When Uprights Ruled the Earth

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Feb 12, 2008

Filed under: Video Games 26 comments

The 70’s and 80’s made up the Paleozoic Era of Videogames. It began with the simplicity of creatures like pong and breakout, and eventually gave way to a myriad of massive arcade beasts. Ravenous for quarters, these games ruled the earth until the mass extinction event that was the arrival of home console gaming. Oh sure, there are still a few of those old dinosaurs around today, but the gaming world is now dominated by consoles and (to a lesser extent) personal computers. Many modern arcades are little more than quarter-fed museums.

In case you don’t remember the game, here is a really terrible re-creation of Centipede.

This makes for fascinating reading. It’s a series of documents from Atari in 1983, covering the development and deployment of Centipede. (PDF) In it, Atari employees discuss the merits of replacing the trackball with a joystick, how well the game performed against other Atari games, and various strategies that were emerging from players on how to play. I was also really surprised to see a section talking about how to attract more (Japanese) females to their machines. Even back then, they were looking for a way to reach the elusive “female gamer”.

I’d forgotten how innovative Atari* was at the time. The rotary controller of Tempest. The trackball in Centipede. The surreal landscape of Marble Madness. I’ve remembered Atari for their low-quality titles for the Atari console and general short-sightedness that (thankfully, in retrospect) gave rise to the Nintendo console, but in the early 80’s they were really looking for new ways to lure you away from your quarters make games fun and interesting. In 1983, they were still evolving.

Still, as good as Atari was in the early 80’s, it was Namco that ruled the day. Pac-Man was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Arcade Games:

Hat tip: Jay Barnson.

* It might might be unfair to relate the Atari Console with the Atari arcade games. The history of the Atari brand is nearly impenetrable.)


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26 thoughts on “When Uprights Ruled the Earth

  1. David V.S. says:

    If you have 46 minutes, this is an amazing documentary about the early history of video games.

    The ending is remarkable! I would never have imagined that the decision of which country would dominate the video game industry in the 1980s was made in Moscow by the KGB, while representatives of American, British, and Japanese companies were simultaneously meeting in the same building without knowledge of this fact.

  2. Eric Meyer says:

    Man, I loved Tempest. That and the “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator“. Apparently I had a thing for vector graphics and rotary controllers.

  3. Chris Arndt says:

    It’s not impenetrable if A) look in the right place and B) remember that after Nolan Bushnell sold the company to relieve (considerable) stress the brand quickly became nothing more than a name, like Shamus or Chris, with no inherent unique value with unique promise.

    That said, seeing that logo gives me good, happy shivers of wonderful sentiment, regardless of who owns Atari now.

    Besides that, love the NES if you must, but the Atari 2600 console rocked and the games, where lacking graphical and aural power, truly ruled from the perspective of awesome gameplay. One of my favorite gifts from Christmas is my Atari Flashback2. First time I have play Pitfall or Adventure in years and it holds up!

  4. MissusJ says:

    “I've remembered Atari for their low-quality titles for the Atari console…”

    Dude. I’m not going to argue the shortsightedness, but you’re missing a console or three here. Three consoles in the era you speak of, and the Jaguar later on. Which console are you talking about? (Not that I played any of them at the time…)

    ~elusive female mother of 3 gamer~

  5. Cadamar says:

    Ah… the good olde days of uprights. I guess you can still find a few of these managing to survive in malls and pizza resteraunts. However, the majority of sightings usually don’t have much more credibility then most UFO or bigfoot sightings. ;p
    Anywho… I still remember the first time I played the Star Wars vector graphic game (the one where you were flying an X-Wing against the Death Star over and over and over). I was probably only about 7 and it was the kind that you actually sat in. The only reason my parents could pull me away was because we were out of quarters. I’d still love to play that game again.

  6. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Arcades didnt die out(at least not here in eastern europe),they only got their equipment updated.Now,instead of quarters inserted in giant machines,you pay some real money(meaning paper money)for some time on a console(or a PC),comfortably seated in a chair.

  7. Hanov3r says:

    Cadamar: Got an extra 2 grand laying around?

    (OK, it’s not the sit-down version. Best I could find.)

  8. Emily says:

    I loved Centipede, not only because it was fun, but because it got us an Atari. My mom and Dona Bailey were longtime friends, so she had to buy it in support. Maybe the Atari stunk, but I played it well into the rule of NES, and starting up a game like Pitfall still makes me feel all tingly.

  9. Davesnot says:

    Asteroid Deluxe for me… Defender was cool.. Space Invaders.. Galaxian.. … I remember playing Pong in the Shakee’s pizza place.. my parents gave me three quarters before they wondered what the heck was going on..

    ..man.. I took a small fortune in money from my folks to change into quarters.. then we had to drive over an hour to get the the arcade in Pueblo.. an hour-and-a-half to get to Colorado Springs and their actual _choice_ of arcades.. (sigh).. the ‘Springs even had a Long John Silver’s to eat at.. man.. no wonder I couldn’t get a date… if I had tried.. which I guess I didn’t.. because there were quarters buring holes in my pockets!!

    I even had the Pac-man Fever album.. .. I think I’ll go dig up the tape I made of it.. even has the Frogger song.. ..man is my geek ever showing..

    Asteroid Deluxe.. still holds up.

  10. Chris Arndt says:

    The Atari 2600 rocked and ruled and convinced me that it was a price worth paying that a console port was a simplified version of the arcade game.

    The Atari 5200 I never played and the only I ever owned did not have joystick controllers or any controllers. Later research told me that Atari 5200 controllers were rare because they were fragile, and if I had owned some intact ones they sucked anyway because the joysticks did not recenter… intentionally.

    The Atari 7800 I still wish I owned but am okay that I never got one as promised. The game selection was not that awesome but the graphics were good and the game selection?… was backwards compatible with the 2600.

    I owned exactly three models of Atari 2600 console.

    I’ll challenge you to a game of OUTLAWS (that’s the name!) anyday!

    I’ll win, too!

  11. Shishberg says:


    As a compromise for those of us who have been IP blocked, could you change the RSS feed to full text? Google Reader is allowed in but my work isn’t (arguably I shouldn’t be reading this at work anyway, but meh).

    (For the record, I’m posting in Lynx via SSH to my server at home. Hope the captcha hasn’t changed. :) )

  12. Robel says:

    I`d rather learn about a country`s history rather than game history, but you do have a point there. In the early 80`s they had low technology but even as it evolved they still tried to make the basic characteristics of the game better. Things such as gameplay. Now it`s just more pixels, better drawn graphics and reflections much exagerated from real-world reflections…You know, I think they perfected their developing but killed everyone that worked in selling/marketing or whatever. They have no idea that less than 10% of the gamers would buy a (if I may quote you) $3000 computer just to be able to play something which looks nice but reacts idiotically.

  13. guy says:

    no, they kept those people. some idiot decided programmers were the best target to downsize, and that became a trend.

  14. guy says:

    no, they kept those people. some idiot decided programmers were the best target to downsize, and that became a trend. they kept the graphics desginers, because their mutually destructive relationship with the reveiwers demands better graphics

    EDIT: i wound up with two posts. guess i stopped the page change after the data had been sent

  15. Very interesting read, Shamus.

    Makes me realize how lucky we are today – sure, the coding’s more complicated, but at least we don’t have to deal with problems such as finding domestic power supplies because of import rules and figuring out which strength of resistor to use.

  16. Cadamar says:

    Hanov3r: As a matter of fact… Dang that is tempting.
    Sweet! I didn’t know that it was an Atari game. Here’s to lucking into being on topic! :p

  17. mrboffo says:

    Tempest rocked.

    I remember playing tempest at our local Party Store. For those of you not from Michigan, a Party Store is a lot like a Liquor store in other places. Except here, we sell bait too.

    At any rate, it serves to show how popular the uprights were; In our town of 250, there was always a line at the damn thing.

  18. Jeff says:

    Most modern arcades aren’t museums…

    They’ve now been outfitted (mostly) with unique hardware that you generally don’t get at home. That means, for the most part, racing games with wheels and force feedback chairs. Then there’s the lightgun shooters, and ones that are mixtures of both, piloting giant mecha and the like. Then there are the games you’d traditionally see more at carnivals – basketball shooting, things with physical components. The only real old-style standing arcades tend to be for multiplayer, 4 player capable sports game, fighters and such.

    Arcades still make quite a haul, and nothing costs just a quarter now.

  19. Phlux says:

    It wasn’t just the uprights…don’t forget about the awesomeness of the cocktail table arcade units:


    I’ve wanted a Ms. Pacman / Donkey Kong combo table for the longest time. Too bad they’re 2500 bucks apiece and you can’t find an original anymore that doesn’t have a nasty screen-burn problem.

  20. John Marley says:

    I was king at Zaxxon when I was 12.

    Ahh, good times…good times…

  21. Phlux says:

    Jeff: You’re right about arcades focusing on novelty controller interfaces like cars, planes, forcefeedback devices, etc… There are many arcades, however, that still have “classic” sections that could easily be referred to as museums.

    There’s a place in my city where the entire bottom floor is skee-ball and other “ticket games”, along with the lightgun shooters, racing games and pseudo-VR interfaces.

    The upperfloor is a magnificent realm of 1970s-1990s arcade cabinets. Most of their stuff is old, like Tennis, Red Baron, Centipede, Gallaga, etc. but they go all the way up to the ones from the early 90s like Mortal Kombat and the X-Men arcade game.

    Even the newer adult oriented arcade chains like Dave & Busters keep a copy of Ms. Pacman around.

  22. What is great is that there are places like the local nickel arcade.

  23. Oh, the animated advertisements are showing up in firefox for me now.

  24. Eric J says:

    The odd thing is that there are lots of bars and restaurants with 1-2 games, usually priced at $.75 or $1.00, that would easily get 4X the usage if it was priced at $.25. I’m not giving my six-year-old a dollar to play a racing game for 45 seconds (especially when he’s almost as happy “playing” the attract sequence,) but a quarter? No problem.

  25. Joe Cool says:

    My wife and I went to Disney World for our honeymoon in 2004. In downtown Disney, they had some virtual theme park (don’t remember its name) that had all sorts of electronic attractions. It was five floors and one of them was devoted entirely to arcade machines. I think they had every old classic upright there, as well as a few newer ones. The best part? They were all free.

    I almost didn’t go back to the hotel.

    But back to nostalgic reminiscing, my brother and my favorite game was Mercs (by Sega, I think) down at our local pizza place. I remember going to the register to exchange five dollars worth of quarters one Saturday evening. ‘Twas a sad day when they removed it. A lot later, I eventually got a MAME emulator that allowed me to download and play the ROMs of some of those classics (illegally pirating, of course). Now that’s not necessary as so many of those classics are available on Gametap.

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