Video games have followed along parallel tracks for much of their existence. The power and possibility of hardware defined the zones of home console, home computer, arcade games, and handheld electronics since the late 1970s. Each platform had a specific expectation and in time grew out to be differentiated in the types of experiences they excelled at.
In the beginning though, it was all about the arcade.
Being the first medium in which video games were broadly introduced, there was always an obsession with replicating the coin-op games as a standard for all other forms of interactive electronic entertainment. Ever since the introduction of Atari’s VCS in 1977 this was the explicit goal of home games in particular. Mimickry was not just a form of flattery, it was necessary to get people interested in home video games to begin with. Up until the late 1990s, an arcade experience at home was of enormous appeal to broad playerbases both casual and hardcore. There were many attempts – both direct and indirect – to transplant arcade hardware into a home setting, but what about the other way around?
It may seem bizarre to translate consumer affordable hardware to stand against the best of the arcade, but there were some distinct advantages to it. Namely, the production schedule for new games is much shorter than for cutting edge coin-operated games. This would mean that operators could have new games at a much cheaper price without having to buy a new cabinet. You may recall this dynamic from my previous post, speaking about the push by David Rosen for the adoption of kits across the industry, which was rejected by the middleman distributors. The same issues would rear their heads whenever the question of consoles and arcades interacting came into the picture.
Starting at the very beginning, the first application of home-bound technology to an arcade system was from RCA, an extension of the COSMAC 1800 series processor which most famously created the RCA Studio II. As part of the exploration of applications and games built by Joseph Weisbecker and his team, in early 1975 RCA tested two arcade machines at a Pennsylvania mall. While technically not adapting an existing home console product, these two games – Swords and Mines – were based on technology very comparable to the final specs of the RCA Studio II and the COSMAC VIP. These FREDTRONIC (or FREDOTRONIC) games were first of their kind in many regards, but because they never entered mass production they never challenged the notion of separation between these realms.
The first person to rock the boat on this topic would not be one of the manufacturers, but a California-based operator named Gene Beley. Beley has had a rather extraordinary life all on his own, but in the 1970s he became a location manager in the coin-op field. He was there right from the beginning, being the first ever person noted to have a Pong machine as well as a Computer Space, so he was quick to grasp the new trends coming into the industry. As a correspondent for the publication Play Meter, Gene tackled many important topics in the early video game field such as quarter play, the brief cocktail table fad, and expanding coin-op legality.
In 1978, Beley tried an experiment by hooking up several home consoles to a self-contained unit with custom controls, a coin actuator, and a television set. He first tried and Atari Video Pinball system, then a VCS, and finally a Bally Professional Arcade. The ironic thing with using a Bally Professional Arcade was that the console was directly based on the arcade hardware developed by Dave Nutting Associates, though it had to make some compromises on resolution. While not directly converted, the games did look nearly as good as their arcade counterparts, and in some ways were superior because not all games in 1978 were color. Selling this experiment as getting the hot new games for only $30, Beley not only created more than one unit but actually sold one of the VCS cocktails to actor Harvey Korman.
There were of course legal issues with these converted boxes, such as not being able to be marketed under trademarked names. In some ways, the coin-op industry saw this as a sort of retaliation against the split attention of companies like Atari and Bally in creating home-directed products. What better way than to reclaim them? The most virulent reaction though was that of disgust towards Beley. Not only did distributors abhor his DIY solutions which bypassed their quality control, manufacturers were utterly mortified about their high-end products being undermined by these piddling home games. According to Beley, Atari was so furious that they cut advertisement from Play Meter for several years afterwards over the article. Beley mostly left the coin-op industry afterwards on got highly into robotics.
The industry was well and scared after this event and no publicized attempts to do similar hacks were attempted during the early 80s period, though some experiments like the Vectrex Mini-Cade have been discovered. In 1983, the traditional structure of the coin-op industry was challenged when oversupply of arcade cabinets led to the adoption of kit games. Concurrent with this were the idea of dedicated systems which could play multiple games mostly from the company that supplied the system. There was the DECO Cassette System from Data East, the G80 system from Sega, Convertible Video System from Century Electronics, and others. The most successful of this early lot though was the Nintendo VS System, based in part on the Japanese Family Computer.
The VS System was not a direct conversion from the Famicom as it – like the Bally Professional Arcade counterpart – had additional capability to make games like Duck Hunt look better than the console versions. It was one step in the direction though, and after Nintendo exited the arcade market in Japan in 1985 the American office decided to keep releasing games with minimal additional effort from the R&D in Japan. To this end, the Playchoice-10 system was created, a Famicom/NES system hardware which could play games directly off the cartridge. While one couldn’t just stick a retail cartridge into the machine – as a few modifications were necessary like adding rules and adjustable time limits – the games at their code level were identical to the retail versions. They also released games from third party companies, not just Nintendo developed cartridges. Nintendo found the Playchoice systems to be a coup, serving as advertisement for their home division, most notably with an early release of Super Mario Bros 3.
Imitating this model, Sega would release two systems based on the Sega Mega Drive hardware platform. The Mega-Tech played mostly retail-standard games and users purchased time, essentially making it a demo kiosk. The later Mega Play had its games altered for arcade release to have proper adjustment of lives and difficulty. Nintendo would also follow up on the Playchoice-10 with their release of the Nintendo Super System, running the Super Nintendo hardware. It would, fatefully, be the last arcade product produced by Nintendo itself before they shut down its North American arm in 1992.
With the arcade benchmark remaining an important target for the consoles of the 1980s, the 16-bit consoles would always attempt to ape arcade quality graphics. The one console that set itself apart in that – by necessity – was the PC Engine/Turbografx-16. The library had a few Namco arcade and home ports but was largely in its own original realm, though with games still tied to the arcade tradition in many ways. The US coin-op market which had been transformed by system hardware like the Neo-Geo MVS and Capcom CPS was looking at the home with both excitement and trepidation, so the potential of these original games to draw people to the arcade was a potential new prospect.
NEC partnered with a small manufacturer called United Artists Theater Amusements to create the TurboGrafx-16 System in 1989. Little more than the most basic of boards with modified game cards to prevent from retail software purchase, the distributor was selling the system for $995 for a single hardware and game. While they banked on an expanding software library from American developers like Cinemaware, none of the benefits of the particular games in their library were well exemplified by the arcade setting. The operators were annoyed by NEC’s tepid half-measures and the system was discontinued in 1990.
Things would become vastly more complicated in the 1990s. With the rapid change of technology resulting in a revival of dedicated arcade hardware rather than system designs, it became less and less likely that coin-op companies were going to use home-based hardware if they wanted to stand out. New paradigms seemed to be on the horizon every month, so being bolted to an unchanging hardware seemed like a wrong-headed move. Neo Geo was probably the last majorly successful step in this line. Of course it had its direct home conversion, the AES – which is worth mentioned – but it was intended as an arcade system first and the price reflected that.
Advertising which mentioned the arcade started to play an increasingly minor role in shifting consoles, but it was still present. Most famously the N64 claimed to be the basis for the arcade games Killer Instinct and Cruisin’ USA, but that was basically a total lie. CD systems promised to bring new possibilities to the arcade as well. American Laser Games would create a modified 3DO hardware to offer low-cost versions of their games to arcades, though they only ever shipped a few units. Even later on when CD technology got very cheap, systems like the CD-i were modified into custom arcade hardware.
Most of these attempts needed an extra boost to compete with arcade developers’ desire to push the envelope even with the ease of compatibility in development from one side to the other. The CoJAG system had a different processor variant, the Aleck64 had extra RAM, and the Namco System 11 is just the barest bit incompatible with the Sony PlayStation. The only company which stuck to its direct translation format was Sega, who would transfer their Saturn hardware into the ST-V Titan system. It used a cartridge-based system for reliability rather than disks, meaning that Sega did have the create directly modified games for it. Despite the general failure of the Saturn, the ST-V was one of the best supported system hardwares in terms of number of games. While the system was never very popular in the US, it did serve as the basis for standalone successes like Die Hard Arcade and Radiant Silvergun.
Following this era, with the arcade in decline, the requirement to keep games in constant rotation became less desirable than having standout features. 3D hardware in the home started to outstrip much of the development in the arcade so some custom hardware was created based on these disk-based systems. The unreleased 3DO follow up known as the M2 was used as the basis for several games by Konami and Sega turned its Dreamcast console into the NAOMI platform. After Sega was purchased by Sammy, they did create a low-cost system which was directly compatible with Dreamcast called the Atomiswave servicing street locations. This was especially surprising as the Dreamcast had been discontinued for two years.
Part of the reason it’s worth examining this trend of console-to-coinop translations is because it gives us some indication of how things were probably done in a lot of undocumented instances as well. While not having a lot of data on Europe for instance, there’s strong indications that operators in those countries created DIY solutions using off-the-shelf consoles. Take for instance a group of Italian entrepreneurs who put together systems based on the Amiga CD32! Or maybe the unofficial Spanish Turbografx-16 system. No doubt this happened in other less developed markets as well, not to mention custom arcade hardware built by early pioneers that have vanished into the ether. The early echoes of Weisbecker and Beley rippling across the ages.
This specific focus on home-first solutions helps us understand the dynamics of the arcade industry as it related to mass market players. What I see in some of this data is why the thesis that mere access to games in the home killed the arcade is frankly ridiculous. Throughout the 1980s, arcade games demanded so much respect that the top players felt it necessary to make their games available there and provide custom solutions for that environment. It may even help prove that graphical fidelity was not the final nail in the coffin either. The majority of home-based hardware felt it necessary to extend the base capabilities in order to achieve their ambitions which called for a push in high resolution.
Now in the days of the majority of arcade games being PC-based as well as the increasing separation of console and location-based experiences, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see this sort of cross-mingling on a large scale again. However, models of timed play first pioneered in these custom cabinets can be seen in PC cafes all over the world. It’s an important step to examine in the history of a subject like game demos or early previews as well as general player demographics. If nothing else, I hope it gives you some deeper appreciation for what makes these two side of the video game industry different but still inextricably intertwined.
(Special thanks to Kevin Bunch, Mr^Burns, and Sczther at the Gaming Alexandria Discord for helping me come up with some examples of hardware.)