The 80s was the early wild west era of arcade gaming that led to the birth of some of the best titles to date. Developers were just sinking their teeth into designing and coding games, experimenting with a host of concepts and ideas that would later serve as the foundation for today’s gaming landscape.
Though many rough prototypes and concepts were seemingly popping up all the time, the early years of 80s arcade games saw the release of some seminal titles. The best 80s classic arcade games is a topic we could debate on forever, but here’s our list, going year by year.
Best 80s Classic Arcade Games, 1980 – Pac-Man
When thinking of classic arcade games, there’s no doubt that Pac-Man springs to mind. While its simple design and challenging gameplay were notable, the power-ups that significantly changed the titular character’s capabilities was the feature that put it on the map.
The original Pac-Man arcade game is over 40 years old and hasn’t lost it’s charm at all.
Pac-Man was designed and developed by Toru Iwatani, who originally had no training as a programmer when he joined Namco in 1977. He wanted to balance out the dominance of the more aggressive arcade titles like Space Invaders by designing a game that “everyone could enjoy.” Legend has it that he came up with the concept of the yellow chomper from a partially eaten pizza. However, he later went on record stating it was based on the Japanese kanji for mouth.
Besides for a series of arcade games, arcade ports, and unique console games, Pac-Man starred in his own video games and even a Pac-Man TV show at one point. Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-man both have their place in gaming history as some of the best 80s classic arcade games ever released.
Best Arcade Game of 1981 – Donkey Kong
Mario may be the more popular character, but it was, in fact, the arcade game Donkey Kong that came first. An addictive and challenging platformer inspired by King Kong, it’s considered one of the pinnacles of arcade gaming skills.
The fact that people worldwide are still trying to beat the Donkey Kong world record scores to this day is a testament to the arcade game’s notoriety. Though Mario did make his debut via this genre-defining title, he was initially called Jumpman, and instead of a plumber, he was a landlord.
If you like Donkey Kong and documentaries, check out the King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
Best 80s Classic Arcade Games, 1982 – Pole Position
Two years after the release of Pac-Man, Namco designer Iwatani went on to make another paradigm-shifting arcade title called Pole Position. It was one of the first arcade games to make use of a cabinet with a steering wheel and gas pedal, leading to many arcade-goers lining up to have a go.
When you entered an arcade in the early 80s, you knew if they had Pole Position there just based on where all the regulars were crowding. Pole Position may not stand up to today’s racing games, but in the 80s, it dominated the arcades as the best classic arcade game in the racing genre.
You can also credit this Pole Position for introducing product placement in video games. It included billboards of brands such as Pepsi and Canon, as well as other Namco properties like Dig Dug that occasionally appeared as you zoomed across the tracks.
Best 80s Classic Arcade Games, 1983 – Vs. Baseball
The 80s were a period of experimentation for arcade gaming, with sports games being a prime guinea pig. Baseball, in particular, felt like a game that could translate nicely into the digital realm and Nintendo proved this to be true when they released Vs. Baseball.
Initially intended for the NES under the simple title Baseball, it incorporated all aspects of the sport but did a much better job emulating the batting phase.
When launched on arcades as Vs. Baseball, the game had higher fidelity graphics, and the port also included voice lines that were absent from the console version. The father of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, oversaw the project, including its gameplay and character design.
Best 80s Classic Arcade Games, 1984 – Tetris
When talking about popular classic games, no title was as heavily ported as Tetris. The block-based puzzler combined mental agility with problem-solving in a way that no other game was able to match at the time. It was designed by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov.
He built the game out of pure fascination with the medium and lacked any profit motive. The entire concept of Tetris was borne out of Alexey’s desire to make a puzzle game based on shapes. He took direct inspiration from his favorite wooden puzzle game called Pentominoes, replicating most of the block shapes to create his own digital version.
Tetris was ported to the Nintendo and was a major staple in Nintendo GameBoy’s release. I remember my Grandmother had a GameBoy, specifically for playing Tetris – she didn’t own or play any other games. When we’d visit her, we’d sometimes go to Boomers Arcade in Florida and look for a classic Tetris arcade cabinet to play.
Which are the Best Arcade Games of the Early 80s?
Our picks for this list include some of the most memorable games of the early 80s arcade era. Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Tetris all laid the foundation for staple genres that have iterated on their base concepts for over four decades. Pole Position made a big impression with its simulator-like cabinets, while Vs. Baseball stood as a blueprint for sports game design.
But, everyone has their own fond memories so let us know in the comments which do you think are the best arcade games of the early 80s.