Photos: The golden age of video arcades

Further proof 80s kids are still cooler than us

A video arcade aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, 1982. (National Archives)

Put down your Halo headsets for a moment and remember, if you will, a time before “gaming.” In the early 1980s, video games were a still a standing sport, as much a social activity as entertainment. Arcades served as de facto recreation centers for a generation of soda guzzling, sticky fingered kids. Pockets stuffed with quarters, they gathered in dark, carpeted rooms to shoot bad guys and chase frogs across busy motorways. And they did it together.

The years between 1978 and 1983 are generally considered the golden age of video games. Most recognize Space Invaders as the original, arcade game to reach mass audiences, quickly followed by Asteroids (1979), Centipede (1980), and Pac-Man (1980). Space Invaders was such a hit it was rumored that Japan suffered a shortage of ¥100 coins in its wake. But Pac-Man was the real game changer. Stateside, reception of the ground breaking character-driven game was ravenous, and by the end of the 20th century it was estimated that Pac-Man’s total gross consumer revenue had hit $2.5 billion (or 10 billion quarters).


By the mid eighties the popularity of video arcades had begun to wane, a result of the availability of personal computers and home gaming consoles like SEGA Genesis and Nintendo. Arcade attendance experienced further swells with the introduction of new game styles—beat ’em ups like Double Dragon (1987) and Final Fight (1989)—but their popularity never returned to earlier levels. By 1991 arcade game revenue in the U.S. had fallen to $2.1 billion, down from $8 billion in 1981.

With American youth experience only becoming more insular, it seems the arcade is relegated to the memory of aging pre-millennials and nostalgists. But for grown children of a certain age the jingling quarters, sticky plastic surfaces and crunchy carpeting of the arcade will always conjure deviant yearnings for those glowy-dark sanctuaries our mothers always warned us about.

Playing Pac-Man at an arcade in Times Square, 1982. (Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)
Asteroids. New York, 1981. (AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett)
Frogger, 1983. (Flickr)
Double Dragon. Chicago, 1987. (James Newberry/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
A crowded arcade in Hollywood in 1982. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
A home basement arcade in upstate New York, 1985. (Flickr)
Screen detail of Crazy Otto, a Pac-Man knock off arcade game, 1981. (Dan Mccoy/Getty Images)
Stompin’. Chicago, 1985. (AP Photo/Mark Elias)
Flight simulator game F-15 Strike Eagle, 1991. (AP Photo/Andrew Savulich)

Correction: This post was updated to reflect the proper release date of Centipede and the name of the game that caused the shortage of ¥100 coins.