In another of his occasional guest features for Arcade Heroes, industry specialist Kevin Williams looks at the marking of the 40th anniversary of a technology that was then hailed as a ‘savior of coin-op’ but nearly killed it stone dead! Here’s a brief history of the use of LaserDisc’s in coin-op:
Kevin(KWP): Innovation is an aspect of the video amusement that has defined the trade. Since the first dots & dashes appeared on screen, the interactive entertainment medium of digital gaming has drawn audiences and filled cashboxes around the globe. While the amusement industry had existed in one form or another, from pinball to electro-mechanical gaming, it was the end of the 1970’s that saw the revolution towards video gaming that defined a generation, starting an industry that now supplants the profits of music, movies and television combined.
It was from the movie and television industry that new technology was drawn into the amusement sector’s influence. In 1978, the first available LaserDisc (LD) systems were released – the use of optically scanned storage medium players, that could replay high-quality full-motion video (FMV). As an added bonus, images could be manipulated by a computer, an enticing prospect for the world of interactive entertainment. By 1981, compact machines entered circulation and fell into the hands of game developers, who created what could be called ‘movie-games’
LaserDisc player technology soon advanced to such a level that it was possible to place them in an amusement machine, controlled by a computer logic board, which in turn created serviceable games. One such system was the MCA DiscoVision, the massed produced, but temperamental player used in the wildly popular Western amusement release Dragons Lair from CinemaTronics (licensed to Atari in certain territories). Released on June 19th, 1983, it wasn’t the first arcade game to use LaserDisc technology but it quickly shot to the top of the charts, at a time where interest in video games had seen a sharp turn downwards. The game itself was a simple linear path adventure filled with quick-time events which required split-second button hits from the player to progress the action. The new idea was novel to be sure, but it was the high-quality visuals and fantastic animations by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth that sealed the deal.
As the first game to use the tech wasn’t Dragon’s Lair, what was it? Many point to Sega’s Astron Belt which had launched a few weeks prior to Dragon’s Lair but even that is inaccurate. The true genesis of LaserDisc & Arcades came from something more gambling than arcade – Quarterhorse by ESI. Released in 1981, this obscurity really puts the marriage of this tech and coin-op at 42 years of age, although to keep things simple, we’ll stick with calling 2023 the 40th anniversary, since the tech didn’t really take off in the mind of the public until Dirk the Daring came to rescue Princess Daphne. Quarter Horse was built in several different models but due to the focus on casinos & pay-out for most of them, it didn’t get noticed in our circles.
Still, some credit should be given to Astron Belt. Released in the West under license from Bally Midway, it would have launched in 1982 if not for multiple technical & licensing delays which plagued the process. Instead of a character following a path like Dragon’s Lair, this was a shoot ’em up with FMV backgrounds, allowing it to appear far more advanced than anything that arcade hardware could draw at the time. Despite the delays, it would go on to be one of the few successful titles of the initial flush of laser interest, leading SEGA to project shipping some 10,000 cabinets.
Astron would also set a precedent for some other studios who wanted to jump onto the laser bandwagon. Not everyone had access to in-house & experienced animators, nor animation studios, but there were available animated movies to borrow from. In Astron’s case, it used some clips from cinematic releases like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Battle Beyond The Stars, then filled in the rest of the action with their own clips as needed. By overlaying sprites on top of the FMV, Sega was able to blend the two, although the results were not entirely seamless. This style of play would also be borrowed by Data East with Bega’s Battle and Simutrek’s Cube Quest.
Stern would follow Dragon Lair’s lead when they released Cliff Hanger in the US. Instead of creating their own animation, they took a selection of action sequences from the popular Japanese anime, ‘The Castle of Cagliostro’, based on the master thief Lupin III, threading them together into a playable game.
The idea that developers could use countless hours of pre-shot content was enticing enough that both Atari and Bally Midway began developing LaserDisc games based upon existing films and TV shows, Atari working on BattleStar Galactica, Knight Rider and Road Runner while Midway was working on Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, and NFL Football. Most of these would not see the inside of an arcade den, however.
Pre-made content was certainly a viable way to create a LaserDisc game on a budget but some developers were willing to shell out big money to create what they hoped would be the next quarter crunching hit, such as Konami’s Badlands (1984). The ability of the game to present animated action in FMV quality drew crowds, though the game play was incredibly simplistic. It was a prime example of what could be done when skilled anime artists were available.
Konami wasn’t alone when it came to creating their own thing. Going back to FMV+graphics overlays was M.A.C.H. 3. This was developed by Mylstar Electronics, released by Taito in Japan, and Gottlieb in the West. Players would control a fighter jet that would soar over computer-generated air and ground targets, while the LaserDisc handled FMVs that were specially filmed for the game. A former executive at Atari released Cube Quest, featuring Astron Belt-like gameplay but with 100% custom-made FMV backgrounds. Midway gave the green-light to one their artists, Brian Colin, to film his original sleuthing multiple choice adventure, The Spectre Files: Deathstalker, while Atari’s Owen Rubin was working on an original golf simulator. Cinematronics & Don Bluth were also not content to coast by just on Dragon’s Lair’s wings, launching Space Ace in October of 1983.
As LaserDisc games became big box items, some developers upped the ante by putting the games inside sophisticated sit-down cabinets as well as conventional uprights. Popular formulas were given the movie-game treatment, such as racing games. The success of ‘Pole Position’, was emulated with a LaserDisc game called ‘Laser Grand Prix’ from Taito – racing gameplay drastically watered down to accommodate the technology. This would soon be followed by SEGA with GP World and Midway with Star Rider.
But in reality, no one except for the players were paying notice of the actual quality and lasting impact of the games this technology was engendering. There were two game types you would find, either simple overlayed graphics or a single button prompt to drive quick-time game aesthetics. Both of these ended up feeling more infuriating than engaging as they offered little game replay-ability, and even more concerning, many of these games did not feel fair, snatching the credits from the players pockets all for the hype of the full-motion video effects.
Much of this was driven not just by the expense of the technology itself but also by the content. Whether original or licensed, the costs involved in the development of LaserDisc games meant big cabinet prices, which would be passed onto the consumer. No, Dragon’s Lair was not the first game to charge 50¢ a play, however, it was the first game that most players remember costing twice as much as anything else they probably saw at the arcade.
One example of these high costs came from Atari’s only released LaserDisc effort, Firefox. Based on the Clint Eastwood blockbuster (the ‘Topgun: Maverick’ of its day), a big budget movie came with an equally big budget license fee, despite Atari being owned by Warner. The sit-down machine was certainly impressive but came at such a cost that it was beyond the pockets of the average Street Route operator. It didn’t help that the game seemed to offer nothing new compared to what had been seen with M.A.C.H. 3, other than a big expensive box.
By the end of the 1984, the cat was out of the bag, and the reality that this technology was a one-trick-pony. The market was faltering under the weight of overpriced, unsold videogame releases with bloated development budgets. Apart from the simplistic gameplay and high entry cost driving players away, the machines were notoriously unreliable. A broken game can’t make a dime, much less turn a profit and LaserDisc arcade machines were often down more than they were working. Some of this was due to the earliest releases using unsold, surplus stock consumer grade LD players. The desire to save a few bucks would also haunt Midway in quick fashion – their games came with a variation of the LaserDisc called the CED. These didn’t use a laser but a needle on the surface of LaserDisc-like media. It doesn’t take a strong imagination to see how bad of an idea that was in a rough arcade environment, although Midway didn’t seem to realize that soon enough.
Attempts were made to try and steady the ship, with manufacturer Universal releasing their ‘Universal System 1’. The plan was to offer a standardized LaserDisc amusement platform, with many games planned for release, though only one would ever materialize, with ‘Super Don Quix-ote’ in 1984.
The novelty factor had clearly been the reason for the early successes of LaserDisc games, but in the cold hard light of day, their longevity to continue to generate revenue was near non-existent. In the 1980’s, the amusement industry was all about moving machines as soon as they started to wane. But thanks to the high price of the initial purchase, and inability to ‘flip’ a machine, the lack of secondary play value broke the business model.
Earning from amusement machines were plummeting and the industry was embroiled in a period of depression – often called the Great Game Crash. In the trade publication Replay Magazine, it was reported that the comparison in average weekly video upright machine collection gross had collapsed in 1983, plummeting back to numbers nearer to those from 1979, at the beginning of the videogame revolution (as seen in this graph).
One of the last ambitious projects of the LaserDisc fad was from start-up called Laser Disc Computer Systems (LDCS), founded in 1982 – the company dabbled in LaserDisc jukeboxes, but had sunk its investment into creating their own arcade game which used live-action movie effects. Employing technological advancements such as a dual-disc system, with the accompanying price hike, they released Atomic Castle in 1984. This would be distributed by Stern, but would be one of the last releases of that period. Seen by many as the game that closed the door on LaserDisc movie-games and forcing Stern (and many others) out of the video game business. Many of the titles mentioned to be in development at Atari and Midway were quietly cancelled and future game creations would focus on using traditional computing technology.
The realization that LaserDisc games were expensive, over-hyped, unreliable messes, with in most cases no true player value, came as a hard shock. They were supposed to save the industry, not contribute to its downfall. Between the beginning of 1983 to the end of 1984, arcades closed while both operators and manufacturers went bankrupt, the bubble being unceremoniously burst of the amusement fad. The LaserDisc movie-game trend itself only lasted at most two years, seeing some 20 different game releases – although almost ten years later, American Laser Games would give it one more shot, releasing a series of popular light-gun games powered with clips from LaserDiscs – Mad Dog McRee being the most memorable of the bunch. Sega would also give it one more try in the 90s, using a Laser Disc to power their Holosseum cabinet. But with advances in technology, whether it was the CD-ROM or 3D texture mapping hardware, LaserDiscs would not find a way to gain relevance among these better technologies.
Looking back some 40 years, this is a period that many in the amusement trade who lived through these ups and downs would like to try and forget although the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome would not go away quietly. This period is a prime reason why the trade in many cases is reticent to change and embrace new technology – explaining why innovations like eSports and Virtual Reality find it so hard to flourish in an industry that originated video gaming and high-tech innovative leisure.
The question now, is as the consumer videogame industry looks to be about to relive many of the aspects that created the 1983 Video Game Crash – can the amusement trade learn from its history and grow to the challenge?
If you are interested to see a list of all the major LaserDisc releases from that period, here is this great little video:
About the Author – Kevin Williams is a widely-respected specialist on entertainment and technology assisting international clients in developing immersive and interactive entertainment technology and facilities. Kevin is Co-Founder and Research & Development Director for Spider Entertainment, a global leader in Out-of-Home Entertainment for retail destinations and beyond. Along with advisory positions with other entrants into the market he is founder and publisher of the Stinger Report, “a-must-read” e-zine for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions, and entertainment industry. Kevin is a prolific writer and provides regular news columns for main trade publications. He also travels the globe as a keynote speaker, moderator and panelist at numerous industry conferences and events. Author of “The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier: Expanding Interactive Boundaries in Leisure Facilities”, the only book on this aspect of the market, the second edition is scheduled for a 2023 release.
Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.