In the 1980's, an "arcade" game was one that you played by feeding quarters into it in a public place. Businesses known as "arcades" built up collections of these coin-operated games and made them available to the public to come in and play. This definition of an "arcade" game specifically excluded games that were played at home on a game console or a more general purpose home computer. Genre, content, or play style had nothing to do with it. Many games that become very popular on consoles, such as Donkey Kong, Pole Position, and Street Fighter, got their start as arcade games that were later ported. The difference was simple. The bulky, stand-alone version that accepted coins was the "arcade" version, and the console version was the "console" or "home" version. Life was easy to understand.

In more recent years, I've seen various references to "arcade" or "arcade-style" games appearing on consoles. For example, in the article The Video Game Critic Presents the 3DO, the author states "There were precious few arcade-style titles [on the 3DO] like those enjoying popularity on the 16-bit systems.". Similarly, in a video TOP 10 Arcade Racing Games on Nintendo Switch, the author lists console games that they feel are "arcade" without defining the term. This is, of course, despite the fact that none of the games listed are found in public arcades and none of them can be fed physical coins.

In modern-day console gaming, what defines an "arcade" game or title from one which is not "arcade"?

  • Are there specific elements of game play or content that need to be present for a game to be considered "arcade"? For example, perhaps "twitch" style gaming with precisely timed moves defines the arcade genre while games that rely on less twitchy, more strategic or turn-based approaches do not qualify.
  • Is it based on an overall feeling of nostalgia hearkening back to dank 1980's shopping mall arcades? In other words, modern-day "arcade" titles feel like they would have fit into those antiquated venues had they actually been around then. This does not reference any specific elements of content, but overall look and feel. If my child-self had encountered a time-traveling 2022 game in a 1988 arcade and thought, "Yes, this belongs here, and wow", it is "arcade". If I would have thought, "WTF is this doing here? It looks really advanced but it clearly doesn't fit in here", then it's not an "arcade" title.
  • Is it based on heritage, i.e. an "arcade" game is any game based on or a sequel to a game that was an actual physical arcade game? This would mean, for example, that a hypothetical future Pac-Man MMORPG would be automatically considered an "arcade" title because the original Pac-Man game was an arcade game. This would also mean that any and all Donkey Kong games, regardless of play style or content, are inherently arcade games (since the original Donkey Kong was a physical arcade cabinet), while there cannot possibly be a Doom "arcade" game on a console by definition since the original game started as a PC title.
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    A very very general comment. The problem with any kind of categorization (like "Arcade Game") is that it tends to be more exclusionary (that's not one) rather than inclusive, and that there's a LOT of personal opinion (I'll know it when I see it) rather than hard fast rules which can never be broken. Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 14:30
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    "I know it when I see it" -- US supreme court
    – eps
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 18:42
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    Also worth considering: arcade games were originally designed to get the player to spend as much money as possible (by killing them frequently). This is in contrast to many games today that are bought outright (although mobile games and microtransactions have revived these concepts). As a result, they were designed to look easy, but be difficult to play/master. Fast gameplay loops and simple controls have already been mentioned, but it's interesting to understand the underlying reason.
    – otoomey
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 20:46
  • Arcade games were, in my mind, twofold. One - giving you an experience you couldn't get at home unless the port of the game was significantly pared back (arcade machines were frequently higher spec than home machines, but that difference lessened over time). Two - keeping in mind that they try to get money from you, they tended to plunge you into the action pretty quickly - as another poster mentioned, think Forza vs Burnout. Lots of action, very quick, very "high octane" - and a high chance of burning through your cash while looking good for bystanders.
    – user25730
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 22:20
  • I think the inclusion of the “arcade racing” link is somewhat confusing the answers you’re getting here. In that specific context, as the answers have shown, “arcade racing” is essentially a compound term, defined in opposition to “simulation racing” - that spectrum is meaningful within the racer genre, but less useful when referring to other titles. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 14:04

4 Answers 4


I'm going to list some characterizations of many arcade games, and I think if a game has these elements, then it probably qualifies.

Core Elements:

A game has to have these to qualify as an arcade game

Tight core gameplay loop - The game doesn't have too much fluff, you're not going to watch a 5 minute cutscene, you can pick up and play without anything more than a character/level select.

Levels - The game is broken up into discrete segments that can be completed in one quick sitting.

Lack of meaningful progression - You might unlock new character or levels, but you aren't getting serious loot to use in the future. Any stories are pretty self contained and don't lead to a in-depth story. Progression pretty much amounts to getting better at the game.

Simple Controls: - Sure, some arcade games (fighting games especially) involve frame perfect inputs and long strings of commands, but most can be carried out with 6 buttons and one joystick. If you start getting any more than that, you reach the limit of what a cabinet could handle. That's why Rocket League or Halo can't be "arcade games". They require a full controller.

Lives - Per Graham's comment, arcade games needed some way to kick the player off the cabinet, so many of them had a lives system where you have some leeway (like 3 lives) but after that your turn ends and you get booted back to the main menu. Lives aren't as vital in multiplayer games like racing/fighting games. You're probably kicked back to the main menu/have to pay more money after each race/fight.

Auxiliary elements:

Arcade games can have some or none of these and still qualify as arcade games

Community Score tracking - High scores or speedrun timers so you can compare your results with your friends

Local Multiplayer - If you can imagine a group of people crowded around a cabinet duking it out, it probably qualifies

Over the top gameplay - As Tom said above, a racing game is more likely to feel "arcade-y" if you can blow up your opponents or use boost on your car, whereas a realistic racing game doesn't contain those over the top elements.

Rapidly Increasing Difficulty - To get players to keep feeding quarters, old arcade games had insane difficulty spikes to kick users off the cabinet. For 3 decades it was thought that Tetris had a "kill screen" that was humanly impossible to survive. (Thanks for the suggestion Graham)

I think these elements are all important, you can see them in pretty much every old arcade game, and you can also apply them to modern games that qualify as "arcade-y" like Towerfall, Nidhogg, Resogun, or Geometry Wars. Each of those games have short levels, gameplay that can be learned in a matter of seconds, 3 buttons + joystick max, and the only progression is unlocking new levels and gitting gud.

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    I think you can add "lives, health, or restarting on the track after a crash" to the core elements too. Basically some mechanism which means your session doesn't immediately end from one bad decision. And you can probably also add "rapidly escalating difficulty", which in the arcades tends to get either a rapid turnover of players or the same player inserting more coins.
    – Graham
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 10:59
  • Good suggestions @Graham, I've added both of those to the list! Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 13:26
  • Score should be added as a core element since it's something commonly seen in arcade-style games.
    – Beefster
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 17:19
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    IMHO lives are far less essential to the definition today than they were in the actual days of arcade cabinets. Some games still do it, but nowadays you're just as likely to see an arcade-style game continue from a recent checkpoint (e.g. Super Meat Boy, the Bit.Trip games, Celeste, etc.). What you probably won't see is manual saving and loading, or any save-related options aside from "delete save data" and perhaps multiple save slots ("multiple" is a word which here means "almost always three").
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 7:47
  • I like the "simple controls" reason. I distinctly remember playing a tank game on PC in the mid-1990's that was so complex that it included almost a dozen "training" missions to teach all of the different control modes and movements. There were distinct commands for looking around, turning the turret, choosing a target, choosing which weapons to fire, and actually firing. On top of this, there were commands to start, stop, speed up, slow down, turn, and use the map. Fortunately, weapons reloaded automatically as long as ammo stores were not completely depleted. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 15:23

"Arcade" is opposed to "simulation"

In the context of video games, the mechanics and play style of a game can be characterized as being more or less faithful to the real world. By extension, this has come to be less specifically about fidelity to the real world, and more about how simple or complex is the modeling upon which the gameplay is built. So, every game, or at least each gameplay mechanic, can be placed on a single spectrum.

One end of the spectrum is hyper-realistic; items on this end of the spectrum tend to be literal simulations of real-world systems. This often means there is some simulation of real physical systems, but just as often the system being painstakingly modeled is not physical. For example, Prison Architect looks cartoonish, but it tracks many physical and psychological dimensions of each inmate, so the player must actively monitor the holistic well-being of the prison population to avoid catastrophe.

On the other end of the spectrum are game mechanics that have been deliberately simplified compared their real-world analogs, that simplification usually being done in service of making the game more fun for players. Consider any RPG game where you collect loot: some games keep track of the weight of all those items relative to your ability to carry it, and other games don't. The games that don't make you worry about carry-weight are not worse games than the other ones; it's just that the makers of the game want to present a gameplay experience that doesn't saddle the player with tedious inventory management challenges.

This distinction can be really easy to see in racing games.

On the simulation side, you've got games like Forza. I was never a Forza player, but a friend once told me that he made his car handle turns better by installing roll bars -- I think he said the bars made the chassis a bit more rigid, which forced the wheels to stay in contact with the road surface, thus yielding more traction.

On the arcade side, you've got Burnout 3: Takedown, which allows you to smash your car into other drivers hard enough that you can make them explode and fly off the track (and which also renders you temporarily invincible, and gives you a speed boost). B3T is not a game that worries about the effect of torsion forces on wheel grip. It's a game for people who prefer to win by battering the other racers to death.

Importantly, both games had fairly realistic graphics (for that era). This spectrum has nothing at all to do with graphics.

"Aracde" games are not better or worse games than "simulation" games. They just tend rely on simpler data models, with the goal of omitting aspects of the activity that would be un-fun. And, it's a spectrum rather than being two mutually exclusive categories.

Late update

I'd like to respond to several points that have been raised in comments.

First and foremost: my goal here is fundamentally descriptivist in nature:

describe how language is really used, rather than giving rules to follow

-- Cambridge English Dictionary

I learned about the arcade/simulation distinction many years ago (from the 1UP podcast, I think), and I've always assumed I was the last person to know. This is why I've cited no source. I take myself to be describing a conceptual framework that has emerged from, and is generally shared by, the gaming community, rather than expounding on my own ideas. And it's a framework I learned about from casual conversation, rather than being something I deliberately studied.

Second: I agree that the framework I'm trying to explicate has some shortcomings; perhaps they are even fatal. Nevertheless, it is still the case that people often use this framework to describe games and game mechanics.

Third: the term "arcade" has a few different meanings, even within the context of video games. I posted because it's my suspicion that this is the set of concepts being implicated by the articles OP cited. I deliberately omitted discussion of those other meanings and word origins because I'm not confident in the etymology and I was already worried about the length.

So, I will correct this post if my description can be shown to be an inaccurate summary of common parlance. But it's not within my power to change the terms, or to substantially modify the concepts, that are being used "in the wild." All I can do is improve how I explain those things.

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    This appears to fail when applied to games with an "Arcade Mode", with no difference in underlying game mechanics - only in win conditions / level progression / time limits / etc.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:10
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    An answer about what an Arcade Game is that doesn't even include a mention of Video Arcades is no answer at all. Not to mention the claim that all video game mechanics can be placed in a spectrum of "Arcade" to "Simulation" without any supporting citation.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:26
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    I think there are three important aspects of quintessential arcade games that are missing from this answer: 1) limited "lives" - if your character is killed three times (or whatever), it’s “game over" and you have to insert another coin to play again. 2) levels that are mostly identical but have increasing difficulty - usually everything slightly speeds up with each level, but sometimes there are just more and more threats on the screen. 3) Scores and a high score list - the goal in arcade games was to get the highest score you could. Early arcade games were influenced by pinball games. Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:32
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    @ToddWilcox This is all true of the starting point of the genre, but arcade games have moved on from that era. Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 16:13
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    This answer falls flat when you consider the wide range of completely unrealistic, definitely-not-simulation games that are also definitely not "arcade" games in any sense of the word (most puzzle games, adventure games).
    – Max
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 19:32

The arcade

"Arcade" is an architecture term designating a series of arches, typically a walkway covered by such arches. The term was extended to shopping malls with covered walkways, or "shopping arcades". As it turns out, in these "arcades" you would often find places to play videogames. In other words, you would go to the arcade to play some games.

The business model of the arcade, as you mention, is quite simple: insert coin and get a few tries at a game. Arcade cabinets, whether videogames or not, are thus designed with a simple goal in mind: to make you want to put more coins in.

A lot of people might highlight the difficulty of arcade games to explain how they rake in the coins, but I think that's half the picture. If they were just hard you wouldn't come back. No, I think the prime quality of arcade games is that they are simple. A typical arcade game doesn't have more than a handful of commands. You could just insert coin, understand how play instantly, and have fun.

And simple really doesn't mean easy here. The simplicity of the mechanics gets you in, gives you confidence that you can achieve something, and allows you to go far enough to hit a difficulty spike that makes you game over, and then you think "I got this, let's put another coin".

So what defines an "arcade" game?

In light of the above, I think the simplest and most accurate definition of an arcade game here is just that: they're easy to pick up. You don't have to read the manual, there are no complex systems to understand before you can enjoy the game, you don't need to be very good at it to succeed.

I also think the opposition between arcade and simulation is sort of right. "Arcade" today is usually meant as the opposite of "simulation", in genres where those terms can reasonably apply (e.g. racing, flying, shooting).

But even that is limited as a useful definition. You could for instance easily classify iRacing and Super Mario Kart as either strictly simulation or strictly arcade. But then you have Forza Horizon 5 and Wreckfest, and good luck trying to classify those and have everybody agree with you.

Although I don't think they're quite opposite, binary, or even exclusive qualifiers, we can generally say "simulation" means complex mechanics with a higher barrier of entry, and "arcade" means simple mechanics with no barrier of entry. And we're right back at arcade games are easy to pick up.

To know why a particular person puts a particular game in the "arcade" category, you'd have to ask them. In the example of "TOP 10 Arcade Racing Games on Nintendo Switch", I'd guess the author probably means Mario Kart and 9 clones. At the very least, they'll be games that don't ask you to learn threshold braking to win.

  • I will say that arcade games weren't necessarily easy to pick up. I'm thinking very specifically of the fighting games, where reading guides was nearly mandatory (even back then, albeit in printed magazine form). You COULD just insert a coin and mash buttons but nothing in the game told you that your character could throw a fireball, or how to do this.
    – JamieB
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 22:09
  • @JamieB Fighting games do have a very high skill ceiling, however I think being able to mash random buttons and beat your friends counts as being easy to pick up. Some arcade games do have complex mechanics for advanced players, but generally anybody can still at least play with the basic mechanics of the game. Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 6:52

Video Game Arcade

"Arcade Game" is a shorthand term to describe the type of video game found in a Video Game Arcade.

Arcade Video Games are a type of Video Game set up in large cabinets or electronic simulation devices, placed in an Arcade along with other attractions such as Ski-Ball games, Pinball Games, and Crane Games.

These Arcade Video Games, like other Arcade attractions, are coin-operated and have gameplay that incorporates the coin-operated nature of the game. Some traits of an Arcade Video Game include a "Lives" system which can be extended by the player by adding additional coins, or a second set of controls built into the machine for a second player (either as a co-operative player or as another opponent). Other attributes include an "attract" mode (a demo of the game), advancing or repeating video game 'levels', and a high score system that displays while in "attract" mode.

Many of these Arcade Video Games were later ported to home consoles and retained a number of these attributes as part of their gameplay. This is why they are still called "Arcade Games", where other games that were developed and intended to be played on a home console or computer are not considered Arcade Games.

This definition has not changed - but in modern console days, many games have come out that do not follow these Arcade Game conventions - to the point where those that still do are considered a genre of their own.

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    That's pretty much just restating the question.
    – moopet
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:28
  • @moopet Most of the answer is in the question - in fact most of the answer is in the name itself. Arcade Video Games are Video Games that are in the style of those found in an Arcade.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:34
  • I’d say adding levels and scores to this answer would help. IMHO lives, levels, and score are the primary mechanics of true arcade games versus console or pc games that can be played indefinitely with a save game feature and can be more quest-oriented. Saying arcade games are the games that used to be in arcades doesn’t answer what is different about them. Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:34
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    The question specifically asks about the term in modern-day console gaming. This does not answer that question. This just states what it used to mean, not what it means for a modern-day game to be considered arcade.
    – Dnomyar96
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 6:50
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    @Zibbobz I think the key to the question is in what aspects do they resemble arcade games? The Nintendo Switch doesn't have a physical coin slot, so clearly that part is not relevant; it does have a second set of controls, but I wouldn't classify every 2-player game as "arcade-style", so that part isn't relevant either.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 15:10

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