Why arcades are going to get a lot more fun in this century

Andrea Savchenko
6 min readMar 31, 2018
Art and animation:

As a 90s kid, arcades were a treat! There’s just something about being surrounded by other kids who get excited about flashing lights, beating high scores and earning tickets to spend on cool toys. When I got Game Cube which came with better graphics, my friends and I stopped going to arcades and played from home instead. Most people say arcades are dead; but, I’m delighted to see what they’ve evolved into today.

The arcades that have survived have two things in common: they respond to trends, and deliver experiences you can’t get at home. They’re good at delivering the new games that gamers want, even if it means replacing the old pinball table with Dance Dance Revolution. Today’s cutting edge arcades feature custom built, ride-like machines and props that really extend the VR experience with motion, force feedback, and game-specific sensors. The latest trend has been in developing more and more immersive and fun VR experiences, and we have a lot more to look forward to from arcades of the future.

Responding to trends

In many places, arcades seem to have nearly, if not completely, vanished. An exception is Japan. Game culture is very widespread in Japan, and the arcade business has done well to understand and deliver what gamers have always wanted: the next cool game.

During the 1960s, that meant carnival type games which were purely mechanical such as slot machines, pinball tables, and Pachinko machines (Sega). Following the consumer electronics boom, games became electro-mechanical. Periscope, which used simple electric circuits to move physical objects was a first of it’s kind to simulate a naval battle for fun. In the late 1960s, as screen technologies took off, “video projection” style games began appearing now using animated images rather than physical motion and props. The demand for “video projection” set the tone for video games in the 1970s.

A huge moment in arcade game history was the arrival of Pong in 1972 and Space Invaders in 1987, both were the earliest to replace electro-mechanical games entirely. Due to the higher maintenance costs, all types of electro-mechanical games were taken out of service by the 1980s because of entirely digital games like Pong. Space Invaders marked the beginning of the Golden Age for arcades between the late 1970s and early 1990s. The world saw games with rapidly improving video graphics and increasingly large, ride-like cabinets you can climb and sit in. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Centipede are now legends in game history marking the first corner towards the digital gaming of today (Liszewski).

During the mid-00s, arcades in America were decked with hi-def monitors to play video games such as Aliens: Extermination, Dance Dance Revolution SuperNova, Time Crisis, and Sega Strike Fighter (Welch). In Japan, collectible IR card games such as Kantai Collection and Sengoku Taisen replaced coin operated games (Dracs). The Japanese combined physical cards with video games using collectible IR-chipped cards to play on specially designed cabinets for an interactive experience players cannot get elsewhere.

As the 21st century came around, brick and mortar, coin operated arcades that did not evolve their games with the times began their final curtain call after only about 20 years of existence.

Do try this at home

With the the introduction of faster and more powerful TV consoles, PC, and mobile games, trekking to the arcade became less and less of a priority as Xbox, PS2, GameCube, and Nintendo Switch owners realized they no longer had to burn gas and quarters to get time in.

What can keep an arcade relevant is offering experiences that couldn’t happen at home or at the PC gaming cafes. This applies to high end VR systems and the latest technologies, but sometimes the occasional antique seems to stick beyond it’s time. Many arcades will still stock a mechanical crane game with toys in it near the exit, for example. They’re a carry-over from analog arcades, and yet another longstanding example of a unique arcade experience that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate at home (Ashcraft).

Because arcades are such a strong component of Japanese culture, companies like Namco, Sega, and Nintendo focused on developing local multi-player games on 4D simulator game machines for an interactive experience that players can only get at a dedicated establishment. The latest 4D games are a combination of 3D or VR games with physical effects that occur in synchronization with the game. Effects simulated in a 4D game may include things like temperature changes, rain, motion, and vibration. It should come as no surprise that Japan’s innovative arcades put our domestic equivalents, Dave and Busters and Chuck E. Cheese’s, to well-earned shame.

The future is fun

If this year’s Japan Amusement Expo was any indication, what’s next for arcades is VR. Unlike VR implementations for home use, the VR arcade is able to customize gaming input for each exhibit. The biggest issue facing home VR, is that all you really have is a screen strapped to your face without the controls to back that up. While the home PC options for VR utilize motion controls, the results often end up being quite standardized, and that’s even more apparent on something that uses a normal controller, like PlayStation VR. VR exhibits with customized gaming inputs such as a 4D machine is an ultimate experience still only possible with significant investment into dedicated installations at game arcades.

Take a look at Mario Kart GP at the Shinjuku VR Zone. There were two sets of four driving simulators, with car number 1 designated as Mario, number 2 as Luigi, and Peach and Yoshi in 3 and 4 (Lai). Each 4D simulator has a steering wheel and pedal setup with a force feedback chair. Once you’re seated, you’re given tracker gloves to wear. The gloves will allow you to wave at other players as well as grab and use weapons — a shell, a banana or a hammer. When you put on your Vive headset, you will find yourself inside the body of Mario seated in a go-kart. It may take a while for the others to be strapped in, but it doesn’t matter, as you will be having fun by merely looking around the vibrant world of Super Mario Bros. The engine starts, and you will realize that your seemingly ordinary ride also includes motion feedback as you accelerate. Suddenly, Bowser and Wario come out of nowhere and rudely bump into your car. You feel a distinct jolt from the right. You realize you’ll need to step it up in order to drive with one hand and wave around for power ups with the other. It’s an entirely different game. Shinjuku’s VR Zone will leave you in awe of the realization that the childhood favorite game with cartoon characters you grew up with had become much more real than you thought it was ever going to be.

The Shinjuku VR Zone, opened on July 14, 2017, was a hit success in Tokyo and a demonstration of what the future of arcades might be like for the rest of the world (Barder):

Source: VR Zone Shinjuku

It has been amazing to witness the computer revolution take us through a sequence of experiences including quaint mechanical machines of amusement, all the way to completely immersive virtual environments where we can freely look around and touch things we never thought could exist. As forecasted by Japan’s hallmark gaming culture, the arcades of the world at large have to adapt and offer the latest of virtual reality fun, or become museums of fun times our predecessors used to have.

Works cited

Ashcraft, Brian. Why Arcades Haven’t Died In Japan. Kotaku, 15 Feb. 2017, kotaku.com/why-arcades-havent-died-in-japan-1792338461.

Barder, Ollie. “‘VR Zone Shinjuku’ Shows What The Future Of Arcade Games Might Be Like.”Games, Forbes, 16 June 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/olliebarder/2017/06/16/vr-zone-shinjuku-shows-what-the-future-of-arcade-games-might-be-like/#3d9645d410a2.

Dracs. Tabletop Otaku: Arcade Card Games in Japan. Beasts of War, 30 Aug. 2016, www.beastsofwar.com/card-game/tabletop-otaku-arcade-card-games/.

Lai, Richard. This Japanese VR Arcade Put Me inside ‘Mario Kart’. Engadget, 18 July 2017, www.engadget.com/2017/07/18/vr-zone-shinjuku-project-i-can-tour/.

Liszewski, Andrew. The World’s Largest Arcade Cabinet Makes Anyone Feel Like a Little Kid. Gizmodo, 9 Sept. 2015, gizmodo.com/the-worlds-largest-arcade-cabinet-makes-anyone-feel-lik-1729586658.

Sambe, Yukihara. “A Brief History of Arcade Video Game Display Technologies.” From CRT Displays to Real Time Graphics, 2013, www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/syntheng/6/2/6_94/_pdf.

Sega. “Electro-Mechanical Arcade Games.” SegaRetro, Sega, 8 May 2017, segaretro.org/Category:Electro-mechanical_arcade_games.

Welch, Hanuman. Arcade Fire: The Best Arcade Video Games of the 2000s. Complex, 27 Sept. 2013, www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/09/best-arcade-video-games_722481/virtua-fighter-5.