The arcade video game scene peaked in the 1990s with a variety of game types that witnessed gamers huddled around cabinets for such popular titles as Mortal Kombat and The Simpsons. Whether you were looking for the best arcade games for a single-player experience or you wanted to hunker down with some friends to fight crime as a ban of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the best arcade games of the 1990s had something for everyone.
What might be most impressive is how incredibly well these arcade games have held up decades after their initial release.
We’re presenting our list of 1990s arcade games in no particular order, mainly because the nostalgia of the genre has made it nearly impossible for our team to agree on how to rank such amazing titles.
Building on the game engine featured on Soul Edge, the SoulCalibur arcade game featured superior mechanics, brought with it new characters, and debuted a new aesthetic that defined the genre of the 1990s.
Adding to the game’s appeal was a soundtrack that blew most competitors out of the water, at least for the time period.
The Dreamcast port would add single-player Mission Mode and new players, but it’s the arcade version that first captured our imaginations and quite honestly became one of the best arcade games of all time.
Dance Dance Revolution (1998)
Konami created perhaps the most well-known and revolutionary rhythm game when it debuted Dance Dance Revolution in 1998. The game is simple in premise with gamers using corresponding buttons laid across the ground to match the symbols that fly by on the screen.
DDR’s mixture of anime, pop, and dance music, along with a very competitive premise, quickly catapulted the game into the mainstream.
The game was so popular that it eventually moved over to PlayStation and GameCube. Even in the 21st century, new iterations of Dance Dance Revolution still pop up at popular arcade-based locations. Pictured above is the platform Dance Dance Revolution Extreme.
Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo (1994)
Super Street Fighter captured our imaginations with its fun characters and fighting styles. However, the gameplay was often slow, dragging down the excitement level a little bit.
To remedy the slower gameplay, Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo added the Turbo speed function which significantly improved overall gameplay.
Even in the 21st century, there are still tournaments for this game. It also spawned more versions from the team at Capcom. I grew up on this game and as a “button masher” it remains one of the best 1990s arcade games ever made, and I’ll fight you over that claim.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (1991)
I will go out on a limb and say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time is the greatest licensed arcade game of all time.
Not only was the TMNT’s huge in 1991, but the actual game featured excellent controls with combos that were easy to execute. The game also provided a level of hit detection we hadn’t seen up until that point.
One of my favorite parts of this game was playing with three friends at a time. I still remember standing around the cabinet with a bunch of quarters still in hand as I finally finished the game with three friends after hours of play.
The SNES port was also great and improved on the arcade game in many ways. Sadly, the SNES version only allowed for a 2-player co-op setup. On a positive note, the SNES version features more stages of awesomeness.
Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes (1998)
Mega Man fighting with Marvel characters? Marvel and Capcom coming together for an epic 1990s arcade game? What more could we ask for?
It turns out, we didn’t have to ask for anything because the companies delivered an amazing 90’s arcade game that provided amazing music, surprisingly smooth graphics (for the time), and multiple endings that took gamers down different paths.
Capcom added in character assists and tag-team action which would carry over into Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes which won’t be on this list since it debuted in 2000.
NBA Jam (1993)
NBA Jam from Midway took the concept of video game basketball and turned it right on its head.
Instead of focusing on the tedious strategy of actual basketball play, Midway introduced two-on-two gameplay and then threw in the amazing “on fire” mode that was activated based on a player’s ability to keep knocking down baskets without interruption.
Sure, basketball physics was ignored and fouls were thrown out the window, but that’s partially what made NBA Jam so amazing. We also love that playing with four friends just added to the zaniness of the popular basketball game.
NBA Jam is perhaps the most fun sports game to play in terms of sheer silliness and that’s why it made our list.
House of the Dead 2 (1998)
One of the best reasons to visit arcades in the 1990s was the chance to play some pretty amazing light gun shooters. One of the best 90s arcade shooting games was House of the Dead 2.
Right now there are plenty of horror games being developed and raved about. Among the best of the 1990s arcade games with a light shooter was House of the Dead 2. This Sega-created sequel delivered a lot of action, improved mechanics, and excellent graphics for the time.
Sega also worked on the game’s narration which brought a nice storyline to the arcade game.
Horror gaming today owes a lot to this game’s roots and it still holds up incredibly well in the 21st century.
Crazy Taxi (1999)
In 1999 the teams at Hitmaker and Sega released Crazy Taxi, a game that combined speed-racing with an action-packed goal of driving customers to their final destination.
The first thing Sega did right was to place the taxi in the game’s namesake in San Francisco, where the cities crazy winding roads and excellent vistas helped create some fun visuals.
What’s really impressive about this game, which is now 22-years-old is the huge environment that was offered. Sure, the scale is small by today’s standards but back then it offered a lot of bang for the buck. This game drained my quarter-carrying pockets on far too many occasions.
Smash TV (1990)
Smash TV was perhaps one of the biggest quarter-sucking games of the 1990s and it arrived just as the decade began.
The dual-stick shooter featured huge numbers of enemies who were deadset on ending our gameplay and it was honestly a lot of full-on chaos. Smash TV reminds me of a John Wick movie because once it started, there was no time to breathe.
From awesome power-ups to thousands of enemies to defeat, along with some hilarious announcements, this game did a great job of ushering in the best arcade games of the 1990s.
Smash TV was so amazing on arcade cabinets that when it finally arrives for console play it suddenly felt like a huge letdown.
The Simpsons (1991)
I was 11-years-old when The Simpsons debuted in arcades in 1991 and I spent ALL of my allowance playing this amazing game. I go back and further about whether The Simpsons or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are the best-licensed game of all time.
The visuals in this amazing offering were great (for the time) and the gameplay was surprisingly fluid. On top of the fun gameplay, there were so many well-known hot spots from Springfield featured and so many characters showed up that gamers felt incredibly emerged in The Simpsons universe.
You know a game was popular when it has spanned various consoles from MS-DOS to Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and even the Commodore 64.
If this game was remastered today I would drop everything to play it all over again.
Daytona USA (1994)
Sega was a dominating force in the 1990s and this arcade game is still regarded as one of the best race car games of all time.
Daytona USA featured a really good soundtrack, surprisingly fluid controls, and visuals that made console games look mediocre at times.
Throw in the solid build of the game’s cabinet which allowed for better driving controls than gamers could get at home at the time and it’s easy to see why it was so popular.
Gauntlet Legends (1998)
Modern-day MMORPG’s that focus on multi-player romps owe a lot of thanks to Gauntlet Legends. This was a quintessential 1990s arcade game that allowed multiple players to gather around a single cabinet for hours of amazing gameplay.
The game’s graphics, for the time, were rich and complex and the cooperate play was one of the best modern examples of what games would become in the decades ahead.
Following the trend that existed throughout the 1990s arcade scene, Gauntlet Legends allows for easy-to-understand gameplay while providing depth that has come to mark the gaming industry as we know it today.
On top of every other awesome aspect of this 90’s arcade game, character saves with a groundbreaking password system also encouraged players to return to their favorite game at any time in the future.
It even implements a unique system of passwords and savable characters. This neat feature encourages prolonged dungeon-crawling rather than regularly starting over.
Tekken 3 (1997)
When Tekken 3 debuted in 1997 the franchise was already very popular. This newest offering provided some much-needed graphical upgrades that made it look better than most games in the arcade.
Tekken 3 debuted 15 new characters which renewed interest in Tekken. The game’s developers also vastly improved the game’s overall controls, focusing on movement and control. To accomplish better movements they reduced jump height and introduced vastly improved side-stepping.
Perhaps the best move forward for Tekken 3 was the reduction in button-mashing success. If you wanted to get really good you had to learn combos and execute them with much more precision.
Mortal Kombat Ii (1993)
Mortal Kombat burst onto the scene thanks to its shocking graphics and fun finishing moves. In 1993 MK2 debuted and while the controls were only slightly improved, it was enough to excite gamers and drive them in droves to the arcade.
Mortal Kombat has obviously continued to thrill gamers but it’s the early iterations of the game, hunkered around gaming cabinets in poorly lit and loud arcades that really sold the concept of this game to millions of gamers. It’s also one of the all-time best ports from arcade to console.
Cruis’n World (1996)
In 1994 we were introduced to the giant cabinet game Cruis’n USA and we were immediately hooked on the massive cabinet that took up a ton of floor space. The ability to sit down behind a racing wheel with real pedals was immersive.
The original game has made a lot of lists for the best 1990s arcade games but in our opinion, Cruis’n World took the best parts of the original and improved the racing game.
With great graphics by 1996 standards and tactile controls that were greatly improved, this game stole my allowance on more occasions than I care to admit.
Cruis’n World made its way to the Nintendo 64 but it was nowhere near as fun. There’s just something inherently nostalgic about sitting behind a giant cabinet in the arcade, driving seat and all.
Konami knocked it out of the park in 1992 when the game developer debuted the incredibly popular and fun X-Men arcade game.
The concept was simple, take a typical brawl-style game and add in six X-Men: Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Dazzler. Next, brawl with your friends.
The game gained international acclaim and in 2010 it was re-released to much fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network. In 2011 Konami went a step further with iOS and Android ports. Sadly, rights issues saw the re-releases pulled from those platforms.
Virtua Fighter (1993)
Virtua Fighter was released by Sega-AM2 in 1993 and it’s a must-have on our list. Admittedly, the game was not the smoothest to play and the graphics were only semi-enjoyable. However, the game’s 3D engine arrived at a time when fighting games were still being played in 2D environments.
This game is considered an important part of history in the industry, so much so that the Smithsonian Institution has recognized the game for its contribution to the field of Arts and Entertainment.
The Guinness World Records in 2008 recognized Virtua Fighter for being the “First Polygon-Based Game, First 3D Fighting Game, and First Fighting Game for a 32-bit Console.
We owe so much to Virtua Fighter that not ending this list with this title would have been a travesty.
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