In ten years, the arcades had pushed forward the boundaries of interactive technology more than NASA had achieved in two decades leading up to the moon landing hoax. And the industry had learnt some hard lessons, paving the way for both revolution and devastation throughout the silver age.
A few years on life support and the videogame industry once again dared to dream of flowing, silver rivers running to and from their coin boxes. The JAMMA standard had served its purpose perfectly and changed the way game developers viewed the woodwork and wiring of their machines. But this new model for compatibility in the arcades wasn't a new idea - it was exactly how home systems had always worked. Gamers shelled out a reasonable, cost-covering price for the hardware, then profits rolled in by supplying a healthy stream of new software - "Give away the razors to sell the blades" as Gillette's marketing gurus once said. Capcom saw no reason why this doctrine couldn't apply to the slowly recovering arcades, too.
Capcom Play System
JAMMA had set the arcade cabinet free, but the game boards were still a one-shot system. The intricate and costly design of the electronics was rarely recycled, and once a game had seen its share of coinage it was retired to the digital knackers' yard. Technology moves quickly, this is true, but in retrospect it does beggar belief that so much silicon was viewed as disposable. It was an archaic method of producing games, and in 1988 Capcom went one step further in building a multi-use arcade cabinet, and rescued a significant portion of the market in doing so.
The Capcom Play System 1 debuted with the well-respected shmup and third instalment of the Jet Pack trilogy, Forgotten Worlds. The CPS-1 was a new concept in the arcades (even though home consoles had been doing it since the very beginning), consisting of a basic control shell which connected to a JAMMA standard cabinet, but accepted additional "daughter board" PCBs containing the actual videogame. Owners of a CPS arcade cab now had the opportunity to replace just the software PCB, and no longer shed the electronic innards of their stale games.
The system board was a monster of gaming technology designed specifically to cater for the hard, fast "'em-up" style of games that were seeing a resurgence in arcades across the world. Although the screen resolution was still geared to suit the standard monitors found in most JAMMA cabs, the 12-bit RGB colour, 10MHz Motorola processor, wealth of dedicated sound capabilities and easy user installation made it a potential revolution in floor standing gaming.
The reduced hardware costs, rather than technical aptitude, were the enticement for starving arcade operators, but ultimately it was the games that were going to determine the future of Capcom's bold venture. During its short, but prestigious lifespan, the CPS-1 brought over 30 classic (and not so classic) titles to the coin-heavy coin-op gamer from seminal shooter sequel 1941, through platform legend Strider and beat-'em-up beauty Final Fight.
But what really launched the CPS-1 into worldwide industry recognition was Street Fighter 2; a title that requires no introduction and by its mere mention provides you, dear reader, with an explanation as to the success Capcom's arcade system enjoyed. Unfortunately for Capcom it also brought another prolific trend from the home games industry to the sticky arcade floor; piracy. Bootlegging of the game boards was rife, especially once the Street Fighter sequel brought the coin-op industry back to life in a way not seen since Pac-Man.
This wasn't the first time arcade hardware had been plagued by clones. It might seem like a task that's far too monumental to be worthwhile, but recreating complex electronic systems for the sake of reeling in a box of 10p pieces was a side industry that supported itself quite admirably. Street Fighter 2 made that illicit practice all the more tantalising for software swashbucklers, and unfortunately the CPS-1 system was completely unprepared. At one point, hardware rip-offs of SFII were as, if not more, prevalent than the official boards, and what with the generic visage of a standard JAMMA cabinet for camouflage, an illicit copy was almost impossible to spot.
To counter act this profit sapping problem, the only real solution was new hardware - the CPS-1 simply couldn't be hacked to protect the games. In 1993 the CPS-2 was released to carry Super Street Fighter 2 to glorious, encrypted grandeur.
Essentially the same hardware, only with a diabolical encryption system and a colour coordinated plastic casing, pirates were stopped in their tracks by the incredibly high levels of protection surrounding the code. It wasn't until 2001 (long after the CPS-2 was out of play) that the encryption was finally cracked, though another, unintentional, stumbling block was placed under the feet of would-be code assassins.
The CPS-2 game boards used a battery backed up memory containing the decryption keys necessary to unlock the game, but as they years dawdled by, these batteries died - taking the unlock codes with them.
Whether or not this was an intentional self-destruct system (it seems unlikely, although suspicion arises as Capcom still provide a modestly priced service to replace lost decryption keys in CPS-2 "B" boards) it's difficult to say, but the "suicide battery", as it's become known, is a constant thorn in the side of arcade collectors.
Almost as many games were released on the CPS-2 system and its predecessor, though the arcades were a changing place (once again) and the sheer volume of units sold didn't nearly compare to the developer's first incredible concept that silently revolutionised the arcades.
While it's not particularly apparent to the gamer on the street, most of the big companies have attempted to bring the two distant realms of videogaming - the arcade and home console - closer together. Easily the most famous of these (and closest to achieving this holy grail of videogame systems) was SNK's much lauded Neo Geo console. Incorporating a system practically identical to Capcom's CPS-1 concept (only with considerably more flexible hardware), arcade addicts and the richest of the rich kids could play the same games by the coin, or by the TV.
In 1994, Capcom attempted to compete directly with the high-end Neo Geo, and its CPS Changer system was released. Although the "CPS" part shouldn't be confused with the actual arcade hardware from a few years hence, the concept was essentially the same - arcade comparable games (in both quality and price) for your front room. The Changer system could only really be categorised as a failure, but the principle behind it and JAMMA compatible technology were sound, and had the gaming tastes not shifted toward in-depth home computer titles, Capcom might still have been a hardware contender today. It's also the reason the CPS Changer is such a collector's commodity today, so keep an eye out for a tasty, "R@RE" catch.
This attempted bridging of the two gaming worlds wasn't unidirectional, of course. During the mid '80s Nintendo attempted, quite successfully, to put its extensive NES development to coin-fishing good use. The PlayChoice-10 was an attempt to reinvigorate the arcades by changing the way gamers paid for their entertainment, yet it also adopted the advice previously bestowed upon the entire industry by JAMMA.
These arcade machines housed a modified version of the console hardware which contained ten (equally modified) NES games. Instead of buying three lives, a credit would get gamers a set amount of time in which they could play any of the ten built-in games as many times as they liked. For a short while, this alternative method of buying time at an arcade machine proved popular (particularly in the fading light of American videogames) and took another step toward finding the nexus between domestic and commercial game systems.
Of all the game companies, however, Sega has remained consistently devoted to a cross-industry philosophy - repeatedly forging a middle ground between the two realms when creating its games.
Empire of the ages
The Model 1 hardware was designed with the help of a team that would become aerospace manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. The test software for this new 3D capable architecture - a formula one racing simulation - proved so popular with Sega employees it was released as Virtua Racing in 1992, and the extra dimensional revolution began. Game developers had dabbled on and off with three dimensional graphics for a long number of years, but up until this point none had known such realistic gameplay as the newly christened "Virtua" series. With the addition of Virtua Fighter to the Model 1's limited catalogue, 3D arcade games were proven effective in inside of a year, and 2D graphics became an unacceptable expense to the addicted gamer.
Being prohibitively expensive, the Model 1 system brought very few games to the arcade, but its purpose as a field test for the viability of 3D development and investment had been a resounding success, and the Model 2 quickly followed in 1993 to become one of the most popular and exciting pieces of arcade hardware ever seen.
With no less than five graphics processors squeezed into its sophisticated frame, the Model 2 could shift 300,000 polygons around the screen at lightening fast speeds, and the sudden scope for 3D games became a tremendous enticement for game developers. Immediate classics flooded from Sega and repeatedly dazzled gamers with not only their unbelievable graphics, but their unparalleled ingenuity and superior gameplay. Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, Fighting Vipers, Manx TT Superbike and one of the highest grossing arcade games of all time, Daytona USA, were all a result of the Model 2's outstanding abilities.
While Sega never followed Capcom's or SNK's lead in trying to bring hardware of this calibre into people's homes, it did revive Nintendo's concept of using console technology to power arcade games. Despite its cult status, the Dreamcast console never survived the stiff competition in the home market, though its arcade based sister, NAOMI (a tenuous abbreviation of New Arcade Operation Machine Idea - although it's also a rather fitting Japanese name meaning "supreme beauty"), saw a significantly more prestigious lifestyle.
Essentially the same hardware as the ill-fated console (only with lots of extra memory), NAOMI is just as well remembered for making a bold move to remodel the tired shape of arcade cabinets as it was for the games it carried. The sleek, skeletal design and inherent adaptability of the system which took a great many pointers from JAMMA (and was even released through the Association's official channels) made it the perfect platform for the new age of three dimensional graphics.
But after so many years in development, Sega wanted to make sure it capitalised on the NAOMI project fully, and employed a mass production system to bring the cost of the hardware to an absolute minimum before licensing it out to third party designers. NAOMI was the closest machine to ever become an industry-based console system, with its raw processing power and extreme flexibility making it the longest running arcade platform ever used. And since the control boards were capable of being cascaded (with enough room inside the saucy NAOMI Universal Cabinet for up to 16 parallel processing boards), the technology has remained capable to the present day and is still seeing new games being produced.
As we look back over the rhyme and reason for success and failure in the arcades, it seems inevitable that the system will continuously unbalance itself. Software is what attracts the gamers and their trousers full of loose change, but it's the constant struggle to develop, maintain and afford the hardware that delivers that vital code. At times, this remarkable hardware has been in too short supply and we, the players, have queued for ridiculous lengths of time for a few minutes of rasterised indulgence, while at other times the sheer scale and complexity of a dedicated cabinet has left no room inside the arcade for the seasoned gamer.
Even now, however, rumours bubble beneath the surface of this fraught industry about Xbox 360 powered arcade machines and though we might be suffering the longest, driest famine ever seen in the commercial videogame world, the turbulent and fickle history of arcade hardware proves it can all change with a bit of well applied silicon.