Ever since computers were invented people started to play games on them. Barely ten years after the invention of the programmable computer people had learned how to code a primitive form of tennis. But it was arcades that brought computer games to the masses and kick-started the modern games industry.
The final of our three part series on the best games examines the lost art of the arcade game. Back before powerful graphics processors and high-density storage brought high performance technology to the computer and console space, video arcades were the only place you could play the coolest new games.
Though arcades have largely died out thanks to consoles and home computers, the legacy of many of those franchises lives on both in spirit and, in some cases, in name as well.
Honourable mention: Galaxy Game
Shaun Nichols: Most people know of Spacewar as the first true computer game. We placed it at number nine on our list of the top computer games of all time. But it turns out that the earliest of all shoot-em-ups is also connected to the first ever arcade game.
Ten years after the first version of Spacewar debuted, a pair of Stanford University researchers created a variation known as Galaxy Game. Based on the PDP-11/20 (itself a successor to Spacewar's PDP-1 platform) Galaxy Game included a mechanism which required the user to insert a coin in order to begin a new game.
The system was placed in Stanford's Tressidor Union student area and while it may not have made its creators millionaires (or even covered the cost of the PDP system it ran on) the experiment did prove that coin operated video games could be feasible both from a technology and business standpoint.
Iain Thomson: There's the rub Shaun, the Galaxy Game was the first coin-operated game and as such deserves a spot on the list.
As it turns out the game itself is still surprisingly playable. Sure, the graphics are laughable but the basic game concept is a good one and I can well understand why students were willing to part with their beer money in order to play.
The concept of the coin operated game began with the Galaxy Game and all arcades owe it a debt. Without it we wouldn't have had any of the millions of arcades that sprouted in the 1970s and 1980s, providing entrepreneurs with cash and the papers with moral panics over the years.
Honourable Mention: Spy Hunter
Iain Thomson: Spy Hunter was the first popular driving game to incorporate weapons. For people brought up playing CarWars it was a dream come true.
True, the 2D scrolling engine was a bit primitive and the choice of high or low gear was a choice between turbo crash speed and sluggish cannon fodder crawl but the game was entrancing, not least for its highly advanced graphics for the time. The user's car could change into a boat, came equipped with a variety of weapons and upgraded by driving into a truck - a clear nod to Knight Rider.
Spy Hunter never really transitioned well into the PC era. The feel of the game was too tied up in the arcade version's steering wheel, gear stick and accelerator pedal. But I'm willing to bet a lot of people remember it with fondness.
Shaun Nichols: Being a newborn at the time Spy Hunter came out, I wasn't too familiar with the game itself.
I am, however, quite familiar with its legacy. I spent many an hour playing driving combat games such as Road Rash and Grand Theft Auto that can trace a lineage directly back to Spy Hunter.
I'm not sure that failing to transition from an arcade format to the console or PC market was necessarily a bad sign. As we've noted before, up until the late 1990s the screen and enclosure size of arcade machines allowed for the development of games that simply weren't feasible on consoles. Even the games that could be ported successfully to consoles often had to be stripped down from their arcade format.
10. Time Crisis
Shaun Nichols: While the arcade was in decline in the mid 1990s, some of the most sophisticated and innovative games also surfaced during that time. Among the best was Time Crisis.
Time Crisis coupled tried and tested methods with some very cool new innovations. The game used established "light gun" shooter controllers and a first person "rails" presentation in which the player automatically moved through the game map.
But it also featured the ability for the player to duck behind objects using a foot pedal input, allowing a shoot and hide technique that would become common in later console and PC games. Additionally, the game kept a strict time limit that added a strong dose of tension to gameplay. While there were many similar titles at the time, few games could match Time Crisis overall.
Iain Thomson: Time Crisis was one of the games that helped the resurgence of arcade games in the 1990s.
It did so by matching big screen action with actual guns that felt real enough to make it interesting. Add in the ability to duck, reload and fight back and you had an experience that was worth paying for. You could immediately tell if the pub, service station or arcade you were in had Time Crisis by the clicking sounds of the guns and the muffled curses from those getting shot.
The rail system of gameplay was a bit annoying if truth be told. Play the game enough and you knew where enemies were going to pop out from and you could nail them as soon as you saw the first pixellated head rise. But it was a fun game nevertheless and did much to get people back into the arcades.
9. After Burner
Iain Thomson: After Burner, and its two sequels, were a mainstay of arcade computing in the 1980s.
Remember this was the decade of Top Gun, when all any adrenaline seeking young man wanted to do was fly fighters, be it over the Falklands or West German y. Now, for a few coins, you too could fly the unfriendly skies - although the likelihood of showering with Kelly McGillis or indulging in homoerotic volleyball games afterwards was up to you.
I can remember the RAF recruiting officer laughing quite hard when a bespeckled young lad asked about the possibilities of flying for his country, but for ten pence you could get as near as possible to the feel of a modern day Battle of Britain (without the icky skin grafts or loss of limbs). If you were lucky enough to find an arcade with a gyro-cabin for the game so much the better, motion took it to whole new levels.
Nowadays the bulk of the arcade flying games out there seem to be about piloting jet airliners or landing on carrier decks. After Burner summing up the early ethos of flying games - if it moves shoot it, if it doesn't move, shoot it 'til it does.
Shaun Nichols: I like to think that my generation (born in the mid 1980s) is something of a litmus test for classic arcade games. If it stuck around long enough that someone my age was able to play it, the game was a classic.
After Burner definitely qualifies as one of those games. I remember pumping more than a few quarters into machines that, by modern technology standards should have been considered antiques.
I think that Microsoft and other companies that made a fortune off of flight simulators owe a debt of gratitude to After Burner and similar flying titles. I'm sure that more than a few of the adults that got obsessively into flight simulator games were inspired in their childhoods by those early arcade flying games.
8. Battle Zone
Shaun Nichols: They may not have known it at the time, but kids that pumped quarters in Battle Zone games in the early 1980s were receiving military training sessions.
The basis of the game was originally designed by Atari as a contract job with the US government. Meant to simulate the operation of the Army's newest fighting vehicles, the controls and periscope interface of the game matched those of the Bradley tank.
After the contract with the US military was completed, Atari adapted the game into an arcade title and found success with the innovative control system and wire frame graphics. The controls were later brought back for use in Star Wars, an arcade hit that barely missed making our list in its own right.
Iain Thomson: We ummed and ahhed about putting Star Wars in but Battle Zone won out in the end. Both used wire frame graphics and sound well, but Battle Zone had a few other points in its favour.
Firstly the game used controls in a new way. Users got two joysticks, one controlling each tread of your tank, which required a new form of game play. You could shift around very easily to dodge missiles, something which modern day tank commanders have drilled into them. Stay still on the modern battle field in a tank and you're toast, and the same was true for Battle Zone.
Secondly the game felt more immersive because you viewed the action through a periscope-type arrangement. Pressing your face to this ducked you immediately into the gameplay, once you could put out of your mind that a hundred sweating brows (and more than a few head lice) had been there before you.
7. Dance Dance Revolution
Iain Thomson: Hand on heart, I've never seen the point of these dance pad games - except once.
On the face of it the concept seems vaguely stupid. Do what a computer tells you to in the right order and you go to the next level, but nestling in the corner of your mind is the knowledge that the computer can speed up the routine so fast that you could be Nureyev on crystal meth and still not have a chance of finishing.
But a bunch of us attended a software launch in an arcade built into the base of the former London City Council headquarters (who said Thatcherism didn't have a mordant sense of humour) and I saw the real purpose of the game. It was a social thing, and before long two friends were dancing together and each letting the other person win occasionally. They're now happily married with a kid and, while I don't think the game is key to that, it's a wonderful example of how games can bring people together.
Shaun Nichols: These days most people in the industry will tell you that the arcade game is all but dead. Most kids these days opt to stay home and play console or PC games rather than pump quarters into an arcade machine (though one wonders how many arcade games you could play through with the $60 cost of a single console title.)
Seeing as how arcade games are all but dead, it's quite impressive that Dance Dance Revolution has become so popular,
I think a large part of it is the social aspect of the game. By its very nature Dance Dance Revolution invites multiple people to play and its emphasis on music and rhythm makes the game appeal to both boys and girls.
The university I attended had a Dance Dance Revolution machine in the main student building, and it was so popular amongst the local teenagers that the city school district made the University ban high school students from the building during the hours they were supposed to be in class. I think that should tell you just how successful this game was.
Shaun Nichols: As any gamer over the age of 18 or so can tell you, the holy trinity of fighting games is Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken.
The youngest of the three games, Tekken makes our list over the sentimental favourite in Street Fighter and the ultra-violent innovator Mortal Kombat because it made the best use of the arcade platform.
Debuting at a time when the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo were still ruling the roost with 2D side scrolling features, Tekken took full advantage of the high-powered hardware and ample hardware room of the arcade cabinet to create one of the first 3D fighting games.
The result was a huge hit in the market and a system that rival franchises have never quite caught up to. While the only thing Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat could do was add more characters and new background art, Tekken had a groundbreaking format that allowed future games to succeed both in the arcade and later on in the console markets.
Iain Thomson: An American friend had her son visiting London a decade ago and asked me to show him the sights. We did the usual touristy things and I took him out to a Chinese for dinner and then asked him what he'd like to do that evening, expecting something beer related. No, he wanted to play Tekken.
At the time I took it as a sign of the weakness of today's youth. Who wouldn't want to drink beer all night? But watching the enjoyment he got out of the machine inspired me to have a go and I have to say it was a very fun night, which cost less than a pint or three and didn't leave a hangover in the morning.
Tekken helped establish the popularity of the fighting game. While many of these have gone for the ultra-violence model, allowing spines to be ripped out etc, the basic principle remains the same and is still as popular now as it was then. It's also one of the few formats to retain its popularity on the move to console systems and remains a surprisingly social game. You wouldn't think beating each other to death would be a fun thing to do with your chums but the Tekken virtual fight club is still a lot of fun.
Iain Thomson: When Shaun wanted this in the top five I was a little shocked. After all, Pong is the most primitive of computer games, but after researching the topic I saw he was right. Pong wasn't huge in the UK because America and Japan were so far ahead of the the rest of the world, but it introduced many people to computer games.
I first played Pong on an Atari console and knew in seconds that it was a very dull game. Each player had a rotary controlled paddle in a game that roughly approximated tennis, without the drug scandals, sexual shenanigans and occasion stabbings the game has in real life. It was very, very dull but sparked the idea of competing with your mates over a pint.
Shaun Nichols: I have to say I was more than a bit amazed when Iain asked for the reasoning behind putting Pong on the list. Most people who have never heard of Spacewar will tell you that it was the first video game ever.
While it technically may not have been the first game, Pong was definitely the first to achieve widespread success. It also helped establish Atari as an early player in the gaming market and perhaps even helped to shape history; without the success of Pong, one wonders if Atari would have been able to hire a young engineer named Steve Jobs.
Oddly, the target market for Pong was not the bored suburban teenager that made up the traditional arcade market. The game was originally pitched to owners of bars and pubs as an activity for customers when the dart board or billiard tables were occupied.
The game became so big that it eventually broke out into the larger market and helped establish the video arcade as a lucrative venture.
4. Pole Position
Shaun Nichols: Pole Position is unique in that it mixed state of the art hardware technology with presentation techniques that date back to the renaissance.
Using basic visual tricks such as perspective, Pole Position was able to create the illusion of driving down a 3D race track with a basic top-scrolling game layout. The trick remained in use for decades until true 3D environments made their way into games.
Because it was so far ahead of its time, Pole Position also had great staying power. Some 15 years after its initial release, I remember finding Pole Position machines still in use and still popular with kids that weren't even born when the game debuted.
Iain Thomson: For two months in 1987 I was the Exeter University champion of Pole Position and my initials scrolled across the screen for all to see. Sure, it didn't get me much in the way of kudos from the 99.5 per cent of students who had other things on their minds but in the company of the few devoted players I walked tall for weeks. Then a girlfriend came along who was less than impressed at my hobby and I concentrated on more important things.
Pole Position set the standard by which all other driving game followed. The user position, above and behind the car, is still in use today, the Formula One tracks were surprisingly accurate for their time and the gear stick arrangement has lasted too. It's still an addictive game and if you can find one in operation I heartily recommend a go on it.
The game also had another feature which makes it iconic, the ability to use hardware hacks to get ahead. The accelerator pedal, if slammed up and down on tricky corners, gave you the ability to get round at high speed without crashing or spinning out, since the software reacted to such a move by slowing, then speeding the wheels, which counteracted skidding. Hardware hacks like this gave experienced players a definite advantage over newbies and kept your name at the top of the board.
3. Donkey Kong
Iain Thomson: Ever since we decided to do the arcade games list the name Donkey Kong kept coming up. The Flash versions on the web have also got some hard pounding this week.
Donkey Kong is one of the first inventions of legendary games designer Shigeru Miyamoto. He took the engine from a failing game and turned it into both a video game legend and an example of why the media industry should butt out of the games sphere. Universal tried to sue, claiming the game was a copy of King Kong, but got roasted in court when Nintendo found the studio didn't even have the rights to the film - RIAA take note.
Donkey Kong was a simple game,you had reach the top while a monkey (apologies to Terry Pratchett fans) hurled flaming barrels down on you. Once you reached the top the ape stole your girlfriend and retreated to an upper level.
I was entranced with the game and spent many happy hours dodging barrels, but only learnt of the game's lasting significance in later years. Miyamoto is one of the giants of games design, and had as much influence on modern gaming as Bill Gates has had on the modern corporate computing environment.
Shaun Nichols: As anyone who watched the movie can tell you, Donkey Kong remains an important part of gaming culture. I think a large part of it is nostalgia, but it also has a great deal to do with the design of the game.
Hardcore fans will tell you that Donkey Kong is one of those games that you can never quite master. Though there are some basic strategies, passing the later levels of the game required extremely precise timing and coordination. You couldn't exploit bugs or gimmicks the way you could later, more involved games.
Like most of the early titles, Donkey Kong is also extremely small in footprint, yet has for decades enthralled users. Clearly a reminder that a well crafted and fun game can trump any amount of fancy graphics and physics engines.
It's also the oldest of Nintendo's iconic franchises, and perhaps the most important. Had Donkey Kong not caught on in the market, it's arguable that Shigeru Miyamoto wouldn't have been vaulted to iconic status and called upon to create his later masterpieces.
2. Space Invaders
Shaun Nichols: The late 1970s saw the video game move from an experimental idea into a mainstream product, and the most successful games became cultural icons.
Space Invaders was one of the first arcade games to gain widespread fame, and its legacy has lingered on for more than 30 years. It became the main selling point for two different platforms, the arcade platform and the Atari 2600.
Originally developed in Japan for games vendor Taito, the game was so far ahead of its time that creator Tomohiro Nishikado had to fabricate much of the hardware for the game himself. The end product was worth the extra effort, however, as the game became so popular in Japan that it was said to have caused a temporary shortage of coins in circulation.
It also had a major impact on the gaming industry in the western world. To bring the game to the US, Taito contracted with a small branch company of pinball machine giant Bally Games known as Midway. The runaway success of Space Invaders helped establish Midway as the arcade giant that would alter release iconic titles such as Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam.
Iain Thomson: We thought long and hard about the ordering for the top two on the list but in the end Space Invaders had to come second, although just by a whisker.
For youngsters raised on modern video games Space Invaders looks incredibly clunky and the gameplay almost moronic. I mean, if you're invading a new planet would you get in geometric rows and advance as slowly as possible? That kind of battle strategy lost Britain the United States.
But for a long while Space Invaders was THE arcade game. In arcades and pubs across the world you could hear the pop hiss of gameplay as millions of people hid behind fragile bunkers and fought off wave after wave of stupid alien invasion forces. It remains an iconic game and one instantly recognisable to people of a certain age.
Iain Thomson: It's an old joke but if Pac-Man had been so addictive we'd have spent the 1990s running around darkened rooms gobbling pills and listening to repetitive music. Perish the thought.
Pac-Man really made the arcade game popular. It was a beguiling mix of reaction time and planning. If you could be bothered to remember the routes you could sail through the opening games by following a set course, but the game went on and on. Too many people spent too much of their lives trying to understand Pac-Man.
That said you can't underestimate the power of the game. It appealed to everyone by being non-threatening, highly skilled and yet very easy to learn. Personally I prefer the raw destruction of Space Invaders but Pac-Man's spot cannot be denied.
Shaun Nichols: I'm not sure you come up with a computing platform which hasn't seen some version of Pac-Man developed for it. That simple yellow semi-circle is arguably the most recognized video game character on the planet and its recognized on the same level as the likes of Coca-Cola and Nike.
The basic premise of the game leaves one to wonder just what drugs were circulating amongst game developers at the time. A giant floating yellow head that eats little white pellets and tries to avoid a pack of fruit-phobic ghosts? Timothy Leary would be proud.
Like the other early classics, Pac-Man is a relatively simple game that is ridiculously addictive. While the gameplay may be simple, succeeding at it requires the reflexes, timing and coordination that can be very difficult to replicate. Even the most experienced players have trouble mastering the game.
The simplicity of the game combined with the difficulty of playing it well has lead Pac-Man to three decades of success. Next month Pac-Man will turn 30 years old, and if you want to celebrate that anniversary chances are you can still find the game somewhere in town.