The 80s was an age of experimentation for arcade games, with its later years giving birth to some of the most notable titles of the decade. As cabinet technology evolved and developer thinking matured, the titles that occupied cabinets between 1985 and 1989 looked and played more polished than anything else that came before them.
Best Arcade Game of 1985 – Ghosts’n Goblins
When it comes to challenging video games, no title comes close to the Ghosts’n Goblins arcade game. In a time when side-scrolling platformers were cute and colorful, this Capcom developed newcomer took a completely different route. Where other games preferred to keep their comedy lighthearted, designer Tokuro Fujiwara swayed his brainchild into darker humor territory.
The Ghosts’n Goblins arcade game is brutally challenging in every sense of the word. Protagonist knight Arthur could only last two hits, the first stripping him down to his boxers, exposing him to killing blows. This cruel design forced players to shoot for perfect level runs to preserve their inventory as some weapons were markedly more useful than others.
If you ever played Ghosts’n Goblins at the arcade, you probably remember this machine eating quarter after quarter. I remember playing Ghosts’n Goblins at Fun Spot New Hampshire.
Best Arcade Game of 1986 – Out Run
Three years after the release of motorbike racer Hang On, Sega went on to release what would be known as one of the greatest racing games of all time. Out Run was designed by superstar designer Yu Suzuki, also known for the shooter Space Harrier.
His task was to release a racing game that would take on the hyper-successful Pole Position series by Namco. The Japanese game designer’s source of inspiration was the film The Cannonball Run. Out Run’s graphics did not disappoint and the soundtrack for Out Run stands the test of time.
What made Out Run such a big hit wasn’t just the hydraulic cabinets that moved with the action; it was its undeniable style. Everything about the game is designed to make you smile and feel cool. From the signature red Ferrari to the blonde sitting next to you to the upbeat 80s synth-rock tracks, Yu Suzuki’s primary goal was to make a game that made 80s arcade goers feel awesome, and Out Run definitely delivers!
People are still talking about Out Run in 2022 and if you’re lucky enough, you might find a driving Out Run arcade cabinet for less than $500.
Best Arcade Game of 1987 – Street Fighter
Few video game series have the pedigree the Street Fighter series has, but did you know that its original outing wasn’t that great?
Originally named after the American title of a violent Japanese film, Street Fighter’s first incarnation wanted to change the landscape of beat-’em-ups. It was the first game to introduce directional motions for executing special attacks. However, these were purposely designed to be extremely hard to pull off, requiring frustrating levels of pinpoint precision.
On top of that, the only playable character was the legendary world warrior Ryu, with Ken only being available for a second player to fight against. Another fun fact is that Street Fighter could also be played on a deluxe cabinet with pressure-sensitive rubber “punch pads”.
Depending on how hard players pressed these, they would get light, medium, or heavy versions of attacks. The Street Fighter franchise went on to create a series of sequels and is still releasing new titles as of 2022.
Best Arcade Game of 1988 – Splatterhouse
Many might credit the rise of gory games to Mortal Kombat, but Splatterhouse also deserves some acknowledgment. A side-scrolling horror beat-’em-up, this bloody title delivered on its name with buckets of blood splattering with every enemy killed.
In this monument to vintage 80s horror films, you play as Rick who’s trying to get his girlfriend back. On his face, he wears the Terror Mask, which gives him monstrous strength. With various weapons, players can lead Rick through numerous corridors, decimating waves of enemies, splattering their lifeless bodies all over the place.
As a testament to its levels of violence, Splatterhouse was the first game to feature a parental warning. It was also one of the first games to be censored for its home release due to religious imagery.
Best Arcade Game of 1989 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (4-Player)
Arcade going in the 80s was all about hanging out with your friends to play some video games, and no title embodied that ideal more than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up full of vibrant color and tubular tracks, it was released during the height of the cartoon’s popularity.
After selecting your favorite ninja turtle, you stroll through familiar locations in New York City to lay waste to the Foot Clan and take on villains the likes of The Shredder and Krang. What made this cabinet so special was that it had enough joysticks and buttons to support up to four players simultaneously, enabling all four turtles to be on screen laying the beatdown.
Which are the Best Arcade Games of the Late 80s?
The late 80s arcade days were definitely the time beat-’em-ups started gaining tremendous traction. Street Fighter’s legacy is well-known, and Splatterhouse laid some of the groundwork for violence in games.
The arcade version of TMNT was also the predecessor to the critically acclaimed SNES title, Turtles in Time. Both Out Run and Ghosts ‘n Goblins gained notoriety by going against the grain of their respective genres as well.
Let us know what you think of our picks and which are your favorite late 80s arcade games in the comments below.