Don’t let the older generations fool you with their nostalgia filters. The 1980s arcade scene was not objectively better than today’s gaming. It was different, even had a few aspects it’s a shame to lose now, but not better.
If you were in the target age for video games during the heyday of arcades, your gaming session began during the afternoon hours post-school, with a pocket full of change and a bus transfer. To switch games, rather than closing one app and opening another, or switching cartridges or disks, you switched physical locations. It was worth scoping all the local arcades in your area on a weekly basis; new games would come in, old ones move out.
There were video game arcades on at least every other street corner. Every mall had one, maybe a bonus one if it had a movie theater. Every bowling alley and convenience store had a few. Even a few laundromats or grocers had a couple arcade cabinets in a corner, and for sure there was one at every Pizza Hut and miniature golf course. The streets were lined with games. But you had only so many quarters and so much time, so you had to pick and choose. This was one benefit to ’80s gaming: you got in your exercise.
Major Arcade Franchises
Arcades were easy to set up and operate, so mom and pop places were the standard. But over time, especially in malls, a small number of arcade companies became familiar:
Not much to distinguish it. Not even heavy theming, beyond the sign.
Notable for its elaborate googie theming. Always seemed noisier than other arcades.
Always in malls, very small and not well-stocked.
The Time-Outs were the best. They had a great selection of games, and were heavily themed with a telescoping tunnel effect. Some of them were even named “Time Tunnel,” maybe a copycat franchise or just an alternative name.
The occasional dead mall spelunker runs across the sad shell of a Time-Out.
But most of all, arcades were just sole proprietors set up in one location. The major chains and individual arcades together all got bought out eventually by Namco, makers of Pac-Man.
One more prime location for arcades was beachfront boardwalks:
In fact, probably the best surviving arcades you’ll find anywhere are still in boardwalks. Arcade game selections were impacted by various economic forces. Some arcade owners bought a few machines when they started and didn’t replace them until they broke down. Others were more competitive, swapping out games for higher-profit ones as they calculated precious floor space. Dedicated arcades tended to stay updated, while you’d stumble upon a forgotten vintage game in a dark corner of a motel lobby. Boardwalks, with their prime real estate and being off the main circuit, tend to hang onto the best selection of games across the decades.
Some arcade owners became part-time hackers, swapping ROM sets and boards inside cabinets. Games were cloned, altered, or even bootlegged. You knew you were in a hacker’s arcade if you were in front of what was clearly a Burgertime cabinet running a Donkey Kong clone called Crazy Kong.
Pictured above, the standard arcade cabinet design. Of course as you see in the video, games took on many innovative shapes and designs over the years. But the standard cabinet was most common, making it very easy to swap games.
Games were also impacted by their company’s marketing. First the marketing was directed at players in magazines. See if you can spot the common theme:
That’s what always grinds my gears, is when a lingerie model in pumps saunters in and takes over the Pac-Man machine like she owns the place.
Later game marketing switched its focus to arcade owners, since they made the buying decisions. These ads abandoned the cheesecake for more practical copy.
Ad copy here reduced us to the Pavlovian creatures of habit we all are. Look well, patrons, for this is how business owners look at you all the time.
Marble Madness had some claim to innovation, being one of the earliest to use the trackball controller. Crystal Castles had tried it earlier, but suffered from buggy tech that made it a rare find.
That was the other factor impacting games, was the technology. Some games got pushed aside in favor of new gizmos. Some games innovated too fast and suffered blowback due to high maintenance and repair costs. In-between all these rifts were games with a cult following. They were harder to find, but dedicated fans would seek them out.
One of the biggest cults formed briefly around games using laser-disc technology. I covered that a while back here, complete with an exploration of Dragon’s Lair.
Lots of games became memes in their time for their audio. Sinistar had its terrifying voice chip:
Altered Beast had this goofy voice acting with distorted audio. “Whithe fwom youw gwave!”:
Rastan was a barbarian adventure game with one of the most awesome soundtracks ever:
And some games were just favorites for being so unfathomably weird, like Biomechanical Toy:
What the heck is this game about? Is there some kind of story it’s based on? It seems like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Die Hard. We may never know. It was created by Zeus Software (as shown in opening credits), which released just this one game, than vanished.
Aspects of Arcade Culture
But then there were the blockbusters, the games so popular that they spawned a line of sequels…
New fads came and went. Some got their own songs, some even got their own movies, but many more just installed themselves on the public consciousness the way popular games do now. For instance, Gauntlet:
This became a fixture in every convenience store at the same time. One player by themselves can’t get very far. It takes a quartet cooperating together. For a brief while in history, it was not uncommon to visit 7-Eleven and see four complete strangers from all walks of life, excitedly playing through dungeon levels on Gauntlet. The voice chip: “Save keys to open doors.” “The elf needs food badly.” “The wizard is about to die!”
This was the true beauty of the arcade age. Other players weren’t just avatars behind a screen. Gaming was inherently a social act, even if only to go elbow-to-elbow. You’d finish up your grocery shopping and then stop to challenge some kid’s Street Fighter run. Get good enough at a game, and kids would crowd behind you watching you beat the whole thing. Going on an arcade run was something to do with friends.
In the modern time, we’ve moved on now to games better than any arcade quarter-gobbler in our pocket. But there are some aspects to gaming inevitably lost to the arcade era, at least for the time being. Such as custom environment cabinets which wrapped you in an immersive electronic womb of flashing lights and stereo speakers, putting you in the cockpit or the driver’s seat:
Here’s a modern-day hobbyist restoring one classic cabinet:
Another thing we miss now is the theme of the arcade itself, creating a whole immersive experience:
Of course, some arcades still survive now in niche environments. Boardwalks, amusement parks, and bowling alleys hang onto their arcades forever. Movie theaters keep a few amusements around as an obligation. But most people even now only play them as a nostalgic indulgence. There’s never going to be a time when you have to travel across town to find the one hot new game everybody’s talking about.
Gaming is more convenient now by a far stretch. Certainly a lot cheaper, since you can get better games downloaded for free. Indeed, you can play most classic arcade games free all day in your web browser, courtesy of the Internet Archive’s virtual arcade.
So we can definitely say gaming has improved objectively. But we also see that gaming culture was shaped by the arcade era, now yet another chapter in technology history that remains elusive for future generations. Can we ever regain our innocence, or is the magic and wonder of a new technology fad forever consigned to the few lucky generations which witnessed it first-hand?