The 80’s will always hold a special place in my memories. If you’re thinking it’s because of neon clothing, swatch watches, or Duran Duran… 1) You apparently didn’t read the title of this article, 2) You would be wrong. My 80’s were spent, as often as I could get away with, in arcades. As soon as I walked inside, it was like flipping a switch. It didn’t matter what kind of day I was having before that, it was time for some fun. With all the noise and flashing screens, one cabinet shoved up next to another, there was never a lack of choices. That had to be rough on the creators of these games.
How do you stand out from the crowd?
With that in mind here is a list of ten arcade games of the 1980’s that walked a different path than the standard joystick and button setup.
1. Paper Boy (1985)
I had a love hate relationship (mostly hate if I’m being honest) with Paper Boy. I always wanted to be great at it, but, alas, that was never the case. I sucked at Paper Boy. The control scheme for this one is a bicycle handle mounted to the cabinet on a swivel. Push the handle bars forward to accelerate, or pull back to brake. A button is on the back of the handle bar mount for use in throwing the papers. In theory this game sounds easy, and boring, but it is a decent challenge. At it’s very basic mechanic, each paper needs to be thrown at the right moment to hit the mailbox and not break a windows instead. On top of that, every neighbor, and neighbor’s dog are out to get in the paperboy’s way. If that fails there is always a stray lawnmower around that wanted to run him over. Should none of those work, the grim reaper also makes an appearance (why not, right?). Oddly enough I have never delivered newspapers.
2. Karate Champ (1984)
Two joysticks per player, no action buttons, up to two players, and a laundry list of karate moves. In Karate Champ, each attack, flip, or defensive move is performed by moving one or two of the joysticks in a defined direction. For example, a reverse punch is performed by moving only the right joystick to the right. A forwards jump is done by moving the left joystick up and the right one down. There are no health bars or power meters, and the round ends when a player gets a hit on their opponent. Points are either a half or a full point depending on your selected attack or defense. I really loved playing this game, but man was that referee dead serious about his job.
“Full Point!” Take that, other player! Have I made you proud sensei?
3. Tempest (1981)
Tempest has a charm all it’s own. The graphics may be dead simple, but they are vector based (smooth lines and points instead of the standard large pixels of the period) so it looks much more polished in my opinion. The player controls the “blaster” ship and uses a spinner (rotating puck) to guide it around the near-most edge of a playing field that is drawn to look 3D. The majority of the fields are tubes of varying shapes. The enemies circle in from the far end of the tube, land in a lane and make their way towards the player. There are only two buttons, “Fire” and “Superzapper”; the player is allowed to use superzapper once per level to kill all enemies on the field and once more to kill a single random enemy. My go to move was to wildly spin the puck and hammer the “Fire” button until I would ultimately have to use the superzapper. A Tempest wizard I was not!
4. Xenophobe (1987)
In a world of two and four player games, Xenophobe is a three player game. The joysticks look like they are straight out of a fighter jet, sporting a trigger and two thumb buttons on top. The trigger is for shooting, one button for grenades and the other for interaction. All your bases are infected by space aliens. The aliens bear a striking resemblance to HR Giger’s and go through growth phases. Eggs, rolling “Xenos”, warrior type, and the queen. It is a corridor shooter at it’s core, which allows itself perfectly to splitting the screen horizontally for each player. Not only does the player have to contend with a variety of aliens, but also dripping acid, acid spit at the player, poorly thrown grenades, and a self destruct countdown. There is no end to the game, just high score bragging rights. I was always the annoying younger brother running around trying to grab all the weapon drops first. Maybe there was a misplaced grenade or two as well…
5. Punch-Out!! (1984)
Punch-Out!! (you have to spell it like that, it’s just not the same if you don’t) is every 80’s kids’ chance to step up and channel their inner Rocky Balboa. The player takes on the role of Little Mac, a very generic looking up and coming boxer. Little Mac has to fight his way up through the ranks, only to start over if he beats every opponent. There is a basic joystick to this one (only performs up/down and left/right), a left and right punch button, and then a big palm sized button used to perform a knockout punch once a meter is filled. Two monitors are stacked on top of each other. The top screen shows stats, and the bottom one is for game play. I could never quite master blocking in the right direction; Bald Bull was the highest one I could ever manage to get to. I don’t think I could ever look Sylvester Stallone in the eyes because of this. I am ashamed!
6. Tron (1982)
Talk about standout arcade cabinets. Everything about it glows, including what has to be the most coveted joysticks to this day. On top of that it has association with the Disney movie, so that garners it immediate attention. The joystick resembles that of a figher jet, is blue, and glows. The trigger is either used for firing or speeding up, depending on the game mode. Along side of that, to the left, is a spinner used for aiming. There are four game modes to choose from: I/O Tower, MCP Cone, Battle Tanks, and Light Cycles. These all correlate in one way or another to the movie Tron, released the same year. Honestly to me there was only one mode worth playing: Light Cycles. Who doesn’t want to drive one of those things? Alright, well, only if my opponent doesn’t get to turn on his light wall emitter. I enjoy living, thank you very much!
7. Ikari Warriors (1986)
I bet you didn’t expect to see Sylvester Stallone’s name in this article twice, did ya? Surprise! Ikari Warriors allowed me to live out my Rambo fantasies, one quarter at a time. I never knew these two had names until I did research for this article. Ralph is on the left and Clark is on the right. I think I was better off not knowing their names. Two players play side by side, viewing the two Rambo-lite warriors from the top down. The joysticks not only move in eight directions, but can also rotate left and right. This allows the players to move one direction while shooting in another. The screen scrolls vertically, top to bottom, as the duo make their way towards the village of Ikari (I never realized that either). There are power ups and grenades, but my favorite part is stealing an enemy tank and unleashing the fires of hell on my enemies and watching them fall before me!! Ok, ok, I’m calm now… deep breath.
8. Battlezone (1980)
You must be this tall to play Battlezone. I say this due to the periscope the player must use to view the field. This is another vector based game (lines and dots). The player pilots a tank around a martian landscape with rocks to hide behind while trying to destroy enemy tanks. There really isn’t much else to this game. There are UFOs that do not attack but can be shot down. Piloting the tank is done using two joysticks (one has a button for firing) that only move forwards and backwards in true tank driving style. By the time I was tall enough to play this game, there were many more exciting games around. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t always want to play it, I was just vertically challenged is all.
9. Star Wars (1983)
If you put the words Star Wars on a cardboard box and stuck it in an arcade it would still get attention. This Star Wars game features a flight yoke (it rotates forwards and backwards along with turning left and right) with two triggers and two thumb buttons. This is the third vector graphics game in the list. The objective is to reach the Deathstar, survive it’s defenses, and make it to the exhaust port, and ultimately destroy it. To draw players even further into nostalgia, there are digitized voices from many of the Star Wars characters. Red Five standing by! I don’t think Porkins is in this one though. Poor Porkins.
10. After Burner (1987)
I won’t lie, this game intimidated me. Not the game itself, but the way the whole cockpit rotated in every direction while playing. Oh, and hello Top Gun, I’m looking at you now. This game is a straight forward fighter jet arcade game. The players F-14 Tomcat is equipped with a machine gun and heat seeking missiles. As mentioned the whole cockpit rotates forwards and backwards, and the seat rotates side to side. This connects the player to the on screen action in a very convincing way. Time and time again I took myself right into the danger zone… and then I crashed and burned.
So there you have it, my list of ten unique arcade games of the 80’s. There are so many video games from that era that I could go on forever about, but I wanted to stray from the typical “favorites” list. I know there were more unique arcade games from that time period as well, but I decided to stick with the ones that I played growing up. If I missed any that were stand outs to you, feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear about them.