Top Five: Underrated Vintage Arcade Games

The Houston Area Arcade Group will be holding their 9th Annual Arcade Expo on October 8th & 9th at the Houston Northwest Crowne Plaza at Pinemont and Hwy 290. They'll be hosting classic console systems like Atari and ColecoVision, as well as all kinds of cabinet games (better known as "old-school arcade games" to the layperson). If you're around age 30 or over, you should know about Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, maybe even Dig Dug and Missile Command. But there were a ton of arcade games back in the day that, although they didn't get the acclaim of the more popular cabinets, were just as much fun, if not more so. Plus the lines were way shorter, so you'll want to know them before you even walk into the game room.

5. GORF (1981) GORF stood for Galactic Orbiting Robot Force. It was also the word "frog" spelled backwards, but never mind. It was one of the first arcade games to include a primitive voice chip, which allowed its GORFian overlord to mock you in gulping electronic speech, with such taunts as "Long live GORF!" and "Got you, spaaaaaace ca-det!" What's interesting about GORF is that it's essentially five rip-offs of different games all crammed together to make one new game. With levels that aped Space Invaders, Galaga, Galaxian, and Phoenix, GORF managed to one-up them all by being the only game at the time that allowed you to purchase more lives before you even started playing. Sure, it's not all that creative a game, but with five games combined into one, it definitely gave you the best bang for your buck.

 

As with any Defender-style game, it was often difficult to tell what the hell was going on.
As with any Defender-style game, it was often difficult to tell what the hell was going on.

4. Strike Force (1991) Speaking of clones, Strike Force was the second sequel to Defender, essentially improving upon the side-scrolling shooter in every way. Once again, you find yourself piloting a space ship low over the ground of an alien planet, rescuing human colonists from the hostile alien forces. The aliens are pretty badass, with their ability to mutate the humans into enemies and commandeer stray vehicles dotting the plains to use against you. But there's an ace up your sleeve: probably the first example of friendly AI that wasn't completely useless in the form of your loyal squadron of commandos. You could drop them to the planet's surface, where they would provide cover fire, rescue colonists, and sometimes kick ass independently of you, jetpacking around and shooting enemies until either killed or summoned by you. Until deployed, the commandos would hang from the belly of your spacecraft like heavily-armed remoras, and it didn't take long before you became protective of the little buggers, seeking angry revenge whenever the alien forces managed to kill one. Defender was well-known for being an incredibly fast-paced and intense game, and Strike Force managed to up the ante significantly.

 

Pictured: a werewolf jump-knees a mud ogre which is flinging shrieking demon heads at him. SO AWESOME.
Pictured: a werewolf jump-knees a mud ogre which is flinging shrieking demon heads at him. SO AWESOME.

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3. Altered Beast (1988) You probably remember Altered Beast; for a couple of months in 1988, it was one of the more popular games in the arcade. Its popularity faded quickly, however, eclipsed by other, newer games, and soon we felt like something of an arcade pariah, still clinging to Altered Beast while our friends moved on to games like NARC and Golden Axe. There was a reason we loved Altered Beast so much, though: Your character was upgradeable to the point where eventually you were fighting with a freaky half-monster badass more terrifying than any of the undead wimps you were mowing through two at a time. Somewhat hilariously mixing Greek and Roman mythologies, you play the part of a centurion (Roman) raised from the dead by Zeus (Greek) to rescue his daughter Athena (Greek) from the demon Neff (late-80's Japanese). You start off as a malnourished string bean, but as you collect little glowing power-ups, you start bulking up, until eventually you look like the guy from the Powerthirst ads.

You didn't just become a Batman-like pinnacle of human ball-stomping, though. No, if you powered up enough, you got to transform into a fucking werewolf, or werebear, or weretiger, or were-goddamned-dragon. It was totally awesome, and the first example we can remember of games like Devil May Cry and God of War, where your avatar is more than just an easily killable sack of soft, pink meat.

 

2. Berzerk (1980) Aside from the completely amazing box art, Berzerk was notorious as the only game at the time where the levels started out unbelievably difficult, becoming easier as gameplay progressed. You play a lone human lost in a maze, on the run from legions of evil (if stupid) robots. The most dangerous part of the game was each new screen; you survived by killing all or most of the robots on a screen before moving on, so there was a brief moment before you'd managed to kill any of them when every single robot within range would be shooting as many bullets at you as Berzerk's memory allowed, which was a lot. It was not uncommon to lose every single one of your lives in rapid succession, resulting in much frustrated swearing and subsequent ejection on the part of many gamers ("Let go of me! It's not fair! THAT FUCKING GAME CHEATS!"). So you had to be pumped, primed, and ready to start crazily blowing away bad guys the second the game started. And you couldn't relax for too long, either, or else the single most terrifying enemy of the arcade days would show up: Evil Otto, a bouncing smiley face whose purpose was to motivate you to move your ass along.

You couldn't fight Evil Otto. He was invincible, and his grin remained unchanged and indifferent to your suffering. In the home-game version of Berzerk, Atari made it possible to temporarily kill Evil Otto. They did this because his terrifying visage killed two people trying to achieve high scores. In real life.

The official cause of death for both boys was listed as "heart attack," and technically that's true, although it leaves out the description of Evil Otto psychically reaching into the chests of his victims and literally crushing the life from their hearts like Johnny Bartlett in The Frighteners.

 

The adventures of Generic '80s Brooklyn Cop and his lovable microencephalic sidekick.
The adventures of Generic '80s Brooklyn Cop and his lovable microencephalic sidekick.

1. Lucky & Wild (1992) Possibly the shittiest movie of either Sylvester Stallone or Kurt Russell's respective careers somehow wound up inspiring the most enthralling driving game we ever played in the arcade. Based loosely on Tango & Cash, Lucky & Wild combined the steering wheel of a driving game with the gun of a rail-shooter, so that you had to drive with one hand and fire at the bad guys with the other. It's impossible to describe how awesome this made you feel back in the day, especially after you recruited a friend to be your backup gunner alongside you. Or, you could concentrate on driving while your friend fired both guns John Woo-style. Or, you could concentrate on driving while your friend fired your gun and a third random friend or stranger fired the second gun. The game didn't care as long as you were blasting the asses off head-boss Big Cigar's henchmen. It was impossible not to have an absolute ball playing this game. We still miss it.

Of course, your opinions will differ as to the most underrated arcade games. Why not leave a comment about it?


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