The lost thrill of the cockpit arcade cabinet

To tie in with the release of Blur, Ryan looks at how cockpit arcade cabinets added to the energy of 80s and 90s games…

It’s easy to look back to the amusement arcades of the 80s with a glowing sense of nostalgia – and I often do, on this very site – but the the average beach-front gaming den wasn’t without its dark side. The stench of cigarette smoke. The unexpected outbreak of a fight. The constant consumption of the coins in your pocket.

There is, however, one aspect of the arcade that hasn’t yet been replicated in the home, and that’s the hulking majesty of the cockpit coin-op cabinet. It’s hard not to think, while playing a driving game as fast as Blur, just how incredible the experience would be if it came with some kind of vast, hydraulic seat akin to Sega’s After Burner or Out Run cabinets.

For readers too young to remember the 80s, arcade machines came in three flavours (there are actually more than three, but we’ll concentrate on the most common types for the sake of brevity). First, and by far the most common, was the upright cabinet – an edifice of vinyl and chipboard standing at around six feet tall. The second, and the least common, was the cocktail cabinet, which was essentially a coffee table with a monitor occupying the area where you’d place your cup of coffee. The cockpit arcade cabinet was the final variety, and one that became increasingly elaborate as the 80s wore on.

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Atari’s Star Wars cabinet, which appeared in arcades in 1983, was one of the earliest, and uncannily like a dark, under-stair cupboard. You climbed in and were surrounded by the almost deafening sounds of TIE fighters roaring past, explosions and laser fire. To an impressionable eight-year-old, it was a jaw-dropping experience, and the great boom that rang out when you destroyed the Death Star was truly unforgettable.

It was Sega, meanwhile, who provided the arcades with the best cabinets of the era, beginning with the motorcycle racer Hang-On in 1985. Not only did the machine allow the player to sit astride an almost full-sized analogue of the on-screen racing bike. Controlled by leaning to the left and right, Sega’s innovative cabinet created a tangible yet exhausting physical link between real and virtual actions.

Thereafter, Sega’s machines threw the player around like a rag doll in a dishwasher, making their next game, the fast and surreal rail shooter Space Harrier, more akin to a miniature theme park ride than a standard videogame, with a hydraulic sit-down cabinet that buffeted the player in time to the actions on-screen.

The success of Space Harrier prompted creator Yu Suzuki to create a string of similar psuedo 3D games using similar hardware and software techniques. 1986’s Out Run put the player in the driving seat of a Ferrari Testarossa, literally so in the case of deluxe version of the cabinet, which took the form of a miniature recreation of the iconic Italian sports car.

Of Suzuki’s high-concept cabinets, 1997’s After Burner was arguably his most successful marriage between videogame and hardware. Its gameplay may have been little more than a Top Gun-inspired reworking of Space Harrier, but the combination of After Burner’s supersonic action and the violent movements of its cabinet gave the action a kinetic intensity that couldn’t be replicated in any of its numerous conversions to consoles and home computers.

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It was Yu Suzuki’s series of hydraulic-powered games that, for better or worse, inspired an entire wave of similar cabinets from Sega and its competitors, including helicopter-based shooter Thunder Blade, rollercoaster-like racer Power Drift, and the long-running Sega Rally series.

With the increasing dominance of consoles forcing the coin-op market into decline, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, in the modern amusement arcade, the few games that remain are almost exclusively housed in some kind of gimmicky cabinet. Whether it’s a gun game like House Of The Dead 4 or a racer like Mario Kart Arcade GP, virtually every machine you’ll encounter will feature some kind of interactive gimmick.

Various attempts have been made to bring an experience akin to Sega’s hydraulic cabinets into the home, including the Ultimate Gaming Chair, which is essentially a padded seat with vibrating motors and speakers buried in it.

Truly dedicated retro gamers, meanwhile, have taken to either purchasing one of Sega’s old cabinets, or even, in some cases, building their own replicas from scratch. The downside to this, of course, is that you’d need a room the size of Blenheim Palace to house the thing, and plenty of money to build or buy it in the first place.

For most of us, the visceral, kinetic delights of 80s cockpit cabinets will have to remain a fond childhood memory. Nevertheless, it’s hard, when hurtling through the mean streets of Blur, not to think about how one of Yu Suzuki’s hydraulic masterpieces could complete the experience.

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