What characteristics define the "arcade" genre or style of console games?



  • In the 1980's, an "arcade" game was one that you played by feeding quarters into it in a public place. Businesses known as "arcades" built up collections of these coin-operated games and made them available to the public to come in and play. This definition of an "arcade" game specifically excluded games that were played at home on a game console or a more general purpose home computer. Genre, content, or play style had nothing to do with it. Many games that become very popular on consoles, such as Donkey Kong, Pole Position, and Street Fighter, got their start as arcade games that were later ported. The difference was simple. The bulky, stand-alone version that accepted coins was the "arcade" version, and the console version was the "console" or "home" version. Life was easy to understand.

    In more recent years, I've seen various references to "arcade" or "arcade-style" games appearing on consoles. For example, in the article https://videogamecritic.com/3doinfo.htm , the author states "There were precious few arcade-style titles [on the 3DO] like those enjoying popularity on the 16-bit systems.". Similarly, in a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHCeMKJ3QHw , the author lists console games that they feel are "arcade" without defining the term. This is, of course, despite the fact that none of the games listed are found in public arcades and none of them can be fed physical coins.

    In modern-day console gaming, what defines an "arcade" game or title from one which is not "arcade"?

    • Are there specific elements of game play or content that need to be present for a game to be considered "arcade"? For example, perhaps "twitch" style gaming with precisely timed moves defines the arcade genre while games that rely on less twitchy, more strategic or turn-based approaches do not qualify.
    • Is it based on an overall feeling of nostalgia hearkening back to dank 1980's shopping mall arcades? In other words, modern-day "arcade" titles feel like they would have fit into those antiquated venues had they actually been around then. This does not reference any specific elements of content, but overall look and feel. If my child-self had encountered a time-traveling 2022 game in a 1988 arcade and thought, "Yes, this belongs here, and wow", it is "arcade". If I would have thought, "WTF is this doing here? It looks really advanced but it clearly doesn't fit in here", then it's not an "arcade" title.
    • Is it based on heritage, i.e. an "arcade" game is any game based on or a sequel to a game that was an actual physical arcade game? This would mean, for example, that a hypothetical future Pac-Man MMORPG would be automatically considered an "arcade" title because the original Pac-Man game was an arcade game. This would also mean that any and all Donkey Kong games, regardless of play style or content, are inherently arcade games (since the original Donkey Kong was a physical arcade cabinet), while there cannot possibly be a Doom "arcade" game on a console by definition since the original game started as a PC title.


  • I'm going to list some characterizations of many arcade games, and I think if a game has these elements, then it probably qualifies.

    Core Elements:

    A game has to have these to qualify as an arcade game

    Tight core gameplay loop - The game doesn't have too much fluff, you're not going to watch a 5 minute cutscene, you can pick up and play without anything more than a character/level select.

    Levels - The game is broken up into discrete segments that can be completed in one quick sitting.

    Lack of meaningful progression - You might unlock new character or levels, but you aren't getting serious loot to use in the future. Any stories are pretty self contained and don't lead to a in-depth story. Progression pretty much amounts to getting better at the game.

    Simple Controls: - Sure, some arcade games (fighting games especially) involve frame perfect inputs and long strings of commands, but most can be carried out with 6 buttons and one joystick. If you start getting any more than that, you reach the limit of what a cabinet could handle. That's why Rocket League or Halo can't be "arcade games". They require a full controller.

    Lives - Per Graham's comment, arcade games needed some way to kick the player off the cabinet, so many of them had a lives system where you have some leeway (like 3 lives) but after that your turn ends and you get booted back to the main menu. Lives aren't as vital in multiplayer games like racing/fighting games. You're probably kicked back to the main menu/have to pay more money after each race/fight.

    Auxiliary elements:

    Arcade games can have some or none of these and still qualify as arcade games

    Community Score tracking - High scores or speedrun timers so you can compare your results with your friends

    Local Multiplayer - If you can imagine a group of people crowded around a cabinet duking it out, it probably qualifies

    Over the top gameplay - As Tom said above, a racing game is more likely to feel "arcade-y" if you can blow up your opponents or use boost on your car, whereas a realistic racing game doesn't contain those over the top elements.

    Rapidly Increasing Difficulty - To get players to keep feeding quarters, old arcade games had insane difficulty spikes to kick users off the cabinet. For 3 decades it was thought that Tetris had a "kill screen" that was humanly impossible to survive. (Thanks for the suggestion Graham)

    I think these elements are all important, you can see them in pretty much every old arcade game, and you can also apply them to modern games that qualify as "arcade-y" like Towerfall, Nidhogg, Resogun, or Geometry Wars. Each of those games have short levels, gameplay that can be learned in a matter of seconds, 3 buttons + joystick max, and the only progression is unlocking new levels and gitting gud.




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