Arcade Heroes Happy National Video Arcade Day 2024!

Posted by Ongames247 on June - 28 - 2024


Today is June 27th and that means its National Video Arcade Day! Why today? Because it’s Atari’s birthday, and that’s as good a mark as any to denote when video arcades got their start (yes, PONG wouldn’t launch until later in 1972, but since we don’t have an exact date there, their incorporation date works). While it’s probable that had Atari not existed that someone would have mass produced popular video arcades, they were the first to make it a reality, so that’s why I say it should be today.

Video Arcades 50 Years Ago

This is a good time to highlight a few particular arcade anniversaries, so we can also cover efforts from other companies who have shaped both arcades and video games. Atari shouldn’t get all the glory – but they are hard to avoid back in ’74.

1974 was not the busiest year for video games in general – consoles as we know them didn’t exist yet, and among the arcade developers that were on the scene, most were content at ripping PONG off for a quick buck.

Atari themselves released games like Quadrapong, which was the second four player game they had done after ’73s Pong Doubles. Still, everyone including Atari was realizing that they’d need more than PONG to grow, but due to some weird distributor setups on the market at the time, they ended up creating a separate division called Kee Games to get around that. Kee was Atari but would release games under a different name – they’d develop some games on that side too. One notable PONG clone released this year was Flim-Flam by Meadows Games. This 4-player game had “flim” and “flam” buttons to make the ball wobble and be a little more interesting than the norm. Why its notable is that it was made by Ted Dabney – one of Atari’s co-founders who had recently been ousted from the company by Nolan Bushnell.

Flim Flam

The biggest hit of ’74 was arguably Tank, produced under the Kee Games name and one that saved the whole company from bankruptcy. Tank was also the first game to use a ROM for its graphics data. A lot of people mistaken this for Combat, which was basically a port of Tank and Atari’s Jet Fighter arcade game for their Atari 2600 console.

Other firsts that Atari had this year was Gran Trak 10 – the first driving video game that caused massive losses at Atari due to some poor management and budgeting on its development. Gran Trak would later turn into Sprint – as a note for June 27th, 2024, Atari released NeoSprint to PC today.

Speaking of driving games, here’s where we can talk about someone who wasn’t Atari – Taito released Speed Race in ’74. This was the first driving game created by a Japanese company and was essentially the first driving game for the market there, since Gran Trak likely didn’t make it over to Japan at the time. Speed Race employed an effect that could be called vertical scrolling, being the first game I’m aware of to do so. This game would be brought to the US by Midway and given the name Wheels.

Then, there was a little known company that released their own driving game this year and it appears to have used analog joysticks – as well as a color monitor. While Electra’s Pace Car Pro wouldn’t be the first color game to exist, but its noteworthy for the rarity alone.

Atari also released their first light-gun game this year(which I believe is the first light-gun video game where all of the graphics were digital), called QWAK!. This is Duck Hunt, just in B&W and 10 years before Nintendo’s version. It came in a small cabinet with a big screen and it used a duck call mechanism inside of it.

Last but not least for ’74 was another game you might have not heard about called Ramtek. They released a game called Clean Sweep, which is very much a predecessor to the block-breaking games like Breakout and Arkanoid which would come later. Instead of bricks you were just hitting dots, which were spread out across the screen.

40 Years Ago

1984 was a great year for the US economically, but that prosperity missed the video game industry. As I’ve been researching my arcade history book, I found that ’84 was a worse year than ’83 was. A lot of operators went bankrupt due to the bad debt they had taken on in ’81 and ’82, and among the many other issues at play, ’84 was the heart of the “Great Game Crash.” Atari would be split into two companies, Atari Corp. (home games) and Atari Games (coin-op), while Nolan Bushnell would try to make a comeback in the industry with his Sente system, which was bought out by Bally Midway almost as soon as it had launched. Several other companies would barely survive – or go bankrupt – this year, driven by poor sales or by blowing too much money chasing the Laserdisc unicorn.

While Dragon’s Lair had been a sensation the year prior, the gas had already run out of the boat, but the problem was it took so long to develop a game and animating it was expensive. A few laserdisc games were still released this year, such as Atari’s Firefox (their only LD game), Data East’s Cobra Command, Sega’s GP World or Universal’s Super Don Quix-ote. But several others were cancelled, so that the whole idea of LD games saving the industry was silly by the time the year ended.

This was also the era of the conversion kit, the most economic way to do business in an industry where there were too many game cabinets, so few operators wanted to waste money on buying another box to take up space. It made more sense to just swap the guts out and reinvigorate the cabinet, and it was vastly cheaper to do so. Many of the games mentioned here will have been available mainly as kits. This was also when Nintendo released their Vs. system which would become a big hit, thanks to the fact that it had a bunch of games that were only a few hundred dollars in price (and at the time, exclusive to arcades).

Speaking of Nintendo, ’84 is when various Japanese companies began to flex their creative muscle. While Nintendo would soon turn their main focus to the home, they released a couple of big hits before the NES: Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!! More advanced than the later NES version, this boxing game and its 3rd person behind-the-back view was one of the most influential games of the ’80s. It was also striking to see a cabinet with two monitors, one which served as the billboard for the game and was something you couldn’t recreate at home with your console.

punch-out nintendo

Sega’s take on the boxing sport was a little less exciting and visually appealing, but Champion Boxing would still do well in Japan. It was the first game designed by Yu Suzuki. Suzuki would soon become Sega’s star game designer, launching them into becoming an industry giant. Just note that in ’84, things weren’t looking that great at Sega, particularly after David Rosen had resigned and the US side of the company had been sold off to Bally. But they’d still keep busy in Japan, developing other titles like Flicky, SWAT, Future Spy (only available as a Zaxxon kit), and others that Sega fans don’t generally cite when they think of Sega in the ’80s.

While there were a few sports games (baseball, wrestling, golf, etc.), the influence of Track & Field was still prevalent. Konami themselves had Circus Charlie as a unique variation to the concept while companies like Taito would create The Undoukai, Sun Electronics would do Strength & Skill, and British company called Century Electronics had Hunchback Olympics.

This was a good year for some early shoot ’em ups, as we saw Capcom release 1942, a WW2-themed game that would become a franchise; SNK had shooters like Vanguard II; Data East had Zaviga; Taito had Fire Battle; Saibu Denshi had Scion, and there were plenty more. This style of game fit pretty well with the kit idea.

For the American side of things, the wind was well out of their sails, but that didn’t mean they were idle. Atari would release I, Robot, the first full 3D game (I recently learned that it wasn’t the first to use flat-shaded polygons in real-time, that honor goes to the obscure laserdisc game, Cube Quest, but I, Robot was the first to go all the way with all of the game objects being 3D), then later as Atari Games, they would create Marble Madness and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I, Robot was also the last game released under the Atari Inc. entity.

Bally Midway as mentioned kept busy by using all of the wealth they’d acquired before things had crashed to scoop up some companies. They launched a lot of games this year, but they just didn’t have as many memorable titles to go off of, although there were exceptions to that with games like Two Tigers, which used some cool joysticks and had an 8-track player for some sounds. Otherwise, they did have games like Timber and Zwackery, the latter being an oddball platformer that used the Discs of Tron controls. From the Bally Sente side, Snake Pit and Hat Trick were solidly fun games, but they weren’t enough to keep that particular division afloat for very long.

Overall, ’84 had games, its just that not as many people were going out to play them as they used to. Fortunately for pinball, that provided an opportunity to see it start rising, where it would do so into the 90s. Speaking of which…

30 Years Ago

Since I’m running low on time and the day’s almost over, I’m going to do more summarizing here.

I can remember ’94 much better than I can recall ’84, something that I’m sure those who were in the arcade industry at both times are also happy to do. By this time the market was reaching the height of the 1v1 fighting game (I’ll just call them fighters). Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat had already made a big impact on the scene, so this year is when some others caught up on the genre while others started to lean harder into 3D games, particularly driving games since Daytona USA was still generating huge revenues at this point.

For the fighters, this year say the release of Midway’s Killer Instinct which used pre-rendered graphics while Atari Games’ Primal Rage used stop motion animation from digitized graphics (and dinosaurs). Killer Instinct certain had a longer shelf life that resulted in a sequel, while Primal Rage 2 would be axed. Namco and Sega both launched 3D fighters, Tekken in Namco’s case and Virtua Fighter 2 in Sega’s.

Driving games also gained prominence in ’94; Midway with Cruis’n USA, that Eugene Jarvis saw as bringing OutRun energy to the 3D realm; Konami would release Racing Force which blended some polygons with voxels; Namco was busy here with Ace Driver & Ridge Racer 2; and Taito had games like Chase Bombers.

A few of light-gun games were prominent, such as Konami’s Lethal Enforcers II, Midway’s Revolution X, and Sega’s Jurassic Park. American Laser Games also had a few laserdisc based light-gun games which did well, although games like that would soon take a back seat to pre-rendered graphics and 3D shooters.

’94 would be a little bit of an oddball in a blend of 2D and 3D games that didn’t fit into those genres mentioned above. For the 2D side, Electronic Arts would release one of their few arcade games in the beat ’em up Battletoads; Atari Games produced a pseudo-3D take on BattleZone with T-Mek (one of my personal favorites from this year); then Taito had some cute games with Puzzle Bobble and Space Invaders DX. Then on the 3D side you had Namco had their own 3D answer to what Atari did with T-Mek in Cyber Commando while Sega had Desert Tank and Wing War.

I’d do 20 years, but since I’m short on time with some other things I need to be doing, we’ll leave it there. What’s your favorite game among these years?



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