What are the best arcade sports games? That is a tough question, but I do know this: There is not a genre better suited for the energy of the arcade scene than a sports game. If you are like me, they absolutely embody the spirit of competitive gaming with friends and strangers. In fact, they were some of the most compelling original titles in the early arcades… And they were also some of the last there when the music finally stopped.
You guys know my rules: One game per series. But I am going to add another one for this list (just so I keep my own sanity) and that is only one game per sport. Below you are going to find my top 10 and three honorable mention titles for today’s list:
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10. Karate Champ (developed by Technōs Japan, published by Data East 1984)
The OG fighting game that started it all, Karate Champ remains a game really dear to my heart. This is before the era of hadouken and decapitations in what can only be called a karate tournament simulation done right. Points are awarded for hits and one guy beats the other. Simple, right?
Yep, that is all there is to it but there is a lot of depth to these simple mechanics. From mastering lightning-quick joystick and button movements to knowing when and how to strike, Karate Champ is a great game for people that find modern fighters overwhelming.
9. Ring King (developed by Jastec Neue Design, published by Data East and Woodplace Inc. in 1985)
Some of us had Punch Out on the consoles, and the rest of us had 1985’s Ring King in the arcades. One thing that the two games share in common is that they do not take themselves too seriously and this is what makes it so endearing years on. Personally, I struggle with modern boxing games. They are either too arcade or too into the simulation aspect.
Ring King is a pure arcade game without all of the fluff and excess. It is tough, too. If you are looking for a challenge and do not want to get too frustrated while getting beat up by comical characters, then this game should be at the top of your list.
8. Hyper Sports (Developed by Konami, published by Century for NA and Konami worldwide in 1985)
Video games that simulate the events at the Olympics are almost as old as the industry itself. Hyper Sports, however, was one of the first to show that each event and its accompanying mechanics could be an in-depth experience in and of itself. Previous attempts at cramming in a bunch of different things into one game typically resulted in something that was basically the same thing over and over again.
Think button mashers for running and swimming where your avatar only runs in a straight line to get an idea of the kind of rudimentary gameplay mechanics that tended to dominate. Hyper Sports was one of the first to make all 7 events feel individual and distinct which meant that you had some you excelled at and others that you struggled with – you know, like a real Olympic athlete.
7. Virtua Tennis (developed by Sega AM3 and Sumo Digital, published by Sega in 1999)
There are a lot of tennis games out there but there is only one Virtua Tennis. This title rocked my world when it hit arcades and it showed us all that Sega had not lost that old magic they used to bring on the regular in the 1980s. Part of the whole “virtua” movement that the company was championing, Virtua Tennis is a 3D tennis game that, while rough by today’s standards, was graphically cutting edge back in the day.
Also released on the Dreamcast, I can honestly say that the port is probably one of the key reasons to get a DC when it came out, in addition to Soul Calibur and – obviously – Shen Mue. Fans of classic tennis games that are rooted in arcade excellence and offer simple but compelling gameplay should give this old game a try.
6. Baseball Stars 2 (developed and published by SNK in 1992)
One thing you have probably noticed about me is that I am a sucker for pretty games, and few of them are as gorgeous as SNK’s Baseball Stars 2. For those of you that know your video games, SNK is none other than the dev behind the famous Neo Geo system. Regarded as the home console beyond all others, it was so powerful that it also was a full-on * arcade machine.
This was one of its biggest titles that WAS NOT a fighting game and, man, were Neo Geo kids lucky. It is a baseball game done in an anime style with all of the ensuing antics and cartoon-like mechanics that accompany that. But do not be fooled: It is a pretty solid and true baseball game. It is not hard to play this title now but, back in the day, you either had to be really rich or live at the arcades to enjoy this amazing game to its fullest extent.
5. Paddle Mania (developed and published by SNK in 1988)
Another SNK masterpiece that might have you questioning my one game per sport rule, PaddleMania is more its own thing than it is any one sport. You travel to a tennis court, a volleyball court, and others so it has got a lot going on.
Really, in my opinion, it is an underrated title that I wish more people had experienced. The problem with a game like this in the modern era is that it did rely pretty heavily on the combined peripheral and arcade experience.
4. Run and Gun 2 (developed and published by Konami in 1996)
When it comes to basketball games, there are a ton of good options out there. And I know what most of you are thinking: “No NBA Jam? You are insane.” You might be right about that, but I know you will not think I am terribly wrong about this game which is still one of the most visually impressive titles I have ever seen. Run and Gun 2 is a full-on 3D basketball game before that was even a thing. And I am talking about absolutely huge sprites with graphics that are detailed and in your face.
The game was so intense that the arcade cabinet was a dual-screen butterfly unit that allowed two people to play against one another with their own screen. Naturally, that is something you have to relive in the arcade, but the game itself exists in the ether that is the Internet, a digital treasure waiting for you to find and experience.
3. 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge (developed and published by Midway Games in 1995)
There is just something about mid-1990s arcade sports games. They were madness and they were just great. It is interesting because it is not like they did not have competition. This is when games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, as well as their infinite clones, dominated the alleyways. Perhaps it was this explosion in arcade traffic and the concepts introduced in those games that made every dev out there turn it up to 11 and few did it like 1995’s 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge from Midway.
If you love hockey, or, heck, even if you do not like it, this game is one of the best sports games ever made on any platform. It is especially fun with friends and reminds you a day when video games really put a premium on gameplay when it came to the arcades. Sure, graphics were typically stellar but it was the gameplay that made you spend inordinate amounts of money. And that concept is on clear display with this game, one of the most addictive and fun that I can remember.
2. Soccer Superstars (developed and published by Konami in 1995)
I cannot tell you how much I love this game without sounding ridiculous. But if I have to sound ridiculous, so be it. As you know, I have told you that many people think this game led to Konami’s eventual * Pro Evolution Soccer, a series that is still legendary among soccer fans to this day. And there is a lot of reason to agree with that.
But the game is so much more. There are nooks and crannies to its code that reward mastery and endless playing which means that the game becomes about more than simple button pressing and knowing what to do and when. It becomes an art unto itself.
When you meet someone else that knows what is going on, the matches you can have together are some of the most epic experiences ever. I get the fighting game craze that was burning down the arcades at the same time as this game, but I am glad they were all distracted away from the true showstopper that is Soccer Superstars.
Neo Turf Masters (developed by Nazca Corporation, published by SNK in 1996)
You might not be able to tell it from the title, but this is a golf game. Yep. I do not know what the neo turf is but, if it is referring to the graphics, you can tell it is the Neo Geo. Again, like some of the other titles from SNK on this list, everything clicks with this game. It is not for everyone because, let’s face it, golf is not exactly for everyone.
For fans of the sport, however, this game tries its best to be as realistic and compelling as an arcade title can be. I like it because it keeps things moving and makes golf a more fast-paced sport than you might otherwise think it is.
U.S. Championship V’Ball (developed by Technōs, published by Taito in 1988)
Beach volleyball was kind of a thing in the 1980s. I do not know why, exactly, but I think its penchant for neons and skimpy clothing as well as wild hair had a lot to do with it. For those of us that could not make it to our local California seaside, this game was the next best thing.
Developed by none other than Technōs, the same outfit behind Double Dragon, this volleyball game has everything I like: Compelling gameplay, awesome graphics, great controls, and a million reasons to get some friends together. What more could you want?
NFL Blitz 99 (developed and published by Midway Games in 1998)
The whole “xtreme” thing in the 1990s came to a head and a perfection in NFL Blitz. This game did for American football what NBA Jam did for basketball and that is, it made it arcade crazy and wicked accessible to the average gamer. This title had non-sports fans playing it and that was what Midway wanted.
While this bears the NFL name, do not expect anything like actual football as this game is a pure arcade title from top to bottom. You still get to strategize and plan out your next moves but, really, game keeps it moving at a fast clip and that is what I love about it.
Time to reveal the winner the now… Let’s not keep the king waiting!
1. Daytona USA (developed and published by Sega; JP 1993, Worldwide 1994)
The game that showed the world that Sega still ruled the roost when it came to the arcades, Daytona USA is a monumental title for me. Sure, it is hard to recommend you run out and play it today – especially considering how much the racing genre has evolved. But, back in the day, this game was a revolution much like Sega’s other “virtua” 3D offerings. From the corny opening track to the satellite-imagery-inspired tracks, I just ate this game up.
One thing that the arcade had that we will never have again were these amazing cabinets that linked together and simulated racing against other players in a way that consoles can only dream about. And the game was just beautiful. I cannot stress this enough. Sure, Virtua Fighter does not look real and Virtua Tennis does not either, but Daytona USA was the closest we got back then to “photo realistic” graphics.
It is an amazing title that conjures up so many positive memories about this inflection point in video gaming history. Putting it at number one was a no brainer for me because, unlike a lot of titles on this list, you still encounter Daytona USA cabinets in the wild from time to time. So, next time you are in a crusty old arcade and you see Sega’s Daytona USA, give it a shot. You might be shocked at what you experience and you will surely encounter nothing less than a great arcade racer.
So, retro folks, What do you think about my list? Do you have some games you would add – or take away? As usual, please let me know your thoughts (and favorite memories) in the comments section below.
Till next retro journey!