Flashing neon lights; the constant drone of 8-bit fanfares, the click-clacking of buttons tapping, joysticks furiously swinging around their 8-way gates, and coins rushing down the chute of change machines all blending together; and of course the overwhelming musk of a crowd that collectively forgot to apply their deodorant: these were the glory days of both the golden age (1978-1985) and the silver age (1986-1995) of video game arcades in America.
While some of these memories may not be looked back on as fondly as others (Ooh, that smell!), most arcade enthusiasts who came from this exciting era of gaming remember the exhilaration that came from placing a precious quarter from their lunch money above the second-player start- button of a Street Fighter II cabinet, watching as the line of new challengers ahead of them got taken out one-by-one by the reigning champ of the day, until finally, with sweaty palms, it was their turn and all eyes were fixed on their every hadouken.
With at-home entertainment bigger than ever, this age has come and gone in America, leaving most of the arcades that still stand as mere husks of their former selves.While video gaming is a bigger industry today than it ever has been in the past, if you want to go toe-to-toe against serious competitors in most modern games these days, you have to face off against them via online servers. Even a large number of current-generation racing games - a genre founded on the thrill of racing the persons sitting next to you - lack any kind split-screen versus modes, instead relying on online multiplayer.
Without a doubt, being able to play games with people around the globe from the comfort of your own home is a remarkable representation of current gaming technology, but there is something missing from this experience; something that can only be experienced in a crowded, noisy, and, at times, stinky environment: the experience of putting real money on the line in hopes of getting the highest scores and highest win streaks at the local arcade. It’s amazing how competitive a game can get when every turn costs real money.
The coin-operated gaming scene may be dead (or dormant) in America, but other countries, such as Japan, still have a thriving arcade community. Games new and old, all of which are kept in near perfect condition, are feverishly played on a daily basis in arcade strips like Akihabara in Tokyo. Seeing pictures or watching footage of these giant arcades jam-packed with eager gamers is enough to bring hope to any arcade revivalists. Whether or not the type of popularity arcade gaming has in Japan will ever be seen again by the West is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the titles that were responsible for the popularity of coin-op gaming around the world during the gold and silver ages of the arcade. Here are the ten highest-selling arcade games of all time.
10 #10 - Donkey Kong Jr: (30,000 Hardware Units Sold)
Arriving on the scene in 1982, only one year after the success of the game bearing his father’s name, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Jr. took the platformer genre format of the original Donkey Kong and twisted the roles of its characters. Unlike the first Donkey Kong, players actually control the character the game is named after.
Players must reach the top of each stage in attempt to free Donkey Kong Sr, who is being held captive by the game’s villain: Mario. That’s right, Donkey Kong Jr. featured everyone’s favorite Italian-American plumber as the bad guy, the only time Nintendo’s main-man-with-a-moustache has ever been characterized as the antagonist.
9 #9 - Galaxian: (40,000 Hardware Units Sold)
In an attempt to compete with the classic Space Invaders, developers Namco released their own game in the fixed-shooter genre in 1979, calling it Galaxian. The game plays nearly identically to Space Invaders; players control a spaceship at the bottom of the screen that can shoot and destroy alien invaders that are shooting back from the top of the screen.
The one major difference between the two games is that in Galaxian, the aliens will periodically dive-bomb at players, kamikaze-style.
Galaxia went on to have two sequels: Galaga and Gaplus.
8 #8 - Centipede: (55,988 Hardware Units Sold)
Atari’s Centipede took the “shoot ‘em up” genre to another level when it was released in 1981. This time around, instead of an incoming horde of aliens, players are forced to deal with a fast-approaching giant centipede with a body made up of multiple parts that can be shot at individually. Shoot off pieces from the ends of the body to have them turn into mushrooms. Shoot off a piece from the middle of the centipede to have the ungodly abomination split into two smaller, equally ungodly abominations.
It should be mentioned that each level is covered in mushrooms that make the centipedes approach the player even faster whenever they run into them. If it weren’t for the limitations of its pixelated graphics, Centipede would be a nightmare.
7 #7 - Defender: (60, 000 Hardware Units Sold)
Released in 1980, William Electronics’ Defender brought something new to the shooter genre (in case you haven’t realized, this genre was quite popular during the golden age): the ability for players to control their ships vertically as well as horizontally.
Another element that made Defender different from most of the other shooters at the time was its level-design. Instead of having levels that were essentially the size of the screen, Defender showcased levels that went beyond the barrier of the screen’s size, allowing for a sense of what is known in the gaming world as “side-scrolling.”
6 #6 - Asteroids: (100,000 Hardware Units Sold)
Atari’s Asteroids is a multi-directional shooter that has players control a spaceship (more like a pixelated triangle) that has found itself in the middle of an asteroid field. Players must shoot the asteroids to have them turn into tinier and tinier pieces until each stage is free of space-rock.
This game typically used a Trackball instead of a joystick to ensure smooth multi-directional movement. The only problem was that these trackballs liked to pinch the skin of the player’s hand between the rolling ball and the cabinet top.
Asteroids has provided lots of fun and blisters since its 1979 release.
5 #5 - Ms. Pac-Man: (125,000 Hardware Units Sold)
Ms. Pac-Man was originally developed by a handful of employees at General Computer Corporation as a Pac-Man enhancement kit called Crazy Otto, but after a lawsuit that prevented GCC from developing games for Pac-Man developer Namco, the small band of GCC employees wasn’t sure what to do with their recently built enhancement kit. Eager to sell, they turned to Midway, which was responsible for Namco’s North American distribution. With the colossal success of Pac-Man, Midway eagerly bought the rights to Crazy Otto and changed all of the character sprites into the Ms. Pac-Man sprites they are today. They chose to make Pac-Man feminine in this version as a love letter to all of the numerous female fans of the original Pac-Man, one of the few games to actually attract a female audience.
Released in 1981, the game is largely identical to the original Pac-Man; consume every white dot on each level, avoid ghosts, eat big white dots to turn the table on said ghosts, and of course, eat fruit. The one major difference between the two games is that the movement of ghosts in Ms. Pac-Man is randomized, whereas the ghosts in the original game go about the same patterns every time, allowing players to memorize the levels. For this reason, many hardcore players prefer the unpredictability that Lady Pac-Man brings.
4 #4 - Donkey Kong: (132,000 Hardware Units)
Released in 1981 by Nintendo, Donkey Kong was the very first videogame to feature the iconic plumber, Mario. Players control Mario in an attempt to save his girlfriend from the giant gorilla, Donkey Kong, who is holding her captive at the top of each level.
The game was originally meant to be called “Monkey Kong,” but the Japanese developers mistranslated the title to “Donkey.”
That’s not the only issue the game had with its name. Nintendo was brought to court by Universal City Studios who sued the developer for making a game with a similar name and likelihood to Universal’s King Kong. The judge ruled in favor of Nintendo, and granted them $1.8 million after they filed counterclaims against Universal.
3 #3 - Street Fighter II: (200,000 Hardware Units Sold)
The only game featured on this list to come out after the end of the golden age (it was released in 1991), Street Fighter II is a cut-above any other arcade game that had been released before it, and made the genre of fighting-games into what it has become today.
The series’ most recent incarnation, Super Street Fighter 4, is still widely popular today, with major tournaments held monthly. Players typically play the 4th installment on Sony’s Playstation 3 or Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
In the original version of the game, players can choose between eight different characters from around the world as they battle one-on-one against each other, with the computer controlling the other seven characters, as well as four additional boss characters. Anytime a player is facing off against the computer, a second player can interrupt the fight, with a message appearing on the screen that reads: “Here Comes a New Challenger!”
The game utilizes six buttons as well as unique special moves for each character. The most iconic of these special moves is the character Ryu’s hadouken, which is a fireball that travels across the screen.
A year after Street Fighter II’s initial release, Capcom released an updated version of the game with the subtitle ‘Championship Edition,’ offering a rebalanced game and allowing players to play as the four boss characters from the original.
2 #2 - Space Invaders: (360,000 Hardware Units Sold)
Released by Taito in Japan and Midway in North America, Space Invaders is considered one of the very first shooter games ever made. It was released in 1978.
If the majority of this list wasn’t indication enough, Space Invaders has been very influential, as innumerable clones followed it in hopes of stealing its glory. Despite best efforts of the competition, none of the copycats sold nearly as many units as Space Invaders’s whopping 360,000. The game was so popular in Japan that there were actually arcades filled only with Space Invaders cabinets.
1 #1 - Pac-Man: (400,000 Hardware Units Sold)
The #1 spot belongs to one of the most easily recognizable characters in all of gaming history, Pac-Man.
It may seem obvious that Pac-Man is the highest-selling arcade game ever made, but the truth of the matter is the game wasn’t at all popular when it first came out in Japan. Remember those arcades in Japan that only had cabinets of Space Invaders? It seems Japanese gamers were too preoccupied with shooters to pay any notice to Pac-Man’s fun, addictive gameplay, and they weren’t alone in writing off the would-be classic.
Pac-Man was also overlooked by marketing executives and competitors nearly across the board. To the entire industry’s surprise, the game soared when it was released to the public in North America.
Men, women, and children alike all fell in love with Pac-Man, which is exactly why it managed to move 400,000 in just two years’ time.