One of the elements of gaming I find most fascinating are older arcade games. In particular, I love playing games from the “Golden Age” of arcade games in the early 80s and even the games that came from the aftermath of that era. With gaming still in its infancy, companies still tried to come up with new concepts and styles of play, despite the fact the arcade industry was making money hand over foot. While this did lead to some convoluted, confusing, and just flat-out not fun games, it also led to some true masterpieces that I can still play the heck out of anytime I come across them.
And this week, I'm gonna rank my favorite 80s arcade games.
#8 - Mappy
In Mappy, you play as a police mouse with a mission to retrieve stolen items in a mansion full of cats. Usually, this will consist of multiple small cats and one large cat. The large cat likes to hide behind some of the stolen items (bonus points are awarded if you grab an item while the cat is still hiding behind it). Collect all of the stolen items in a level and you'll move on to the next level. There are multiple floors in each level, with trampolines being the mode of transportation between floors; you'll be able to move to these floors when jumping upwards, but not when moving down. However, the cats can also use these. Fortunately, you are mostly invulnerable when jumping on a trampoline (with the exception of one enemy that spawns when a player spends too much time on one stage), as the cats will pass right through. However, each trampoline has a certain amount of strength to it (noted by color), and breaking through the trampoline will cause Mappy to fall through the floor and lose a life. There are also doors that send sonic waves that can knock out any cats on Mappy's trail.
Mappy is one of those arcade games that are just on the edge of being too confusing. In fact, the first time you play this game, you'll likely not know what's going on, even if you were to play it after reading the previous paragraph. However, I always felt it was one of Namco's less appreciated arcade classics. Sure it doesn't deserve to be in the rarified air of other Namco games (I'll hit on a few of those soon), it's definitely fun and frantic once you get the hang of it. Add to it one of the most tense bonus games in any classic arcade game, where knowing how to intentionally break trampolines becomes vital in order to complete the stage on time (and in later levels to throw of the timing of the cats) and you've got a game that's a blast from the second you hit start all the way to the end. Mappy ended up serving as a mild success for Namco, and even led to a spinoff NES game, “Mappy Land”, which is quite the cheap hidden gem if I do say so myself.
#7 - Dragon's Lair/Space Ace
I'm lumping these two together as really, the preference of one over the other truly comes down to which genre/story you'd prefer; a tale of knights and princesses or of sci-fi and aliens.
In a time where game graphics were still well into their infancy, Cinematronics dropped this game in the arcades, powered by a laserdisc. While I wasn't around when this game came out, I remember coming across it a few years ago on a trip to the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Chicago, Illinois. Even in the current day and age, it's jarring to see simple sprite-based graphics and then have your eyes catch a fairly-well animated cartoon inside of an arcade cabinet. Don Bluth was responsible for the animation in both of these games, and while some might find his art style unworthy of high praise, I'd say it's undeniably more eye-catching than any other game that was around at that time.
It is worth mentioning that using a laserdisc forced the gameplay to be pretty simple. Dirk the Daring has entered the lair of the evil dragon Singe attempting to rescue the fair (and rather scantily clad) Princess Daphne. The gameplay consists of little more than reacting in time to button prompts when the laserdisc film demands it, resulting in either moving on or Dirk's death, depending on successful entry of the prompt. Other than Dirk's entry into the castle and the final battle against Singe, the rest of the scenes play out in random order, in order to encourage repeat playthroughs. Sometimes, scenes would be played mirrored in order to throw a player off.
Space Ace plays out in a similar manner, with Dexter attempting to save the Earth from Commander Borf, who intends on using his “Infanto-Ray” to turn the citizens of Earth into infants as well as kidnapping Dexter's sidekick, Kimberly. There are a few extra wrinkles thrown into the gameplay. An option to “energize” turns Dexter into a buff hero named “Ace” for a short period of time. Choosing to “energize” or not isn't necessarily cause for death, so foregoing the transformation can lead to an alternate resolution for the stage.
Even in the current age age where many gamers are weary of “graphics over gameplay”, it's hard not to see that this was a game that was so far ahead on graphics that it became pretty successful despite its rudimentary gameplay. It's pretty easy to access this game nowadays, with multiple digital versions on consoles and even mobile. Just...watch out about playing any NES/SNES ports of these games.
#6 - Spy Hunter
Technically the only Midway entry on this list (I am of the belief that they never truly hit their stride until the 1990s), Spy Hunter was a top-down game in which you steered a transforming car loaded to the brim with weapons. Heavily inspired by James Bond (in fact, in development the game contained the James Bond theme upon startup, but was swapped for a rendition of the Peter Gunn theme when the price tag was too high for permission to use the song). Players were encouraged to wreck enemy vehicles using a vast array of weapons, such as machine guns, missiles, and oil slicks. If you got into a decent groove in this game, it was hard to be stopped. But if you didn't fall into that groove quickly, the game had little forgiveness for you.
The game was released in two styles, a standup version which was the most widely available version of the game, and a much-less common sitdown version. Both versions required controlling the car via a steering wheel (an advantage the original arcade version has over ports even to this day, controlling the car via a d-pad or joystick just doesn't stack up), with buttons included for each weapon (and even lights that would tell the player which weapons were ready) as well as a stick shift for low and high speeds.
The Spy Hunter series would go on to enjoy a resurgence in the early 2000s when a 3D remake of Spy Hunter was released to positive reviews on the Playstation 2, X-Box, and Gamecube (with the PS2 version receiving noticeably higher marks than the other two consoles). It even led to a major motion picture, starring a post-WWE but not yet in his acting stride Dwayne Johnson. I never did get around to playing the early 00s re-make. Maybe I'll get to that someday.
#5 - Donkey Kong Jr.
I'm sure Donkey Kong needs no introduction. It was Nintendo's first truly blockbuster arcade game, and was the genesis of the definitive videogame personality in Mario.
Yet I'm gonna go with Donkey Kong Jr. on this one.
In a move that's still almost never seen by Nintendo even today, Donkey Kong Jr. placed Mario in the antagonist position. You play as Donkey Kong Jr. a child ape trying to rescue his father from Mario, who has captured Donkey Kong. DK Jr. is able to climb vines slowly, but can grab two of them simultaneously and climb much faster (though he can climb down even quicker when holding just one vine). Mario sends a much more varied lineup of enemies compared to the original Donkey Kong, leading to much more varied and fun levels. The final stage in the game itself is even simple yet fun, requiring the player to push multiple keys up to DK's cage while avoiding birds swooping down onto the stage.
I always enjoyed this more than the original Donkey Kong. There were many improvements made to the levels, more ways to control the main character (even if attacking enemies was a much more difficult affair than Mario's hammer powerup), and it just played much better all the way around. It's a shame that, through all the hype the original Donkey Kong enjoyed (as well as it's resurgence in the mid 2000s as DK's high-score race raged on), Donkey Kong Jr. seems to be the red-headed stepchild. I can pass on Donkey Kong without thinking about it much, but I always gotta stop and play Donkey Kong Jr. when I see it.
Not so much Donkey Kong 3.
Even the NES ports were superior, as Donkey Kong's NES version was forced to cut the “pie factory” stage, and yet Donkey Kong Jr., with its more complex stages, had no issues containing all of its stages into cartridge form. One last stunning note is the price on these NES versions. Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., in black-box form, are both a little less common than you'd think. Donkey Kong runs around $30-35, with Jr. running just a pinch less. However, there is a much more common “Donkey Kong Classics” game, that contains the exact same ports of both Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., and it usually goes for under $20. If you have a chance to snag it at such a price, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment.
#4 - Ms. Pac-Man
Another case of a sequel improving on a gaming golden god, Ms. Pac-Man originally started as an unofficial hack of the original Pac-Man game. Officially, this game is considered a Midway release, as they had purchased the rights to the hack and had permission from Namco to distribute it themselves. It went on to become the highest grossing American released arcade game of all-time, a record that would go untouched throughout the 90s and still stands to this very day.
I'm sure the gameplay of Ms. Pac-Man needs no introduction, so I won't waste time. But it did improve on many ways to the original Pac-Man. Offering up differing maze designs seems like a simple trick, but it soon became easy to observant players how to master Pac-Man's maze for optimal gameplay, to the point that you can easily find a tutorial of such methods on YouTube from arcade gaming legend and hot-sauce hotshot Billy Mitchell. Ms. Pac-Man requires much more skill, from the changed up mazes to moving fruits that seem to move in a random pattern, compared to Pac-Man's static fruit that skilled players could always predict the appearance of and place themselves in an optimal spot.
Ms. Pac-Man, as stated before, went on to be a wild success and is available in many home-console forms, from two NES renditions to arcade-perfect ports on multiple compilations.
#3 - Galaga
While space shooters have evolved into item-littered bullet hell extravaganzas, this one will always be the definitive one to me. A game I simply cannot pass up in any arcade (I even played the “world's largest” version at the local Main Event multiple times this past weekend) or when I start up any Namco Museum containing this gem, Galaga's wave based top-down gameplay is unmatched.
With waves that become much measurably tougher from stage to stage, bonus stages that become button-mashing races against alien flocks, and the genius ability to sacrifice a life to potentially double-up on firepower, there's just not enough I can say about Galaga. The only reason I place it here at #3, is because I have two games that I believe push the boundary even further.
Multiple renditions of Galaga exist, from whittled-down versions on the NES to arcade-perfect ports on multiple Namco Museum collections, and even versions that built on the gameplay in brilliant ways in Galaga 88 and 90. There also exist themed versions of Galaga on mobile, with their own little wrinkles on how the game is played.
If somehow, you've never played this, you owe it to yourself to try out the king of the top-down shooter genre.
#2 - OutRun
The only Sega entry on this list (again, if this was a 90s list, it would pretty much be a tribute to Sega and Midway), it's hard to imagine where Sega and videogaming would be if OutRun had been a flop. While Sega wasn't in the doldrums so to speak, OutRun took them to a whole nother level. One has to wonder where Sega would be, and what path gaming in general would've taken if OutRun had been a flop.
OutRun is often described by creator Yu Suzuki as a “driving” game, not a racing game. The player takes control of a Ferrari Testarossa (the inclusion of the Ferrari license has often led to issues with ports of this game in recent years) driving along the beach to start and through other noteworthy destinations. With an excellent soundtrack even by today's standards, it's easy to just zone out and enjoy the game as the road dips and climbs through the terrain, The driving feels smooth, and when you're in that zen-like zone, it's an experience few games to this day can even touch.
The game came in two stand-up forms and two sit-down forms. While the game is fantastic in stand-up form, the sit-down form (complete with a force-feedback system) is an experience any gamer owes it to themselves to partake in.
OutRun would enjoy major success and multiple sequels, many of which would work against Yu Suzuki's concept of a “driving” game over a “racing” game, eventually adding a CPU opponent in “Turbo OutRun”, and a multi-player machine-link racer in “Outrunners”.
The OutRun series would eventually make a return in grand fashion with OutRun 2 in the early-mid 2000s. But we'll get to that one next time.
#1 - Dig Dug II
Probably the ultimate offender on this list when it comes to preferring the lesser-known sequel, I freaking LOVE Dig Dug II. The original game is a classic for sure, and would likely be #3 on this list if I included it, just behind Out Run and ahead of Galaga. But Dig Dug II's strategy, fun gameplay, frantic moments, constantly changing stages, and awesome moments put it at the top of the 80s arcade list for me.
Dig Dug II takes a top-down surface perspective, unlike the original game's side view of multiple dirt/rock layers. In this game, the creatures already start on the surface of each stage's “island” and are chasing after you. Using the same air hose from the original game, you can puff them up and defeat them one by one as you could before. However, you can also use a drill attachment to rip up pieces of the island and send them into the ocean. Careful use of this can often take out multiple enemies, with it sometimes being possible to clear an entire stage's enemy roster in one strategic demolition of the island. However, care must be taken as it is possible to throw yourself off the island, resulting in a lost life and sometimes the even worse offense of giving the enemies a clear lane at you, which can take multiple lives away.
Dig Dug II isn't widely available in arcades. I've never actually played an authentic Dig Dug II machine. Usually I end up playing this on a multi-cade that includes the game. But I can't help myself when I come across it. I always gotta play it. I'm sure if I tried to take a more critical approach to this game, I'd count more flaws than some of Namco's more classic games like Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man, or other gems like OutRun or Donkey Kong Jr. But, for the joy of knocking out an entire stage of enemies, of running through the island hoping not to get cut off by enemies ala Pac-Man, and each level presenting a brand new island, this game takes the top spot.