A New Look at the Golden Age of Coin-Op Arcade Games
A new book by ExtremeTech editor-in-chief Jamie Lendino shows how for the first 25 years of the video game industry, arcade coin-ops set the standards all console and computer games aspired to–and that in some ways have yet to be matched.
Arcade fans remember the Golden Age of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the heyday of coin-op video games spanned more than 20 years–from the very beginning of the industry through the renaissance of the early 1990s. If you were there, you know these were incredible moments in time unlike any other. But eventually, arcades mostly just disappeared. Some are still around even today, but coin-ops no longer lead the industry.
The obvious reason was that video games came home; as consoles and computers became more capable, there was little reason to play arcade coin-ops. But there was much more to the story, and I really wanted to write a book about it. The result of 15 months of hard work, Attract Mode: The Rise and Fall of Coin-Op Arcade Games covers more than 130 coin-ops in detail, from 1971’s Computer Space to 1994’s Ridge Racer. It includes notes and context throughout on the greater coin-op industry, plus additional details on some 200 more machines.
It’s not easy to understand in an emulator what vector or cockpit cabinets were really like, so I wanted to convey the real experience as clearly as possible–not to dissuade anyone from emulation (far from it!), but to show how the actual code and chips that made up each game were only part of the experience. The book covers not just the games, but the control layouts, hardware, artwork, and CRT displays. It traces the move from electromechanical to discrete logic and microprocessor-based games, and details the rise of key technologies such as overlays and black lights, vector graphics, RGB color, stereo sound, environmental cabinets, spinners and trackballs, laserdisc, rendered polygons, and texture mapping.
Attract Mode: The Rise and Fall of Coin-Op Arcade Games is available now from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. Here’s a free book excerpt; I hope you enjoy it.
Attract Mode: The Rise and Fall of Coin-Op Arcade Games
Video arcade games attracted a sophisticated and intellectual clientele to bars and restaurants, boosting their image. But many establishment owners were still reluctant. In 1978, RePlay magazine surveyed operators about what they referred to as “TV games,” and learned that the primary concerns were that they needed to be moved and repaired frequently.Pinball emerged as the clear preference for reliability, thanks to the new solid-state machines, and for revenue collection. This ran counter to what was expected, as arcade games were mechanically simpler. But most operators at the time were still more familiar with pinball machines.
It didn’t matter. Aside from some occasional newer hits such as Breakout and Night Driver, no new video games were sticking. Would they just be a fad after all? Soon, all concerns within the industry were put to rest. One new game ignited the Golden Age of arcades, and it made just about every existing coin-op from the Bronze Age look old. It came from a company still best known for its Pachinko machines. Considering its impact, it may as well have come from outer space.
Space Invaders (Taito/Midway, 1978)
With moviegoers captivated by blockbusters such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, space aliens were on everyone’s mind—including that of one Tomohiro Nishikado, a Taito engineer who worked on some earlier games for the company’s home market in Japan. Nishikado was also inspired by H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. With this backdrop, he designed a new space shoot-’em-up game where the aliens returned fire and there was no time limit. He did everything by himself—the concept, programming code, graphics, sound, and hardware. He built his own microcomputer with new chips from the United States: an Intel 8080 microprocessor, a Texas Instruments SN76477 sound processor, and 16 Intel 2708 RAM chips. The hardware still lacked sprites, so the code had to draw and erase sprites in frame buffer RAM using bitmaps.
Taito launched Nishikado’s creation, Space Invaders, in Japan in July 1978. Within months, the country’s largest competing Pachinko manufacturer shut down from the sudden loss of business. By the end of the first year, Taito had already sold 100,000 Space Invaders machines for $600 million. The Bank of Japan reportedly had to triple its production of 100-yen coins for addicted gamers, although an oft-told story that the government declared a shortage of those coins on account of Space Invaders is probably not true. Nonetheless, within a matter of months, you could find entire arcades populated only with Space Invaders cabinets. Still, Taito thought the game wouldn’t do well overseas because it was so different. Taito of America disagreed, and approached Bally’s Midway division. Midway licensed Space Invaders for U.S. distribution and began selling it in America in October 1978. The aliens invaded not just Earth but American pop culture.
The object of the game, if it somehow still needs explaining, was to blast apart wave after wave of approaching aliens using a laser turret that moved back and forth across the bottom of the screen—all while dodging the aliens’ missiles. If one hit you, or if the alien armada managed to land, you’d lose a life. Clear all 55 aliens on the screen and you’d progress to the next, more difficult wave.
The control panel contained five buttons: two to move your laser base left or right and one to fire, and then two more to start either a one- or two-player game. Today we play emulated games with joysticks and gamepads, so it’s important to note just how different it felt in an arcade to move your ship using buttons instead of a stick. The black-and-white graphics consisted of 256 horizontal lines and 224 blocks per line in a vertical orientation—nothing special, but some visual tricks boosted the presentation. A yellow moon and dark blue sky sat behind the graphics; this was accomplished by lighting a plastic overlay with a black light bulb. Additional color strips allowed for red UFOs to fly over and green bunkers along the bottom of the screen. The layered effect was thanks to a mirror that reflected the screen upwards.
Not only was there no time limit, but there was also no artificial end to the game, such as the two walls in Breakout or the maximum number of buses to jump in Stunt Cycle. The better you became at Space Invaders, the longer you could play—a mechanic that would soon become standard in arcade coin-op design. You received anywhere from three to six lives, and as an extra way to draw you in, you would win one bonus life at either 1,000 or 1,500 points depending on how the game was configured. The three main alien types were worth 10, 20, and 30 points, respectively. Every 25 seconds, a UFO flew across the top of the screen; if you nabbed it, you’d earn a random amount of bonus points. As you blasted the aliens, the remaining ones would begin to speed up—another mechanic Nishikado discovered quite by accident, as it turned out the Intel 8080 processor could render frames faster when there were fewer aliens on screen.
The audio consisted of sound effects for your laser cannon, blasting the aliens, and the laserlike warble of the UFO flying overhead. But the most significant sound, and possibly the most memorable thing about the game, was the steady, repeating bass pattern in the background. It signaled the relentless onslaught as the aliens moved across the screen and made their way toward your laser base. You felt the low end in your chest as it shook the cabinet, adding to the tension. As the aliens descended further and you blasted more of them, the four-note loop would speed up until it became a continuous machine-gun-fire rumble. However simple it was, Space Invaders was the first video game to have continuous background music.
Space Invaders also had the distinction of popularizing the high score concept previously seen in Sea Wolf and the sit-down Night Driver. Tracking and displaying the high score was all it did—entering initials would come later, and it would reset whenever the machine was powered down or unplugged. But players noticed whenever their handiwork was preserved for the next player to try and beat. Achieving a high score in Space Invaders meant staying alive as long as possible, in stark contrast to all the timed or limited-length games that came before it. High scores soon became local competitions for bragging rights and respect among your peers. In the arcades, your score would soon become paramount, and you were only as good as your last attempt.
Those attempts kept coming. Space Invaders was not just challenging, but addictive—the hypnotic march of the aliens across the screen, which sped up as each board progressed, captivated players. You could sweat while playing it. Gamers popped in quarter after quarter to try to reach the next wave; it never mattered that it was impossible to finish as long as you could get a higher score than before. You’d begin to learn the game’s quirks and develop strategies. For example, although the lone remaining alien was always the fastest, it moved faster in one direction than in the other. Or you learned you could vaporize alien missiles if you hit them just right and happened to have a shot in reserve.
Within one year, Midway sold 40,000 machines in the U.S. The cabinet graphics depicted monsters instead of alien spaceships; Nishikado said he believes this was because the artist based the design on the original concept, which was a new video game in the vein of Taito’s 1972 electromechanical Space Monsters, instead of the resulting alien invasion. The attract mode did some fun things to draw in gamers, such as sending out an alien to fix an upside-down Y in “Play Space Invaders,” or to shoot away an extra C in “Insert Coin” on screen. In addition to the upright model, Midway also made a 19-inch cocktail table where one or two people could play while seated. A joystick replaced the move buttons, but this model didn’t have the room necessary to generate the backlit yellow moon backdrop.
Space Invaders laid down the template for the fixed shooter. By April 1979, it had created demand never seen before and was the “world’s hottest game.” One year later, Taito introduced a 64-page, $1.95 book called How to Play Space Invaders: Secrets From an Expert, anonymously written and believed to be the first-ever arcade video game strategy guide. Establishments that were used to carrying one or two coin-ops found themselves needing multiple Space Invaders machines next to each other, and the game rewarded skilled players with longer durations. Midway’s parent company Bally made a pinball table based on the game. In short order, Space Invaders took over both Japan and America, with some 300,000 cabinets sold in Japan and 60,000 in America by 1980. It kept going. By 1982, the game had grossed $2 billion and $450 million in net profit—much more than the highest grossing film of the time, Star Wars, which had brought in a paltry $486 million gross revenue and $175 million profit. The game’s success led to a large number of knockoffs and bootleg versions, often with slight tweaks to the name or gameplay, as others rushed to cash in on the craze.
Even more than Computer Space and Pong, Space Invaders broke coin-op games out of dive bars. After Space Invaders, “video games would never again be thought of as filler games or relegated to the back corners of game rooms.” Soon, you could find versions of the game not just as cartridges for home consoles, but as handhelds, tabletop games, computer games, and even watches and pocket calculators. Electronic Games magazine awarded the game a place in its hall of fame in 1983. It said Space Invaders had “penetrated the fabric of our society.”
Star Fire (Exidy, 1978)
Exidy’s Star Fire wasn’t the first sit-down video game—that distinction went to Atari’s 1975 release Hi-Way, which offered a seat as part of a red fiberglass cabinet to go with its steering wheel and pedals, and Night Driver also came in a sit-down model. But Star Fire was the first “environmental” or cockpit game. These were sit-down models that were enclosed, perfect for flight simulators and driving games, or any game where the designers wanted to convey a sense of total immersion. The trade-off was that they needed a certain amount of floor space, something many retail shops and small venues couldn’t afford to sacrifice.
Star Fire put you in control of a space fighter ship; you had to destroy as many enemies as possible in dogfights before the clock ran out. The entire game resembled Star Wars on purpose; Exidy hoped to pick up the license, but could change some of the game elements to avoid being sued if that didn’t happen. This began with the attract screen, which displayed the title in a design that mimicked the Star Wars logo.
The control panel consisted of a two-handed flight yoke with a Fire button on the top left. A red Game Start button sat to the left, while a metal handle on the right controlled thrust. The screen displayed a crosshair gunsight at the center, floating over a background star field. The first-person view meant as you piloted the ship, the crosshairs stayed in the center; the yoke let you climb, descend, and bank left or right. A long-range scanner let you view the positions of enemy ships in the sector. The game displayed the current speed and direction, along with the score and fuel remaining. Enemy ships could be seen flying around in the view out; most looked like TIE fighters, and your own ship was basically an X-wing. The game would display when you were locked on target and ready to fire the laser cannon, which triggered an array of four beams that converged in an X pattern. Fire it too much and it would overheat for a few moments. Shoot an enemy fighter and it would explode into many pieces; the resulting shockwave would temporarily slow down your ship. You could also avoid the explosion by throwing the thrusters into reverse. Sometimes you’d come across a large, sleek mothership with “Exidy” inscribed on the tail; it resembled an Imperial light cruiser. This ship was worth a lot of points, and the game prevented you from locking your laser system onto it. The enemy base, which you couldn’t attack, resembled the Death Star.
Star Fire was programmed by David Rolfe, and the impressive graphics, which were in full color without the use of overlays, were by Ted Michon and Sun Ogg. The animation was smooth enough for a realistic dogfight feel. Each time you exceeded a certain score, you’d earn bonus time. But, if you were willing, you also could pop in additional quarters to extend your time. Star Fire was notable for being the first game to let you enter your initials for a high score, instead of just displaying the score itself. It kept track of the top 10 scores and displayed them in a table. Soon, every game would do this. The deliberate pace of the game—lasers would take a few seconds to reach their target, for example—led to a more cerebral feeling than most action games provided. Rick Pearl, writing for Electronic Games,said Star Fire was a “closet classic…deserving of a better fate,” and that it was “ahead of its time and unable to find a market.” Exidy also released a smaller (60-inch-tall) upright that it positioned as “ideal for street locations.” The expected Star Wars license never materialized. Neither did a lawsuit.
Warrior (Vectorbeam, 1979)
Warrior depicted a top-down battle between two armored fighters with swords in a medieval dungeon. The arena contained several staircases you could force the opposing player up or down and pits you could push them into. Warrior was designed by Tim Skelly, and was his only game marketed under the Vectorbeam brand before Cinematronics acquired and dissolved the company. The cabinet had white sides and a black front panel and included fantasy artwork by Frank Brunner. Bat-handle joysticks controlled the two warriors, and each had a small black button on top. Pushing the joystick in a direction without the button depressed moved the warrior around; pushing and holding the button while moving the stick aimed the sword in the same direction.
The game successfully modeled swordfighting, with forward and backhand swings all the way around and the clash of two swords hitting each other (albeit without much of a “clank” sound effect). You could score points either by hitting your opponent’s center with the tip of your sword or by forcing him into one of the pits. Each player’s two-digit score was displayed on top. The timer at the bottom of the screen slowly counted down; a quarter was good for 10 time units, which meant anywhere from 30 to 120 seconds as per the operator’s choice. Destroy the other player and he would disintegrate into a cloud of sparkles to the sound of an explosion. Whoever had the higher score at the end of the game won, and that person’s score pulsed in brightness.
The 19-inch black-and-white X-Y monitor included a detailed overlay of the fixed-screen playfield, complete with a beautifully drawn stone floor and curved staircases. The monitor was mounted below, facing up, and the image reflected off of a silver mirror lit by a backlight. The combination looked as if the vector graphics and the overlay were sharing the same surface. The attract mode showed the two warriors appear in their safe zones, walk up the stairway toward the center of the screen, and fight until one disintegrated, at which point the other would fall into one of the pits.
Warrior wasn’t the first one-on-one fighting game, though it was the first one many people played. Sega’s Heavyweight Boxing and Project Support Engineering’s Knights in Armor both preceded it, though aside from a 1987 remake, the former does not survive, and the latter is difficult to find. It’s doubtful Vectorbeam employees had seen either game when designing Warrior. “Brilliant vector graphics and [an] incredibly beautiful backdrop and internal cabinet artwork made the game enthralling to watch, producing more complex images than Atari’s vector hardware was capable of,” said The Electronics Conservatory’s Videotopia. “Unfortunately, the Cinematronics vector system was also far less reliable. Most Cinematronics vector games are rare, and Warrior is rare among them.”
This excerpt was adapted from Chapter 3.
 Newman, Michael Z. Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 39.
 Burnham, Van, ed. Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001), 162.
 Hugg, Steven. Making 8-Bit Arcade Games in C (Self-published, 2017), 75.
 “Can Asteroids Conquer Space Invaders?” Electronic Games, Winter 1981, 31.
 Smith, Keith, “Video Game Myth Busters – The Space Invaders Yen Shortage,” The Golden Age Arcade Historian, Nov. 13, 2013. http://allincolorforaquarter.blogspot.com/2013/11/video-game-myth-busters-space-invaders.html
 Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokémon and Beyond—The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 116-117.
 Collins, Karen, Mark J. P. Wolf, ed. Before the Crash: Early Video Game History (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 131.
 Kurtz, Bill, The Encyclopedia of Arcade Video Games (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2004), 47.
“Classic GI: Space Invaders,” Game Informer, January 2008, 108–109.
 Newman, 40.
 Smith, Keith, “A Literary History of the Golden Age of Video Games – Golden Age Video Game Books Part 8,” The Golden Age Arcade Historian, Oct. 18, 2014. http://allincolorforaquarter.blogspot.com/2014/10/a-literary-history-of-golden-age-of_18.html
 Kohler, Chris, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2016), 17.
 “Space Invaders vs. Star Wars“, Executive, Vol. 24, Southam Business Publications, 1982, 9.
 Wolf, Mark J. P., ed, The Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming, Volume 1 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2012), 68
 “Hall of Fame,” Electronic Games, March 1983, 22.
 Pearl, Rich, “Closet Classics,” Electronic Games, June 1983, 82.
 Rousse, Thomas H. “Reconstructing Warrior: Vectorbeams, Natural Magick & Business Intrigue.” Kinephanos, June 2015. https://www.kinephanos.ca/2015/reconstructing-warrior/
Jamie Lendino is the Editor-in-Chief of ExtremeTech. He is also the author of Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation and Adventure: The Atari 2600 at the Dawn of Console Gaming.