Eleven nostalgia-charged arcade machines from the 90s
There was a time when four quarters were worth more than a dollar. There was a time when when quarters meant an afternoon at the local arcade. That first quarter you pumped into a machine was like magic, and that magic sustained until the dreaded final quarter was spent.
But it was about more than just the games. The social aspect of the arcade is one that may prove to be irreplaceable, even with online communities sprouting up in their absence. You never knew what was going to happen, or who you were going to meet when you walked through the door or mall entrance to your local arcade, but one thing was for sure: you were going to make memories that would stay with you for the rest of your life.
With so many sights and sounds vying for your attention the moment you walked in the door, several games and machines were bound to leave an impression, even if you never played them. These are eleven that I happen to remember from my days as an arcade prowler. Some of them I played once and then never again, others I spent a small fortune on. Check out my list and add ones you can’t stop thinking about in the comments section.
Ribbit Racin’ (1994)
This one falls more into the category of games I never really played, but I could never imagine going to my local arcade in the 90s without walking by the Ribbit Racin’ game and hearing “Welcome to the International Swamp Olympics! Featuring Hopping Harry and Jumping Jack!” about once every 90 seconds. The worst part was that, in my arcade, it was positioned adjacent to all the games I spent the most time playing, so the phrase was heard constantly.
The game itself was a simple take on the classic Whack-a-Mole concept, where buttons would light up and players would be required to hit them as quickly as possible. The faster the lights were hit, the faster the frog characters would ascend the machine. Whichever frog reached the top first would be declared the winner and the game would end almost as quickly as it began.
Alright, now this one I played a bit more. Hop-A-Tic-Tac-Toe was more or less my go-to when it came time to try and get some awful candy from the arcade’s ticket cash-in booth. The game had balls laid out in a tic-tac-toe grid. Upon pressing the “POP BALLS” button, the balls would blast into the air and land. The player would then be able to choose which ones to save and which ones to blast again. Wherever the balls would land in relation to the tic-tac-toe board on the second pop would determine the player’s winnings.
Just like the Ribbit Racin’ machine, my memory of Hop-A-Tic-Tac-Toe is more about the sounds that the game gave off on a regular basis. Just before the balls were popped, a Ninja Turtle-esque voice would say “Let’s Pop ‘Em!” If a ball got stuck, the game would try to adjust them by saying “The ball’s stuck!” and popping the balls again. Of course, nothing matched the feeling of hearing the game say “Alright! Tic-Tac-Toe!” before sounding a small alarm and giving out tickets.
Storm Stopper/Cyclone (1994)
If you’ve ever been to a Dave & Buster’s, you’ve encountered this machine. The intense music, the neon tubes, and, of course, the fast-moving whirling snake of light set the stage for one of the most popular redemption-based games in arcade history.
The game also happens to be one of the most frustrating as well, as it’s more than just timing based, as the game would suggest. As the jackpot ticket counter gets higher, the highest prize will typically become easier to win, which is good if you can go around to all of the Cyclone machines in your arcade and grab them when they’re at the maxed-out amount, but go to the arcade at the wrong time, and you could be waiting around all day for a shot to win the jackpot.
When taking a casual stroll through the arcade I grew up by, I can still hear the hundreds of games fighting for my youthful attention, but none more so than Robo-Bop. Nestled right on the edge of the “kids” section of the arcade, its overpowering voice, which yelled “Don’t walk by! Play Robo-Bop!“ would flood the entire arcade, causing many adults to venture to the outskirts of their section to see what this machine was all about.
And really, Robo-Bop was nothing more than an adult game taken straight from the carnivals and applied to a format and style that appealed to children. The booming voice would be the primary attraction, but once the adults realized it was a game that allowed you to hit it as hard as you can with a blunt object, all bets were off. Despite it being nestled alongside the more childish games, I would have to say that it was about a 50/50 shot that it would be an adult smashing Robo-Bop.
Area 51 (1995)
There were a ton of light-gun enabled games hitting arcades in the 80s and 90s, but for some reason, Area 51 just sticks out in the minds of many. Maybe it was the pacing (which was just right) or the cheesy digitized squadmates that popped in front of your line of fire for no reason (which haven’t aged particularly well), but Area 51 remains a cult classic (so much so that it was nearly impossible to play at MAGFest 2013 due to it always being occupied).
The shooting felt fluid and accurate, and the reloading was simple. The sound is again what sticks out for me on this title, as I can still hear the grunt the aliens made as they were being shot. The best part about Area 51 is that it is still fairly easy to find in arcades and restaurants. If you’ve never experienced this premier light-gun experience, drop a few quarters if you happen to stumble upon this cabinet. You won’t regret it.
Smash TV (1990)
Smash TV is a game that still has a ton of fanfare to this day. As a standout in the twin-stick shooter genre, Smash TV took arcades by storm, and by the early 90s, was a mainstay in gaming in general. While the game made its way to the NES, SNES, Master System and Genesis, the arcade version remained the best version until the game released as one of the first big sellers on Xbox Live Arcade in the mid 2000s. Unfortunately for those wanting to relive the magic on their Xbox 360s, Microsoft has delisted the game, so it is now exclusive to those who purchased it when it first released.
Though you could certainly play solo, joining in on the fun in this Running Man-themed action game was where most of the excitement existed, however. Standing side by side as you worked to wipe out rooms full of men in hopes of receiving epic cash prizes is still ridiculously enjoyable to this day.
Daytona USA (1994)
Thinking back to the hundreds of racing games that hit arcades in the 90s, none were more prominent than SEGA’s Daytona USA. As one of the highest grossing arcade games of all-time, Daytona USA was a game that attracted players with high-speed racing action and a beyond iconic soundtrack of original tunes.
What did it for me, seeing as how I’ve always been an enormous Sonic fan, was seeing Sonic up on the side of the mountain as I was driving by on the first track I played. That’s all it took form me. Oh and the “Do Do Do Do Do Do Do Do Do Do” of the “Daytona USA Theme Song” and the “Rollinnngggggg Start!” song. Those will forever be stuck in my head.
Dance Dance Revolution (1999)
Dancing in a shopping mall is probably not something that most arcade-dwellers would consider doing under normal circumstances, but in the late 90s, when Dance Dance Revolution began lighting up game rooms across the United States, it wasn’t uncommon to see people busting moves to popular electronica music.
Featuring a soundtrack of recognizable techno songs and a flashy “stage,” DDR (and other games like it) quickly became a staple of arcades across the globe. Konami had effectively established its game as a cultural phenomenon, and to this day, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an arcade that doesn’t prominently feature a dancing game of some variety.
Street Fighter II (1991)/Mortal Kombat II (1993)
I think it would be impossible to not include these two games in any article about classic, nostalgic or influential arcade machines in any era, let alone in the 1990s. Street Fighter II, when it released in 1991, redefined the fighting genre in so many ways, but it was the competitive spirit that the game brought with it that truly left its mark on arcades worldwide. Combine that with the various updated editions that hit arcades throughout the 90s (Champion Edition and Hyper Fighting in 1992, Super in 1993, and Super Turbo in 1994), and it’s easy to see how Capcom made a boatload of money on this title.
Releasing in 1993 as one of the only threats to Street Fighter II‘s throne, Mortal Kombat II bested the first game in the series in every way imaginable, all while satiating the bloodlust of every angry teenager in the arcade. The game featured the same iconic announcer as the original, but with new fatalities, a ton of a new characters and a refined fighting system, Mortal Kombat II was everything an arcade fighter should be.
The Simpsons (1991)/X-Men (1992)
There was no game that I spent more of my childhood money on than The Simpsons arcade machine. I was so obsessed with playing this game that at the young age of eight years old, I seriously inquired with my local arcade’s owner about purchasing the cabinet. While I never raised the $500 I needed to buy the machine, I certainly spent a good chunk in this masterfully-executed co-op adventure.
The X-Men arcade game had a very similar effect on me, as it was built using the same engine as The Simpsons. This time, I wasn’t quite as hooked, but things like Colossus’ special move (which has become an icon of MAGFest), or Cyclops’ “Optic Blast” are among some of my fondest memories of any arcade game out there. While arcades with these games may be hard to find now, it is a delight to be able to play both of these games on my Xbox 360 whenever I want. And I didn’t have to pay $500 for either of them.
Star Wars Trilogy Arcade (1999)
As one of the best Star Wars games ever released in arcades or homes, Star Wars Trilogy Arcade gave players the thrill of defending Hoth, destroying the Death Star, fighting Boba Fett, and actually engaging in a lightsaber duel. What more could a Star Wars fanatic want from a game? What is quite bewildering is that this game released in 1999, but did not feature any shoehorning-in of Star Wars: Episode One scenarios. Nowadays, when a game celebrating a film franchise’s heritage is released alongside a new movie, it almost always includes missions from the new movie to the detriment of the overall product and mission (I’m looking at you 007 Legends!). But no, SEGA remained faithful to the Star Wars Trilogy Arcade name and kept it all in the original trilogy family. Thank you, SEGA.
Police 911 (2001)
Alright, so this one technically isn’t “from the 90s,” but the majority of the development took place in the 90s and there’s no denying that the game has a definite 90s flair to it. Police 911 blew my mind when I approached the motion-sensing setup that utilized state of the art infrared technology to track the player’s motion as they blasted through a series of missions with the goal of neutralizing a group of hostage-taking terrorists. And it was one heck of a thigh workout, as the player would have to actually squat down in order for the character to seek refuge behind some cover.
The technology was well ahead of anything else found in arcades, and since it preceded the Wii by over five years, it reinforced one of the main reasons that arcades were considered special by the general population: They provided gamers with an experience that could not be replicated by consoles at home. Starting with the release of the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii, however, home entertainment technology began surpassing what could be offered in the arcade setting, causing hardcore gamers to opt to stay in rather than going out and pumping quarters in arcades. Police 911 is one of the final reminders of the era that arcades could offer that unsurpassed experience to draw gamers in.