MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator and was originally a project started by Italian programmer Nicola Salmoria in the late 1990s to preserve Pac-Man games. Eventually, it grew to support several other games apart from Pac-Man and became a full-fledged emulation tool for old games. The emulator is supported by all major operating systems including Windows, macOS, Linux, BSD, etc.
The best thing about MAME is the fact that it’s open-source (GNU General Public License) and completely free, with support for over 7000 games. MAME has a rudimentary UI, although the best way to enjoy it as a serious retro games enthusiast is to install a front-end. This will act as a GUI/ game launcher and let you manage your library of games across different platforms.
Some really motivated people even construct their own arcade cabinets with CRT monitors, wooden boxes, joysticks, etc. Then, they drop in a Raspberry Pi or something similar with MAME on it. And voila- you’ve got your very own arcade system at home.
Today, I’m going to discuss the top 30 MAME games of all time that you must play. To play games you need ROM files of the respective arcade/ console titles (it can even emulate stuff like NES or Genesis). MAME itself receives updates on a near monthly basis, these fix bugs and add support for new games.
Created by Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the most influential game designers of all time, Donkey Kong is arguably the progenitor of all modern platformers. It also put Nintendo on the map as one of the world’s foremost game developers. And we wouldn’t have Mario today without Jump-Man who was the protagonist of Donkey Kong.
When NBA Jam was released in the early 1990s, it was during a popularity peak for the real-life National Basketball Association. Riding that wave of hype, this game drew in customers with its realistic digitized sprites that were derived from video footage of actual NBA players. But it wasn’t all realistic and serious when it came to gameplay.
Because NBA Jam let you execute some ridiculous over-the-top actions that nobody in their right mind would even attempt on an actual basketball court. Or at least not with the same degree of success as shown in the game. Shoving, striking opponents, and jumping like a grasshopper on steroids were all part of the charm contained in NBA Jam 1993.
Neo Turf Masters
Another mid-1990s sports video game with digitized sprites (boy, these were popular back then, huh?). Much like NBA Jam 1993, Neo Turf Masters strikes that balance between looking realistic and playing like a video game. It’s not Mario Golf levels of casual either, since the ballistics and wind calculations going on inside this game are pretty advanced.
The game contains 4 different golf courses, one each in the following nations- the United States, Japan, Germany, and Australia. There are 6 players to choose from, each with different attributes and specialties. Drive, Precision, Stamina, etc. are some of the stats present for each player character.
This game was released before the NES, that’s how old it is- and yet, it manages to be entertaining even to this day. Since this is a fixed shooter, your movement occurs along a single horizontal axis which limits options for maneuvering around enemies. However, the gameplay is balanced around this fact as enemies don’t rush you at a really fast pace.
Instead, they flow in gradually with predictable wave patterns that can be easily memorized. Occasionally, you get a boss Galaga which is a special alien ship that requires 2 hits to kill. It is equipped with a tractor beam that can suck your fighter in.
If you get caught in the tractor beam, you’ll lose a life. However, you’ll immediately spawn another fighter and get the opportunity to shoot down the boss Galaga as it tries to dive at you. If you successfully take it down, your previous fighter will merge with the new one resulting in two guns and a larger model.
The original Pac-Man is a maze chaser that was released on arcades and eventually, the Atari 2600. So popular was this game that it became the mascot of Bandai-Namco and grossed over 14 billion dollars from arcade and console sales. It’s an icon of the 1980s video gaming culture that still lives on and influences game developers across the world, especially those who grew up in that era.
Your goal is simple within each Pac-Man level. There are dots representing food items in the maze which must be eaten, but you also have to avoid 4 colored ghosts that chase you around the maze. Each of these ghosts has a unique behavioral pattern and will try to flank/ corner you in different ways.
You know, a lot of introductory game development courses often have a copy of Asteroids for the first practical implementation of concepts that you learn. And that’s not just because it’s a relatively simple game to design and code, but also because Asteroids is tons of fun. Despite its basic graphics and simplistic premise, the game is quite engaging.
Once you press the forward movement button, your ship will keep going for a short while even after you let off. This makes sense due to inertia and the fact that space is a giant vacuum with no frictional resistance. Another thing you can do in Asteroids is activating hyper-space mode which thrusts the whole ship forward at light-speed, causing it to randomly reappear somewhere on the screen
This could be on top of an asteroid, causing you to destroy the ship (so be careful while using hyperspace). Unlike many fixed shooters, Asteroids lets you rotate your ship to the left or right. And when you hit an asteroid it will break up into smaller chunks rather than disappearing completely.
Street Fighter II
This is referring to Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, which is the first iteration of Street Fighter II and one of the most popular arcade fighting games of the early 90s. The combo system, 6-button controls, special moves, and character roster have all been improved compared to Street Fighter I.
Many retro gamers look back fondly upon Street Fighter II because it almost single-handedly took the fighting game genre to the top in arcades during the early 90s. Its 1 v 1 competitive fighting mode was revolutionary for the time, and the soundtracks in this game were extremely catchy.
Most side-scrolling space shooters of the early 1980s featured an ace pilot in an advanced fighter of some kind, mercilessly destroying alien ships. Well, it’s more of the same in Defender but with a slight twist- this is a game in which you fly close to the surface of an alien planet. That provides a real sense of verticality since you have to move up and down while trying not to crash into the terrain itself.
Defender makes you fly close to the ground because apart from shooting up enemy ships, you also have to rescue humans trapped on the planet. If you destroy enough enemies, you get a smart bomb that clears the screen of all enemies in one fell swoop. Saving all humans isn’t mandatory, but every human you fail to save has the chance of turning into a hostile mutant.
Gauntlet is practically the founding father of dungeon crawl hack ‘n slash games, and it was released all the way back in 1985. Of course, the game did take inspiration from other properties like Dandy and Time Bandit. But Gauntlet also featured several original concepts that would later be mimicked by other games of the 1980s and 1990s.
You have 4 character options- Thor, Thyra, Merlin, and Questor. In an early example of early RPG mechanics, each character has a predetermined set of statistics that decide their strengths and weaknesses. Thor the warrior rushes at enemies in melee range but Questor the elf evades attacks by using his superior speed.
This is a precursor to Super Mario Bros. and features the two plumber brothers in New York City, fighting underground sewer monsters. Yes, this is well before they teamed up to rescue Princess Peach from the evil Bowser in the Mushroom Kingdom. In Mario Bros., you can’t jump on top of enemies to destroy them unless they are already facing away from you.
Also, enemies won’t immediately drop down after you jump on them. First, they roll over, after which you have to drop them by hitting the floor they are lying on. Take too much time, and the enemies will get back up on their feet.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
If you were a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated TV series or comics as a kid, you’re going to love this old arcade game. It lets you play solo, or in 2-player mode. Some versions of the game even support 4-player co-op gameplay, with one person controlling each of the 4 turtle brothers.
The story is pretty simple- April and Splinter have been kidnapped by the evil Shredder and you must save them. Depending on how you combine the directional movements with attacks, you can execute various special moves. The turtles can do jumping spin attacks with their weapons or roll along the ground for a sweeping kick.
Makoto Uchida, the creator of Altered Beast is also the designer for Golden Axe- a hack ‘n slash with character designs reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian. The game takes place in Yuria, a fantasy medieval setting with wizards and warriors. One of these wizards is the evil Death Adder who wields the titular “Golden Axe” and is using its powers to tyrannize the kingdom.
You can choose one out of 3 unique protagonists, each with unique weapons. The Amazonian and barbarian both wield swords, while the dwarf uses an ax. You can jump, cast spells, and ride all sorts of weird creatures.
Well before Red Dead Redemption, Gun, and other such Western games, we had Sunset Riders- an Old West epic in which you play as a bounty hunter. It’s a simply side-scrolling shoot ‘em up in which you take down outlaws for bounty money. There are small-timers and legends, depending on the tier of outlaws you kill, you will get more bounty money.
The game lets you play as 4 different bounty hunters- Steve, Billy, Cool Bob, and Cormano Wild. At the start of each stage, the game shows you a poster of some big outlaw that you’ll face if you make it to the end. Each bounty hunter carries a different type of weapon (there are revolvers, rifles, and shotguns).
A side-scrolling shoot ‘em up set in space, where you’re tasked with killing every single alien who threatens the human race. And their boss seems to have been inspired by the Alien movie, with its giant elongated head and sharp tail. Not only will you be busy dodging incoming projectiles, but you must also pay attention to the terrain underneath (you don’t want to fly into a giant alien building).
In a way, the gameplay is similar to that of Defender (minus rescuing humans). If you use default firing mode, your autocannons will shoot rapidly but do low damage. Holding down fire generates a powerful wave blast but it takes time to charge up.
A maze game in which you create your own path by digging through the ground. And unlike most other maze games of its era, Dig Dug lets you kill your enemies in very creative ways. You can tunnel underneath someone to trap them in a pit, or you can crush them by dropping rocks over their head.
If you want, you can even use an air pump to inflate your enemies like balloons until they pop. If you get multiple enemies with one rock, you hit a small combo that multiplies your points. Two rock kills will give you a bonus drop that can be eaten for even more points.
Athena, the daughter of Zeus, has been kidnapped by Neff- a demonic king who has taken over the underworld by overthrowing Hades. Zeus is furious and chooses a Roman Centurion who has proven himself in gladiatorial combat to rescue his daughter. This warrior is blessed by the father of all Greek gods, giving him superhuman abilities.
Your enemies will primarily be demons and zombie-like undead creatures who can be punched or kicked. Defeating mini-bosses (like the twin-headed wolves) will give you orbs that increase your size and strength. If you collect 3 of these orbs, you can shift into a powerful mythological beast with special attacks.
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs
This game was released alongside its own animated series which aired in 1993 (the same year this game came out). And both are based on a comic book. The gameplay is similar to that of any early 2D beat ‘em up, with 4 different characters that you can choose from.
Each character facilitates a different playstyle. Occasionally, you will see dinosaurs appearing in the middle of a fight and they will attack randomly (both you and the enemies). Apart from your fists, you can also pick up rocks, guns, pipes, etc.
This is a precursor to X-Men: Children of the Atom and its character designs are based on the 1989 animated series (Pryde of the X-Men). Once again, Magneto is the main villain. You can control one of 6 different heroes- Cyclops, Colossus, Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Dazzler.
As you progress through each level, you’ll be attacked both by Magneto and his thugs. Apart from your regular jumps and attacks, you have a button that controls your special abilities (unique to each mutant). You have to be careful with using your mutant powers because each activation costs health points.
A fun little racing game made by Sega, that came with its own specialized cabinet in the arcades. You got a miniature car that you could sit on, with speakers behind your seat to simulate the sound effect of a roaring Ferrari engine. And despite its old age, this game feels fast.
You can easily take your Ferrari over 300kmph on an open stretch of road, and gear shifts are done manually. The goal is to make it as far along the road as you can, scoring points depending on the distance you travel. Colliding with traffic or a fellow racer will spin you out, after which your car resets automatically.
A game that combines the real-life events of the Gulf War with Hollywood action flicks from the 1980s. You have one job, and that’s to absolutely decimate anything that gets between you and the objective (which is to blow up more stuff). The gameplay puts quite a bit of focus on switching between weapons depending on your circumstances.
Sometimes, you need that volume of fire that can only be provided by a machine gun. Other times, you just want to clear out some fortifications with a flamethrower. Occasionally, you’ll come across vehicles that can be driven (jeeps, jet skis, etc.).
A game with modern-day ninjas, that’s set in New York and features a group of supervillains plotting to take over the world. There are a total of 5 ninja characters, each with a set of special moves and unique weaponry (similar to TMNT). Depending on its arcade configuration, Mystic Warriors can be played in a 2 or 4-player co-op mode.
Centipede is a fixed shooter based on popular arcade games of its era like Galaxian and Space Invaders. In it, you control the “Bug Blaster” which is sort of like a space fighter. And your goal is to shoot down centipedes that appear at the top of your screen, gradually making their way to the bottom in a snake-like motion.
Each centipede is made up of segments, and a head. Shooting the segments will split up the centipede and the head gives you extra points. Other objects on the screen include mushrooms and special bugs that give bonus points (spiders, scorpions, fleas).
Kunio Kun (also known as Renegade) is one of the formative beat ‘em up games that established many guidelines and key elements for the genre. Such as the belt scrolling system in which you can move up and down in addition to sideways. Double Dragon is a spiritual successor to Renegade/ Kunio Kun and adds some new features.
Such as the ability to pick up weapons from defeated enemies. Also, the game uses continuous scrolling rather than a series of “screens”, which really helps increase immersion and gives a sense of speed. Cutscenes are used to deliver a more cinematic feel and add weight to the narrative.
Mortal Kombat is one of those fighting games that first emerged in the early 1990s and has stuck around ever since, even though its compatriots have faded into obscurity. What is it that helped Mortal Kombat stay relevant for so long in an age of shooters, 3rd person-action adventures, and cinematic AAA stuff? I’d say the formula was laid with the very first Mortal Kombat, which was released on nearly every home platform.
Because it was available on so many platforms, it gathered a wide and diverse player base spanning many age groups and regions. Word of mouth and discussion between players about their experiences on different hardware platforms helped Mortal Kombat retain an active “mind share”. Plus, it looked “hardcore” with the digitized sprites and gory fatalities that were a really innovative way to do finishing moves.
The original one-man-army shoot ‘em up in which your goal is to blow up anything that walks, crawls, flies, or rolls. Tanks, jeeps, helicopters, heavily-armed infantry, and more will try to get between you and the end of each level. But you don’t need to worry because you have a nearly endless arsenal of excessively large weaponry at your side.
You get 4 weapon types in Contra- lasers, heavy machine guns, shotguns, and flamethrowers. Every single time, you start out with a simple machine gun which can then be upgraded into other forms of weaponry through power-ups. You get power-ups by blowing up pillboxes, infantry, and flying capsules.
If you watched that Dwayne Johnson movie in which he fights alongside a giant mutated gorilla, know that it was based on this ancient arcade game from the 1980s. Rampage (the game) is based on a sci-fi plot in which a group of mutated animals was accidentally created. Each of the people who transformed into these monsters faced various accidents.
One guy took an experimental drug and became a giant gorilla. A woman fell into a lake contaminated by radioactive waste and turned into a reptile. And on it goes.
You take over one of these monsters and go on a rampage, turning entire cities into rubble. Buildings, cop cars, light poles, bridges- nothing can stand in your way.
An amateur boxer called “Little Mac” is climbing through the ranks, on his way to becoming a world champion. There are 3 boxing circuits that you must go through- the Minor Circuit, the Major Circuit, and the World Circuit. In the end, you’ll face off against Mike Tyson himself.
In terms of skills, you have a few basic jabs and hooks. There’s also an uppercut which is to be used as a finisher once you see stars above your enemy’s head. You can stun your enemies by counter-attacking them at just the right moment before their hits connect.
Before we got excellent space flying sims like Wing Commander and Rogue Squadron, there was just Star Wars. A rail shooter in which you relive the events of the first Star Wars movie from 1977. This game is possibly one of the earliest to use vector-based 3D graphics, albeit in a wireframe format.
You essentially relive the Battle of Yavin in which an entire Rebel force assaults the Death Star, with Luke successfully using a proton torpedo to destroy it. Piloting an X-Wing, you’ll go up against TIE fighters and stationary gun turrets. The soundtrack contains electronic recreations of John Williams’ original score for the movie.
King of Fighters ‘98
Also known as King of Fighters ’98: The Slugfest, it contains fighters from all previous KoF games. That’s why the Japanese version is called “Dream Match” because you can create all sorts of cool matchups using fighters from a wide range of KoF games. EX versions of characters with extended move sets are also present, and you can choose between 2 different fighting styles for each character.
Metal Slug 2
Originally, SNK developed this game for their Neo Geo MVS home console system. And to this day, it’s one of the most brutal, fast-paced shoot ‘em ups you’ll ever play. Metal Slug 2 features a wide variety of weaponry and enemy types combined with innovative mini-boss designs to keep you entertained through each level.
The download of emulation software itself isn’t a crime, but you must pay attention to how you source the game ROMs. If these are backups of games that you already own original copies of, they will be good for playing as long as you aren’t distributing. Freeware and abandonware can be downloaded and played without any issues since the rights have expired (or the company has stopped existing).
MAME works by creating an artificial version of the arcade/ console hardware, acting as an intermediary between your computer’s native hardware and the game code. MAME is compatible with a wide range of custom resolutions and controllers. You can also tweak various compatibility settings to get better performance from specific games.