Terminator 2- Judgment Day - John Connor plays an arcade game
Terminator 2- Judgment Day - John Connor plays an arcade game
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 31 Aug 2021

The Arcade Era of Videogames

History Pop culture Videogames
Arieh Offman
Arieh Offman

Programmer (Public Programs), ACMI

Search the couch cushions for coins, because we're heading to the arcade.

The arcade era was a period of enormous innovation which birthed iconic franchises such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong (which also featured the first appearance of Mario) and Asteroids.

More than gaming spaces, arcades were popular social meeting places, where friends gathered around the neon glow to navigate mazes, jump barrels and dodge alien lasers in the heroic pursuit of a high score. The impact and influence of the arcade lives on, revisited on screen as the pixel-powered, synth-beating heart of the 80s.


There was a time when a pocket full of change meant an amazing afternoon, when entertainment was powered by pixels and high scores created by local heroes. This was the era of the arcade: the golden age of videogames.

Our love of videogames began with a little game named Pong, and soon the overflowing cash boxes helped pave the way for many icons of the industry.

[Newsreader]: Well they come as if from outer space in a variety of weird guises, Defender, Pac-Man, Asteroids...

and Jumpman, that plucky little plumber who'd soon be famous by another name.

The years between 1978 and 83 are generally considered the golden age of videogames. It was the era of fluoro parachute pants, Sony Walkmans and the birth of MTV, when a Ferrari Testarossa was the ultimate status symbol and the sound of synthesizers flowed from every speaker.

Initially seedy bars and smoke-filled halls housed the burgeoning videogames industry but pretty soon they needed a true home of their own: the arcade.

The popularity of videogames meant that arcades weren't just a place to check out the latest game. They were the place where you'd meet and hang out with your mates, to take your date, or if your mum forced you, your little brother or sister.

[Reporter]: Yellow creature gobbles dots while being pursued through maze by monsters... In suburban Franklin Park you'll find Midway Manufacturing feverishly turning out 350 Pac-Man games every day in three different cabinet styles.

The pizza shaped protagonist of Pac-Man was specifically designed to appeal to girls

[Clip from Friends]: Oh my god Phoebe you're on fire!

I know!

This changed the way that we viewed arcades. No longer were they seedy smoke-filled dens of iniquity. They were a place for everyone.

The golden age was a period of technical innovation. Driving games had steering wheels and pedals and even hydraulics that jolted you around as you swerved or crashed on screen. Vector graphics in games such as Tempest and the classic Star Wars arcade cabinet wowed players with their crisp lines and faux 3D art style.

Videogame manufacturers in the 1970s didn't have the luxury of butter smooth graphics or giant quad core processors. They were limited by the humble pixel. Big blocky thing that could be seen from the other side of the room.

When it came time to design typography and lettering, they had to think in terms of squares. The result: an entire generation of arcade fonts were born. The most influential font is called Atari Quiz Show and you've probably seen it thousands of times, usually in the form of "game over".

[Newsreader]: Videogames fever has prompted a number of businesses to try to cash in on that billion dollar craze. Book publishers and even movie producers are trying to make videogames pay off for them

As they became a part of popular culture videogames started appearing in movies, often when characters went to play in the arcades and by the 1980s they became central to the story. Typically in these films the otherwise virtual activities within videogames became tied to real world stakes and consequences, and the development of players' game skills became connected to some type of life or death conflict.

Arcades also appeared in a bunch of films at the time such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High...

[Clip from Never Say Never Again]: my name is Bond, James Bond.

... The Karate Kid and many more.

Outrun, released by Sega in 1986, redefined racing games and encapsulated the aesthetic of the 80s. The game's soundtrack was one of its most memorable features. It blended 80s arcade synth with Latin-esque beats and players could select tracks to race to, creating a personal connection between the player and the soundtrack. Inspired by the game, French electro artist Kavinsky named his debut album Outrun, which also happens to feature a Ferrari Testarossa on the cover. Kavinsky is most known for his notable synth pop sounds inspired by 80s arcade games. His song 'Night Call' was featured in the Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is often drawn to neon hyper-saturated visuals reminiscent of the vaporwave aesthetic.

The TV series Stranger Things heavily incorporates synthpop into its audio soundscape. It features the scene with Dragon's Lair, the 1983 arcade game most famous for its graphics and eye-watering difficulty. Another reimagining of the era can be seen in the Black Mirror episode 'San Junipero'. The episode takes place in an ethereal vaporwave interpretation of a golden era arcade. We see the main character playing games like Bubble Bobble and Pac-Man.

Whilst arcades reached a peak in the 90s, the exponential improvement in home videogame hardware has seen a virtual death of the arcade at least in Western society. However, places such as Akihabara in Tokyo continue to show an ongoing fascination with the arcade, with a whole city block dedicated to capsule games, the brightest and shiniest new arcade technology.

While the golden age of the arcade may have come and gone, its impact and influence on videogames lives on.

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