I am looking into buying one of the cocktail arcade game consoles and the one I am interested in runs on Windows and Maximus Arcade interface for emulators.

Can anyone explain how arcade games worked (Galaga, etc.) back when they were originally made as opposed to now where one machine now has 5,000 games on it.

Where are these 5,000 games stored?

  • Read-only memory. How? because it's a computer, not a console by-design designed to do one thing and one thing only: run software they get kickbacks on.
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 1:49

2 Answers 2


First, we must understand a fundamental: Technology has improved and miniaturized a great deal since the arcade machines of the 70's and 80's. The smartphones that we hold in our hands today are more powerful than some of the best supercomputers of that era.

While arcade tables and their innards may vary depending on the company that produced them (and the exact year of production), I'll be looking specifically at one called "Space Zap", as I found a blog where someone opened up an old unit.

The first thing that modern arcade tables have over their classic counterparts are the monitors. The classics use CRT displays (if they were old enough, they were the kind that used replaceable vacuum tubes) which were bulky, and would take up quite a bit of room behind the display.

Next, let's look at the CPU of this Space Zap unit. The blog says it's a Z80 chip, the same sort that powered the Tandy/RadioShack TRS-80. It runs at about 1.77MHz. There are also two ram boards at 8KB each (for a total of 16) There is also a board that contains the game, that is the same dimensions as the CPU board. This board contains roughly 12KB of data (might be a little more, was looking at the file size of the ZIP'd MAME ROM file)

Those main boards are sandwiched together in a case that looks roughly the size of a 2-slice toaster. With the panel that deals with counting coins (and the box below for collecting them), the wires to connect everything and supply power, and leaving enough room for venting so the whole thing doesn't overheat. There's not too much room left.

By comparison, a modern-built cocktail arcade can use an LCD display that could be no more than an inch-and-a-half thick (or less) freeing up all that room underneath.

And underneath, you don't need all that much room! You could probably fit any modern PC in there; with hard-drive, video card, and everything. You'd probably be able to run the latest AAA games on it. But if all you're running is a an emulator, you need very little more than a Raspberry Pi which has at least 395 times the processing power (700MHz - 1.2GHz), and at least 16-thousand times the RAM (256MB - 1GB) of our starting Space Zap table. All in a package that is under 3.5in by 2.5in.

To store all 5000 game ROMs, you'd just need to connect a MicroSD card. even if we go with a cheap 16GB card, at 5000 games, that gives us 3.2MB per game. That's over 200 times the space our Space Zap game needs (granted, depending on the eras included in the collection, not all are going to be as small as this game).

(NOTE: I am not saying the machines you are looking into are using the setup I propose here. I am just offering comparison to illustrate just how much the underlying technology has evolved. What used to be stored on a board around the size of a DVD case, now fits into a tiny fraction of a chip that's about the size of a dime.)

  • Oh, I see Trent again... sighes, turns on Tyrian soundtrack, smiles peacefully
    – Orc JMR
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 9:05
  • 4
    In short, computer technology advancement rate is just absolutely insane. If transportation advanced at the same rate, we would be teleporting around with our watches.
    – Nelson
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 1:57

In addition to the technical considerations laid out well by the other answer, there are also the business and psychological ones.

After people became accustomed to the idea of videogames at all, the standard of one game per cabinet was simply the way things had always been — inertia. Once it became technologically possible to house more than one and have the user decide which to play, industry still took a long time to actually try it in any serious way. For a start, the established patterns of cabinet self-advertising is easy to understand; it had static art all over it that tried to sell itself to the passerby, as well as the game software's attract mode. With multiple games possible, how would you rejigger all that without confusing everyone and/or giving short shrift to your super whiz-bang game?

Beyond that, there are squishier reasons too. It was possible you'd cannibalize sales by letting sites present more games with fewer cabinets bought. And since the games would have to be be swappable, it would also be possible for locations to engage in secondary-market trades on just the individual titles, possibly further cutting into sales.

It wasn't really till Neo Geo starting in 1990 that the concept really took off, and even then, the limit was six games, although I only ever saw four-slot machines myself. Since each game was on a cartridge, the machine had to have one slot per, and only got one tiny segment of the static art space; with hardly any room for printed instructions, a lot of games had to incorporate an instruction sequence at the start of play.

Neo Geo games all had to use the same set of controls in the same layout, too. No one thinks of that as odd today, but back then arcade machines were very custom about these things, generally, and as home consoles began to eat the arcades' lunch, they doubled down on that being a differentiating factor, to a large degree.

  • 2
    This is an important consideration. The originals, and even most modern arcade machines, are designed to advertise their specific game to the public in eye-catching ways. Whereas a multi-game unit would not have that luxury. Commented Jun 23, 2021 at 6:21

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