The amusement arcade, or video arcade, started life in the early 1900s. Coin-operated devices, like early non-electrical pinball machines, slot machines, peep show machines and “love tester” machines led to the rise of video arcades in the 1970s.
Games like Space Invaders and Galaxian paved the way for the 1980s arcade explosion and later, the golden age of arcades. By the 1990s, the number of arcades in North America was already decreasing, with only a short resurgence in the mid-90s. Now, the arcade only thrives in special locations and venues, Japan, and the new-form “social-tainment” game bars. And of course, in our hearts, memories, and represented movies. Let’s look at the eight best portrayals of arcades in movies, shows and games.
1. The arcade in Robotech
There are many reasons this takes the top slot. It’s where a human, ace pilot Max Sterling, and an alien, Zentraedi warrior Miriya , fell in love (and later they had a baby), while dogfighting in a cool video game. The arcade itself, called “Close Encounter” (hah) and located in downtown Macross City, had it all:
The “onlooker kid” that watches people play, commenting on their skills. Anyone who grew up with and in arcades can relate: we all started just like this.
A racing game based on the car chase part of the classic Lupin III movie. At around the same time as this show, an actual arcade game called Cliff Hanger was released that used spliced-together footage from the Lupin III movies Castle of Cagliostro and Mystery of Mamo. It played like Dragon’s Lair, requiring you to enter in the right inputs during scenes so as not to fail.
But the real gem was Battroid Attack, the arcade game Max and Miriya play. A 3D holographic Virtual-On dog fighting style game, made to look how the animators hoped future games would look. This episode (from the original show Super Dimension Fortress Macross that was used to “make” Robotech later by combining footage) aired in 1983, a long time before hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, and still years away from the sprite scaling-based games SEGA would use to revolutionize the scene.
2. The underground club in Hackers
A horrible and awesome film, Hackers (1995) had it all. Great music, a super-young Angelina Jolie, mild misogyny, sexual innuendo, sweet music by Underworld, and a flagrant disregard for how boring actual hacking is. In the scene you can see above, they’re playing a fake (but licensed) Wipeout arcade style game that was pre-rendered CGI, with the actors merely pretending to play (just like most E3 presentations, hyuck hyuck).
“That’s a nice score for a gurl. Hurr hurr.” says Dade, who then steps up to show her how it’s done.
Yeah, you’re not fooling anyone movie. It was pretty obvious, even back then to 15-year-olds, that the footage for the game was faked. Not because it was high quality, but because the gameplay looked like someone who never played a game before in their life, put it together. Kind of like modern game development.
After beating Kate’s score, Dade actually says: “Well, it looks like I’m on top.” Ah yes, nothing breaks the ice like following up your casual misogyny with deluded sexual innuendo. Pity the girl falls for it.
At least by the end, Kate completely pwns Dade’s ass by being a lynchpin in their hacking attempt of… something. It’s been a long time, I don’t remember much of the movie’s plot. But considering how vapid the premise was, I’m sure the two ended up together and had little hacker babies.
Bonus points for starring a young Penn Jillette!
3. The arcade in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
It’s a Dance Dance Revolution machine, but dressed up to be about Ninja, complete with Japanese “torii gate” trimmings. In a movie built on arcade video gaming motifs, having the actors play an arcade game that’s just a little bit beyond reality (the gameplay is totally unrealistic), is just perfect. The arcade itself gets points for being clean, with what looks to be a variety of machines.
There’s even an Aliens Extermination machine in the background! Those bad boys go for over R300,000 these days.
4. Flynn’s Arcade in Tron
The actual building is located in real life at 9543 Culver Blvd, Culver City, Los Angeles, California 90232, but is now a flower shop. In the Tron movie (1982), the arcade is owned and operated by Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a talented programmer who programmed the fictional Space Paranoids, Matrix Blaster, Vice Squad, Light Cycles and TRON games.
Warm 80s colours, Journey’s “Only Solutions” playing in the background, people having fun, beeps and bloops everywhere. This looked like a place a gamer could call home.
5. The Tron Legacy callback
Looking for his father in the sequel movie to Tron, Sam Flynn enters his dad’s derelict arcade. Flipping a breaker to turn on the power, Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” starts playing. There are dusty machines for Asteroids, Battlezone, Centipede, Crystal Castle, Millipede, Missile Command, Space Duel, Stunt Cycle, Tempest, Warlords, Yar’s Revenge, Galaga and Pole Position. The music and sound effects from Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and Pac Man can also be heard.
It’s sad, but a memorable tribute.
6. The arcade machine in The Last Starfighter
Sure, it may not be an entire arcade – just a few machines sitting outside a trailer park diner – but this movie embodied the dream of every 80s kid. Get good at a game, and suddenly aliens come down and ask for your help in defending the universe, teaming you up with a lizard dude and giving you a sweet space fighter.
Bonus: There’s a freeware recreation of the actual game in the movie, that you can download.
7. The Bishop of Battle
In the 1983 horror anthology Nightmares, one of the stories involves a young video game wizard and arcade hustler called J.J. Cooney trying to reach the mythical 13th level in “The Bishop of Battle”. The “local arcade” depicted in the movie is pitch-perfect, complete with Atari-palette duo-tone lined brown carpet, bleeps and bloops, and possibly the most perfect shot ever of an 80s arcade player (as represented in film):
Just look at that beauty. Red tank top, headphones attached to a Walkman, that hair, the arcade backdrop. Hold me, it’s too much.
Bonus points for the big-rimmed glasses nerd friend called “Zock”. The movie itself is pretty trashy - J.J. breaks into the arcade at night, reaches the 13th level and suddenly the game’s enemies fly out into the real world. He fights them off, but is ultimately trapped in the game and… dies, or something.
8. The arcade in Shenmue
Arguably one of the most ambitious games ever made, Shenmue (1999) for the SEGA Dreamcast was a miniature world to explore complete with a working arcade called You GAME. Located on the main street in Dobuita, you had to pay to play one of the six machines, which included complete versions of Hang On and Space Harrier. Time passed in-game as you played, so if you weren’t careful, you wouldn’t have time to do your job, or play with kittens, or sleep.
Honourable mention: Litwak’s Arcade from Wreck-It Ralph
Owned by Stan Litwak (inspired by real world Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day), Litwak’s Arcade is a homage to everything that was the arcade scene.
Neon trimmings, darkened room to make the screens more vibrant, and tokens. That’s the stuff. They even made a pitch-perfect fake TV ad for the arcade, which acted as a viral video for the movie: