Retrotechtacular: Raw Video From Inside A 1980s Arcade

Featured image of Aladdin's Castle Arcade

It was just this year that Sega left the arcade business for good. A company synonymous with coin-op games for over a half century completely walked away from selling experiences you can only get on location. No more Outrun or Virtua Fighter machines, because arcades these days tend to resemble The House of the Dead. Arcades still exist to a degree, it’s just that headlines like that serve only as a reminder of an era gone by. Which is what makes raw footage like the video [Jon] posted of an Aladdin’s Castle arcade from the 1980s so compelling.

scan of Aladdin's Castle Arcade pamphlet ad
Aladdin’s Castle ad brochure circa 1983. Credit: John Andersen

The raw VHS footage starts with a sweep around the location’s pinball machines and arcade cabinets. There’s an extended shot of a rare TX-1 tri-monitor sitdown cabinet. The racing game was the first of its kind to feature force feedback in the steering wheel, so it’s no wonder it received the focus. The arcade’s lighting tech was also a point of pride as it allowed for programmable lighting cues. A far cry from the flickering fluorescent tubes no doubt in use elsewhere. Eventually the employee filming takes us to the back room where it the owner has made it abundantly clear that they are not a fan of Mondays, judging by the amount of Garfield merchandise.

Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle was a chain of arcades and had nearly 400 locations across the US at its height in the mid 1980s (at least according to their brochure seen above). Those neon red letters were a mainstay of American shopping malls throughout the decade. Namco, the Pac-Man people, acquired Aladdin’s Castle in 1993 and the brand faded away soon after. Although there is a lone location in Quincy, IL that is still open for business today.

For more retrotechtacular goodness from the era, check out this post on 1980s design for manufacturing.

41 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Raw Video From Inside A 1980s Arcade

  1. My opinion has been that – to survive as anything like what we remember – arcades must provide experiences way beyond what you can get on your couch at a price that a kid with below-average allowance can afford. These days, it would probably require full-motion simulators or at least high-quality force feedback, pro-level VR, or exclusive software running on oft-updated hardware. Any of which would be incredibly expensive, which brings us back to kids being broke.

    Personally, I still find Pinball to be an experience you can’t replicate in your living room – without buying a real cabinet. I’ve considered a virtual pin cabinet, but that only goes so far. Covid has kept me from my favorite pub with a pinball grotto, but that is still a big selling point for me.

    1. I have the same sentiments, and whenever there’s an Arcade, I brush through it to see if they have a Pinball machine. It’s crazy to me how rare they are to find — most don’t have them at all. Nowadays it seems like they just take mobile games and blow them up on a 60″ TV.

    2. Something you can’t experience at home is winning cheaply made toys for playing. Pretty low tech compared to what you suggest, but probably a bigger draw to majority of kids susceptible to manipulation through serotonin and dopamine. Quasi-legal gambling is always going to beat VR in terms of getting people to come back again and again.

    3. There was a place near me called Pinball Wizard that had hundreds of machines. The lady that owned it was an avid collector and was rumored to have thousands of machines.

      It only stayed open for a few years. Closed around 2017. It was usually pretty empty.

    4. I was an enthusiastic patron of arcades since the start and grew up to work in the arcade business in the 1990s and early 2000s, just as most of them began circling the drain.

      The thing arcades like this had going for them that no VR or full-motion facility can replicate is the ability to just walk up to a machine, drop in your coins, and begin using it. The learning curve was nearly nonexistent, even in the 1980s after that first awkward round of Pac-Man or Asteroids most people figured out the basics of how to actually use the machine. It was basically a self-service experience.

      Nowadays immersive VR, while still an experience beyond most people at home, is still a far more complex thing for many reasons.

      A) You need employee assistance to use VR. A 1980s arcade could potentially have one or two employees on duty in a location of hundreds of machines all being used at once, but one person will never be able to wrangle a roomful of VR stations getting everyone strapped in, supervising play for safety, etc. The machines just aren’t self-service like classic arcade cabinets.

      2) The “grandma test” – Far more people find a VR experience fundamentally inaccessible for physical reasons than ever had trouble using an arcade machine. While you can point most people from small child to senior citizen toward Pac-Man’s joystick and let them have fun, the path to VR usability is still far more complex for a large portion of the population, and there are far more personal and/or medical conditions out there which might impinge on one’s ability to enjoy the medium than there were with old-fashioned arcade games.

      d) Durability. While old-school arcade machines quickly evolved to very sturdy beasts built to survive all manner of user abuse, from overly-enthusiastic button-mashing to angry kicks and deliberate attempts to rob the coin box, VR stuff is all still delicate and expensive. One dissatisfied VR customer angrily flings a headset to the ground and you’ve probably just lost a tidy sum.

      Add to all that the fact that in today’s pandemicky world a significant amount of potential customers have no desire to strap something to their face that some stranger just had strapped to theirs and pick up those possibly-grubby controllers. However diligently you’re sanitizing the equipment between uses, it’s just not as generally-attractive a proposition anymore.

      Arcade-enthusiasts and nostalgia-trippers aside, video arcades as a fundamental concept will never get back to where they used to be in the general public’s mind. There’s just no going back.

      1. Diversitronics made the lighting control seen in the video. The Aug 18, 1979 copy of Billboard lists about 20 related companies in a few paragraphs, so technically one can spend a few hours going back, finding what went defunct and what’s now old and on ebay. public enthusiasm might be gone, but the private resources and info are still around.

      1. So popular, in fact, one of several arcade graphics and jokes on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (late night tv show, the same day of the posting), featured a woman giving birth on the lane of a skee-ball machine. How existential and exemplary that one is, and the arcade references in general.

    1. I would love to have a pinball machine, if I could afford to buy it and pay someone else to maintain it!

      “Arcade experience” is also sound and touch. For example, I built a home arcade and I specifically put in a coin acceptor with a “bucket” inside under the acceptor by a short distance; I bought tokens and adjusted the acceptor to take them. Even though it’s not costing me anything to play with my own tokens, you put the coin in, you hear the clink, and it won’t “work” without those coins, That sound and experience makes a big difference to me.

  2. Another recommendation for anyone on the west coast – The Machine Shop in Langley, WA (on Whidbey Island) is an absolute treasure. Tons of old pinball machines and arcade cabinets, all in great working order and all at their original prices (mostly 25 or 50 cents)!

  3. Many years ago I went to a Christmas function hosted by Pr1me Computers (yes – that old).

    They hired an arcade for an evening, and laid on the catering and drinks (yes – that old).

    All the games were free

    An absolute blast – those days are unfortunately long gone (the arcade closed years ago) but it had to be the best corporate function I ever went to.

  4. Somewhere I have a binaural cassette of 10 or minutes of the then new mall arcade near Purdue during a busy night and I play a round of Dragons Lair if I remember. At the beginning of the tape I’m talking to someone outside about the centennial of binaural stereo sound which dates the tape to 1981. That mall is scheduled to go and another high-rise happen.

    Today across the river we have Main Street Amusements. A giant LED panel greets you at the door with Pac Man and they have pinball.

  5. I just watched the movie “Licorice Pizza” and while it does not have much visible action of the arcades, it does show a few minutes of the atmosphere in an arcade cabinet. Also, it was an enjoyable movie.

  6. My kids (11+14) love the local arcade game place – it’s one of their favorite rainy day things. I sincerely hope it survived COVID. Maybe we’ll go check it out this weekend? Hmm. I love playing mortal kombat and DDR and Tekken with them. And they both love the pinball, too. The entertainment value of the arcade isn’t at all lost just because VR and high end graphics that look like movies exist today.

  7. This video is from the Torrance, California location at the Del Amo Fashion Center Mall. I remember it well, I would go there every weekend as a kid. That section of the mall was demolished and revamped. I miss that place.

    1. Wasn’t Heathcliff retired when Garfield came along?

      I remember Heathcliff as being big, then Garfield came along and dwarfed the previous cat. There are times when I can’t even remember the first cat’s name.

  8. We’ve got a Tilt in Tempe, Az and they’ve got a great selection of games old and new. Pinball too! It’s the closest I can get to the old days. My kids love it too.

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