Best Classic Arcade Games of 1981

Enjoy a taste of nostalgia with these classic games

In 1981, video games were hot, with arcades popping up all over the country. While the video arcade market had been saturated with rip-offs and clones of previous hits such as Pong and Space Invaders, the release of Pac-Man in 1980 broke the market out of the rut, thrusting video games from a niche fad into a major industry.

With the public demanding new, more elaborate games, developers and manufacturers needed content that stood out from the competition and kept players feeding quarters into the machines. This allowed game markers the freedom to explore and experiment with new ideas, designs, and concepts.

The result was 1981, one of the most innovative and prosperous years in video arcades, spawning major hit games the likes of which no one had ever seen before.

These are the Best Arcade Games of 1981!

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Galaga screenshot

D.S. Cohen

What started as a sequel to Namco's Galaxian, a Space Invaders-like single-screen shooter, became a major franchise, and is your Guide to Classic Video Games all-time favorite video game.

With dazzling graphics, fast-paced action, and frenetic gameplay, Galaga takes you through wave after wave of insect-like alien swarms that you blast your way through as they come in a variety of different formations.

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Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong screenshot

D.S. Cohen

Oh, bananas! A big harry ape has kidnapped construction worker Mario’s girlfriend Pauline. Long before Mario switched careers to plumbing and started his princess chasing ways, he was challenged with trying to rescue his lady love by running across girders, climbing ladders, leaping over barrels and smashing fireballs with a hammer in one of the first platformers, and the game to introduce the world to two of the most iconic characters in the video games, Mario and Donkey Kong.

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Ms. Pac-Man

Ms. Pac Man screenshot

D.S. Cohen

Midway Games had licensed the rights to release Pac-Man in North America from Namco and took the liberty to create numerous unauthorized variations of the game, the most popular of which was Ms. Pac-Man.

On the surface, Ms. Pac-Man may have looked like a clone of her male predecessor only with lipstick and a bow, but there are quite a few differences between the two.

Ms. Pac-Man has more maze variations, moving fruit that runs around the maze, two warp tunnels, different ghost behaviors and new cinematics between levels that reveal the romance of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man as they run and chase Ghost Monsters.

When Namco found out about all the unauthorized Pac-Man variations Midway was putting out, they canceled their license and retained the rights to all the games. Because Ms. Pac-Man was so popular, Namco started manufacturing the game themselves.


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Frogger screenshot

D.S. Cohen

You’ll never believe that a game about getting a frog from one side of the screen to another could be so challenging and addictive​ but stands out as a unique game that keeps you feeding quarters so you can repeatedly help a little amphibian get home.

The game consists of a single screen with a countdown bar as players try to get their frog into one of the five available homes though a busy freeway and across a hazardous lake, all while trying not to get splattered, fall into the water or gobbled up by predators.

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Mouse Trap

Mousetrap screenshot

D.S. Cohen

After Pac-Man’s release and monumental success in 1980, the following years were chock full of rip-off games all trying to piggyback on the original’s success. Mouse Trap is one of the most popular, mainly due to its sense of humor and attempt to try and make the game feel a bit more unique.

Players take control of a mouse and like Pac-Man the goal is to eat, but the dots in the maze have been replaced by pieces of cheese, the ghosts are now cats, and the power pellets are dog bones which temporarily turn the mouse into a dog who can take down the cats. A couple of unique additions that they added are doors that open and close, constantly changing the maze paths, and an enemy hawk who can fly across the maze and defeat the player regardless if they are in mouse or dog form.

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Scramble screenshot

D.S. Cohen

Taking a page from the 1980 hit Defender, Scramble is a side-scrolling space shooter, but instead of defending your home planet from invaders, you’re the one blowing everything up on the planet’s surface including enemy bases, gun turrets, and fuel tanks (the latter giving the player more fuel). You also need to take down a multitude of enemy ships that come at you in a fast formation.

The player ship can fire missiles straight ahead or drop bombs, with the game often requiring you to fly low to the cavernous surface. Touching the surface of the planet, hitting one of the enemy structures or ships, or getting blasted by enemy fire will cause you to lose a life.

The game was so well received that developer and manufacturer Konami made another version, replacing the ship with a helicopter and increasing the difficulty, releasing the game under the title Super Cobra.

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Wizard Of Wor

Wizard of Wor screenshot

D.S. Cohen

A single-screen dungeon maze game where players take the role of the 'Worrior' traverse though the environment shooting at various monsters who are trying to hunt them down. Once each monster is destroyed, the level ends with a boss monster battle, then a new maze appears with a different design and more difficult monsters to battle.

One of the unique elements of the game was the multiplayer feature. In two-player mode, the players can blast each other as well as the monsters.

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Qiz screenshot

D.S. Cohen

One of the most original and abstract games of it’s time, Qix is a line based colorful helix creature roaming through an empty space that the player must fill up with closed box shapes. The goal is to fill as much of the empty space as possible by drawing enclosing lines that fill up once the shape is complete. The danger is that if the Qix touches you or your line while the shape is being made, you lose a life. Players also have to avoid the Sparx creatures that run along the lines you’ve made, hunting out your icon to destroy it.

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Gorf screenshot

D.S. Cohen

It’s five space shooters in one! Gorf stands for "Galactic Orbiting Robot Force". Each of the five levels have different design and gameplay, and while the majority of these are rip-offs of other titles, the design is tight and it gives players more bang for their buck (or in this case, quarter).

The levels are broken down as...

  • Astro Battles: A straight-up Space Invaders rip-off, almost identical in gameplay.
  • Laser Blast: A Galaga rip-off that features near-exact gameplay.
  • Galaxians: Basically a Galaxian rip-off, being so bold as to use the game they cloned as the name of the level.
  • Space Warp: A bit more unique than the other levels. Space Warp uses diagonal lines forming from the center of the screen out to the edges to give the player the feeling of moving though a space warp as enemy ships fly out at them from the center of the warp zone.
  • Flag Ship: This serves as the boss battle of the game. The set-up is the same as the Astro Battles level, only your fighting it out with one major mothership instead of smaller enemy crafts.
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New Rally-X

New Rally-X screenshot

D.S. Cohen

Quite possibly the very first arcade expansion pack. Developed and manufactured by Namco, New Rally-X was sub-licensed to Midway Games to distribute in North America. Instead of releasing it as an all new game cabinet, Midway sold it to arcades as an arcade kit, containing a new game board. Arcades simply had to take the original Rally-X manufacturers and switch out the game board for New Rally-X.

The gameplay ended up being far more popular than the original as it had been fine-tuned to make it easier to control and the maze-like tracks were more expansive.

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