9 Beloved Classic Arcade Games Revisited (and How We Can Learn From Them)

Sam Howzit, Flickr

Man, remember arcades? The noise of cabinets trying to outdo one another with their crappy blown-out speakers, the flashing lights, the Liquid Paper curse-words on the machines, the drug deals… arcades were the bomb.

Another feature of arcades – besides the cheap heroin – was the games, and as we all know, there were some doozies. But that arcade atmosphere definitely had a lot to do with the enjoyment of certain titles, as well as awesome features like four-player cabinets and still-somewhat-working lightguns, but how does the straight-up gameplay of the software itself hold up? Can an arcade master like Mortal Kombat still retain even a shred of its former glory as a one-hundred-per-cent legally obtained and owned ROM played on a laptop, for example? Solely for your edification, and not because getting paid to play videogames is awesome, will I undertake this… undertaking. Dealy. Whatever.

(Quick note: All games were played on a beat-up old laptop via MAME while sitting in a very uncomfortable and unpadded wooden chair for reasons I’m not even sure of; the only one that wasn’t is Golden Tee, which was tested at Simon’s Guts Bar, where there is free, genuine soap in every glass and a bodily injury of your choice after 10 PM for no extra charge.)

9) Lethal Enforcers


Back in the day…
LIGHT GUN GAME! Pew pew pew! Oh man, they’re FMV crooks, and they’re robbing a bank! That’s two crimes I get to shoot them for! Even if they’re the herkiest, jerkiest criminals ever, this game is a blast. And the hilarious, awesome people really making my day by doing the ol’ “OHMYGOD DON’T SHOOT AND IN ORDER TO STAY SAFE I WILL RUN BETWEEN YOUR DEADLY BULLETS AND THE CRIMINAL BULLETS I AM SO SMART OK BUH-BYE!” gambit crack me up.

This game looks fucking disgusting, though the only thing surprising me is that that’s even possible. Even upon release Lethal Enforcers was a terrible-looking title. But I’m more baffled by how this game is still fun. Like, it sucks, but once the graphically-induced involuntary shivering and ’90’s flashbacks settle down, you dial in, look down your sights, an pop crooks like you’re still wearing your Hypercolor shirt.

What can modern games learn from it?
They already learned it: Give up on FMV. Though I guess simplicity is another takeaway they could use; there’s an ‘in the zone’ feeling that comes over you when you play this. The crims aren’t too quick, so you have time to not only line them up but also to try for headshots. It’s about as realistic as a photo of Pamela Anderson’s breasts, but just like in my youth I played, went into The Zone, and spent a solid half-hour gaming without any real memory of it apart from a lingering feeling of deep satisfaction. So yeah, just like I did with that photo.

8) Mortal Kombat

This was shocking, once upon a time…

Back in the day…
My God, it’s full of blood! And… holy shit, did that dude playing just make the blue guy rip off that chick’s head??? I do not know who this cracked-out man-child is, but I will worship him as a blood-god.

So… yeah. In an age where I can murder a hooker, rob her corpse, than punch-fuck through any cops willing to investigate my slaughter, Original Recipe MK is kinda… quaint. And it’s hardly worth putting up with the crappy controls just to see some stuff you could more satisfactorily YouTube up onto your wizard-box. There’s really not a lot left in the old horse, really.

What can modern games learn from it?
That digitized graphics are still awful. Seriously, while we may have a renaissance of 8-and-16-bit graphics going on, I really don’t think anyone will find a worthy reason to bring back MK/Pitfighter/other shitty title graphics. Oh! Awful controls. Don’t have them, guys. I mean, we get great controls when dealing with first-person, 3-D-realized, all-axis-points-covered games. Do the controllings good like that instead.

7) Double Dragon

“Yo, Racially Diverse Abobo, do I still have your friend’s face on my boot?”

Back in the day…
This is hallowed turf for me. Double Dragon ignited my love for videogames, because you can just constantly knee people in the face. I had no idea life could provide such pleasures. It also, somewhat unfortunately, bred into me a burning, heartfelt, abiding passion for the side-scrolling beat-’em-up, a genre that hasn’t fared so well since the advent of 3-D. Still though, you could get a sweet, violent DD run going on for cheap, and that made this like the McDonald’s of the arcade: You knew exactly what you were getting, without fanfare, and it filled a hole. It was all-thrills in terms of story, though: AH, YOU TOOK MY GIRL FUCK YOU PUNCH KICK PUNCH DIE WE COULD DO THIS WITH GUNS BUT THAT SHIT IS FOR THE WEAK PUNCH! I love you, Double Dragon. I want to be you.

I still love you! I just… there’s constant punching and kicking and… I cry. At the beauty of it. So perfect. So fly, in my jacket-with-the-sleeves-torn-off and tight, tight jeans. Also, while playing it in the privacy of my own home I can laugh like a maniac and scream my catchphrase “YOU ARE NOT THE ONE WHO WILL BE PUNCH-KICKING THE FACES OF BADNESS TODAY!” (It’s a work-in-progress.)

What can modern games learn from it?
Simplicity. If you do one thing super-really-good, it pays dividends for just as long as, if not longer than, doing a billion things kinda-okayish. (Hi, Grand Theft Auto V!) It doesn’t take care of the “I WANT TO DO ALL THE THINGS NOWWWWWWWWWW!!!” feeling modern gaming has ingrained in us, but by gum, when something is done so goddamn correctly, it stands as a monument to awesome amazeballsness for all time.

6) Tekken


Back in the day…
“THESE ARE THE GREATEST GRAPHICS OF ALL TIME AND CAN NEVER, EVER BE TOPPED!!! ARE YOU SEEING THIS SHIT???”… is what I said the first time I saw Virtua Fighter. Then I saw Tekken, and with an even higher level of boldness made the exact same proclamation, speaking as if I were orally giving birth to the One Immutable Truth of Life. This is why I would be awesome (or terrible, depending on your point of view) at politics.

Tekken‘s gameplay is still cored in what was birthed here, an you can see why they’ve managed to build a massive franchise around it. One button for each limb, two for standard throws, and a decent amount of combos mean it still can get the job done to this day… provided you can look past the awful, awful graphics.

What can modern games learn from it?
This question almost doesn’t apply, because this is still a viable series, and I’m sure Virtua Fighter Vs. Tekken Tag-Team Double Up Download RPG Xbox One Exclusive is just around the corner. Apart from that, I guess graphics? Something about them always being better? Or maybe just “franchise the Holy Christ out of your shit for $$$.” That’s kind of like accusing your favorite band of selling out because more than three people have heard of them, though. Also, puns. C’mon, who doesn’t love a good Tekken pun? You? You don’t? You must be tekken the piss, surelyHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA! HA!

5) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Is Leo having a great time, or the greatest time?

Back in the day…
Things that ruled: Ninja Turtles. Arcades. Punching robots till they explode. And motherfuckin’ four-player co-op! Four friends, or you and three creepy older dudes who spent more time looking at you than at the game, it didn’t matter until the police came! Dibs on Leonardo!

Still pretty awesome. Hitting robots with rad weapons is always gonna be fun, and the turtles are good-looking sprites; in fact the whole day-glo game looks good even today, and the choice between having to stab/slash/club/poke your enemies is a decision I wish I got to make more often. Sound-wise, the digitized speech is awful (can any other descriptor follow the word “digitized”?), but the soundtrack is credible. It’s a solid experience, and unlike, say, Double Dragon, you don’t quite need prescription-strength rose-colored glasses on to get super-maximum enjoyment from it.

What can modern games learn from it?
That you don’t need a color palette consisting of brown, grey, and grey-brown to make a game enjoyable. This thing is all kinds of bright, based as it is on a children’s cartoon, and even if it were all grey it wouldn’t make me want me rescue April O’Neil any harder. Sexy, sexy yellow jumpsuit-clad April O’Neil…

4) NBA Jam

So many things in this picture no longer exist…

Back in the day…
If I’m correct (an uncommon thing, I assure you), there have been more violent basketball games than even football games, and this baffles me. Why? Is it because seeing a 7-foot tall monster go flying is hilarious? Or because seeing someone like Alonzo Mourning shoving Muggsy Bogues halfway down the court is hilariouser? Yes. The answer is yes. To both. Yeses.

This stone-cold classic was the only way to really mess up friends a grade or two ahead of you. I mean, what hurts more: one of your pathetic child-punches? Or somersault-dunking over the top of their 2-D Patrick Ewing and smashing the glass out of the backboard? As glasses-face Horace Grant, no less? (For reals, I love ya, Horace!) Also, the announcer doing… announcings was one of the few arcade background noises that didn’t get murder-rage-inducingly repetitive. Good job, Tim Kitzrow!

You’re my boy, Horace.

There’s a lot of nostalgia wrapped around this game, as it not only brings back memories of your arcade days, it also reminds of when basketball was the international king of sport and even undiscovered tribes in Botswana had heard of Michael Jordan. It’s almost a blessing that he isn’t in the game, because otherwise every match would be a fistfight over who gets to be Chicago.

The gameplay is still fast and furious, shoving opposing team members is still fun, and oh my God is the trashtalk in two-player as amazing as ever! Granted, the only person I had to play with was my wife, and she was sadly unaccustomed to trashtalking and thus wound up weeping and asking why I’m so awful and mumbling that her mother was right and marrying me was a disaster, but boy-howdy did I let rip with some humdingers before all that! I’m fantastic!

What can modern games learn from it?
Seriously, I cannot. Stress. This. Enough: PEOPLE PLAYING A GAME TOGETHER IN THE SAME ROOM IS NOT AN ABOMINATION!!! Fuck me dead, let us fire up our machines and jump into a game without having to sign in to online accounts or go to separate goddamn houses, console makers! Surely you played GoldenEye, the God of four-player shit-talk? Remember how fun that was? Remember actually SEEING an opponent’s physical reaction to getting screwed over, the mix of pain at the loss and the pleasure of comprehension in seeing how they played into your genius plan? Please, let us relive these fantastical moments without the bullshit. Please.

3) Golden Tee Golf

“I’ll golf all over your fashe, jus’ you watsh me! An’ get me another Jack, wouldja?”

Back in the day…
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! BAR O’CLOCK! Alright, I’m gonna have me a beer and check out a few things because I’m 21 and stupid! This is so much better than dumb arcade games WOOOOOOOOOO!!!

(3 hours later)

Hey, an arcade cabinet! What’s that? It’s a golf game? Well, any port in a shtormWHOOPS ‘shcuse me lady, I shpilled a bit of my drinky-drink just there you’re really pretty by the way, not hitting on you or nothin’, just thought you should know… okay, if I can just grab these quartersh… oh, a trackball? That sheems… yep, another beer over here… oh, a trackball? How quaint! Like Misshile Command! Anyway, I can figure this out and fuck anyone who says I can’t… HAHAHA, BIRDIE! HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW, JANE POTTER FROM EIGHTH GRADE? WHO’S A MAN NOW??? Yeah, you know it’s… whoops, shliced it! Yep, hit me again barkeep and make it shnappy! I’m busy bein’ a golfy-pro over here ooops hit it into the trees, ah wellDID THAT LIMEY PRICK OF A COMMENTATOR JUST TELL ME TO GET A CHAINSAW??? LET’S SEE YOU TRACKBALL WHEN YOU’RE DRUNK AS FUCK AND PINING FOR A WOMAN WHAT LEFT YOU FOR SOMEONE WHO COULD LEGALLY BUY HER CIGARETTES AND… wait, I can legally buy shigarettes now! I need to call her!

Believe it or not, it is actually possible to play this game sober, and if anything it gets its hooks into you even deeper, probably because when the game challenges you, you don’t immediately get a case of the fuckits like you do with five beers under your belt. I was actually shocked at how quickly this game had me in its grip when I revisited it; I intended to just play a few refresher holes but ended up completing one and a half courses.

What can modern games learn from it?
That drunk people will always think they are the best at videogames should they happen across one in a bar, based upon the fact that they played the same game once at Chuck E. Cheese when they were twelve. Trying to dissuade them of this opinion is an exercise in futility, no matter what the evidence presented on-screen is. Apart from that, I guess it’s that great gameplay tops every other aspect of design, be it graphics or sound. I don’t know, all I can think about right now is completing Cactus Canyon under par.

These are everyone’s initials when they’re drunk enough.

2) Street Fighter II: The World Warrior

Beating up on those exotic foreigners with disfigurements, Ken? You truly are a World Warrior. Also, Bindi Irwin would like a word…

Back in the day…
Here it is, the granddaddy of competitive fighters. The Big Cheese. The Supremo. The… Supreme with Cheese? It’s tops, is what I’m saying.

I don’t think I’ve ever walked into an arcade and not heard at least three of these (or other Street Fighter II variants) on attract. And if you were lucky, you’d get to see a couple of then-were-masters, now-you’ve got-some-questions-about-their-lifestyle-choices people ripping off hadokens, sonic booms and spinning bird kicks like it was nothing. Hell, they were practically making love, drawing out the match to make that quarter last, occasionally clashing violently, countering blow with blow and chaining together move after move after sweet sweet move until everyone’s panting and spent. And feeling slightly weird.

Still phenomenal, provided you know it better than you’ll know anything else ever. I was more of a pad guy and had trouble with the arcade stick because I’m stupid, so I didn’t get into it in a way that to this day makes me feel a failure. But it’s all still there: The great music, the fantastic graphics, and despite my personal limitations, the controls really are dialled in beyond belief. This game soars above all limitations wrought by time, leaving the countless imitators crumbling in back-alleys an mouldering in landfills. (That’s you specifically, World Heroes!)

What can modern games learn from it?
That straight-up copying isn’t a guarantee for success. Sure, you’ll make a little scratch doing that, but everyone knows the real money is in a franchise. Also, there’s a difference between “inspired by” and “copy of.” Samurai Showdown was no doubt “inspired by” Street Fighter II, but it added its own specialness to the genre (not just weapons). On the other hand, Fighter’s History is a game most people haven’t heard of due to the fact that a half-blind old person could tell it’s nothing but a shameless copy done with the same amount of effort you put into drunkenly jacking off.

1) Pac-Man

Pictured: Every screenshot of Pac-Man ever.

Back in the day…
Hoo boy, this is crazy old-school! In fact, there was some difficulty in my locating this game as a youngster, because by then most cocktail cabinets had been replaced with uprights sporting newer ROMs. But there was one dingy backwoods arcade that was terrifying, with a clientele of dealers, dopers, ex-juvies, aspiring juvies and vandals that had a version of it gurgling away next to a Pengo machine (knowledge given to me by my mother, of all people; she was, and remains, a Pac-Man fanatic.)

The allure of Pac-Man is its simplicity. Like Double Dragon, it chooses to do one thing really, really phenomenally well. What impresses me is that it sounds simple (get chased by ghosts, eat dots, get power beyond imagining, eat ghosts, lose power, ghosts speed up, get chased by ghosts), but I literally have no idea how, in an era when games didn’t have the crap play-tested out of them, they balanced it so perfectly. During that decent amount of play for a quarter, it’s never too hard, and it’s never too easy. Was it genius, or a freak accident? Or did the god of pizza bless his creation as recompense for never being complete? I guess we’ll never know.

What can modern games learn from it?
Zen. Balance. Enough ebbs and flows, give me a game that challenges without being unfair, a game that has no dull spots, a game that satisfies me for fifteen minutes but at the same time leaves a lingering need for more! There are a few indie games that fit this bill, but I want to see these qualities in a blockbuster title. You can do it, games! I has believes in you!

Previously by Jamie Dennis-Jackson:
6 Licensed PS1 Titles That Somehow Didn’t Suck
The 7 Most Overlooked Neo Geo Arcade Games
The 6 Best Videogames Starring the Aliens from Alien