All time greatest arcade classics
Arcade Hall of Fame: Taiko no Tatsujin
Though the rhythm genre has fallen somewhat from its peak in the mid-2000s in the West, it has never died back in its home country of Japan where it enjoys a robust life even today.
One game that has become somewhat of a cultural touchstone for many back in Japan is Taiko no Tatsujin. Making its way to nearly every format, from the massive drum-based arcade machine to home consoles, Taiko no Tatsujin combines rhythm based-mechanics with traditional Japanese drum music for a experience that is quintessentially Japanese.
But it’s starting to catch on in other places as well, thanks largely to the numerous ports of the title. Originally released by Bandai Namco games in 2001, Taiko no Tatsujin takes inspiration from Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution in primary structure but gives players the chance to beat the heck out of a taiko drum set instead of dancing until they die of heart attack.
You according to the notes on the screen (onbu in Japanese) and you are rewarded for how accurately you reproduce actions in the game. To fill your spirit gauge you need to accurately perform music and, once you exceed your gauge, you will complete that song.
The most famous version of Taiko no Tatsujin is the arcade unit which comes equipped with taiko drums and bachi sticks to hit them. Anyone who has ever watched a traditional Japanese drum segment knows just how aerobically intense it can be and Taiko no Tatsujin’s original 2001 arcade cabinet recreates this to a large degree.
And, as you can imagine, translating this kind of experience to the home consoles is not that easy. Even the best peripheral devices won’t have the robust feel of the arcade cabinet which truly goes out of its way to replicate the heft and quality of taiko drums.
Most home based iterations of Taiko no Tatsujin rely upon timed button presses and it’s just not the same. This doesn’t make the ports bad games necessarily, just not as interesting as the original game. To be sure, there are a ton of peripherals out there to make it work but they really don’t do the game justice.
One platform that does meld the traditional arcade game’s mechanics with its control scheme in an innovative and intuitive way are the smartphone and DS/3DS ports of Taiko no Tatsujin.
Using either a stylus or tap controls, these ports do an excellent job of translating the general spirit of the drum-bashing game to such a small form factor. If we had to recommend any one way to play the game outside of the arcade, we would probably go with the smartphone and DS versions.
That said, the arcade game is a bonafide classic. As one of the few genres that benefits from the use of peripherals, rhythm games occupy a special niche within the large gaming ecosystem. Taiko no Tatsujin’s masterful combination of addictive, compelling gameplay matched with the traditional music using drums makes it a one-of-a-kind game and there is unlikely to ever be anything like it again in arcades.
Arcade of Hall of Fame: Pong
When people consider the founding fathers of video games, one title cannot help but make it on the list, and that is Pong. A virtual table tennis game that first debuted in 1972 from Atari, Pong was simple and simply a sensation, largely kicking off the arcade craze and birthing the home console industry after that.
One of the earliest but not the first arcade game ever released, Pong is a simple, two-dimensional game with a player squaring off against an AI or other human player. Players have to keep a white dot going between their two paddles without missing it. Missing it causes the other side to score, much like in tennis, with momentum, ricocheting, and other minor physics aspects coming into play during the game.
Though simple on its surface, Pong is deeply compelling once you’ve spent some time with it. A competitive game from the start, Pong’s addictive conceit helps it to be accessible by both young and old, video gamers and non-gamers alike. It’s not hard to see why Pong kicked off the video game craze.
The first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, took advantage of Pong’s name recognition and popularity with Atari later capitalizing on it as well during the 1975 Christmas season with a Sears exclusive home-version of Pong.
Pong’s birth was largely an accident. Commissioned as a programming exercise by Atari’s Allan Alcorn, Atari executive and founder Nolan Bushnell recognized the amazing potential this demo had as a full-fledged game. Mimicking table tennis in many ways, Pong becomes more difficult the longer players go back and forth. This is mainly accomplished through the increasing speed of the ball as well as the fluid movement of the paddle. It is easy to miss the ball, just like in real life, and when a player does the speed of the ball resets, much like the tempo of an intense bout in tennis once one side has scored over the other.
Graphics and sound are worth mentioning, if for any reason other than they are studies in minimalist perfection. Bleeps and bloops are appropriately weighty depending on whether you hit or ricochet the ball while the simple yet easy-to-read, black-and-white graphics are the definition of functional.
What modern gamers have to keep in mind about Pong is how novel and new it was when it arrived on the scene back in 1972. No one had ever played anything like it before. Aside from pinball games, arcades were largely dismal affiars filled with smoke, pool tables, and the aforementioned pinball machines. Pong changed that over night and became a cultural sensation.
Pong was the first video game to achieve widespread, commercial success and this would have ramifications for the entertainment industry at large. Giving rise to video games as we know it, Pong not only created a new segment but also introduced the world to the concept of a self-guided form of entertainment that would later eclipse Hollywood and television.
Arcade Hall of Fame: Mario Bros (Arcade)
Every story has a beginning. But Mario’s origins are a little humbler than you might expect. And, no, we’re not talking about Donkey Kong. We’re talking about the first time Mario headlined a game as the protagonist, not its antagonist.
Beginning life as a somewhat obscure arcade game, the Super Mario Bros. franchise was nothing like what it would become when it made its debut. Arriving to arcades in 1983, Mario Bros. Arcade introduced a lot of the elements we see in Mario games today in terms of characters, but the gameplay was radically different.
Not only that, but 1983 was not the best year for new video games to arrive. A monumental year for the industry, it saw no less than the home console market’s crash and the release of the Famicom in Japan. Mario’s attempt at breaking out from under Donkey Kong’s shadow couldn’t have come at a worse time. Still, it is hard to imagine that just a few years after this somewhat obscure premier that Mario would go on to not only dominate Nintendo’s console, but video games in general.
As Mario (or Luigi), you ran around a screen reminiscent of the Donkey Kong series and eliminated enemies by knocking them over onto their backs which allowed them to be kicked off the screen. These stages are supposed to represent the sewers of New York City according to press from the time. For those players that debate whether or not Mario actually is a plumber, this arcade game would seem to confirm his real profession.
Enemies range from the Koopa troopas we know and love to what looks like a prototype for a Spiny. There are also environmental hazards like fireballs and icicles that Mario has to avoid.
Making its first appearance in this game, the POW block lets Mario knock over all the enemies on the screen and can be used three times per round.
If Mario doesn’t get rid of an enemy quickly enough, it will flip itself back over and rush at Mario with increased speed. You complete a level by killing a certain number of enemies and moving on to the next stage. When played as a two-player game, the style becomes competitive with each side trying to best the other in terms of how many points they can rack up.
Looking at the Mario arcade game, one can’t help but notice that it is similar to yet very different from the platforming game that came out on the NES. The NES title is more whimsical and offers a lot more depth in terms of replayability. Nonetheless, the Mario Bros. Arcade game does hold a special place in Nintendo’s history as the first time their mascot broke out on his own. Perhaps most interesting for the modern gamer is looking at Mario Bros. Arcade from the lens of history and noting that even Nintendo had to figure things out way back when.
Coming at a time of great flux, the Mario Bros. Arcade game today exists as a historical relic but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a solid game.
Arcade Hall of Fame: Galaxian
The early era of video games is often dominated by simple concepts that take advantage of the technology available but also try to form an addictive but rewarding experience.
This is probably because many of the early video game titles were developed for the arcade scene and not the home television screen. Whether it was Pong’s concept of table tennis of Pac Man’s maze madness, early video games are great at taking very elementary gaming principles and expanding them into full concepts.
Coming out in 1978, Galaxian is very much a game of its time. Dominated by spaceships, aliens, and sci-fi pop culture, this era’s games very much reflect that movement in mass media. Developed and released by Namco, Galaxian is a fixed shooter designed to compete directly with Taito’s sensational Space Invaders.
And it is really hard to overstate how much of a sensation Space Invaders was in arcades, particularly in Japan. The game was legitimately printing money for Taito and became the first real sensation the gaming world had produced outside of Pac Man. We’re talking tie-in media properties and the works – basically everything we expect from a triple-A console release today.
Companies that could make money off of this craze in any way possible were eager to get in the game. Think of it as the prototype for the later fighting game craze of the 1990s or the first-person shooter craze of that same era inaugurated by DOOM.mThough it is a Space Invaders clone in many respects, Galaxian is an innovative title that pushes the genre – a novel concept in an industry that was dominated by cloned gaming concepts.
Unlike Space Invaders, Galaxian featured fully animated RGB sprites that exploded in animated glory when they were destroyed. Graphically, the game looked like next level stuff compared to the more basic Space Invaders but that wasn’t its only ace card.
Another change from the Space Invaders formula is the ability of enemy ships to go rogue and attempt to suicide attack the player. This is where the ship dive bombs towards your ship, the Galaxip. After defeating one wave of enemies another wave takes its place. They become more aggressive with each and every wave and the player has to change tactics accordingly.
Galaxian holds up well in almost every way even now. Graphics, sound, and gameplay are, understandably, basic but they are also compelling and, dare we say, addicting. So many arcade titles from the golden era exist as time capsules of concepts and ideas that changed gaming, but they’re not something you want to sit down and spend a lot of time with and game. Galaxian is different. It is quirky, challenging, weird, and charming. Rarely does a clone break out of the shadow of the game it is trying to imitate but Galaxian is that rare game. Heck, some would even recommend it over Taito’s Space Invaders. All we know is that both are deserving of a place in the arcade game hall of game for their contributions to the art of games.
Arcade Hall of Fame: Breakout
The game you have probably already played but had no idea you have done so, Breakout is an arcade classic from Atari that has as storied a development history as any game.
Coming out in 1976, Breakout is simple in concept though compellingly addictive in execution. Imagine one sided Pong wherein the paddle you control maneuvers at the bottom of the screen in a horizontal motion to deflect a traveling dot back into a wall of multicoloured, layered bricks. As you hit the bricks they disappear with some bricks requiring multiple hits before they vanish. If the player is unable to deflect the ball back up to the wall of bricks, a “life” or turn is lost. As the stage progresses, the ball gains speed and the paddle you use to deflect it becomes smaller and smaller. Clones of this concept have shown up today on everything from the PC to smartphones. If you’ve ever wondered where this idea got its start, you can thank Breakout for this type of gameplay.
What makes Breakout even more storied in terms of video game history are the players involved in its development and bringing it to market. Of course, industry legend Nolan Bushnell spearheaded the project, but did you know that Apple’s very own Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak also worked on this classic title?
Not only did Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak work on Breakout together, but they did an amazing job for Atari. As the story goes, Steve Jobs was tasked with designing a board for $750 with an incentive to use as few TTL chips as possible. This was beyond Steve Job’s skill set but fit in perfectly with Wozniak’s who was employed at Hewlett Packard at the time. Steve Wozniak did such a masterful job that Steve Jobs received a $5000 bonus on top of the $750 though he only shared $325 with Wozniak. The design was so complex, using nuanced technique and idiosyncratic methods developed by Wozniak, that Atari ultimately couldn’t use the design though the duos work on it didn’t go unnoticed.
Atari complained that the design, on top of being complex, was too compact given the arcade manufacturer’s methods for bringing tons of cabinets to market. Many also argue that Atari didn’t understand much of what Wozniak did. Regardless, the company released the game using a modified board that used 100 TTL chips. The cabinet into which the game was placed used a black and white monitor with colored cellophane strips at the top to distinguish the bricks from each other.
All in all, the game is a master study in restraint and good gaming based upon solid, basic concepts. Like Pong, Breakout today exists as that primitive, go-to game that shows up on everywhere and in nearly everything. It isn’t difficult to find a ton of Breakout clones on the Google Play or App Store right now. When you look at influences on modern gaming concepts, it is tough to ignore Breakout’s impact in this sector.
Arcade Hall of Fame: Karate Champ
Easily one of the fastest growing segments of the video game industry, eSports is currently dominated by two genres: First-person shooters and fighting games.
Ask anyone on the street what a first-person shooter video game is and most will answer DOOM. A testament to the power of the brand, indeed, but what about fighting games? Well, the answer is easy: Street Fighter II. And, while Street Fighter II may have popularized the genre, like DOOM, it is preceded by its own Wolfenstein in the form of an arcade title called Karate Champ.
So often we forget about the pioneering games that really establish a genre, choosing instead to focus on what was popular and ubiquitous. Though Karate Champ inspired Street Fighter II, it is a markedly different game and that alone gives good grounds for forgiving someone for not knowing about this founder of the fighting genre. But a classic it is and a must-play title for gamers who pride themselves on knowing their history.
Developed by Technos Japan and published by Data East in 1984, Karate Champ establishes such fighting game tropes as three-round matches, dual joystick arcade cabinets, and bonus rounds in between matches. A later iteration of the game, Karate Champ – Player vs Player, emphasized competition against an opponent.
Karate Champ Arcade Cabinet
Unlike modern fighters, Karate Champ does not have a health bar gauge at the top of the screen but, instead, uses a traditional martial arts tournament points system. Points are awarded when players land hits with the first player to reach 2 points winning that round.
Your opponent doesn’t change but the background shifts from match to match and the difficulty ramps up as well. In what can only be a clear prototype for Ryu and Ken, the character avatars are depicted as either wearing a white or red gi depending on if the person is first or second player.
Graphically rich for its time, Karate Champ shows its age today – especially when it comes to the included voice clips in the game.
A novelty when it was released, the voice effects in Karate Champ are muddled but iconic because of this. A later staple of fighting games, having an announcer declare the beginning of a match as well as its winner was an awesome bit of flash to deploy for a 1984 arcade cabinet.
Aside from its foundational stance in the fighting game genre, what makes Karate Champ a classic?
Apart from the game’s reformulation of a martial arts title in terms of a competition rather than as a side-scrolling action game, Karate Champ, in its later version, emphasized something relatively new to the arcade scene for the time: Competitive, player versus player arcade gaming.
What would later become the mainstay of arcades was still a relatively rare experience back in the day. After all, aside from Pong, many of the classics hew towards the single-player experience if for no other reason than the limitations of the technology available at the time.
Karate Champ was a bold step forward in making competitive play the reason to visit the arcades. Indeed, in their heyday, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat were credited with reviving the segment due to their ability to bring in crowds of competitive gamers.