10 of the best arcade adventure games

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The term “arcade adventure” is not one that’s used all that much these days — so for those who have come to the retro gaming hobby a little more recently, it perhaps behooves me to explain somewhat. I do so with the caveat that the genre as a whole has always been a little ill-defined, and that some people’s opinions vary as to exactly what constitutes an arcade adventure and what doesn’t. This is the definition we’re basing this list off, however.

An arcade adventure, as the name suggests, combines elements of arcade-style games and adventure games. To wit, they are games where you’ll typically find yourself platforming, shooting and/or avoiding enemies as well as picking up items and using them to solve puzzles, with the emphasis on the puzzle side of things rather than the action.

They have a solution and an ending rather than continuing indefinitely, and magazine editors used to love them because a walkthrough for an arcade adventure could take up a good two to four pages of space in the magazine, look lovely and provide a good reason for kids to pick up the latest issue of their publication!

Most of the most well-known arcade adventures are platform games at their core, but there are also variations that are presented from an isometric or top-down perspective. For today, we’re focusing on the side-on style of gameplay — isometric games in particular are a very distinct thing that are worthy of exploration in their own right!

All right then. With that definition out of the way, here’s our list — in no particular order!

Spellbound

Spellbound arcade adventure
Spellbound (Commodore 64)

Part of the Magic Knight series of games developed by David Jones and released by Mastertronic on their Mastertronic Added Dimension (or M.A.D.) label, Spellbound firmly places its emphasis on the “adventure” side of things, but does feature a touch of platforming and occasional avoidance of dangerous obstacles.

As Magic Knight, it’s your job to rescue Gimbal the Wizard, who has gone and got himself trapped in a spell. Along the way, you’ll need to interact with a variety of characters and help them out in order to solve the castle’s many puzzles. The game makes use of a then-innovative system of interaction it calls “Windimation”, which allows you to select commands and read information in various windows rather than having to type anything in. In many ways, Spellbound set the groundwork for later point-and-click adventures in this regard.

Spellbound came out for ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Atari 8-bit.

Magicland Dizzy

Magicland Dizzy arcade adventure
Magicland Dizzy (Atari ST)

Opinions vary so wildly as to which Dizzy game is the “best” that it’s difficult to pick just one. Suffice to say that all of them are excellent examples of the arcade adventure genre at its finest, combining precise (and often frustrating) platforming with inventory management and puzzle solving.

Magicland Dizzy was the fourth game in the series, and was the first to not be fully developed by series creators The Oliver Twins. It offers a challenging quest in which our egg-shaped hero must rescue his friends and relations of the Yolkfolk from the evil wizard Zaks, and pays frequent homage to classic fairy tales.

Magicland Dizzy originally came out for Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST and MS-DOS computers, initially only as part of a compilation called the Dizzy Collection. It was later released separately, and in 2015 the Oliver Twins released an enhanced remake of the game for NES called Wonderland Dizzy that they had previously worked on back in 1993. This latter version is available as part of the Oliver Twins Collection for the Evercade.

Elf

Elf arcade adventure
Elf (Amiga)

A somewhat lesser-known title from the legendary Ocean Software, Elf was extremely well-received on its original 1991 release for its excellent graphics and the way in which it brought the arcade adventure formula up to date for then-modern 16-bit home computers.

In Elf, you paly the role of Cornelius the Elf, who is attempting to rescue his sweetheart Elisa from Necrilous the Not-Very-Nice. In order to do so, he’ll have to engage in some platforming action, shoot enemies with an upgradeable magic ring, and interact with various puzzle elements and characters using a surprisingly sophisticated interface.

The game also has a morality system, tracking Cornelius’ behaviour over the course of the game as a whole, and affecting the ending accordingly. Good luck getting to that ending, though — at least you can save the game between levels!

Elf was available for Amiga, Atari ST and MS-DOS systems. More recently, it has been rereleased for modern Windows machines by Piko Interactive.

Draconus

Draconus arcade adventure
Draconus (Atari 8-bit)

This 1988 release was the work of Cognito, the full-price arm of Zeppelin Games — who later became the somewhat troubled developer Eutechnyx, authors of the legendarily awful Ride to Hell: Retribution. While Eutechnyx became known for less than desirable reasons, back in the 8-bit era in particular, Zeppelin Games was a sign that you could expect excellent quality — and Draconus, designed to launch the aforementioned full-price label after a string of budget releases, was to be their magnum opus.

Taking on the role of the reptilian hero Frognum, it’s your job to battle your way through an open-structure map, track down four special items and finally defeat the Tyrant Beast. Gameplay is rather more “arcade” than “adventure”, but Draconus is nonetheless noteworthy as a very solid example of the open-structure 2D platform game long before it became popularised in subsequent hardware generations.

Draconus is available for Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.

Pyjamarama

Pyjamarama arcade adventure
Pyjamarama (ZX Spectrum)

Part of the Wally Week series, this 1984 game eschewed the arcade platforming of its predecessor Automania in favour of classic arcade adventure gameplay. Playing as Wally Week’s consciousness, you must navigate Wally’s house in order to track down the key to wind up his alarm clock and wake him up on time to get to work. Naturally, this is a considerably more convoluted process than one might think.

In order to progress through Pyjamarama, Wally must find items and determine the appropriate place in which to use them. At the same time, he must engage in some challenging platforming and avoid the enemies scattered throughout his subconscious, lest he run out of “snooze energy” and end up oversleeping.

Pyjamarama is available for ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC.

Short Circuit

Short Circuit arcade adventure
Short Circuit (ZX Spectrum)

Ocean Software became primarily known for its movie license games, which varied enormously in quality. Their 1987 adaptation of the 1986 movie Short Circuit, released exclusively for 8-bit home computer platforms, was, surprisingly, one of the better ones — though is not especially well-known today.

Taking on the role of Number 5, you must first escape from a robotics facility after successfully locating numerous hardware and software upgrades, and finally outrun your captors in a somewhat Moon Patrol-esque arcade sequence.

The “adventure” component of the game is unusual in that Number 5 is unable to interact with anything other than computer terminals until he downloads the appropriate software to add verb “programs” to his memory banks. Thus as the game progresses, you have more ways in which to interact with the environment and solve puzzles accordingly.

Short Circuit is available for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, though there are some notable differences between the versions.

Saboteur

Saboteur arcade adventure
Saboteur (Nintendo Switch)

Clive Townsend’s classic arcade adventure casts you in the role of a ninja attempting to sabotage a facility and tasks you with sneaking in, kicking the snot out of anyone who gets in your way, setting a bomb and retrieving a disk full of important data. Nine difficulty levels mean that this mission can be anything from very straightforward to absolutely mind-bending, and the game is widely beloved for its excellent, atmospheric presentation.

Saboteur was followed up by an equally excellent sequel with considerably larger scope, and both of these games were ported to PC, iOS, Android and Nintendo Switch by Clive Townsend himself — in both cases, Townsend maintained the distinctive ZX Spectrum aesthetic but expanded the gameplay of both games considerably with larger maps and more in-depth interaction.

Saboteur came out on ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 16, with the Spectrum version being the most well-loved. The more recent remakes are available for PC, iOS, and Switch; the Android version appears to have been delisted.

Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds arcade adventure
Thunderbirds (Atari ST)

Another game that errs heavily on the side of “adventure” rather than “arcade”, the official video game adaptation of Gerry Anderson’s classic Thunderbirds TV show from 1989 features four distinct “episodes” to work through in which pairs of characters from the show must work together in order to solve puzzles and complete a challenging mission objective while ensuring they don’t come a cropper during their rescue attempts!

While Thunderbirds is filled with logical, sensible puzzles, it does feature more than a few opportunities to screw yourself over, necessitating a complete restart of the mission. Best go in equipped with a walkthrough for this one — but boy does it feel good when you figure things out for yourself.

There are several Thunderbirds games out there; the one we’re discussing here was published by Grandslam and was released on Commodore 64, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, MSX and ZX Spectrum.

Mission Elevator

Mission Elevator arcade adventure
Mission Elevator (Atari ST)

Initially assumed to be little more than a clone of Taito’s Elevator Action, this 1986 release from Eurogold quickly proved itself to be much more than that with its intriguing adventure elements. While, yes, you work your way through a building and open doors to find things, you’re doing much more than just attempting to get to the bottom or the top.

You’ll need to track down keys, secret codes and helpful information in order to succeed in this challenging mission — and the whole experience is delivered with a wonderfully whimsical sense of humour.

Mission Elevator was released for Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum.

Universal Hero

Universal Hero arcade adventure
Universal Hero (Atari 8-bit)

Although some publications were getting a little tired of the arcade adventure formula by the time Mastertronic’s Universal Hero hit the scene in 1986, most begrudgingly admitted that this was one of the best out there, offering interesting puzzles, several maps that were enjoyable (and hazardous) to explore — as well as a stiff challenge.

Taking on the role of Burt the Universal Hero, you need to repair a space shuttle in order to get to a planet where you can retrieve some spare parts, and then use those spare parts to fix up a space freighter and prevent it from causing a disaster. All in a day’s work!

Universal Hero was released for ZX Spectrum and Atari 8-bit. The Atari 8-bit was notable for a game-breaking bug which meant it was impossible to complete; a fixed version was subsequently distributed and this “repaired” version can now be readily found online.


Those are our picks, but there are many, many others out there! Why not let us know some of your favourites down in the comments?

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