Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc., played an integral role in introducing arcades to the masses with one of his most successful inventions, “Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater” in 1977.
By the 80s and through the mid 90s, arcades were king of the video game industry. Everything from shopping malls to seedy bars were home to neon-lit game rooms packed with the latest machines and sugared up kids budgeting out their remaining quarters.
Today we take a look back at the 10 most popular arcades of all time in the United States of America. This list is based on total hardware units sold and their unadjusted gross revenue.
10. Mr. Do! – 1982
Mr. Do! was developed by Universal and released into arcades in 1982. The gameplay is a mixture of Pac-Man and Dig-Dug. Players take control of Mr. Do as he digs tunnels, outruns enemies, and collects all of the cherries scattered around the field. If Mr. Do touches an enemy or is crushed by falling objects, he loses a life until no more lives remain, resulting in a good old fashioned game over screen.
The graphics were bright and colorful, but primitive. Highlights include varied animation with little to no slowdown and some cheery interstitial cutscenes when players completed a certain number of levels. This gave players a short period of time to wipe the sweat off their hands before the next round!
In the first year of release, Mr. Do! sold over 30,000 units to arcades across the country. Home systems like the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, and Commodore 64 were the first to port the arcade game to game consoles. In later years, Mr. Do! would appear on SNK’s Neo Geo system as well as Nintendo’s Super NES and Game Boy systems.
9. Donkey Kong Jr. – 1982
Although it never managed to recapture the success of its predecessor, Donkey Kong Jr. remains one of Nintendo’s biggest arcade releases of the 1980s. The game was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, and recasts the previous game’s hero, Mario, as the villain who has captured Donkey Kong Jr.’s father.
The game featured a grand total of four stages, each one designed to pose unique platforming challenges for players to overcome on their way to the top. After players beat all four stages, they are returned to the beginning to face the challenge again at a higher difficulty level.
Donkey Kong Jr. sold more than 30,000 units its first year and was later ported to home systems such as the Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Colecovision and of course Nintendo’s own NES system.
8. Galaxian – 1979
Often mistaken as part of the Space Invaders series, Galaxian is game developer Namco’s take on Taito’s original arcade concept. Most of the blame for this confusion rests on Midway Games’ shoulders, as they served as publisher for both titles in the US and released them just one year apart.
Galaxian is an example of game developers producing surprising results on now-primitive hardware. They were able to free up enough resources to present the game in full color. Galaxian packed in dozens of individual, animated sprites with more varied attacks, a full-color scrolling star field, and elaborate musical tracks. All this was accomplished without the usual problems of the era, such as the game slowing down or flickering sprites.
The look and sound of Galaxian set the tone for nearly all arcades released in the so-called “Golden Age of Arcades” to follow, including many on this list.
When it was released, Namco’s game was a favorite among fans and critics alike, appearing in over 40,000 arcade rooms across the country, enough to earn it a place on the top 10 most popular arcades of all time.
7. Defender – 1981
Eugene Jarvis is a legend of the games industry. Defender, his very first video game, took cues from Space Invaders and Asteroids, putting players in charge of defeating aliens invading from the sky while protecting astronauts on the surface of a far away planet. The game’s big achievement was featuring a stage that was wider than the screen it was displayed on, enabling players to horizontally traverse the terrain endlessly if desired.
In order to control the ship, elevation, acceleration and attack, Defender utilized an unusual 5-button layout that turned a lot of players off. Fortunately for Jarvis and Midway, Defender was a surprise hit with gamers all over the world thanks to its numerous ports to virtually every system known to man. To date, over 60,000 arcade cabinets were manufactured for the USA, bringing in over $1,000,000,000 in gross revenue as of 2002.
6. Asteroids – 1979
It was the end of the 1970s. Pop culture had begun to toss aside flower power and gear up for the computer revolution of the 1980s. With the affordable personal computer still five years away, most people’s first experience with the technology of tomorrow were simple video games like Asteroids in November, 1979.
The game put players in the role of a tiny ship adrift in the space amongst the titular celestial hazards. The controls allowed people to rotate their ship, accelerate, and fire a shot that splits asteroids in half until they cycle down to nothing. Players stayed alive by avoiding fragments of asteroids, a goal that becomes harder to obtain with every completed stage.
Being one of the first arcade games to track high scores and player initials, Asteroids became a frequent choice for competitive play and world record attempts. Players enjoyed the game’s bold vector-based graphics (a rarity in gaming to this day) as well as the “floaty” control scheme that simulated movement in a weightless environment.
Over 100,000 arcade units were sold, and revenue surged to $800,000,000 by 1991, outperforming Defender in a shorter span of time.
5. Ms. Pac-Man – 1981
In a May 1982 issue of “Electronic Games Magazine”, Stan Jarocki of Midway claimed Ms. Pac-Man was created as a thanks to all of the “lady arcaders” who made the original Pac-Man a hit with both genders.
Released worldwide in early 1982, Ms. Pac-Man plays identically to its forerunner. Players guide the yellow gobbling sprite through a full-screen maze, eating every pellet in sight to advance to the next stage. When ghosts are introduced into the maze, players can choose to evade them or eat a “power pellet” and hunt them down for bonus points. Bonus fruit can further boost your high score, resulting in extra lives.
Exact revenue figures are unknown, but over 125,000 cabinets found their way into arcades before the end of the 1980s. Ms. Pac-Man returned to arcades as part of a “20 Year Reunion” cabinet alongside Galaga in 2001.
4. Donkey Kong – 1981
In late 1980, Nintendo was desperate to do business in the United States. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s president at the time, chose 29-year-old rookie game designer Shigeru Miyamoto to take on a special project.
Drawing inspiration from “Popeye the Sailor Man”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “King Kong”, Miyamoto nailed it. “Culturally significant” doesn’t begin to cover the 1981 arcade release of Donkey Kong by Nintendo. Not only was the arcade game a runaway success, it is also the genesis of Nintendo’s most famous mascot – Mario.
The gameplay was innovative for the time, as it was one of the earliest examples of a platformer. Players run, jump, climb ladders and avoid various obstacles on their way to rescuing Pauline from the clutches of Donkey Kong. Along the way, players can acquire a hammer which allows them to temporarily fight back falling barrels and baddies.
Donkey Kong sales were explosive, with over 132,000 arcades sold to the tune of $280,000,000 in its first year alone!
3. Street Fighter II’: Championship Edition – 1992
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was an immediate success when it hit arcades in 1991. The competitive fighting game drew such huge crowds that the entire arcade game industry was revitalized for the remainder of the decade.
One year later, Capcom revised and re-issued the original game as 1992’s Street Fighter II’: Championship Edition. The game’s previous four boss characters were presented in playable form. Every character in the game now featured a secondary color scheme, enabling two players to compete as the same fighter. Many of the game’s multiple endings were enhanced, and the fighters themselves went through rebalancing to give the game more strategy to appeal to experienced players.
Relentlessly ported and re-released to every home game console known to man, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior and it’s re-introduction as Street Fighter II’: Championship Edition sold over 200,000 cabinets in the USA, racking up an extraordinary $2,500,000,000 in revenue less than five years!
2. Pac-Man – 1980
Pac-Man requires little introduction. Released worldwide to arcades in 1980, the original game and it’s 30+ revisions are now available on every platform from Android to ZX Spectrum as of 2015. Certainly not the most basic example of a video game, Pac-Man nonetheless has gone on to inspire generations of video game designers all over the world.
After a brief musical stinger, players tour Pac-Man through 256 levels of ghost-filled mazes in search of tasty pellets and other snacks. Each maze is completed when the player successfully manages to eat all of the pellets while avoiding ghosts. With the fabled “Power Pellet”, Pac-Man gains the ability to eat his ghost enemies for a short time.
Pac-Man was one of the first characters in a video game to transcend the medium. Before long, Pac-Man could be found in comic books, toys, breakfast cereal and an animated television series or two. After just two years, Pac-Man sold 400,000+ arcade cabinets earning a staggering $2,500,000,000. That’s 10,000,000,000 quarters.
1. Space Invaders – 1978
As primitive as it looks today, Space Invaders was a feat of engineering when it was released into arcades around the world in 1978. Computers were in their infancy, and at the time, they weren’t powerful enough for invading space creatures, even with it’s simple monochrome graphics and famous four-note music loop.
In Space Invaders, players control a laser cannon and defend their turf against waves of enemies who gradually descend from the sky. Defeat all of the enemies before they destroy the planet to advance or fail your way into a rudimentary “Game Over” screen. Contrary to popular belief, the game doesn’t intentionally speed up as the number of enemy ships decreases; rather, the weak CPU becomes more capable of running the game at higher speeds with fewer objects to display.
The game’s makers drew inspiration from science fiction classics like The War of the Worlds and Star Wars when planning it out, and it paid off royally! Space Invaders remains the most popular arcade game of all time, selling 360,000 units in two years and earning $2,702,000,000 in just four years after its initial release.