The Daytona 500 and the Golden Age of the American Arcade

The Daytona 500, the race that some call the “Super Bowl of Nascar,” is set to rev up next Sunday, February 20th. When most people hear the word Daytona, they instantly picture a family of rednecks huddling around a television, eagerly awaiting the next big crash. When I hear about this iconic race, however, I picture something much different. I spent a good chunk of my childhood in arcades, and one image that has been burned into my brain is the sit-down arcade cabinet of Daytona USA.
Daytona USA Arcade Cabinet

Surely you’ve seen this in your local arcade or Chuck E. Cheese’s at one time or another. While it may not seem as such today, this game was revolutionary for its time. Released in 1993, it was the first game to run on Sega’s Model 2 arcade board. It wasn’t the first arcade game to use polygonal 3D graphics, but it was the first to map textures on those polygons, which created a “hyper-realistic” environment. The game was also able to keep this environment running at a smooth, consistent 60 frames per second. Throw in a catchy soundtrack with multiplayer capabilities and you have the perfect recipe for a game that players and arcade owners alike enjoyed, making this one of the highest grossing arcade machines of all time.

Sega set the bar high for this game, keeping their competitors, namely Namco’s Ridge Racer, on their toes, but perhaps they set the bar too high. Consumers wanted this kind of power in their homes, and Sega’s then-current home console, the 16-bit Sega Genesis, didn’t have anywhere near enough horsepower to run this monster. Even when Sega released a home version of this title on it’s next console, the 32-bit Sega Saturn, it suffered losses. Gone was the smooth 60 fps, settling instead for a slower, choppier, 20 fps. The Saturn version also suffered “clipping,” where the scenery would pop in as the player approached it, instead of being able to see it from a distance.

But perhaps these shortcomings could be seen in a different light. People kept going to the arcades to play the superior version of the game. With increased revenue, arcades stayed open, and in turn continued to support game developers like Sega and its competitors. They kept pushing the envelope with each new, quality release, and the “Golden Age” of the American arcade saw many more memorable releases, not just in racing games, but in other genres as well.

Today, it’s a different story. The American arcade industry has been suffering, even well before the great recession. Independent arcades are closing around the country, and only arcades attached to restaurants or other family fun establishments can survive, such as Chuck E. Cheese’s and Dave & Buster’s. With less revenue, most video game developers don’t see much reason to continue producing games for the arcade. For example, SNK Playmore’s Metal Slug 7 was released only for the Nintendo DS, and is the first game in the series not to see an arcade release. With fewer games to choose from, the last remaining arcades are also starting to look similar, with the same few games seen in every shop.

The rise of the home console is the primary reason analysts point to for cause of the demise of the American arcade. In today’s world of photo-realistic HD graphics, arcade and home versions of games are nearly indistinguishable, creating little reason for consumers to leave their homes to throw quarters into games they could play freely in their living rooms. But even more puzzling is the fact that the Japanese arcade industry is continuing to thrive. Cities like Tokyo are filled with large buildings packed to the brim with the latest in audiovisual technology, creating an innovative wonderland for the player.

Sadly, no one has a viable solution to revive the American arcade industry. As hordes of new gamers are attracted home to motion controls on the Wii, Kinect, or Playstation Move, those of us who grew up in the arcades can only reminisce on its former glory. The one silver lining is that some video game developers have not forgotten this now, niche market. Last year, Sega remade Daytona USA under the guise of Sega Racing Classic (due to the fact that they no longer hold the license to use the Daytona name/logo) with 16:9 widescreen monitors running at 720p (or DVD quality) resolution. While this former juggernaut can no longer hold the industry up as it once did in the golden age, it now holds a new purpose: to show a new, younger audience what the arcade experience used to be like, as well as giving arcade veterans a chance to go a few more laps around memory lane.
Daytona USA Screenshot

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