It is easily the most common question I get when I chat with anyone about the classic arcade games of the early 1980s. What happened to them all?
They remember those days just as I do. Video arcades were commonplace and practically every type of business out there had arcade games in them. I remember seeing a Defender in the window of a flower shop, Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga machines at the local Denny's and entire gamerooms in select 7-Eleven stores. These machines were literally everywhere.
Over time a number of these machines have ended up in homes, mostly as an addition to a rec room or something fun in the corner of the garage. A smaller number of home collectors are deeply dedicated, some with dozens or even hundreds of machines. In recent years, arcades and taverns with classic themes are popping up around the country, giving an extent of new life to a bygone era.
What most casual and even many die-hard classic arcade fans don't realize is that the vast majority of machines from the early eighties arcade boom are long gone from the planet. While games such as Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong set arcade sales records that still stand today, most did not survive.
Today I provide some insight into why. While none of this is going to cover things in depth, it is going to touch on the basic answers to that common question.
The Great Video Game Crash
While it is becoming a hardly known legend to the younger generations of gamers, the entire North American video game industry crashed hard in 1983 and 1984. The arcade market and home console markets crashed for different reasons, with the coin-ops dropped off first. Things slowed in the summer of 1982 and went into a free-fall the next year, due in large part to oversaturation of the marketplace and aging equipment.
By 1984, a great number of arcade operators had gone out of business. Those that survived had significantly smaller operations and routes. The vast majority of arcade machines seen in non-arcade businesses were never owned by those businesses but rather by vendors who installed the machines in those locations for a cut of the revenue.
Operators were stuck with huge inventories of machines nobody wanted to play anymore, and with almost everyone forced to scale back operations, most older machines had no resale value or potential buyers. Everyone had enough Scramble and Galaxian machines gathering dust in a warehouse already.
So they trashed them.
Many machines were gutted for useful parts such as monitors and coin doors then had their cabinets smashed, burned or taken to a landfill. Others were left to rot in abandoned warehouses, sheds or fields.
This practice actually still continues today. Me and a friend came across an antique store a few years ago that had obtained a few trailers of early eighties machines. Thinking they had no value they left the open trailers outside and smashed up entire machines until they'd filled their dumpsters. By the time we got there, we found pieces of games such as Donkey Kong Junior and Centipede in the trash and the machines still in tact had been rained on so much they were falling apart.
While there are hobbyists who restore classic machines scattered across the country, it is commonplace for them to use several machines to complete one full restoration, trashing the rest.
Conversions, Multicades and MAME
Most classic arcade machines that didn't end up as scrap were converted into newer game titles, and still are today.
The first successful conversion kit game was Mr. Do! in 1983, starting a trend that helped operators survive at least a while longer. For a far lesser price than a full arcade machine, vendors could purchase kits with new electronics, graphics and sometimes wiring which was used to turn that old Qix or Berzerk machine into a brand new game title.
While most arcade manufacturers resisted this trend as long as they could, they were forced to change with the times and start offering kits to operators. Some, such as Nintendo and Atari, began to produce kits designed to specifically convert their older titles.
This trend continued through the middle of the decade but slowed for a time in the late 1980s. A bit of a resurgence in the arcade market came along with the rebirth of the home console industry during this time, and dedicated machines of newer hit titles began to sell once again. Most converted machines were simply converted again to newer titles for street locations.
The next big period of conversion mania came with Street Fighter II in 1991 and 1992. This game earned so much money so quickly that many operators quickly bought kits for every arcade cabinet they had in storage. Years ago I met an operator that literally converted every remaining early 80s machine he had to SFII when it was hot, and remember locations with classic machines such as BurgerTime and Front Line that they converted at this time.
In recent years the conversion mania has continued in two forms. Over the past decade an influx of overseas knock off boards often dubbed as "Multicades" have made their way into North America. These bootleg boards contain dozens and sometimes hundreds of games. Many arcade machine resellers have gutted surviving classics in favor of converting them into these multi-game machines in the name of making a buck.
Other home collectors have built arcade machines based on the MAME emulation program. While some of these MAME fans have built their arcade rigs from classic cabinets that were already stripped or converted beyond reasonable restoration, others have posted blogs where they show their process of gutting a surviving arcade machine to build it into a computer-based conversion.
Several arcade conversions have appeared on these popular treasure-hunting television programs in recent years, often without the people on the show seemingly aware of it. An episode of Pawn Stars saw someone bring three "Japanese Arcade Games" into the Las Vegas shop, two of which were conversions from Defender machines. The Ms. Pac-Man machine that appeared on an episode of Auction Hunters was actually a conversion of an original Pac-Man machine, a cabinet that is similar but quite different in many ways as well.
Arcade Passports Required
Classic-era arcade machines that weren't trashed, left to rot or converted may not reside in the country at all anymore. Several people in southern states have confirmed to me in the past that they have shipped and sold entire box trucks of older arcade machines to Mexico.
The current world record holder on Taito rarity Zoo Keeper had his machine shipped to his Australia home from the United States.
Preservation is Key
At the present time it seems that the number of people who'd rather turn a retro arcade machine into a Multicade or MAME machine far outnumbers those who would rather try to restore them into their former glory. It is a long and often expensive task to do so.
However, these machines are pieces of pop culture and video game industry history. Just as memorabilia from films, television and various sports have seen efforts to save and preserve their history over time, video games are finally starting to see signs of a preservation effort.
The efforts of groups such as Southern California's Videogame History Museum and New Hampshire's American Classic Arcade Museum should be noted for being among the first in the country to take serious steps in this direction as well as many individual collectors across the country such as New Jersey's Richie Knucklez and Cat DeSpira in the Pacific Northwest.
In time, such efforts may turn the question from "What happened to them all?" to "Did you see all that are left?"