The History of Arcades: From Classic to Modern Gaming


arcade in chicago

Going to the arcade brings a truly nostalgic vibe for those of us who spent our happiest childhood moments there. Not only are arcades fun for gamers of all ages, but they also allow us to test our skills and critical thinking while competing against our friends. Arcades have evolved and transformed since their beginnings in the ‘70s. The history of arcades, from classic to modern gaming, has shaped the world of video games today. While arcades are surely a blast to the past, they’re making a steady comeback today as more and more arcades open their doors to accommodate gamers of all ages. Let’s go on a trip to the past and explore the history of arcades, from the first arcade game to modern gaming.

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Computer Space: Released by Nutting Associates in 1971

In 1971, future Atari founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney invented Computer Space, the first arcade game available on the market. Computer Space was essentially a copy of Spacewar!, a two-player game that was created by Steve Russell at MIT in 1961. The game was released by Nutting Associates, and to beat it, you had to fly a rocket ship in space and fight several flying saucers. While Computer Space was the very first arcade game, it did not have much commercial success, as its concept was not well accepted by gamers since it overestimated its audience. Reportedly, the game was too difficult to play and master in a bar-like setting, but it definitely left a mark in arcade history as the first arcade game to be released to the public.

Pong: Released by Atari in 1972

If we were to ask game enthusiasts when arcades were invented, they would surely mention Atari’s Pong. Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari after leaving Nutting Associates, naming their new company after a word from the Japanese board game Go. Pong was a digital version of table tennis, involving two paddles and a white dot as a ball. To win, gamers had to avoid missing the ball with their paddle. Pong had much more success than Computer Space due to its simple concept and easy mastery, and its release truly made arcade games popular. For that reason, Pong is one of the most iconic games in the history of arcades.

The Golden Age of Arcades: 1978 to 1983

After the “paddle game” era ended in 1975, arcade history suffered during the next several years. In 1978, Taito released Space Invaders in Japan and the US. The game quickly became popular due to its simple mechanics and its interactive audio system that encouraged competition. The release of Space Invaders brought on the golden age of the history of arcades, beginning in 1978 and ending around 1983.

The golden age of arcades was a truly important time in the history of arcades. Some of the most popular arcade games were released during this time, including Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Rally-X, Asteroids, Galaxian, Berserk, and Tetris, among many others. Many new arcade companies such as Namco, Nintendo, Konami, Sega, and Atari also entered the market, paving the way for modern gaming today. These golden-era arcade games were further made popular by the construction boom of shopping malls in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as many arcades opened within malls, and later as part of bowling alleys and skating rinks. Arcades eventually became stand-alone facilities, and today, you can find an arcade nearby in many neighborhoods.  

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The Comeback of Arcades: 1985 to 1990

The comeback of arcades marked a period of success in the history of arcades. This comeback was driven by the new software conversion kit systems, including Sega’s Convert-a-Game system, the Atari System 1, and the Nintendo VS. System. The growing popularity of martial arts action games and sports games also influenced this growth period in arcade history. However, arcades declined in popularity in the late ‘80s, as home consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) kept children at home and away from arcades.

The 3D Revolution: 1991 to 1999

In 1991, Capcom released Street Fighter II, a sequel to the original Street Fighter from 1987. This variant of the popular fighting arcade game introduced unique elements and exciting character design to an otherwise generic game, leading to a new boom in fighting arcade games. Several other arcade giants released similar arcade fighting games in the following years, including Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, and Tekken. This fighting game boom was only amplified by the 3D revolution in arcade history, which introduced the first concept of 3D graphics to the arcade game playing field.

Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) was released in 1998, and it has become one of the most nostalgic and engaging arcade games today. Fusing dancing and strategy, this competitive game tests the players’ dance moves and their ability to think fast on their feet and match the rhythm. DDR brought a truly social experience to the realm of arcade games, and it is an iconic part of arcades today, with many DDR tournaments held both locally and globally each year.  

group playing esports
group playing esports

Modern Gaming

Modern arcade games have come a long way from their humble beginnings. Today’s top arcade game contenders include Dance Dance Revolution, Tekken 5, Marvel vs. Capcom 3: New Age of Heroes, Mario Kart Arcade GP, and many others. Although arcade games have radically evolved over time, arcades still bring the same nostalgic feeling as they once did. Today, arcades are still great places to meet friends and spend time together in an interactive and challenging atmosphere.

Are you looking for an arcade near you? Our Wintrust Sports Complex at Bedford Park has a 4,000-square-foot redemption arcade that offers all the latest and most nostalgic arcade games. Our redemption arcade is perfect for any occasion, whether you’re looking to host your child’s birthday party or spend corporate holidays. The Wintrust Sports Complex also conveniently offers laser tag, e-sports, basketball and volleyball courts, flexible meeting and event spaces, as well as a bar and lounge with full kitchen service to meet all your needs. Come visit us today!