The 12 greatest arcade machines of all time

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.

Released 1972

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.

Space Invaders
Released 1978

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.

Released 1980

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
Released 1981

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.

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  • theprofessor - June 30, 2010 9:08 p.m.

    Great rankings. We started a 32 team bracket for classic arcade games. Comments and votes would be great!
  • arcwulf - July 25, 2009 5:21 p.m.

    Four words: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So what if it was a licensed game? It might not have been the original side-scrolling beat-em-up, but it is by far the most enduring example of this classic genre: more players than Double Dragon, more personality than Final Fight, and more colorful graphics than most of the games to follow it. Only the Simpsons arcade game or X-men even comes close.
  • tobacco - July 9, 2009 4:44 p.m.

    no tekken? no moonwalker?
  • Demonflare - July 4, 2009 9:08 p.m.

    Aww, Pac-Man is AWSOME! I played it once in a movie theater, and missed my movie cause I couldnt stop playing! :) I was also sort of addicted playing Donkey Kong in Animal Crossing! :)
  • lethalcodeine - July 3, 2009 7:50 p.m.

    Would have liked to see TMNT Arcade. I love all these games though. Especially SFII.
  • FamousMortimer - July 2, 2009 5:50 a.m.

    Come on!!! Operation motherfucking Wolf! Firing an Uzi that actually recoiled! Hostages! Shooting that dude in the fact before he slashes you! The opposite of this is a game called "Chiller," for anyone that's seen that perverted mess of uncomfortable.
  • AngeloComet - July 1, 2009 8:32 a.m.

    It wasn't a great game, really, but I think the sheer 3D wow of Hard Drivin' coupled with its nails game (did anyone ever see anyone manage that loop the loop?) and 'real drivng' concept was properly innovative and captured the imagination and the public's interest in getting to play something 'real'. A forerunner of Gran Turismo, the 'real driving simulator'?
  • wrapdump - July 1, 2009 5:21 a.m.

    Sega Rally needed to be on this list. No ferry trip to france s ever complete without a go on the Sega Rally machine, it'S ALWAYS there.
  • MexicanEminem - July 1, 2009 3:25 a.m.

    I mean of.
  • helloimgaydo - June 30, 2009 11:33 p.m.

    SMASH TV!!! yes I know its a sequel to robotron, but its still awesome.
  • moredhel_1 - June 30, 2009 10:51 p.m.

    Dear Lord - where the hell is GALAGA?! I love your articles and lists, GamezRadarz, but no "best of arcade" compilation can be complete w/out this 1981 classic (and superior sequel to 1980's Galaxian). Just sayin'. Peace!
  • Billium - June 30, 2009 8:40 p.m.

    How did Toobin' not make the cut?
  • MacGyver1138 - June 30, 2009 3:11 p.m.

    I love how far videogames have come, but I do miss the days of the arcade. There was something cool about the community aspect, and being able to play any of the dozens (or more) games you wanted, all in one place. I just wish that my parents hadn't always made me feel like I had wasted money every time I went. *sniff*
  • Jordo141 - June 30, 2009 1:36 p.m.

    What the hell? No Metal Slug???
  • oryandymackie - June 30, 2009 8:45 a.m.

    What is this, nostalgia week?
  • EricBratcher - June 30, 2009 5:02 a.m.

    By the way, Sixboxes, you may want to read the Gauntlet entry again.
  • EricBratcher - June 30, 2009 5:01 a.m.

    Man, I feel all you guys who are suggesting additional games. We actually considered The Simpsons and Centipede and TMNT, along with about a zillion others like Tempest, Defender, Berzerk, Star Castle (just because it was the first arcade game I actually kinda rocked at) and a ton of others. Ultimately though,we had to narrow it down, so we went with those that had the best gameplay and longest-lasting impact.
  • garnsr - June 30, 2009 3:53 a.m.

    Not having Virtua Fighter would obviously be insane. Dragon's Lair has a good historical call to be here, but they also say these games are all playable still.
  • lukel127 - June 30, 2009 3:24 a.m.

    Where is half life 2?!?!?!?!? They have one at valve so ha!
  • Suicide - June 30, 2009 2:24 a.m.

    You gotta love the old ones :)

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