Mario touches Donkey Kong or enemy objects, if you fall too far through a gap or off a platform, or if the bonus counter reaches zero.
Ms Pac-Man (1981) Namco
Cabinets sold: 125,000
Revenue by 1987: $1.2bn
Adjusted for inflation: $2.58bn
Pac-Man’s wife got her own game with new maze designs and improved gameplay.
It is very similar to the original – you earn points by eating pellets and avoiding ghosts. By eating a ‘power pellet’, the ghosties turn blue and Ms Pac-Man can eat them for more points. There are also bonus fruits. Everything gets speedier as rounds increase, and pellets decrease the ghosts’ blueness, eventually stopping altogether.
Differences to the original include ghosts’ behavioural pattern, fruits bouncing randomly around, and the orange ghost is called Sue, not Clyde.
Additionally, when Ms Pac-Man dies, she ‘dramatically swoons and falls’, rather than folding in on herself.
Asteroids (1979) Atari
Cabinets sold: 100,000
Revenue by 1991: $800m
Adjusted for inflation: $1.43bn
Designed by Lyle Rains, Ed Logg and Dominic Walsh, this famous game lets you control a triangular spaceship in an asteroid field periodically criss-crossed by UFOs. You must destroy asteroids and saucers, not collide with them, and not get hit by the saucers’ shots. Through the game, the number of asteroids increases.
The ship rotates left and right, fires straight shots, and thrusts forward.
You can send the ship into hyperspace, so it vanishes and reappears in a different place on the screen, but it can self-destruct or plop on an asteroid.
The ‘wraparound’ screen means objects float off the top and reappear at the bottom. Shooting asteroids breaks them into faster, smaller pieces (worth more points).
Two UFOs fire on your ship – a big saucer (shoots terribly), and a small one (shoots pretty accurately and faster). When your score exceeds 40,000, big saucer disappears. The higher your score, the better shot the small saucer becomes. It gets harder each level, as more asteroids appear.
You have three lives and earn a life per 10,000 points. When you’ve lost all your lives, the game ends.
Defender (1981) Williams Electronics; Taito
Cabinets sold: 60,000
Revenue by 1993: $1bn
Adjusted for inflation: $1.69bn
On an unnamed planet, you defeat hordes of aliens and protect astronauts from abduction. A pinball programmer at Williams, Eugene Jarvis, developed ‘Defender’, which became the company’s bestseller and created the genre of horizontal scrolling shooter games.
You navigate a spaceship left or right through the terrain, using a joystick to control elevation, and five buttons for direction and weapons. If abducted, astronauts come back as mutants. You progress to the next level when you destroy the aliens. If you can’t defend your astronauts, the planet explodes and the level becomes populated with mutants. Surviving the mutants restores the planet. You are allowed three ships in the game and earn more by reaching benchmarks. If hit by an enemy or missile, or if a hyperspace jump goes wrong, you lose a ship. After all ships are gone, it’s game over.
Centipede (1980) Atari
Cabinets sold: 55,988
Revenue by 1991: $115.65m
Adjusted for inflation: $207.85m
Using the ‘Space Invaders’ model and adding insects, the game makes you combat a centipede, with spiders, scorpions and fleas dropping down and zig-zagging to harass you. Completing a round means annihilating the centipede winding down the screen through a field of mushrooms.
You move around with a trackball at the bottom of the screen. Shooting parts of the centipede makes a mushroom – by shooting a middle segment, it separates it into two. Upon destroying a head, the section behind it becomes the next head.
The centipede drops a level and changes direction when it hits a mushroom or the screen edge. More mushrooms means a speedier descending bug, plus it takes four hits for you to destroy a fungus.
Everything you destroy gives you points. Players earn lives with points, but losing all lives ends the game.
Galaxian (1979) Namco
Cabinets sold: 40,000
Adjusted for inflation: N/A
You control a spaceship (the Galaxip) at the bottom of the screen, and shoot descending attacking aliens from different directions. The game was made to compete with Taito’s ‘Space Invaders’, and to separate itself, ‘Galaxian’’s aliens ‘kamikaze’ dive at your ship.
The highly popular game enabled a successful sequel, ‘Galaga’ (1981), to be developed.
‘Galaxian’ took RGB colour graphics in gaming to the next level, with multi-coloured sprites, explosions, various coloured fonts, graphic icons and a scrolling starfield.
OutRun (1986) SEGA
Cabinets sold: 30,000
Revenue by 1993: $393.06m
Adjusted for inflation: $665.85m
Designed by Yu Suzuki and developed by Sega AM2, 3D driving video game ‘OutRun’ is noted for its pioneering hardware and graphics. Features like a selectable soundtrack and nonlinear gameplay really set it apart from other games on the market at the time.
You ‘drive’ a Ferrari Testarossa Spider against a timer from a third-person rear perspective. Mimicking a Ferrari driver’s position, it limits the view. Dips and curves in the road make it more challenging by concealing obstacles like traffic. Any sort of collision slows the car down.
Reach a destination within the time allocated, otherwise the game ends. Time is extended by reaching checkpoints. You must choose one direction at a junction, which leads to different surroundings.