Five Influential Arcade Games Of The Early 1980s

In the 1980s, long before you could have a robust video game experience in your living room, there were arcade games that cost a quarter to play. Home video game systems such as the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision tried to emulate these arcade games, but the experience just wasn’t the same.

Here are five arcade games that defined the genre and influenced the games we play on our computers, PS4s, or Xbox systems today.


This game was actually released in late 1979 but hit its peak of popularity in the early 1980s. Asteroids was simple: You represented a flying saucer (a triangle) that needs to save humanity by shooting different shaped asteroids (which looked like outlines of popcorn). Simply shooting each asteroid made them break apart and come at you faster. Millennials today would laugh, but this is how teenagers and young adults had fun in the early 1980s.


In 1981 and 1982, the arcade version of Pac-Man ruled pop culture world in the same way that Beyoncé or Drake do today. Pac-Man was the pop star of his time. He chomped through a maze while being chased by cute-looking ghosts. There was a different treat at each level.

Pac-Man was so popular that the game led to antisocial behavior, like kids stealing quarters from their mothers’ purses and video game gangs hanging out at 7-Eleven to wreak havoc in between chomping on dots and running away from ghosts. It’s safe to say that Pac-Man is the most popular arcade game ever.


Centipede was released in 1980, and, by 1981, became an arcade game staple. The player was represented by a diamond-like head and needed to shoot through mushrooms to hit the killer centipede that was coming down. The centipede was separated into different parts, and each part had to be shot down to get to the next level. In further levels, the centipede came down faster, and its parts often separated. It was the type of game that provided a lot of both mental and physical stimulation.

In 2009, Wil Wheaton of L.A. Weekly described his fascination as a child the first time he played Centipede.

“It was unlike anything I’d ever played before. It was fast, it was colorful, and it had a unique controller that set it apart from all the other joystick – controlled machines I was used to. I don’t know how my first game went, but I recall feeling like I’d touched the Monolith when I was done.”

Centipede was the first arcade game to offer a roller “trackball” controller, which made the game feel a lot more realistic. Future arcade games with trackball controllers included Slither, Millipede, and Cube Quest.

Donkey Kong

When Donkey Kong first arrived from Nintendo in 1981, it looked like what was — perhaps — the dumbest game ever. The player represented a short man with a mustache, named Mario, who would soon become an iconic video game star. A cute ape was holding your girlfriend hostage, and it was your job (as Mario) to climb girders with ladders and jump over barrels, some of which were on fire, to save your lover. But once you got to the top and appeared to save her, Donkey Kong would kidnap her again, and it was time to chase her to the next level. The ridiculousness of Donkey Kong ended up being part of its appeal.

Donkey Kong was such a huge hit that it led to spinoffs such as Donkey Kong Jr, which was arguably a better game. Then came Donkey Kong III, Donkey Kong Country, and many others. Its main character, Mario, would go on to star in many arcade spin-offs, such as Mario Bros.


Turbo, released by Sega in 1981, was the first mainstream arcade driving game. At the time, the graphics were far advanced from anything seen in a video game before. Some of the Turbo arcade games included a booth where the player had to sit down like they would in a car and use the arcade’s steering wheel. The purpose was to pass other cars in different weather conditions in different city and suburban scenes. Many teenagers of the 1980s would attest that games like Turbo helped teach them how to drive before being allowed to do the real thing. Turbo would set the template for future racing games such as Atari’s Pole Position, Road Blasters, and Daytona USA.

What are your favorite Arcade games from the early 1980s? Do you have any special memories attached to any of these arcade games? Let us know in the comments section.

[Photo by AP Photo]