What Is A Penny Arcade?


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Almost everyone has been to an amusement arcade at some point in their lives. Arcades are always an exciting place to go and spend an afternoon playing a bunch of games against friends, family, or complete strangers. 

We all know about arcades but what are penny arcades? 

Penny arcades are simply arcades that still have some of the original games that take pennies, nickels, etc. It is hard to believe but some of those style arcades still exist in the USA today! Playing the original games from the early 1900s for only a few pennies is an enjoyable experience and a cheap way to have some fun. 

Some penny arcades can still be found in

  • Manitou Springs, Colorado
  • Harrisville, Rhode Island
  • Weirs Beach, New Hampshire
  • San Francisco, California

And many other places around the country. Many penny arcades aren’t well advertised so when you find one be sure and tell your friends so they can enjoy it and keep it going! 

Check out the video below for some real footage of what the penny arcade in Manitou Springs, Colorado looks like (yes, it is quite big).

Arcade history

Today when you go to an arcade, it usually means you are going to a  video arcade mainly dedicated to video games. Back in 1900, the standard coin for the amusement arcade was the penny.

Because the amusement arcade used penny coin-operated devices to entertain the public, the name Penny Arcade came in use as early as 1905. In 1910, the penny arcade was the common name that all these types of entertainment arcades were called. 

Over time, the name was changed from Penny arcades  to Video Arcades. This happened in the 1970s when video games began to  take over the market. In the 1980s the common name became just simply Arcades and it is still in use today. 

The name penny arcade is in relation to the penny coins needed to feed the different entertainment devices. Back when penny arcades first started showing up, arcades normally wouldn’t have electricity so the games were quite different from the ones that we have today.  

Most of the games or devices were mechanical and where electricity would be available the games were still very simple electromechanical games. These games offered people fun at a low cost and were very innovative for the time.

Everyone could find something fun to play but  in the early 1900s, the arcade was mainly geared towards an adult and mature audience. Penny arcades were normally either dedicated spaces installed in buildings in an urban environment or part of funfairs going from small town to small towns all across the country. 

Popular Machines of Penny Arcades

Among the most popular games, you could find fortune-telling machines, peep-show

viewers and love testing devices. Where allowed by law, you could even find slot-machines and

simple roulette type devices for gambling.

The fortune-teller devices were usually operated via a simple mechanism that would pick

randomly shuffled answers cards to the users. In a way, they were very similar to Chinese fortune cookies. Usually, an intricate mechanism would animate the device giving the public the illusion of a complex and elaborate system.

The peep-show viewer was definitely among the most popular devices in penny arcades. After

inserting a penny in the machine, the viewer could see a flip-book like animation of young

women “scantily clad” (for the time anyway)  in suggestive scenes. Some peep-show machines also included a stereoscopic viewer using two flipbooks and a magnifying glass system for both eyes. 

Although the viewers with young women were the best sellers, some devices also featured wild landscapes or new objects of the time.

The Love Tester machine was also a very popular device among our great-grandparents. The

love testers were also commonly called a Love Meter. The purpose was to have a result based on either sex appeal, beauty, or romantic feelings. Some machines used the hand’s moisture or temperature to give an answer while other machines just gave a random result very much like the fortune teller.

Changes to the arcade

In between World War 1 and World War 2,  electromechanical games began to take over the arcades and push out the old mechanical games. 

The development of the electric grid allowed new games to appear with bright and shiny colors, sounds and lights. These included the pinball machine and jukeboxes, by far the most popular entertainment devices of the period. 

By the 1950s, most of the new devices were using quarters and the name Penny Arcade was becoming obsolete.

In 1970, the first video games appeared in the entertainment arcade. It was the beginning of a

new era. Video games quickly gained popularity and by the mid-1970s, video games were

replacing almost every other game. 

One of the last electromechanical games released was the air hockey table. Pinball machines were still a very popular game among teenagers but video games were the new hype.

The 1980s was the golden age of video arcades. However this golden age of the video arcade did not last very long. By 1985, the market was already declining because of the development of home video games on computers and consoles. Darker times for arcades were coming as the upcoming decades would bring an explosion of home video gaming and a serious decline in arcade usage. 

The ‘90s was a really hard time for the arcade industry and many went out of business. People

were playing video games in the comfort of their homes and no longer needed to spend money to play every game. They simply had to buy a game once and could play it as many times as they liked. 

This crisis forced the arcades to go towards a niche market or to go out of business entirely. Arcades had to offer players a control system they could not have at home (such as the racing style games)  or access to classic video game cabinets from the previous decades. This move into a niche market allowed some arcade owners to survive the boom of home entertainment systems.

Thankfully for arcade owners, the classic gameplay associated with a retro look still attracts people and the arcade business was able to withstand the boom of home entertainment in the 1990s.  

Current arcades are making money in two basic ways. By selling an experience combined with food/drinks or by having a large selection of retro games and taking advantage of the nostalgia that comes with them. 

Very rarely do you see a stand alone arcade that just has modern games and nothing else to draw people in. Most of the time it is combined with a bar or eating establishment (such as Chuck E Cheese or Dave & Busters). 

Conclusion

Today the name penny arcades still means a lot to the older generation but there are very few people who have been to one of the younger crowd. 

The penny arcade is almost entirely gone from our country with just a few left around for people to enjoy. Since pennies have become virtually worthless the few penny arcades that are left either have a lot of other more expensive games that people can play or they have to charge an admission fee to pay for their operating costs. 

The penny arcade in Manitou Springs, Colorado (the only one that I have personally visited) took the first path. There are a bunch of quarter or 50 cent games and rides along with an entire building that is full of the old school games where you will pay a few cents to play them. 

Everytime that we are in the Colorado Springs area we always go to Manitou and enjoy some time playing games with our children. There is a great candy store right by the arcade as well where you can get some amazing taffy, ice cream or other treats. 

Unfortunately these types of places are quickly disappearing across the US as our lives get faster and faster and we don’t take time to slow down and enjoy life like we once did. 

Penny arcades are a dying breed so the next time you are in a place and find one be sure and take the time to check it out. 

Matt Robbs

There is nothing quite so enjoyable as bringing back memories from your childhood. We used to spend hours playing pinball in my friends basement and that really got me involved in everything retro!

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