Did Japan Kill American Arcade Games?

By Donald Ash | Japanese Video Games

I don’t know how it was in your state, or in your country but in ‘Jawja’ (Georgia) back in the early 90’s EVERY major mall had an arcade? American arcade games were as much a craze as they were a social gathering.

You’d walk in on a Friday night or a Saturday/Sunday afternoon and see gamers of all kinds! There were the little, quiet, nerdy assasins (who’d beat you without saying a word).

There were the thug gamers who would talk trash as they beat you senseless…virtually (but could probably kick your ass in real life, too (…gulp)).

Then you had the ladies, who I always found kinda hot for some reason...those ones who'd show up once in a blue moon to remind all the dudes that lady gamers have skills, too!

How Japan Killed the American Arcade Article

There was something special about those games. Sigh, I remember those days so well.

“Cue the fuzzy flashback effect!”


I gave my pops a call one fine Father’s Day, and just talking to him flooded my mind with all of these wonderful memories. I feel so fortunate to have a father who wasn’t just around (which isn’t guaranteed, let’s be honest) but did his very best to mold me into a decent human being. I recalled all the times he was super strict (military captain & chaplain) and, now that I’m an adult, I have such an appreciation for what he was trying to do. Love you, Dad!

But life wasn’t all about discipline, sometimes things were just downright fun!

One of my favorite, recurring memories was when my Dad would peek his head in the living room on a Sunday afternoon would say to my little brother and I:

Dad: (in my best fatherly voice) “Hey boys, y’all wanna go to the arcade?”
Us: YES! (in our minds…”HELL YEAH!” but I wouldn’t say that to my Dad, because I enjoy having my teeth)

That was the magic question I don’t think we ever said no to. We’d be all grins, ear to ear, as we rushed to throw on our jeans and sneakers…

My Dad, my brother and I would go to South Dekalb Mall, and Pops would give us $5.00 a piece. It doesn’t sound like much now, but back in my day (crotchety, old man voice) arcade games used to cost a quarter. You put your bill in the change machine and out would flow 20 glorious arcade tokens. Cue the sprightly, happy, Sims Music! My brother and I would put our coins in our pocket, all excited and wide-eyed. We’d look at each other and ask “What are you gonna play first?” We got very good at strategizing the best possible way to get our tokens to last us as long as humanly possible.

Dad would mostly just watch…but he’s a gamer now, though

There were several arcades I would frequent with my little bro and my friends (Bobby, if you’re reading this…do you remember when we used to go to the arcades back in the 6th and 7th grade? Good times…good times.) The “Gold Mine” at Northlake Mall, “Challenges” at Market Square Mall (aka North Dekalb Mall), and the South Dekalb Mall Arcade were my Georgia go to spots. Or I remember staying with friends and we’d go to arcades on the other side of town. Good times…good times.


I remember walking into the arcade one of those Sunday afternoons and being puzzled to see how sparse it was around many of the arcade machines. It was weird, because from the outside, the arcade sounded quite busy. I knew there were a lot of people in there. I scanned to my left and BOOM! I saw a crowd of gamers absolutely packed around two machines. There were so many people, I could barely see the name of the game they were going ape sh%t over. As people would lose, the crowd would shift just enough for my slender, prepubescent body to slip through the crowd enough to get a glimpse of the title…Street Fighter II.

Did Japan Kill American Arcade Games? SF2

I classified American arcade games in either one of two categore pre-Street Fighter 2 and post Street Fighter 2. It was crazy how insanely popular this game really was!

Street Fighter 2 was the fighting game that changed everything! I mentally break down arcade gaming into pre-Street Fighter II and Post Street Fighter 2. Arcades went from being just good…to downright great! Don’t get me wrong, there were some amazing classics (Double Dragon, X-Men, Pac Man, Galaga, Rygar) that were released before that. But this game was like a hypnosis box. People would go to that machine…never to return again. Okay, they did come back, but this game had some serious pull on people, and their game tokens.

We would go to the arcade more often, and I remember learning how to play, but never really being all that great. My brother Derrick, though, was really good. He’d be one of those repeat players. You know the ones that beat like 7 or 8 people in a row. He would take on all comers. I loved watching him because he wouldn’t brag or boast, HE was one of those quiet storm players (love you, too, Derrick!)

Boy, do I ever miss those arcade glory days.


Which home-gaming console gaming started it all for you? Was it the Atari 2600? Was it the Sega Master System? An overpriced Neo Geo? Turbografx 16? I’m just kidding, nobody had a TurboGrafx 16 (hehehe). The first official console that my family owned was the Nintendo Entertainment System (cue the Hallelujah Chorus)*. I remember playing Pitfall & Popeye on an Atari 2600 as a VERY little boy.

But I think the systems that really changed what gaming was, were that Super Nintendo** and the Sega Genesis.

Sure all of the cool people owned Super Nintendos (hehehehe), but these were the systems that marked the end of the arcade era in the early to mid 90’s. My Nintendo was crazy amazing, fun, but it wasn’t the arcade. When I played the Super NES for the first time, it was a system unlike any other I had ever played. The controls were incredibly responsive and it had amazing capabilities that it’s predecessor, the Famicom/NES didn’t: namely 16-bit graphics (whatever the hell that means). The 16-bit systems revolutionized home gaming.

*I’m excluding the hours spent playing World Games, California Games, King’s Quest, and Death Sword on the family Apple IIe computer.
**Super Famicom, short for “Super Family Computer,” was the Japanese equivalent for the Super NES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) which was made by the same, wildly famous Japanese game company, Nintendo.

So many of my friends had these 16-bit systems. We would go over each others’ houses and game for hours on end.

Japan Killed the American Arcade Games

I miss the arcade days of old. While I love this system and think it was one of the best home gaming consoles ever created, it was the beginning of the end for the arcade (sniff, sniff)


Anybody remember playing Street Fighter 2 on your Super NES or Sega Genesis? Amazing, right? Game companies didn’t always get these arcade fighting games to transfer well (right, Pit Fighter?). But when it was a big title, game companies made these games so close to the arcade experience that it was hard to tell the difference. Yes there were minor differences in sound but and slight graphic alterations, but it was ONLY minor.

Home gaming became more and more popular. You bought a game once and played it as much as you wanted to. My Dad eventually stopped asking up to go the arcade, because our desire to do so had waned. Now, with the blow of a cartridge (somebody knows what I’m talking about), a gentle press, and the slide of a switch, we had in front of us all of the gaming we could stomach, in comfort of our own home.

Once kids started bringing their instruction booklets to class to show of their new games, I knew then that the arcade was going to be a thing of the past. Other popular arcade games would go on to be released on the SNES: Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat II, Final Fight, other versions of Street Fighter, and more.

Arcades started becoming less popular, the buzz faded to a low hum, crowds started to disappear, and save a few malls…the arcade magic….died (Donnies eyes start to well up).

Yes, I loved the home systems just as much as anybody. They were as awesome as they were convenient. However, there was something magical about going to the arcade with my father and brother. Or having a sleepover and having friends join in the same bonding time, that the men in my family valued so much.


After coming to Japan, though I realize that old school arcades still exist! While they’re a mere shadow of what they were pre-home console. Arcades are still quite common in Japan. There are several I can think of around Tokyo. On the weekends, you can see groups of kids there gaming, laughing, doing purekuri having a good time. The taiko drumming games are pretty popular as are the dancing and racing games (the ones that are more reliant on external equipment to fulfill the experience (dance pads, car simulation machines, etc.).

Admittedly, I don’t really game all that much anymore. But it’s interesting to see how gaming is changing. How people are busier than ever, how simple games have come back with a vengeance because of the popularity of apps, iphones, tablets and so many people on the go. But from time to time I like to slow down and get nostalgic. I’ll walk into an old school-style arcade just to look around and see what’s there.

I tried going in to play the latest Street Fighter installment at one of these new school arcades, and got completely WAXED!

Kinda felt like old school athlete competing with a new class of players, but then again, I wasn’t really all that good back in the day. It wasn’t about losing, it was about high-fiving your lil bro and your buddies after taking out Krang with your nunchakus and ninja weapons, it was laughing, it was about be amazed by what some gamers could do, it was about unabashedly being a part of a nerd community, it was about bonding and having fun.


You only have to do five (unless you want to do more of course). But I’m gonna do ten! This list is a mix of both 80’s and 90’s arcade games I loved. I wish I could say they’re listed in order of importance, but I that wouldn’t be trues. On any given day, any of these games could be an absolute joy to play:

1. Street Fighter 2

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the very first one)


4. Final Fight

5. X-Men (Couldn’t like 10 people play this game at one time?)

6. Marvel vs Capcom 2 (epic! I think the PS2 version sells for top dollar to this VERY day!)

7. Rygar

8. Dragon’s Lair/Space Ace (the ones that looked just like cartoons, where you had to react fast)

9. Gauntlet

10. Ms. Pac Man (Okay, so it’s not the manliest game in the world, but I like it. Or maybe it’s because that’s the machine where I got one of my first childhood kisses…sigh…oh no…I mean, that’s where I DIDN’T kiss that girl, Mom and Dad because you raised me right? Hee hee hee?)


Let’s finish up with another top list. What are your top five favorite American ARCADE games? Let me clarify that. While I know the vast majority of popular American arcade games were developed in large part by Japanese programmers, which of those games that were released in the U.S., did you like best?

The twist is. Arcade only! Not NES, not Sega Genesis, not SNES, not Playstation, etc. I want to know the down and dirty, best arcade of all time.  And, YES! They can be old-school games, too.


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • Jess says:

    I had an Atari before you were even an idea in your daddy’s head, so here’s my list! HA!

    Atari 2600: Adventure, Pac-man and Joust
    Nintendo: Super Mario Bros. and Kid Icarus
    Sega Genesis: Sonic and Mortal Kombat
    Playstation: Socom and COD

    • james says:

      Near where we live we have a dave and busters. I have spent many of a friday nights playing multi player trivia and stand up shooting games there. The arcade is not dead in america it just has evolved.

      • Donald Ash says:

        Great point James. I didn’t think about Dave N’ Busters. It’s definitely an evolution based around the arcade model. It’s fun, but it’s not like it used to be.

    • Donald Ash says:

      Well…umm…back when I was a kid, we used to draw our own video games, LOL! No, I have to tip my hat to the Atari players, because that was before my time. Your controllers weren’t even the same. You had that weird knob controller for Pong. Why did I know you were gonna say Socom? I think the vast majority of gamers who have been in the military like Socom. My Dad like that one, too (rightfully so, it’s a good game). OHHHHHHH!!!! JOUST!!!! My fingers used to hurt from plying that game so much (on the Nintendo of course). GREAT LIST!!

  • jaison smith says:

    Man u went there… I remember that big arcade at the cnn center (im mad I don’t remember the name). That is hard to call out the best arcade game mot on a system.. I don’t have an order but ms. Pac man and galaga ( when I get a bigger house I WILL have the ms. Pac man/galaga class of 1980 aracde machine in my basement; when I checked 5 years ago it was about 1700.) Also marvel vs. Capcom 2. I would spend hours watching people play and now 3-4 years later its on a system.. all the time crisis games with the automatic pistol. I think there are 4 now. I loved battletoads and TMNT 2 – translation ( donald I know u don’t need one) teenage mutant ninja turtles 2 the arcade game. The hardest thing for me about the arcade we’re those low block, high punch combo moves in a clockwise or counter-clockwise motion… u had to be in there ALL DAY to learn that or actually have time to read the panel to decipher and try out the move… man I miss those days.. the only one I know is still around is challenges. I walk. In last week tho. They made it smaller and weren’t the mega hit games in there therefore not bringing the gamers in there.. I did see tekjen 6 but I don’t think it was working.. I forgot about house of the dead as well.. no order just my favs. Im done and sad.. we need to become millionaries and get the arcade back and have challenges like that movie that featured for the first time super mario 3 and the power glove. I know im getting old if I can’t remember one of the most anticipated movies of my pre-teenage years. The first look at the unreleased new game.. then for them to know the tricks like disappearing behind the white block and finding the whistle and they did this in like 3 minutes…oh just let me pull out my nintendo from xmas 87.. yes it still works to a t… pull out super tecmo bowl, excitebikw, contra, spy hunter, rad racer, ikari warriors.. I got this… to remember more and even purchase go to http://www.estarland.com... my website plug… legendary wings, gyromite… im DONE!!! 🙂

    • Donald Ash says:

      Jaison!! Thanks for posting. Man, Jaison, do you remember Bobby from 6th grade, he posted on one of the articles, too. It’s great to hear from the old Snapfinger crew!

      Nah, YOU took it there. Talk about diggin’ up so cool memories! How could I possibly have forgotten the Ninja Turtles games?! Those were truly my teamwork favorites!

      Did you pull out Spy Hunter, Super Tecmo Bowl, Contra, Battletoads (with the cool pause beat), Rad Racer, and the Ikari Warriors from the NES days? You are playing with fire! INCREDIBLE LIST!! 😀 I remember that movie, too “The Wizard.”

      Man I would love to be a part of that arcade project if I had the money. Which mall would we do it at, though?

      Thanks for stopping by, Jaison.

    • Derrick says:

      Oh My God! (Yes I spelled it out!) Jaison, you hurt’em with that response, doc. I don’t believe I missed TMNT either. Michelangelo was my favorite turtle to use. I think Donald loved Leonardo. Talk about a friend/family game. Donald and I used to plot about how to beat each board…”Ok, grab that pizza box because your power is low. Just hang back on this boss because you only have one life left!”

      A couple of other arcade memory highlights!

      1) Two people playing one game because quarters were low!
      2) Enjoying the hell out of your arcade visit when you finally beat (someone) in a fighting game and other people were watching! Aaahahahaha!
      3) Getting to a boss on one of the games and dying because you got scared that the boss took up so much of the screen!
      4) Watching that one kid who was like 12 beat the brakes off of and adult.
      5) Knowing a game was hot because people placed their tokens on the screen to establish “who got next”! lol!

      Oh man I could go on and on! I’m sure I missed some! lol!

  • devin says:

    I’m a good 10 years older than you Donald so let me say in my old man voice “Back in my day….” hahahahah

    The problem is even from a young age I always thought the home console systems were just such a cooler idea. The idea of Arcade games is for the player to insert a quarter, hook them in really fast but kill them off as quickly as possible since the arcade owner has to recoup their losses and ensure turn around. Whereas a console game made their profit at the moment of sale and had no incentive to kill you off…just to make you become hooked and hopefully your friends hooked as well. Consoles encourage long term relationships with a game whereas arcades encourage short-term relationships. Even from a young age, I knew that my relationship with an arcade machine was profit based and my parents both didn’t encourage me or my sister and they refused to buy us any game console systems.

    OKay…off of my soapbox! I need to answer your question. I won’t bother to do a top 5 because the only arcade games I ever played as a child were:

    1) Pole Position
    2) Pacman
    3) Ms Pacman
    4) Dig Dug
    5) Galaga
    6) Centipede

    I was a teenager when Street Fighter came out and during that period I didn’t play and video or console games. I made up for it later by becoming an avid gamer in my late 20s when half-life came out. Yeah I’m weird! 😛

    • Donald Ash says:

      It’s all good. OMG! You have DIG DUG on there?! I haven’t played that in forever. I’m loving everybody’s choices. No, it’s not odd Devin, it’s all good!!

  • Alana Green says:

    I couldn’t figure out why arcades suck in North America. I think part of it has to do with crane games and the expense of licensing in the U.S. compared to Japan. That really makes sense about the home gaming systems though!

    My favorite game?
    Space Invaders! There is an Taito Station arcade in Yokohama that has retro games. I played Space Invaders for 35 yen!

  • Anthony says:

    Man, talk about hitting a soft spot in one’s childhood hhaha. I haven’t been to an arcade in ages and I’m only 25. The games I played back in the mid-to late 90’s were……
    (in no real order since I loved them all equally)
    1. House of the dead (so much money spent on this game trying to beat it…never could though)
    2. NFL Blitz 98 (Elway to Rod Smith all day lol)
    3. Marvel vs Capcom (no one could touch me in this back then. Spiderman/Gambit/Megaman = the ultimate royal attack)
    4. Mortal Kombat (flawless victory)
    5. Initial D stage 3 (Loved this game before I even knew about the anime)

    • Donald Ash says:

      Anthony, who was your favorite Mortal Kombat Character? When House of the Dead first came out, wasn’t like a dollar to play?

  • Ryan McGuinness says:

    I suppose being born in 94′ I’m scratching my head, actually thinking of 5 arcade games I’ve played…luckily I been to an arcade expo before. 🙂

    1) Street Fighter IV
    2) Galaga
    3) Asteroids
    4) Marvel Vs Capcom 2
    5) Mortal Kombat II

    • Donald Ash says:

      I forgot about MVC2. That game isn’t old school, but it is completely noteworthy. One of the smoothest fighting games I’ve ever played. So many characters, too!

  • Nanami says:

    -grins- you have no idea how many times I’ve been quoted saying “Red Warrior needs food badly” with my gaming friends. I still play console games and online games quite a bit but not like I did when I was in college.

    The local mall here had a pretty decent arcade up until about 3-4 years ago. Now it’s about 3-4 subpar machines. I’ve /heard/ about the ones in Japan. It’s always been something of a curiosity to me. Toronto has a few of them that are like mixed in with internet cafes that are full of otakus and scary looking (intimidating) young guys. Not something I was too eager to go into. Though I admit.. I was coerced into para-para, DDR and one of the drum machines last time I did go with a group. Then soundly got my butt kicked on every fighting game xD.

    1) Gauntlet
    2) packman
    3) Tekken
    4) DDR
    5) ….. >>; whack a mole

  • Derrick says:

    Thanks for the accolades on the Street Fighter II game! lol! Do you remember when really good players used to hold the joystick palms up, like they had a South-Paw fighting style that would transfer to the character on the game? lmbo! Those dudes were beasts! Here are my five:

    1)Street Fighter II
    2)RYGAR (Germany Bowling Alley….sentimental attachment)
    4)Marvel vs. Capcom

  • "Tokyo Five" says:

    When I was a teenager (in the ’80s), video arcades were a new phenomenon…and very popular.

    I used to like:

    – Galaxia
    – Space Invaders
    – Pac-Man
    – Star Wars
    – Centipede

    (BTW, please feel free to visit (and comment on) my blog:
    http://tokyo5.wordpress.com )

    • Donald Ash says:

      Tokyo Five! You”ve got some true gems in that list! I never played the old Star Wars game…not that I can remember anyway. But I think I’ve got power pellets in my bloodstream from playing so much Pac Man 🙂

  • Derrick D. Ash says:

    1. Superman (adventure game)
    2. Street Fighter 2
    3. X-MEN (and yes, like 10 dudes on that thing, lol)
    4. Simpsons
    5. NBA JAM (playing with hidden character Sub Zero)

    • YEAH L’IL BRO!!
      That’s a nice list if I do say so myself.
      Aww man, I forgot all about the Superman game and how I always wanted to be the “Red Superman” because he looked different/cooler (although his powers were EXACTLY the same as player one’s, lol).

      Wait, whuuuuut? Sub-Zero in NBA Jam??? No way! I thought i was doing something with “Air Dog” 😀

      On the X-Men game, it was Nightcrawler all day long – if you wanted to survive, Wolvie – if you wanted to look cool, and Dazzler – if you wanted straight up get yourself killed…

      Thanks for sharing, dude!

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