arcade video games machine

The History & Evolution of Arcade Machines

Before the technological advancements put the “video” in “arcade video games”, gaming machines were largely mechanical in nature. Called electro-mechanical (EM) games, these cabinets used electric circuits to move parts along a background.

One of the first EM games, Drive Mobile, moved a small model car against a painted drum. This was in 1941. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that the public would get glimpses of computer games in the way of Nimrod and Bertie the Brain, two early computers the size of cars that ran Nim and Tic-Tac-Toe, respectively.

Scientists would continue to toy with making games, but primarily as methods for research. Arthur Samuel developed Checkers on an IBM 701 trying to create a program that could defeat a human. A S Douglas made OXO, another tic-tac-toe game, to study the interactions between computers and people. After the studies, machines were dismantled for parts to build the next academic project.

Meanwhile, electro-mechanical games were paving the way, yet not through breakthroughs in computing and hardware. Periscope, Sega’s first major commercial hit, was racking up quarters in malls and department stores–the first coin-operated game to find mainstream success inside “family-friendly” establishments.

What Was The First Arcade Game?

These two worlds would run in parallel in the arcade game history timeline until a turning point in 1961, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) welcomed the PDP-1 into its labs. A group of sci-fi-loving MIT hackers looked at its new vector graphic display, and an idea began to take off. “Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional manoeuvring sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships,” says programmer Steve Russel.

And so Spacewar! coalesced from the cold depths of outer space. For the first time, video games were entertaining and hip. Rolling Stone would host an “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics”, possibly the first eSports tournament ever held–and the only one to be photographed by Annie Lebowitz.

The fun didn’t stop when the demonstration ended. While Spacewar! was still chained by the PDP-1’s heft, Russel would make the code available to the public, free for anyone to recreate. The game would continue to be the obsession of the programming community for years, eventually drawing the attention of one Nolan Bushnell.

Bushnell, who worked at an amusement park while attending college, recognised the goldmine glinting behind Spacewar!’s celestial carnage: “I really understood the economics of the coin-operated game business, and I think that I was perhaps the only person that had those two experiences, which allowed me to synthesise it.”

The product of that synthesis is Computer Space, the first of early arcade games. It ran on custom hardware, which allowed Bushnell and business partner Ted Dabney to house it all in a sleek and curvy cabinet, a far cry from its lab-bound predecessors.

Although Computer Space earned $3 million, it failed to charm the mainstream public. While computer engineers and students loved it, most people found it too complicated. Players would struggle to coordinate the 4 buttons required to fire missiles, thrust, and rotate ships.

It wasn’t until Bushnell – and his newly minted company, Atari – released his next game that the arcade scene would truly take off. In the end, it wasn’t spaceships that launched the burgeoning industry into orbit, but rather two paddles and a ball.

The Golden Years of Arcade Machine History

Pong cracked the formula and made arcade history, both in gameplay and hardware. The cabinet was cheap to make, fabricated from a $75 television and a wooden cabinet. It was easy to pick up; players just had to rotate a knob that moved the paddles up and down. The simplicity had people hooked. Pong earned four times more than anything else in the arcade. Machines jammed with quarters and broke.

The jingle of coins turned the heads of major manufacturers. In the years that followed the release of the Pong arcade machine, companies like Bally Midway, Taito, and Sega would develop their own entrants into the space, marking the pivot of industry away from electro-mechanical coin-operated arcade machines and pinball.

The first few arcade machines were clones of Pong. But it wasn’t long until developers began to explore other genres, eager for new ideas to bring to the screen. As popular arcade games began to diversify, so did the cabinets.

Taito’s Speed Race, the first racing video game, used steering wheels and an accelerator. Midway’s Racer added a chair to the mix, making one of the first sit-down cabinets. Light guns made their way into arcade video gaming in 1974 with Balloon Gun and Qwak! Trackballs rolled their way into the scene in 1978 on Atari’s Football.

High Scores for Hardware

Under the evolving exterior of cabinets, technical advancements continued to expand what was possible. Hardware had always been the limiter, but the 70s and 80s saw large leaps, as is wont with technology, enabling mechanics that would become hallmarks of their genres.

Space Invaders was the first shoot-em-up to have opponents firing back. It was also the first game that had the internal memory needed to make saving high scores possible, dialling the competitive aspect of games up by 10.

Galaxian, Namco’s answer to Taito’s Space Invaders, attempted to one-up its rival with several new features. It could animate and render sprites in multiple colours, changing game worlds forever. It used a smooth scrolling background to mimic flight through space, a technique that would become the springboard for side-scrolling, multi-directional scrolling, and parallax scrolling.

Eventually, the enhancements would allow developers to create games more complex than endless shooters and mazes. Donkey Kong, released in 1981, was the first to introduce a fully-fledged out story in the history of arcade games, told through unique characters, multiple stages and cutscenes, and a specially composed soundtrack.

The Fall

Like many empires, the arcade gaming industry faced a devastating collapse in the mid-80s. The market had become saturated with games. At the same time, a crusade against games further crippled the struggling industry. Revenue sank to $100 million, from a peak of $12 billion.

The downturn marked a permanent decline for the industry. More modern arcade games

like Street Fighter II and Virtua Fighter sparked a renaissance in the 90s and kept arcades in the slipstream of pop culture, but would fail to attract the same crowds back.

The Resurgence

Nostalgia–and the promise of craft beer and community–is piquing interest in arcades again. But those returning will find that the modern-day arcade looks a little different to the rooms your parents were used to.

Some of the things you might walk into in a modern arcade: virtual reality MotoGP cabinets that look straight out of Tron; a 4-player Mission Impossible cabinet the size of a room; and a cross between a rollercoaster and Ubisoft’s Rabbids.

Even familiar cabinets with their retro artwork and ball-top joysticks have done a lot of levelling up through the years. Top-of-the-line machines bring the power of today’s computers to transform yesteryear’s arcade cabinet into the ultimate gaming machine. It’s like popping the hood of a beloved vintage car to find a V8 engine purring underneath.

If you’re looking for such a machine, check out our full range of truly awesome arcade machines. It looks like a cabinet from your childhood arcade, but kitted out with the parts of a high-end PC, including a dedicated NVIDIA GPU. High-definition monitors bring a new dimension of appreciation for retro games with great pixel art such as Outrunners and Golden Axe. It can play thousands of games, including blockbusters from consoles as recent as the Xbox Series X or the PlayStation 5.

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