Namco was hands down my favorite designer of arcade games in the early 1980s, achieving a balance of quantity and quality no other company could match. They released so many big hits before the crash that it was impossible to step into an Aladdin's Castle or a Chuck E. Cheese and not find at least two of their games waiting for you there. What's more surprising is that while some of Namco's games were better than others, nearly every title they made was worth the time you spent with it. Even The Tower of Druaga, a game despised in the West, introduced concepts that would find their way into the countless role-playing and adventure games released for consoles years later.
With so many great Namco arcade games, you'd think it would be hard for me to choose a favorite, but not really! The one title that immediately jumps to mind is Galaga. As a follow-up to Galaxian, it's the ideal sequel, greatly expanding on the gameplay of the original while remaining faithful to it. Namco didn't stray from its established formula the way Nintendo had with its two Donkey Kong sequels, and it didn't settle for tossing in a couple new enemies and cranking up the difficulty, as Atari had with the charitably titled Asteroids Deluxe.
Beyond that, Galaga illustrates that there's art even in the simplest game designs. The patterns of the bugs as they fly into formation and dart around your bullets in the challenging stages remain mesmerizing after all these years. Now that's galactic dancing!
SUPER MARIO BROS.
I don't find myself agreeing with Shigeru Miyamoto too often now, but I've got to give him credit for his early achievements, and this is the most important of the lot. Like Galaga, Super Mario Bros. is a logical extension of a popular arcade title... in this case, the original Mario Bros. You're still punching the bottoms of platforms to knock over turtles and other nasties, and you'll still see plenty of coins and pipes as you progress through each stage. However, the biggest difference is that unlike Mario Bros. where you're stuck in a single, largely unchanging playfield, you're actually making progress, running from one end of a lengthy level to the other. Hidden power-ups offer protection against the monsters in your path, and Mario's learned new ways to deal with them. You can even stomp on a turtle, then launch his shell at a crowd of his comrades, clearing the path of threats while earning a huge point bonus. Just don't be careless about it, because the shell could bounce off a pipe and come hurtling back at you!
There's so much added nuance and strategy to the gameplay that it almost seems unfair to call this a sequel to Mario Bros. There's even a purpose beyond racking up high scores, with the player ultimately rescuing a princess from a spike-studded, fire-spewing turtle that's three times the size of the Shellcreepers in the previous game. Super Mario Bros. brought so much to the gaming experience that it became a template for the many games to follow, both on the NES and subsequent generations of consoles.
Gunstar Heroes was an important game to me for a couple of reasons. First, it came at the end of a creative drought for the Sega Genesis. Japanese developers who initially showed interest in the system had shifted their loyalty to the recently released Super NES, and Sega's own Genesis games, typically outsourced to Western design teams, felt like second-rate substitutes for what was available on Nintendo's new console. Seriously, who in their right minds would choose Kid Chameleon over Super Mario World, or Chakan The Forever Man over ActRaiser?
After losing ground to Nintendo in 1992, it felt like Sega had found its second wind with Gunstar Heroes. It was colorful, creative, fast-paced, and polished... the kind of experience Genesis owners expected from the system when it was launched in 1989, but weren't getting in the years since. After Gunstar Heroes was released in late 1993, Sega put forth more effort in competing with Nintendo on all fronts, rather than just getting by with Sonic sequels and licensed sports sims. (A little less Joe Montana; a little more Ranger-X, Subterrania, and Comix Zone, k thx.)
Gunstar Heroes not only revitalized the Genesis, it opened the door to a genre of games that didn't interest me all that much in the past. Contra was maybe a little too macho and definitely a little too hard for my tastes. Treasure's decision to give the Gunstars close range attacks and a generous supply of hit points grants the player more room for error, and gives the designers the freedom to fill the screen with chaos without the game ending as quickly as it began. You can adjust the difficulty to your liking, but unlike many run 'n gun shooters, the extra challenge is an option, not a requirement.
I didn't like versus fighting games all that much at first, but then along came Darkstalkers. Talk about a game changer! This early CPS2 arcade title takes the basic play mechanics of Street Fighter II, adds newbie-friendly chain combos, and introduces a charming new cast of characters based on creatures of myth and legend. It's said the game was originally designed to promote Universal Studios' black and white monster films, but Capcom took Darkstalkers in a different direction, crafting its own cast of creatures, and the game is better off for it. Vampire Demitri reveals his true demonic form whenever he attacks, and Jon Talbain, with his shaggy mane and a muzzle lined with razor-sharp teeth, looks more like a wolf than the hairy-handed gents you'll see in one of those corny late-night monster flicks.
Darkstalkers is a dazzling game, especially for 1994. Details abound in the lush backgrounds, and the animation is brilliant, with flowing capes that turn into bat wings, tails that seem to dance in time with the catchy music, and bandages that unfurl whenever the towering mummy Anakaris leaps into the air. If the game had to get by on graphics and sound alone, that would get it pretty far, but Darkstalkers also plays as well as any fighter Capcom had released up to that point. The control is responsive, the characters have plenty of moves at their disposal, and the quirks in the gameplay (particularly that frustrating self-emptying special meter) would get ironed out in the sequels.
Capcom left the Darkstalkers series in the 20th century and hasn't shown much interest in a modern revival... the closest we've gotten to one are re-releases of Vampire Savior and guest appearances in the Marvel vs. Capcom series. Still, if you're new to fighting games, it's hard to imagine a better introduction than the Darkstalkers trilogy.
(screenshots culled from various online sources)