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Gen X Video Games: Our Readers' Poll Winner

We asked, you answered: Here are your favorite old-school video games

Video game screens from the 1980s and 1990s

With two feature films based on classic video games currently in theaters—Tetris and The Super Mario Bros. Movie—it seems that Hollywood thinks they’ve figured out the way to our wallets. It’s all about stoking our video game nostalgia.

They’re, well, halfway right. Like any self-respecting Gen Xers, we remember the unfiltered joy of hitting the arcades as a kid, our pockets heavy with quarters, discovering the endorphin rush of jumping over barrels thrown by a damsel-kidnapping ape. But does that mean we need our arcade memories recast with Chris Pratt?

Honestly, no. We prefer them the way we remember them—pixelated, clunky and about as realistic as a preschooler’s crayon drawings.

The movies are probably fine, but we’d rather talk about the games that inspired them. So we asked you, on social media, to help us nominate the best of the best—the games that enthralled us as kids and couldn’t be improved with CGI. We narrowed it down to 16 finalists, who faced off in a monthlong March Madness–style showdown. Over 7,000 of you voted, and at times it got heated. 

Here are the Elite 8 in the Classic Video Game Showdown, ranked by your votes. As Arrow reader Juan Carlos Navarro put it, “If you remember playing any of these games, it’s probably time to have your colonoscopy.” Amen to that.

8. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)

“Whoever voted got it wrong,” says Arrow reader Terry Chapman II. “Zelda: A Link to the Past should have won over all that other stuff!” He’s not (entirely) wrong. With its light/dark parallel worlds and epic bosses, Link to the Past had more plot than most science fiction movies. “I spent two years drawing my own maps of the overworld and all the dungeons on both quests, blackmailing friends for snacks at school with secrets we found that night or weekend,” remembers Mark Vicario. Not to get all “back in my day” about it, but this was a game that demanded problem-solving in a world before Google or YouTube. “You had to figure it out yourself,” says Bill Waters. Remember figuring things out for yourself? Yeah, those were good times.

7. Donkey Kong (1981)

Why were we so fascinated by the love triangle between a gorilla, an Italian American man, and a woman who may just have feelings for them both? Most of us missed that it even was a love triangle, but Donkey Kong lives rent-free in our heads not just because of the gameplay—and to this day, many of us still can’t see a barrel without instinctively wanting to jump over it—but because of context. Christopher Wolowski can’t think of Donkey Kong without remembering where he played it—in a pizzeria, candy store or arcade, “the way God intended it,” he says. “Pizza grease on the joystick, bubble gum in the air, ‘Thriller’ on the jukebox.”

6. Doom (1993)

A pioneer of the first-person shooter genre, Doom gave a generation raised on Cold War paranoia hands-on training in defending the planet from demons from hell. “It was the first game I ever played that gave me a sense of fear and dread,” says Joel Scott Phelps. Which, sure, admittedly sounds kinda awful. But Doom was also about facing that fear and dread with your peers. “Doom changed the world,” says Phelps. “We went from playing alone to playing with friends.” That was the real lesson of Doom. This is the game, after all, that coined the term “deathmatch.” Hanging with friends = deathmatch. It was a ’90s thing, man. You had to be there.

5. GoldenEye 007 (1997)

After the abysmal failure that was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for Atari, we had reason to be wary of movie tie-in games. But GoldenEye 007 was spectacular fun, becoming the main attraction of countless late-’90s sleepovers. You could play alone, of course, but the multiplayer option was especially addictive for boys who loved pretend-assassinating their pals. It came down to “knowing how and where to shoot the grenade launcher in the pyramid complex,” says Jason Combs Jr. Yes, this is what passed for male friendship in the ’90s.

4. Tetris (1984)

Tetris. Yes, Tetris. The silly puzzle game that we all played to avoid studying, or working, or having a real conversation with friends or family. It seeped into our subconscious and became imprinted on our DNA. It became our personal nemesis. We’d think about it even when we weren’t playing. “Tetris kinda drove me crazy for a while,” Brent Smith admits. “I never looked at squares Zs, sevens or Ls the same ever again.” Same, Brent. Same.

3. Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Why were we so enamored with an 8-bit adventure involving a plumber aerobically avoiding Koopa Troopas, goombas and piranha plants intent on destroying him? Did we love it because it was (for many of us) our first video game relationship? Was it like our first girlfriends? Probably, but who cares! “I used to lose my mind every time I advanced to a new world,” says Gregory Sutton. “I was about 11 or 12 years old at the time, but that was my first ‘I gotta play it 24/7’ video game.”

2. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (1987)

There are two types of people in this world: those who remember watching Mike Tyson bite off another boxer’s ear on TV, and those who remember fighting Tyson in Punch-Out and not being entirely clear if it was an actual brawl or just something you paid a fistful of quarters to be a part of. Those who experienced the latter have the best stories, because we discovered the Little Mac in all of us. (If you have to ask “Who is Little Mac?,” you may not actually be a Gen Xer. Check your driver’s license to confirm.) Samuel Lopes says that in his youth, he’d play Punch-Out until it overheated and “I’d have to cool it off in the freezer.” Some old-school fans, like Dan Rodgers, were so devoted that to this day, they still remember the cheat code: 007 373 5963. Yep, Rodgers still has it committed to memory. “It's etched in my brain,” he says. With all due respect to modern games, they’ll never have that kind of loyalty.

1. Ms. Pac-Man (1982)

With her unquenchable hunger for power pellets and blue ghosts, and her remarkable metabolism, she was the pixelated hero you chose as your favorite. “Ms. Pac-Man will always have my heart,” says Randy Lanier, and we couldn’t agree more. It was a game that taught us how to eat our feelings and avoid ghost bullies—and really, what other life lessons are there? Not all of you agreed. Johnny Burger complained that Ms. Pac-Man “was too damn woke.” (Um … OK.) But now and forever, the rotund yellow lady with the pink bow tie and insatiable appetite will be the only woman for us.

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