Picture this: you’re in control of a pixelated hero, hacking and slashing at wave after wave of enemies. Behind you are three other characters, controlled by friends who are standing elbow-to-elbow next to you in real life. You clear this wave, and an arrow prompts you to run sideways to advance the level.
No, you haven’t just travelled back in time and into your neighbourhood arcade. You’re in Singapore’s flashy Timezone VivoCity. The year is 2021. And the game? Not Golden Axe, but Minecraft Dungeons Arcade.
Arcades are Not Dead
Mojang’s popular side-scroller isn’t the only modern title blasting itself to the past. Halo’s Spartans are everywhere these days, and with Halo: Fireteam Raven they’ve stormed arcades, too.
The games may change but the cabinets stay bright and flashy
Fans of retro gaming will still find legacy franchises like Capcom’s Marvel vs Capcom and Sega’s Sonic thrumming along in arcades. The latest Elevator Action Invasion’s cabinet gives VR a run for its money by mimicking actual doors that open and close.
These titles, new and old alike, are still bringing in heaps of quarters (or in the case of present-day arcades, card swipes). The market is expected to grow by 1.6 billion USD through 2021 to 2025--not bad for an industry that has by many been written off as dying, or even dead.
But What Keeps Giving It Lives?
Long before the Internet let you play with thousands of players and video gaming officially became a spectatorship sport, there was couch co-op. Pong, Metal Slug, X-Men: Arcade–social play is woven into the DNA of arcade gaming. It wasn’t a proper high score run unless your play amassed a rapt crowd behind you.
Online multiplayer hasn’t quite managed to replicate that same close sense of tribe, even if the Internet has turned clans into veritable empires in size. “It builds community in a way the home console can’t build community,” says Brad Smith, technical director for arcade game Skycurser.
The Old, New Way To Play
The 80s was a special decade to be a gamer and developer. Ideas were fresh, in both video game concepts and hardware. Cabinet makers came up with a myriad of controls to give players the right way to drive, slash, roll, shoot, and climb through this new 8-bit world.
Haptic feedback is cool and all, but nothing says hardcore gaming like duct taped light guns
The unique peripherals, large and bright cabinets, and constant thrum of activity made arcades a world unto themselves. “It’s going to a place and seeing all of these physical games that you can touch, hear and experience in the real world — I think that it’s always going to be important,” says Brad Van, co-owner of Aftershock Classic Arcade.
Many of the iconic releases of that time have found a new home on phones and handheld consoles as ports. This dock even lets you turn your device into a mini arcade cabinet to make the experience feel more authentic (although we think one of our authentic 2-player arcade cabinets is infinitely cooler and more fun).
Retro gaming’s foray into mobile phones is also enticing a new generation of gamers back into arcades. “We actually have way more younger people who are experiencing these games for the first time in the way they were intended,” says Paul Kermizian, co-founder of one of the world’s first bar and arcade hybrid, Barcade (not to be confused with Bitcade!).
Major publishers who started in arcade gaming still recognise the draw of popular IPs. Capcom uses Street Fighter’s history as a way to connect to players. “When it (Street Fighter IV) first came out it was only in arcades, and companies were listening to communities and saying ‘What do you like?’ and ‘What needs to be changed?’”, says Chris Laporte, CEO of Reset Las Vegas.
See you after 40 years!
And then you have developers who use a game’s arcade lineage to promote new titles. Moon Cresta was released in 1980 and became a commercial success, ranking just behind other heavy hitters Pac-man and Galaxian. The sequel Terra Cresta came out in 1985. Thirty seven years later, the much awaited follow-up Sol Cresta is finally launching on multiple platforms–including arcade cabinets.
Beyond Memory Lane
But the nostalgic appeal of retro games, as strong as it is for old and new players alike, doesn’t explain why games like Minecraft Dungeons Arcade still come out on cabinets. Or why making an arcade game in the time of VR and 4K gaming still creates considerable buzz, as Skycurser Creative Director Chris Cruz discovered after the game gained international interest once they announced it to be arcade only.
Skycurser nailing the aesthetic of retro shoot ‘em ups with grotesque monster hordes and bad ass fighter pilots
Seeing new cabinets seems to still be exciting for old and young fans alike. “As I've learned through the retro craze is that while there's a lot of hype for the old games and for memories, what people end up playing are the new games,” says Adam Pratt, arcade owner and author of The Arcade Experience: A Look At Modern Arcades and Why They Still Matter.
Maybe it’s because there’s nothing quite like the real thing. Minoru Ikeda–who owns retro fighting game arcade Mikado–still believes the arcade experience is supreme. “Going to a concert and listening to a CD at home are two completely different things, even if the song is the same. It’s the same principle with arcades,” says Ikeda.
The arcade gaming scene may not be as big and bright as it once was. But enough of the magic still remains, kept flowing by a mix of our unending fascination with the golden age of video games and the excitement of playing on a machine that offers a wildly different experience from PCs and consoles.