The Evolution of Arcade Gaming

Arcades have been around for a long time, but how long? How have arcade games changed over time?

From the first skee ball arcade games over a century ago, to the early co-operated arcade cabinets in the 1970s, to today's modern arcade hits across the globe - learn more about the history of arcade games and how the gaming landscape has evolved throughout the decades. 

The Evolution of Arcade Gaming

When Pong was released in 1972, it gave birth to the modern video game as we know it and opened the door to newer, more sophisticated arcade games. Many people mistakenly believe this marked the start of the arcade, where young gamers huddled over a cabinet in the dark, plugging away at buttons and a joystick in the hopes of making it onto the high score list.

Just a year earlier, Galaxy Game was one of the first coin-operated cabinets to make a debut. It was installed at Stanford University in September 1971. You could argue it was one of the first actual arcade cabinets in existence, but if you look at the broader definition of the industry, that's not necessarily the case.

Neither of these events was actually the start of the arcade. In fact, they weren’t even close to the first instances of arcade-style games being used to entertain the masses. No, they didn’t have digital games before then, but not all arcade games are video-based. The true history of arcade games is much more nuanced and complex. Let's take a closer look. You may be surprised at what you learn.

When Was the First Arcade Game Invented? Skee Ball in the 1909-1930s

A man named J.D. Estes from Philadelphia invented the Skee Ball game in 1909, but it wasn’t until 1914 that the first alley was sold to an amusement provider. The first Skee Ball alley was 36 feet long and required a great deal of strength and accuracy to play. Can you imagine trying to roll a ball that far accurately?

Today, you can find Skee Ball at most arcade or amusement centers, including Chuck E. Cheese. Chances are, you're familiar with what Skee Ball is. Just for kicks, though:

  • Skee Ball involves rolling balls into uniquely arranged circular targets
  • It’s a lot like darts, except with balls and bowling-like alley
  • At the end of the target field or alley are five target areas
  • Each area is worth ten more points than the last, with the hardest being the top-most target for 50 points

The invention of Skee Ball served as the big bang. Amusement-like activities had been around for much longer, of course, but this is truly when the concept of an arcade cabinet or game came to fruition. It was also the start of a more social experience for arcade-goers.

In 1928, the Skee Ball alley was upgraded, and the size reduced to 14 feet. This made it easier for the average person to participate in and enjoy the game, and it also allowed for bigger crowds to see what was happening. This was important because at the time arcade experiences were largely social in nature.

The Game of Chance: Pinball, 1931-1950s

Much later, in 1931, amusement providers caught on to the idea of coin-operated machines. The first to use coins was released in Chicago, called Baffle Ball. It was essentially the first type of pinball machine, though much smaller than the machines you're probably familiar with.

This one resembled an old telephone box more than a free-standing pinball chest. In addition, it was meant to sit on a countertop or bar, as opposed to standing on its own with legs.

At the time, coin-operated machines were considered gambling by the powers that be. They were imposed with similar regulations and restrictions as popular gambling activities and outright banned in some states. It wasn't uncommon for people to call those playing these style of games riff-raff and whippersnappers. These early gamers were often reminded of the neighborhoods located nearby and encouraged to calm down.

Pinball: A Societal Ill?

This thinking was still in place when the first modern pinball machines appeared in 1933. Controversially, they were labeled as “games of chance,” which put them right in line with gambling. Fun or not, they weren’t seen in a favorable light for some time.

Some places — New York City, for instance — banned pinball machines entirely because of their perceived connection to gambling and organized crime. It’s hard to believe, but yes, at one time organized criminals loved to play them. Plus, they served as a great source of passive income.

The first pinball machines didn’t have flippers. Those weren’t introduced until 1947. That’s also why the game was classified as chance-based. You’d shoot the ball up and simply watch to see where it went on the table. There were no side buttons or ways to interact with the ball after it was launched.

Though the machines were expensive, some people shook them to try to get the ball to land favorably. These earliest pinball games were more akin to pulling the lever and watching, requiring little to no skill.

Who Invented the Pinball Machine?

Bally Hoo is a countertop-based pinball game introduced by the Bally Corporation in 1932. The company's founder, Raymond Maloney, is credited with inventing the game and machine. Many consider him the father of modern pinball machines.

Years later, the flippers introduced a modicum of skill to the game, which also made them less gambling oriented. Yet even with the flippers, pinball still wasn’t accepted as a positive experience. At that time, you could find them primarily in bars and back-alley stores.

Eventually, pinball cabinets became more accepted and more popular, primarily among younger audiences. It does make you wonder how many of them were sneaking into bars just to play a silly game before they were more widely accepted.

All Hail the Video Game: 1970-1980s

And now we come full circle to the first true console-based video game, Pong, which was released in 1972. Around that same time, Galaxy Game, the first coin-operated video game, made its debut at Stanford University. Created by Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck, it cost a dime to play one game and a quarter to play three. A cabinet would set you back about $20,000, which amounts to $115,000 today when adjusted for inflation.

It begs the question, what was the first video arcade game? Was it Pong or Galaxy Game? Pong, actually, is considered by many to be the first video game ever created. A physicist named William Higinbotham created the first instance of the game in 1958, much earlier than when it debuted to the public.

Galaxy Game used a version of the existing Spacewar title, similar to Computer Space. The unique experience was programmed by Pitts and Tuck for GG.

Pong and Beyond

In November that same year, another game called Computer Space was released. It was the first mass-produced video or arcade game that made an impact all across the country. Many places installed the cabinet, so it could be found in different arcades. This is really where the birth of the arcade cabinet occurred.

Of course, Pong landed in 1972 and almost immediately saw success. This encouraged a variety of companies — more than 15 total — to begin developing their own video games. In 1975, Pong had a limited release through the Sears catalog, selling about 150,000 units for the holiday season.

Atari even earned a Sears Quality Excellence Award for its success. This spawned a variety of clones and copycats from companies vying to cash in on the title’s success.

The Progression of the Video Game

In 1975, Gun Fight launched and was the first game to utilize a microprocessor under the hood. This introduced a slew of advanced techniques and functionality for games.

In 1978, Taito Corp released Space Invaders, which became one of the most popular games of all time. Following that, Atari released Asteroids in 1979, and it became another hit, especially in arcades. The company sold well over 70,000 cabinets. It eventually became the company’s highest-selling game ever, which should come as no surprise.

Between 1978 and 1982, the arcade business saw something of a golden age:

  • Business expanded rapidly. People loved arcades, and video games in particular, and they reeled in lots of money.
  • The average machine earned $400 a week in quarters alone. Multiply that by at least 13,000 — about the number of arcades that existed at the time — and you get over $5 million a week.

The Modern Arcade Cabinet: 1980-2000

In 1980, Pac-Man officially dropped and became just as successful — if not more so — than some of the other games mentioned thus far. A whopping 350,000 Pac-Man cabinets were sold, at a value of 2 billion dollars. For inflation, that’s about 3.4 billion today. How many of you guessed Pac-Man was worth so much? We sure didn't!

As you may remember, Pac-Man was a universally family-friendly game that appealed to just about anyone from young kids to adults. It quickly became a pop culture phenomenon and introduced the arcade and video game scene to the greater world.

From 1980 to 1983 tons of new games were introduced to market, including titles such as:

  • Donkey Kong
  • Frogger
  • Galaxian
  • Centipede
  • Dig-Dug
  • Tron

In 1981, Donkey Kong was one of the first to utilize a storyline, similar to a movie or book. A damsel had been kidnapped by a huge beast, and you had to save her. Donkey Kong also marked the first appearance of fan-favorite character Mario, who would later go on to become Nintendo's mascot. The company featured the plumber in many games in the years to come, but in the original, he was known only as "Jumpman" and had no conventional name.

Donkey Kong Junior in 1982 was the first game that actually mentioned the character's trademark name, Mario. You could almost say he was never formally created but instead came to be by sheer happenstance.

The Modern Arcade Cabinet: 1980-2000

In 1983, the industry ran into a bottleneck. It is often referred to as the “great crash” or recession. Too many games and competing consoles were produced on a massive scale while younger audiences spent lots of time in arcades.

On top of market saturation, this led to the concern of parents, who became embroiled in a moral fight against the video game industry. Stagnation and conflict caused the industry to become stifled, and nearly killed it altogether.

In 1985 and 1986, the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System consoles were launched, shifting focus from public arcade cabinets to home gaming systems. This reinvigorated the industry and kickstarted a new era.

The Impact of Home Gaming Consoles on Arcades

Around the mid to late 1990s, Multiple Arcade Machine Emulators, or MAME, cabinets began cropping up in most arcades. The idea was a single arcade cabinet would house multiple games.

This boosted the value of the average arcade cabinet and increased replayability for customers. You no longer purchased a cabinet with a single game but several at once. MAME became popular but not enough to make a huge difference in business.

While home console games continued to gain popularity, the average arcade needed some new excitement. Capcom saved the scene with the launch of Street Fighter II in 1991. It introduced a new form of cabinet incorporated fighting games. The local multiplayer aspect really caught on as gamers loved to fight friends and peers in a digital plane. Eventually came the release of games like Mortal Kombat and others that continued to boost the popularity of this multiplayer combat genre.

A Revolution Revelation: Dance, Dance Blows Up

In 1999, Konami released Dance Dance Revolution, an entirely new type of arcade game that encouraged you to, well, dance. Despite many of the arcade cabinets being fighters at the time, the company took a risk.

It worried American audiences wouldn’t catch on to the idea, simply because it was too quirky. Yet it was a huge success and garnered 6.5 million in total unit sales by 2003.

What can we say? People just love to dance, especially to great, upbeat music.

Immersive Gaming: Late '90s-2013

From the mid 1990s on, the arcade industry and games in general further evolved. In 1996, the Nintendo 64 launched, and in 2000 PlayStation followed up with the PlayStation 2, after its hugely successful PlayStation console. Then came the introduction of 3D gaming and many new genres. With each console iteration, the technology advanced considerably, looking more and more realistic.

By the time the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 hit the scene, games had progressed to something truly amazing. Of course, all these visual and performance updates meant bigger and better arcade cabinets, too.

We’re talking about a multitude of cabinets, from Mario Kart to Deal or No Deal. The 2000s saw the evolution of driving and racing simulators, basketball machines and the infamous shooting games. Big Buck Hunter, anyone? Really, it was the golden age of the modern amusement cabinet that featured a variety of interactions and immersive experiences.

Basketball Amusement Games

Basketball arcade games with real balls became popular during the late '80s to early 2000s. Basketball arcade games had been around for decades, of course. Play Basketball by Aero-Matic in 1920 used a setup similar to the earliest pinball cabinets. Taito’s Basketball (1974) was one of the first conventional arcade cabinets to feature the sport. It had a black and white display with a blank background that symbolized the court. Players would control on-screen avatars using an arcade joystick.

It wasn’t until games like 1988's Competition Basketball from Intermark Amusements Inc. and 1993's Hot Shot Basketball from Midway Manufacturing Co. launched that the use of actual basketballs became a practice.

Today, Super Shot Basketball from Bay Tek Games — and some of its many variations — is one of the most popular arcade cabinets around. In fact, the company revised the arcade for 2018.

First-Person Shooter and Gun Arcades

Light gun shooters, or arcade games that use a gun-shaped controller, have believe it or not, been around for a long time. Some of the first used mechanical light guns in the 1930s and operated much differently than modern game setups. The mechanical setup gave the impression the player was shooting the gun when they actually were not.

Sega’s electro-mechanical arcade cabinet featuring Periscope launched in 1966. Players targeted cardboard ships moving within the unit.

In the 1970s and 1980s, video shooter games appeared. In 1969, Sega created the original Duck Hunt, which featured moving targets onscreen. After the player finished, they received their score, which was printed out on a paper ticket. The Nintendo Entertainment System later adapted Duck Hunt, which featured a plastic gun-like controller.

In the 1990s, the genre evolved considerably to include much more realistic and immersive experiences. On top of featuring 3D graphics and realistic artwork, such as what you’d see in 1994's Virtua Cop and 1995's Time Crisis, the guns were much improved, too.

In 1996, House of the Dead launched in Japan and was internationally released in 1997. It featured a reactive gun controller that had moving parts, which would provide feedback as you played the game. Eventually, these games gave way to the more modern first-person shooters and gun arcades we know today.

Racing Simulators

In 1973, Atari released Space Race, which allowed players to control spaceships flying around a unique track, avoiding comets and meteors. Taito launched a rival game called Astro Race, which employed the same theme. While these two games aren’t technically the same style of racing simulators we know today, they were a couple of the first to introduce racing to the masses.

Taito’s 1974 Speed Race was one of the first such games to introduce driving. The course became narrow or wide as the player moved along the road. The same year, Gran Trak 10 launched, which featured the first use of a gear-stick, steering wheel and foot pedals.

A number of games were launched from then on into the early '80s that also used racing as a theme. This included titles such as:

  • The Driver, 1970
  • Super Bug, 1977
  • Speed Freak, 1979
  • Rally-X, 1980
  • Alpine Ski, 1981
  • Turbo, 1981

It wasn’t until 1982’s Pole Position where the idea of racing simulators came to fruition. The game was based on a real racing circuit and even featured a qualifying lap, similar to real Grand Prix rules.

Sega’s Hang-On in 1985 was the first to use force feedback, a form of movement that made it seem like the player was really in a car. This later evolved to include enhanced force feedback through vibrations, more immersive experiences, and so on. Other notable games of this era in the genre include:

  • Out Run, 1986
  • Hard Drivin’, 1989
  • Ridge Racer, 1993
  • Daytona USA, 1993
  • The Need for Speed, 1994
  • Gran Turismo, 1997
  • Crazy Taxi, 1999

Intro to 4D Gaming

In 2013, the first 4D gaming cabinet launched, called Dark Escape 4D. It uses a combination of:

  • 3D visuals
  • Surround sound
  • Vibrations
  • Blasts of air

This truly immerses the player in what’s happening. There’s even a heart rate monitor that will tell you when your heart is racing. Spoiler alert — it goes crazy the entire time unless you're superhuman.

Games and arcade cabinets have really come a long way over the years. It’s hard to imagine that first shoebox-sized Baffle Ball cabinet evolving into what we have now, but that’s exactly what happened.

The Future of Gaming: 2018 and Beyond

The excitement surrounding the traditional arcade remains strong today. Amusement centers and arcades have spread around the country, though they’re a different beast than they were 50, 30 or even 10 years ago.

Home console gaming and its massive surge in innovation changed the scene. You also can find games in cafes and coffee shops, giving gamers a space to play modern entertainment.

The video game industry is seeing a huge boom in consoles like the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One introducing games that people also play at arcades. Next on the horizon for the future of arcade games, lie with vintage arcade games and the current state of the VR industry.

Virtual reality will deliver truly immersive experiences, allowing players to step into the shoes of an adventurer or race car driver. They're not just looking at a screen simulation. They're in the cockpit. We will see the technology deployed in arcades, too, an exciting next step for devoted gamers:

  • In 2014, Facebook bought the VR company Oculus for $400 million in cash and 23.1 million shares of the social network.
  • That’s a massive investment, and it highlights the potential for the technology.
  • If Facebook, the largest and most successful social network in the world, has faith in the VR industry, then it’s probably going somewhere.

With the likes of the PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and many others, virtual reality will soon enter a heyday. It’s certainly interesting to consider how this will evolve in the near future and impact the arcade industry.

Add to or Build Your Own Arcade

Today, arcades remain a fun place for people of all ages to meet with friends and compete in games, though you probably won't hear people calling them whippersnappers anymore. If you grew up in arcades and still love the games, you're in luck. You can enjoy the nostalgia of the arcade with your kids at a classic arcade or with friends at any of the new "barcades" that are popping up across the country. Of course, if you love classic arcade games and enjoy hanging out at home, you could always build your own arcade or game room using beloved arcade cabinets from the past.

Whether at an arcade or at home, you can experience the joy of arcade games and pinball machines just as they were in their prime thanks to M&P Amusement. If you're in the York, PA area, visit our showroom to see your old favorites or perhaps find a new favorite arcade game to bring home. Our friendly staff of arcade enthusiasts will be happy to answer any questions you might have. If you're not local to York, you're still in luck, you can browse our arcade machine inventory online and buy your new arcade game today!