The Impact of Arcade, 1Up, and High Score Video Games

Key Points

  • High score video games have roots stemming back decades. 

  • Atari is the grandfather of video games, paving the way for arcades and home consoles. 

  • Nintendo and Namco are among the earliest high score video game companies. 

  • Iconic brands like Star Wars, Tron, and Mortal Kombat have dominated arcades too. 

  • The arcade may be a relic of the past, but its spirit endures. 

High score video games have filled arcade pockets with the quarters of children and adults for over 50 years. The thrill of an arcade captivated the early video game market because of its fun and addictive gameplay loops. The competitive elements also spurred this arcade boom, most notoriously, the coveted high score records.

Arcades and high score video games build on the desire to be the best. While some consider arcades an old-school concept, long before esports and multiplayer deathmatch, the high score game component has stood firm through video games developed in the 2020s and evolved into other popular gaming trends.  

This article is a history of the arcade and how it has influenced the video game industry in the 21st Century.

In For a Nickle: Atari Built the Arcade

The early 1970s brought forth the arcade concept. Back when games cost just a nickel! Atari began developing digital video game machines after the success of coin-operated games like pinball machines, which had been popular for a few short decades.

In 1971, Computer Space was released. Computer Space was the first commercially available game and bars everywhere were lining up to purchase the game. Unfortunately, reviewers said it was “too complicated” for people to understand, and the game flopped.

In the years since, many people credit Computer Space as the basis for arcade classics like Space InvadersGalaga, and Centipede

The second game Atari released in 1972 is one you’ve likely heard of, Pong. This was the gaming industry’s first great success, a game of table tennis on a digital screen with only one goal: “knock the ball off your opponent’s side of the screen to score.”

These early arcade cabinet machines conceptualized the high score and are the progenitor of video games and their communities. However, by 1983, an oversaturated game market and consoles led to a decline in quality for those interested in digital games.

This decline likewise was paired with the rise of the Personal Computer. As a result, the video game crash of 1983 led to the Atari 2600, Intellivision, and Colecovision nose-dives. Luckily, this wasn't the end for arcade machines. They were just getting started. 

The 1Up Revolution: The 10 Best Cabinet Games

 

In 2023, arcades are fondly remembered by those who played in the industry’s golden age and are a source of nostalgia even for those born long after the last quarter dropped in Street Fighter II.

Imagine for a moment that it’s 1989 and the arcade energy is potent and infectious. Feel the nostalgia in every button pressed, every clink of the coin, and every bite of crappy arcade pizza — but, oh how delicious! 

Arcade bars exist to replicate these feelings, and they turn to the best arcade games of that era. Below are ten of the best arcade cabinet games in release order. 

Pac-Man & Ms.Pac-Man (1980 & 1981)

This list starts with a dual credit for a power couple. First, Pac-Man is the best-selling, number-one arcade game of all time and one of the most easily named video games ever. Taking the crown of most arcade games sold at 400,000 units according to Statistica, Pac-Man’s impact radiates throughout game mascot history. 

Widely considered superior in terms of gameplay is Pac-Man’s better half, Ms. Pac-Man. She has faster, higher-octane gameplay that started as an unofficial mod. After the mod was purchased by developer Namco and made official, Ms. Pac-Man became one of the highest requested machines for retro vendors like Arcade1Up. You’d recognize that bow on her head anywhere. 

Pac-Man’s world record is a perfect score of 3,338,420, set in 2020 and held by Billy Mitchell. Abdner Ashman holds Ms. Pac-Man’s world record. Ashman's score to beat is 933,580.

Donkey Kong (1981)

In 1981, Donkey Kong provided two of the most legendary characters and set Nintendo up to become the juggernaut it is today. Easy enough to pick up and play but mechanically deep enough to spend years trying to master, Donkey Kong is a keystone game for the entire medium. 

Mario, who in this game is “Jumpman,” ascends a construction site level after level filled with traps of rolling barrels, extra lives (1Ups), and platforms. If he doesn’t time his jumps correctly, he plummets to his death.

His heroic goal is to rescue Pauline, the damsel-in-distress that the giant gorilla — and titular villain — Donkey Kong has taken.

Discussion around Donkey Kong's high scores is famous and infamous for monumental cheating scandals. Billy Mitchell is the source of such infamy and held Guinness World Records in both Donkey Kong and Pac-Man until 2018.

Twin Galaxies, a video game and pop culture forum, claimed that Mitchell had used emulators and not original hardware, and Guinness stripped him of those records. However, he eventually reclaimed the record in 2020 and remains an infamous figure in the arcade community

However, Robbie Lakeman is currently standing atop the golden tower since 2021, the world record holder for Donkey Kong, scoring 1,272,800. 

Perhaps you will be the one to claim the next high score!

Galaga (1981)

Though less of a household name than Space InvadersGalaga is the best-aged fixed shooter from the Golden Age of Arcades. Starting to blast away at a mini armada with exceptional-looking graphics and sound design, Galaga offers a modestly complex threshold for new players but is deep enough for the most competitive players to sink their teeth into. 

The world record is 20,980,450, set by Jordan Dorrington. The best part of this story is that he won the record after standing over his personal machine for 14 hours straight! Dorrington housed a full-sized console in his kitchen which was conveniently located right behind the coffee machine. 

Tron (1982)

With a cult classic film of the same name, Tron is world-famous for its iconic art style and famed game modes like I/O Tower, MCP Cone, Battle Tanks, and Light Cycles. Even if you’ve never played a round, you would recognize the images and the sounds that a Tron box makes (and for Disney-produced blockbuster films). 

David Cruz holds the world record for Tron, set in 2011 with a score of 14,007,645.

Star Wars: The Arcade Game (1983)

It’s 1984. You and your pal Ricky are heading down to Moe’s Arcade because your mom can’t stand the two of you throwing M&Ms across the room, aiming for each other's mouths but instead sending them between the couch cushions.

So there you and Ricky are, $5 of quarters to split, and you know what box you’re hitting first — the problem is, everyone else is there too. Good luck trying to get to Star Wars. Every other kid on the block is lining up to play those sweet vector graphics and first-person starfighter combat. 

The game remains one of the most popular ever made and is one of the last games produced for the Atari 2600. The highest score ever attained is 300,007,894 by a player known as RTM, via Twin Galaxies

Contra (1987) 

A run-and-gun, shoot-'em-up game, Contra is one of the most iconic of its time, reminiscent of popular science-fiction action movies like PredatorRambo, and Alien.

Playing as commandos, Bill and Lance, the game pits you against extra-terrestrial invaders who seek to destroy Earth. It is an excellent representation of early run-and-guns taking inspiration from similar sources as Halo eventually did a decade later. 

A player named Arcus holds the speedrunning world record, which clocks in at 10 minutes, 23 seconds.

Mortal Kombat II (1993)

Most think of the mid-1980s as the heyday of arcade games, but the 1990s also have some sluggers for great coin games. Starting the decade off strong is debate is the game that spawned the ESRB rating guidelines, Mortal Kombat II. With more characters, violence, and insane finishing moves, Kombat II has everything its predecessor had but amps it up to a strong 11. 

Despite being a hot topic among parents and Congresspersons of the time, many regard Mortal Kombat II as one of the best in its series and arcades everywhere. 

NBA Jam (1993)

“He’s on fire!” the announcer shouts as you pull up from three — the thing is, it’s probably true. The game is a staple for players of any interest level in the actual sport, with ridiculous gravity physics, thundering slams, and the crowd cheering “BOOM SHAKA LAKA!” playing as your local NBA team. 

NBA Jam is an essential addition for any arcade enthusiast, featuring NBA legends such as David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Charles Barkley. A fun fact is that Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal owned the rights to their likeness, but developer Midway couldn’t secure their appearance in the game.

Crazy Taxi (1997) 

The zany, ostentatious, and eccentric Crazy Taxi is a game that never should’ve worked. An easy-to-grasp premise helped it get off the ground: deliver the most passengers to their destination within the time limit to score the most cash. Your strategy for getting them there doesn’t have to adhere to traffic laws, common courtesy, or even to the beat of the music (even though tracks like “All I Want” by the Offspring are excellent). 

The game’s physics allows some truly incredible stunts to achieve speed records. Currently, the crown is claimed by JC Padilla with a cash total of $106,184.94, picking up 211 passengers.

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike (1999)

While Street Fighter II is on the short list of greatest fighting games ever made and is considered the best in its series, players regard Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike as a superior arcade high score farmer. 

Arcade enthusiasts praise the 3rd Strike edition of III for its updated visuals, impeccable sound design, and variety of playable characters. It truly is a time capsule into the arcade culture of the late 90s, and it's a hell of a good time. A Ken player, JES currently holds the high score of 1,443,600.

The Arcade’s Legacy and Impact on Gaming

Nintendo and the other household consoles rolled around in the mid-1980s, changing their popular games like Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. to console exclusives. Soon enough, people were playing more video games at home on the couch than they were paying 25¢ a round. 

While the arcade is well-passed its golden age, there are places dedicated to preserving that feeling as much as possible, with housemade pizza and beer to boot.

The early arcade boom was a cornucopia of innovation, competition, and creativity. If you decided not to iterate creatively on a game already made, you were creating something no one else had even considered.

Arcades continue to offer a sense of community when playing in a building dedicated to competition, togetherness, and fun. However, the internet offers modern ways to get involved with these golden age video games and chase your own high scores. 

Twin Galaxies is a great resource to flag what high score games interest you. Forums and subreddits like r/arcade and Discord are places to make friends, find original and refurbished hardware, and (re)discover your love for the classics. 

Arcades laid the groundwork for every video game afterward. Even if gamers weren’t there, they understood what the arcade meant for the things they love. It meant a few pixels of color and a sturdy joystick. It meant a sound card that is thousandths the size of what your phone can hold. It meant passion, community, and, to many, a safe haven. That’s what the arcade represents.

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