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June 4, 2006 9:54 PM   Subscribe

How did "classic" arcade displays evolve?

After playing Ms Pac-Man on an emulator through an Xbox, the 4:3 CRT aspect ratio made me wonder if there was an evolution of arcade displays over the 70s, 80s and 90s for "classic" games — and specifically if there was any particular marketing or technological reasoning for the resolutions and aspect ratios chosen for games developed over the years. (For example, were "portait"-style displays chosen to minimize the arcade enclosure width and maximize the number of people that would spend money in an arcade?)
posted by Mr. Six to Technology (14 answers total)
Portrait-style was chosen for gameplay purposes, not to save space. It made much more sense to orient a vertical scroller that way.
posted by pmbuko at 10:02 PM on June 4, 2006

Do you have any citations or references for that? I don't necessarily disagree outright but with games like Pac-Man Jr. that may not be true across the board.
posted by Mr. Six at 10:07 PM on June 4, 2006

There are a couple of 2-player arcade games played on a single screen where the TV is facing directly up, and the players are standing (or sitting) facing eachother. So, the gameplay is flipped upside-down across the halfway mark of the screen. If these types of games came first, it wouldn't be that big of a leap to the 1-player versions.
posted by odinsdream at 10:14 PM on June 4, 2006

4:3 is the standard ratio of a television set.

I'd wager thats just the parts that were availiable.
posted by TTIKTDA at 10:28 PM on June 4, 2006

4:3 is not the aspect ratio used in the displays installed in classic arcade games.

I should stress that I'm not interested in speculation (I have plenty of ideas why!) but rather insight from the folks who've run arcades or who have developed games, or if you know someone who runs an arcade or develops arcade games, or references to marketing materials that might explain the reasoning used for product design.
posted by Mr. Six at 10:32 PM on June 4, 2006

4:3 is the standard ratio of a television set.

Basically, I think thats it. I am 38 years old and was around when arcades full of these games were popular. Most of my favorites were 3/4 such as Asteroids and Defender. Pacman was portrait style as was DigDug but the portrait style just made sense for those games.

The Maws database includes original aspect ratios and everyone I looked up from that era (1979-1983 roughly) was either 4/3 or 3/4.
posted by vacapinta at 10:35 PM on June 4, 2006

On post-preview, I have no connection to game designers, only first-hand experience from when these games first appeared - so I rescind my answer.
posted by vacapinta at 10:38 PM on June 4, 2006

There was a period where they still used B&W CRTs, but made them look flashier by using a transparent colored overlay on top. One particularly hideous example of this was Asteroids Deluxe.
posted by smackfu at 10:39 PM on June 4, 2006

Anyone here old enough to remember "Tempest"?

That one was unusual, because it used a standard color TV tube, but did not use a raster scan display. It was directed-beam, which is what the original "Asteroids" used. Directed beam (or "beam wiggler") gave you a cleaner display (no jaggies on diagonal lines) but meant you could only really display lines, not colored areas.

Which means they used a standard TV tube, but designed their own driver electronics for it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:44 PM on June 4, 2006

Basically, everybody who's said "cause of TVs" is right. The standard arcade monitor from the early 80's is a 19 inch open frame CGA monitor. They run at 320X240. Most can be mounted horizontally or vertically in the cabinet, depending on the orientation of the game. The early games like computer space actually had B&W TVs in them. Midway's Space Invaders had a B&W monitor with a colored film overlay.

If you're interested in techincal specs, here's link to the PDF manual of the Electrohome GO7.

That was the factory monitor that was in Pacman and lots of other games from that area. Another popular brand was Wells Gardener. If you're looking to repair one of these monitors, the schematics and manual section at Randy Fromm's arcade school is very helpful.
The main point of failure for these monitors is the capacitors. After almost 30 years, they're dried out. You can purchase "cap kits" for most arcade monitors for <$10.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:05 PM on June 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the reason Ms PAcman looks screwed up in emulation on a TV is because they're squishing the screen down to make it fit. Originally, Ms Pacman was played on a vertical tube. Your TV is oriented horizontally, so the emulator has to shrink the picture to fit into the shorter dimension.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:08 PM on June 4, 2006

I would suspect the vertical orientation was chosen (over the normal horizontal orientation of regular TV) was due to the needs of the game field. Take a basically square play area. Now add the necessary fields for scores and the like (which normally is added to the top or bottom of the play area) and you have the classic vertical orientation or the screen.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:39 AM on June 5, 2006

Also, you can fit more game machines into a Time Out if they're vertically-oriented.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:14 AM on June 5, 2006

Actually, the cabinet dimensions don't vary all that much based on the vertical/horizontal monitor orientation.
Ms Pacman is just under 24" wide. Midway's Space Invaders is just over 26" wide. The thing that makes games bigger is adding a second set of player controls. Games like Street Fighter need to have room for all the buttons and sticks. The driving force behind monitor orientation really was the design of the game.
posted by cosmicbandito at 7:39 AM on June 5, 2006

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