- This article is about the golden age of video games in general. For the golden age of arcade games specifically, see Golden age of arcade video games.
The Golden Age of arcade video games was a peak era of arcade game popularity and innovation. Most opinions place this period's beginning in the late 1970s, when color arcade games became more prevalent and video arcades themselves started popping up outside of their traditional bowling alley and bar locales, through to its ending in the mid-1980s. However, some people refer to the Golden Age of video games in general as the entire period when arcades were prevalent in general, placing its start at the 1978 release of Space Invaders and its end in the mid-1990s with the release of home gaming systems which were able to rival typical arcade hardware, such as Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo's N64. Some refer to this latter definition, late 80's to mid-90's, as the Silver Age.
During the late 1970s, arcade game technology had become sophisticated enough to offer good-quality graphics and sounds, but it was still fairly basic (realistic images and full motion video were not yet available, and only a few games used spoken voice) and so the success of a game had to rely on simple and fun gameplay. This emphasis on the gameplay is why many of these games continue to be enjoyed today despite having been vastly outdated by modern computing technology.
The Killer List of Videogames (KLOV) web site has compiled a list of the "Top 100 (arcade) Video Games." Fifty of them (including all the games on its Top 10 list) were introduced during the period from 1979 to 1984.
The Golden Age was a time of great technical and design creativity in arcade games. Games were designed in a wide variety of genres while developers had to work within strict limits of available processor power and memory. The era also saw the rapid spread of video arcades across North America and Japan.
At this time, arcade games started to appear in supermarkets, liquor stores, gas stations and many other retail establishments looking for extra income. Popular games occasionally caused a crush of teenagers, eager to try the latest entertainment entry.
Probably the most successful arcade game companies of this era were Namco (especially in Japan) and Atari (especially in the United States). Other notables include Nintendo (whose mascot, Mario, was introduced in 1981's Donkey Kong), Bally Midway Manufacturing Company (who later was purchased by Williams), Capcom, Cinematronics, Konami, Sega, Taito, Williams, and SNK.
Arcades began to gain momentum in the late 1970s with games such as Gee Bee (1978) and Galaxian (1979) and became widespread in 1980 with Pac-Man, King and Balloon, Tank Battalion, and others. The central processing unit in these games allowed for more complexity than earlier discrete circuitry games such as Atari's PONG (1972).
The Golden Age saw developers experimenting with new hardware, creating games which used the crisp lines of vector displays as opposed to standard raster displays. A few of these games became great hits, such as 1980's Battlezone and Tempest and 1983's Star Wars, all from Atari, but vector technology fell out of favor with arcade game companies due to the high cost of repairing vector displays. (Vectrex, a home video game system with a built-in vector display, was released in 1982.)
Developers also experimented with laserdisc players for delivering movie-quality animation. The first game to exploit this technology, 1983's Dragon's Lair from Cinematronics, was three years in the making. It was a sensation when it was released (and, in fact, the laserdisc players in many machines broke due to overuse), but the genre dwindled in popularity because the games were fairly linear and depended less on reflexes than on memorizing sequences of moves.
New controls cropped up in a few games, though, arguably, joysticks and buttons remained the favorites for most manufacturers. Atari introduced the trackball with 1978's Football. Spy Hunter included a lifelike steering wheel and Hogan's Alley introduced tethered light guns to the arcade market. Other specialty controls, such as pedals in racing games and a crossbow-shaped light gun in Crossbow, also debuted in this era.
With the enormous success of the early games, dozens of developers jumped into the development and manufacturing of arcade video games. Some simply copied the "invading alien hordes" idea of Space Invaders and turned out successful imitators like Galaxian, Galaga, and Gaplus, while others tried new concepts and defined new genres. Rapidly evolving hardware allowed new kinds of games which surpassed the shoot-em-up gameplay of the earliest games.
Games such as Donkey Kong and Qix introduced new types of games where skill and timing are more important than shooting as fast as possible. Other examples of innovative games are Atari Games' Paperboy where the goal is to successfully deliver newspapers to customers, and Namco's Phozon where the object is to duplicate a shape shown in the middle of the screen. The theme of Exidy's Venture is dungeon exploration and treasure-gathering. One innovative game, Q*Bert, played upon the user's sense of depth perception in order to deliver a novel experience.
Some games of this era were so popular that they entered the popular culture. The release of Pac-Man in 1980 caused such a sensation that it initiated what is now referred to as "Pac-Mania" (which later became the title of the last coin-operated game in the series, released in 1987). Released by Namco, the game featured a yellow, circle-shaped creature trying to eat dots through a maze while avoiding pursuing enemies. Though no one could really agree what the "hero" or enemies represented (sometimes they were referred to as ghosts, other times goblins or just monsters), the game was extremely popular; there are anecdotes to the effect that some game owners had to empty the game's coin bucket every hour in order to prevent the game's coin mechanism from jamming from having too many coins in the receptacle. The game spawned an animated television series, numerous clones, Pac-Man branded foods and a hit pop song, Pac-Man Fever. Though many popular games quickly entered the lexicon of popular culture, most have since left, and Pac-Man is unusual in remaining a recognized term in pop culture, along with Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Frogger.
The enormous popularity of arcade games also led to the very first video game strategy guides; these guides (rare to find today) discussed in exacting detail the patterns and strategies of each game, including variations, to a degree that few guides seen since can match. "Turning the machine over" by making the score counter overflow and reset to zero was often the final challenge of a game for those who mastered it, and the last obstacle to getting the highest score.
Most popular games
The games below were some of the most popular and influential games of the era. All occupy a position in the KLOV's "Top 100 Videogames" list .
The end of the era
The Golden Age cooled as copies of popular games began to saturate the arcades. Arcades remained commonplace through the early 1990s and there were still new genres being explored, but most new games were shooters, maze games, and other variations on old familiar themes.
New generations of home computers and home video game consoles also sapped interest from arcades. Earlier consoles, such as the Atari 2600 and Mattel's Intellivision, were general-purpose and were meant to play a variety of games, and often couldn't measure up to arcade game hardware, which was built for the singular purpose of providing a single game well. In fact, the glut of poor-quality home video game systems contributed in no small way to the video game crash of 1983. But the debut of the Nintendo Entertainment System (1985) began to level the playing field by providing a reasonably good arcade experience at home. In the early to mid 1990s, the Super Nintendo and the Sega Megadrive greatly improved home play and some of the technology was even integrated into a few arcade machines. By the time of the Sony PlayStation (1994) and the Nintendo 64 (1996), both of which boasted true 3D graphics, many video game arcades across the country had gone out of business.
The arcade game industry still exists today, but in a greatly reduced form. Arcade game hardware is often based on home game consoles to facilitate porting an arcade game to a home system; there are arcade versions of Sega Dreamcast (NAOMI), Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube (Triforce), and Microsoft Xbox (Chihiro) home consoles. Some arcades have survived by expanding into ticket-based prize redemption and more physical games with no home console equivalent, such as skee ball and whack-a-mole. Some genres, such as dancing and rhythm games (such as Dance Dance Revolution, part of the Bemani series) continue to be popular in arcades, particularly in Japan.
The relative simplicity yet solid gameplay of many of these early games has inspired a new generation of fans who can play them on mobile phones or with emulators such as MAME. Some classic arcade games are reappearing in commercial settings, such as Namco's Ms. Pac-Man 20 Year Reunion / Galaga Class of 1981 two-in-one game, or integrated directly into controller hardware (joysticks) with replaceable flash drives storing game ROMs.
The Golden Age of Arcade Games spawned numerous cultural icons and even gave some companies their identity. Elements from games such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Centipede are still recognized in today's popular culture.
The phenomenal success of these early video games has led many hobbyists who were teenagers during the Golden Age to collect some of these classic games. Since few have any commercial value any longer, they can be acquired for US$200 to US$500 (though fully restored games can cost much more). Some fans of these games have companies devoted to restoring the classic games, and others, such as Arcade Renovations, which produces reproduction art for classic arcade games, focus solely on one facet of the restoration activity. Many of these restorationers have set up websites on the Internet full of tips and advice on restoring games to mint condition. There are also several newsgroups devoted to discussion around these games, and a few conventions such as California Extreme  dedicated to classic arcade gaming.
- The Official Price Guide to Classic Video Games by David Ellis (2004), ISBN 0-375-72038-3
- The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokémon--The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World by Steven L. Kent (2001), ISBN 0-7615-3643-4
- The Golden Age of Video Game Arcades (a 200-page story contained within Twin Galaxies' Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records) by Walter Day (1998), ISBN 1-887472-25-8