These days, gaming at home on the latest PC or a seventh generation console is as good as it gets, but it wasn’t always like that. Back in the mid-to-late 1980’s, arcade machines were far more powerful than home computers of the day and a trip to the arcades was a real treat for C64/Spectrum gamers. Compared to the watered-down conversions we got on home computers, arcade games were light years ahead in the graphics and sound department
At the forefront of a new generation of arcade machines was Sega, who made use of the latest technology to create machines that were an adrenalin-fuelled thrill ride as much as a game. Lightning-fast graphics on large arcade monitors, deafening sound from stereo speakers and manic hydraulics pummelled gamers accustomed to playing on 14″ portable TV’s.
The large gap in capabilities opened up because arcade boards were taking advantage of much more powerful 16-bit architectures while in our homes the dominant force was still 8-bit systems designed in the early 80’s. Sega began using the legendary Motorola 68000 processor in 1985 with their System 16 arcade boards, and it was eventually used to create over 40 different titles including such classics as Golden Axe, Shinobi and Altered Beast.
The original System 16 board was an impressive piece of technology for the time, but things really got going when Sega created upgraded versions, augmented by a second 68000 CPU and separate video board. These systems incorporated a powerful sprite scaling engine to zoom images in real time and create a pseudo-3d effect. This hardware was used to create landmark games like Outrun, Super Hang-On and Space Harrier. Viewed in slow motion, sprite scaling looks pretty fake – like a collection of 2D cardboard cut-outs – but with enough speed and a high frame rate it worked very well on the low resolution displays of the time. It was staggering to see how quickly Sega hardware could throw graphics around the screen, and how quickly they could empty your pockets with £1 a play charges and addictive game play.
Outrun is great fun to play even today – if you can find a sit-down cabinet in decent condition. It’s still a challenge to complete as well, especially if the operators have set the difficulty DIP switch to high. 25 years after it’s release, it’s one of the definitive driving games of all time. Sun, sand and the open road in a rag-top Ferrari with a gorgeous girl at your side!
Sprite scaling techniques were soon replaced by polygon-based graphics that provide a true representation of a 3D world, but colour and detail initially took a big step backwards due to the limited capabilities of the hardware at the time. Early polygon-based arcade titles like Virtua Racing (below) and Virtua Fighter used solid colour fills and look simplistic by today’s standards, but they were a bet on the future of the technology. Shortly afterwards, texture mapped polygons became possible and gaming has never looked back.