The arcade can be seen as the crucible of modern gaming as we know it. A typical arcade contained many cabinets, all of them housing different gaming wonders and promising mastery if only you could spend the time (and, crucially, the money) to get seriously good at them. Many of your favourite games likely began their life at the arcade, and although the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread availability of home gaming systems has put paid to arcades in many places, they’re still beloved by many. Here are the top 25 arcade games of all time, in no particular order.
1. Space Invaders
It doesn’t get much more classic than Space Invaders. At the bottom is you, a hapless little ship desperately trying to defend something against hostile invaders. At the top of the screen, those same invaders menacingly advance, gradually growing closer to you and threatening failure. The shooting action seems almost hilariously simplistic now, but it’s still magnetic and compelling.
Arcade games thrived on their simplicity, and no game better encapsulates that concept than Pac-Man. At its core, it’s extremely basic; you are a small yellow dot in a maze, and you must eat pills while avoiding the ghosts around you. Eating larger pills meant the ghosts could now be eaten, so the game was a delicate dance between escaping from your oppressors and turning the tables.
3. Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong began life as an arcade game, immortalised in the documentary King of Kong (which discusses the controversial legacy of arcade kingpin Billy Mitchell). Like all arcade games, it’s simple and effective; you are Jumpman (an early name for Mario), and you must leap over Donkey Kong’s barrels in order to rescue the princess he’s captured.
4. Golden Axe
Sega’s beat-’em-up is incredibly satisfying, even if its movement and combat are a little clunky by today’s standards. This side-scrolling adventure takes the kind of 80s high fantasy that birthed the heavy metal genre as its inspiration, revolving around a group of heroes with impractical armour and massive weapons. They must fight their way through to the villainous Death Adder and defeat him.
5. Mortal Kombat
It’s fair to call Mortal Kombat one of the most controversial games of its era, if not of all time. This game’s copious levels of blood and gore earned it the consternation of political conservatives (and some on the more liberal side), but its joyously childish celebration of excessive violence felt more at home with kids who weren’t of the right age to play it.
It really doesn’t get much simpler than Pong. You play as a paddle. Your opponent plays as a paddle. You must bat a ball back and forth and hope to score. That’s literally it, and yet, Pong managed to captivate an entire generation of kids. The simple fact is that if a core loop is compelling enough, it’ll succeed, and Pong is competition in its purest and most unadulterated form.
7. Dragon’s Lair
The adventures of Dirk the Daring as he attempts to rescue his princess from a castle filled with traps and enemies made up the bulk of Dragon’s Lair. At its core, this game prefaces modern quick time event-style adventure titles; you must simply press the button at the right time, and if you fail, Dirk dies, meaning you have to start over. It’s not sophisticated, but Don Bluth’s animation made it beautiful.
Another Sega classic, OutRun is an atmospheric masterpiece. It’s a sunny, breezy racing game in which you must reach a series of checkpoints before the time runs out. That’s all there is to the gameplay, but the simplicity of its premise mixes well with its sun-kissed atmosphere and truly excellent soundtrack. Without OutRun, we would arguably not have Forza Horizon.
9. Crazy Taxi
There was, as we’re sure you’re beginning to understand, a time when Sega was the undisputed king of the arcade. Crazy Taxi was just one of Sega’s many arcade hits; you must guide a taxi driver around a city in order to get as many passengers as possible to their destinations. The pop-punk soundtrack and frantic gameplay made Crazy Taxi an instant hit.
In essence, Galaga is not too dissimilar to Space Invaders. Your ship is at the bottom of the screen, and alien invaders wade in from the top. You must dispatch them before they become too overwhelming. However, unlike in Space Invaders, enemies can arrive in a number of different formations, forcing you to adapt your tactics depending on what you’re facing.
11. Street Fighter II
There are few games as iconic as Street Fighter II. Capcom’s enduring fighting classic features characters as memorable as Ryu, Zangief, Blanka, and M. Bison, among others, and its fighting action is technical and satisfying. There’s a good reason Street Fighter II has been re-released so many times; the core gameplay just never gets old, no matter what platform you’re playing on.
There’s a mystery to Gauntlet that’s hard to explain. Playing it now, like many arcade games, it looks pretty primitive, but the fact is that Gauntlet was a trailblazer. It’s a top-down dungeon crawler game with a number of different character classes to play as, and the fact that it was multiplayer meant you could drag your friends along to experience its delights with you.
A run-and-gun shooter that was significantly more “grown up”-feeling than many kids had experienced at the time, Contra was one of Konami’s many arcade hits. It received home console ports for the NES and SNES, as well as other consoles in time, but the arcade version still remains the purest expression of what Konami was trying to achieve with the game.
14. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game
The Turtles arcade game is, like many of its compatriots, a side-scrolling beat-’em-up. There’s something about this style of gameplay that lends itself well to arcades; immediacy, skill expression, and the ability for many players to crowd around the cabinet together make it a perfect recipe for arcade gaming. Turtles oozes style and sass, making it ideal for the teens who frequented the arcades back in the day.
15. The Simpsons Arcade Game
Yup, you guessed it – this is another side-scrolling beat-’em-up for arcade cabinets. The Simpsons Arcade Game tasks the titular family with rescuing Maggie, and in order to do so, they must fight their way through a series of wacky enemies themed around Springfield and its residents. The Simpsons could team up in order to perform special moves that evoked the offbeat sensibility of Springfield, too.
16. Bubble Bobble
The aesthetic for Bubble Bobble is gentle and cute, but don’t let that put you off; this is actually one of the most difficult arcade games out there. Its many levels of puzzling make it into an endurance test, so like any arcade game, it’s better experienced with a friend (or with a supportive crowd around you, egging you on as you make your way across the high score threshold).
Contrary to many of the arcade games of the time, X-Men is actually a sensitive management sim in which you – nope, just kidding, it’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up again. Players just wanted to experience combat as their favourite ass-kicking superheroes, and with characters like Wolverine, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler to play as, who’s to tell them they’re wrong?
18. Dance Dance Revolution
Dance Dance Revolution is the game that made drunken fools of us all (well, maybe not “drunken” when we were teens, but still). Its mat turned a gaming session into a sweaty, punishing workout, but achieving mastery of this game felt like you were becoming a choreographic god among men. That said, there are some songs on Dance Dance Revolution we still haven’t mastered.
19. House of the Dead
Take this as a recommendation to play any House of the Dead game you can get your hands on in an arcade. These supremely cheesy, silly shooters bundled chunky lightgun peripherals with occasionally genuinely unsettling enemy and level design, packing in plenty of jumpscares along the way. If you love Hammer horror and lightgun shooters, you need to play this.
20. Taiko no Tatsujin
There’s currently a version of Taiko no Tatsujin available on the Xbox Game Pass service, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as satisfying as the arcade version without that massive drum peripheral. Just like any arcade rhythm game, mastery of Taiko no Tatsujin is akin to witchcraft; things start out easy, but the complexity quickly ramps up until you’re cursing your human arms for their slowness.
21. Marvel vs. Capcom 2
This gorgeous 2D fighting game oozes personality and charm with its chunky pixel art style. You can play as one of a huge number of Capcom and Marvel personalities; why not pit Captain America against Tron Bonne, for example, or see how Thanos fares against one of the Darkstalkers? With huge combos, fast-paced action, and plenty of callbacks to enjoy, this is a masterpiece of a fighting game.
22. Time Crisis
Just like House of the Dead, we’re including all of the Time Crisis games here. The Time Crisis series’ signature gimmick was the ability to take cover; there was a pedal peripheral included with the cabinet that, when pressed, would duck you into cover and let you reload your weapon, creating a fast-paced gameplay loop consisting of ducking and shooting.
23. Daytona USA
One of the greatest racing games of all time, Daytona USA was an early proponent of 3D graphics in arcades, once again pioneered by Sega. A home console port was eventually created for the Sega Saturn, but again, atmospherically speaking, the arcade version reigns supreme. The graphics were stunningly realistic (for 1993, at least), and the music was great, too.
24. Tekken 3
Many gamers might not know that Tekken 3 began its life in the arcade, but it’s true. This seminal fighting classic was available on arcade cabinets before it made its way to the PlayStation, so its huge roster and massive variety of game modes reached a totally different audience at first. Gameplay-wise, Tekken took Virtua Fighter’s lead, introducing a fully 3D environment in which to battle your opponents.
25. Silent Scope
Obviously, Silent Scope doesn’t actually simulate what it’s like to be a real-life sniper; that would be highly irresponsible, given that its audience was primarily children. However, its amazing sniper rifle peripheral, high-fidelity visuals, and responsive gameplay meant that it was the closest we were going to get to becoming real snipers, and it let us live that fantasy to our hearts’ content.