Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Electro-Mechanical Magic.

Lets take a look at some pre-electronic arcade games.  



 What was in the arcades before the advent of video games?
 If you said one-armed-bandits and slot machines you are half right. Because mechanical based arcade games machines shared the floor with the more long-lived pin-ball machines and bandits from far before even I was born.

These arcade games machines were all initially very much mechanical based.

I’ve read first-hand accounts from the people responsible for building these machines and it appears that, towards the end of their run at least, the building process became more of a suck-it-and-see ‘black art’ than a precise science. Many of the people responsible for fixing these electromechanical marvels would freely admit to ‘not know exactly how or why they worked in the way they did half the time.’ The ‘science’ of these machines had evolved into an ‘art’ in much the same way early bedroom-coders would later forge the beginnings of the multibillion dollar/pound video-game industry.

One of the most collectable of these is the ‘World Series’ game released by Rockola in 1937.
This was pretty much a mechanical device, but did have some minimal electricity-run components, so technically this was an early electro-mechanical gaming device.

In the mid to late sixties it was quite common to see a range of electromechanical shooting and racing based games in the arcades.
Although initially more table-like and model-based in design, much of these slowly begun to change into the more recognisable 'cabinet' format that would later be made popular by the video-game. Many of these games would also  forgo the model-based play area if favour of a back-projection based screen interface.
By 1970 Midway’s S.A.M.I. (Surface to Air Missile Interceptor) electromechanical cabinet had a recognisable, albeit massively chunky and tall, arcade-cabinet type shape to it.

The Killer Shark arcade cabinet by SEGA was released in 1972, and was an entirely electro-mechanical based shooter cabinet.
In this game you had to shoot a shark as it flickered around the screen.
This was done by aiming a hefty metal gun bolted to the front of the cabinet.

The shark animation was produced by a flywheel type device that threw an animated analogue image onto the backlit projection screen.
You really had to play these machines in order to appreciate how different they felt, compared to their early digital counterparts. 

There were a few slightly different variations of this cabinet, not all of which used the shark template.

Although very simple by today’s standards this was one of the first games to be played out on a screen, of sorts. These machines stayed around through the late seventies, and in some cases even into the early to mid eighties.

You can catch a glimpse of a ‘Killer Shark’ machine in action on the original ‘Jaws’ movie.

The dying edge of the purely electro-mechanical era brought games like ‘Chopper’ by Bally Midway, released in 1974.

Although the play-area of this game was electro-mechanical based, the main brains of the operation used digital-logic housed on a PCB, but it was still helped out by some electromagnetic logic circuits as well.

By this time the death knell was well and truly sounding for electromagnetic circuits as the digital upstart rapidly gained ground.

But if Space-Wars, Pong, Space-Invaders and Pac-Man were the mega-dinosaurs of video gaming, then surely these electromechanical machines are positively Cambrian in their lineage. They provided the basic building blocks for the evolution of the arcade cabinet-based video-game as we knew it, and without that there may not have ever been a video/computer games industry at all.

I think they should be remembered for that...


  1. I always loved these machines. Here in Chile you still can find them in some small towns near the beach.

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