Back in the ’80s and ’90s, it was almost impossible to go out into a busy public place and not see arcade games of some description. Amusement centers were brimming with the latest releases and coin-ops had even managed to infiltrate pubs, restaurants, fish and chip shops, cinemas and bowling alleys. Fast forward to the present day and the picture is very different; people carry around smartphones and tablets which possess almost as much processing power as the very latest coin-op titles, and home consoles now provide the cutting edge experience that was traditionally reserved for arcades only.
Even so, it’s vital to remember that without arcade gaming, the world of interactive entertainment would be unrecognisable today. The coin-op is where this industry was born – with titles like Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man kick-starting the video game craze – and the past few decades have given us some truly remarkable arcade experiences which simply could never be replicated in the domestic environment, even with today’s advanced technology. Join us for a whistle-stop tour of some of the most iconic arcade games of all time, and try not to get too misty-eyed about the fact that you can no longer push coins into these wonderful machines whilst waiting for your cod and battered sausage down the local chippy.
Space Harrier (1985)
Powered by Sega’s amazing sprite-scaling arcade hardware and created by the legendary Yu Suzuki (OutRun, AfterBurner, Shenmue), Space Harrier remains one of the quintessential classics of the ’80s arcade gaming scene. Typical of games of this period, it featured a paper-thin storyline and wacky environments which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the cover of a Yes album, but that mattered little; it was all about silky-smooth scaling, the incredible shooting action and that massive hydraulically-powered sit-down cabinet. Space Harrier provided a thrill which could never – and arguably will never – be replicated within the home, unless you have enough pennies set aside to buy an original unit, of course.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game (1989)
While Konami’s side-scrolling fighting title did little to push the genre forward – it was actually less complicated than Capcom’s Final Fight, released in the same year – it did much to popularise this style of game. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles licence didn’t do any harm, of course; the game launched around the same time the heroes in a half shell were becoming famous for the first time. The colourful visuals and four-player simultaneous co-op were also a factor in its amazing success, and during the early ’90s it was almost impossible to enter an arcade, leisure center or cinema lobby without being greeted by this seminal coin-op. Home ports followed, but they couldn’t hope to capture the brilliance of the original.
Sonic Blast Man (1990)
Punch-bag games had been a staple of the amusement industry for years prior to the launch of Taito’s Sonic Blast Man in 1990, but this fusion of fairground attraction and high-tech video game gave the concept an entirely fresh appeal. The machine featured a punch pad and a pair of boxing gloves, and the player had to hit the pad as hard as possible in order to overcome the on-screen danger. These threats ranged from saving a baby from an oncoming truck to smashing a giant asteroid which is hurtling towards planet Earth. Each punch was measured in “tonnes”, lending the game an epic feel which was only enhanced by the cheesy Superhero theme. In 1995, Taito was forced to recall many of the units due to injuries sustained by players – proof of the title’s addictive appeal. People were playing it so much they were actually harming themselves!
Sega R-360 (1990)
The R-360 isn’t a single arcade game, but rather a unique arcade cabinet produced by Sega in the early ’90s. This beast took the moving cabinet concept popularised by the likes of Space Harrier and AfterBurner to the next level; the cab could actually spin the player upside down (usually causing loose change to scatter from your pockets), and as a result you had to don a safety harness before playing. The machine was surrounded by a plastic screen to prevent bystanders getting hurt, and Sega insisted that all units were manned by an attendant – something which no doubt impacted the commercial viability of the unit in the eyes of arcade owners. Only two titles supported the R-360: G-LOC: Air Battle and Wing War. Despite this, the R-360 is arguably one of the most spectacular arcade machines ever made, and a shining example of immersive coin-op entertainment could be.
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991)
One of the most popular arcade titles of all time, Street Fighter II made one-on-one combat games the genre of choice for most players, and introduced the concept of six-button control. Before Street Fighter II, most coin-ops had two or maybe three buttons, but Capcom gave players six – three strengths for both punch and kick commands. This title has lost none if its power to captivate, and remains a solid play even after countless sequels and iterations across arcades and home formats. Street Fighter is now a big draw with online players, but you simply cannot beat the thrill of playing against a human opponent who is close enough to punch in the arm when they toast you repeatedly with Ryu’s iconic fireball attack.
Virtua Racing (1992)
By the time the ’90s arrived, 3D gaming was sweeping through arcades in a big way, and Sega was one of the first companies to really embrace it. Virtua Racing took the fan-favourite driving game genre and applied a three dimensional spin; while the visuals look crude by today’s standards – showcasing flat, untextured polygons with very little detail – the sense of speed was unparalleled for the time, and the sit-down arcade cabinet was an instant hit with arcade-goers. It paved the way for Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop and Virtua Soccer, and would be superseded by the likes of Daytona USA and Sega Rally, two of the most popular arcade racers of all time.
Silent Scope (1999)
Throughout the history of arcade gaming, shooting titles have remained a big draw. Early on, companies used crude mechanical wild-west shootouts and submarine simulations where players had to gaze into a periscope. Konami’s Silent Scope – released in the twilight of the coin-op era – combined these two concepts to create a truly original experience. The player would stand behind a massive sniper rifle, looking out over a massive 3D cityscape. However, to actually take aim, the player needed to look into the rifle’s scope, which housed a smaller screen showing a zoomed-in view of the city. Switching between the two perspectives was essential to success, and the game’s 3D visuals added to the realism. It wasn’t all guns and violence, though – by peeping at young ladies through your scope, you could replenish your health.
With recent advances in domestic tech, it looks increasingly unlikely that we’ll ever see these kind of coin-op innovations again; home entertainment is restricted by the amount of cash a person can pay to acquire new hardware, whereas location-based gaming can be more extravagant; without arcades, we’d never have amazing cabinets like the Sega R-360 or the massive, Formula One-style Virtua Racing sit-down cab. Still, such things come in cycles, and the recent resurgence in popularity of Virtual Reality proves that old ideas can often make a comeback. Perhaps one day our bowling alleys, cinema entrance halls and fish and chip shops will once again ring to the sound of arcade machines. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, we’ll still have the wild and wacky examples listed above to tide us over.