The modern big budget video game is almost indistinguishable from the games of our youth. With graphics that are hyper realistic, cinematic cutscenes and plotting that is both morally intelligent and realistic. Yet nothing ever quite comes close to the feeling of afternoons whiled away in arcades, hunched over a gaming cabinet with a pocket full of coins and a highscore to beat. It is the simplicity and instant playability that is the inherent appeal of retro games after all.
If you’re anything like us here at Bitcade, booting up the classics deliver the same rush as it did decades ago when you were a kid pulling at a joystick.
Here then are some of our favourite titles to come out of the golden era that is 80s and 90s arcade machine gaming.
First published in 1984, Circus Charlie has since reached cult status, finding new life on consoles as recent as the Nintendo DS and putting a whole new generation through the lethal rigours and risks of life under the big top.
Don’t let Circus Charlie’s vibrant colours and happy clown music fool you--it’s not here to be cute. Riding on the back of lions, leaping through flaming hoops of fire, balancing on a tightrope while dodging monkeys--players are run through the same tests of dexterity as Charlie, albeit on a smaller, 8-bit scale. The original game had 6 levels, each one more difficult than the last. Plenty of complicated game mechanics are also thrown into the mix, such as jumping back through hoops for extra lives. The difficulty level and the relative novelty of the premise makes Circus Charlie a solid favourite in our arcade cabinets.
You can’t talk about retro arcade gaming without mentioning the granddaddy of all shoot ‘em up games. The original Space Invaders was simple: eliminate all 48 aliens bearing down on your little green spaceship. The premise may seem spartan now, but when it was released in 1978, it was avant-garde in both content and hardware. The game introduced a much needed alternative to Pong and its clones. Tomohiro Nishikado, the game’s developer, had to piece together his own development kit, because no tech at the time was powerful enough to run the program.
Space Invaders firmly dodges and weaves in the zeitgeist of entire generations, even 30 years after its initial release. The game’s legacy has blown up far beyond arcade cabinets, finding its way into modern pop culture and even street art.
Released in 1982, Ms Pacman quickly ate its way into the hearts of seasoned Pacman players. The game was initially an unauthorised release by publisher Midway, but it became so popular that Namco eventually adopted this bow wearing lady Pacman as an official member of the family.
Ms Pacman plays in a bigger, more dangerous and fast-paced world. Beyond aesthetic improvements, Ms Pacman introduced new mechanics, which many believe made it even better than the original. Players had 4 maps to chomp through, where Pacman only had one game board. The ghosts were also made meaner. Enemies moved in a more unpredictable way than the previous ones, whose movement patterns were exploited by many to beat the game. This gave Ms Pacman better replay value than her husband’s own title.
Many classic titles are quite simple: point and shoot, press A to jump. Dig Dug tunnels into the list with surprising strategic depth for an 80’s arcade game. You play the eponymous Dig Dug, armed with nothing but an air pump and his wits against fire-spewing dragons and Pookas, an odd race of subterranean tomatoes with goggles.
Success in Dig Dug requires keeping multiple balls in the air. Inflating and blowing up enemies means accurately tagging them with the business end of your pump, but squeezing out accurate shots is hard when you’ve got angry enemies hot on your tail and coming out of the bedrock. The newness and challenge of these mechanics made the game memorable--and addicting.
Never has pixelated alien guts and gore looked as terrific as it did than when Capcom’s AvP came out in 1994. As movie-to-game ports go the title is a stand-out, ranked by Kotaku as one of the most gorgeous looking beat ‘em up retro games. And the praise is well earned: Aliens and Predators are two of the most meticulously designed creatures in the monster universe, and AvP pays tribute in gloriously detailed 16-bit.
The game is no slouch in the gameplay department, either. Bigger game cabinets let you play with up to four friends. You control one of two predators or one of two humans. The action never stops, there’s always something exploding, punching, or crawling on-screen--this beautiful chaos is enough to land AvP on any classics list. That, and being able to play as Arnold Schwarzenneger’s large Major Schaefer alongside equally large elite Predator warriors.
On the topic of games with beautiful animated art and everything happening all at once comes Metal Slug. The shoot em up was first released by SNK in 1996, and has since spawned numerous sequels and spin-offs.
The genius of Metal Slug is in its sheer amount of content and lore. There’s an entire narrative that ties the anthology together. Enemies come in different shapes and sizes: in diving suits, bomb-dropping helicopters, tanks, and spaceships. There’s a wide array of weapons available, from shotguns to weaponised metal lizards. All of these are delivered in slick, animated graphics and the game’s signature oddball humour. You can turn into a zombie. Pick up too many food items for points and you’ll find yourself controlling a character that’s suddenly 70 stone heavier.
All good fun, and what’s best about Metal Slug is there are hours worth of titles to play and replay on your own, or with a friend.
Frogger is another arcade great that is as simple as it gets. Released in 1981, the player’s sole objective is to help frogs cross rivers and roads.
Frogger’s success upon release is chalked up to its quirky premise and--at that time--novel graphics. But today there’s still a sort of calming zen to be found as you move frogs around with nothing more than the directional pad or joystick. It’s a game of timing and patience, as opposed to hectic brawlers or blasters. No wall of aliens bearing down on you or a million explosions happening on screen here--just frogs who want to head home.
Another classic from the company that gave us Space Invader, Bubble Bobble put players in charge of Bub and Bob, humans turned into bubble-blowing dragons. The graphics are bright and colorful, and the animations were fairly sophisticated for its time. But what really made the game stand out was its 100 stages, each of which used different level designs and mix of enemies and power ups. It was also one of the first games that introduced multiple endings.
The game has since been remade multiple times and spawned a long list of sequels. Bub and Bob are now characters in full, glorious 3D. But we find that the original is just as fun as the latest 2019 release, a testament to the long-lasting appeal of Bubble Bobble.
Many years ago, before modern Star Wars games like Knights of the Old Republic or Battlefront, there was Atari’s Star Wars. The game quickly became one of the best-selling titles of 1984, with its snazzy neon vector art and smooth animations giving players their first taste of intergalactic dogfights.
The title also tapped a fair amount of movie magic to fully immerse players in the environment, using lines straight from the movie, including R2-D2’s beeps and Chewbacca’s growls.
Released in 1981, Defender features a level of difficulty that would make rock solid modern titles like Dark Souls look positively relaxing. Players need to dodge ultra-fast aliens hurtling from all sides. Shots go every which way, at varying speeds. A minimap showed enemies beyond the edges of the screen, giving players some warning. But that barely mattered when you were being impossibly swarmed.
The game demands focus and almost preternatural deftness. But that’s what made it amazing. Much like many of our all-time favourites, Defender grabs players in an almost hypnotising way, and doesn’t let go until either high scores are broken or you run out of pennies.