Video games have been around long enough that they now have a history referencing the childhood nostalgia of an entire generation. Books such as Ready Player One by Enerst Cline prove that this history is pay dirt for an audience that loves reminiscing about pop culture.
RetroPie’s MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) catalogue is the tech world’s monastic library that preserves the history of video games long after the hardware that supported them is gone. For those who just downloaded 100k plus MAME games from RetroPie and are wondering where to start, here is a list of the best.
This game may take a moment to load from your memory, but if you can recall a knight on a flying ostrich, you are on the right track. This 1 or 2 player game involves you riding an ostrich and taking on other knights that ride buzzards. You joust against them and defeat them to move to new levels.
Made by Williams Electronics and released in 1982, Joust takes place on a stationary field with multiple platforms spaced apart at different levels. You jump and fly from platform to platform while engaging your buzzard flying opponents in combat.
Since this can be a two person game, you can have your friend join you to:
- Work together to defeat the enemy
- Fight each other while also fighting the enemy
Whatever approach you take, this one is a good time that allows for strategy and betrayal in equal amounts if played with two players. It also is possibly the only action video game ever made that involves ostriches.
This is another still screen game that is probably one of the best variations of the Space Invaders format. Galaga was released in 1981 by Namco and follows the successful formula established by its predecessors, Space Invaders and Galaxia.
Aliens invade earth from the top of the screen and form ranks over your ship at the bottom. They march toward you as you scroll from side to side shooting at them. Once you blast your way through one formation, another lines up that is larger, more intimidating, and more intense.
Galaga made some fun additions to this game.
- The aliens are colorful flying insects that swoop up from the bottom of the screen to line up across the top
- They not only shoot at you, but dive bomb your ship and disappear below the screen
- Aliens can capture your ship by hovering over it and trapping it in a force field
- You can take your ship back, and if you do you can win gain double the fire power against the invading hordes
Loads of fun, this game taps into one of the most classic arcade aesthetics of all time.
This is one of those classic games that needs no introduction. Created by Shigeru Miyamoto and released in 1981, this game was everywhere and is still fun to play. The scenario is that Donkey Kong kidnaps a princess and holds her hostage at the top of a building under construction.
Starting at the bottom, you must maneuver hero and plumber Mario up a series of platforms and ladders to rescue the frantic hostage, all the while dodging barrels and other rolling objects that Donkey Kong hurls at you.
Whereas Galaga involved mostly button mashing happiness, Donkey Kong is more about:
- Strategy of maneuvering up the platforms
- Timing as you have to jump at the right moment to avoid the barrels as they come towards you
Donkey Kong became one of the bestselling arcade games of that period, holding rank with Pacman and others.
What would any MAME collection be without the addition of Pacman? It’s probably the only arcade game more iconic than the formerly mentioned Donkey Kong. Making use yet again of the stationary screen style arcade game, Pacman centers on a circular protagonist with a big mouth that you maneuver through a maze to eat up all the dots.
However, there are complications. For example:
- Ghosts enter the maze and try to kill you
- They speed up as time goes on
- You have to maneuver through the maze and eat all the little pixels while not getting trapped by ghosts searching to out maneuver you
There is one dot among the others that can turn the tables. Called a Power Pellet, this dot gives Pac-Man the ability to eat the ghosts (which turn blue), but only for a limited time. Then it’s back to scurrying around the maze for every last dot.
Released in 1982 by Namco, Dig Dug is a classic still screen game that was thought of as in the maze vein of Pac-Man. In the game you play a blue-faced character in a white suit who travels through geologic layers of earth with a bike pump. Why? To blow up the enemies with, of course.
Dig Dug comes across two categories of foes during his subterranean travels: Pookas, which bear a faint resemblance to a tomato, and Fygars which are green dragons. Dragons can breathe fire, but all enemies are fatal to Dig Dug and they can travel through solid dirt, while Mr. Dug has to dig tunnels.
However, Dig Dug has two weapons of defense:
- The aforementioned bike pump which he can use to pump up the Pookas and render them harmless
- A keen knowledge of rock placement allowing him to tunnel under a rock and time its fall on top of an enemy
In this game, the progression of levels is determined by the number of flowers you see growing on the surface up at the top of the screen.
Tetris is a game that has outlasted the arcade era and for a time was included with personal computers. It remains a classic puzzle game with enough pop culture references to validate its presence outside of the eighties. But do not overlook the fact that Tetris was originally an arcade game and resides now among classic Mame games.
Tetris is a puzzle game with motion:
- Odd shaped pieces drop from the top of the screen down to the bottom
- It is up to players to rotate the pieces into the position that they desire
The object is to form ten lines without any gaps. Once you achieve that the lines disappear and you are now set to create another gapless set of ten lines. The arcade featured the possibility for two players which makes the action of the game a lot more fun.
This classic platform game eventually became a major game franchise for Nintendo. But back in 1983, Mario and Luigi were mostly newcomers on the scene, excepting that Mario made his heroic debut in Donkey Kong.
In Mario Bros. Mario and Luigi are plumbers who run through the sewers in New York City attempting to destroy the strange creatures that have made it their home. They do this by:
- Knocking platforms from underneath to knock creatures on their backs
- Jumping up to the platform to kick off the creatures that have been knocked on their backs
- Jumping up and hitting the “POW” block in the lower middle of the screen which knocks all creatures on the screen onto their backs
Mario Bros. is a wrap around game, which means that the creatures and heroes alike can leave the screen on one side and appear on the opposite side. The level is completed when all the creatures are killed. Then the plumbers move on to the next level and their next adventure.
As a game about monsters that destroy buildings, Rampage more than lives up to its name. Released in 1986 by Bally Midway, players get to control one of three monsters in the vein of Godzilla or King Kong.
The object is to reduce the city in the background to dust and debris by climbing up buildings and punching them until they collapse and disintegrate. Meanwhile the monsters get to:
- Eat people
- Destroy vehicles (not just buildings)
- Fight back against military by (you guessed it) destroying the vehicles and eating soldiers
There is not a lot to this game, but it is a classic button masher with multiple players being able to fight against each other and even eat a monster that has received too much damage and reverts back to human form.
Street Fighter 2
Still screen games eventually became a platform for some iconic mano y mano style fighting games, including Street Fighter 2. Developed by Capcom and released in 1991, Street Fighter, together with Mortal Kombat (which came out a year later) has dominated this style of video game.
The game play is pretty straight forward. Two opponents start at opposite ends of the screen and start fighting after the countdown. The opponents are gathered from a group of standard fighters. When they face off, they can do standard kicks and punches in an attempt to win points against the other.
But each fighter also has special combo moves that can be employed against an opponent. For example, depending on the fighter you are playing, you can do a:
- Roundhouse kick
- Scissor kick
- Hurricane kick
- Head Stomp
- Sumo Smash
- Yoga Spear
Or, if you are like some players, you can just mash buttons in different patterns and watch what happens. Street Fighter 2 is a great competition game between friends which never gets old.
Arcade games were not just limited to stationary or still screen games. There were also the classic side-scroller games in which the screen follows a main character through a changing environment and ever evolving world of bad guys. Shinobi was one such video game, released by Sega in 1987.
In Shinobi, you play the ninja warrior named Joe Mashumi. Ninja Joe is the leader of his own organization that trains ninja warriors. But trouble strikes when children from his organization are kidnapped by a crime syndicate called Zeed. Joe then goes on a series of missions to rescue kids and destroy the bad guys.
Game play involves:
- Walking and jumping with heroic composure
- Throwing shuriken (throwing stars)
- Various kicks
- Slashing with your super cool katana blade when enemies get too close
- Using a quasi magical ninja technique to wipe out a screen full of bad guys
All this is to your benefit when fighting against common thugs, other colorfully dressed ninjas, guys with wicked cool simatars, and the boss battles at the end of each level. Shinobi can be played with one player or two taking turns.
The video game platform provided a chance for fantasy (which hadn’t quite become believable in movies yet) to rear its many horned heads. It did so in the form of one of the most iconic side scrollers ever, Rastan.
In the world of Barbaria (because Rastan is a barbarian, get it?) an evil dragon starts laying waste to people and countryside alike. Rastan the barbarian is sent on a mission to find the dragon and kill it.
While doing so he spends a lot of time killing dragon-esque creatures as well as other monsters and also fighting boss-battles at the end of each level. For a little defense and a lot of offense, Rastan has a super rad barbarian sword and the ability to jump.
Using the buttons and joystick in various combinations, the cunning player can:
- Jump to different heights
- Use different sword attacks
- Hold the sword in a point downward attack when Rastan jumps down
The players can enjoy this game to a spooky soundtrack with or without their barbarian costumes on.
This game was super popular when Sega released it in 1986. With a stylish couple in a red Ferrari that drove at top speeds along the super highways of the world, there was not a single thing to dislike about it. The original arcade featured a steering wheel and gas pedal and was the height of teenage fantasy driving technology.
The object of the game is to reach the finish line before the timer goes off. To do so you must:
- Stay on the road
- Drive as fast as you can down dips and around turns
- Avoid obstacles and other drivers
As long as you can keep making the checkpoints in time, you can keep driving and decide to go to different maps and different destinations around the world.
If you are going to talk about classic arcade car games, then you have to at least mention the one and only Pole Position which Namco released in 1982. It was a staple of arcade games for many years and even now its electronic engine noise and tire screeching sound effects are guaranteed to bring a smile, if not an actual tear of joy.
In Pole Position the object is to get the best time in a timed trial for a position in the actual race. Then you race the actual race and so on until you run out of quarters (or, in this day and age, time).
This game is still a legendary car racing game and the action can be yours once again (minus the car racing cabinet that the original arcade game came in).
Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom
Capitalizing on the role playing phenomena, Capcom released this Dungeons and Dragons game in 1994. While it was decades away from the kind of open world games that exist now, at the time it was a significant step up from your average fight and smite game.
The setup is that an evil Arch Lich Deimos holds forth in his Tower of Doom, possessing various monsters to beset with increased attacks on the Republic of Darokin in the world of Mystara. A wealthy merchant named Corwyn Linton calls upon four mighty heroes (aka you and your friends) to defeat the Lich and save the Republic.
Playing Tower of Doom, you can chose to play a character from one of four character classes:
As one of these characters you are presented with choices to make during the game. Depending on what choice you make, you will go to a different setting in the world, and it is not possible to go to all the settings in one game, so it retains some semblance of D&D role playing.
The game play is also a little more challenging than average Mame games. In addition to attacking and jumping in average ways, players can:
- Perform turning attacks
- Perform dashing attacks
- Perform strong attacks
As such, Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom earned the reputation of being an innovative step in the world of the video game.
This “coffee table” arcade game is one of the original dungeon crawl games and kept hordes of hapless teenagers cooperating or arguing for untold hours while they guided their characters through level after level of top down action in maze-like dungeons for no discernable reason.
The premise of the game seems to be: It feels great to kill monsters. When playing the game, you can choose to be one of four characters:
- Questor the Elf
- Thor the Warrior
- Merlin the Wizard
- Thyra the Valkyrie
While you play through the game a narrator with a sympathetic voice tells you about the mistakes you made and the state of your health. To this day phrases like “Red Elf needs food badly” and “Don’t shoot the food” are embedded in pop culture.
Gauntlet 2 was released in 1986 and was very popular. It has exactly 200 levels, but the object to Gauntlet 2 is not to beat it. It is simply to keep playing.