Reflections on the 1980s arcade scene, home arcades and retro tech – by way of a tour of my studio arcade

Part 1 | Part 2


Arcades of the 1980s, as I recall, were an assault on the senses from the moment you entered them, providing not only solo gaming but a social and competitive experience as well. A place to huddle with friends in the warm glow of CRT monitors, eagerly competing on games such as Outrun, Space InvadersPac-ManDefenderStar Wars, BattlezonePole Position and countless other era-defining classics.

These glorious establishments have always been more than just a collection of machines — offering immersive experiences that are greater than the sum of their parts. With deceptively simple designs built-into the very fabric of their cabinets — much like Nintendo’s synergistic approach to hardware and game creation — arcade machines were made to function as a cohesive whole: a mesmerising combination of aesthetics, hardware functionality and gameplay mechanics. They were — and continue to be — a celebration of the sensory experience of gaming, and an unforgettable fusion of art, design, and technology.

In an era of games industry saturation and emulation-based machines boasting “thousands of games”, there’s something pretty compelling about the idea of an arcade cabinet that plays just one game, too.

With few menus to negotiate and no compatibility issues to contend with, vintage arcade machines remind me of the relatively uncomplicated, uncluttered pre-internet era of gaming — a time when it felt as though every big new game — or film, for that matter — became an event shared by millions. 

During the 1980s in particular, the eye-catching cabinets on offer — with their wonderfully vibrant side art, striking marquees, attract modes and unique control schemes — managed to lure in millions of players in on an epic scale, each and every day of the week.

Bournemouth Pier Amusements: My favourite arcade growing up in the 1980s

There are establishments offering a 1980s-style arcade experience in the UK today, thankfully, but they are few and far between. One great one, quite local to me, is Arcade Archive, which can be found just outside Stroud in Gloucestershire. Situated above The Cave – a fantastic, hands-on retro tech museum – both are well worth visiting. Together they form The Retro Collective.

As I play — and revel in the sound of — classics such as Space Invaders and Defender in the studio arcade, I’m reminded of the immediacy and accessibility of the gaming experiences arcades used to offer, and I marvel at their enduring, cross-generational appeal — even now, in the era of photorealistic graphics and VR technology.

The arcade games of old epitomised the very essence of casual gaming: easy to learn, hard to stop playing, difficult to master —  serving now not only as a lesson in gaming history and a nostalgic reminder of a bygone era, but also as a refreshing counterpoint to some of today’s more complex and convoluted gaming experiences.

The allure of these games is undoubtedly magnified a little by the realisation that they laid the foundations of an entire industry — an entire art form, even —  establishing many of the ground rules and conventions that still hold sway today. Their lasting appeal isn’t only about the games themselves, then, but the cultural impact many have had as well, and the very fact they were first. – JH