The birthplace of all modern video gaming, the dimly lit, chirruping dens of arcade cabinets were wondrous places to intrepid gamers.
We're celebrating 50 Years of Games in conjunction with the Golden Joystick Awards 2021, the world's biggest public-voted games awards show. This year's show will celebrate a milestone in gaming history, the release of Computer Space, the world's first commercial arcade machine in November 1971. And we'll be looking for your votes on the best console of all time (starting 3PM GMT, November 8).
In their heyday they offered gaming experiences that couldn’t be had elsewhere – whether that was in the days that pre-dated the home console revolution, or the long stretches where purpose-built arcade machines far outshined the capabilities of their living room brethren.
With console dominance firmly cemented in this day and age, the arcade’s glory days are long behind it. We do have a best PS5 games for the new generation. But with its menagerie of influential titles, bizarre peripherals and gaming firsts, the arcade is still an insanely fun place to visit when you can track a good one down – and have a pocket full of change handy.
So join TechRadar on a trip down memory lane as we run down (in no particular order) the 50 best arcade games of all time.
- Vote for your Ultimate Game of All Time and Best Gaming Hardware of All Time by visiting goldenjoysticks.com - voting ends on Nov 12.
Donkey Kong (1981)
- Remembered for: It’s a-him, Mario, making his debut!
Love Mario? Then you owe it to the great plumber to go back and visit his first adventure, facing off the mighty Donkey Kong and his steel-girder hideout. Donkey made his debut in this puzzle-platformer too, in which Mario must jump barrels and other hazards to race to the top of the tower and save his beau. It’s a stone-cold arcade classic, and one that’s sparked many a gamer rivalry (see: the ace gaming documentary, The King of Kong).
Guitar Freaks (1998)
- Remembered for: Depriving a generation of real axe slingers
There’s a love-hate relationship with Guitar Freaks in the TechRadar office. On the one hand, Konami’s arcade hit kickstarted the plastic band fad as characterised by console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band – and there’s no post-beer game session better than slamming those Rock Band drums and wailing into its karaoke mics. However, it meant a whole generation of gamers swapped real guitars for finger slapping plastic buttons instead of maplewood neck shredding. So now we’ve got Ed Sheeran instead of Eddie Van Halen. Oh well.
Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997)
- Remembered for: Being the only good Jurassic Park game.
Lightguns, plus dinosaurs. What’s not to like? Yeah, we don’t quite remember the moment in the Jurassic Park sequel where Jeff Goldblum started running around with a handgun either. But as far as lightning-fast shooters went (at the height of the light gun craze, too) jumping into the jeep-shaped Lost World cabinet was a joy, with visuals that were at the time unmatched. It still makes us long for a proper Jurassic Park game every time we see it.
- Remembered for: Making two player games “a thing”
Sure, we’d had Pong and a handful of other two player games at this point, but Joust made that competitive action into a sport. It’s also the best game in which you play a knight riding a flying ostrich, taking on buzzard-riding dark knights. As fiendishly addictive today as it is bizarre.
- Remembered for: Perfectly marrying the concepts of Asteroids and Space Invaders
Take the wave-based space combat of Space Invaders, mix it with the deft control of Asteroids, and you’ve got something quite close to Defender. With amazing sound effects and (for the time) a wide-open scrolling battleground, Defender had layers of complexity that its Golden Age bedfellows lacked.
- Remembered for: Its excellent weapon selection (and giant hams)
Continuing in the fine tradition of games like Commando, this up-scrolling shooter boasted great co-op shoot-em up action - and a knock-off Arnie as the lead character. Ported to many consoles and computers, it landed at the height of the Hollywood obsession with testosterone-fuelled action films, and is perfect for serving up that macho, kill-anything-that-moves fix.
Ikari Warriors (1986)
- Remembered for: Its super-tough dual-stick shooting
Two mini Rambos working their way through enemy territory to the village of Ikari, Ikari Warriors had a cracking soundtrack and great co-op action, being the inspiration to many multiplayer military shooters on this list. Another spiritual successor to Commando, its limited ammo drops and 8-way directional shooting made it not for the faint of heart.
- Remembered for: Being Space Invaders… but better
...controversial, but it is! With its dive-bombing aliens, iconic sound effects and twitch-perfect arcade action, this wave shooter was a superb evolution of the idea that was birthed with Space Invaders. It also has the coolest name of any game on this list. Ever, in fact.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
- Remembered for: Its cartoon-perfect visuals and 4-player action
Licensed games, believe it or not, were once pretty damn good, and Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was among the best of the bunch. Pitting the four amphibious heroes against their cartoon foes, it had a versatile combo system and a groundbreaking 4-player mode that let a whole gang of pals take on Shredder and the Foot Clan. Cowabunga!
The Simpsons (1991)
- Remembered for: Errm… its cartoon-perfect visuals and 4-player action
See a theme developing here? Just like its Turtles game, Konami took a great license with The Simpsons and turned into a 4-player beat ’em up, letting you and your chums duke it out as Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa on a quest to save Maggie. It had hilarious animations that were a good match for the cartoon visuals, and it was bloody tough, too. No arcade visit was complete without a few coins going into this machine.
- Remembered for: Let's see… Its cartoon-perfect visuals and… AHA! 6 PLAYER ACTION!
With X-Men, Konami perfected the art it started with Turtles and The Simpsons. Letting not one, not two, but SIX players take on Magneto’s gang as a full complement of X-Men heroes, this premium cabinet was a sight to behold, packing in two screens to accommodate a full complement of six simultaneous players. It wasn’t a bad beat ’em up either, with giant sprites, ass-kicking combos and a risk/reward life-draining power-up system.
Golden Axe (1989)
- Remembered for: Its ace magic powers (and meta ending)
A fantasy hack-and-slash with tons of charm, SEGA’s Golden Axe is a masterclass in co-op, sword-swinging ass kicking. With three memorable heroes, each with their own unique magical powerups, and great levels that included battling skeleton warriors on the back of a giant flying eagle, Golden Axe’s world will stick long in the mind, even if its side-scrolling battles are relatively formulaic. For those that have never seen it, I won’t spoil its ending, but Golden Axe’s final post-win scenes were the arcade gaming equivalent of Inception.
Ms. Pac-Man (1981)
- Remembered for: Showing Mr Pac-Man how it’s done
Pac-Man may take the cultural limelight, but it’s Ms. Pac-Man that was actually the better game. With more maze types, randomised ghost movement and flexible warp paths, it was a fairer game with more fun than its predecessor. However, it’s also frustratingly tough to reach the final ‘kill screen’ - the point from which the game cannot continue. Bugs and glitches mean that emulation is the only way to truly finish Ms. Pac-Man.
- Remembered for: Does this really need an introduction?
Though it’s often wrongly considered the first video game (that contentious accolade should probably be reserved for Computer Space), Pong may well be the most famous video game of all time, and was certainly the most important in terms of popularising the format. A simple take on table tennis, much of its success – and enduring legacy – comes from how easy it was to port Pong to the earliest of home consoles.
Sega Rally (1994)
- Remembered for: Being almost as good as the real thing
The ultimate arcade racer, Sega Rally saw Sega on fire in its golden arcade era. With force-feedback steering wheels, muddy tracks and responsive turn feedback, you knew you’d won a race by pure skill when playing Sega Rally. It’d later be ported to the Sega Saturn and other machines, though a linked arcade tournament is the way purists choose to play.
Time Crisis II (1997)
- Remembered for: Perfecting the duck-and-shoot lightgun game
Lightgun games were (and still are) hugely popular in the arcades of the 90s. But they all pretty much followed the same formula – unleash your trigger finger fast enough to prevent the baddies shooting you down. The first Time Crisis added an extra degree of strategy – a foot pedal that’d let you take cover from fire, making the shootouts all the more intense as you poked your head above the barricades for a quick popshot. Time Crisis II was the best game in the series, adding additional co-operative play that let you cover a chum taking fire.
- Remembered for: Giving you your very own space drone
The so-called “shmup” genre, or shoot ’em up, included everything from Space Invaders to modern classics like Ikaruga. But few were as inventive or memorable as R-Type. Putting you at the controls of a weapon-filled spacecraft, you’d take down waves of enemies and screen-filling bosses with the aid of an autonomous drone ally, which could be connected to the front or rear of your ship and shot off at will to deal massive damage to alien foes.
- Remembered for: SKATE OR DIE!
Long before Skate or the Tony Hawk games legitimised extreme sports on home consoles, 720° was tearing up the digital halfpipe at your local arcade. An isometric take on the sport, you had a wide map to explore, board upgrades to unlock and events to take part in. Offering a surprising amount of depth for an arcade game, it was one of the few cabinets where you were certainly able to get your money’s worth out of a single credit. Just keep an eye on that timer – dawdle too long between events and a giant hammer of death will kick you to the kerb.
After Burner (1987)
- Remembered for: Its insane spinning cockpit cabinet
They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore – presumably because health and safety would veto any blueprints for a fit-inducing shooter that straps you into a recreation of an F-14 Tomcat with a spinning chair and vertically rotating cabinet. Even if you managed to survive the Top Gun-inspired action, you’d have to work hard to keep your lunch down. Definitely worth popping a coin in at your local retro arcade - provided its seat belts are intact.
Virtua Cop 2 (1995)
- Remembered for: Its branching paths
Taking cops and robbers to the next level, Sega’s Virtua Cop 2 was one of the most advanced lightgun shooters of its day. Offering branching paths through its criminal-filled levels, it required precision shooting to succeed. Its 3D visuals were second to none, meaning that Virtua Cop 2 always drew a crowd.
House of the Dead 2 (1998)
- Remembered for: ZOMBIES!
Lightgun games are good. You know what’s better than a lightgun game? A lightgun game with zombies! Taking the Virtua Cop blueprint and giving it a gore-soaked makeover, House of the Dead 2 had crazy monsters, fast paced action and memorably hammy voice acting. It was the B-Movie king of arcades for a while, and spawned a whole flesh-eating franchise. Keep an eye out for House of the Dead 3 too, which came with uber-fun pump action shotguns.
Cho Chabudai Gaeshi! – AKA Super Table Flip (2009)
- Remembered for: Being perhaps the most bonkers arcade game, ever
Cho Chabudai Gaeshi! isn’t necessarily a great game, but it’s hard to forget thanks to its absolutely crazy concept – you have to flip a full-sized table peripheral in a fit of rage with increasing finesse. From sniper rifles (Silent Scope) to full sized racing car cabinets (many games), arcades from the late 80s onwards increasingly became places to squander your cash on outlandish wish-fulfillment, as provided by ever-more niche alternate controllers. Cho Chabudai Gaeshi! is rarely seen outside of Japan, but is a wonderful reminder of how wacky and fun the heady days of arcades could get.
Dance Dance Revolution (1998)
- Remembered for: Making you look like an idiot, probably while drunk
If you consider dancing an activity that only requires movement from the waist down, then Dance Dance Revolution (aka DDR) is for you. A modern arcade staple, it popularised the rhythm action / dance mat genre, making your feet of flames pull off increasingly complex steps as you smash out moves in time with the onscreen prompts. It’s still a sight worthy of drawing a crowd when an expert takes to the cabinet, with feet moving seemingly faster than the speed of light.
Out Run (1986)
- Remembered for: Being the coolest racer with a banging soundtrack
Games don’t come much cooler than Out Run. A Sega classic, it put you in a deluxe moving cabinet, letting you cruise through sun-soaked time trial stages to one of the classiest chiptune soundtracks of its day. It was massively influential. Count yourself particularly lucky if you ever got to play it in one of the ultra-rare, full-size Ferrari convertibles that were sometimes rolled out to promote the series.
Street Fighter 2 (1991)
- Remembered for: Being the best fighting game of all time
Yeah, we’re calling it – Street Fighter 2 is the best fighting game ever. And even if you disagree, you can’t argue against it being the most influential. From Tekken to Soul Calibur to Smash Brothers, everything that’s come after Street Fighter pays it homage in some way. From its accessible specials to its instantly-iconic cast of fighters, Street Fighter 2 set the stage for what was quickly to become a cultural phenomenon, and is as enjoyable today as it was the better part of two decades ago.
Daytona USA (1993)
- Remembered for: Its silky-smooth 8-player driving
These days even the most advanced machines struggle to maintain a solid 60fps frame rate. And while Daytona USA’s visuals seem primitive by today’s standards, its texture-mapped vehicles were mind boggling at the time, making the fact its single player races were locked in at a consistent 60fps all the more impressive. Throw 8-cabinet multiplayer into the mix, and Daytona USA rightly earns its place among the most well respected racing games of all times.
Operation Wolf (1987)
- Remembered for: Its fixed Uzi gun placements
Whether it was the influence of Rambo or the many, many Chuck Norris films of the time, the 1980s had an obsession with lone-gunner heroes liberating POWs from concentration camps barely able to conceal their ’Nam flashback nods. In poor taste or otherwise, Operation Wolf was an addictive, frenzied shooter, letting a player take on enemies via a fixed pivoting optical controller that looked remarkably like an Uzi submachine gun.
- Remembered for: Being the thinking man’s fighting game
If you liked your martial arts more Bruce Lee than Chun-Li, then Tekken was for you. Doing away with many of the excesses of the fighting game genre, it focussed on hand-to-hand combat instead of projectiles and flashy specials, letting the king of the combo seize the day. It also looked fantastic, with character models that put rival Virtua Fighter to shame.
Smash TV (1990)
- Remembered for: Being the “Running Man” of video games
Smash TV was crazy. Taking the multi-directional, twin-stick shooting idea of Robotron, it put you in the middle of an ultra-violent video game, tasking you with mowing down literally hundreds of enemies per bout. Quick reflexes and crowd control techniques were needed to beat this game, while a heavy dose of satire made you smile all the way through.
Dragon’s Lair (1983)
- Remembered for: Visuals way ahead of its time…
...but awful, awful gameplay. Unlike other games at the time, Dragon’s Lair made use of Laserdisc technology, allowing for visuals that, quite literally, looked like a Disney film, helped along by the fact that ex-Disney animator Don Bluth worked on its animations. However, it’s really more of an interactive short film than a game – and a cripplingly difficult one, to boot. Like a QTE mini-game without the on-screen button presses, you’d pop a coin in and die almost instantly for not knowing which exact frame to hit the attack button or which side of the screen to move hero Dirk the Daring too. Still, it pushed the medium forward in ways that can’t be understated, so more than earns its place here.
Crazy Taxi (1999)
- Remembered for: Its pop-punk soundtrack
“YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH”. The Offspring’s musical career was hardly a glittering one, but they still strike a nerve with gamers of a certain age for providing the majority of the soundtrack to Crazy Taxi. Ripped off by everything from Burnout to GTA, Crazy Taxi had you breaking every rule of the road while trying to make as much money ferrying passengers around as possible. Which were, incidentally, amazingly adept at avoiding being crushed beneath your motor. A great Dreamcast port and sequel followed, but it’s still a game best played with its arcade wheel.
Sunset Riders (1991)
- Remembered for: Its gun-toting wild west setting
You can count the number of good cowboy games on one hand – and three of them are Rockstar’s Red Dead titles. Another would be Konami’s classic Sunset Riders, a side-scrolling run and gun title that allowed as many as four players to take on the outlaws of the wild west. Offering eight way firing action, dastardly hidden enemies and buzzing background art, you’ll never forget the first time you run along the backs of a stampeding cattle herd.
Metal Slug (1996)
- Remembered for: Its incredible comedic warfare
Neo-Geo games were the creme de la creme of 2D sprite gaming in arcades in the mid 1990s. The attention to detail, from character animations to lush background art, was second to none. Metal Slug married that with fantastic (and darkly funny) side-scrolling shooting action too, with chunky weaponry and the eponymous Metal Slug tank letting you plough through enemy lines.
Mortal Kombat (1992)
- Remembered for: Its stomach-turning violence
Street Fighter may have mastered the one-on-one arcade fighter art, but Mortal Kombat had the guts to do things a little differently. Quite literally too – gore and viscera were liberally thrown around the screen as you knocked seven shades out of your opponents, concluding in Fatality finishing moves which saw you rip the still-beating heart out of a foe, among other unpleasant ends. Naturally, it was a smash hit, leading to an insane wave of controversy and political discourse around the moral worth of video games.
- Remembered for: Being one of the first (and best) dungeon crawlers
Without Gauntlet, you wouldn’t have Diablo, which means you wouldn’t have Borderlands or any number of click-to-kill-to-loot dungeon crawlers. Atari’s top-down fantasy adventure had you taking on the roles of Warrior, Wizard, Elf and Valkyrie for 4-player hack-and-slash action. It fiendishly let you put in extra coins to top up your health as you played too – a far more tempting offer than dumping your change at the continue screen, making this a real pocket-money eater.
- Remembered for: Teaching a generation the fatal importance of road safety.
Look left. Look right. Step into the road.
Frogger was a frighteningly addictive game about amphibian mortality, seeing you guide a frog across motorways and waterways. Revived recently on mobile as spiritual successor Crossy Road, the original is still the best.
Golden Tee Off (1989)
- Remembered for: Turning digital golfers’ hands into giant callouses
Think e-sports is a new phenomenon? Think again. Golden Tee Off, released way back in 1989, was generating big-money competitive matches way before Counter Strike or DOTA elevated the art to new heights – and it’s a friggin golf game! Golden Tee Off had a unique trick up its sleeve though – a kinetic trackball built into the cabinet that had to be rolled at speed to pitch and putt the ball. This simple interface gave it the Wii Effect, making even your non-gaming dad give it a go. A staple of the US bar circuit, the ubiquity of Golden Tee lead to nationwide, prize-money tournaments.
Bubble Bobble (1986)
- Remembered for: Having the catchiest theme tune in the arcade
Forget Horizon Zero Dawn. Heck, forget even Yoshi – if you’re looking for gaming’s best dinosaurs, look no further than Bubble Bobble’s Bub and Bob. A platformer that saw you trapping baddies in bubbles before jumping on them to send them off into oblivion, it paved the way for multiplayer titles like Towerfall Ascension. And it had a cracking theme tune too – give it a whirl on YouTube, and we challenge you to not be stuck humming it for days.
- Remembered for: Putting you in the furs / scales of Godzilla and King Kong lookalikes
When the 9-to-5 world is getting you down, the suit collar chafes and the office tower blocks are blocking out that beautiful blue sky, sometimes you just want to tear it all down, Kong-style. Rampage let you do just that. A comical take on classic monster movies, it let you scale and smash down skyscrapers, take on the army and nab tasty onlookers as a quick snack in the guise of a giant snarling beast.
Double Dragon (1987)
- Remembered for: Its ass-kicking co-op
The follow-up to the less well remembered Renegade, Double Dragon is perhaps the most famous side-scrolling brawler of all time. Playing as two martial art master brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, you stalk the mean streets laying the smackdown on nefarious gang members. It was one of the first games to let you knock a weapon from an opponent's hand and use it against them, too, adding an extra layer of strategy to encounters (as well as letting you get a cheap shot in on your co-operative partner).
Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road (1989)
- Remembered for: Its three-way wheeled face-offs
Before there was Forza Horizon, or even Sega Rally, there was Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road. A racing game with attitude, it had you racing pick up and monster trucks around hilly, jump-filled dirt tracks. It had amazing visuals (Micro Machines took a thing or two from this), while its unique stand-up cabinet let three players face off on one screen – and still have a wheel each to drive with.
Space Invaders (1978)
- Remembered for: Giving an impending sense of doom
One of the most iconic arcade games of all time, Space Invaders was also one of the most stressful. With its clever sound effects increasing in speed as the waves of alien foes moved purposefully towards your spaceships fortifications, it was a race against time to blast your foes into oblivion. Revamped and released many, many times, its memorable alien baddies are as famous as gaming itself. This is one of the all-time greats.
- Remembered for: Its 360-degree spaceship control
Asteroids gave you unprecedented control over your craft. Like a retro take on Bruce Willis’ Armageddon, you had to blast asteroids into increasingly small chunks, dodging them using your thrusters as they propelled towards you. A more advanced take on Computer Space, the godfather of games, Asteroid’s subtle controls made it a great challenge.
Star Wars (1983)
- Remembered for: Delivering the full Force of the Star Wars license
Star Wars games are 10-a-penny these days, but back in the early days of the arcade, they were an absolute rarity. The fact that, with such primitive technology, Star Wars arcade so perfectly captured the essence of the film’s Death Star trench run is an amazing feat. Using vector graphics, the speed of the X-Wing fighter was recreated amazingly, and the use of digitised voiceover work from the film helped bring the whole thing to life.
Final Furlong (1997)
- Remembered for: Testing the endurance of your inner thighs
If you think horse racing in general is cruel, spare a thought for anyone that’s ever played Final Furlong. This machine was brutal - popping you astride a giant plastic horse, you’d propel yourself forward by “geeing up” your steed, rocking manically forwards and backwards to speed the beast up. Best played with two players, the marathon-like events would last so long you wouldn’t be able to walk for a week.
Track and Field (1983)
- Remembered for: Speeding up the onslaught of carpal tunnel syndrome for an entire generation of would-be Bolts
While gaming has often been labelled as an unhealthy pastime, we ask its detractors if they’ve ever played an entry in the Track and Field series? For, if they’ve made it to the end of the 100m dash without breaking a sweat, they truly are superhuman athletes of the highest levels. An exercise in endurance as much as it as an actual game, there’s no sweeter victory than button mashing your mate into second-place submission.
Marvel vs Capcom 2 (2000)
- Remembered for: Dream match-ups between gaming and comic heroes
The finest 2D fighting game ever? It has to be up there. Marvel vs Capcom 2 allowed you to orchestrate fantasy fisticuffs between the finest heroes from Marvel’s comic universe and Capcom’s superb gaming lineage. Spiderman versus Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine? You’ve got it. The Incredible Hulk vs Chun-Li? Fight time. With it’s swap-in, swap-out team combat and screen-filling specials, you didn’t have to be a master to pull off impressive moves, either.
- Remembered for: Its wartime setting and great powerup system
1942 may not be the most realistic military shooter by today’s standards. But in an age where the space invader dominated, its WWII theme set it apart. Taking down waves of enemy fighter planes, and being rewarded with ever-more powerful weaponry for decimating squadrons, it was a great example of risk-reward gaming at its best.
Aqua Jet (1996)
- Remembered for: Letting you live out a slice of the beach lifestyle from a dingy arcade
This was a really impressive cabinet. Essentially putting a full-size jet-ski at your disposal you’d twist and rock the recreated vehicle to navigate NAMCO’s super-fast race tracks. Countering the bumps of the waves and weighty machine made for a very physical racer - and a very fun one while you waited for your actual summer holidays to begin.
Computer Space (1971)
- Remembered for: Being the one that started it all
We close things off where it all began: Computer Space, the first arcade machine ever. Year zero for gaming across the globe. Designed by Atari legend Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney (right down to its futuristically-curvy cabinet), it’s a simple precursor to Asteroids, with your spinning rocket ship taking on UFOs among a starfield. We all have these humble beginnings to thank for the entirety of arcade gaming’s history, and (to some degree) the larger field of modern console gaming, too.