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Take two steps into your local Chuck E Cheese funtropolis – which, for the record, would be three steps more than we’d actually recommend you take – and it’s obvious that the days when videogame arcades were a beeping, flashing fountainhead of innovation, style and even culture are long gone. But we still have fond memories of the years when game systems were the size of refrigerators and a quarter was worth much, much more than 25 cents.
Why? Because some of those games were fantastic. Some were influential. Some still play well today. And a very select few can still light all three of those lamps. Those are the greatest arcade machines of all time. And in tribute to those great days of arcade domination – and also the fact that the DVD version of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li hits tomorrow (win your own copy here) and reminded us of this whole concept – here they are.
Don’t get us wrong: Pong was not the first video game. It wasn’t even the first video game in which two paddles bounced a ball back and forth. But it was the first one that mattered. It was the match that lit the fuse that set off the bomb that exploded into the industry we love today. And it also happens to be the single most accessible game of all time – we dare you to find a game that’s easier to understand – and remains surprisingly captivating almost 40 years later.
If Pong was the match that sparked the videogame industry, Space Invaders was the actual bomb that detonated and changed the world’s cultural landscape forever. Thanks to a relentless, ominous sci-fi attitude that was truly fresh at the time, Space Invaders was so popular that Japan actually experienced a nationwide shortage of the 100-yen coins used to play the game – they kept ending up out of circulation, nestled safely in the coin boxes of Space Invaders machines. In fact, entire arcades were opened that had only Space Invaders machines.
It was a smash hit in the rest of the world as well, despite immediately becoming one of the most imitated games of all time. Atari purchased the rights to create a version for its Atari 2600 console, making Space Invaders the first arcade game ever to have a licensed home version. It then became the first “killer app” in console history; sales of the 2600 quadrupled when Space Invaders deployed onto store shelves. Simply put? It singlehandedly made the 2600 a smash hit, establishing Atari as a home console superpower along the way.
Still not convinced? What if we told you Space Invaders was also responsible for Nintendo’s success? It’s true. Nintendo’s beloved game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda) told Time magazine in 2007 that he hadn’t been interested in video games until he saw Space Invaders. Think about that for a moment.
Space Invaders had been such a smash that the gaming industry stalled for awhile, more content to churn out slight variations and rip-offs of the bleak sci-fi shooter than to do anything new. Then came a breath of effervescent fresh air shaped like a yellow pizza. Pac-Man.
Designed by Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man was more colorful, more lighthearted, more packed with whimsical personality, and more appealing to a broader range of potential players than anything else on the market. The public gobbled it up so enthusiastically that even creator Iwatani himself was shocked (Namco’s racing game Rally-X was the game everyone in the industry expected to be a smash hit. It's possible you've heard of it). Dozens of sequels, spin-offs, and home versions later (including an Atari 2600 version so bad it has become legendary) Pac-Man remains a viable brand and arguably the most recognizable videogame character in the world.
Donkey Kong wasn’t the first video game released by Nintendo. But it might as well have been. Yes, the gameplay, in which a chubby guy in overalls and a mustache leaped barrels and flames to save a blonde cutie (named Pauline, not Peach) from a giant ape was fun. So fun, in fact, that it was a launch title for Colecovision - making Mario the only game character we can think of to launch systems from two different manufacturers – and that people are still breaking and re-breaking the world’s record high score for it.
But the real reason this game is on our list is that it launched the careers of Mario (then named simply “Jumpman”) and Donkey Kong, two of gaming’s most enduring mascots, and was the watershed game that established both creator Shigeru Miyamoto and parent company Nintendo – all of which are still going strong.