The 90s was a standout decade for arcade games, with the early years seeing some of the most significant releases of all time. As the new era dawned, core design ideas and development pipelines had fully matured. Even new technologies began to emerge, including the use of 3D polygonal graphics.
Best Arcade Game of 1990 – Smash TV
We take twin-stick top-down shooters for granted these days, but in 1990 it was something entirely new. Smash TV was the first arcade cabinet title to give you two sticks to control your character and shoot in all directions.
What placed the Smash TV as the best arcade game of 1990 was its adrenaline-fueled gameplay, with waves upon waves of enemies filling the screen for players to eradicate in a frenzy of bullets.
Power-ups were frequently scattered around each level, enabling different forms of carnage. It was also known for its cheesy announcer quotes, including a reference to the famous “I’d buy that for a dollar” catchphrase from Robocop.
Best Arcade Game of 1991 – The Simpsons Arcade
In an attempt to recreate the success of the 4-player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, Konami released The Simpsons in the early 90s.
Like its spiritual predecessor, The Simpsons was a spectacle of bright colors and high-octane beat-’em-up action. Its most well-known innovation was the team attack, which allowed two characters to unleash a powerful move together. This special attack would differ depending on which two of the Simpsons were teaming up.
The Japanese version of The Simpsons Arcade included a nuclear bomb attack that cleared the stage of all enemies. In addition, the original voice actors reprised their roles for the production of The Simpsons Arcade.
Best Arcade Game of 1992 – Street Fighter II: Champion Edition
Street Fighter II is a genre-defining title that put fighting games squarely on the arcade gaming map. Though World Warrior in 1991 was the original release of this legendary title, 1992’s Champion Edition stands out slightly more because of the improvements it brought to the table. For one, it allowed for the four bosses, Bison, Balrog, Vega, and Sagat, to be playable.
Though they were significantly toned down, they were still considered stronger characters than the base roster. Ryu and Co also saw several changes, marking Champion Edition as the first-ever fighting game title to make balance updates to its cast.
On top of all this, this version of Street Fighter II was the first to introduce mirror matches, allowing both players to select the same fighter. The Street Fighter series held on to Street Fighter II for a long time, releasing several additional versions of the game, including another 4 fighters in the 1993 version of Street Fighter II, called Super Street Fighter II.
Best Arcade Game of 1993 – Daytona USA
Racing games were some of the most popular cabinets in the early arcade era, and Sega’s Daytona USA was definitely up there with the greats. Its visuals employed 3D polygonal graphics, which were still in heavy experimentation stages at the time. What the developers achieved despite the maturity level of the technology was nothing short of remarkable because
Daytona USA was a stunning game and employed an adaptive difficulty system that measured players’ skills during the first lap and then changed up the AI’s capabilities accordingly.
Daytona USA was one of the first arcade games to use realistic physics to emulate actual driving, allowing for mechanics like drifting to be possible: a revolutionary addition for arcade racing games, setting it apart from similar racing games.
Anytime we’d travel to the lake’s region in New Hampshire, we’d stop by Funspot and play Daytona USA. They were one of the few arcades that I ever went to that had an 8 player (4, 2-car arcade cabinets) Daytona USA setup.
Best Arcade Game of 1994 – Tekken
At the height of 3D polygon experimentation came the birth of what is now one of the greatest arcade franchises in history. The original Tekken was a title, unlike anything that came before it, with the exception of Virtua Fighter.
Instead of using Street Fighter 2’s signature special attacks, Tekken aimed to emulate real martial arts by allowing players to employ various techniques and combos. At the same time, Tekken maintained the arcade feel through its simple execution and fast-paced gameplay.
Furthermore, Tekken was the first fighting game title to prominently feature grounded gameplay, enabling players to rise with an attack and strike enemies in a grounded state.
Which are the Best Arcade Games of the Early 90s?
The early 90s arcades were filled to the brim with some of the greatest video games of all time. Fighting games were at the beginning stages of their heyday, with Street Fighter II: Champion Edition and Tekken leading the charge.
Smash TV pioneered dual-stick gameplay and what we now call “horde mode” in shooting games. NBA Jam broke the shackles of its space, redefining what it means to design a sports game. Finally, The Simpsons Arcade innovated the beat-’em-up space with fresh mechanics.
But this is just our list. Let us know in the comments which do you feel are the best early 90s arcade titles.