Hello everybody! This one is a project that I have been trying to do for some few years, originally as a video project, but in the meantime I will deploy this mammoth research into a blogpost, after having forgot to maintain this place :p
This topic will be split in several parts, to both keep the information organized and also avoiding procrastination (something I attempted to do these months), and in this introduction, I will give you a quick preface about the topic of the Evolution of Arcade Hardware and Technology, as well as the reasons behind covering this, and also several terms that will be found often later on here, in case you aren’t familiar with them.
Overview of the terminology
Before anything, it should be important to know what are the things that will be talked about, from components and parts that are used and upgraded along the years, to certain kind of terms that are used more than once, that have a bit of a complicated meaning but the context where its used is important to understand the leaps being made.
- Electronic game: Game that employs electronics on a playable interactive system. Video games are one kind, but it involves many other kind of machines, like pinball machines and redemption games (be it claw/crane games or skeeball and basketball games).
- Electro-mechanical game: Arcade games that relied on electro-mechanical components to produce images and sounds instead of a monitor display.
- Video game: Electronic game, controlled through an input device and plugged to a monitor and speakers; the most common type of game nowadays (and these are now often simply referred to as “games”).
- Central Processing Unit (CPU): In basic terms, it is the main processing unit of any hardware, be it a computer, console, arcade board, etc. Essentially the main engine of any electronic device.
- Microprocessor: A single chip that acts as the central processing unit, doing the processor tasks. Instead of CPUs, these were the processors that existed and were used on the earliest years.
- Transistor-transistor logic: In simplified terms, hardware that is powered by integrated circuits (chips) connected and programmed through logic, instead of storing data or using processors. This approach was broadly used at the beginning of arcade game history.
- Graphic Processing Unit (GPU): Special hardware unit designed to handle all graphic calculations and display operations. The term is also often used to refer to video cards, which were cards with a similar purpose that could be added to computers.
- Monitor: Hardware used to display images from a connected device. There are many kinds of monitor technologies, like CRT, LCD and Plasma.
- Cathode-ray tube (CRT): Technology made with electron guns and phosphorescent glass screen to display images. The predominant technology for TVs and monitors from the past years, and still used by some nowadays for their monitors for retro gaming, as older games took advantage of the slightly blurry image for dithering and mesh transparency.
- Bilinear filtering: Smoothing out pixels from a display or 3D texture. Easiest example is comparing Nintendo 64 textures (smooth) to PS1 textures (pixelated).
There’s also the mention of Dithering and Mesh Transparency; to have a proper visual explanation about these shading techniques, you can check Displaced Gamers video about Genesis Dithering and Matt Greer’s article about Sega Saturn Transparency, about how consoles took advantage of blurry output quality to add color shading (and transparency before true transparency was a thing), techniques heavily used all the way until the Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast.
An introduction to the topic
So, if we are going to talk about Arcade Hardware, we should know about arcade games. Arcade games is a term that almost always refers to coin-operated games on amusement parks and public establishments, be them pinball machines, electromechanical games, or video games. The nature of arcade games relies on that you can use your coins (or credits through special coins or a card, in some arcade places) to play a fun game on the spot, be it throwing basketballs into a hoop, shooting away zombies, racing on NASCAR tracks, whatever happens to be the machines you stumbled upon.
The detail of the variety of genres you can find in arcade games is noteworthy, as a difference from a console or computer, is that you don’t play with a standard controller or a keyboard, but instead with whatever the machine offers you, often being appropiate with the game context: Not only you can find your standard joystick (or dual-joystick) and buttons setup; you can also stumble with Light-gun controllers which you use to shoot at whatever enemies come at you, a steering wheel with a seat, pedals and a gear shifter for racing games, a trackball which you can roll, replicas of bikes, motoroboats, and even setups similar to snow and water skis for the corresponding games.
Of course, there would be much more exotic input methods in more unorthodox games (mostly on rhythm games), like dance pads, a big drum and sticks, a turntable, maracas, buttons arranged around a touchscreen, and even a fishing rod (yes, and fishing rod); not counting electromechanical games where you have to aim and shoot at targets, or the aforementioned example of having to throw basketballs into a hoop under a time limit. On some of the crazier ideas, you had a big table for a table-flipping game, and also two huge pressure buttons for the very first cabinet of Street Fighter (which thankfully would later get replaced with the standard 6-buttons that would become a mainstay in the series).
Now, while a good amount of standard arcade games used joystick and buttons, this aspect is something that could be said to be unique to the arcade experience, often made for the game and to be enjoyed with as best as possible. While peripherals for home consoles exist for several of these special inputs (racing wheels, light-guns, dance pads and other rhythm game controllers), obtaining these special controllers could sometimes end up being a bit of a pretty penny to obtain (or in the case of light-guns, would require you to have a CRT TV or monitor; at least until Sinden Lightgun comes out), and it would be cheaper to play the game in your local mall and enjoy the full experience, instead of having to buy the peripheral or play it with a standard controller.
Another fun thing about arcade cabinets is the design: As these would be found on a line of other games, or in the corner of a concurrent place, the design would have to be eye-catching for people to check the game out, with artwork being showcased as the sides, though later on as many arcade games would be reusable in an older cabinet, it could be often to see similar looking cabinets for different games, specially today. In the case of racing games, these could often be seen as “twin” cabinets, with two cabinets together, and the design acommodating it, as having twin cabinets meant that you could have two players linked in a game (and more if you linked extra cabinets).
In some cases though, mostly from SEGA in racing and flight games, bigger sized seats (some with moving seats on top of that) would be avaliable as alternatives to the standard twin cabinets, like with SEGA Deluxe-sized cabinets (often a seat that is modeled to a playable car, instead of just the seat) like with Daytona USA 2 Deluxe cabinets, as well as multi-screen setups (often three-screens; two on the sides) like with Ridge Racer and F355 Challenge. In the most egregious cases, there could be suspended moving cabinets that tilt along with the game actions, like Initial D Version 3 Cycraft, F-Zero AX Monster Ride, and probably one of the craziest setups out there, the R360 cabinets, for both Wing War 360 and G-LOC: Air Battle, in which the whole cabinet could rotate 360 degrees in all directions during gameplay.
Many arcade games are beloved and have their own communities on the internet, not only because of the rise of emulation allowing these games to be playable (outside of official ports) and people remembering their arcade experience, but also because of how several of these games kept a steady following, mainly with fighting games (where you could end up being challenged by someone else during a single player run) and racing games (people going for the fastest times). With both the consumers satisfied, with the amount of options and fun experiences to be had, and arcade operators and owners having a rentable business, it is fair to say that many have been happy with the existence of arcade games.
Why evolution of arcade hardware?
You see, big part of arcade games were video games, and the evolution of the arcade industry giving a glimpse of things to come as technology marched on with an early start. Arcade hardware evolving not only meant more ideas for games being possible, but also giving players of those years a sense of groundbreaking presentation paired with fun gameplay, as well as allowing more input methods for creative gameplay styles.
To put it simply, arcade games had cutting edge technology as it came to be, starting from the decade of 1960 with the first arcade games, as consoles and computers would take years to have the same games, but the arcades would keep evolving, getting to 16-bit when the consoles were 8-bit, getting to 32-bit when consoles were 16-bit, and having impressive 3D graphics when the fifth generation consoles were still on preliminary steps. On context, games like Ridge Racer and Daytona USA were already out in 1993, and 3D home consoles wouldn’t be avaliable until the next year, where there still would be a big difference in graphics (though sometimes there would be clear changes because of issues in the porting process). This would also apply to 2D games on hardware like the NeoGeo and Capcom CPS2, which would need compromises to get ported to home consoles.
The arcade generation was always many steps ahead from what was avaliable at home, and while ports existed, it always was a tough process to keep everything from the original, specially with 3D games, which wouldn’t be matched until the sixth generation of videogame consoles, starting with the Dreamcast.
The Dreamcast would be capable of handling ports of several of the newest 2D and 3D arcade games, including NEOGEO latest releases (King of Fighters 98, Garou Mark of the Wolves), Capcom CPS3 (Street Fighter III, Jojo Bizarre Adventure), and SEGA Model 3 (Virtua Fighter 3, Fighting Vipers 2, Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram); so not only the Dreamcast could have the same games as the arcade with excellent results, but also it spawned arcade hardware based on itself: The SEGA NAOMI would receive many games, which would get directly ported to the SEGA Dreamcast thanks to the shared hardware. Similarly, not only the other consoles from that generation, the Gamecube, Playstation 2, and Xbox, were also capable of the same feats, but also spawned arcade hardware based on themselves: SEGA Triforce, Namco System 246/256 and SEGA Chihiro.
At this point, you can notice two trends: Arcade hardware being rivaled by console hardware, and console hardware being used for creating arcade hardware. This would end up being replaced, however, by computer hardware: By the time Dreamcast was out, the PC scene was already having blockbusters like Doom, Quake, Unreal Tournament, and Half Life; and with many of the great games spawned, several games would be ported to the Dreamcast too, with some things actually needing to be cut down due to the lack of networking support and even hardware limitations.
It wouldn’t take long though that PC hardware would evolve exponentially too, with technologies like DirectX9 in 2003, and games like Half-Life 2 being nearby, that the case of computer-derivated hardware being used for arcade machines, like with the Taito Type X series, and even with SEGA Lindbergh, RingWide and RingEdge, and Namco System ES series (ES1, ES2, ES3, etc) using either Windows or Linux on top of computer hardware, making it possible that their games are playable on normal PCs now through certain tools.
In this oncoming long ride, there will be a rundown about the very first arcade games (and the very first video games for that matter), the steps that happened on each year from going from transistor-to-transistor logic to using customized hardware, the strides made on each hardware upgrade from each arcade manufacturer, the hardware that powered some of the highest-selling arcade games of all time, the standards created along the way, the clear difference between the arcade hardware and the trailing console (and computer) hardware as well as ports, and the time when consumer-made hardware would end up catching up, and then replacing custom made hardware as it would be cheaper to create and easier to port to the original consumer counterparts.
So what’s the approach?
As previously mentioned, this will probably be split in some parts, and the years for each important step in arcade hardware evolution would be mentioned one-by-one, focusing on whatever addition was brought to the table; in certain cases elaborating about standards or conventions brought in a certain year that would be mass adopted later on, and about certain hardware details. On top of that, there will be notes about games that were influential to the video game industry themselves, on the topic of mechanics, presentation, and overall innovation, emphasizing both the importance of the games, and also the hardware that made their existence possible.
It is my intention to be able to bring a extensive coverage about this, as I always have been passionate to know about arcade games and hardware, and thus I will be pouring all what I can find on these, and it would be great to see support for more things like this in the future from other people. In any case, I hope that you enjoy what is going to come up, starting from Part 1, where there will be a rundown about the very first video games, the very first arcade games, the additions that were appearing for first time on a yearly basis, and of course, how arcade games would come up to be both a driving force in technology and in entertainment (as well as covering how the consumer hardware stacked up to what was avaliable then).
Where can I check out the whole thing?
Each section will be progressively avaliable as they get redacted, and later on, avaliable all as links in a single page (as well as the follow up being linked in the previous part). However, currently there isn’t any avaliable, so you’ll have to hold on to check out the very first part here.
If you want to know when an update is done, keep an eye on here, and you can check out as well my Twitter, where I should announce any updates to the blog (including about the Evolution of Arcade Hardware and Technology). I hope that you enjoy this!