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The Golden Age of Video Arcade Games

From late 1978 until the end of 1983 the video arcades reached a peak in popularity, innovation and earnings. This period is often referred to as the golden age of video arcade games. In late 1976 video arcade game technology became more sophisticated moving away from Transistor-Transistor Logic (TTL) technology to using Microprocessors allowing for better graphics and sounds. Even with the technology advancements the graphics and sound quality were still fairly primitive, this made the developers focus more on gameplay and innovative ideas in order to make a successful game.

The release of “Pong” in 1972 proved that there was profit to be made in the video arcade market and with the success of games like Tank!, Hi-Way, Death Race & Breakout proved that the video arcade games were more than just a fad. The success of these games made retail establishments confident that they could make a profit and video arcade games started to appear in supermarkets, restaurants, gas stations, bowling Alleys as well as many other establishments who were looking to earn some extra revenue. It wasn’t long before video arcades were rapidly opening across North America, Europe and Japan.

The Golden Age was a time of great creativity and innovative concepts. Developers experimented with new hardware such as vector displays and laserdisc players as well incorporating new control concepts in their games. Games were also being designed in a wide variety of genres making a more unique experience for the gamer.

With the huge success that early game developers had in the video arcade market dozens of developers started developing and manufacturing video arcade games. Atari lead the way with companies like Namco, Sega, Nintendo, Midway, Capcom, Konami, Taito and SNK following shortly behind them, all trying to get a piece of the market share.

The Golden Age of video arcade games started with the release of “Space Invaders”. Space Invaders was designed by Tomohiro Nishikado and was originally manufactured by Taito in Japan. The game was released in Japan in 1978 by Taito and was later licensed to Midway for production in North America.

The goal in Space Invaders is to defeat waves of aliens with a laser cannon to earn as many points as possible. Nishikado drew inspiration from popular media such as “The War of the Worlds” and “Star Wars”. Though the two dimensional graphics were basic in comparison to today’s standards, Space Invaders helped expand the video game industry from a novelty to a global industry.

Space Invaders Cabinet
Space Invaders

1978’s Space Invaders marks the beginning of the era known as the Golden Age of Video Arcade Games

Nishikado spent a full year designing the game and developing the necessary hardware to produce it. Since computers in Japan were not powerful enough at the time to perform the complex tasks required to program Space Invaders, Nishikado had to design his own custom hardware and development tools for the game. Nishikado acquired new microprocessors from America and created an arcade board for the game based around an Intel 8080 processor.

Nishikado’s original envision for the game was to have players shoot down airplanes but he wasn’t satisfied with his attempts to animate flight. He then heard about the popularity of Star Wars in America a movie that did not reach Japan yet but would be soon. This gave him the idea to incorporate a space theme and for the design inspiration he used the novel “The War of the Worlds” which gave him the idea to model the aliens in the game to resemble sea life.

Space Invaders was released in Japan by Taito in 1978 and sales for the first few months were slow but it wasn’t long before word of mouth spread across Japan and made the game an instant success. Space Invaders started a new video game genre the “top-down shooter” and the Japanese market fell in love with the style. People stood in line for blocks just for a chance to play the new game for a few minutes, this made the game so profitable for some stores that they cleared out their inventory and setup makeshift Space Invaders only arcades.

Taito had a hard time keeping up with the demand for the game due to its overwhelming popularity but they were able to manufacture and ship 100,000 machines to the Japanese market over the next few years. Space Invaders became so popular with Japan that during its height of popularity it caused a 100-yen coin shortage as there were so many coins tied up in Space Invaders machines. This nationwide shortage forced the Bank of Japan to triple the coin’s production.

Most arcade games prior to Space Invaders allowed players to play until an event happened in the game or had time limits but the games didn’t directly keep track of the player’s performance. Space Invaders kept track of each kill that was established with a numerical value giving it the ability to gauge a player’s performance. The game popularized the concept of “high score” by posting the highest achieved score at the top of the screen. Claiming the high score on a particular machine became a goal that many people strived to achieve for bragging rights and through their determination earned arcades a lot of money. High Scores started to become a common feature in most arcade game moving forward and was a very important part to the success of the video arcade as this gave players a goal to accomplish and a reason to continue playing the same game over and over again.

Midway licensed Space Invaders from Taito to release within North America in late 1978 and it wasn’t a surprise that it was an instant hit just like it was in Japan. Midway much like Taito had a hard time keeping up with the demand for the game as the North American market fell in love with the game. The popularity of the game within North America created a marketing phenomenon which saw Space Invaders themed merchandise to be created such as T-shirts, hats and dolls to name a few. Space Invaders was the first Japanese created video games to reach an overwhelming success in North America and opened the door for Japanese video game companies to expand into the North American market.

Space Invaders single handedly took video games to another level, out of the realm of novelty and proved that the video game industry was here to stay. The video game industry was now starting to be viewed by the public as a major entertainment media just like the movie, music and television industry was seen. Some credit Space Invaders as the game that revolutionized the video game industry, this one game has generated over $500 million to date and kicked off the beginning of the era known as the golden age of video arcade games.

Atari continued to lead the industry with new innovative ideas and released Lunar Lander in 1979. Although the game wasn’t particularly successful it was the first video arcade game to use vector graphics which was an important step for both Atari and the video game industry. This was an important step for Atari as vector graphics were the base of their next game Asteroids which became Atari’s most successful video arcade game and this was an important step for the industry as it inspired the creation of many classic arcade games.

Atari followed up with the release of Asteroids another game that would use a vector display to give the game more detail and an overall better effect. Asteroids placed the player in control of a spaceship in an asteroid field which is also populated with flying saucers. The object of the game is to shoot and destroy the asteroids and flying saucers while avoiding a collision with either or being hit by enemy fire.

Asteroids was an instant hit in North America and became Atari’s best-selling video arcade system of all time. The demand for Asteroids became so high that Atari stopped further production of Lunar Lander so that they could begin building additional Asteroids systems. The first 200 Asteroids machines were actually Lunar Lander cabinets as Atari cut the production run in order to start creating Asteroids machines these systems were releases with the original Lunar Lander cabinet art. Asteroids ended up being so popular that many video arcade operators had to install larger coin boxes in the system so they could hold all of the quarters that were being inserted into the game.

Asteroids Cabinet
Asteroids

Asteroids – Atari’s most successful video arcade game, released in 1979 and one of the first video games to use vector graphics

Atari’s Asteroids replaced Space Invaders as the number one arcade machine in North America, earning between $700 and $800 million in just a year’s time. Asteroids became one of the most commercially successful video arcade games of all time grossing more than a billion dollars’ worth of revenue in quarters. Atari continued to set the bar in the video game industry placing pressure on other developers to come up with new innovative ideas in order to compete in the video game market.

Namco developed and released Galaxian in an effort to expand on the style of game play that Space Invaders pioneered. They raised the difficulty level by adding an element to the gameplay were the aliens would periodically make kamikaze like dives at the player’s ship and incorporating boss encounters. Nacmo also improved the graphic technology by making the game’s graphics display in true RGB color. This was the first arcade video game released with 100% of its graphics displayed in true RGB color.

Galaxian’s improved graphics and use for true RGB color would set the standard for arcade games going into the 1980’s. Galaxian was very successful for Namco and inspired a follow up game by Namco in 1981 called Galaga.

Galaxian
Namco’s Galaxian released in 1979
Galaga
Namco’s Galaga released in 1981

Galaga was a sequel to Galaxian were Namco continued to expand on the fixed shooter genre by incorporating attack techniques in order to make the gameplay more realistic and difficult. The enemy aliens would fly in formation and once all of the enemies appeared on the screen they would come down to attack the player’s ship in tactical formations. The boss battles were improved were the boss Galaga would attempt to capture the player’s ship using a tractor beam. A number of additional features were added to Galaga to intrigue players like the ability to fire more than one bullet at a time, tracking of player’s statics giving a hit/miss ratio and adding bonus stages to earn additional points.

Galaga surpassed its predecessor in popularity and spawned Namco to continue creating sequels in the series but the fixed shooter genre was getting worn out and none of the successors to Galaga would reach its popularity. The popularity of Galaga resulted in many clone machines to be created, this game along with Pac-Man and Pong shares the curse of being one of the most bootlegged games of all time.

In November of 1980 Atari released its newest game based on vector graphics, Battlezone. Battlezone basically expanded on the game Tank! that was previously released by Atari but incorporated the latest in technology. The game featured dual joystick controls and a periscope viewfinder which was used to view the game. Battlezone is widely considered the first virtual reality video game because of its first person view, basic 3D graphics and periscope viewfinder. Battlezone quickly became a huge influence with the United States Army.

Battlezone Cabinet
Battlezone

Atari’s Battlezone released in 1980, a game that influenced the U.S. Army to incorporate video games into their training exercises and recruitment programs

The game depicts a first-person view from inside a tank where battle takes place in a large valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Battlezone places the player against enemy forces consisting of slow tanks, fast tanks and intelligent missiles. The goal of the game is to destroy as many of the enemy forces weaponry to achieve a high score. In addition to enemy forces, flying saucers appear periodically with do not pose any threat but can be shot down for bonus points.

When Battlezone entered the arcades it drew the attention of the United States Army as they seen the potential in the game where it could be modified and used for military training. The United States Army commissioned Atari to create a modified military version of Battlezone for infantry vehicle training. Atari created two prototypes machines known as the Bradley Trainer which used existing Battlezone hardware with many modifications as the simulator used a replica of the controls from a real Bradley Fighting Vehicle. This marked the beginning of video games being used in the military which would later become common for various training simulators and recruitment.

Atari started looking for ways in which gameplay could be improved upon and to bring a new fresh experience to their customers. In 1978 Atari released “Atari Football”, their first video game that used a new controller interface, the trackball. This was inspired by a Taito Soccer game in Japan that featured a trackball controller but the concept did not catch on until Atari incorporated it in a few key games in 1980.

Atari Football introduced the concept of the trackball within North America but it did not improve upon the gameplay, it was more of a novelty in this particular game. The concept of being able to provide a smoother gameplay experience led to the trackball being used in Atari’s Centipede and Missile Command. Both games made excellent use of the trackball and proved to add to the gameplay as well as provide a unique experience as none of Atari’s competitors were using trackball controls.

Centipede was the first arcade video game that was designed by a woman, Dona Bailey. Dona came up with the prototype and worked with Ed Logg to develop the final version of the game. Centipede had a special appeal to women gamers which contributed to its success, that coupled with the trackball controller to give the game more sensitive controls and an unique experience made Centipede Atari’s second bestselling arcade game of all time.

Centipede gives the player control of a character at the bottom of the screen which is manipulated with the trackball controller. The concept of the game is to shot at a centipede that is advancing from the top of the screen down through a field of mushrooms. Shooting a middle segment of the centipede would result in the centipede splitting into two pieces. Each piece then continues independently down the screen as the first section of the split centipede becomes a head. The goal is to destroy the full original centipede without being hit by the centipede or one of the other enemies such as a spider or flea.

Atari’s Centipede received praise for its refreshing approach to the use of screen colors and for its whimsical mushroom world. Due to the massive success Atari decided to release a sequel to the game called Millipede. Millipede was a very good game but did not touch Centipede in popularity.

Continuing to utilize the trackball controller Atari incorporated it into their Missile Command arcade game. Missile Command was release during a time where the United States and Russia were locked in a fierce “cold war”. The game was controversial as it sent a chilling message about the dangers or war. Missile Command was an eye opener for many making them aware of the seriousness of the tension between the United States and Russia as well as giving them a realistic look at what could potentially happen if a nuclear war broke out between the two countries.

The game was originally entitled “Armageddon” and based on the Californian coast. Players would defend the coast from incoming missile attacks but due to the frightening scenario of the game the developers chose not to use any geographic identification as well as using “Missile Command” as the final name for the game. The game became immensely popular throughout North America which resulted in the game being licensed to Sega for distribution within Europe and Taito for distribution in Japan.

Missile Command places the gamer in control of three bases along the ground with the trackball controlling the crosshair which is used to target enemy missile for destruction. Each base has 10 missiles that can be used to fire into enemy missiles, killer satellites, Bombers and smart bombs. The goal is to intercept attacking missiles without using all of the ammunition in order to save your cities from destruction; the game inevitably ends when all six cities have been destroyed.

Out of nowhere a successful electronic pinball manufacture Williams Electronic who tried to enter the video arcade market in the past with little success delivered one of the most popular arcade hits in history. Defender introduced the sideways-scrolling shoot-em up style gameplay which made the game groundbreaking and intrigued the general public. Defender became one of the highest grossing video games of all time and has earned more than one billion dollars.

Defender was Williams Electronics’ first attempt at developing a new video game as the company’s earlier game was a Pong Clone. The shear success and popularity of video arcade games in 1979 convinced Williams Electronics’ to shift its focus from pinball games to video arcade games.

Defender allowed players to control a space ship in a side-scrolling environment with a complex control scheme. The space ship’s elevation was controlled by a joystick with five buttons controlling both the horizontal direction and weapons. The objective of the game is to destroy alien invaders while protecting astronauts on the landscape from abduction.

Defender was first shown in 1981 at the Chicago arcade machine trade show and was deemed to be a flop due to its high level of difficulty. At the time Arcade industry insiders predicted that Defender as well as Pac-Man would be a commercial failure and that Namco’s upcoming “Rally X” would be the next major video arcade success.

Despite the complexity of the control scheme and difficulty level this did not intimidate gamers but provide them with a new challenge that other games were not offering at the time. The success of Defender inspired Milton Bradley to release a board game based on the video game, a hit song by Buckner and Garcia called “Defender” released on the Pac-Man Fever album and many knockoffs of the game to be created but smaller companies looking to cash in on its success. Defender became Williams’ bestselling arcade game with over 55,000 units sold worldwide.

Williams set the bar extremely high with Defender but Namco’s Pac-Man was months away from being release and would ultimately become the most popular and successful video arcade game of all time and the hallmark of the golden age of video games. Namco first released the game in May of 1980 in Japan entitled Puckman. Puckman captured the imaginations of games like no other game before it and became a pop culture phenomenon of the 1980’s.

Pac-Man Cabinet
Pac-Man

Pac-Man– Most successful video arcade game of all-time, released in 1990 by Namco

Though the game was originally known as Puckman in Japan it was renamed to Pac-Man before being release to the Western market. There was a fear that the game cabinets would be vandalized by scratching off part of the letter “P” in Puckman to alter the name of the game to create something less socially acceptable.

Toru Iwatani the designer of Pac-Man conceived of the idea during lunch while eating pizza. Iwatani took one slice from the Pizza and from looking at the rest of the pizza, Pac-Man was born. Iwatani has stated that Pac-Man was also influenced by the shape of the Japanese character “kuchi”, meaning mouth. A team of five individuals were assigned to the project and after 1 1/2 years of development Pac-Man was ready for its debut. Pac-Man instantly became a national success in Japan and work began on creating systems for an international release. In October 1980 Pac-Man was released in North America and it didn’t take long for it to become the bestselling arcade game of all time.

Pac-Man became the first worldwide recognizable video game character and is still one of the world’s most recognized video game characters of all time. Pac-Man became so successful it had its own cartoon, lunch box, board game, stickers, plush dolls and hundreds of other products. The craze that Pac-Man created in the early 80’s inspired the creation of a music album based on video games by Buckner and Garcia entitled “Pac-Man Fever”. The hit song “Pac-Man Fever” made the Billboard’s top 10 in 1982 and the album went on to selling over 2 million copies.

Before the release of Pac-Man the most popular arcade games were space shooters, sports games and racing game. Pac-Man created a new genre which appealed to a broader audience as well as both genders which played a vital role in it popular. Pac-Man became an international sensation and it wasn’t just Pac-Man that was being recognized worldwide as the four enemies within the game became well known. Namco gave the four ghost names and nicknames which were based of their personality and traits.

Pac-Man Title Screen
Pac-Man’s title screen showing game information as well as the enemies names

Shortly after the release of Pac-Man, Namco released their highly anticipated maze driving game Rally-X. Rally-X ran on Pac-Man hardware and even though it did not outperform Pac-Man as projected by industry analyst it did become quite popular with its groundbreaking and innovative ideas. Rally-X was the first game to feature a bonus round, background music as well as the first game to feature screen scrolling in multiple directions, both vertical and horizontal.

Well many companies were busy creating new genres looking for ways to stay fresh and attract new customers some smaller companies entering the arcade market looked to play it safe by expanding on already successful genres. Amstar Electronics looked to do just that when they entered the video arcade game industry with their 1980 release of Phoenix.

Phoenix was a classic shoot-em-up games set in space just like many already extremely popular games but Amstar Electronics looked to set themselves apart from their competitors by molding the current space shooter with fresh ideas. Amstar Electronics introduced progressive stages of gameplay instead of simply repeating the same playfield over again with an increased difficulty level. Phoenix was not just the first multi-level space shooter but was also the first shooter to include boss battles.

Having multiple unique stages coupled with boss battles set Phoenix apart from the hundreds of other space shooters already available at local arcades. Phoenix’s many gameplay innovations ensured its success and also lasted the test of time as it is now regarded as a classic. Phoenix became one of the most cloned games of the 1980’s, has been ported to many home gaming consoles and computer systems.

By 1981 the video game industry became one of the fastest growing industry and hundreds of companies looked to capitalize on this by either entering the market or by expanding the footprint they already had in the industry and no one did this better than Nintendo. Nintendo first entered the video game industry by securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey home video game console in Japan in 1974. By distributing the Magnavox Odyssey home gaming console in Japan in 1974 this gave Nintendo some early experience in a newly emerging industry.

After three years of industry experience Nintendo began producing its own hardware in 1977 with the Color TV Game home console. Four versions of these consoles were produced each providing variations of a single game. Nintendo also ventured into the video arcade industry after having some previous experience with a few mechanical gun arcade style games. Nintendo had some small success in Japan and was determined to expand into the North American market and decided to open Nintendo of America.

Minoru Arakawa, president of the newly founded Nintendo of America placed a large order for Nintendo’s newest video arcade machine Radar Scope as the game was popular in Japan at the time. The game only stayed popular for a short period and by the time the game arrived in New York months had passed and the buzz surrounding the game had dissipated. The North American market was unimpressed leaving Nintendo of America stuck with thousands of unsold units. Faced with an imminent financial disaster Arakawa pleaded with Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s CEO and his father-in-law to provide him with a new game which could be placed in the unsold Radar Scope units so that the hardware could be reutilized.

Hiroshi Yamauchi appointed the task of fixing the game to Shigeru Miyamoto one of Nintendo’s newest game designers. Shigeru Miyamoto determined that it would be best to build a new game from scratch instead of trying to tweak a game that was already not appealing to the North American market. Miyamoto designed Donkey Kong using the Radar Scope hardware and was able to convert the unsold units to be able to play his new game. Nintendo of America rebranded the arcade cabinets and launched Donkey Kong to see if it would rectify their financial issues, Donkey Kong went on to become a huge success and ended up saving Nintendo of America from bankruptcy.

Donkey Kong Cabinet
Donkey Kong

Nintendo’s Donkey Kong released in 1981, the game that introduced Mario to the world and laid the foundation for the platform game genre

Donkey Kong was more than just a game that saved Nintendo of America but laid the foundation for the platform game genre as well as visual story telling in video games. The game introduced Mario, the character that would ultimately become the face of Nintendo, the most popular and bestselling game character of all time and would become more recognizable around the world than Disney’s Mickey Mouse. The success of Donkey Kong gave Nintendo faith in their young game designer Shigeru Miyamoto which allowed him the freedom to be creative and develop games that he envisioned rather than creating games that were thought up by executives within Nintendo. Shigeru Miyamoto went on to become one of the most well-known and successful game designers create many of Nintendo’s largest franchises such as Mario, Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, Animal Crossing, F-Zero and Pikmin just to name a few. It could be argued that the creation of Donkey Kong is one of if not the most important video games to be created due to its immensive influence on the games industry.

The worldwide success of Donkey Kong didn’t mean it was all easy sailing for Nintendo as the success of the game drew the attention of Sid Sheinberg a seasoned lawyer and President of Universal City Studios. Sid Sheinberg suspected that the game might be a trademark infringement of Universal’s film King Kong. In April of 1982 Sheinberg met with Coleco whom licensed Donkey Kong from Nintendo for home game console distribution. Sheinberg threatened to sue over Coleco’s home version of Donkey Kong which was released on multiple consoles. After further review in May of 1982 Coleco agreed to pay royalties of 3% of their Donkey Kong net sale price to Universal which was worth approximately $4.6 million.

Universal then turned its focus to Nintendo threatening to sue but Howard Lincoln Nintendo’s attorney stood his ground refusing to give in to Universal’s demands. Universal brought Nintendo to court in June 1982 and announced its license with Coleco. Universal’s counsel argued that the names King Kong and Donkey Kong were easily confused and that the game’s story infringed on their film. Nintendo’s counsel, John Kirby countered that Universal had themselves argued in a previous case that King Kong was in the public domain. In the end judgment was given in favor of Nintendo and Universal was order to pay damages and attorney fees.

Many popular games had a large following with a particular user base and many companies realized that the next logical step was to start creating sequels and spinoffs to capitalize on the already existing user base. Namco built on the success of Galaxian releasing Galaga which became substantially more popular proving that sequels could be profitable resulting in sequels to other franchises to be quickly released such as Ms. Pac-Man and Super Pac-Man. Other developers started to see the untapped potential in creating sequels and spinoffs. Nintendo started down the same path with the release of Donkey Kong Junior and Mario Bros.

As the early 80’s progressed towards the mid 80’s arcades were flooded with dozens of amazing games that would become wildly popular such as Frogger, BurgerTime, DigDug, Joust, Pole position, Q*bert, Star Trek, Tron, Xevious, Mappy, Spy Hunter, Star Wars, 1942 and Paperboy. The market started to get over populated with games leaving it difficult for customers to keep up with all the release and the golden age started to cool around the mid 80’s as copies of popular games began to saturate the arcades. The main cause of the decline was due to the success of the new generation of home computers and video game consoles which drew interest away from arcades.