A small number of whales on this list are designated with a harpoon to indicate exceptional quality.
Indy 4 (Atari, arcade, DICE)
The centerpiece of Funspot's collection, and the little brother of the lost Indy 800, Indy 4 feels good even played on a keyboard, and is even better on actual hardware.
Surround (Atari, Atari 2600/2KB, MAME)
The best of the nine Atari VCS launch titles, Surround is a simple take on the now-classic Snake/TRON formula, but with enough gameplay modes and options to keep it interesting well into the 21st century.
Space Invaders (Taito, arcade, MAME)
The best arcade game of its time, still an instantly recognizable classic and well designed urtrope of the venerable alien blasting formula.
Outlaw (Atari, Atari 2600/2KB, MAME)
David Crane's take on Midway's Gun Fight (itself a take on an unemulated Taito game) improves on the concept of pistol-dueling cowboys in a field of obstacles with a variety of distinct and entertaining game modes.
Galaxian (Namco, arcade, MAME)
Comparisons to Space Invaders are unavoidable, but this is a colorful, iterative improvement, rewarding strategy and precision over twitch reflexes more than other games cut from this cloth would in the future.
Asteroids (Atari, arcade, MAME)
Atari's most successful game of all time, Asteroids offers addictive gameplay and simple to learn but challenging to master controls and physics.
Star Raiders (Atari, Atari 400/8KB, MAME)
Possibly the first fully 3D space combat simulator, Star Raiders has more strategy and more depth than your typical space blaster of the day, and presented a glimpse into next-gen gaming beyond what was possible on 70's home consoles.
Zork (Infocom, PDP-10, Confusion)
The prototypical Zork was bigger than Colossal Cave Adventure, much richer in content, writing, and worldbuilding, and was too big to fit on personal computers for years.
Third Planet (Sunsoft, arcade, MAME)
Space Invaders meets maze and defense elements in a novel game that anticipates the tower defense subgenre.
Pac-Man (Namco, arcade)
The highest grossing coin-op video game of all time, Pac-Man solidified Japanese dominance of the arcades and launched a thousand gimmicky imitators, few of which could compare to Iwatani's subliminal design.
Space Invaders (Atari, Atari 2600/4KB, MAME)
One of the better arcade conversions on the system, but the standout feature is the option for simultaneous play with a friend.
Adventure (Atari, Atari 2600/4KB, MAME)
A famously original and artfully designed Atari game that anticipated the action/adventure genre and showed that this kind of gameplay can work on the system.
Missile Command (Atari, arcade, MAME)
Possibly Atari's darkest game of all time, Missile Command pits you on a losing battle against an endless barrage of incoming nuclear missiles, challenging you to put off the inevitable Armageddon for as long as possible.
Zork I (Infocom, TRS-80/32KB, SDLTRS)
Infocom's behemoth Zork had to be cut down and rewritten to fit on the 32KB computers of the time, and is made even stronger for it. Zork's worldbuilding and writing hadn't suffered terribly for the transition, the reasonably-sized world is more enjoyable to explore, the average puzzle quality went way up with the removal of the worst of them, and that magical parser, if anything only got better.
Berzerk (Stern Electronics, arcade, MAME)
A mindless yet deliberately paced robot blaster with some underused exploratory trappings, and a relentlessly grim atmosphere.
Rogue (BSD Unix, v3.6.3 port on DOSBox)
The most Roguelike of the Roguelikes, and shows an unprecedented amount of depth and complexity in a CRPG. Just don't play it hoping to survive.
Wizard of Wor (Midway, arcade, MAME)
A fun, chaotic co-op maze blaster with awesome sound design (that unintelligible Wizard speech notwithstanding), colorful visuals, and surprisingly strategic gameplay. Watch your back!
Centipede (Atari, arcade)
What looks like and was probably intended as a manic, more chaotic take on Space Invaders becomes surprisingly strategic as skilled players learn how to control the board and rack up big scoring combos.
Defender (Midway, arcade, MAME)
Complex for an arcade game of its era, Defender is notoriously hard, but generously rewards skill, strategy, and mastery of its unusually difficult controls like few arcade games ever have.
Scramble & Super Cobra (Konami, arcade, MAME)
Two early Konami shmups, very similar to each other except in difficulty and length. They don't look great, but play and control well, with a good variety of enemies and terrain.
Donkey Kong (Nintendo, arcade, MAME)
Nintendo's breakout hit and Shigeru Miyamoto's designing debut is fun, challenging, and a legend of the golden age of arcades.
Galaga (Namco, arcade, MAME)
Galaxian on speed, Galaga revs up the Space Invaders formula with faster play, more firepower, more gameplay variety, and more agile invaders who glide through space in mesmerizing, dance-like formations.
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Sir-Tech, Apple II/48KB, AppleWin)
Merciless difficulty under consideration, the original party-based tactical dungeon crawl was so in-depth and impeccably designed that it not only far surpassed any home computer RPG to date, but remained the best of its kind for years to come.
Gorf (Midway, arcade, MAME)
An amalgamation of different Space Invaders-inspired gameplay modes. Gorf isn't much more than the sum of its parts, but they're good parts.
Stargate (Williams Electronics, arcade, MAME)
Defender with even more chaos, and new bonus rounds which will thrill, if you can survive that long.
Zork II (Infocom, Z-Machine v2/32KB, Frotz)
The middle child of the Zork trilogy may be cobbled together from the worst bits of the original game, but the worst of Infocom was still better than the best of virtually everyone else of the day.
Ms. Pac-Man (Midway, arcade, MAME)
A Pac-Man mod made official, Ms. Pac-Man makes that winning formula fresh again with new mazes and much nastier monsters, and is among my favorite games of the year.
Lady Bug (Universal, arcade, MAME)
Pac-Man plus maze manipulation was a somewhat crowded genre in 1981, but Lady Bug flies high above the rest of them with its brilliantly simple revolving door mechanic and well-designed mazes.
Pitfall! (Activision, Atari 2600/4KB)
Activision's best selling Atari game transcends the purely mechanical challenges of contemporary arcade style games and offers a sense of progress and adventure, and adds a meta-challenge of puzzling out how to traverse its secretly non-linear world quickly enough to collect its treasures in the limited time allowed.
Demon Attack (Imagic, Atari 2600/4KB, MAME)
Imagic's self-published system debut complements Space Invaders well with its fancy animations and complex, aggressive attack patterns.
Robotron: 2084 (Williams Electronics, arcade, MAME)
With all the intensity of Defender crammed into the space of a single screen, and its complex 5-button controls traded for that now famous no-button 2-stick setup, Robotron's robot apocalypse will crush you and the last humans again and again, while somehow being quite fair about it in that distinct Vid Kidz fashion.
Dig Dug (Namco, arcade, MAME)
Dig Dug's dashing, dodging and dragon-dilating destruction disguises deceptive depth and doles dividends for diligent doodad-dropping designs.
Joust (Williams Electronics, arcade, MAME)
Williams’ final classic of the golden age of arcades is as solidly designed as it is conceptually absurd, and truly shines when played with a friend of roughly equal skill level.
Starcross (Infocom, Z-Machine v3/48KB, Frotz)
More than just a sci-fi take on Zork, Starcross challenges and inspires with its enigmatic construct full of alien logic puzzles, while sporting a sense of consistency and grounding rarely seen in commercial adventures of any era.
Mr. Do! (Universal, arcade, MAME)
A surprise hit from Universal's short lived and underachieving video game ventures. Mr. Do! looks like Dig Dug, but dig deeper, and you'll find it's faster, more complex, more strategic, more challenging, and perhaps also more fun than any of its immediate inspirations.
Choplifter! (Broderbund, Apple II/48KB, MAME)
Great animation, great controls, and great, tense gameplay make Choplifter the best computer arcade game of its time, and stands out with its focus on rescue over combat.
Night Mission Pinball (subLOGIC, Apple II/48KB, MAME)
Hands down the best commercial pinball sim in its day, with an almost intimidatingly in-depth customization mode, making Pinball Construction Set an interesting comparison piece.
Xevious (Namco, arcade, MAME)
The trope codifier for the vertically scrolling shoot'em up remains visually striking, challenging, and most of all fun, even after decades of expansions and improvements to the genre.
Shamus (Synapse Software, Atari 400/16KB, MAME)
Berzerk but with a hand-designed maze that's even more fun to explore than it is to blast the swarms of mindless robots wandering around in it.
Ms. Pac-Man (Atari, Atari 2600/8KB, MAME)
Admittedly obsolete in the age of accurate arcade emulation, this is among the best of the arcade ports on the Atari 2600, and is everything that the infamous port of Pac-Man should have been.
Gyruss (Konami, arcade, MAME)
While not quite as technically solid as Galaga, Gyruss contributes an exciting update to the venerable formula with a pseudo-3D presentation and a stereophonic electronic-rock soundtrack.
Suspended (Infocom, Z-Machine v3/32KB, Frotz)
One of Infocom's strangest and most difficult text adventures plays like an elaborate, multi-stage puzzle, and the concept of experiencing and manipulating the world through blind robots lends itself naturally to the constraints of a non-visual interface.
Jetpac (Ultimate Play the Game, ZX Spectrum/16KB, Fuse)
The game that made the Stamper brothers millionaires and enabled the founding of Rare, Jetpac offers an original arcade-style gameplay concept and executes it with the speed, fluidity, and polish one would expect from an arcade-quality title.
Star Wars (Atari, arcade, MAME)
Among the last vector arcade games and arguably the best realized example of this technology, Atari's Star Wars offers breakneck 3D flying and shooting gameplay and strong cinematic immersion, especially when played in a real sit-down cockpit cabinet.
Lode Runner (Broderbund, Apple II/48KB, AppleWin)
Despite being about three times longer than it ought to be, Lode Runner presents an excellent blend of puzzling platformer action, excellent controls, and endlessly inventive puzzle design with a zen-like minimalism matched perhaps only by Sokoban.
Planetfall (Infocom, Z-Machine v3/48KB, Frotz)
Steve Meretzy's debut adventure tasks you to explore a dead alien world and sets new standards for interactive storytelling, while being well paced and skillfully crafted.
Mario Bros. (Nintendo, arcade, MAME)
Mario Bros. might not be super, but it is a classic, with Joust-inspired two player madness and an eclectic mix of now-familiar Mario franchise sights and that endemic weirdness of golden age arcade games.
Jr. Pac-Man (Midway, arcade, MAME)
Midway's final Pac-Man doesn't compromise the formula's purity with needless gimmicks, and though it can feel drawn out with its oversized mazes, loses none of its predecessors' frantic excitement or fun.
Beamrider (Activision, Intellivision/16KB, MAME)
As one of the few third-party games to be ported from Intellivision to Atari, Beamrider doesn't flex the system's visual muscle as well as it might, but offers surprisingly deep and varied gameplay with complex enemy patterns and in-depth scoring beneath its facade of lightning-fast single-screen twitch shooting.
Mr. Do's Castle (Universal, arcade, MAME)
Oddball premise of a clown fighting malevolent unicorns aside, this plays less like its direct predecessor Mr. Do! and more like Universal's earlier Space Panic, but mostly fixes its problems, delivering a slow and methodical but challenging and satisfying puzzle platformer.
Reach for the Stars (Strategic Studies Group, Apple II/48KB, AppleWin)
Graduating from earth-based wargames of past, present, and future-now-past, designer Roger Keating takes war to outer space in an addicting, tightly designed grand strategy game now reminiscent of Civilization and especially Master of Orion. Truly years ahead of its time, and makes earlier efforts like Galaxy seem hopelessly primitive.
M.U.L.E. (Electronic Arts, Atari 800/48KB, MAME)
Condensing an economic simulation into a simple-looking and simple-playing four-player party game should not work, but Ozark Softscape managed to pull it off with crystalline-perfect design, brilliant interface mechanics, and intense playtesting cycles. Having seemingly endless breadth of strategy for planning your colony and outwitting your rivals, no other game of 1983 better embodies EA's ambition to meld console-like accessibility with the sophistication then only possible on computers.
Oil's Well (Sierra On-Line, Atari 400/32KB, MAME)
Another Pac-Man clone with a twist; you're an oil driller, and monsters can harm the pipes that follow your retractable drill bit, but not the drill bit itself. Inspired heavily by coin-op game Anteater, Oil's Well improves on the formula with faster gameplay and better maze design.
Alley Cat (Synapse Software, Atari 800/48KB, Altirra)
A charming and creative arcade-style platformer, Alley Cat offers an unusually diverse set of cat-themed challenges, making for a highly entertaining time waster. The PC port plays nearly as well, and is one of the most well-known of the early games on the platform.
Digger (Windmill Software, PC/64KB, DOSBox)
This early hit for the IBM PC competently translates the chaos and fun of Universal's Mr. Do! into a 4-color x86-compatible format.
Marble Madness (Atari, arcade)
A physics-based 3D isometric platformer challenges you to roll a marble through a series of six mazes of obstacles, tunnels, and traps in a race against the clock, or another player. Slickly presented with raytraced Escheresque visuals and a memorable electronica soundtrack composed in true stereo, Marble Madness loses some of its charm on the comparatively underpowered 8-bit home computers of its day, and even now is best played with an authentic Atari trackball controller or two.
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Activision, Atari 2600+DPC/10KB)
In my book, the most technically impressive game on the aging Atari 2600 system. Pitfall II takes the adventure theme and sense of place and expands into a sprawling open world of interconnected caverns full of dangers and treasure, and anticipates Metroid-style games with an emphasis on vertical design.
Boulder Dash (First Star Software, Atari 400/16KB, MAME)
Rocks fall and everyone dies in this chaotic and challenging action puzzler hit. In its sixteen mazes of gems, boulders, baddies, and other elements, the slightest dig can set off an avalanche of falling rocks or otherwise kick of a chain reaction that can totally rearrange the level layout to your benefit or detriment. Occasionally wonky controls can frustrate, as can the trial-and-error nature of some of its caves, but open-ended puzzle design, strong core mechanics, and well-paced difficulty escalation make it a rock solid classic.
H.E.R.O. (Activision, Atari 2600/8KB, MAME)
Strap into your rickety and unstable backpack helicopter and descend into the mines on this daring rescue mission. One of the last classics on the Atari 2600, clever level design and solid controls that defy easy mastery also make it one of the best, with puzzle platformer trappings that soon give way to rigorously demanding flight maneuvers.
King's Quest (Sierra On-Line, PCJr/128KB, DOSBox)
Sierra's first truly graphical adventure not only revolutionized the genre and wrote the rules on how to transcend simple illustrations and bring life to a dynamic, animated world with interactive full screen visuals, but also works as an open-ended, comprehensively designed adventure in a way that the company hadn't managed before, and hadn't always managed since.
Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, Electronika 60, SIMH+MESS)
Without intricate scoring systems, color, or music, and presented in its original industrial mainframe format, this is still Tetris, and even ascetic presentation and sometimes unresponsive controls can't tarnish its timeless and addictive qualities.
Karate Champ (Technos Japan, arcade, MAME)
An early fighting game and an important stepping stone, anticipating many features that would be crucial genre elements for decades. If you can overcome a somewhat steep learning curve and find a partner as capable, Karate Champ offers surprisingly deep and technical fight mechanics and will reward skill and strategy. Solo play isn't quite as compelling thanks to rigid and unbalanced AI, but is no less innovative.