Over the years, the idea of what makes arcades a unique experience has jumped all over the place. In the earliest days of arcades, they were distinct simply by being the place where you found new games. And in this time through the 90’s, arcades continued to establish their uniqueness by being more advanced than what you could find in your own home. Sure, there were plenty of home ports, but did they even come close to rivaling the cutting-edge sound and visual quality of the arcade versions? And of course, specialized controls like steering wheels and light guns helped, too.
However, as home console technology advanced and arcade hardware was no longer expanded upon as exponentially as it was in the past, this differentiating factor soon ceased to exist. In fact, sad as it is, many modern arcade games actually have poorer graphical fidelity than what you can find on consoles. While arcades still had specialized controls to their advantage, the real differences between consoles were becoming too few to really matter. So, because of this, arcades have had to find other ways to draw players in. They’ve had to redefine what makes the “arcade experience” so unique. After all, if you can’t beat ‘em in graphics, you might as well find another way to carve your niche.
As of late, the arcade experience has become increasingly flashy and gargantuan. Think about the new rail shooters on the market: Almost none of them have been released in standard upright cabinets. Nowadays, huge, environmental, theater-style, deluxe cabinets have become the norm. Games are housed in their own enclosed units with all kind of tech you would be hard-pressed to faithfully recreate at home—huge 55-inch monitors, 5.1 surround sound, force feedback, wind effects, stereoscopic 3D, and, of course, specialized controls. Arcades have found a new way to create a unique experience; they’ve found a new edge.
However, I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. By adding a bunch of newfangled bells and whistles, are we really creating a special arcade experience? Do we really add anything of value? Or instead, are these perfectly normal gaming experiences dolled up with expensive gimmicks? While I love deluxe arcade cabinets to death because of just how fun they are, I have to wonder if this is a real arcade experience. Is this really the way to draw players in?
To me, one of the truest arcade experiences has always been and will always be the Dance Dance Revolution series of games. (And of course, Pump It Up, In the Groove, and StepManiaX by association.) If you’ve seen DDR cabinet, you know it’s hardcore stuff. Crisp monitors; big, booming speakers; and, and most importantly, the metal dance pads. You could absolutely play DDR at home; there are, after all, an obscene number of console releases. However, it’s not even remotely the same experience. The PlayStation 2 dance mats were complete garbage. The Wii mats, while much better, still don’t compare to the metal pads. And while the StepMania mats are probably the best you’ll get with a foldable thin mat, nothing is comparable to those metal pads. Dance Dance Revolution gives you a very compelling reason to leave your house.
There is a very real advantage to using arcade hardware. With a metal pad, one’s movements are much more tactile. The sensors are more accurate. Plus, there’s a bar behind you if you so desire that kind of assistance. And it’s not just the bar, either. Playing DDR in an arcade is an overall better experience in so many, many ways. The custom PCs inside the cabinet are powerful and eliminate as much input lag as possible. The huge song list, at least in the case of DDR A, can’t be played officially in one’s home. The online connectivity of e-AMUSEMENT provides many real advantages, like bonus songs and unlockables. To top things off, you’ve got less quantifiable bonuses, like learning from other players and showing off in public. Dance Dance Revolution is a genuine arcade experience, people.
Now, of course, this can be said for many other simulator-style games. Arcade racing games provide realistic seating, steering wheels, pedals, and shifters. Arcade shooting games provide, you know, actual guns you point at the screen! And while these are very real advantages to the arcade experience—after all, The Fast and the Furious: DRIFT and Time Crisis 5 are games I’d much rather play at arcades—I think Dance Dance Revolution does it in a very special way. The benefits of playing in an arcade are both quantifiable and emotionally satisfying. It’s an experience unlike any other.
Because of this, I think developers should reevaluate how they craft those sought-after “arcade experiences” we’ve been discussing for the past 800 words. Bells and whistles are nice; I enjoy them. But are flashy, expensive games like Star Wars Battle Pod and Dark Escape 4D really any better because of the novel experience they provide? Underneath the huge screens, wind effects, surround sound, and cabinet rumble, aren’t these still just regular games? Have we really provided players with a true advantage over what they play at home? It could be argued both ways, so I think it’s worth diving into.
Deluxe arcade cabinets provide players with a “theater-style” experience, hence why the cabinets themselves often go by that descriptor. When you see a movie in theaters, it’s still the same movie—you could easily view the same exact content at home. But theaters go the extra mile by providing huge projection screens, advanced sound systems, and little conveniences like snack and comfortable seating. The advantages of seeing a movie in theaters are quantifiable to an extent, but at its core, it doesn’t necessarily make the movie any better. This same principle applies to the “arcade experience” of deluxe cabinets. Yes, the flashy bells and whistles are exciting, and they draw me out of my house to play the newest games, but are these games genuinely better because of it?
Dance Dance Revolution is, in fact, genuinely better when played in an arcade. Unless the operator doesn’t bother with cabinet upkeep, it’s always going to feel better and play better than using a plastic mat within the confines of your home. That’s why, as much as I love environmental deluxe cabinets, I think we need to reevaluate what we consider an “arcade experience”. Unfortunately, long gone are the days where having better graphics than console counterparts sealed the deal. These days, it’s the DDRs of the world that keep players coming back. When I’m not playing Dance Dance Revolution A at Dave and Buster’s (which just so happens to be an hour away from where I live), I go through a “withdrawal” of sorts. I keep practicing at home, but I long for the arcades. I want to feel the incredible tactile sensation of stomping on metal pads and creating the beat of the song with your feet. This draws me out of my house. Games like Jurassic Park Arcade do sort of the same thing with flashy cabinets. However, I don’t go because the deluxe experience is cooler than what I get at home—I go because I like the game.
So yes, perhaps we should look at what we consider an arcade experience and make it even more appealing to players. Games just keep getting bigger and bigger—Halo: Fireteam Raven being a prime example—but I want a real reason to leave my house. I want to play something I genuinely can’t experience at home without expensive equipment, like DDR! It’s always important to value substance over flash. Cruis’n Blast may be an exciting, flashy arcade experience, but that doesn’t mean it has any substance. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t have substance compared to its predecessors.) Dance Dance Revolution A, on the other hand, is the best of both worlds. It has flash—the wicked expensive cabinet—and it has substance—over 650 songs and more bonus content than anyone could ever possibly dream of completing. It’s a good, good game.
In conclusion, I guess this article isn’t necessarily critical of anything. I want to praise deluxe arcade cabinets for being riveting, but I want to praise DDR a little more being industrial-strength equipment that gives players a technical advantage to playing in arcades. Both are different, and both are fun. Perhaps developers should look at DDR and think, “What could we make that is truly advantageous in an arcade environment?” After devoting so much of my life to DDR, it’s something I’ve thought about. DanceRush Stardom from Konami is another perfect example of something being better in arcades. You can’t do the running man at home just yet!
I guess that’s it, though. Just musing on the proverbial arcade experience. Games like Dark Escape 4D are just regular rail shooters underneath all that flash, so there’s no reason to make them as big and expensive as they are. (We all know how I feel about the prevalence of big, expensive games in modern arcades.) Maybe it’s time to shake things up—to redefine what makes arcades special.
Thanks for reading, kiddos. I hope I spurred some discussion today.