The 12 Best Arcade Games Nobody Played


Arcade games lived in a cruel world. Even in the happy, profitable days of the ’80s and ’90s, they were at the mercy of capricious players, and any game that didn’t pull its own weight in quarters was soon replaced by something more popular. Some games never got a good chance in the first place, as language barriers and poor distribution sentenced them to short careers.

This was particularly unfair to the young arcade rats who liked these underappreciated games. If it didn’t make enough money, that inventive shooter or cool four-player beat-’em-up might be gone the next time your mom dropped you off at the arcade. And you’d never see it again until decades down the road, when MAME brought all sorts of arcade obscurities as close as any computer screen. If you got to play any of these games in the wild, count yourself lucky.

12) Battle Circuit
You’ll see several games like Battle Circuit on this list. They’re called brawlers, belt-scrollers, beat-’em-ups, and Those Arcade Games Where You Rescue Your Girlfriend From A Palette-Swapped Street Gang. Started by Final Fight and Double Dragon, the brawler craze dominated arcades in the late 1980s, but its quality didn’t peak until the early ’90s. Sadly, that was when Street Fighter II and other head-to-head fighting games took over, and plenty of excellent brawlers went ignored.

When it came to Battle Circuit, Capcom was their own worst enemy. Released in 1997, the game was overshadowed by Street Fighter III, Darkstalkers, and other Capcom-made fighting games. And that’s a shame, because it’s a solid little brawler with that sharply animated Capcom style. The characters include an ostrich jockey and an alien plant alongside more mundane heroes, and the player can expand their moves by purchasing new attacks between levels. There’s also a weird sense of humor about the whole thing, starting with an Elvis-like boss who turns shorter and fatter once he’s defeated.

Why No One Played It:
Aside from the fighting-game competition, Battle Circuit had a limited release. It skipped North America entirely, and even arcade patrons in Europe and Asia rarely saw the game in its full four-player glory.

11) Bubbles
Some see the early 1980s as the best years of the arcade, an age when video games were a stunning new trinket and companies were throwing all sorts of bizarre ideas into the arcades. Of course, this made the scene highly competitive, and some promising creations withered away before their time. John Kotlarik and Python Vladimir Anghelo’s Bubbles was one of them.

It’s a game built from everyday abstraction: you’re a googly eyed bubble picking up dirt and ants and other debris in sink, growing larger with each item you soak up. If you get big enough while avoiding the deadly clutches of various sink obstacles, you can slip down the drain and into another sink. Bubbles shows off a unique idea in turning the player into a more vulnerable target as the bubble nears its goal, and the controls mimic that idea without being too slippery.

Why No One Played It:
If records are to be believed, arcade-goers just didn’t take to a smiling bubble as well as they did to Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. It was enough of a rejection to make Bubbles a B-lister in arcades… and only in arcades. Bubbles was never ported to home consoles or computers in its own time, and it only came home in compilations of Williams arcade games decades down the road.

10) R-Type Leo LEO
The R-Type series is hardly obscure. Made by Irem back in 1987, the original R-Type set new standards with its relentless difficulty, its novel design, and the freaky alien embryo boss of its first level. And its sequels were similarly appreciated. Well, most of them were.

R-Type Leo is the odd one of the family. It has the familiar formula of a sleek starfighter using a remote attack pod, but it’s not as rigid as its cousins. Your ship gets two enemy-seeking satellites, weapons are easy to find, and the game doesn’t demand that you beat it a certain way. You can continue right where you left off, and a second player can join in as well.

Why No One Played It:
It’s hard to find much evidence of R-Type Leo being released outside Japan. Though there’s a “World” version, the game was a rare sight in arcades. Sadly, R-Type Leo was never brought to home systems, as Irem preferred to make the all-new R-Type III for the Super NES in 1994.

9) Asura Blade/Buster
There aren’t that many underrated fighting games from the 1990s. The arcade-going public embraced most of the good ones and even a couple of the really awful ones. This makes Fuuki’s two-game Asura series all the more curious. It’s a little trite in its premise (a post-apocalyptic world where magic and technology meet!), but the artwork is solid and there’s a creative character or two sprinkled amid the beefy swordsmen and busty swordswomen. It looks like a cross between Capcom’s Darkstalkers and SNK’s Samurai Shodown, and Asura Blade borrows from both. It’s faster than the usual weapons-based fighter, and there’s a good dynamic to the battles. The sequel, Asura Buster, improves on all of this in various little ways.

Why No One Played It:
Neither Asura fighter was released in English or on a home system, and Asura Buster’s 1998 launch missed the chewy center of the fighting-game craze by a few years. When Asura Buster arrived in 2000, it simply wasn’t different enough.

8) Undercover Cops
Undercover Cops is all about the details. This brawler finds three vigilantes cleaning up a thug-infested city, and every piece of that city shows the dense, grimy graphics that Irem designers did so well (and later did in SNK’s Metal Slug series). And Undercover Cops has plenty of little gameplay touches: the heroes can swing around girders and stone pillars, while everything from fish to junked Humvees can be thrown at your greasy opponents. In fact, you can even install-kill the first level’s boss by chucking him into a trash compactor. And he can do the same to you, because fair’s fair.

Why No One Played It:
Spotlight-stealing fighting games weren’t the only problem facing Undercover Cops. It was also rushed. Back in 1993, Irem released a scaled-down version of the game in Western markets, while Japan got an improved edition with more moves, music, and visual touches. Irem later tried to make up for it by releasing the Japanese version overseas as an “Alpha: Renewal Version,” but no one really cared by that point.

7) The Legend of Valkyrie
The arcade games of old weren’t much for long epics. Most were short, easily grasped quests that followed a straight line. So Namco’s The Legend of Valkyrie stood out when it featured a sprawling world and gameplay that resembled one of Nintendo’s early Zelda titles. A superior sequel to a mediocre Famicom title, The Legend of Valkyrie sends a Norse battle-maiden hopping all over the place in her mission to save all humanity. It’s part shooter and part action-RPG, and Valkyrie gains new magic and weapons in each branching stage. A naked lizardman joins her for the two-player mode, even though he’s probably not part of the Norse pantheon.

Why No One Played It:
Only Japan got The Legend of Valkyrie back in 1989, and it wasn’t until 1996 that the game was translated into English (for a PlayStation compilation). In fact, most of the games that feature Namco’s Valkyrie heroine aren’t released in North America.


6) Cyberbots/Armored Warriors
Cyberbots and Armored Warriors aren’t arcade games so much as they’re big, sloppy kisses that Capcom bestowed upon giant-robot anime. Armored Warriors, a 1994 brawler, showed this affection in numerous clashes between superbly designed mecha. The game only made a few breaks with the beat-’em-up formula (such as the ability to steal enemy parts), but the robots sure looked cool.

Cyberbots, a head-to-head fighter, reused all of those robots in 1995 and got much better results. The mecha are all piloted by a stylish array of warriors, cyborgs, rebels, and stranger characters, all the work of incomparable artist Kinu Nishimura. With that grounding, Cyberbots becomes a mecha nerd’s dream as towering machines of war wreck each other everywhere from deep-sea trenches to the streets of orbital colonies.

Why No One Played It:
We could blame the general bias that North American nerds apparently have against “serious” Gundam-style anime robots, but there’s another reason. Cyberbots was a bit too shallow to rope in the fighting-game fans who dedicate their lives to Street Fighter II combos. At least it didn’t fade completely away. Jin Saotome, the ostensible hero of Cyberbots, appeared in the first two Marvel Vs. Capcom fighters.

5) Guardians
Sure, Banpresto’s Guardians looks like a generic brawler at first. It’s all about a futuristic street war waged by anime superheroes, and those superheroes seem unremarkable. There’s a Captain Commando lookalike, a robot, a wrestler, a monster, a ninja, a different kind of ninja, and, shockingly enough, two women who aren’t wearing all that much.

But here’s the hook: each character has an impressive lineup of special moves (better than most one-on-one fighters of the day), and all of those moves can be chained together. It alleviates a lot of the repetition that often drags down games like this, and Guardians even throws in some shooting levels similar to Capcom’s awesome Alien Vs. Predator arcade beat-’em-up (which is, regrettably, too well-known to put on this list). And Guardians isn’t as bland as its cast might suggest. There’s quite a bit of background humor in the game — including two thugs caught making out inside a model castle.

Why No One Played It:
Like Undercover Cops, Guardians had the rotten luck of being an under-distributed brawler at a time when everyone wanted Street Fighter knock-offs. It was even overshadowed by some high-profile games from its own genre (such as the above-mentioned Alien Vs. Predator). Guardians was ahead of its time, but that didn’t attract kids who wanted to play Primal Rage instead.

4) The Outfoxies
The Outfoxies isn’t really a fighting game. It’s better. In this Namco game, players are dropped into a war among elite assassins, and their battles are staged in huge stages where just about everything is a weapon, be it a rocket launcher, a crate, or a pool of hungry sharks. The levels are also inventive spreads where the characters catch rides with trapeze artists, leap between train cars, and drop a life-size replica of a blue whale on each other. The assassins themselves have two stock Bond-type heroes and lumbering Jaws knock-off, but they also include an inventor in his robotic wheelchair, an actress and her pet iguana, and a chimp in a top hat and tails.

Why No One Played It:
Once again, fighting games were the problem. They loomed too large when the Outfoxies arrived in 1994. What’s more, this isn’t a game immediately appreciated, since the characters are small and the zooming perspective is confusing at first. But there’s plenty below that surface.

3) Ninja Baseball Bat Man
Great art is often unappreciated in its own age. Videogames suffer the same fate, whether they’re real art or not (feel free to fight about this in the comments). So perhaps it was too much to expect the arcade-playing public of 1993 to embrace Ninja Baseball Bat Man. It’s a brilliantly strange idea, devised by Irem of America employee Drew Maniscalco and brought to life by the company’s Japanese programmers. It has four robotic ninja baseball players hunting down stolen memorabilia in a world where just about everything’s themed around the sport: in place of street punks, the Bat Men pound living baseballs, bats, gloves, and cyborg catcher gear. It’s all doused in delightful cartoon silliness and a funky soundtrack. Plus there’s a bonus stage where you squeeze a baseball as hard as you can. And the baseball’s glaring at you the whole time.

Why No One Played It:
Poor distribution, for one thing. On his website, Maniscalco states that the game was promoted half-heartedly, with fewer than 50 units shipping to American arcades. Ninja Baseball Bat Man fared better in Japan and Asia, but it didn’t come into its own until the modern era. Today, it’s praised by everyone from the Angry Video Game Nerd to preteens who’ve just discovered MAME. It’s a shame that Irem’s all but given up on games these days, or else we might see more of Ninja Baseball Bat Man.

2) ESP Ra.De.
Cave’s ESP Ra.De. is an atypical shooter, and not just because it features psychic teenagers in place of heavily armed spaceships. As those Akira-esque teens shred through a multitude of tanks, jets, and rival espers, they have three different weapons at their command. Most effective is a powerful shield than can be charged up and unleashed in a burst of screen-wiping destruction. There’s a creative flow to the game’s power-up system, which lets you recharge your energy field if you’re good enough, and the enemies are fierce and abundant. Cave’s currently famous for over-the-top “bullet hell” shooters that swamp the player with multicolored shots, but ESP Ra.De. finds an enjoyable spot between “strategic” and “OH GOD ALL THESE BULLETS WHAT DO I DO.”

Why No One Played It:
ESP Ra.De. wasn’t distributed all that well outside of Japan, and Cave didn’t do all that much to promote it after the fact. Even though it led to the ESPgaluda series (available as close as your iPhone), ESP Ra.De. was never given a proper, full-bodied home version. Perhaps it just doesn’t have enough creepy schoolgirls to suit Cave’s current shooter catalog.

1) Aquario of the Clockwork
We’re willing to bet that no one reading this played Aquario of the Clockwork. In order to get your hands on it, you had to be at a few specific arcades in Japan during the summer of 1993. The game was location-tested there by Westone, makers of the delightful Wonder Boy and Monster World games. Aquario was created in the same cheerful, vibrant side-scrolling style, plus it had a multiplayer mode and let you pick up and throw both enemies and allies. Alas, few people cared about Aquario in the age of fighting games, and Westone quietly dropped it.


Why No One Played It:
Aquario was never officially released, that’s why. But all hope is not lost. The website Hardcore Gaming 101 recently interviewed Westone co-founder Ryuichi Nishizawa and asked him about Aquario. The question inspired Nishiszawa to dig through Westone’s archives and find the source code for the game. So far, he’s pulled up sprites of the three main characters (above) and other animations that show off the sort of awesome, upbeat Mario-ish platformers that Westone made many times back in the early 1990s. Nishizawa’s currently chronicling the game’s restoration on Twitter, and he’d like to hear from anyone who wants to play Aquario. And you should want to, if you have any love for side-scrolling action games.