Industry specialist Kevin Williams follows up on his look at the rise-and-fall of technology in the amusement scene, particularly in regards to optical storage mediums. It’s the 1990s and its time for…LaserDiscs…and CDs!
KWP: Its hard to fathom anyone in the amusement trade being too attracted to another bout of technology in the optical storage scene after suffering the trials and tribulations of the LaserDisc fad in 1983, but we also need to remember that by the end of the 1980’s, many executives in the industry were new to the scene. We covered the implosion of the LaserDisc scene here for those that need to catchup.
Innovation was still the watchword for the amusement market, but also the expense of new technology was a growing issue in an amusement trade that was suffering against the explosion in the revitalized and growing consumer game scene. CGi graphics were growing in popularity, and operators were looking for a lead that would counter the audience’s exodus to play at home – all while not breaking the bank. Despite the issues, LaserDiscs were still a viable platform, and now that the technology had some years to mature, it was about to take another bite out of the arcade scene.
There was still development in LaserDisc gaming, though most of this was the death rattles of the previous fad. Universal in Japan soldiered on following the launch of their ‘Universal System 1’ standardized platform, attempting to release Captain Zapp in 1985. Shown at a trade event that year, the production version never materialized and Universal (the arcade gaming company, not the film production studio), would collapse soon after. Another leftover from the previous fad was Data East’s LaserDisc aspirations – That would only see three releases, with 1985’s ‘Road Blaster’ being their final LD game. They avoided suffering Universal’s fate, but only by a hair.
It seemed that LaserDiscs were finished but five years later, a new company was ready to champion the technology once again.
American Laser Games (ALG), was a company founded after the collapse of the LaserDisc arcade scene. A developer coming from a background in creating commercial police training systems for combat shooting, they would take this experience and create a cowboy shooting movie-game called Mad Dog McCree. Released in 1990, this game would use a new generation of Sony LaserDisc player (LDP-1450), connected to the powerful Commodore Amiga 500 motherboard (the same Amiga being used by Arcadia systems to power a few non-LaserDisc games a couple of years prior). This was an addictive and enjoyable interactive cowboy movie found the key to success in FMV arcade gaming was less using a joystick and more using a light-gun. While MDM did not have the vast budget of previous LaserDisk game films, the charm of this game was self-evident.
By 1991, the machine was topping the Replay arcade charts and ALG saw sales of 100-units a month. In becoming one of the most successful amusement releases of that year, Mad Dog singlehandedly changed an industry’s opinion of LaserDisc gaming, and they wanted more. It seemed all but certain that the LaserDisc movie-game was about to become a frenzy.
Lets pause for a moment to consider that this was not the first Wild West FMV shooter on the market. The concept, including the use of a cowboy shoot-out element, could trace its roots back to 1974. At that time, Japanese manufacturer Nintendo jumped into amusement by releasing Wild Gunman (not to be mistaken for the later NES console classic). Using a special cabinet, a 16mm projector played an actual film that had sequences that the player had to shoot at the screen to progress, using their light-gun. The way it would cut between the scenes and the action, essentially presenting quick-time events, operated just like LaserDisc games would a decade later.
This particular machine was actually released in Japan in 1973, then licensed to SEGA for distribution into the Western market. The vast size of the cabinet and the complicated and temperamental cinefilm-based game system saw this machine never gain real traction in the early market. It was an oddity that was way too ahead of its time, depending upon technology that was not robust enough to work well in amusement. But the time would come.
Note – The use of a cinefilm-based game experience was not exclusive to Nintendo release. In 1978, amusement company Kasco (Kansai Seiki Seisakusho Co.,), would release the game called ‘The Driver’. A driving cabinet film experience where the players ability to keep up with the pre-filmed wild driving action on screen is awarded points.
Jumping back to the 90s, American Laser Games’ success sent out a shockwave to an industry that had sworn off optical disc technology only a few years prior. This abrupt reappearance was not lost on the Japanese amusement factories. Even in Japan, ‘Mad Dog’ was a sensation, the game distributed by CAPCOM in the country. R&D were suddenly teams were dusting off ideas to use this maligned technology once again.
SEGA would reveal their return to LaserDisc gaming with a ground-breaking platform. Developed in partnership between SEGA and Rick Dyer (creator of Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace & Thayer’s Quest), they released what they called the “World’s first three-dimensional, holographic video game” – Time Traveler. Launching in 1991, the system that TT would operate on comprised of an eye-catching enclosure called the ‘Hologram Video cabinet’, though the 3D effects did not use a true holographic display. Instead, the psuedo-holographic effect was a variant of the Pepper Ghost visual effect, where a television projection combined with a spherical mirror achieved the “holographic” effect. The game hardware used a Sony LaserDisc player (LDP-1450) and was expected to support a series of games.
The unusual cabinet presented its 3D effect within a semicircle in front of the player’s control, no glasses or goggles required. The gameplay itself featuring digitized actors was a quick-time event (QTE) experience, like all LaserDisc games, with players guiding a time traveling cowboy through the game’s various levels. As novel and innovative as the presentation was, the platform ultimately succumbed to same issue that plagued so many games in 1983-85 – the hardware proved to be very unreliable. Yet despite that problem, SEGA would see good sales, eventually creating a second game for the cabinet to try and compete with the influx of fighting games, called Holosseum in 1992.
SEGA’s AM5 team would continue to look at LaserDisc as the perfect FMV medium for their plans in amusement. The development of the “EN-JOINT SPACE” range of large-scale high-entertainment machines looked to exotic technology – and launched their AS-1, 8-passenger interactive simulator. Famously partnering with music legend Michael Jackson to release in 1993 ‘AS-1: Scramble Training’ – the CGi space battle was provided by the LaserDisc while the player’s shots and attacking enemies were supplied by an onboard computer. SEGA would release three experiences for the simulator, though it would only see limited release outside of Japan. It generated cult status, where the original footage of the Michael Jackson guiding users was recently discovered.
Sega wasn’t alone in exploring the FMV simulator approach. TAITO would launch their ‘D3BOS’ (Dynamic Direct Dimension Burst Out System) in 1991, two years before Sega’s AS-1. This was TAITO’s “answer” to Sega’s iconic R360 game, although D3BOS served two riders as it offered 360-degree gyroscopic motion while fully enclosed. The adventure also was powered by LaserDisc, making for a thrilling inverted simulator experience, with a selection of four film rides. This would be followed by the ‘IDYA’ two-person motion pod in 1992 and the ‘Super D3BOS’ in 1993 – all dependent on LaserDisc content. One of the experiences for this system, (‘Pyramid Patrol’ – developed by HighTech Lab), would later be ported onto the SEGA Mega-CD (as well as supporting the Pioneer LaserActive platform). One D3BOS unit was recently discovered collecting dust in a warehouse although it would likely take an original TAITO engineer to save it at this point:
— kt2 (@kt2soundlab) February 4, 2023
We’ll come back to simulators later, but for the moment let’s move away from these more unusual entries into the scene, and come back to coin-op. Mad Dog’s success meant that operators were now paying attention to ALG, which meant that they wanted more, but included addressing some of the issues present in the first game. For one, the original rear projection pedestal cabinet needed a more compact and traditional amusement configuration. So was developed a more convenient and cost-effective range, including the launch of a 25’’ “space saver” upright cabinet launched in 1992.
But the one thing the operators really wanted was more of the same game appeal, and by now ATARI Games had stepped up as being a licensing partner with ALG. After a couple of so so releases like Who Shot Johnny Rock & Space Pirates, the two companies returned to the proven formula of cowboys and released a sequel: Mad Dog II – The Lost Gold. This proffered more of the same Ol’ West action, but with different locations. This time the game was released both in a standard big cabinet, as well as an upgrade kit to existing original ‘Mad Dog’ cabinets. But there was another option available that would prove you could achieve similar or better results in a smaller and more affordable package.
This replacement technology was the Compact Disc Read Only Memory (CD-ROM). Developed between Sony and Philips, with the final format released in 1984, it would not be till the 1990’s that the availability of CD-ROM drives made them suitable for amusement deployment. Thanks to these relatively cheap players, fantastic Full Motion Video (FMV) was now available at a high rate, while also swapping from an analog to a digital storage medium. Quick to capitalize on new technology, ALG had created a new CD-ROM powered system, offering a cost-effective solution for Street Route operators.
One major difference over the LaserDisc approach, was that the amusement trade was not alone in looking at game systems based on CD-ROM technology. The ever-evolving console games industry was also eyeing the opportunity thanks to the lower cost point, and suddenly it became an arms race towards who could harness the power of the platform first for entertainment.
Aside from home computers offering CD-ROM drives as an alternative to the floppy disc, NEC had been the first to offer a CD add-on at home with their PC Engine (the TurboGrafx-16 in the US) console in Japan, doing so as early as 1988. CD co-developer Philips would launch the first CD console with the CD-i, and as the war between Nintendo and SEGA was in full swing, each company was working on their own CD add-on expansions, Nintendo working with Philips for a time before switching to Sony (which failed partnership would eventually lead to the creation of the PlayStation) and for SEGA, the Mega Drive/Sega CD in 1992. Atari’s last gasp at console glory, the Jaguar, would be the last to try the CD add-on route but it did so in late 1995 within weeks of the CD systems the Saturn and the PlayStation. Marking its 30th anniversary, 1993 would see the launch of the 3DO Interactive console, an envisaged standardized gaming platform that would be licensed to manufacturers such as Panasonic, Goldstar and Sanyo, all making their own versions of this CD-powered video game and entertainment platform. It was also around this time that Myst was released to PC, causing many to take a stronger look at CD gaming on PC and in general.
While the home market was becoming more and more lucrative, there was still plenty of allure to adapting home consoles to be used in arcade cabinets. The 3DO Company was one who saw this coin-op opportunity, already having accomplished a number of licensing deals. Next up for them would see ALG licensing to use the Panasonic 3DO platform in their machines as a CD-ROM alternative to their problematic LaserDiscs. Along with the sequel to ‘Mad Dog’, ALG would roll out more and more CD-based titles, striking gold again with ‘Crime Patrol’ in 1993. This was a live-action police shooting game whose style harkened back to the combat shooting training roots of the company.
Regarding the plans for 3DO in amusement, other than ALG, the aspirations would not pan out for the hardware. Panasonic would go on to develop the M2 console based on the 3DO platform as a successor but would never be released as a consumer game system. However, it would be licensed to KONAMI, released as the M2 Hardware in 1997, and would go on to power some five coin-op titles. But at this point the CD capability of the hardware was only being used as a storage medium to run the CGi graphic games.
Regarding the deployment of CD-ROM, beyond 1993, and ALG would go on to release several sequels to their popular light-gun games, releasing a total of nine movie-game shooters – and many home game ports. One of those being the 1994 release Fast Draw Showdown that would be created as one of the most popular games of that year. Despite the successes found in amusement they withdrew from the coin-op market altogether by 1995, instead focusing all of their efforts on game content creation for consumer consoles and PC – until they closed in 2018 and the rights sold off. ‘Fast Draw’ would receive a second lease of life, re-released by Global VR in 2002, now wholly PC hard-drive powered.
For those interested in a chance to see the full selection of ALG titles, give this a watch:
During 1993 there was one last implementation of LaserDisc technology that offered something else unique in its deployment. Originally developed as a Wonder Egg theme park attraction – NAMCO created a scaled down version of their concept and launched it as Galaxian 3 – Theater 6. The giant enclosure housed an 18-foot-wide screen, with six seated shooting positions that players blasted the screen from. The system incorporated two projectors, with hooked to each one a LaserDisc player (Pioneer LD-V8000). The game (‘Project Dragoon’) was fundamentally an adaptation of the previous FMV games – with the CGi background space battle pre-recorded as a film, with real-time CGi enemy, players lasers and explosions superimposed. It was essentially a super-sized, multiplayer version of Namco’s own Starblade arcade game, the approach obviously borrowing from Sega’s aforementioned AS-1, but with it’s own unique twist in presentation & setup.
This novel approach to the limitations of CGi graphics at the time, worked well, and created a competitive game that proved very popular. However, the system was incredibly large, called “the World’s largest video game”, but was also incredibly expensive (costing some $150,000 in 1993) Due to this size in cost and space, it was mainly deployed at flagship, theme park locations, out of the reach of most arcades. Even so a sequel game would be released in 1994 for the platform (Attack of the Zolgear). This unique experience would mark both the high point of the technology’s application, and the last mainstream amusement LaserDisc product.
Note – Just to be clear while the Western amusement trade would walk away from the tech, we need to be mindful in Japan that LaserDiscs had a secondary life in the karaoke business (sometimes known as ‘LaserKaraoke’). Corporations such as Pioneer, SEGA and TAITO, selling karaoke and jukebox systems, many of which used LaserDiscs right up to the mid-2000, for bars and restaurants.
Embracing the new technology, many other amusement machines would employ CD-ROM technology to supply their game content storage needs. The ubiquity of this format proved its worth, and with greater storage capacity + performance, the move away from ROMs on a JAMMA PCB over to a dedicated PC hardware system + hard drive became inevitable. For all of the promises given with Live-Action games, many using the buzzword “multimedia” to convey the hype, they had been superseded by the latest texture mapped polygon graphics by 1995. While arcades had paved the way for this style of graphics, it was Sony’s CD-powered PlayStation that would come to dominate the gaming scene. Yes, some FMV games found their way to the console, but those were not the fuel to driving sales figures upwards.
What promise CD drives had for coin-op was relatively short-lived, although the second collapse of optical mediums in coin-op was not as dire as the first go around. With the migration to PC hard-drives in amusement hardware, the capacities of the previous optical devices were superceded as hard drives began to ship in gigabyte capacities instead of megabyte ones. That said, in 1998, we saw one last foray into a unique optical standard, with the SEGA GD-ROM (Gigabyte Disc Read-Only Memory) system. This proprietary format developed in partnership with Yamaha was created to support both their new Dreamcast game console, and a new arcade board called the NAOMI. This digital storage platform offered advance features over CDs, but also promised to offer a strong piracy protection against the inherent problem with CD’s at the time(another short-lived laser promise). It also made it simple to swap games out. But the writing was on the wall for proprietary formats, which were plagued by piracy and mechanical problems. By 2006 with the NAOMI 2, the last GD-ROM format had been released. Even more short-lived was Sega’s use of HD-DVD drives in some of their PC-based arcade systems afterwards.
The videogame amusement industry has progressed from ROM chips, Bubble Memory, LaserDiscs, CD-ROM’s, DVD, hard-drives and solid-state memory. And in the next ten-years, many envisage cloud-based storage and decentralized networks, defining the future of amusement technology. It is interesting to see the cyclical nature of innovation in the scene, from 1973, to 1983 and 1993, as with LaserDisk, and GD-ROM’s – could SEGA be one of the leaders of the next revolution, with their plans for “fog gaming” and their so called “SuperGame” – or will another technological revolution take the lead?
A big thanks to the ‘Dragon’s Lair Project’ website – for supplying additional information in compiling this article.
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.