Are Arcades Making a Comeback?

people gathered around an arcade game

Many of us who are a bit older remember spending countless hours in the summers in arcades refining our pinball or Galaga skills, but arcades spent years declining in popularity as more people were playing video games in their homes. Thankfully for all of us, this hasn’t been the end. We’re looking at the history of arcades and how they’ve adapted and changed over the decades to provide amusement for kids, families, and adults.

The Origins of the Arcade

While we associate arcades with the 1970s and 1980s, coin-operated games date much further back than that. “The first successful coin-operated game was called Baffle Ball, created by David Gottlieb in 1931.” The Midwest, specifically Chicago, was considered the base to many major arcade and pinball companies we still know of today. Gottlieb, Bally, Midway, and Williams all began in the city. Games included shooting galleries, grip or strength testers, fortune telling machines, and even stationary bicycles.

At this time, arcade games were first seen as a front for gambling (which we discussed in an earlier article here). It was seen as a corrupting influence on children, which probably sounds familiar to children of the eighties who heard similar things in video arcades. Pinball machines became legal again after the Supreme Court decision in 1974 turned the tide and allowed the acceptance of them, but the 1970s also brought a new wave of games.

arcade games

The Rise of Video Arcades

The first commercially available arcade game was called ‘Computer Space’ and was released in 1971 but wasn’t successful in the marketplace. The creators, Dabney and Bushnell, went on later to found Atari. They went back to the drawing board and created Pong in 1972, which was actually a remake of a computer game called “Tennis for Two” that was made back in 1958, far earlier than many retro enthusiasts could remember. The success of Pong caused the demand of video arcade games to explode.

Video games overtook pinball machines as they were much easier to maintain and repair due to the lack of moving parts. Technology continued to progress through the 1970s, which allowed video games to become more complex. It brought us to the height of video arcade games and the classic ones we know and love including Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. “By 1981, there were approximately 24,000 full arcades…” This growth ended up being a double edged sword– more machines were being ordered than players could sustain.

The popularity of video game arcades fell sharply due to several reasons such as a saturation in the market resulting in lower quality games culminating in the universally hated E.T. tie-in game and the mounting moral objections to video game arcades. Just as pinball machines were seen as contributing to juvenile delinquency, the accusations to arcades continued with the added argument that video games were increasing violence in teens and children. Home consoles such as the NES definitely didn’t help the arcades, but they weren’t the sole reason either.

Arcades Evolving — The 1990s to the Present

While arcades were declining in popularity, they were still prominent in shopping malls. Arcades made a comeback in the 1990s with fighting games such as Street Fighter, but it also brought back the arguments of violence in games. Games in the 2000s were often racing games, dancing games such as Dance Dance Revolution, and other games that were immersive and not easily replicated on a home console.

Modern franchises like The Main Event, Dave & Buster’s, and Chuck E. Cheese, still have a heavy emphasis on video arcade games, but don’t have the same aesthetic or atmosphere of the arcade games we remember from our childhoods.

Some bars are actually focusing on arcade games as their main draw. These bars, called ‘barcades,’ serve as a throwback to everything we love and remember. Arcades may never have the same place in our culture that they used to, but video arcade games live on in restaurants and bars throughout the United States and the Ames area.


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