- The US arcade game market's revenues increase to $8.2 billion in 1981 (equivalent to $21.3 billion in 2021).
- February: Namco releases New Rally-X, which is (as the name suggests) the sequel to Rally-X.
- February: Konami releases Scramble, the first side-scrolling shooter with forced scrolling and multiple distinct levels, and an early example of multi-core processing, using two Z80 microprocessors and two AY-3-8910 sound chips.
- February: Williams Electronics release Defender, a challenging shoot-em-up space game with control configuration of five buttons and a joystick.
- May: Atari releases Asteroids Deluxe, which was the sequel to Asteroids.
- June: Konami releases Frogger, a popular arcade action game. It also uses multi-core processing, with two Z80 microprocessors and an AY-3-8910 sound chip.
- July: Namco releases the arcade game Warp & Warp.
- July: Nintendo releases Donkey Kong, which was one of the first platform games. It was also the game that introduced Mario (named simply "Jumpman" at the time) to the video game world, and one of the first video games to have a fleshed out storyline.
- November: Namco releases Bosconian, introducing a free-roaming style of gameplay where the player's ship freely moves across open space that scrolls in all directions and a radar that tracks player & enemy positions on the map.
- December: Sega releases Eliminator, a space combat multi-directional shooter notable for being the only four-player vector game created. It featured a colour vector display as well as both cooperative and competitive multiplayer.
- Polybius, an urban legend game, is said to have been released in 1981.
- President Elect, a commercially published political simulation game, was released by Strategic Simulations.
- Game Genres: Shmups, Professor Jim Whitehead, January 29, 2007, Accessed June 17, 2008
- Scramble at Museum of the Game
- Frogger at Museum of the Game
- 1981 in video gaming at Allgame via the Wayback Machine
- Mark J. P. Wolf (2008), The video game explosion: a history from PONG to Playstation and beyond, ABC-CLIO, p. 69, ISBN 0-313-33868-X, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XiM0ntMybNwC&pg=PA69&lpg=PA69, retrieved 2011-03-28
- Eliminator at Museum of the Game
Video game releases