The 8 Best 8-Bit Arcade Games of 1981
By James Grahame
Video arcades flourished in the early 1980s for one simple reason -- arcade consoles offered stunning gameplay unmatched by the rudimentary home consoles of the day.
Even relatively straightforward arcade titles like Namco's Galaga incorporated three Z80 microprocessors, a dedicated sound chip and a high resolution (for the time) color display -- a potent combination unmatched by the blocky graphics and bleeps of Intellivision and Atari 2600 consoles.
1981 was a landmark year. Games like Defender and Pac Man arrived in arcades late the previous fall, and the gold rush was on to develop the next smash hit title. The result was an onslaught of brilliantly coded and innovative games.
Here are my 8 favorite arcade video game titles from '81, in alphabetical order.
Namco's brilliant multi-directional shooter places your tiny spacecraft in space, surrounded by an endless collection of enemy space stations, enemy fighter formations, space mines, asteroids and spy ships. Your job is simply to cause as much mayhem and destruction as possible before succumbing to the inevitable.
Apart from the frenetic gameplay, it was also the first game to feature a continue screen that allowed you to pick things up without having to start from the beginning.
Donkey Kong was a title born out of desperation. In 1980, Nintendo tried to enter the North American market with Radar Scope -- a Galaxian-style fixed shooter. It flopped, leaving the company in a precarious financial situation with a warehouse full of unsold units. To save the day, they called upon neophyte game designer Shigeru Miyamoto to design a new game for the unsold hardware.
Miyamoto eventually cooked up a story involving a deranged gorilla, a heroic carpenter and a damsel in distress. Initially, the hero was known simply as Jumpman. However, the North American office eventually dubbed him Mario, after Mario Segale, their landlord. The title has earned almost mythical status in the three decades since its release, spawning a stream of progressively more impressive sequels.
A frog, a freeway and a treacherous river. It doesn't sound like the plot of a successful video game, but Sega/Gremlin's quest to save frogs from almost certain death proved tremendously popular in arcades and countless home computer ports. It has been cloned endlessly over the years, but the original is still my favorite.
What's with the hoards of evil space flies, anyway? Galaga was the sequel to Namco's massively successful 1979 Galaxian. Your starfighter can move left and right along the bottom of the screen, battling endless waves of rather unfriendly space bugs. Under the right circumstances, a boss bug can capture your starfighter. With a bit of careful shooting, you can reclaim it and use two ships simultaneously. Of course, there is always the possibility that you'll accidentally shoot your own ship or lose track and let the enemy capture your last ship.
This kick-ass multi-level Midway shooter ripped off the game play of Galaxian and Space Invaders, yet proved surprisingly entertaining. Your ship was free to roam anywhere in the bottom third of the screen and your quark laser blasts could be canceled by simply firing a new shot.
The arcade cabinet featured a Votrax speech synthesis chip. All these years later, I can still do a spot-on imitation of the synthesized voice declaring "Eye amm Gorff." Needless to say, I often find myself sitting alone in the corner at parties.
From the look of this list, Namco was on a roll in the early 1980s. This update to 1980's Rally-X was more fun to play than the original, thanks to somewhat easier gameplay, an "improved" soundtrack and better graphics. It is one of the few driving games of the era that I actually enjoy, actually.
The only arcade game I've ever played from start to finish. This Konami multilevel side-scrolling shooter was a suicide mission deep into a fortified enemy world which featured stark primary colored landscapes (bright pink, anyone?). You were armed with only a cannon and bombs throughout the jaw-clenching battle against wave after wave of hostile rockets, UFOs and fireballs. To make things even more challenging, your ship was constantly in danger of running out of fuel. The only way to refill was to destroy the tanks which were thoughtfully labeled "fuel" by the defenders.
It probably cost me $50 in quarters to memorize the route and conquer the game. And, sadly, I didn't master another game until I collected all of the red and blue pages hidden throughout Cyan's Myst in 1993.
William's successor to 1980's Defender was absolutely stunning, complex and deadly. I never mastered it, but that didn't stop me from spending the occasional quarter just to admire the explosions and immerse myself in the otherworldly sound of endless laser fire. The goal was simple: destroy the aliens and protect the humans on the planet's surface. Easier said than done, thanks to an endless onslaught of Landers, Mutants, Swarmers, Pods and even Yllabian Space Guppies.
This updated 2013 list doesn't include Ms Pac-Man, which I didn't really enjoy much, nor does it include Ladybug, which was one of the most entertaining Pac-Man derivatives (I didn't play it much in the arcades, although I enjoyed the ColecoVision version).