Happy National Video Arcade Day 2024!

arcadehero June 27, 2024 0
Happy National Video Arcade Day 2024!

Today is June 27th and that means its National Video Arcade Day! Why today? Because it’s Atari’s birthday, and that’s as good a mark as any to denote when video arcades and our favorite period of arcade history got their start (yes, PONG wouldn’t launch until later in 1972, but since we don’t have an exact date there, their incorporation date works). While it’s probable that had Atari not existed that someone would have mass produced popular video arcades, they were the first to make it a reality, so that’s why I say it should be today here at AH…

Video Arcades 50 Years Ago

With the subject of today and my upcoming book on the topic, now is as good a time as ever to highlight some arcade history and anniversaries. Here, we can also cover efforts from other companies who have shaped both arcades and video games. The earliest time we can start off from here is 50 years ago in 1974, where Atari were just starting to properly assert their dominance.

Now Atari shouldn’t get all the glory… but they are hard to avoid back in 1974. This year was still not yet one for video games in general – consoles as we know them didn’t exist – and among the arcade developers that were on the scene, most (even Sega and Taito, still yet to cultivate much of an internal creative culture) were content at ripping PONG off for a quick buck.

Atari themselves released games like Quadrapong, which was the second four player game they had done after ’73s Pong Doubles. Still, everyone including Atari was realizing that they’d need more than PONG to grow, but due to some weird distributor setups on the market at the time, they ended up creating a separate division called Kee Games to get around that. Kee was Atari but would release games under a different name – they’d develop some games on that side too. One notable PONG clone released this year was Flim-Flam by Meadows Games. This 4-player game had “flim” and “flam” buttons to make the ball wobble and be a little more interesting than the norm. Why its notable is that it was made by Ted Dabney – one of Atari’s co-founders who had recently been ousted from the company by Nolan Bushnell.

Flim Flam

The biggest hit of ’74 was arguably Tank, produced under the Kee Games name and one that saved the whole company from bankruptcy. Tank was also the first game in arcade history to use a ROM for its graphics data. A lot of people have mistaken this for Combat, which was basically a port of Tank and Atari’s Jet Fighter arcade game for the later Atari 2600 console.

Other firsts that Atari had this year was Gran Trak 10 – the first driving video game in arcade history, which on the other hand caused massive losses at Atari due to some poor management and budgeting on its development. Gran Trak would later turn into Sprint – and as a note for the day of this post being published (June 27th, 2024), Atari released NeoSprint to PC today.

Speaking of driving games, Taito released Speed Race in 1974. An early example of their originality, this was the first driving game created by a Japanese company, and was essentially the first driving game for the market there, since Gran Trak likely didn’t make it over to Japan at the time. Speed Race employed an effect that could be called vertical scrolling, being the first game I’m aware of to do so. This game would be brought to the US by Midway and given the name Wheels. Then, there was a little known company that released their own driving game this year and it appears to have used analog joysticks – as well as a color monitor. While Electra’s Pace Car Pro is not the first color game to exist, its noteworthy for the rarity alone.

Atari also released their first light-gun game this year (which I believe is the first light-gun video game where all of the graphics were digital), called QWAK!. This was like the later Duck Hunt, just in B&W and 10 years before Nintendo’s version. It came in a small cabinet with a big screen, using a duck call mechanism inside.

Last but not least for the arcade history of 1974 was another game you might have not heard about by Ramtek. They released a game called Clean Sweep, which is very much a predecessor to the block-breaking games like Breakout and Arkanoid which would come later. Instead of bricks you were just hitting dots, which were spread out across the screen.

40 Years Ago

1984 was a good year for the US economically, but that prosperity missed the video game industry here. As I’ve been researching my arcade history book, I found that it was a worse year than 83. Lots of operators went bankrupt due to the debt they had taken on in 81 and 82, and among the many other issues at play, 84 was the heart of the “Great Game Crash”. Atari split into two, Atari Corp. (home games) and Atari Games (coin-op), while Nolan Bushnell tried to make a comeback with his Sente system, bought out by Bally Midway almost as soon as it launched. Other companies barely survived – or went bankrupt – this year, driven by poor sales or blowing too much money chasing the LaserDisc unicorn. While Dragon’s Lair was a hit and a few LD games still released in 84 (Firefox, Cobra Command, GP World), the magic was gone.

What did prevail in 1984 were conversion kits, now the most economic way to do business in an industry with too much big product. This was the solution for operators who didn’t want to waste money on yet another space-consuming dedicated cab. It made more sense to just swap the guts out and reinvigorate; a vastly cheaper endeavor. Many of the games mentioned here were mainly released as kits. This was also when Nintendo released their Vs. system which would become a big hit, thanks to the fact that it had several titles that were only a few hundred dollars in price (and, at the time, exclusive to arcades).

On the topic of Nintendo, 1984 is when various Japanese companies began to properly flex their creative muscle – the development scene over there had mostly been dominated by Namco’s earliest efforts up to this point in time, with a few exceptions (e.g. Taito’s Space Invaders, of course). While Nintendo would soon turn their main focus to the home, they released a couple of big hits before the NES: Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!!. More advanced than the later NES version, this boxing game and its 3rd person behind-the-back view was one of the most influential of the 80s. It was also striking to see a cabinet with two monitors (one which served as the billboard for the game) – something you couldn’t recreate at home.

punch-out nintendo

Sega’s take on the boxing sport was a little less exciting and visually appealing, but Champion Boxing would still do well in Japan. It was most notably the first game designed by Yu Suzuki, as well as several other legends of the company. Beginning with Hang-On (which began development during 1984 and would release the following year), Suzuki would soon be Sega’s star game designer at the helm of what became their inhouse AM2 department, launching them into becoming a true industry giant of arcade history with their various “taikan” games making use of original, highly distinctive motion simulator cabinets.

1984 was a pivotal point for Sega in other aspects too – after a few years in crisis, where their US production/distribution and operations sides were sold off to Bally and Time Out respectively (though a new sales arm was established in 1985, and Time Out as a whole would be bought out by them in 86), the company started what was perhaps its most prolific period under the ownership of CSK and rule of Hayao Nakayama. Their output as a whole increased at this time, taking in other titles like Flicky, SWAT, Future Spy, and others that fans don’t always cite when they think of Sega in the 80s.

While there were a few sports games in arcades at this time (baseball, wrestling, golf, etc), the influence of Konami’s first big hit Track & Field was still prevalent. Konami themselves had Circus Charlie as a unique variation to the concept, while companies like Taito would create The Undoukai, Sun Electronics would do Strength & Skill, and a British company called Century Electronics had Hunchback Olympics. This was a good year for early shoot ’em ups too, as we saw Capcom release 1942, a WW2-themed game that would become a franchise; SNK had shooters like Vanguard II; Data East had Zaviga; Taito had Fire Battle; Saibu Denshi had Scion, and there were plenty more. These styles fit pretty well with conversion kits.

Meanwhile, Namco sat the sporting and shooting game parties out, and even focused less on arcade games proper this year – 1984 is when they established their own home console division, then-known as Namcot, allowing them to have complete control over their consumer output. Some ports would follow for the likes of the Famicom/NES (their port of shooting game pioneer Xevious in particular became the console’s first “killer app” there). It’s possible they did this because of some lingering concerns about how the industry was going in Japan too – the “fueiho” law revisions caused some scares with how arcades (or “game centers”) would be regulated. These fears were largely unfounded as the changes weren’t as draconian as expected, but this also motivated Sega and of course Nintendo (who would then leave coin-op altogether) to not just make console games but develop their own consoles.

For the American side of things, the wind was out of most companies’ sails, but that didn’t mean they were idle. Atari Inc would release I, Robot, the first full 3D game (not the first to use flat-shaded polygons in real-time – that honor goes to obscure laserdisc game Cube Quest – but it is the first to go all the way with game objects being 3D). Then as Atari Games, they created Marble Madness and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Bally Midway as mentioned kept busy with the wealth they’d acquired to scoop things up. They launched a lot of games this year, but just didn’t have many memorable titles. An exception to that is Two Tigers, which used cool joysticks and had an 8-track player for some sounds. Otherwise, Midway had games like Timber and Zwackery, the latter being an oddball platformer that used Discs of Tron controls. From the Sente side, Snake Pit and Hat Trick were solid, fun games, but weren’t enough to keep that division afloat.

Overall, 1984 had plenty of games that went down in arcade history, it’s just that not as many people were going out to play them as they used to. Fortunately for pinball, that provided an opportunity to see it start rising, where it would do so into the 90s. Speaking of which…

30 Years Ago

I can remember 1994 much better than I can recall 1984, something that I’m sure those who were in the arcade industry at both times are also happy to do. By this time in arcade history, the market was reaching the height of the 1v1 fighting game (I’ll just call them fighters). Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat had already made a huge impact on the scene, so this year is when some others caught up. Certain companies with the technology and expertise started to lean harder into highly successful 3D games too, applying it to genres and gameplay styles that had not been represented by it so far (up to now it had generally powered basic space shooters, like Atari’s aforementioned I, Robot and Namco’s Starblade from 1991).

The new age of 3D was particularly seen in the latest texture mapped racing games, like Sega AM2’s Model 2-powered Daytona USA. Daytona received its full worldwide release in 1994 after the 1993 location tests in Japan, first releasing with a big 50 inch rear projection deluxe cabinet and then more cost effective stand-up and twin machines. Showing their sheer proliferacy, it even had some competition from within Sega itself later that year, with the more European-friendly Sega Rally Championship by their AM3 team also on the Model 2. Competing outside Sega were Namco with Ridge Racer 2, which added new music and multiplayer to their successful release from the previous year, and the less-popular but still enjoyable Ace Driver. These games, amongst others by Konami and Taito, truly kept arcades at the bleeding edge.

Meanwhile for the fighters, this year saw the release of Midway’s Killer Instinct, which used pre-rendered graphics and alongside Cruis’n USA gave us a taste of things to come in the console arena with an early version of the technology used in the Nintendo 64 (then still known as the Ultra 64). Atari Games’ Primal Rage on the other hand used digitized stop motion animation for dinosaurs. Killer Instinct certainly had the longer shelf life of the two, which resulted in a 1996 sequel, while Primal Rage 2 would be axed. Supporting their drivers, Namco and Sega both launched 3D fighters, Tekken in Namco’s case and Virtua Fighter 2 in Sega’s. VF2 especially caused a massive splash in Japan, further building up the reputation of Yu Suzuki’s AM2 team that VF1, Virtua Racing, and Daytona had made the groundwork for.

A few light-gun games were additionally prominent, such as Konami’s Lethal Enforcers II, Midway’s Revolution X, and Sega AM3’s Jurassic Park. Sega would also release another AM2-developed wonder, Virtua Cop, later on in the year. Besides playing great, it and AM3’s purely-on rails 3D shooter Rail Chase 2 (an early project for their later shooter maestro Shinichi Ogasawara) would successfully bring the genre fully into the third dimension for the first ever time, paving the way for others to come in the 90s like Namco’s Time Crisis and Sega AM1’s own House of The Dead series. In a slight revival of the old LaserDisc dream (also seen in Sega’s experiments with the technology for their gargantuan AS-1 and R360 simulators), American Laser Games had a few LD-based light-gun titles which did well too, although games like that would soon take a backseat to the 3D shooters that Virtua Cop pioneered.

1994 would overall be a little bit of an oddball in featuring a blend of disparate 2D and 3D games that didn’t fit into those genres mentioned above. For the 2D side, Electronic Arts released one of their few arcade games in the beat ’em up Battletoads, Atari Games produced a pseudo-3D take on BattleZone with T-Mek (one of my personal favorites from this year), and Taito had some pretty cute traditional puzzlers and shooters with Puzzle Bobble and Space Invaders DX. Plus, you had Namco release their own 3D answer to what Atari did with T-Mek in Cyber Commando, the 2D cartoon shooting gallery Point Blank, and right at the very end of the year in Japan, their fun 3D ski-simulator Alpine Racer, while Sega had the lesser-known Desert Tank by AM2 and Wing War by AM1 offering some combat-based early 3D thrills.

The dichotomy between 2D and 3D development and how it related to the next generation of consoles would, however, come to cause a few unfortunate casualties in the industry. This already showed some early warning signs of decline to come, in contrast to the prosperity we generally see at this time. Despite the initial success of SNK’s Neo Geo system, smaller companies like Toaplan, who made many of the greatest arcade shoot ’em ups between 1984 and 1993, went bust in 94, with their developers scattering to various shortlived successors who made ports and other games. But on the whole, the year was a supersized time in arcade history – for that respect, look no further than Sega launching their great big arcade-cum-theme park concept, with the first ever Joypolis location opened that July

20 Years Ago

Whilst not as bad as 1984, 2004 sees us at another point in arcade history where the industry was once again coming off the back of turmoil, following a general downturn that started in the late 1990s and only got worse into the early 2000s. The reasons for this are manyfold, and perhaps too complex to properly go into here – though their impact is overstated, consoles reaching parity certainly had some impact. By 2004 there were at least a few green shoots of recovery as some major Japanese companies sought stability under new owners or mergers, with a lot of new releases in newer genres that could offer some sort of experience not available at home… albeit often isolated to one region, and not exactly being reflected everywhere.

A good example of this is the trading card game boom that had now fully exploded in Japan, after its fuse was initially lit by Sega in 1999 and 2002 with the large Derby Owners Club and World Club Champion Football. Whilst other companies e.g. Konami tried their hand at it in less well-known attempts (Wrestling Arena Battle Climaxx!), Sega continued to be the biggest innovator in this genre. Following the success of Mushiking in 2003, which expanded its popularity out to young boys and alleviated space concerns with smaller cabinets, their Mirai R&D team made Love And Berry, which did what Mushiking had done but for young girls. These were hugely successful for Japan; Sega would try to bring them over to the States and Europe, although they never quite reached the same level of popularity. Elsewhere at Sega, AM2 also joined in on the TCG fun with the RPG-like Quest Of D, which never reached Western shores altogether.Mushiking and Love and Berry, the first popular kids trading card games in arcade history

Another newer lifeline for the video side of the industry during this time was rhythm games. By 2004 the genre had died down a little, but there was still lots of activity throughout this area, again particularly in Japan – with a couple of notable exceptions below. Namco’s Taiko No Tatsujin received its sixth release in the East this year, maintaining its status as one of the biggest arcade franchises there. Taiko had already received a couple of sadly unsuccessful location tests in the UK and USA, and so a new game from Taiwan sought to remedy our lack of it. IGS’ Percussion Master was a percussive rhythm game that had the big difference of actually releasing internationally via local distributors. It did not make much of an impact in the States, where it reached us via American Alpha, but did fare slightly better in Europe (especially the UK).

Back in Japan, Konami’s ever-prolific Bemani division marked the tenth entry of their flagship Beatmania IIDX series in just five years with 10th Style. New versions of fellow Bemani series Pop’n Music, DrumMania and Guitar Freaks also kept those popular with audiences in Japan. Their worldwide leading light of the genre – Dance Dance Revolution – had however gone into hibernation, following the release of its Extreme iteration in 2002. This then motivated others to pick up the slack; Andamiro out of South Korea continued their Pump It Up series with the release of its latest Exceed version, and a new North American challenger awaited. Attempting to take DDR’s dormant place, In The Groove by Roxor emulated the game’s basic four panel controls with a modified fork of the StepMania open source software, and new music for 2004.In The Groove, the failed DDR competitor from 2004's arcade history

Unfortunately, this soon saw Roxor take some heat from Konami; they wanted to protect their patents, as ever, and sued the following year. The lawsuit was later settled out of court, with Konami buying up the never-to-be-seen-again ITG IP, and unsurprisingly bringing DDR back to arcades in 2006 with Supernova. Roxor itself never made another arcade rhythm game, however ITG’s development personnel went on to collaborate with Andamiro (who Konami also sued many moons ago, albeit unsuccessfully) on the 2007 Pro version of Pump It Up, and of course most recently made StepManiaX for arcades as Step Revolution.

The by now traditional genres of arcade video games like fighters, racers and light-gun shooters were receiving less action than the big new things, but still had some interest to spare. Cards were prevalent in these too, to a different end – Sega AM2’s Virtua Fighter 4 Final Tuned and Sega Rosso’s Initial D Arcade Stage 3 built on what their originals had done before with IC cards allowing players to save progress and stats, as well as early online functions. Looking to steal a march on Initial D, Namco’s long-running Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune notably began this year, whilst Taito’s Battle Gear 3 offered a fun alternative to cards by swapping them for ignition keys. Sega’s Ghost Squad by AM2 also had card progression built in.

Lastly, what would come to be a major name on the US side of arcade history launched their first ever arcade video games in 2004. Under the direction of arcade developer veteran Eugene Jarvis, Raw Thrills made both Target: Terror and the original Fast & Furious. F&F in particular was a success, and with Atari and Midway now done, the company gave the Western industry what it was looking for: simple but highly effective homegrown video releases. These original two titles were only just the beginning of their story. Over in the UK, Sega Amusements started up their own local R&D efforts too with Patrick Michael at the helm, though it took a couple years for their first game, Ford Racing Full Blown, to become a reality.

10 Years Ago… And Beyond

By 2014… the very site you’re reading here exists, and the arcade history that could be covered already exists on here as it occurred in real-time. Something that has also happened since 2004 is a little bit of a creative plateau – though there is still some innovation to be found, after rhythm games and trading card games it’s hard to think of another wholly new arcade video game genre that has appeared and defined an era (which is a shame, but not surprising business-wise). For these reasons, covering the relevant trends and movements isn’t going to be as worthwhile or detailed here as other times in arcade history. So, let’s take a general outlook on things as they were in 2014, and link them to how they are now.

After the first Raw Thrills releases and beginning of Sega Amusements’ inhouse R&D, many of the arcade video games released to the West since around 2004 haven’t been sourced from Japan. As things progressed further there with reliance on increasingly complex card systems and online networks, this trend locked Western operators out further from receiving or wanting these games, even with concepts that could otherwise work here. Some attempts were made to bridge gaps though. In the place of its Gundam pods, Namco (now under Bandai Namco) released Mach Storm and Lost Land Adventure during 2014, also revealing Star Wars Battle Pod towards its end. These three titles used the same pod dome screen system but for different, more West-friendly inhousevideo titles. They would even work directly with Raw Thrills on the development of Super Alpine Racer, bringing back their skiing success from 20 years before.

This is a philosophy we still see with Bandai Namco to this day, as they re-test Taiko No Tatsujin and also look to bring out new Japan-developed games like Goldstorm Pirates and Bike Dash Delivery to the West. Elsewhere, studios in other Asian countries have come to occupy much of the space that Japan has historically done. 2014 saw Wahlap Technology out of China and its own Hong Kong-based development studio worked with Sega on Storm Racer G – their close relationship has since continued in various ways. In China, Wahlap distribute Maimai DX and Initial D The Arcade from Japan, whilst for the West, the fellow who helmed Wahlap’s HK studio on Storm Racer G (Pang Shu) now directs efforts at his own company 3MindWave, who since 2019 have also collaborated frequently with Sega Amusements on new games.

As the above releases have shown, drivers and shooters have endured as the dominant genres in video out West. Though trading card games and rhythm games offered a new frontier of sorts in 2004, they and their associated online systems proved to be problematic for most Western operators in a number of ways. Sometimes big titles have cut through, though; Round1US are responsible for many rhythm games from Konami and Taito coming over officially on a limited exclusive basis, having expanded rapidly since 2014.

The other big chain in the US has undoubtedly remained Dave & Busters – whose close relationship with Raw Thrills has seen them get exclusive versions of games like a redressed version of 2014’s Aliens Armageddon, from them and the development studio ran by Midway veteran George Petro, Play Mechanix. PM continue to collaborate with RT on lots of their output, such as their latest, NBA Superstars.

2014 was also slightly still in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis, which impacted everyone in business… but less than today with the fallout from COVID. We’ve touched on that various times in the past few years, but 2014 was when the FEC boom in the States was really beginning to gather pace too, soon reinvigorating business for manufacturers to some extent with many new machines being cycled into locations. A lot of that was due to ticket redemption and prizes, but videos from the likes of Raw Thrills helped. Their hits like Jurassic Park Arcade, which first revealed back in 2014, was certainly a part of that. This just goes to show, no matter the ups and downs seen here – arcade video games never die 😉

Thanks to arcade-history.com for many of the database links here, and Ted for updating my copy with some of the more recent happenings. For those of you interested in my previously mentioned upcoming book on arcade history, this should give you a taste of things to come. Which of the video games and periods from this overview of arcade history are your personal favorites?

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