Top 16

The following is a list of the top 16 most influential arcade video games of all time. (16??? well... it's hard to narrow something like this down to 10 if you don't really have to). This is not a list of favorites, nor even the "Greatest games of all time." You may not like some of the games on the list, but they have all caused their influence to be felt in the evolution of the art and technology of video games. Please be aware that beyond the top 4, the numbering is somewhat arbitrary, and a case can be made for any of them to rise or fall within the order.

1. Space Invaders, Taito, 1978. Games like Tank, Sprint, and Breakout had been very successful, but Space Invaders became a world-wide obsession. Riding the wave of interest created by Star Wars, Space Invaders moved arcade games out of the traditional haunts and into restaurants, corner stores, ice-cream parlors, etc. and brought video games into the public conciousness. Atari's VCS (a.k.a. 2600) console was selling decently until they licensed Space Invaders and released it for the console. Space Invaders became the first "must-have" title and sold VCS's by the truckload.

2. Pong, Atari Inc., 1972. Pong was everything Computer Space was not. Chief among the differences, Pong was fun. It became a national sensation, launching Atari and creating the industry, as manufacturers that had turned down its initial concept jumped on the band-wagon and produced copy-cat games. Although Magnavox's Odyssey was likely the inspiration for the arcade game, and was also the first home videogame, Pong's translation to the home created the home console industry as well.

3. Asteroids, Atari, 1979. Players that have experienced Asteroids only on emulators may not understand the effect that the game first had on players in 1979. Asteroids utilized a vector graphics display, like the one introduced by Cinematronics for their Space War arcade game. The display created fast moving objects with a brightness, clarity, and contrast unmatched by any normal TV-style raster monitor. The haunting glows and austere beauty entranced players, and the phenomenal gameplay kept them coming back. By out-grossing Space Invaders and maintaining public interest, Asteroids established video games as a lasting entertainment medium.

4. Computer Space, Nutting Assoc., 1971. The first videogame released to the public. Computer Space had an odd, extruded look to the cabinet, and the gameplay was confusing for the time it was released. Computer Space was an unsuccessful game by nearly anyone's estimation.

Despite the technical innovations and setting forth the basic form that all video arcade games would follow, (a dedicated machine, not a minicomputer, which was an inspired idea at the time), Computer Space's importance lies in the fact that it was unsuccessful. If it had been a hit, Nutting would have likely followed with more games, Bushnell may have stayed on with them rather than leave to form Atari, and others would have jumped into the videogame business as they did after Pong's release. There would have been no room for a company like Atari, even if it had been formed, and its subsequent innovations in design and technology.

5. Pac-Man, Namco, 1980. Myths abound about the title that for a time was synonymous with video games. Designed by its creator to appeal to females as well as males, the yellow circle and its spawn became the all time earnings champ, filling arcades and bars across the world. Pac-Man appeared on both the covers of TIME and MAD magazines, as well as made cameo appearances on television shows, until getting his own TV special and series. A favorite myth about Pac-Man is that its designer, Moru Iwatani, left Namco after creating the game because of a dispute over compensation. In reality, Mr. Iwatani is still with Namco, and no dispute occurred.

6. Street Fighter II, Capcom, 1991. Although the one-on-one fighting game was first seen in Cinematronics' beautiful 1979 vector rarity Warrior, and while Data East's innovative Karate Champ (1984) gave us the now familiar "side view", the genre basically didn't exist until Capcom released Street Fighter II. With its multitude of characters, fast & clever gameplay, and most importantly, a sense of style and competition between players that was incredible, SFII revitalized the arcades, which had been hemorrhaging players since the end of the "Golden Age" in 83/84.

SFII brought new converts to the world of video games while simultaneously performing the "final alienation" of the early mass of game players. Fighting games became more and more prevalent, extinguishing (by operators' unwillingness to purchase, and new players' unwillingness to try, and manufacturers' reluctance to produce) the quirky and diverse types of games that had existed previously.

Though not a fault of the game itself, its success set in motion a course of events that has left the arcade business with very little diversity in present arcade games. Today, you are basically restricted to fighting, shooting, or racing games (except for the rare, innovative title). Like any biological system, lack of diversity leaves the system completely vulnerable to a crisis. If players feel no compulsion to stick with established and tired genres and nothing else exists to take up the slack and spark interest, (which is basically what is occurring today), the arcade game industry may find itself in true mortal combat (pun intended) with itself and its audience.

7. Defender, Williams, 1980. Defender signaled the beginning of a new type of video game. It was the first to include, what was in essence, a "virtual world", where events off of the main screen affected your gameplay. It was also one of the first games to include distinctive behaviors for different types of enemies and an amazing scrolling playfield with color graphics. Defender marked the first serious entry into the video game industry for Williams.

8. Tank, Kee Games, Atari, 1974.
9. Gunfight, Taito/Midway, 1975. Here is where superior technology began to prove that more compelling games were possible. Tank, being the first to use ROM chips to store graphic data, offered players on-screen characters that actually looked like recognizable objects. Gunfight became the first Japanese title to be licensed for release in America. Midway redesigned it to become the first game to utilize a microprocessor to create a more varied game experience.

10. Football, Atari Inc., 1978. Football began as a game called "X's and O's" by Steve Bristow in late 1973. The project was shelved for years until the Atari teams figured out a way to break out from the confines of the single-screen game displays of the time. Football introduced "scrolling" video game displays to the world, allowing games to take place on playfields larger than the monitor on which they were displayed.

Atari's patent on the scrolling video game display that arose from Football also became one of their largest sources of income towards the end of Atari Corp. (the former home game division of Atari Inc., makers of the Lynx and the Jaguar, that merged with a disk drive maker in 1996. Atari Games, the other half of the original Atari, is alive and well and part of the WMS familiy. Atari Games recently released the successful San Francisco Rush and Area 51.)

11. Donkey Kong, Nintendo, 1981. Designed to function in the computer boardsets of Radarscope, Nintendo's first import arcade game, Donkey Kong marks the beginning of the career of one of the greatest video game designers alive, Shigeru Miyamoto. It was a wonderful game that spawned many imitators and marked the introduction of Mario, a character who became more popular worldwide than Mickey Mouse.

12. Pole Position, Namco, 1982. Beginning the trend towards hyper-realism in racers, Pole Position was a huge hit. Its graphics amazed players, and the gameplay again was the key to keeping the interest of players. Many an older gamer remembers thinking "Man... it can't get any more real than this!" while gazing at Pole Position.

Time and time again, games with beautiful graphics have captured great attention, but it is in the gameplay where true greatness lies. Of course, this is a list of the most "influential" games, and great gameplay is not always a determining factor in a game's influence. Many wonderful titles did not have a tremendous influence on the course of the industry, despite their being among the greatest games of all time (e.g. Missile Command, Tempest, Robotron: 2084, etc.). Sometimes a game is influential for precisely the fact that it WAS in actuality a pretty lousy game.

13. Dragon's Lair, Starcom/Cinematronics, 1983. The first laserdisc game to hit the market created quite a stir among both players and the game industry. The "cartoon that you could play" drew large crowds and great interest; however, the industry itself seemed to fail to realize that many people enjoyed watching others play the game rather than play it themselves. Dragon's Lair's decision-tree branching left little in the way of control up to the player, satisfying instead with the beauty of its visuals and animated storyline. Unfortunately, many game makers gleaned the wrong message from the success of Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. They took that success to mean "graphics over gameplay", when that was not the original intent. This philosophy worked for quite a while, and set the industry into a mind set whereby gameplay had taken a back seat. Is it any wonder that the arcade industry began to languish?

Dragon's Lair was undoubtedly a beautiful and caring piece of work, but it was touted so many times as the "future of video games" by the press and the industry that no one really noticed until later that many of the people who actually played didn't think so. FMV began right here.

{It is important to note that several games used laserdisc technology only for the production of the background images (games like Astron Belt, Firefox, and M.A.C.H. 3). These titles kept the responsive gameplay of standard video games. They were also popular, but the use of laserdiscs in arcade games fell out of favor strongly due to the irreliability of the technology at the time.}

14. Virtua Fighter, Sega, 1993. Against the common wisdom, Sega brought expensive polygon generating hardware (originally seen in Atari's I, Robot released way back in 1984) out of the realm of driving and flying games and into the tired fighting game arena. With its nearly unmatched depth and amazing fluidity, VF redefined arcade games. This title's influence cannot be understated. There's hardly a title today that hasn't felt its presence.

15. Daytona USA, Sega, 1994. Force feedback steering wheels and polygon racing cars had been widely introduced to the world by Atari's Hard Drivin' and refined by Sega's own Virtua Racing, but it was Daytona's graphical beauty and incredible depth that drew players in; however, the singular aspect that has made Daytona one of the greatest of arcade racers is that moment when player cars near each other in the multiplayer game. A special magic occurs and the Daytona experience can be summed up right at that intersection. Here you are in a world that gives you the opportunity to do what you might most like to do in reality. Competition has never been more glorious. The ability to bump into and indeed wreck your opponent nearly created the current multiplayer fever that is fueling much of today's arcade game sales and popularity. Daytona's influence on racing games will be felt for years to come.

16. Space Harrier, Sega, 1985. In the history of arcade games, certain titles can be looked upon as turning points. When Space Harrier appeared in arcades around the world, players stopped and took notice. Never before had a game package of technology been so complete, with speed, amazing color, multiple scaling sprites and digital sound. Space Harrier may not have been to many gamers tastes, but it said to the industry and players alike, 'After this, things will not be the same.' Space Harrier signaled the move of established genres toward three-dimensionality, and significantly upped the ante in terms of high-powered arcade hardware. Space Harrier and its sister game Out-Run also represented the status-quo in a way; the tendancy for designers and manufacturers to keep building on established technology (in this case, scaling "sprite" based technology) instead of moving towards the new 3-D polygon technology pioneered by I, Robot.

Copyright 1997 Electronics Conservancy


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