Sep 01 2009

Arcade History

zorro @ 9:28 pm

The industry’s timeline is full of as many false starts and dead-ends as innovations and successes. Technically it started with Computer Space and Pong in the early 70s but the phenomenon began in 1978 with Space Invaders.

Inevitably successive iterations on Space Invaders followed – Galaxian (1979), Phoenix (1980) and Galaga (1981) to name a few from Japan. But in the US, Atari was beginning its rise to power with the vector classic Asteroids, followed in 1980 by the 3D vector game, Battlezone and the trackball brilliance of Missile Command. Also in 1980, US pinball manufacturer, Williams, formed an electronics division and a new hire, Eugene Jarvis created the masterful Defender.

The next ‘big thing’ was Pac-Man in 1980, the beginning of Pac-Man fever. This game was much less aggressive than its shooter peers and as such gained a wider following, especially amongst women. Centipede (1980), Frogger (1981) , Ms. Pacman (1981) and Dig Dug (1982) also continued the trend.

In 1981, Nintendo introduced the platform genre with their hit game, Donkey Kong. Along with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong was marketed brilliantly and both games found themselves on t-shirts and backpacks as well as the star of their own TV shows. Also in 1981, the first video-game fatality is recorded as a man dies of a heart attack while playing Berzerk.

Graphical capabilities continued to increase and pseudo-3D driving games like Atari’s Pole Position (1982) hit arcades, multi-directional scrolling was demonstrated by the Konami classic, Time Pilot (1982) and Williams again struck gold with both the surreal Joust and the Eugene Jarvis-designed, frantic, twin-stick blaster, Robotron: 2084. The hard-as-nails shooter Zaxxon was also released in 1982, and Sega provided a fresh perspective using isometric graphics to give the illusion of depth.

Light Cycles - Top 10 Movie Action Sequence

At the movies in 1982, Disney released the visionary Tron. A hacker is abducted into the world of the computer and with its unique look and theme, it both capitalised and inspired many videogames including a direct videogame tie-in which outgrossed the film! Shooters remained popular and Namco’s Xevious was one of the best but Moon Patrol and alternatives like Q-Bert also found audiences.

The next three years were the golden years for the arcade industry and a slew of titles innovated and iterated in almost equal measure. Don Bluth created Dragon’s Lair, the first laser-disc arcade game while Nintendo released Mario Bros and began a franchise that continues to this day. Atari’s vector Star Wars is one of the finest movie tie-ins ever and the sit-down cabinet is still a collector’s piece. Marble Madness also from Atari used an Escher-like landscape and a trackball to frustrate, delight and baffle players and Capcom distilled the essence of the shooter with 1942.

Gauntlet - "Elf shot the food"

Atari capitalised on the Dungeons & Dragons phenomenon with Gauntlet in 1985 and its well-designed, 4-player cabinet was greatly copied. Commando (1985) and Green Beret (1985) launched a concerted Japanese assault on the arcade market and indeed 1986-87 were dominated by Japanese publishers with Rygar (Tecmo), Black Tiger (Capcom), Bionic Commando (Capcom), Rolling Thunder (Namco), Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts (Capcom) and Strider (Capcom) all being shining examples of the run and gun arcade genre.

The driving game genre also proved popular with Sega’s laying the foundations of its dominance with Outrun (1986), while Namco built on Pole Position’s foundations with the first in the Final Lap series (1987). Both these games created unique cabinet designs – Outrun introducing gamers to the wonders of force-feedback steering wheels, while Final Lap allowed up to eight cabinets to be linked for multi-player action. Atari’s multi-player solution was to mount three steering wheels on its upright cabinet for Super Sprint (1986).

The classic shooter meanwhile recieved one of its finest moments with R-Type (1987) from Irem, battling the evils of the Bydo Empire. Japanese developers SNK broke into the US market with their hit Ikari Warriors (1986) which used rotary joysticks (360 twist and 8-way movement), which were used to full effect in Data East’s Heavy Barrel (1987).

swappable cartridges = reduced costs

NEO-GEO: swappable cartridges = reduced costs

The late 80s saw a sharp decline in the popularity of the arcade and a move away from expensive dedicated cabinets to those with interchangeable boards. SNK went one step further and introduced its Neo-Geo system that allowed operators to swap cartridges instead of entire boards, further reducing costs. Capcom had introduced the JAMMA standard in 1985 that facilitated easier wiring of arcade boards to cabinet controls, screen and sound and by the 90s this was the default standard for most manufacturers. As arcade attendance fell, operators cut costs and became risk-averse and it wasn’t until Capcom created Street Fighter 2 in 1991 that the industry recovered – its complex gameplay bringing players back time and time again to master it – and each other. The one-on-one beat-em-up proved a mainstay and apart from Capcom’s many sequels and variants, Midway produced the gory Mortal Kombat (1992) which shocked parents and titillated teenagers.

Virtua Racing - knife-edge 3D

In 1992, Sega’s R&D alliance with General Electric Aerospace created the Model 1 arcade board, pushing the 3D boundary with games like Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Virtua Cop, these games were huge hits which in turn led to the creation of Model 2, delivering the sublime Sega Rally and launching with Daytona in 1993 – the most successful arcade game to date.

Metal Slug - Chaotic 2D animation

Namco replied with Ridge Racer (1993), complete with clutch pedal and Tekken and Point Blank in 1994. Weapons featured prominently in Soul Edge (1995) (Soul Blade in PAL territories). SNK meanwhile remained steadfastly 2D, building fighting franchises like Fatal Fury, King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown. The hardware also played host to games like Baseball Stars 2 (1992), Viewpoint (1992), World Heroes (1992) and later Bust-a-Move (1994) and Metal Slug (1996).

And then the dancing started, Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution (1998) taking arcade games away from the hardcore and into the mainstream. But, by now home consoles like the Playstation 2 were sounding the death-knell of the arcade, pealing the end of an era in the West but only a change of direction in the East.

Becoming more insular, Japanese developers went back to the genre they’d never really left – the shoot-em-up. There are a range of names for the genre of games that followed but Bullet-Hell sums it up. Games like DonPachi (1995), Radiant Silvergun (1998), Guwange (1999) and Treasure’s hardcore perfection – Ikaruga (2001) filled the screen with bullets, forcing gamers to use tactics, memory and reflexes in almost equal measure. Fighting games remained very popular there too and the major franchises, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters and of course Street Fighter, refined not only graphics but also complexity and depth – locking out casual players but rewarding the tournament-hardened hardcore.

In the West most arcades shut down but some remain as carefully perserved gaming havens, if you can find them. The most successful developers and publishers survived the transition to consoles, but something was lost. A kind of hive-mind existed in these places. Some played, some watched but all understood that the cathode glow, ambient noise and the jingle of coins-in-pocket, made the experience more than simply a test of skill. It was gaming nirvana.

4 Responses to “Arcade History”

  1. Helen says:

    what about the gun-toting first person shoot-em-ups?
    Can’t remember the name of the one that you, Michael and I used to play but my classic comment was
    “it’s different when you have a gun in your hand”

  2. zorro says:

    You’ve got me thinking now of what it could have been… Time Crisis? Virtua Cop? Point Blank?

    I did drop Virtua Cop in the article above though, but in trying to compress 30 years of arcade history into a couple of pages, some things had to be left out.

  3. Grant Wagner says:

    If somethings had to be cut, thank goodness SNK stayed. 2D forever!

  4. Josh says:

    Is Helen thinking of Operation Wolf?

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