Best Arcade Games Of All Time: Top 5 Nostalgic Machines, According To Experts

Classic American arcade games spawned through the 1970s to the 1990s. During that time, arcades and bowling alleys were social hubs for the nation’s first generation of video gamers. Players could expect impressive graphics, gameplay, and music that simply couldn’t be achieved with home consoles. Eventually, home consoles and internet gaming would largely replace the arcade as the center of the video gaming community. To take a stroll down memory lane, we turned to our sources for a critical look at the top five best arcade games of all time.

Arcades were a place for competition and community. Before the modern internet allowed the global video game community to come together and play, arcades were the place that people had to go if they wanted to experience the best games. Often associated with kids and youth, the gaming community has always included people of all ages and walks of life. All it took was a quarter or two and a person would be able to experience any number of classic video games.

Pinball arcades and other machine gaming cabinets were available as early as the 1930s depression era and offered players a bit of fun for a coin. The modern arcade, with rows upon rows of brightly colored cabinets and flashing lights would begin to take shape in the 70s with the golden age of arcades lasting until the mid-80s. After that, the silver age which lasted until the mid-90s took shape with some of the most popular fighting games like “Street Fighter II” or “The Simpsons Arcade Game.”

A recent Fan Poll showed the top 40 games which includes home console titles showed interesting results. The greatest video games of all time include “FIFA,” “Mario Kart,” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” a new poll reveals. Interestingly, eight of the top 10 titles are more than 40 years-old, proving that gamers still love the classics! The poll of 2,000 adults found three-quarters have played video games before, with 86 percent feeling a sense of nostalgia whenever something reminds them of these digital classics. As a result, the top 40 list features plenty of old favorites, including “Tetris,” “Space Invaders,” “Donkey Kong,” and “Street Fighter.”

Another study shows data that indicates why some might gravitate towards video games. It seems that many folks might need to get out a bit more and inject some fun into their lives. A survey of 2,000 Americans finds that for the average adult, more than a third of their year is spent mired in boredom.

Our sources helped us look at the most popular arcade games of all time and determine our list of the top five arcade game cabinets. Let us know your favorite games in the comments below!

arcade game station
Arcade games (Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash)

The List: Best Arcade Games, According to Experts


1. “Pac-Man” (1980)

“Pac-Man” is easily the GOAT, first released in 1980, this was the first arcade game that was more than just a few simple lines and dots.  “Pac-Man” was a fully developed character and the catchy chip-tune music put gamers in the mood to chase after that high score. “Widely regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time, ‘Pac-Man’ is a simple yet addictive game that has remained a cultural icon for over 40 years. The game’s objective is to navigate Pac-Man through a maze, eating dots and avoiding ghosts. It has sold over 400,000 arcade cabinets and inspired numerous sequels and spin-offs,” raves LWOG.

Pacman arcade game
Pac-man arcade game (Photo by Sei on Unsplash)

If not the out-right number one game of all time with our sources, it was almost always in the top three. “We start of our list of best arcade games with an all-time classic ‘Pac-man!’ ‘Pac-man’ genuinely deserves to be in the number one spot. ‘Pac-man’ was the top-choice arcade game for a long time, and it still is to this day. It has been around us since 1980, with many different versions of itself over the years. The primary purpose is to collect as many points by eating dots while avoiding ghosts that try to kill you,” opines Fiction Horizon.

“Pac-Man” was a bonafide economic wave-maker, the likes of which had never been seen before. “’Pac-Man’ has devoured more quarters than any other arcade game in history, to the tune of $3.5 billion by 1990 (or $6.5 billion when adjusted for inflation). Released in 1980, ‘Pac-Man’ was gaming’s first true mascot, with arcade patrons worldwide taking to the lovable yellow eating machine and his game’s addictive maze-chase gameplay. Even though Namco would go on to chase the female demographic directly a few years later with ‘Ms. Pac-Man,’ the original was such a massive hit precisely because it appealed to such a broad audience, including women. It was a nonviolent game (well, unless you count Pac-Man chowing down on ghosts as violent) and unlike many of its contemporaries, was NOT another space shooter,” adds How Stuff Works.

2. “Donkey Kong” (1981)

Donkey Kong” was one of the first Japanese import games and would establish Japan as a major contributor to the video gaming industry. It featured a character called jump man who would later become known as Super Mario as well as the most famous ape in video gaming, Donkey Kong. “Nintendo broke new ground by using state-of-the-art graphics (at the time) and included cutscenes to advance the game’s plot as well as integrate multiple stages into the gameplay. The game went on to become the highest-grossing arcade game of 1981 and 1982 and remains one of the most popular arcade games of all time, worthy of this list. It also saw the introduction of a giant monkey throwing barrels at an Italian plumber, what’s not to love?!” exclaims That Funky Venue.

As the subject of the 2007 documentary, “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” “Donkey Kong” has undoubtedly made a cultural impact that goes beyond the arcade. “All of us are familiar with the loveable Mario Brothers, and ‘Donkey Kong’ was the first game that introduced us to Mario. Of course, our beloved Italian plumber was called ‘Jumpman’ on the earliest machines, but he was undoubtedly the character that we now know and love. You take Mario – ahem, Jumpman – on a quest to the top of tall and twisted towers. Your aim is to rescue a princess from a monster called Donkey Kong. You need to do this while dodging obstacles that Donkey Kong throws at you. This mostly means barrels that hurtle down at you from all areas of the screen. You’ll need to boost your hand-eye coordination to dodge multiple barrels at once,” as detailed by Emporium.

The now-famous pair of Mario and DK are the stars of the 2023 animated blockbuster, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” but they were there for each other from the very start. “Love Mario? Then you owe it to the great plumber to go back and visit his first adventure, facing off the mighty Donkey Kong and his steel-girder hideout. Donkey made his debut in this puzzle-platformer too, in which Mario must jump barrels and other hazards to race to the top of the tower and save his beau. It’s a stone-cold arcade classic, and one that’s sparked many a gamer rivalry,” adds TRG.

 3. “Space Invaders” (1978)

As one of the titles that pre-dates “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” is another major video game classic. “Even before 1980, this game sold extremely well. In Japan, ‘Space Invaders’ made over $600 million and earned the equivalent of $1.7 billion by 1982. Today it is the highest-grossing game of all time, with profits of $13 billion between all of its versions. What sets it apart from many games of its ilk is its simple yet addictive gameplay. You can just pick up and play and lose yourself in fast-paced gameplay,” offers Game Designing.

It is a simple game that anyone can pick up and play but it ramps up the challenge, difficulty, and speed as the game progresses. “’Space Invaders’ is a shooting game. Players operate a fixed cannon and shoot at the invaders coming from above. The aliens move across the screen, and then down one level, slowly getting closer and closer to the cannon. They move faster and faster as the game progresses, and the game ends if they reach the bottom,” claims Wealth of Geeks.

“One of the most iconic video games of all time, ‘Space Invaders’ wasn’t the best of the classic arcade fixed-shooter games, but it set a standard that all others had to match. With iconic enemy designs and ships despite the downright archaic technology, it’s no wonder it’s still a common reference point for classic arcade games today,” states GameSpot.

4. “Street Fighter II” (1991)

“Street Fighter II” is the game that established the fighting game genre as a major arcade draw. “A fighting game that revolutionized the genre, ‘Street Fighter II’ is a cultural phenomenon that popularized competitive gaming and introduced the world to iconic characters like Ryu and Chun-Li. It sold over 200,000 arcade cabinets and remains a popular game in arcades and on home console. It goes down as a legendary game that came out of the 1990s boom,” according to LWOG.

“Street Fighter II” was at the head of a major video arcade resurgence that happened in the 90s.  “It’s hard to think of another arcade classic that has managed to age quite as well as ‘Street Fighter II’ has. Capcom was onto something with its original 1987 hit, but it was ‘Street Fighter II’ that solidified the series as the pinnacle of 2D fighting game design, to the point where the game is still viewed as a top-tier title in the competitive scene more than a quarter century after its original release. ‘Street Fighter II’ was so successful in fact that it is cited as a key title in helping spur an arcade resurgence in the early ’90s after arcade operators suffered declining revenues in the mid-80s,” details How Stuff Works.

As far as fighting games go, few titles ever reached the heights of greatness achieved by SFII. “Yeah, we’re calling it – ‘Street Fighter 2’ is the best fighting game ever. And even if you disagree, you can’t argue against it being the most influential. From ‘Tekken’ to ‘Soul Calibur’ to ‘Smash Brothers,’ everything that’s come after ‘Street Fighter’ pays it homage in some way. From its accessible specials to its instantly-iconic cast of fighters, ‘Street Fighter 2’ set the stage for what was quickly to become a cultural phenomenon, and is as enjoyable today as it was the better part of two decades ago,” gushes TRG.

5. “Mortal Kombat” (1992)

“Mortal Kombat” caused quite a social stir when it was first released. “The arcade version of ‘Mortal Kombat’ especially got a rise in parents. No one wanted their child to see a man rip out an organ, limb, or skeleton from another’s person body. Therefore, the game sought extreme backlash with many wanting the game to be banned. Unfortunately for them, this only increased ‘Mortal Kombat’s’ popularity immensely,” explains The Review Geek.

The splotchy red pixels and shouts of “Come Here!” seem dated now, but at they time they were revolutionary as nothing like it had ever been seen before. “’Mortal Kombat’ is an arcade fighting game released in 1992 created by Ed Boon and John Tobias. ‘Mortal Kombat’ is a violent fighting video game with characters that use brutal, supernatural moves, including magic, telekinesis, fireballs, ice breath, and other play styles like weapons or animal attacks to win the match. ‘Mortal Kombat’ started off a whole franchise of incredibly popular games,” writes Fiction Horizon.

Perhaps the greatest American-made arcade title of all-time the original MK spawned a franchise that continues to grow today with a 2021 film that topped the streaming charts on Max and a new “Mortal Kombat” game release slated for release in September 2023. “A fighting game that shocked the world with its graphic violence and controversial finishing moves, ‘Mortal Kombat’ is a franchise that has remained popular for over 30 years. Its combination of gore and deep gameplay mechanics has made it a fan favorite, and it has sold over 25 million copies across various platforms,” writes LWOG.

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