Some people don’t realize that there were arcades before the advent of video games. Arcades originated in the 1800s, featuring all sorts of electro-mechanical (EM) games that cost a penny to play. Hence the name “penny arcade”. If you’re interested in seeing what sorts of EM games were found in early arcades, check out the Penny Arcade website (no, not that Penny Arcade!).
My first arcade memories date from the early 70s, from trips to the beach. Back then, it seemed like the beach was the only place I ever saw an arcade. They had no video games, just EM games, and arcade staples such as skeeball. Pinball was the king of EM games, of course. But there were all sorts of other EM machines:
- Shooting Games – these usually featured a gun mounted at chest level on a fixed pivot, pointed at targets behind a glass bezel. Midway’s The Sportsman is a typical example.
- Driving Games – the steering wheel controlled a plastic car on the end of a pivoting stick, which was overlaid on the track. This could be a projected film loop of a cartoon racetrack, as in Chicago Coin’s Speedway, or motorized belts representing different lanes, such as Bally’s Road Runner. Some games featured a motorcycle instead of a car, but they weren’t any better. Other than Atari/Namco’s F-1, I only recall driving games as being pretty crude.
- Submarine Games – the player would peer into a periscope, shooting simulated torpedoes at mechanical ships. Midway’s Sea Raider is a good example.
- Pitch & Bat (Baseball) Games – these looked like a pinball machine, only the playfield looked like a baseball field. The pinball would pop out from a metal flap that represented the pitcher’s mound. Pressing a button would swing the bat, which would either go into cups representing singles, doubles, or triples; into holes representing outs; or if you were really lucky (or really good), up a ramp and into the home run area. The backglass area had diorama of the infield with a circle going around the bases. Whenever you got a hit, a baserunner would pop up and circle to the appropriate base. Williams’ Upper Deck was one of the last pitch & bat games made.
- Whac-A-Mole – this game was in a class all by itself. Moles would pop up out of holes, and you had to hit them with your hammer before they went back in their holes. I remember still seeing these in pizza parlors throughout the 80s.
There were other oddball EM games of all sorts, but I’m having a hard time remembering them. One that I do recall was Midway’s Stunt Pilot. It featured a dayglo diorama lit by a blacklight, which tended to draw kids to it like moths to a flame. The object was to fly a tiny little airplane in circles and do various stunts. I think the airplane was reflected on a two-way mirror, so it floated over the diorama like magic. If the plane crashed, a little ambulance would come out with the siren on, which was hilarious.
I wish Ground Kontrol had at least a few of the classic EM games. Unfortunately, when you run a business, you sometimes have to put your personal preferences aside. EM games other than pinball just don’t have the popularity to “earn their keep” on our arcade floor. We make our money 25 cents at a time, and so sometimes we have to make hard choices.
Next time, I’ll cover the rise of video games and how they changed arcades.