What Happened to the Video Arcade?

Pac-man, Galaga, Street Figther II. These video games represent everything that was great about the traditional video arcade. I wanted to experience a traditional arcade once again upon my recent visit to Chicago only to find that the arcade I loved as a teen is now gone. It was the last one left of the four I frequented.

After these places survived for years on quarters from players yearning for a new challenger to find them, video arcades have been fading from the urban landscape. I thought about reasons why and struggled to find solid reasons. Was it home video gaming systems? Everybody owns a home system now. Gamers can play at home or play against somebody online if they would like an opponent. But arcades were very popular in the ’90s and back then everybody had a NES or SNES. So this reason alone couldn’t be what killed the video arcade.

Then it hit me. The reason? It was the coin-ops! Coin-ops never evolved like other electronic gadgets do. Smaller, faster, cheaper, better is the evolution every successful electronic item follows. Coin operated games did not follow this evolution. Compare the Galaga machine to the Street Fighter II Machine. Both games were created about 15 years apart, yet they pretty much are the same. A huge cabinet, a huge screen, controller and buttons. These machines became way too expensive to make any money on. I remember being told that an arcade had to rent a coin-op for about $500 a month or more if the game was any good. If the arcade owner were to buy the game, instead it would cost $3,500+. It takes a while for arcade owners to make their money back when you consider the overhead.

Why didn’t game makers start making the games smaller and cheaper? Why not do away with the huge cabinet to cut costs? Make it just a screen with a controller and a box for the tokens, or even better, a card scanner. That’s all you need! This would’ve resulted in huge savings for the arcade owner and the chance to make better profits. Instead, coin operated games stayed bulky and expensive. Arcade owners stopped buying them. With fewer orders, game makers eventually stopped making new coin-ops altogether.

Now when you are lucky to find an arcade that still operates, you’ll find that the owner has cut costs wherever he can. Machines are regularly out of order. Other machines often have problems with the screen or joystick. Games that should be 25 cents to play are still 50 cents to a dollar. All of which could have been prevented had the coin-op evolved.

These days, when you want to face a challenge from a stranger, the only option we have are Internet arcades. In a way the Internet arcade is an evolution of traditional arcades. Not many people are into the games that I always liked in these places though, so I never go. I guess I’ll just play my PS3 instead.