Even icons fade over time. Teens grew up thinking they discovered Bohemian Rhapsody through Wayne’s World. Today’s youth are falling in love with a particular song from the series Stranger Things – only to discover that it’s actually an 80s pop classic, Running Up That Hill.
Despite the initial popularity of a piece of media, time still erodes legend. Unless it seems, you’re a video game from the golden age of arcades.
Gamers aren’t strangers to legacies and long-standing devotion. Pokemon, despite Nintendo’s insistence that it’s geared towards kids, is the domain of the 20 to 30-year-olds who grew up with the franchise. There are now 23 2K NBA games, which fans continue to flock to even amidst complaints of stagnation.
But even these household names seem young next to true arcade classics that have endured. Below are the oldest retro franchises that refuse to call it game over.
Mario, once only a spinoff character from the then more popular Donkey Kong, is now one of the gaming world’s most recognisable heroes. More people know Mario than the most famous – or infamous – politicians of our time.
One of the most popular start screens in video gaming history
Not only is Mario and his whole ensemble incredibly popular, but their franchise is one of the most prolific. The Mario IP is a veritable cash cow for Nintendo, bringing in an estimated $22 billion since its release. Now that’s a lot of gold coins.
It’s also the franchise with the most sequels. At 119 titles, Mario games are a catalogue unto themselves. Characters from the universe have appeared in every genre imaginable. There’s Mario Kart for gamers with a need for speed. Mario and Luigi even briefly trade their plumber’s cap for a chef’s hat alongside Princess Peach and Yoshi in a remade version of Game & Watch title Chef.
While its releases may not be met with as much fanfare as Mario and company, Elevator Action is one franchise that’s still climbing its way up in years. First released in 1983, the platform shooter was a commercial hit for Taito, setting sales records and hovering in the top charts in Japan and the US for months. “I found it a nice change from the normal space-age shoot-em-ups,” wrote one reviewer.
Still going up, and up, and up
Thirty-nine years later, and long after our preoccupation with ships and aliens faded into space, Elevator Action’s quirky concept continues to captivate in a way no clone has been able to replicate.
Over the years, Elevator Action has made stops on multiple platforms, including the Game Boy, PlayStation, and mobile. The latest instalment, Elevator Action Invasion, takes players back to where it all began: the arcade. Released in 2021, it puts the action in Elevator Action with a flashy arcade cabinet that features working doors and light guns.
The gaming world’s oldest pyromaniac first blasted their way onto our screens in 1983. The first Bomberman game, released in Japan, was called Bakudan Otoko. Although fairly basic, Bakudan Otoko already had many of the core elements that Bomberman fans will recognise: bombs that would blast in four directions, maze-like levels, and balloon-shaped enemies.
Behold, the original Bomberman: Eric the Archeologist
That is, everything except the eponymous hero himself. You’ll first play as Eric, an archaeologist blasting his way through stone and murderous balloons in search of treasure. It wasn’t until later releases that Bomberman took on his trademark robot form. But once the fuse was lit, there was no stopping it.
Stepping out from the maze, Bomberman has appeared in multiple spin-offs in different genres, from adorable action-adventure romps to the hilariously strange and Doom-Esque Bomberman: Act Zero. The latest offering from the franchise, released in 2020, jumps on the battle-royale wagon with the 64-player brawl that is Super Bomberman R Online.
Space Invaders, one of the first games to fly into the scene, is still around and zooming through the video gaming zeitgeist. The most astounding part about its lasting power? It has barely changed.
Space Invaders: The wave that has never stopped coming
Unlike Mario, Bomberman, or Sonic, modern Space Invaders games have largely stayed true to the original’s design and gameplay. There’s no racing game that pits pilots versus aliens, or a 3D reimagining of the galactic battlefield.
Space Invaders Gigamax, the latest release from 2018, looks like it could have been the game you played back in the late 70s and 80s. Now you’re just competing against 10 people – like everyone on the leaderboard, except in real-time.
Pac-Man and his adorable troupe of ghosts first captured hearts and coins in 1980. A refreshing breath of air amidst the shooters and sports games of the time, Pac-Man has since become a cultural icon, spawning numerous spin-offs, two TV series, a merchandise empire, and a movie with Adam Sandler.
The chomp that continues to be heard around the world
Part of Pac-Man’s enduring appeal is thanks to his better half, Ms. Pac-Man. The first Ms. Pac-Man was widely praised for being better than the original. Her popularity led to a couple of spin-offs of her own, like Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness and Ms. Pac-Man: Quest for the Golden Maze.
With the exception of the Mario Bros franchise, Pac-Man is probably the one with the largest, most active following. Pac-ManCommunity, which was exclusively released for Facebook Gaming in 2021, had six million players at one point.
Released in 1972, Pong is the oldest game on this list – and the simplest. In terms of gameplay, it doesn’t get plainer than Pong. Just hit the ball over to the opposing side, and hope the enemy paddle misses it. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Pong to retire into history as games got more complex.
Nearly half a century later, Pong gets its own damsel-in-distress
But nobody told Atari that. Games still volley back into the mainstream every once in a while. Pong: The Next Level moved to play into colourful and crazy locations. It also introduced a slew of gimmicks, such as power-ups, an arena that tilted, and a level where you have to punt the ball to a row of seals for them to juggle. The paddles also got a personality injection, now wiggling happily every time you win a match.
The latest official Pong game, Pong Quest 2020, takes things in an even more ambitious, weirder direction. Paddles are now people. You play a heroic young paddle, who’s tasked by King Pong to investigate something amiss within his kingdom. It’s ridiculous, but when you’re the grand ancestor of all video games, you can get away with pretty much anything.