Although today’s console gamers may hold classics such as Asteroids and Pac-Man in high regard, there’s a good chance that many of them have only played an emulated version they downloaded on their smartphone or console. For those of us who grew up in the arcades, we know there were many games that were never considered big hits in the industry. For every Double Dragon, there was a Birdie King, and for every Centipede there was a Pac-Man clone. The true diamond in the rough was hard to find, and most obscure games earned their lack of popularity. However, there were many games that never received the notoriety they deserved. Check out these obscure arcade games that should have eaten more quarters than they did.
When thinking of exciting arcade game plot lines, I’m sure a lumberjack chopping down trees is probably far down the list. However, despite a premise that sounds as appealing as yard work, Timber is a very fun game. While not a direct sequel to the more popular Tapper arcade game, Midway’s 1984 release used the exact same cabinet (albeit with different artwork featuring what appears to be the Brawny paper towel guy) and a very similar looking main character. Using two joysticks (one to move and one to swing your axe), players could chop down trees, avoid beehives thrown by agitated bears, and flee from menacing birds. Although everyone loves flannel, the real appeal of this game is the simultaneous two-player axe swinging and log rolling.
Did you know everyone’s favorite hopping orange curseball had a sequel? That’s right, after the success of the original Q*Bert, Gottlieb released Q*bert’s Qubes in 1983. The game shared some similarities with its predecessor, but it took things to another level by adding a 3-dimensional element to the game. No longer do players simply hop from platform to platform—they have to rotate a color cube to match a specific pattern by hopping to the next one. Coily the snake was gone, but Meltniks, Soobops and Rat-A-Tat-Tat were added to the mix of characters to aggravate the player. Once the player matches five cubes (qubes?) in a row, the player advances to the next level.
Remember playing the addicting game of “snake” on your old Nokia phone back in 1999? Well, Nibbler was a souped up version of that same game, but released in 1982! Rock-ola, just like numerous other companies, was trying to capitalize on the Pac-Man craze of the early eighties, so it developed its own version of a maze game, but one where every object your “snake” consumed made it grow longer, thereby making your game more difficult as you tried to avoid running into yourself while gobbling up points. The “easy-to-learn but hard-to-master” concept made for a truly addictive game that has now inspired an upcoming documentary feature film, Man Vs. Snake.
What is it with damsels in distress being forcibly held captive by monkeys? In Zoo Keeper, Zeke’s girlfriend Zelda is kidnapped by a rogue monkey who releases all the other animals in the zoo to occupy the distressed Zeke. You earn points in this game by jumping over escaped animals while you rebuild their enclosure and return them to captivity. If you didn’t play this game in the arcade when it was released by Taito back in 1982, then it’s likely you’ve never experienced this gem—it wasn’t ported to any console system until 2005’s Taito Legends.
The storyline in Mad Planets is a little difficult to recognize, other than to say you control a spacecraft that is under attack from planets that, for some reason, are mad. Though the concept behind the game is weak, the action is intense! Featuring fantastic audio and fast-paced play, the real treat in this game is the controls. Not only do you get to use the under-employed spinner knob, but you also have a flight stick with a trigger to contend with. Though not a runaway hit in the arcade when it was released by Gottlieb in 1983, the vintage arcade cabinet is a highly sought after item in the collector community as its unique controls make it virtually unplayable in emulation.
Though released under the Atari banner in 1982, Quantum was actually designed by female game designer Betty Tylko of General Computer Corporation (GCC). GCC was the house Ms. Pac-Man built. They didn’t release numerous titles, but the few they did developed were quite exceptional, Quantum included. This forgotten game makes use of two classic arcade staples: a trackball and a color vector monitor. Players would use the trackball to encircle floating “particles” while avoiding other objects. If players were skilled enough to earn a high score, they could use the trackball to “write” their names or initials. This proved to be an unexpected nuisance to operators who would often walk up to their machines with profanities displayed on the leader board.
An interesting choice in theme—this ain’t your grandmother’s dominos! Marvin Glass and Associates (MGA), a toy design and engineering firm better known for developing Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and the board game Mousetrap, designed this game which was released by Bally/Midway in 1984. The same mustachioed character from MGA’s two other games (the previously mentioned Tapper and Timber) has apparently retired from his days chopping wood and tending bar and has taken up dominos as a hobby. The goal of this game is to set up dominos upright on a designated path while avoiding nuisances such as bees and townspeople who want to knock over your hard work. If you complete a level you can choose to knock over your dominos right then or risk it and wait to knock over the now even longer row of dominos accumulated in the next level. The longer the row of dominos, the greater the points and the more satisfying the cascade.
While Atari was busy feeling the effects of the video game crash and burying tons of E.T. cartridges in an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill, they also released a forgotten game titled Arabian to the arcades of 1983. This platformer tasked players to control an Arabian prince who would sail the seven seas, swing from vines, and ride flying carpets all to rescue his princess from distress. The gameplay, though nothing original, was easy-to-understand, adventurous fun.
In 1982, during the height of the arcade craze, Atari spun a web they hoped would catch tons of quarters. Black Widow was a multi-colored vector arcade game created to repurpose struggling Gravitar arcade units that were not very popular. In this game players control a spider using two joysticks (one to control movement and one to fire) to capture a variety of insects in its web. With controls similar to those of the popular Robotron, this game brought the same amount of fun with perhaps a little less intensity. With just over 1500 units produced, it’s likely that most people’s exposure to Black Widow wasn’t until Atari’s Anniversary Edition Redux was released for the Sony PlayStation in 2001.
Just by looking at this arcade cabinet, players could tell they were in for something completely different. The jarringly lopsided design of Wacko made the cabinet look as if was going to fall over at any time. As far as the gameplay, it was almost just as unusual. Players controlled a small alien spaceship piloted by Kapt’n Krooz’r who would fly around shooting pairs of aliens in a quirky sort of match game. As levels advanced, shooting aliens out of order would create jumbled versions of the creatures who would need to be returned to their original form before being matched, and eliminated, with their corresponding alien. Though the arcade wasn’t in full decline in 1983 when Bally released this eye-catching game, market saturation made it difficult for Wacko to stand out from the crowded pack.
Preston Burt is a graphic designer living outside of Atlanta, GA. He has previously written for the Screen Crush Network and co-hosts the Gameroom Junkies Podcast. He is a founder and organizer of the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo.