Okay. So Andrew Sullivan linked to an essay discussing the death of the arcade… and I’ve got to say that the essay he linked to did not take into consideration the title of this particular essay.

When I was a kid you did, indeed, put quarters into video games. (Here’s the easiest trivia question in the world for you: What was the first “officially” two-quarter video game?) However, soon thereafter, you stopped putting quarters into the games and started putting tokens into the slots.

There were arcades all over town and we (that is, *MY* circle of peeps) had different rankings for different arcades… there was the arcade that had the best games (Tournament Cyberball 2072 needed to be included to make the grade for this one), the arcade that had the most PvP games (Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, and so on), and the arcade that gave the most tokens for the least money. Sure, most arcades gave 4 tokens for a dollar and 20 for five bucks… but the one next to the movie theater gave 25 for five dollars! *AND* they had Tournament Cyberball!!!! So that was the best arcade.

I digress.

In any case, if one found oneself at the arcade at the state fair or a cheapo amusement park or similar, one could find oneself in an arcade where not only did every game cost two tokens to play but the token machine gave 3 tokens for a dollar and you had to cash a fiver to get back to a decent ratio of tokens/dollars. Hey, even if you went home with tokens in your pocket, it’s not like you paid more than a quarter for them. Plus, maybe, you could use them at the mall.

So, no. It wasn’t the quarter that caused the death knell of video games in the US. It was greed.

Back in the 80’s, you could go into any given arcade and play any number of genres of video games. Shooters, jumpers, fighters, sports simulators, Tetris (and any number of offshoot puzzleish games), and, of course, whatever crazy stuff happened to be in the Neo-Geo upright.

There was one genre of video game that was found to keep people pumping in token after token after token… the “storyline” video game. Something like Final Fight or Captain Commando (or, much more cynically, Smash TV and it’s “sequel” Total Carnage) would give you a story to go along with the stuff on the screen. You’d fight this group of folks and get one step closer to the end goal of freeing the Mayor’s daughter or whatever… and, unlike infinite quarter/time suck Gauntlet, it was *POSSIBLE* to meet, fight, and beat the end boss and watch the closing credits tell you that you had won. This genre was doing pretty good until… Street Fighter II.

When Street Fighter II came out, folks lined up (and lined their tokens up) to play. Not against the system… not to read some digital text telling them well done… but to fight and *BEAT* the guy standing right next to them. Man vs. Man, 60 second round (not that you’d need 60 seconds), best 2 out of 3. Fight.

Assuming an average round of 45 seconds (high by about 10-15 seconds, if memory serves) you’d get someone yelling “CRAPOLA!” like they were an old lady playing Bingo and someone (maybe someone else) dropping a token every minute to two minutes. That’s $7-15 bucks an hour during peak time (and, when it first came out, peak time lasted all frickin’ day).

The industry (quickly!) learned that the most money to be made was not in side-scrolling storyline games (which, if you were lucky, had 2-3 obsessed folks playing until Magneto was beaten) but in a new token being dropped every 90 seconds. Let’s face it… in theory, two really skilled players could beat X-Men by themselves (in theory). But Street Fighter II? You’d have a token every minute and a half if there were two players there.

The focus ceased to be on games intended to make you keep playing, but games that made you want to (FINALLY) beat the sonova that kept killing you with Dhalsim. And every piece of real estate being taken up by Captain America and the Avengers is a piece of real estate that you cannot dedicate to yet another Street Fighter II SE (or Mortal Kombat, or Killer Instinct, or whatever the heck that dinosaur game was… Primal Rage). For those that didn’t like combat-combat, there were sports games like NBA Jam (or, technically, Cyberball but that was a much more intricate game… a “Go” to NBA Jam’s “Reversi/Othello”).

Meanwhile, at the same time, home consoles were providing the side-scrolling, and Tetrisy, and shooter, and jumper, and storyline games that we all fell in love with in the arcade but had since been relocationed due to the popularity of Street Fighter II (and pretenders).

So any given person knew: If you wanted to play an RPG? You stayed at home. If you wanted to play a side-scroller? You played at home. If you wanted to play a puzzle game? You played at home. If you wanted to play a guy who played Street Fighter II? Well, you went to the arcade next to the movie theater. Hey, where’s Cyberball? Oh… it got sold. Well, thanks, I guess. I guess I’ll just go home, then.

It was when, in the US, that video games ceased to be something that you played yourself and evolved into something that you played against someone else (and there were a *LOT* of tokens to be made in that, don’t get me wrong!) that folks who went to arcades for reasons other than Alpha Male status found that there was no place like home.

Hey, I can play Final Fantasy III for $50. That’s 5 saturdays at the arcade at the mall… and, you know what? It’ll take 5 Saturdays for me to beat it *AND* I can then beat it *AGAIN*. Hey. I can play Ultima VII. Hey, I can play Final Fantasy III. Hey, I can play Lunar. Hey, I can play Final Fantasy VII. Hey, I can play Dragon Warrior III. Hey, I can play Knights of the Old Republic (hey, you should play Knights of the Old Republic). Hey, I can play Dragon Age. (Hey, I can’t believe I’m writing this instead of playing Dragon Age II.)

Quarter/Token arcades ate their own seed corn. They squeezed every token they could out of the folks who went to play Street Fighter II (or its pretenders) and found that there was no one left likely to keep coming. People had grown out of the habit… because they knew that arcades were not for folks who liked shooters, or jumpers, or side-scrollers, or Tetrisy games. They were for fighters.

If arcades survive in Japan, it’s because you can go into any Japanese arcade and play a game suited to your particular tastes, even if you don’t want to play Chun Li again. In the US, the choices you had were between fighting games and not between genres… and that’s why they died out.

Well, except for the one at the mall. It’s got several Dance Dance Revolution games, for some reason. (Now *THAT* is one that I would *ONLY* play at home.)


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


  1. Dude, you’re bringing back memories. If there was a snowball’s chance of my giving up videogames for Lent, that chance has withered and faded.

    • This blog is a politics/religion/philosophy-free zone. However, it is not a hypothetical-free zone and here is the comment that I might have written if it were not a politics/religion/philosophy-free zone:

      God wants you to be happy, Kyle.

      He doesn’t want you to give up Video Games for Lent… he wants you to give up your 360 or PS3 for Lent and go back and play something like Dark Cloud or Knights of the Old Repulic for a month. After you beat that wonderful and delightful game, He wants you to come back to your modern-day consoles with a new appreciation of what you have today with a new appreciation of how far you have come. It’s not a “giving up” for Lent… it’s more of a “remembering” for Lent.

      • Alas, the latest in gaming technology I own is a PS2.

        • Then play Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VII, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

          And, for the love of Pete, get yourself AT LEAST a PS3. It has a Blu-Ray!

  2. The stuff I actually fantasize about doing at an arcade, I can do at an arcade in Japan. It costs about seventeen dollars for three hours with no coin b/s. Usually, I spend about thirty minutes just wielding two machine guns, crossing them wildly back and forth, not caring at all for accuracy or level advancement. This alone would cost be like eighty bucks in quarters in the U.S. After that, it’s time to move on to the game where I throw shuriken and the game where I hit frogs with fly-swatters.

    • We have an arcade called “Nickle a Play” that has a bunch of machines that cost, you guessed it, a nickle. There were also machines that were free to play (Smash TV, Total Carnage) and the newest, most cutting edgiest games cost five nickels. Skeeball costs a nickel, pinball costs a couple… stuff like that. But if you wanted to beat Smash TV, you could and all it’d cost you is the door fee… It cost you three bucks to get in. (Googling says that it’s up to $3.50, now. When did that happen?)

      • Well, I should add, it closed down here and moved up to Aurora.

  3. Another point I probably should make:

    Games like Dragon Age II have hours and hours and hours and hours of story. This does not work for an upright machine that you do not own. If you want to play an 80 hour game, your option is having the game system in your house.

  4. I grew up rural and later compared to you so I missed out on the arcade trend but your hypothesis seems plausible. That said even had they not gone exclusively PVP oriented the arcades were doomed anyhow; the population is too individualistic, too scattered and there was too much money to be made on home systems.

    • The home system allowed for evolution of games above and beyond what was possible in the arcade.

      In the arcade, you drop your quarter and, if you’re really good, you play for 5 minutes. Five bucks is a couple hours of entertainment.

      How many hours of play did Zork provide? Akalabeth? Wizardry?

      If you wanted good graphics, you went to the arcade. If you wanted depth of play, you played on your computer. As home consoles got more powerful than uprights, there was no real point to going to arcades unless it was for social (or Alpha Male) reasons.

      And with the advent of mmorpgs, you can get a facsimile of even those.

  5. For a while (maybe two weeks)after SF II came out, I was unbeatable playing Chun-Li. That’s right, the girl. She kicked ass. I could manage 10-12 victories in a row. Of course, then people actually got good at the game…

    Still, it was fun letting all those people pay for my games.

    • I was a Zangief man for a while, then became a Vega man when that option became available.

      Who was the one you used when you first beat Bison?

  6. ‘Grats Jay, Sillivan gave you a call out at the Dish. And Megan Mcardle dropped a comment on the main blog. The League’s growin up *sniff*.

    • We ain’t growin’ up here!!!

      That’s the point of this blog, I tell you what.

  7. This is exactly the reason why I stopped going to arcades: all of the games were player-versus-player fighting games with asinine controller combos that were ruled with an iron fist by sophomores in high school whose only talent in life was wailing on 5th graders in video games and being a jerk about it. For nerds like me, arcades were supposed to be places to escape bullying. Instead, Street Fighter, et al. seemed to help promote beef between people who had more than enough of it in the outside world.

    For what’s it’s worth, the most profitable video game my young arcade-going mind ever observed was the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles standup. I would see four dudes stuff token after token in that game until they beat it and when they did the four complete strangers who started the game were almost old army buddies and heroes in the arcade when they finished it. In retrospect, games that encouraged that kind of unique social interaction would have kept me going back to the arcade.

    • Yes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of the games that was just *BETTER* when you had all four players. When everybody had 10 bucks in tokens and they all knew that, yeah, the mission was to beat the game, it became an EVENT.

      What’s replaced it?

      Maribou and I used to play the PS2’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance game but that was just two player… Oh, MMORPGs. WoW does the group co-op thing now.

      I understand that Marvel Ultimate Alliance does the 4player thing, if you’re willing to use Live…

  8. I think the simpler version of this is just plain Moore’s Law. Home consoles/PCs got more powerful AND cheaper over time, eroding every advantage arcades had over at-home gaming.
    Street Fighter II was not the problem – it was just all they had left over home consoles – the ability to play a bunch of different people. At home in 1994 you were still limited to playing your buddy over and over again and surely one of you won 75% of the time so it got old and instead you took turns playing Super Star Wars or something.
    Not long after this home internet started to take off and PC gamers could play each other online and the N64 let you sit and get four friends together to play Mario Kart, Goldeneye or Mario Party all night at someone’s house/dorm room and there was pretty much nothing left for arcades since every reason to go to an arcade was taken away.

    • But Japanese arcades are still alive and kicking… despite how they have, I imagine, much more access to JRPGs than we have here.

      • With Japan I see a couple things:
        -Firstly the population density is -huge- and the living space is small. So if you’re living in a very small apartment or studio and your bed is also your couch and your dining room table the appeal of sitting at home with your console is diminished.
        -Secondly the population density is -huge- so any given arcade has a much larger potential customer base living within their business area.
        -Thirdly, from what I’ve read a lot of the arcade games in Japan are unusual ones that involve specialized tools like virtual throwing stars or large mallets and these are niches that large game systems in an arcade would excel at where home consoles would not easily imitate them.
        -Fourthly the Japanese culture seems to like gimmicks a bit more than the American one. So you have a game where you’re fighting virtual demons using huge plastic nun chucks attached to the game. An American looks and goes “Lame!” but the Japanese user may look and go “Cool!”
        -Fifthly the Japanese video game player has a broader demographic spread than Americans (though that gap has been narrowing with us moving towards them) so arcades not only have more people closer but also can draw in more than just teenagers and young adults.
        -Sixthly and finally, video games and anime is Japans’ mass culture. That is to say it’s something that they made. Hollywood movies, major league sports, etc… those are things from outside but the Japanese know that anime and video games were things that were either developed in or greatly innovated on in Japan. So those pursuits are, in a way, Japanese the way some other hobbies aren’t.

        • So it’s overdetermined?

          The only arcades that exist in Colorado Springs anymore are either at the mall or at the movie theater (high enough traffic to mitigate 1 or 2, I suppose) and made up of primarily games that are exceptionally gimmicky. Not just skee-ball and Dance Dance Revolution, but there’s a soccer ball kicking game, a spider stomping game, any number of carny gimmick games that dispense tickets (punching ducks, spinning wheels of fortune, that sort of thing) and the video games that are still around are fighters or light gun games (and the movie theater has Guitar Hero, for some reason)… which addresses 3 and 4 and 5, to some degree).

          When it comes to 6, that’s something that I had never considered. Does “from here” really generate that much good will? Golly.

        • The Japanese, I believe, do spend a considerably larger share of their discretionary income on video games than Americans as well.
          So, a very small percentage of that revenue being spent on the specialty-peripheral gaming, where arcades still outshine PCs/home consoles, plus the additional population density might support a larger niche arcade market.
          Plus I’m pretty sure Street Fighter 2 was pretty big in Japan.

  9. I’d disagree with you only to say that the reason I and my friends went to arcades is that the games were just plain better. People loved fighting games, and continue to love fighting games (see Smash Brothers and the recent Street Fighter IV revival of the genre), but fighting games on home consoles were terrible until the late 90’s either due to graphics, speed, execution, controller, or whatever. I had the SNES version of Mortal Kombat and it was nearly unplayable compared to the arcade.

    Arcades definitely try to suck as many tokens as possible out of you (first with high difficulty games, then with 2-4 player Gauntlet games or beat-em-ups, then with fighting games) but mostly arcades survived by staying one step ahead technology-wise. The last refuge of arcades for a while was specialized controllers like DDR, motion detection, music controllers and the like where they could justify a higher cost, but even those have been adapted for home consoles. Now the same games you loved in an arcade you can play at home, unlimited, for a fraction of the overall price in the end, and without sacrificing quality (in addition to playing a whole host of long-form games that could never exist in an arcade). Nowadays even the multiplayer is better at home with the Internet. The death of the arcade was definitely hurried along by twenty Street Fighter II and MK knock-offs replacing unique games, but I think that death was inevitable in the long run.

    • Interestingly, I have heard of some people playing “mame” games, which I neither condone nor support in any way whatsoever.

      I have heard second-hand that mame versions of Gauntlet “suck” and make the game boring. What made Gauntlet fun in the arcade was the fact that it was limited to the number of quarters in your pocket… the moment you have infinite quarters, the game ceases to be anything but a chore.

      Or so I have heard.

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