Monday, 7 September 2015

Top 30 Arcade Games from the Golden Age (1978-1985)

This was at a time when the first truly addictive video games started to appear in arcades all around the world. When the home computers and consoles of the time just didn't cut the mustard. They couldn't compete with the spectacular whizz, bangs and whistles that their arcade counterparts could provide for just 10p.

The year arcade video games first kicked in was 1978. Sure there were games before that but none of them fueled the fire of the video game craze like Space Invaders did that year. I was 9 years old and it was just the right time to see this gaming revolution happen right before my very eyes. One armed bandits and pinball machines were pushed into a corner to make way for rows and rows of video games. Their interactive, glowing screens lighting up otherwise dingy looking hangouts where adults would gamble their money. I wasn't interested in that.

The period from 1978 up until 1985 is, in my mind, the golden age of arcade video games. So many new ideas, creativity and inventiveness. I wonder if people back then had any clue how the position of video games in the cultural landscape would look over 35 years later. In 1985 I left school and it seemed like the world was going through so many changes including the slow down of arcade games as 16bit home computers and consoles began to catch up in complexity and quality. But don't worry, I'll be talking about the silver age of video games from beyond 1985 in the not too distant future.

So without further ado here are my Top 30 Arcade Golden Age Video Games. Please be aware that these are my own personal choices not based on sales, profits or other top arcade game lists, but solely on my memory of what I thought was good and what was fun to play.

Number 30 - Return of the Jedi - 1984, Atari

This used raster graphics rather than vector graphics like the other two Star Wars games. In the game the player gets to control speeder bikes, AT-ST's and the Millenium Falcon. I especially enjoyed the stage where you flew the Falcon out of the Death Star MK2 as you blew it up and had fire chasing you down the tunnel. Quite a treat for Star Wars fans.

Number 29 - Radar Scope - 1979, Nintendo

This shoot'em'up was one of Nintendo's first video games but was a commercial failure outside of Japan. The Nintendo of America president asked for help from the Nintendo CEO to come up with a game that could use Radar Scopes existing hardware as they had a surplus of cabinets which were just not selling. The CEO chose a design submitted by Miyamoto and the Radar Scope cabinets were converted to a new game. That game was Donkey Kong. It's even more impressive to note that Miyamoto's design was limited to what the Radar Scope hardware was capable of. It's no surprise then that Miyamoto went onto to become one of the greatest game's designers of all time.

Number 28 - Tron - 1982, Bally Midway

Based on the movie of the same name. The video game earned more money than the movies initial release. Controls consisted of an 8-way joystick for moving, with one button for firing or speed control, and a rotary dial for controlling the direction of the fire. It was fairly innovative but if truth be told the only reason I played this game was because I was a fan of the movie. Other than that it didn't really have that much going for it. Although I did like the music.

Number 27 - Gorf - 1981, Midway

This game stole so much from other video games but when these elements were put together as a whole they seemed to work quite well. There was a Space Invaders style level, a Galaxians style level, a level where the aliens had long lasers, a level similar to a tube shooter and a mothership level. It was the first game to feature multiple stages of enemies and also one of the first with speech synthesis. One unique feature was that it allowed players to buy extra lives before even starting the game.

Number 26 - Qix - 1981, Taito

I remember having to cross my arms to play this game comfortably as the joystick was on the right and buttons on the left. This game is said to be the inspiration for a new area-filling genre of video game. You controlled a cursor and had to draw lines to fill areas of the screen in colour whilst avoiding the Qix, pronounced Kicks. This game became popular very quickly but declined in popularity just as quick soon after because, some have said, it was conceptually too mystifying for many gamers.

Number 25 - Q*Bert - 1982, Gottlieb

I found this game fairly difficult to begin with. I committed suicide, in the game, on numerous occasions. The initial problem was getting used to the isometric 3D pyramid play area which was matched to a tilted joystick. However, once I'd figured it out this game was a joy to play. It's often compared with Japanese games of the time due to cuteness of the characters and the absence of violence. The Q*Bert character is famous for his incoherent speech synthesised curse word expressions when something bad happened. Your guess is as good as mine as to how to pronounce the word "@!#?@!". Probably better we don't find out actually.

Number 24 - Congo Bongo - 1983, Sega

This was a 3D isometric platformer that I first saw in Harry's Amusements in Derby. It had four distinctly different levels, the first which played like Donkey Kong and the last which played like Frogger. The graphics were quite nice, it was fun and easy to play but the gimmick of a 3D Donkey Kong wore off quite quickly. I think I was disappointed that it only had four levels. I wanted more. After all Donkey Kong had four stages and that was two years earlier. Still it was fun to play while it lasted.

Number 23 - Juno First - 1983, Konami

This was one of the games I played in Harry's. It had frenetic gameplay and sound effects similar to Defender, but not nearly as difficult. Even the ships laser looked remarkably similar to the one in Defender. The playing area scrolled up and down rather than left and right. The games appearance was a lot like the Nintendo Radar Scope game. I remember something about chasing a snowman in this game to get bonus points. It was an enjoyable shoot'em'up.

Number 22 - Gyruss - 1983, Konami

Yet another game I remember playing in Harry's. It's one of the few examples of a 'tube shooter'. The memorable stereo music was outstanding and incredibly catchy. It was like a cross between Galaga and Tempest. But there was no tube to speak of, just a star field. The game was quite easy as the enemies usually appeared in predictable patterns. Having said that I never actually managed to get back to Earth which was the aim of the game.

Number 21 - Missile Command - 1980, Atari

So this is what world war three would look like. This subject matter was no joke in the early eighties but it made for an entertaining video game. It was one of the first games I saw to use a trackball, besides an earlier black and white basketball game that I'd seen. The graphics were simple but effective. Apparently the programmer of the game had nightmares of nearby cities being destroyed during a nuclear strike even after the game has been finished. Poor bloke.

Number 20 - Rally-X - 1980, Namco

I remember this game well. Driving a car around a scrolling maze, which was several screens in size, avoiding other cars and collecting flags. I think I first played it in Showboat Amusements in Derby. It was the first game to have background music and the first to feature a bonus round too. Another feature that this game was one of the first to employ was a radar which showed the locations of other cars and flags on the objects on the map.

Number 19 - Pacland - 1984, Namco

This took the Pacman franchise an implemented it into a side scrolling platform style game. It was one of the first games to use parallax scrolling and used character graphics based on designs used in the Pacman cartoon TV show. The joystick had some kind of inertia control as Pacman could run and different speeds and would not come to a dead stop if running too fast. I wasn't great at this game but it's charm kept me coming back for more.

Number 18 - Space Invaders - 1978, Taito / Bally Midway

The game that began the Golden Age of Video games and helped build up video games from a minor novelty to a phenomenal worldwide industry. I still remember going to the arcade to play pinball and all of a sudden seeing rows and rows of these things all occupied by teenagers staring hypnotically at the screens with their faces showing as much personality as the invaders themselves. The pixelated invader has become a pop culture icon and is often used to represent video games as a whole such is the importance of this game.

Number 17 - UniWars - 1980, Irem

I found this game in a fish and chip shop after I was invited to go on holiday with a good friend to Padstow in Cornwall. It featured four distinct levels of play, the most memorable being when the aliens drop down spear wielding soldiers beneath the dotted line that the players ship moves along. Every now and then the soldiers would stick a spear up through the gaps in the line which would destroy the players ship on contact.

I remember the fire button getting extremely hot and uncomfortable to use due to the light bulb beneath it giving off way too much heat. It became torture after a while but we stuck with it as the game was so addictive and to not look like a wimp.

Number 16 - Asteroids - 1979, Atari

This game was quite hypnotic when I first saw it in the Showboat Amusements in Derby. It looked different to the other games. Everything looked so smooth on the vector display. The high image quality allowed precise aiming of your missiles. The idea of splitting asteroids was truly innovative as was the aforementioned vector display. This is Atari's best selling game of all time. It was also the first to track high scores on a high score table. It was at this point that I changed my name from John to JON, just for arcade purposes of course.

Number 15 - Scramble - 1981, Konami / Stern

This was the first one direction scrolling shooter with forced scrolling and distinct levels. The first level was quite easy but I always used to get stuck on the second level with the UFO's flying up and down. Got me almost every time but pushed me to hone my skills and get to the later levels.

Number 14 - Donkey Kong - 1981, Nintendo

This was the game that introduced the world to Mario and Donkey Kong. It was the first video game with a story line and the first platform game which allowed the player to jump. It was also the second video game to feature multiple stages. I didn't play this game a whole lot as I preferred shoot'em'ups but I played it enough to get to what I thought was the end of the game only for it to restart at the first stage albeit with quicker and more dangerous enemies and obstacles. The game is a classic so it
has to be in the list.

Number 13 - Battlezone - 1980, Atari

I first saw this scary looking thing on holiday in Chapel St Leonards. In actual fact I may have seen it before then but was apprehensive about playing it as it did not look like a normal arcade game. It looked very serious. Once I fathomed out the controls and peeked through the Periscope viewer I realised it was a simple 3D wireframe tank combat game. There were two joysticks, one for each tank track and a fire button on one of the sticks. You could say that the periscope viewer made this the first virtual reality arcade game as you couldn't see anything else bar the screen. I found myself so engrossed in this game that when the enemy shell hit and the cracked screen graphic appeared I jumped back from the periscope. Great game.

Number 12 - Astro Blaster - 1981, Sega

I remember this well as I walked past it and it said to me "Fighter pilots needed in sector Astro Blaster!". One of the first games with speech synthesis got my attention immediately. It turned out to be a regular multi-wave shoot'em'up but the graphics and sound were so polished. I still can't believe this game is from 1981.

Number 11 - Tempest - 1981, Atari

I first tried this out at Spondon fair. It was unusual looking and one of the earliest 'tube shooter' type video games. It was the first to feature different levels where the levels themselves varied and also one of the first to offer selectable levels of difficulty. Earlier levels could be skipped. The way the enemies moved and other features such as the spikes left behind which you had to avoid at the end of each level were extremely innovative at the time.

Number 10 - Track and Field - 1983, Konami

One of the best sports games in the arcade. First came across this at Spondon fair too. It had simple game play controls based on repeated button bashing which setup the basics of this genre for years. Most of the stages involved bashing two buttons for running and then pressing a third button to jump or throw something. The controls were frequently damaged as players used various ideas such as using a coin, a golf ball or a metal ruler to increase the speed at which the controls could be pressed. Later versions had modifications such as the introduction of a trackball control to minimise the damage.

Number 9 - Marble Madness - 1984, Atari

Another game which used a trackball to good effect. I first saw it on holiday in Chapel St Leonards. It was one of the first games to use the Atari System 1 hardware and feature true stereo sound. It had a memorable musical score and gorgeous isometric 3D graphics which reminded me of the graphic art of M.C.Escher. I found it frustratingly difficult but addictive at the same time. It was one of those games which was just as good to watch someone else play.

Number 8 - Pacman - 1980, Namco/Midway

Another early ground breaking video game which created a new genre that appealed to both genders. It was the first video game to feature power ups and cut scenes and it also has the highest brand awareness of any video game character ever and that includes Mario. It is one of the highest-grossing video games of all time. It's difficult to remember where I first saw it because it was everywhere but I do remember buying a fantastic little book which described how to beat each level along with a picture of the route to take. Apparently the game crashes after level 255 but I wouldn't know as unsurprisingly I never got anywhere near it. I was far better at shoot'em'ups.

Number 7 - Defender - 1981, Williams Electronics

I remember the first time I watched someone play this game and it scared me. It looked so complicated and difficult. In actual fact it is one of the most difficult video games ever developed such was its blistering pace. But the audio and visual aspects of the game were mesmerising so I pushed myself to at least attempt to play it. Even when you die you're treated to a spectacular visual feast of a huge firecracker style explosion. The controls consisted of an up and down joystick and five buttons. Fire, Thrust, Reverse, Smart Bomb and Hyperspace. It was the first game to allow controlled scrolling in either direction and had many innovative ideas such as the catch and rescue of humanoids concept. It's a bona fide classic and I would have played it a lot more if it wasn't so damned difficult.

Number 6 - Gauntlet - 1985, Atari

I found this in Chapel St Leonards whilst on holiday. It was one of the first four player dungeon crawler style arcade games but unfortunately I had to make do with the solo experience of it whilst on holiday as not many other people seemed interested in it or interested in playing alongside a geek like me. But it did allow me ample time to try out each of the four playable characters in the game. Players had a health meter instead of lives. You could top up this health meter during the game as well as right after the player had died. This was the first game to use a voice synthesiser chip and it made good use of it with it's commentary of the game. I had much more fun with this game when I played it with three other friends in college. It added a whole new dimension to the game as well as a lot of arguments.

Number 5 - Phoenix - 1980, Amstar / Centuri / Taito

I remember seeing this game being introduced as the next big arcade game on the TV news. So I was really happy when I got the chance to play it and I wasn't disappointed. The music was great. The sound effects were original. It was difficult to find a complete pattern with the enemies. A lot of randomness seemed to have been thrown in and this made the enemies highly unpredictable. But if you got past the first four phases you were treated to a battle with the alien mother ship, one of the very first arcade game 'bosses' which was featured before the phrase was even invented.

Number 4 - Star Wars - 1983, Atari

I first played this at Spondon fair, the sit down cockpit version with speakers located behind your ears. It was one of the original first person space simulators with 3D colour vector graphics and featured digitized samples of the actors voices from the movie. The control was a yoke with four buttons which fired lasers from the four tips of the X-Wings wings. It was so immersive that I began to imagine I was part of the movie itself. An awesome game.

Number 3 - Crossbow - 1983, Exidy

I first saw this game in an arcade in Chapel St Leonards. I hadn't seen a game like this before. It was a shooting gallery style game with a crossbow shaped light gun. The idea was that there were a number of scenes on a map that your on screen 'friends' would walk through and you had to protect them by shooting the various obstacles and creatures that appeared on the screen. The 'friends' all had distinct looks which gave them a bit of personality and made you care about them. I loved this game. It was the first to have fully digitised sound and speech and I loved that too.

Number 2 - Paperboy - 1984, Atari

I first saw this game in an arcade whilst on holiday in Chapel St Leonards. Who knew delivering newspapers could be so fun. Although some of the 'everyday' things attacking the paperboy were down right bizarre. Maybe on a paper round you saw a dog, a remote controlled car or even someone break dancing, but I doubt anyone saw the grim reaper on their route. It Used an innovative handle-bar control system which gave it an increased element of realism in fact the games theme was quite innovative in itself. It had great chilled out music and even better music on the end of level bonus time trial. Everything about this game oozed quality and it's still as enjoyable and playable today as it was all those years ago.

Number 1 - I, Robot - 1983, Atari

When I first laid eyes on this game it blew my mind. I'd never seen anything like it before. I found it in an arcade whilst on holiday at Butlins in Skegness and I played it every day for the entire holiday. It was the first game to feature filled 3D polygon graphics and also the first to offer camera control options.

I have memories of birds flying above me, sharks swimming back and forth, a ripsaw that chewed up the scenery after me, giant beach balls rolling towards me, asteroids, flying saucers, mortar bomb footballs, mini pyramids, teleports, lethal diamonds, a huge, blue rotating head in space that spat out lethal nails when it was facing me and blasting away blocks to colour everything in time to blast the giant, big brother style eyeball.

After the holiday I never saw this game ever again. Apparently it did not become very popular and therefore not that many units were sold. But I have to say that this is one of the finest arcade games I have ever played. Certainly the finest during the golden age and that's why it's my number one.

If you want to play these or other arcade video games on your computer you can download MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) and then try to find the roms for the specific games you want to play.

 The Official Site of MAME is here

Some games that didn't make my Top 30 but are also worth playing are Galaxians, Frogger, Centipede, Amidar, Galaga, Burger Time, Dig Dug, Ms. Pacman, Spyhunter, 1942 and Monaco GP. If you feel I've missed out any games from the golden age that deserve a mention feel free to let me know.


  1. i think you forgot this game.
    moon cresta

    1. Yeah, It's one of the hundreds I missed as couldn't fit them all into a Top 30. If I ever get time to do a Top 100 it'll definitely be included :)