11 Arcade Hits of 1985

Here’s the finest arcade action 1985 had to offer

Partner Content by Netflix


Summer’s about to descend on the town of sleepy-slash-creepy town of Hawkins in the third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin and the rest of the eclectic gang will have to navigate the perils of growing up, a cool new mall, adolescent romance, terrifying monsters, and most daunting of all, mid-’80s fashions. Your binge begins on July 4th.

As a tribute to the show’s bitchin’ new era, here’s a look at the some of the hottest arcade games a kid could hope to stuff quarters in 1985. It was a pivotal year for arcade developers, who continued to experiment and even thrive despite the near-total crash of home console games over the previous two years.

Legendary creators like Sega and Atari Games were just hitting their stride, resulting in some of the coolest games the world had ever seen. Let’s head back to the future for 11 of the most exciting coin-ops from this long-gone era.


Atari Games’ Paperboy was both an audio-visual wonder and perhaps the first legit funny comedy game. The digital voice in this offbeat, diagonally scrolling neighborhood hazard simulator delivers as apt a self-summary as any game ever has: “Disguised as a likable juvenile delinquent, Paperboy journeys through a world of incredible danger!”

The cabinet features a distinctive set of bike handlebars and never stops talking, packed with over 60 digitized one-liners for your surprisingly laidback protagonist. Broke someone’s window? Hope they weren’t a subscriber. And what’s with all the burglars, ghosts, and breakdancers? Weird neighborhood. Paperboy is a memorable classic from Atari Games’ brief but creative golden era.

Yie Ar Kung-Fu

Street Fighter II changed everything in 1991, but didn’t come outta nowhere. A number of earlier games experimented with the idea of one-on-one fighting, and Konami’s Yi Ar Kung-Fu was one of the earliest.

You star as martial artist Oolong, wielding your then crazy-large arsenal of 16 different attacks to defeat 11 colorful opponents who have descriptive names like Nuncha, Pole, Sword, and uh, Feedle (their parents hated them). Each goes down in about 10 hits, but the trick is landing them. It can take a while to learn the janky AI quirks of each opponent, but they do all have weaknesses.

While there’s no two-player versus mode, the basic format and concepts predict the fighting frenzy that would come. Yie Ar Kung-Fu doesn’t look like much today, but its color, ideas, and personality left a lasting impression that led to Ryu, Ken, and Chun-li.


Gradius (aka Nemesis) wasn’t Konami’s first horizontal shooter, but it established a basic formula that its designers would continue to upgrade and tweak for decades thereafter. So yeah, kind of a big deal.

Set across six unique stages full of varied graphics, eccentric foes (moai statues, limbed space meatballs…), and melodic earworm chiptunes, Gradius made for quite a journey. It’s best known for establishing its distinctive power-up system, in which you grab items to increment a meter full of prizes. Should you get missiles now, or save for the laser? It also introduced the concept of “options,” little orbs that mimicked the Vic Viper’s movements and multiplied its firepower. Another series trademark: If you lost your power-ups it could be really hard to recover.

Speaking of hard to recover, Gradius’ original arcade release used a brand-new storage technology called the Bubble System, and it proved so comically easy to corrupt Konami phased it out within a year. You could say that bubble… popped.


It was the mid-’80s, so not yet time for Klax. Instead, it was Sega’s turn to shine, and shine it did with Hang-On. The first arcade game from the legendary Yu Suzuki and the AM2 team, Hang-On pushed the state of the art with its powerful dual-68000 “super-scaler” hardware and, in its deluxe incarnation, a rideable bike controller.

The super-scaler games were so named because they could smother the screen with over a hundred smoothly scaling 2D sprites, delivering a then-unrivaled 3D effect. Hang-On puts this to great use to simulate a super-fast motorcycle race. Jump on the deluxe version’s rideable motorcycle controller (does it really help you play better? probably not) and you’re set to have a very entertaining six or so minutes. Just don’t scrape your knees.

Ninja Princess

The eternal question: ninja or princess? Why not both? In this System 1-based shooter (known as Sega Ninja outside of Japan) Princess Kurumi is totally pissed that enemy ninja have occupied Kanzen Castle, so what better way to beat ’em, than to join ’em? (Sorry for all the questions.)

Turns out Kurumi makes a helluva ninja. The scrolling shooting gameplay’s reminiscent of Capcom’s better-known Commando (which wasn’t yet released) but Ninja Princess has more tricks up its sleeve, with a puff-of-smoke dodge move for clutch escapes, more defensive strategies, and a greater level variety that includes climbing segments and varying scroll directions.

Kurumi is not only one of the very first videogame heroines, her game was the first work of legendary female Sega designer Reiko Kodama (Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia). It’s a shame that the sequel turns Kurumi into a damsel who needs rescued by some ninja dude. Let’s pretend that never happened.


By the early 1980’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was all the rage, and Atari Games’ Ed Logg decided to capture that cooperative dungeon-crawl feeling in a four-player arcade game. The result was Gauntlet, an action-packed overhead shooter that sucked quarters like no other.

Atari’s first game with digitized speech, Gauntlet featured an omniscient narrator who frequently commented on the action. “Elf needs food!” and the like became instant catchphrases. But no matter your skill level you’ll never make it out alive, because Gauntlet’s 108 levels loop forever. Alternate exits let you take different routes, but the only way this game ends is with you and your buddies croaking.

Gauntlet was a phenomenon, selling 7,848 copies and making bank for arcade operators. Cooperating with other players is really fun, turns out. Who’da thunk?


This is weird: Choplifter was a hit computer game before it ever reached arcades. Sega must’ve seen crossover potential, because it took Dan Gorlin’s popular helicopter rescue shooter and juiced it up with the System 1 hardware, adding parallax ground effects and other bits of fanciness.

Choplifter was kinda like a more down-to-earth evolution of Defender, only now you flew back and forth between the enemy frontline and your base between trips to free, pick up, and drop off hostages. Don’t get shot down with a full load of hapless passengers! That’ll weigh on you.

This arcade version’s oddest contribution may be its attract screen, which shows your hovering helicopter facing out of the screen and then… firing on the crowd of hostages? You’re drunk, Sega.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

1983’s vector-graphics Star Wars was the franchise’s first truly great video game, and Atari sold 1985’s Empire Strikes Back as a conversion kit for that earlier hit. Unlike Return of the Jedi (which confusingly came out before Empire, in 1984, and pleased pretty much no one) ESB sticks with the beautiful glowing vectors and simple first-person flying/shooting that made its predecessor a draw.

Is it better? Depends who you ask. It’s mostly a different set of levels, but it also has a new power-up system where you need to spell “JEDI”, a button to shoot towlines at AT-ATs, and more of a twitchy, dodging focus at times. Today the game’s most notable for being rare — Atari produced only 544 kits — and being one of the last games designed for vector monitors. End of an era… respect.

Time Gal

In 1985 full-motion-video LaserDisc games, as pioneered by Dragon’s Lair, weren’t the big draw they once were. But Taito released Time Gal anyway, and while it plays as well as any other FMV game (so, not well), it’s undeniably appealing thanks to its bubbly anime heroine, beautiful Toei animation, and sense of anything-goes whimsy.

The titular gal of time, Reika, is combing the ages in search of a criminal who hopped in a time machine. Sucks to be her, though, because monsters, hostile tribesmen, future biker gangs, and freakin’ world war II planes, carriers, and subs instantly attack whenever she pops into a new era. Maybe it’s the bikini?

Whenever Time Gal’s about to eat it she usually morphs into a super-deformed moe state, squealing in annoyance in anticipation of her rapidly approaching demise. A lesson for us all.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins

There are hard games, and then there’s Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Sir Arthur’s side-scrolling platformer quest to rescue Princess Prin Prin from Astaroth and his grab-bag of random monsters (including a weird bodybuilder unicorn, “forest ghosts” who throw “onion spears,” and uh, Satan) is simply hard as nails.

Arthur is sluggish, his enemies are fast and erratic, and he can only take two hits. Some of the weapons you find aren’t very good, and best avoided. (The final boss can only be killed by the worst of the lot.) And most notoriously of all, you gotta play through every level twice to actually win the game. Prin Prins are a scarce commodity. They don’t come easy.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is grossly unfair but a certain type of masochistic player can derive enjoyment from overcoming its many adversities, and it served as an inspiration for many platformers to follow.

Space Harrier

“Welcome to the Fantasy Zone! Get ready!” cries one of two digitized voice samples in Space Harrier, Sega’s second 3D super-scaler extravaganza. The other is “rarrrrrgh!” from when you die, which you’ll probably hear a lot.

Yu Suzuki and AM2 tasted greatness with Hang-On, and Space Harrier represents their imaginations freed from the mundane confines of the racing genre. You play the Harrier, an ’80s-cool jetpack dude who zooms through 18 downright psychedelic stages shooting at mammoths, mecha, and yet stranger things besides. And try not to faceplant into the countless trees, pillars, and rocks (occupational hazard).

Fast, breezy, and utterly shallow, Space Harrier is more a sensory pleasure than a shooting masterpiece. Its real value lies in its boundless imagination, eccentric and lovely aesthetics, and pushing the state of the art in both graphics and hydraulic cockpit experiences (Harrier’s deluxe release was Sega’s first electro-mechanical motion cabinet, tilting to and fro in response to your input). All things considered, the Fantasy Zone is a nice place to visit.

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