Gamers who grew up in the eighties and nineties will no doubt harbour fond memories of trips to amusement arcades. Although many of these parlours were a little on the seedy side, they gave gaming fanatics something their modern day counterparts don't have - dedicated venues where they could pursue their primary passion alongside scores of like-minded individuals. Coin-operated video games first emerged in the early seventies, and became a force to be reckoned with when the likes of Atari and Taito emerged on the scene. Sadly, recent advances in home console technology and online gaming have killed off the movement almost entirely.
In 1971, students at Stanford University proved that not all scholars are beer-guzzling layabouts by assembling the world's first recognised co-op video game machine. Galaxy Game was a coin-powered port of Spacewar! for home computers. Although it was never mass-produced, it paved the way for programmer Nolan Bushnell to develop the first commercial arcade release Computing Space the following year. Unwilling to stop there, Bushnell went on to conquer this new frontier, founding Atari with Ted Dabney in 1972. The studio became a household name following the arrival of its legendary bat-and-ball offering Pong. The primitive tennis title proved a worldwide smash, but Atari's bid to dominate the arcade sector faced stiff competition from rivals Taito, who blew the gaming world apart with the blockbuster Space Invaders in 1978.
As the eighties approached, Atari remained a heavyweight in the field, churning out such hits as Centipede and Asteroids, but a host of other studios also got in on the act. Namco and Midway had monster hits on their hands with Galaxian and Pac-Man, Nintendo delivered barrels of fun with Donkey Kong, and Williams Electronics' Defender pioneered the side-scrolling shooter. The increasing popularity of these coin-guzzlers saw them emerge in public places, such as bars, clubs and cinemas, particularly in Japan and the US, and it wasn't long before they were given their own dedicated venues. Arcade parlours became an integral part of the popular culture, housing video game cabinets alongside pinball machines, pool tables and one-armed bandits. Their biggest draw was the chance to play new releases on cutting-edge hardware, as well as the social aspect involved. Software houses during the 8-bit era often launched their wares on coin-op platforms for maximum exposure, and gamers came from far and wide armed with pockets full of change. However, this so-called Golden Age would not last forever.
Video has been blamed for killing the radio star, and the rise of the home console had a similar impact on arcades. As Sega and Nintendo rolled out the Master System and NES respectively, the great decline that would eventually kill off coin-op gaming almost completely showed its first signs of setting in. Gamers no longer had to leave their homes to play the latest releases, and the option to borrow cartridges from rental companies made consoles more financially viable than their coin-hungry counterparts. However, this initial lull didn't last long. As the nineties drew near, the rise of side-scrolling beat 'em ups and versus fighters helped arcade parlours experience a major resurgence.
The late eighties to early nineties was a time of action, not words, and side-scrolling brawlers like Double Dragon and one-on-one fighters such as Street Fighter II drew punters back to the arcades in droves. Whether playing Golden Axe co-operatively, or Mortal Kombat against another individual, the definitive way to experience these games was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the other player in front of a genuine coin-co cabinet. Versus fighters were particularly popular due to their competitive nature, and arcades handed gamers the opportunity to get one over on complete strangers, a perk that would not be emulated on home platforms until online functionality took off some years later. Arcades could once again offer an experience that could not be replicated on the console scene, though it wasn't long before home technology caught up.
Once the 16-bit era was underway, it became possible for games companies to deliver an authentic arcade experience to home consoles, so coin-op developers had to think up new ways of offering a unique experience. The answer lay in gimmicks and novelty peripherals. Rain shooters featuring extravagant light guns, such as Virtua Cop, Lethal Enforcers and later House Of The Dead took off towards the late nineties and rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and DrumMania found success at the end of the decade. Unfortunately for arcade denizens, it was around this time that consoles started coming equipped with 3D accelerator cards and online gaming took off.
Unable to offer superior hardware, coin-ops were no longer publishers' first port of call when it came to new releases, and their profitability took a downturn. The advent of online play meant that gamers no longer had to leave their homes to compete against complete strangers, so arcades' social appeal also diminished. Many longstanding chains adopted new strategies to remain financially viable, such as introducing redemption games, merchandisers, and food services, but dozens of arcade cabinets were still destined for the scrapheap. What remained of the movement by the time the current hardware generation arrived stood little chance of competing against the likes of Kinect and PS Move technology, but it remains on life support thanks to a dedicated niche community.
In the US, there are a fraction as many arcade parlours as there were back in their heyday, while in Japan, the majority of them now house pachinko machines (although this market is also in decline). Here in the UK, they still adorn seaside resorts, except one-armed bandits and redemption machines outnumber video games by at least ten to one. Coin-op gaming machines can still be found in cinema lobbies, bowling allies and other such places, but the general public's interest in them continues to wane.
"That's just the way the amusement scene has gone now, it's all fruit machines, pushers and grabbers. If you can't make money or win a prize, it seems punters don't want to know, unfortunately," Dave Moore, organiser of Britain's largest retro gaming event R3Play told Digital Spy. "The improvement in the consoles is partly to blame and sometimes you find that the home conversions are actually better than their arcade counterparts. Something else worth noting: even if you are lucky enough to find an amusement arcade containing video game cabinets, you'd be doing very well to spot any 'traditional' joysticks in use - it's all steering wheels, pedals and light guns nowadays."
Luckily for coin-op fanatics, events such as R3play and the enthusiasm of collectors worldwide will prevent arcade gaming from dying out completely. It may have had its day, but we'll always feel a pang of nostalgia whenever we see a vintage cabinet still in working order.
Additional image copyright: R3play Expo
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