How Do Arcade Games Work?

By Jared Newman

Updated September 22, 2017

How Do Arcade Games Work?
i (Joshua Driggs and bayo, used under Creative Commons ShareAlike Attribution 2.0)

The Belly of the Beast

It takes a degree to know exactly what's going on here.

As magical as they seemed in the 1970s and '80s, arcade games operate on the same basic principles as today's home consoles. While our preferred casings have changed over the years, there's still a motherboard inside, controlling all the action. Of course, newer systems have made all sorts of improvements, adding additional graphics cards, hard drives and DVD players, but in arcade machines, the gaming itself originates from one Printed Circuit Board. It's actually possible to swap out those boards to play a different game on the same arcade cabinet. This saved arcade owners the trouble of hauling in a new machine when, say, the latest version of Mortal Kombat was released.

Let There be Light

Classic arcade games used two kinds of display monitors. Raster displays, whose graphics are comprised of tiny pixels, were the most popular, seen in games such as Pac-Man, Galaga and Space Invaders. Veteran players of Asteroids and Lunar Lander might be familiar with vector graphics. The displays in these games are drawn from calculated sets of lines, sacrificing the colorful objects of raster graphics in favor of a smoother, wire-frame look. Regardless of the display type, arcade monitors have their own Printed Circuit Boards, which connect to the main game board and allow players to see Pac-Man munching all those dots.

Joysticks, Paddles, Trackballs ... Oh My!

Nowadays, all the classics are easily available outside of the arcade, repackaged for consoles or downloadable over the Internet, but it's not the same without palm-sized joysticks and big, springy buttons. When a player mashes the "Fire" button during a heated game of Galaxian, it sends a signal by wire to a specific part of the game's Printed Circuit Board, telling the game to hoist a laser at the incoming aliens. Arkanoid, a game that uses a sliding knob instead of a joystick, tells the game how quickly the player is moving to the left or right.

The House that Pong Built

Hulking, wooden monstrosities of varying shapes and sizes, the cabinet itself is part of the arcade machine's allure. Whether it's a traditional upright cabinet or a sit-down "cocktail" machine, the cabinet's main function is to house all the equipment while withstanding beverage stains, cigarette smoke and the angry kicking of frustrated gamers. It also serves to advertise. The marquee on top of the cabinet usually lights up when plugged in. Because arcade machines work in similar fashion to any video game, a substantial number of people have decided to build a cabinet themselves--buy an old, gutted one online--and fit it with either a console or a computer. Some arcade parts suppliers even sell accessories that reduce the amount of required technical know-how. It's as simple as connecting all the parts.