Arcades used to be a huge business. According to legend, one of the first Pong cabinets got so many nickels over a weekend that the machine stopped working. Before everyone had expensive home consoles, a pocketful of change was enough to have a great time for several hours. This fact meant that, for most people, arcades were the only chance they had to play video games that didn’t suck.
It also meant that the machines and their owners only had a limited amount of time to convince patrons to part with some of that precious coinage. Once competition got stiff in the arcade boom of the early 80s, suddenly having a great game simply wasn’t enough. Flashy or gimmicky cabinets could draw people in just as well if not better than the classics of yesteryear such as Donkey Kong or Pac Man.
Thus began an arms race between arcade cabinet manufacturers. The goal was to achieve the machine that would leave players no choice but to drop their jaws and turn out their pockets. In light of this history of escalating awesomeness, here are some of the more notable victors of snazzy cabinet warfare…
Star Wars – Atari, 1983
Anyone who compares a regular arcade machine manufactured before 1985 versus one with a vector screen will notice a world of difference. Bright, crisp lines and an awesome 3D effect spelled the future for gaming.
Star Wars upped the ante by not only having amazing vector graphics and possibly the best film license available, but also a killer cabinet. It projected voice samples, music, and had an amazing yoke controller that felt intuitive but complex and gelled with the space fighter vibe.
The game got even more badass when arcade owners opted for the deluxe, environmental sit-down model. The well-placed stereo speakers and immersive enclosure made you feel like you just sat down into an X-Wing cockpit. It also helps that this was one of the better-designed games of its era; two unique level modes and an intense on-rails mechanic make this game fun to play over and over again, especially when played on a sit-down cabinet.
Time Traveler – Sega, 1991
Along with vector graphics, arcade manufacturers had another secret weapon up their sleeves: laserdiscs. Games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace had ridiculously simple and repetitive trial-and-error mechanics that in most circumstances would have induced boredom comas. When combined with eye-popping animated Don Bluth footage, however, even failing miserably at the game could be a reward.
Sega decided to cash in on this trend with an equally impressive take. Instead of having animated footage playing on a regular CRT screen, Sega had recorded live actors and pre-rendered computer generated images and projected them onto a series of mirrors to give the appearance of a hologram. For the first (and quite possibly only) time, instead of staring at a flat picture players were given the illusion of miniature people duking it out on top of the console surface. The effect is still quite impressive today.
Unfortunately, the game also sucked huge balls. While this didn’t prevent it from nabbing almost as many quarters as it’s animated competition, it reduced repeat business once the gimmick wore thin. The controls were unresponsive and the live actors were cheesy, and generally all of the charm of the Don Bluth games was stripped in favor of a dazzling but ultimately limiting effect.
Darius – Taito, 1989
Doomed to obscurity in the US, the Darius series didn’t receive much support from American arcade owners. The second and fourth iterations were some of the only cabinets to make the trip from Japan, and even then in miniscule numbers.
What we largely missed out on was one of the most sumptuous shoot-em-up experiences available. Along with beautifully detailed graphics, Darius also had an elaborate, three-monitor setup that through a series of mirrors gave the illusion of one continuous wide screen. The effect made the game seem more detailed and vast than any other of its genre. Combined with thumping amplified stereo sound and a nifty-looking control panel, the game easily could have succeeded in the US if it weren’t for arcade owners’ fears that it was too difficult.
Dance Dance Revolution – Konami, 1999
Once home consoles became more advanced, suddenly arcades could barely compete in terms of graphics alone. Instead, they had to offer something that you simply couldn’t get at home in the form of elaborate cabinets.
Of all of these, the Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) series easily had the most rock-solid design. The thumping bass speakers and huge screens were the icing on the cake that was the massive, inviting lightup dance floor. These cabinets were also anything but flimsy; a sturdy hand-rail and platform construction tolerated much more abuse than the average environmental cabinet, which often had fun-looking but fragile controller mechanisms such as a skateboard or skis.
DDR set the standard for what it meant to be an arcade machine in the age of affordable 3D consoles. While guitars, bongos, and even a flippable table controller would later take cues from DDR’s success, Konami made the original cabinet experience that got people out of their homes and back into arcades.
X-Men (6-player unit) – Konami, 1992
Konami had hit after hit when it came to licensed beat-em-ups in the early 90s. They made a great Simpsons and Ninja Turtles game to name a few, but the one that really turned heads was the massive, 6-player version of the 1992 X-Men game, which was based on the failed 1989 Hannah Barbera pilot Pryde of the X-Men.
Like Darius, X-Men had a widescreen that was the result of one regular monitor and one reflected to overlap seamlessly on a mirror. The domed covering also made the screen setup glow from within, an effect that drew onlookers even closer.
I remember as a kid having to choose between waiting in line for nearly an hour or passively watching as the X-Men tore through sentinels and supermutants. Having six people join in on the fray made the experience seem all the more epic, and it consistently pulled in a crowd even if it meant only watching the awesomeness unfold.
Cyber Troopers Virtual-On – Sega, 1996
Many arcade cabinets utilized an independent moving, two joystick setup for one character. Usually, in games like Battlezone and Robotron: 2084 this meant that you could steer and fire independently. In Virtual-On, however, the controls for movement and firing were mapped to both sticks at the same time. Before you assume that this led to a cluster-fornication, let me assure you that the end result was nothing short of brilliant.
Virtual-On was a 3D, third-person shooter with a focus on arena combat. Using the unique dual-stick setup, players could perform actions like quick 180s by pulling the sticks in opposite directions, or blocks by pulling them towards each other. The end result was an extremely responsive and engaging control scheme that made the lightning-fast battles all the more exciting. Remade ports that utilized the Playstation 2’s dual-shock controller, and even a special two stick Saturn controller all failed to capture the magic of the arcade original.
Discs of Tron – Bally Midway, 1983
The original Tron arcade game made more money than the film it was based on. Let that sink in for a second. The biggest reason was likely the cabinet, which was a true arcade masterpiece. An eye-catching bezel marquee and an installed black light make this cabinet hard to walk past even today; the glowing blue joystick just begs to be touched.
Following up on this success, Bally Midway released the game Discs of Tron, which was actually supposed to be included within the original Tron machine. Good thing it wasn’t, because this machine was tailor-made to fit the game design of Discs. The monitor was reflected off an angled mirror, which coupled with a static background created a convincing 3D effect. The game also had digitized speech and far larger and more detailed sprites than its predecessor.
The environmental version of this game was an art piece unto itself, though. Rather than sitting down, the cabinet had you lean back as if you were strapped into the virtual world of the game. Also, louder and higher-quality speakers played back voice samples of the game’s foe eerily as if he was inside your head. Finally, the blacklight on the dash made everything glow all the more for the darkening enclosure. This game must have surely been a blast to play in its more decadent form.
Panic Park – Namco, 1997
Like Darius, these cabinets were rare outside of Japan albeit for completely different reasons. The game had players grasp handles in front of them, and the goal during most of its minigames was to slide your handle all the way to the other side, where your opponents handle lay. They were given the exact same task.
See where this is going? The game actually encouraged physical shoving matches in order to win. The controller became the afterthought of shoving your opponents mass to the side and out of your way.
This intense jostling obviously could lead to some damage if done too aggressively, causing the game to actually be banned in several states for fear of lawsuits from shoulder injuries. While encouraging physical interference and a lack of self-control is generally frowned upon, I don’t doubt that this game would be a blast to play and a great way to solve bitter rivalries… or maybe just create new ones.
After Burner (Deluxe Cockpit)– Sega, 1987
Sega had a long tradition of making environmental arcade setups that kicked serious ass. Turbo introduced the idea of a sit-down cabinet to most of the world, and proved that realistic sound and controls like a steering wheel, pedal, and shifter all added to the experience beyond a limited graphics palette.
Hang On brought the concept to whole new levels in 1985 with an actual motorcycle apparatus that had the monitor in the dash. Thunder Blade and Out Run went even further with a control platform that actually turned and shook along with the player’s onscreen representation.
Taking this idea to its logical extreme, Sega introduced the Afterburner sit-down cockpit simulator cabinet in 1987. Driven by a series of motors, the entire housing of the cabinet rotated along with your pitch. In the interior, the seat the player was in would also swivel along with the plane to the left and right as you steered.
This complicated set-up meant high maintenance costs and poor durability, but with the tradeoff of one of the most alluring cabinets ever produced. Seeing a cabinet that actually moved had people flocking to see what was going on. Watching through the transparent panel in the back, players must have been envious for their turn next. Not having played one myself, I can only assume climbing into a working version was more fun than flying an actual jet.
F-1 – Namco, Atari 1976
If you were to ask me: “How the hell could a video game possibly surpass the radness that was After Burner Deluxe, let alone one made in 1976?” I would respond: “It can’t.”
The reason is because the top entry in this list is not, in fact, a video game because there is no monitor or arcade board in the traditional sense. Instead, everything is projected onto a screen as you play in a first-person perspective from the seat of a Formula-1 race car. The resulting effect was a mind-blowing advancement over other primitive games of the time that had yet to introduce color, let alone a 3D effect. You can see difference in the part of the original Romero Dawn of the Dead where they all play games in the abandoned mall arcade.
Appreciating this game to the fullest extent, though, is impossible without a look inside the unit. One simply has to watch the video below of the machine in play without its back panel to appreciate why.
That’s right. The game’s not even technically a simulation. Everything is actually occurring directly within the unit, albeit small and with a light shined through it. The game is controlled mechanically and keeps track of competing racers and player position via an unfathomably complex analogue mechanism. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the video was a hoax trying to convince people that arcade machines are magical devices made by the likes of insane genuises a la Willy Wonka.
The machine is real, though, but unfortunately isn’t terribly fun to play. The allure of a face-meltingly colorful and absorbing projection display was no match for the ultimate maintenance costs as the machines failed time and time again.
What’s more, is if cared for improperly the printed model racetrack could actually get dirty, in addition to the light bulb used to project the image. Finally, the complex wiring rigging the sound and game mechanics were difficult to recalibrate once they began to malfunction.
In short, the machine was a mess, and just begging to become a legitimate fire hazard. It was unsurprisingly the first and only projection machine Atari released. The reason I give it the honorable position at the top of this list is that, for a second, watching it in action rekindles the magic of video games all over again, and makes you wonder “how the heck did they do THAT?”
Jarrod Lipshy is a recent BA English Graduate who is still scared about finding a real job. He collects old video games, and is fortunate to not have enough cash to blow on awesome but faulty arcade machines.