The 12 greatest arcade machines of all time

Decades later, we still feel these dinosaurs' footsteps – and they still play perfectly

Mortal Kombat
Released 1992

Japan may have defined the 2D fighting game with Street Fighter and King of Fighters, but it took two Americans and a whole lot of grown-up martial artists in campy costumes to make it dark, bloody, “photorealistic” and deadly.

While every other game used hand-drawn characters, Mortal Kombat took a more true-to-life approach: its characters were all actual people who had been “digitized”. The result was a game whose characters looked more real even though their movements were admittedly choppy.

What didn’t look real was the huge amount of blood that erupted from even simple moves like an uppercut. Then came the game’s horrific “fatalities” – match-ending super moves that resulted in the victor literally executing the loser in a gore-drenched cut scene. Hard to imagine these days, but this level of splatter and violence was scandalous in those innocent days. But it was also captivating, and the series’ appeal couldn’t be denied. Today, 2D fighters are all but dead, but Mortal Kombat perseveres through ups and downs, including 2008’s underwhelming Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe.


Virtua Fighter
Released 1993

If Street Fighter was the definitive 2D fighting game, Virtua Fighter earned that title when gaming added that third dimension. It was the first truly 3D fighting game in arcades and one of the first 3D games period. Plus, with an elegant-yet-deep control scheme and a wide range of well-balanced characters, Virtua Fighter captured that “easy to grasp, difficult to master” magic that all the best games have. Other franchises have more characters (Tekken), more weapons (SoulCalibur) or more sex appeal (Dead or Alive, Battle Arena Toshinden, SoulCalibur again … actually pretty much everything) but Virtua Fighter has more class and refinement. It’s the fine wine of 3D fighting games.


NBA Jam
Release 1993

With four players going head to head in full two on two arcade action, it’s almost comical to list of the ways in which NBA Jam has influenced not just modern gaming, but sports culture in general.

For starters, NBA Jam really set fire to the whole “over the top, arcade-style sports game” genre. Plus, it was one of the earliest games to license not just a couple players, as the game Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One had done a decade earlier, but the entire NBA, complete with teams, logos, uniforms and star players. For those of you shouting, “What about Madden, dude!” you’ve got half a point. Madden did add the full NFL license, but not until this same year – 1993. But NBA Jam was more profitable. In an interview withGamingAge creator Mark Turmell points out NBA Jam made more than a billion dollars in its first year – one token at a time.

Plus, NBA Jam popularized sayings such as “He’s on Fire!” and “Boomshakalaka!” – sayings which are now part of the sports world’s regular vocabulary. Oh, and one more thing: that big-headed mode that every sports game seems to hide in its cheats menu? It all started right here.


Dance Dance Revolution (series)
Released 1998 (Japan), 1999 (world)

Say what you like about how closely Dance, Dance, Revolution (DDR to its fans) resembles actual dancing – if you see true players at work, this question evaporates – just don’t claim it’s anything less than a social evolution. DDR literally has its own subculture. Players in Japan go on dates to play DDR. We’ve seen with our own eyes groups of teenagers from different neighborhoods having a dance-off at the local DDR arcade machine instead of actually getting in one another’s faces. And even if you don’t care about any of that stuff, it’s one of the ultimate party games and the first massively huge rhythm-action game. Everyone who plays Rock Band, Guitar Hero, or Beatmania has DDR to thank.

Above: There have been about 50 sequels to DDR. This is one of them.


That’s it for our top 12. Of course, we’d love to go to 24, 36 or higher – there’s no shortage of great arcade games. Feel free to tell us what we’ve tragically left off this list in the comments, and be sure to go overhereto enter our contest to win one of five copies of the Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li DVD.

Jun 29, 2009

We recommend