Arcade Classics: What happened to them all?

It is easily the most common question I get when I chat with anyone about the classic arcade games of the early 1980s. What happened to them all?

Tron

They remember those days just as I do. Video arcades were commonplace and practically every type of business out there had arcade games in them. I remember seeing a Defender in the window of a flower shop, Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga machines at the local Denny’s and entire gamerooms in select 7-Eleven stores. These machines were literally everywhere.

Over time a number of these machines have ended up in homes, mostly as an addition to a rec room or something fun in the corner of the garage. A smaller number of home collectors are deeply dedicated, some with dozens or even hundreds of machines. In recent years, arcades and taverns with classic themes are popping up around the country, giving an extent of new life to a bygone era.

Atari Football

What most casual and even many die-hard classic arcade fans don’t realize is that the vast majority of machines from the early eighties arcade boom are long gone from the planet. While games such as AsteroidsSpace InvadersPac-Man and Donkey Kong set arcade sales records that still stand today, most did not survive.

Today I provide some insight into why. While none of this is going to cover things in depth, it is going to touch on the basic answers to that common question.

The Great Video Game Crash

Atari Pole Position

While it is becoming a hardly known legend to the younger generations of gamers, the entire North American video game industry crashed hard in 1983 and 1984. The arcade market and home console markets crashed for different reasons, with the coin-ops dropped off first. Things slowed in the summer of 1982 and went into a free-fall the next year, due in large part to oversaturation of the marketplace and aging equipment.

By 1984, a great number of arcade operators had gone out of business. Those that survived had significantly smaller operations and routes. The vast majority of arcade machines seen in non-arcade businesses were never owned by those businesses but rather by vendors who installed the machines in those locations for a cut of the revenue.

Operators were stuck with huge inventories of machines nobody wanted to play anymore, and with almost everyone forced to scale back operations, most older machines had no resale value or potential buyers. Everyone had enough Scramble and Galaxian machines gathering dust in a warehouse already.

Joust

So they trashed them.

Many machines were gutted for useful parts such as monitors and coin doors then had their cabinets smashed, burned or taken to a landfill. Others were left to rot in abandoned warehouses, sheds or fields.

This practice actually still continues today. Me and a friend came across an antique store a few years ago that had obtained a few trailers of early eighties machines. Thinking they had no value they left the open trailers outside and smashed up entire machines until they’d filled their dumpsters. By the time we got there, we found pieces of games such as Donkey Kong Junior andCentipede in the trash and the machines still in tact had been rained on so much they were falling apart.

While there are hobbyists who restore classic machines scattered across the country, it is commonplace for them to use several machines to complete one full restoration, trashing the rest.

Conversions, Multicades and MAME

Mame arcade cabinet

Most classic arcade machines that didn’t end up as scrap were converted into newer game titles, and still are today.

The first successful conversion kit game was Mr. Do! in 1983, starting a trend that helped operators survive at least a while longer. For a far lesser price than a full arcade machine, vendors could purchase kits with new electronics, graphics and sometimes wiring which was used to turn that old Qix or Berzerk machine into a brand new game title.

While most arcade manufacturers resisted this trend as long as they could, they were forced to change with the times and start offering kits to operators. Some, such as Nintendo and Atari, began to produce kits designed to specifically convert their older titles.

Pac-Man

 

This trend continued through the middle of the decade but slowed for a time in the late 1980s. A bit of a resurgence in the arcade market came along with the rebirth of the home console industry during this time, and dedicated machines of newer hit titles began to sell once again. Most converted machines were simply converted again to newer titles for street locations.

The next big period of conversion mania came with Street Fighter II in 1991 and 1992. This game earned so much money so quickly that many operators quickly bought kits for every arcade cabinet they had in storage. Years ago I met an operator that literally converted every remaining early 80s machine he had to SFII when it was hot, and remember locations with classic machines such as BurgerTime and Front Line that they converted at this time.

Donkey Kong 3

In recent years the conversion mania has continued in two forms. Over the past decade an influx of overseas knock off boards often dubbed as “Multicades” have made their way into North America. These bootleg boards contain dozens and sometimes hundreds of games. Many arcade machine resellers have gutted surviving classics in favor of converting them into these multi-game machines in the name of making a buck.

Other home collectors have built arcade machines based on the MAME emulation program. While some of these MAME fans have built their arcade rigs from classic cabinets that were already stripped or converted beyond reasonable restoration, others have posted blogs where they show their process of gutting a surviving arcade machine to build it into a computer-based conversion.

Several arcade conversions have appeared on these popular treasure-hunting television programs in recent years, often without the people on the show seemingly aware of it. An episode of Pawn Stars saw someone bring three “Japanese Arcade Games” into the Las Vegas shop, two of which were conversions from Defender machines. The Ms. Pac-Man machine that appeared on an episode of Auction Hunters was actually a conversion of an original Pac-Man machine, a cabinet that is similar but quite different in many ways as well.

Arcade Passports Required

Ms. Pac-Man

Classic-era arcade machines that weren’t trashed, left to rot or converted may not reside in the country at all anymore. Several people in southern states have confirmed to me in the past that they have shipped and sold entire box trucks of older arcade machines to Mexico.

The current world record holder on Taito rarity Zoo Keeper had his machine shipped to his Australia home from the United States.

Preservation is Key

Trojan

At the present time it seems that the number of people who’d rather turn a retro arcade machine into a Multicade or MAME machine far outnumbers those who would rather try to restore them into their former glory. It is a long and often expensive task to do so.

However, these machines are pieces of pop culture and video game industry history. Just as memorabilia from films, television and various sports have seen efforts to save and preserve their history over time, video games are finally starting to see signs of a preservation effort.

The efforts of groups such as Southern California’s Videogame History Museum and New Hampshire’s American Classic Arcade Museum should be noted for being among the first in the country to take serious steps in this direction as well as many individual collectors across the country such as New Jersey’s Richie Knucklez and Cat DeSpira in the Pacific Northwest.

In time, such efforts may turn the question from “What happened to them all?” to “Did you see all that are left?”

Ten Questions with Tony Gonzales

Romstar logo
Romstar logo

Tony Gonzales

What is your professional background related to gaming?

I had taken electronics in school and a regular hang out type at the local college arcade, I always wondered about the electronics inside and enjoyed looking in when they were being repaired. One particular game was a pain in the neck; the owner had it repaired several times. I idly slapped the cabinet and it did an immediate reset. Turns out that the power supply had leads poking onto a metal casing. Insulated fish paper repaired it for good. That is when he asked me if I wanted a job working on his games. I said yes and games have been a part of my life ever since. The game was Plieades, by the way and the tech at the time with the arcade later went onto fame as the world’s first videogame champion and one of the founders of a major game software company.

Personally when did you start gaming and what did you play?

Always loved pinballs and mechanical games. 7,8,9, no idea of a starting date for liking games. I loved them, though!

One of the companies you worked for was Romstar, can you tell us about what you did there as well as the company itself?

Romstar was my first manufacturing job. I was half the tech department and later headed up the consumer division. Repair, beta testing, phone counselor, manual writing, I was there. Some previous work I did with a friend on an in-house hardware game system resulted in Magic Darts for the NES. I also helped ship, beta test since I had the only truck at the company (strange but true fact, the cabinet for Ninja Warriors was designed to fit the truck, an 88 Toyota short-bed. I still have that truck today). Basically, all of us wore many hats there. Your readers may find this a bit surprising that for a game company that did manufacturing and home games as well as design, the amount of personnel was 14.

Can you tell us about repairing arcade games?

Always a puzzle, always a lot of fun, except when they don’t respond. Each repair teaches me more, and I grew hungry for more knowledge along the way. I still do. Right now as I type this, I am sitting with a Galaxian board in my lap that I had repaired.

What was it like working for SNK?

Lots of fun, lots of hard work. A great balance. Creative juices got out to play, we worked hard to give the customers and distributors good value. Great group to work with, some I still remain in contact today. A huge family, as it were. Same situation at Romstar.

Can you tell us about working on a project that never gets released, does that upset you or are you just glad you had the opportunity to do it?

Tera was probably my favorite project I worked on. That was an in-house designed hardware system. Our vice president had brought in a friend named Doug Hughes, who had designed the old US game board system for Taito (Qix). I spent a week up north on his ranch helping in the design and learning to program it. It was 286 based and programmed in Borland C. Sadly; the system never saw the light of day though some of the programming formed the core game design of Magic Darts on the NES 8 bit. I still have the schematics to this puppy. Might have to hit it up on a CPLD someday 🙂

What was your favorite game related project of your career?

Probably Tera,  I have drawings for what I hope would be a Tera ][ eventually. I revamped the design for a brand new microprocessor I hope to be working with soon called Terbium. Terbium is a 32 bit 65C02 and much more….

What are you currently working on?

I have several projects. The biggest game one I call Pinball Mind. There was a pinball made in the 1970s called Fireball and sold for homes. When the CPU dies on those, they are un-repairable. I designed a piggyback CPU board for those. I have some fun display and light animations at present and I am revamping the code into a cleaner library format. It will release with a whole slew of features to make it worth the cost, including 4 games, a built in contest, possible linking and video capabilities and a software developer’s kit. It is based on the 65C02.

Some other projects include several arcade and redemption games, an alternate reality game which has been in design and some play over the last 4 years, and some music CDs to butress 2 movie soundtracks I am composing.

What games are you currently playing?

Roller Coaster Tycoon 2. Otherwise, I don’t play too much. No time these days!

What is your favorite classic game?

Got too many for different reasons, but Haunted House pinball and Sinistar probably rank in my top, along with Tempest and Chiller.

Rica-Tan: Agatsuma Entertainment

Agatsuma Entertainment logo

Name:Rica-tan

Company: AGATSUMA ENTERATINMENT Co. Ltd.

Profession: Producer/agent between developers and publishers

Favorite Classic Game: Qix/ Q-bert/ RallyX

Quote: Because those are simple, time consuming games!

Info: Rica was a producer of Let’s Draw! A Nintendo DS title released in US/Europe by Majesco/Barnstorm.