Before PC and Console Games: The Coin Operated Video Arcade
By Olin Coles
Once upon a time, the only place you could play electronic video games and compete against friends was the video arcade. Atari’s Pong helped make coin-operated gaming possible, but in the late 1970’s games such as Space Invaders and Galaxian took these quarter-gobbling arcade game cabinets into the mainstream. Just a few years later into the 1980’s arcades would enjoy their golden age with games such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Centipede. It was around this same time that video games would make their entrance into convenience stores and supermarkets, with the occasional mini-arcade sprouting up inside restaurants. Some businesses such as Chuck E. Cheese, Dave and Busters, and numerous pizza chains built arcades into their theme. Simultaneously, home computers and video game consoles were starting to take root inside some privileged households, beginning the decades-long struggle for control over video game outlets.
Sadly, the rapid over-saturation of the video game market led to the North American video game crash of 1983-84. This event wiped many arcades off the maps, and began the downward spiral from their peak of 13,000+ locations to only 2000+ still in business today (worldwide). The Crash also took its toll on gaming consoles, ending the era of Atari 2600 and later producing a new (3rd) generation of video game consoles with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System. At around the same time, Apple, Commodore, and especially IBM were making headlines with their personal computer (PC) platforms. Until the 1990’s, video games would propel PCs and game consoles into homes at the same rate arcades would close up shop. Based on recent sales and download figures, it seems that more people play games on their mobile phone than PCs, game consoles, and arcades combined.
Personally speaking, I’ve had the benefit of enjoying Pac-Man and Donkey Kong in 25¢ doses at the arcade as much as I’ve enjoyed playing Pitfall! and Demon Attack on my Atari. The trouble with most games was that you were always pitted against the computer, and, well, the system cheats. So it didn’t take long before my most preferred video games were of the fighting genre. I’ve also had the pleasure of playing in arcades across the land: from the beach boardwalks of Santa Cruz, to seedy shops in New York City. Back in the mid-1990’s I lived near Tokyo, Japan, and enjoyed the hysteria of arcade tournaments in Akihabara (see image below). Of the many traditions that came with coin-operated gaming, it was the row of quarters placed below the screen that always meant a challenge was waiting: winners stayed, losers paid.
Regardless of my geography, arcade egos lived and died on the results of fighting games. The Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, and Virtua Fighter series offered a variety of fighting styles to choose from within each title, and each had a large following that mastered the moves. This was all back in a day when mouthing-off during a game could get you into a real-world fight behind the arcade, well before the Internet made rage trolling possible for angry anonymous gamers. You could argue that arcades kept your attitude in check, while gaming consoles have allowed the most vile personalities to invade your screen. Today’s youth lack the knowledge and personal experience standing upright in a video game arcade, leaving them to live an online existence devoid of restraint and control, and spawning an era of online bullying. Some gamers now simply avoid online video games for fear of griefing, but what we really need is a re-emergence of the arcade… perhaps in a new flavor of 3D Technology.
I can’t be a kid again, so I never stopped. Just recently I tested and reviewed the Mad Catz Arcade FightStick Pro, a product that aims to recreate an authentic arcade experience. The arcade cabinet feel is certainly genuine, but I miss the pride that comes with dominating others at their own expense to help fill the hours of an otherwise boring summer day. My computer, game console, and mobile phone can’t begin to give me that feeling back, but they try. Games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Medal of Honor help to create that ‘king of the hill’ sense of accomplishment, and offer a virtual world no arcade could ever create. As hard as these new game platforms try, they will always lack the thrill that comes with a personal appearance to an arcade.
Enjoy a nice Easter Egg, since I couldn’t work a picture of this arcade into the article: a ‘special’ amusement center near Zama, Japan.