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1. Killer Instinct
Killer Instinct is another arcade game that may feel quaint if you fire it up on your Xbox. But when the game came out in 1994, it was like no fighter or arcade game we had ever seen.
It was the first arcade game to rock an internal hard drive, allowing it to sport some “killer” graphics and snippets of CG animation. And the combo system, characters, and fatalities made this feel like the best parts of every popular fighter rolled into one.
Additionally, the whole game was like an extended advertisement for the Nintendo 64. If you were a hyped-up Nintendo fan, this game took your excitement up to an “11.”
2. Time Crisis
There have been plenty of great arcade shooters over the years. However, Time Crisis managed to take things to another level. The game had a pedal that allowed you to duck in and out of cover. Combined with an easy reloading technique, this was the first arcade game that really made you feel like you were in a high-octane shootout from your favorite action movie.
3. Dragon’s Lair
No list of magical arcade experiences would be complete without Dragon’s Lair. This game blended top-notch animation with LaserDisc technology that was pretty mindblowing back in 1983. While other arcade games struggled to give us some pixels we could recognize, this game let you take control of a Don Bluth cartoon. And we all thought it was so cool that we overlooked the absolutely unforgiving difficulty.
4. Quick and Crash Quick and Crash was a Namco arcade game with the spirit of an old carnival amusement. Players had a limited amount of virtual bullets with which to shoot different moving plates. If you had enough bullets left, your last target was a cup. Shoot it, and it seemingly exploded into a dozen pieces! Of course, this was all a trick of light and mirrors. But for one quarter at a time, kids got to take turns destroying the hell out of that cup while competing for the best time.
5. Gauntlet Legends
The original Gauntlet was an arcade classic, but it didn’t take long for that game to show its age. But in 1998, the franchise would blow our minds again with Gauntlet Legends. The graphics were big and breathtaking, and the ability to play with several friends made this a popular hit in the arcade. But best of all was the password system that encouraged you and your buddies to come back each week and complete this epic game.
6. Cybertroopers Virtual-On
From Voltron to Gundam, the idea of controlling giant fighting robots always seemed so cool. And Virtual-On was the first arcade game to really do this experience justice. The variety of weapons and different robot playstyles gave this game some much-needed replay value. But the real fun came from using the twin-stick arcade controller. It made the game so much different from others and made players really feel like they were in the cockpit of a killer robot.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
When the first TMNT arcade game came out in 1989, it was insane. Young fans finally had a video game where the Turtles looked and sounded like their animated counterparts. The stages were inventive and there were plenty of awesome villain cameos. But the real fun of this was playing it with three other friends and taking the entire squad into battle against exploding Foot Soldiers.
8. Discs of Tron
The original Tron arcade game was very iconic. However, the Discs of Tron upright arcade game made for a more magical experience. Standing inside this beautiful cabinet was the next best thing to stepping inside the world of the first Tron movie. And it helped make the game (with its basic graphics and gameplay) actually feel like a dramatic life-or-death struggle.
Afterburner has had several really solid ports over the years. But nothing ever really matched the magic of the original cockpit arcade game. In addition to revolutionary graphics, the cockpit could tilt forward, back, and from side to side. It was the closest most gamers will ever come to flying a jet, and the timing of the release (Top Gun gave us all “the need for speed” one year before) couldn’t be better!
10. Time Traveler
Chances are that you don’t remember the Time Traveler arcade game by name. That’s because pretty much everyone remembers it as “the hologram game.” Strictly speaking, this wasn’t a “real” hologram. Instead, Sega used a curved mirror and CRT TV to create the effect. But playing this game as a kid really did feel like getting a glimpse of the future.
The X-Men arcade gameplay was fun by itself--it was a colorful and highly animated beat-'em-up. But what made this particular game magical was the six-player version. On certain cabinets, up to six players could play across one giant screen (well, technically, several screens made to look like one screen). It really felt like you were taking a large group of your favorite mutants into battle. And, of course, this game gets extra points for making the awesome Dazzler into a playable character.
12. Crazy Taxi
Arcades have seen plenty of racing games. But there has never been anything before or after quite as wild as Crazy Taxi. There was a sheer, visceral thrill to mastering maneuvers like the Limit Cut and Crazy Drift. And you were driven to even greater speeds by the soundtrack blaring The Offspring and Bad Religion into your ears. Plus, the gameplay was downright addictive as you coming up with new paths that would help you play the game that much longer.
13. Dance Dance Revolution
Dance Dance Revolution basically created its own genre. And along the way, it created an unforgettable arcade experience. Playing this game involved both skill and theatrics. You were showing off to the gathered crowd as much as to yourself. And in the heat of the moment, you might really feel like a famous dancer busting a move in that dark arcade.
14. Virtual Fighter
The Virtua Fighter graphics look pretty basic these days. But when the game came out in 1993, it looked like Sega was inventing the future right in front of our eyes. It made history as the first 3D fighting game. And while later games would improve on both gameplay and graphics, we have this game to thank for showing us a world beyond 2D fighters like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat.
15. Star Wars
Star Wars has had many great arcade games, including a Star Wars Trilogy game I lost so many quarters too. But in terms of magical experiences, it’s tough to go wrong with the cockpit version of the original arcade game. The art on the sides was really neat. But sitting down in the cockpit and taking up the flight stick made all of us feel like we really were Luke Skywalker in that galaxy far, far away.