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Are Arcades Dying? (Are Pinball Arcades Dead?)

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Arcades where you would go to play pinball, Pac-Man, and other old-school arcade machines were all the rage back in the 20th century. Kids and adults alike would spend hours in front of these brightly lit arcade machines.

Many people’s favorite was the pinball machine as you got to enjoy whacking the metal ball around the board while more lights and sounds went off. As home video game consoles became more and more popular in the early ’90s, arcade owners slowly started to close their doors.

But are arcades in general dying? Are pinball-specific arcades totally dead?

Traditional arcades (as many of us knew them as children) are not only dying but they are pretty much gone in America. However, specialty arcades (like barcades & restaurants) have started popping up and are actually quite popular.

Retro classics (like old-school arcade and pinball machines) are still popular but just going to a traditional arcade isn’t. That is why barcades have become popular in recent years.

Adults who remember and enjoyed playing the classic retro games (and pinball machines) get to spend time having fun with friends and family while also enjoying some alcohol. These businesses have become popular destinations for meeting up with friends on a Friday night to have some fun.

Some of these barcades even have modern consoles like the Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendo Switch so that you can challenge your friends in modern games as well as on the old-school Sega arcade machines.

Other popular types of arcades that have sprung up in recent years are those that offer food and drinks while you play. For example, Dave & Buster’s is a popular restaurant that not only allows you to play modern arcade games but also lets you win prizes (like many arcades of years gone by).

However, since Dave & Buster’s (and other similar restaurants) also offer food and drinks, they keep you there for longer and also increase their profit margins.

So although traditional pinball arcades (and regular arcades) have pretty much disappeared, there is still plenty of demand for these old-school games and machines. Matter of fact many people love buying old pinball machines for their home game room rather than visiting a local arcade.

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Why Did Arcades Die?

So I have already mentioned that traditional arcades are pretty much dead here in the USA but why did they die off in the first place? What happened to the arcades that were so popular for many decades and how did they seemingly disappear overnight?

Arcades closed and slowly died off for a few main reasons. Those are:

  • Rise of home gaming
  • The stigma attached to the arcades
  • Didn’t generate enough money
  • The rise in the cost of rent/real estate

There are many different contributing factors to why arcades (pinball arcades or otherwise) have pretty much all closed down. All of these (and many others) reasons mentioned above all contributed to it.

The biggest contributing factor to why arcades closed was simply they weren’t making enough money to stay open.

There is a reason why barcades and restaurants like Dave & Buster’s are able to make money… its because they aren’t just an arcade. They also offer high-profit items like food, drinks, snacks, etc.

Traditional arcades just didn’t bring in enough money to pay for an attendant, the rent, and the electricity to run all of the games when they just made money a quarter at a time. Eventually, as rents increased and wages started to go up the traditional arcades were forced to close.

Barcades are able to make the model work because of the high-profit margins on alcoholic drinks and the fact that they are only open on the most popular days and hours (whereas normal arcades were open all day long with few customers). Restaurants with arcades in them are able to make a profit because of the same reasons (high-profit food and drink items make them money and the arcade is just a way to keep people there longer to sell more food and drinks).

The traditional arcade is likely gone for good, however, you can still enjoy many of your favorite games by heading to your local brewcade or arcade-style restaurant.

If Retro is Back, Where Are the Arcades?

There are many reasons why the arcades disappeared, even though pinball and old-school arcade machine fans remain.

These machines have been around long enough, and most people already know what they’re going to get into and only want to play the game. Only true pinball or arcade enthusiasts care about the design of the game. And in today’s arcades and entertainment centers, there is too much competition for pinball and old-school games to dominate the scene.

In any arcade, you will find dozens of games that are flashing their lights and trying to pull you in. The idea of having an arcade dedicated to only one game is almost absurd.

How Pinball Culture Stays Alive

Despite years of success and failure, pinball machines have been able to stay in the game. For the longest time, pinball machines were tabletop games that only kids would play. Now, almost an entire century from when they were first introduced, they are still around today and enjoyed by all ages.

Pinball’s Adaptation Into The Computer Age

The first reason why pinball culture is still alive is because of its adoption into the digital age. Before computers were around, whoever wanted to play pinball had to go down to the arcade and spend money to practice. This costs both time and money.

Then computers were introduced, and the whole world changed. Games like Full Tilt! made it possible to practice pinball at home for free. This increased popularity of the game from a digital standpoint. The increase in accessibility was a key factor in making the game live in the new century.

Today, there are hundreds of different pinball games you can buy online. This has single-handedly kept the spirit of pinball alive in the world and has made it much easier for more people to get into the game. On the other hand, this same accessibility is a huge contributing factor as to why pinball arcades have slowly vanished.

The Influence of Brewcades on Pinball

Another way pinball machines have been able to stay relevant in today’s world is by shifting audiences. In the early stages of pinball machines, kids would most often be seen playing these games. Then, in the 2010s, someone figured out that pinball and alcoholic beverages would go great together, and the rise of Brewcades began.

The idea is very simple; it’s part bar, part arcade. These adult playgrounds have been slowly popping up around the country. Adults 21 and older now have the opportunity to play some of their favorite games while drinking their favorite drinks. All of a sudden, your favorite pinball games are available for you to play without any kids around!

There are also family-oriented entertainment centers that offer arcades, food, bowling, bars, laser tag, and more. These venues are another opportunity for pinball to remain part of today’s entertainment culture.

And, of course, many bars continue to carry pinball machines. Usually, you can find one or two bunched with the rest of the games. 

The Future of Pinball

The future of pinball machines is unclear. It’s hard to say if brewcades will last a while, or if it’s just a momentary trend. It’s likely pinball games will always be available online. While there’s no guarantee anyone will play them in the future if the past 90 years are any indication, there’s a good chance pinball will survive.

On the other hand, the idea behind pinball machines is entertaining, and it’s a fun way to challenge your reflexes. The problem is, it is a very limited game with little to no room for improvements, changes, or “leveling up.” In other words, there’s nothing new to the games. This makes it hard to stay relevant in today’s rapidly evolving game culture.

There is no way to say for sure what the future of pinball machines will look like. Right now, the industry is holding on by a string, but what’s next? There are already versions of virtual reality pinball out there, like this one. All we can do is enjoy it while we can, see what comes next, and hopefully enjoy our favorite beer while we play.

Where Did Pinball Machines Come From?

Before pinball was invented, many Americans were playing lawn games that would eventually shape into many games we know today, such as:

  • Shuffleboard
  • Billiards
  • Bocce ball
  • Croquet
  • Golf
  • Pall-mall

The 1930s – The Rise

Eventually, these games moved away from the lawn and into a small table games. Slowly companies began adding flippers and bumpers, and by 1931, you could pay one penny to play these games at the arcade.

The 1970s – The Glory

By the 1970s, pinball machines were at the height of their popularity. Now, these machines were working with solid-state electronics and a digital display that caught the gamer’s eye. Soon pinball machines began to take after popular movies, such as Indiana Jones and The Wizard of Oz. Many arcades had rows of pinball machines during this time.

The 1980s – The Beginning of the End

The pinball industry took its first big hit in the 1980s when video games started to gain more popularity. Popular games started to take over the arcades and pretty soon replaced most of the pinball machines. Here are a few that came into existence during this time:

  • Pac-Man
  • Galaga
  • Asteroids
  • Space Invaders

The 1990s – A Rebirth

Eventually, the coin-operated video game industry collapsed, and the pinball industry saw another boost in popularity in the early 1990s. At this point, manufacturers were focusing on mainstream pop culture as an aid in design.

This surge in popularity didn’t last long. By the end of the decade, many popular manufacturers were forced to close. As a result, the industry as a whole suffered, again.

Gambling’s Hand in Pinball’s Fall

Another big factor that contributed to the decline of pinball machines was gambling. Like any game, someone found a way to make money off of it by making bets. Eventually, it grew out of hand, and authorities were forced to act. New York City banned pinball machines from 1940-1976.

The 2000s – A Comeback

Once again, the industry bounced back in the 2000s with the rise of independent pinball manufacturers. Aside from the technological advancements in the game itself, such as the inclusion of LCD, not much has changed with pinball machines. The pinball industry has been able to stay afloat, but pinball arcades are hard to find.

Conclusion

Pinball arcades are a thing of the past. Without any new advancements, these games are slowly becoming just a novelty. The idea of having dozens of the same game is impractical, and arcades have realized that.

Fortunately for us, the game itself has proven to be a classic that (hopefully) will never go away. If it has been able to last almost a century thus far, we will likely see this game being played in the year 3000. Hopefully, by then, there will be a better way to save the ball from going straight down the middle of the bumpers.