Coin-ops an endangered species

A recent report states that the arcade coin-op business has declined from from being a $50 billion industry to its current $7 billion, and is in danger of disappearing altogether. The culprit’ of course is the home console market which is healthier than ever.

Although everyone has been aware of this for a long time it still makes me a little sad. Going to the arcade as a kid was a great thrill. It was a place to hang out with friends, spend a few 10p pieces (of course it’s £1 per go now – tut) see what was new, see who had the record on Yie Ar Kung Fu and Bomberman and mix with a few shady types that your parents wouldn’t approve of. I remember the first time I saw Street Fighter, with its enormous sprites! And there was a joystick and six buttons! I don’t have that many fingers, what a challenge! I completed Double Dragon with my friend Steve on only one 10p piece, it’s easy once you know how to throw the elbow. There was a little crowd watching us too, we were heroes!

All these memories of good times are now unavailable to the next generation, and Roger Sharp of games machine manufacturer WMS Gaming agrees (obviously), “I think it’s tragic. This is part of our culture.” However he goes on to say that the industry has been its own worst enemy; “…this has never been an industry full of brain surgeons. For years they didn’t have to do a lot of work to get customers, then when they were faced with competition, they lost them. It’s pathetic.”

The arcades used to be on the cutting edge of technology, in terms of software, hardware and peripherals, and we gamers owe them a lot. For example, in 1975 Gun Fight was the first game to make use of a microprocessor, 1980 saw the release of Pac-Man (which you may have heard of) but also King and Balloon, which was the first game to feature synthesized voices. In 1981 Donkey Kong was the first platform game, and 1983 saw the first truly 3D polygon based game with I, Robot (nothing to do with the Will Smith movie). There are many more examples too.

Problems started though because the industry did not keep pace with the home console market, and the pricing policy was ludicrous, an arcade owner would be charged $14,000 for one cabinet when anybody else could buy a console for around $300.

Of course the new generation of gamers will not care one jot about this and rightly so. You don’t miss what you never had and progress is not only inevitable, but necessary in order to keep the industry vibrant and alive. But it doesn’t stop us old farts bemoaning the loss of part of our childhood. Maybe in the future the arcade based gaming culture of the 70’s and 80’s will be looked upon with the same rose-tinted spectacles as my parents use to remember the music scene of the 50’s and 60’s. I hope so, it deserves it.