Arcades are something of a lumbering dinosaur in today’s world of hyper-powered home game consoles and high-definition displays. The days of gathering a pocketful of quarters just to waste an afternoon at the local arcade parlor has degenerated into the equivalent of tales of eight track tapes and piranha pants, subjects that today’s youth probably scoff at, but remain an touchstone for those of us who grew up in an era when arcades where still a fundamental part of the video game experience.
Twenty years ago was a special time for the arcade scene. Granted, back then I was oblivious to the inner workings of the industry. Being just twelve years old and having recently come into ownership of my very own Nintendo Entertainment System, video games were nonetheless a key ingredient to my daily routine; but for all the fun had at home, there was also the lure of the local arcade.
Whenever the opportunity arose, and there were dollars to be exchanged, I was only too happy to drop a few quarters into Gauntlet or Double Dragon. After all, those games looked better, and were perceived, at least to my childlike eyes, as far superior to anything I could ever have at home.
However, in reflecting back on this earlier time of coin-operated nirvana, I found myself recently flipping through the pages of an old issue of RePlay, an industry trade magazine representing the coin-op industry. The issue, dated June 1987, was obtained as part of a fierce, somewhat obsessive eBay bidding war between yours truly and fellow gaming journalist Simon Carless.
This particular issue detailed not only what was hot and not in the arcade scene twenty years ago, but also included some interesting interviews and forward-looking statements from an industry at the top of its game, but in a few years would be very nearly euthanized by a power-hungry console market.
The Quarter Munchers
In looking at the top arcade games in June 1987, it’s easy to see that Atari was one of the premier manufacturers of arcade machines in North America. The company that today dwindles in financial woe and self-doubt in the console market accounted for no less than four of the top five uprights at the time, and two of the top kits (interchangeable machines that allowed parlor operators to swap out games in the same cabinet).
Some of these favorites included sit down classic Roadblasters and the ridiculously frustrating Rolling Thunder as the second and third top-performing machines at the time. However, it was Sega’s now-classic racer Out Run that took top honors for the month as the most popular machine all around, while Romstar’s shooter Sky Shark ranked as the top performing kit.
The top new upright machines in North America for the month according to parlor operators at the time were Data East’s Lock-On, Taito’s Darius, Konami’s WEC LeMans 24, and Cinemx’s Baseball: Season II+. Of course, at that time arcade machines were still sharing floor space with pinball machines as well, and here Williams was unmatched, accounting for five of the top ten performing flippers that month, including the top-rated F-14 Tomcat.
Sky Shark also ranked as the top cocktail machine in Japan at the time, followed by Rastan Saga and one of my favorites, Alien Syndrome (a title that is getting some long overdue remake love in the near future care of the PSP and Wii). And like North America, it was Out Run from Sega that took top upright honors in Japan, with WEC Lemans and Darius also ranking among the region’s top performers as well. The most prosperous pinball game in Japan at the time was Williams’ Pinbot, proving that regardless of your nationality, everyone just wants to be a ‘pinball wizard’ at heart.
Ballouz, Through The Looking Glass
Again, while being but a child at the time, I was blissfully unaware of the larger industry at work with each silver coin plopped into the face of my favorite upright. But aware or not, the industry was very much there, and if comments by the newly elected American Amusement Machine Association (AAMA) president Frank Ballouz at the time were any indication, the coin-op industry was quite confident in its position during the summer of 1987, despite a bit of a downturn just a few years prior.
Founded in 1981, the AAMA is an international non-profit trade organization representing the manufacturers, distributors and part suppliers of the coin-operated amusement industry. The group works with various committees in order to establish programs designed to help promote and protect the coin-op industry.
While simultaneously serving as the president of Nintendo of America, where he led that company’s North American footprint for five years beginning in 1983, Ballouz was in the unique position as the new AAMA head to help align the arcade industry with the emerging home console market, while at the same time remaining focused on driving “profitability for every segment of the [arcade] industry.”
“As president,” commented Ballouz,” I can’t just think of Nintendo. I have to welcome every smash hit or good game that comes along because that fuels the industry’s furnace.”
Building on this, something that caught my attention was a comment made by Ballouz on the state of the arcade industry at the time, and how the AAMA had managed to draw players back into arcade parlors.
“…I remember back in the early ’80s when video [games] lost a lot of its lustre, wasn’t any longer the apple of the player’s eye,” commented the organization’s newly elected chief. “Today it’s regaining a lot of that lost popularity due in large part to the “unique” type of product on the map like Out Run, Rampage, Gauntlet, etc.”
He also added his belief that “AAMA’s consumer marketing campaigns will make other people aware or perhaps ‘re-aware’ of our side of the entertainment industry.” Those of you who grew up during this age teeming with enthusiasm for the coin-op industry can no doubt relate to what Ballouz meant by recalling the “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” and “Winners Don’t use Drugs” ads that were found on nearly every arcade game at the time.
The new AAMA chief also offered nuggets of wisdom on the now infamous crash of the home videogame market in the 80s, noting that the home market died off “for the same reason coin-op video took a slide… below average games. If the game itself has authentic entertainment value, be it a home cartridge or a coin machine, players will respond.” Simple, that.
One of the most interesting statements made by Ballouz at the time, however, had to do with his belief that the arcade and emerging home console markets existed in a symbiotic relationship, helping each other grow. “I honestly believe that the revitalized video industry has helped [bring players back to arcades] more than most of us know,” noted the executive. “Don’t you think a lot of people said , “If this is available at home, I wonder what’s available in the arcade?”… we’re trading off each other and I definitely believe home video is a positive thing for the coin-op side.”
Reading this, and knowing that Ballouz traces his roots prior to his position at the AAMA to Nintendo, a company let us not forget was establishing a significant footprint in the arcade business with its PlayChoice-10 and VS. line of machines (which offered NES titles for play in an arcade cabinet), it’s not hard to see things from his perspective. After all, in the NES era, arcade games were genuinely regarded by most players as the purest form of video game entertainment, with home conversions coming close, but never actually recapturing the whole of experience offered for twenty-five cents down the street at the local parlor.
Most times this was do to the edge in graphical fidelity held over the home console market, but this gap was soon to close, in retrospective much fast than anyone could have anticipated. Ballouz had no way of envisioning the rate at which the home console industry would take off, for even by the close of the 16-bit era nearly a decade later, the gap in technology had narrowed and the wealth of experiences available at home had so diversified that the home console market had eclipsed those offered by the arcade scene.
Ballouz also could not have predicted the release of hardware emulators such as MAME, which first hit the PC computing scene in the late 90s, and have since grown to offer the emulation community the means to play nearly uncountable numbers of arcade games at home, though admittedly through somewhat questionable means. Ignoring emulation, however, is not an effective means of making it go away, and that, together with rising game prices asked of consumers in arcades, helped diminish the once thriving industry to something of an afterthought in the pages of video game history for several years.
But things are not entirely riddled with doom and gloom for the arcade scene. While the popularity of coin-op machines has been diminished for some time in North America, games have continued to thrive in Japan, and in specialty venues in locations the world over.
It’s still rare to come across machines in gas stations or even find robust arcade setups at local malls anymore, which is unfortunate, but the growth in popularity of outlets such as Dave & Busters, Celebration Station, and other “family fun centers” manage to keep the arcade flame alive by offering a family setting and a handful of newer arcade machines, many of the sit down/competitive variety, for players both young and old to enjoy.
Capcom’s Flying Fists, The Birth Of Street Fighter
Before the phrase ‘Street Fighter’ was synonymous with the arcade fighting game paradigm, the genre was relatively unknown, having only been earlier realized in obscure coin-op titles such as Sega’s Heavyweight Champ and Tim Skelly’s Warrior.
And while the genre itself would not be perfected for another five years with Street Fighter II, Capcom nonetheless showed a lot of faith in the relatively unproven fighting game formula with the original’s somewhat ostentatious debut.
In May 1987, Capcom hosted a marketing event in Philadelphia to showcase two of its upcoming coin-op titles, namely the aforementioned Street Fighter as well as the side-scroller Bionic Commando. The latter, recognized as Capcom’s very first upright coin-op release, was shown at the Marriott Hotel by the Philadelphia Airport, complete with speeches by Capcom USA marketing head Bill Cravens and company president Kenzo Tsujimoto.
While by all accounts the game impressed those in attendance (at that time it had already shipped in Japan in “limited quantities” according to Cravens), the real star of the presentation was to come later, when the marketing and distribution reps boarded a bus that afternoon and headed to the Cambria Boxing Club, a location with some historical significance, as it was used for some on locations shots in the original Rocky.
According to a RePlay article at the time, the “suits and ties” at the venue were treated to a trio of three-round youth boxing matches (each of which ended in a draw), as well as a final exhibition bout between a pair of kick boxers.
There was even a “card girl” on display in between rounds, no doubt an early example of what the world would eventually know as the booth babe. Says the article, “she got more vocal reaction from the dealers than for the boxers.”
Of course, the reason for this showy display was to promote Street Fighter, with two of the expensive machines wrapped in brown butcher paper next to the ring. The games were unwrapped following the matches, and in that singular instant the world of arcade gaming changed forever. The games shown at the event were the initial versions featuring large rubber punch and kick “smash pads”, rather than the more traditional six-button layout. Here the harder a player punched down on the buttons, the more ferocious the attack. Unleashing a volley of fierce punches or roundhouse kicks was enough to give a player a real world workout.
The game also demanded 50A