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Tracing the Evolution of Arcade Cabinet Designs

Arcade gaming has a rich and storied history, and one of the most iconic aspects of this history is the design of arcade cabinets. These gaming machines, with their unique shapes, vibrant artwork, and distinctive features, have played a pivotal role in shaping the arcade experience over the decades. In this article, we'll embark on a journey through time to trace the evolution of arcade cabinet designs, from their humble beginnings to the cutting-edge creations of today.

The Birth of Arcade Cabinets

The roots of arcade cabinets can be traced back to the early 1970s when video games were in their infancy. The very first arcade cabinets were simple wooden or metal boxes housing the game's hardware, complete with a coin slot for players to insert their quarters. These cabinets had a utilitarian design, with little focus on aesthetics or branding.

However, as the popularity of arcade games grew, so did the need for more visually appealing and engaging cabinet designs. Arcade operators and game developers began to realise the importance of making their cabinets stand out to attract players. This marked the beginning of a new era in arcade cabinet design.

The Classic Upright Cabinet

One of the most iconic and enduring arcade cabinet designs is the classic upright cabinet. Introduced in the late 1970s and prevalent throughout the '80s and '90s, this design featured a vertical orientation with a single, large screen. These cabinets were known for their distinctive artwork, eye-catching marquees, and ergonomic control layouts.

Games like 'Pac-Man,' 'Space Invaders,' and 'Donkey Kong' were synonymous with the classic upright cabinet design. The artwork on these cabinets often featured vibrant characters and scenes that captured the essence of the game. The marquee, situated at the top of the cabinet, displayed the game's title in bold, colourful letters, making it easily visible from a distance.

The control panel, typically positioned at waist height, housed the joystick and buttons, allowing players to comfortably play the game while standing. The classic upright cabinet became a symbol of the arcade's golden age and continues to be celebrated for its timeless design.

Cocktail and Table-Style Cabinets

In addition to the classic upright design, arcade cabinets also embraced a more social and communal gaming experience with the introduction of cocktail or table-style cabinets. These cabinets featured a flat, horizontal screen and allowed two players to sit opposite each other, facing the screen.

Games like 'Galaga,' 'Ms. Pac-Man,' and 'Joust' were often found in cocktail cabinets. The design encouraged players to engage in cooperative or competitive gameplay, making it a popular choice for couples and friends. The table-style design also allowed for a unique gaming perspective, immersing players in the action from a different angle.

The 'Candy Cab' Revolution

Across the globe, Japanese arcades introduced a futuristic and sleek design known as the 'candy cab.' These cabinets, popular from the late '80s onwards, featured a vibrant and colourful aesthetic, often adorned with neon lights and intricate detailing.

'Candy cabs' were known for their modular design, allowing for easy swapping of game boards, monitors, and control panels. This versatility made them a popular choice for arcades that wanted to offer a diverse range of games. The design of 'candy cabs' not only added to the visual appeal of arcades but also set a new standard for arcade cabinet functionality.

Artistic Evolution: Marquees and Side Art

The artwork on arcade cabinets became increasingly sophisticated and played a pivotal role in attracting players. Marquees, side art, and control panel overlays were all canvases for artistic expression. Talented graphic designers were tasked with creating visually striking imagery that not only showcased the game but also conveyed its essence.

Marquees, the backlit signs at the top of the cabinet, often featured the game's logo and key characters or scenes. These marquees were designed to be captivating from a distance, enticing passersby to step closer and try the game.

Side art adorned the sides of the cabinet, providing a detailed visual narrative of the game. These illustrations featured characters, action sequences, and vibrant landscapes that brought the game world to life. The side art added to the overall aesthetic appeal of the arcade and contributed to the immersive experience.

Control panel overlays featured button layouts and artwork that matched the game's theme. They not only provided a practical function but also added to the visual cohesion of the cabinet.

Physical Innovation: Unique Cabinet Shapes

Arcade cabinet designers often experimented with unconventional shapes to create a distinct identity for their games. Games like 'After Burner' featured cabinets that resembled the cockpit of a fighter jet, complete with a rotating seat and flight stick. 'OutRun,' a popular racing game, was housed in a sit-down cabinet shaped like a sports car.

These unique cabinet designs not only enhanced the gameplay experience but also added an element of novelty and excitement. Players felt more immersed in the game world, as the physical design of the cabinet mirrored the in-game action.

Multiplayer and Environmental Cabinets

Arcades continued to innovate with designs that encouraged social interaction and environmental immersion. Multiplayer cabinets, such as 'X-Men' and 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' featured large screens and multiple sets of controls, allowing several players to join forces and battle together. These cabinets transformed arcades into hubs of cooperative gaming and camaraderie.

Environmental cabinets, like 'Dance Dance Revolution' and 'Time Crisis,' created unique and immersive gaming experiences. 'Dance Dance Revolution' featured a raised platform with pressure-sensitive pads for dancing, while 'Time Crisis' used a pedal system to simulate ducking for cover. These cabinets not only provided a physical challenge but also added a layer of spectacle to arcade gaming.


The evolution of arcade cabinet designs reflects not only the technological advancements in gaming but also the creativity and innovation of designers and developers. From humble beginnings as utilitarian boxes to the cutting-edge, immersive marvels of today, arcade cabinets have come a long way.

The enduring appeal of arcade cabinets lies not only in their gameplay but also in their ability to transport players into different worlds through visual and physical design. These cabinets have left an indelible mark on the gaming industry and continue to captivate players, making every trip to the arcade a unique and memorable experience. As technology continues to advance, it's exciting to imagine what the future holds for the world of arcade cabinet design.

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