Updated: Mar 5, 2020
What does an arcade operator do when a game no longer becomes profitable? What happened when the kids of the 80's no longer cared about Dragon's Lair or Pac-Man? Owners of arcade games would gut the innards of the game like a fish, and insert a new game in its shell in the hope of continued profits. Operators of arcade equipment in the late 20th century viewed games a bit differently than collectors do now in the 21st century. If a game was no longer making profits (one quarter at a time), it was no longer a commodity for the operator. A non profitable game was often pulled from location, to be "converted" into a newer title. The conversion kits usually came from a different company then the game's original manufacture. In a post 1984 arcade game world, conversion kits were commonly found inside the cabinets of former arcade game titans. You favorite pre '84 game at some point probably was turned into another game, thanks to a conversion kit and a bit of paint.
A conversion kit was much cheaper for the arcade game operator then buying a brand new complete game. A new arcade game in the early 80's would cost anywhere from 1800-3500 dollars, but a conversion kit was normally around a quarter of the price of a new game. Conversion kits usually consist of a new game CPU, a wiring harness, some new art (a marquee, control panel overlay, and sometimes side art), and instructions for installation.
Using the older cabinet and monitor (along with other things such as the coin door, control panel materials, etc.) allowed a conversion kit to be much cheaper then a new full sized game. After 1984 arcade profits were slowing down anyway, so operators who were able to survive this time period did so by being smart about what they had already invested in. The hope for the operator was that the old Dragon's Lair kids didn't play anymore in the corner of the warehouse might be profitable again with one of these kits.
Most major arcade video game companies made conversion kits of some kind, including Atari, Nintendo, and Midway. Kits from other companies could vary greatly in quality and popularity. Romstar was one of the more prominent of the post 1984 conversion kit manufacturers. Romstar didn't develop any of their own arcade games, relying on companies like Capcom, Taito, and Toaplan for development. Romstar had some monster hits with this licensing strategy including Bubble Bobble (Taito) and 1942 (Capcom).
Perhaps no other conversion kit was more dominant in the mid to late 1980's in the USA then Arkanoid, and its sequels. Arkanoid would be released in the USA in 1986 (It was released by Romstar, bur originally developed by Taito). The concept of Arkanoid owes a lot to another classic arcade game, Atari's 1976 Breakout. Breakout was famously co engineered by Apple Computer founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (But created by Nolan Bushnell and Steve Bristow).
Much like Breakout, you control a paddle on the bottom of the screen deflecting a ball to break the bricks above. Missing the ball loses a life, and clearing all the bricks advances the player to the next level. The twist of Arkanoid was the vastly updated visuals and sounds, along with a futuristic sci-fi theming to the game. Each progressive level is different, and creates new challenges. The final change from Breakout comes in the form of power-ups when the player hits special bricks adding a new dimension to the classic gameplay.
The classic game play elements of Arkanoid might make it one of the very first arcade games that could almost be considered a "throw back". Some version of Breakout had made its way onto just about every home computer or home video game console by the early 1980's. It's a simple concept of a game, with gameplay anyone can understand quickly. This easy to understand concept of play, and the great timing of Arkanoid in 1986 (when many older classic games were losing their profit potential) why Arkanoid became such a big hit. You will find Arkanoid conversions in an almost endless variety of converted arcade cabinets, including some very sought after games by collectors. It's not an over exaggeration to say Arkanoid might be responsible for more classic arcade game cabinets being converted then any other conversion kit offered in the 80's.
Arkanoid was developed by Taito designers Akira Fujita and Hiroshi Tsujino, who were inspired not only by Atari's Breakout, but also the Disney film Tron. The catalyst for Arkanoid was actually Taito's sales department who requested a new requested a new Breakout style game arcade game. Taito held an internal company contest which was obviously won by Akira Fujita and Hiroshi Tsujino. They would develop their ideas into a single project. Many of the graphical elements were hand draw, and in time turned into sprites. The founder of Taito's "Zuntata" music division Hisayoshi Ogura would develop the music and sounds for Arkanoid. According to Tsujino the time table from development to on location testing was furious at best. Released in Japan in July 1986, Arkanoid would go onto be a worldwide hit. It would spawn several official sequels, home releases, and copy cat games. The official Nintendo Entertainment version of the game even included a special paddle controller.
Arkanoid holds a special place in arcade game history as one of the high water marks of conversion kits, and a game so popular it helped destroy many orginal arcade game classic cabinets. One shudders at the thought of the rare games like Atari's Quantum or Williams Blaster that probably were gutted and turned into this futuristic paddleball quarter sucker.
Probably more common victims of Arkanoid conversion were the thousands and thousands of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Defender, and Donkey Kong cabinets. Which brings me to my current project, a conversion of my own. My recent acquisition of a heavily abused Ms. Pac-Man cabinet seemed like the perfect victim for my own personal Arkanoid desires. This cabinet was so battered in the front, over painted, and abused thanks to countless years of service... I just didn't think it was a good candidate for a Ms. Pac restoration. And since Ms. Pac-Man is the most produced arcade cabinet in history, I didn't fell terrible about turning this D+ example into a A+ version of Arkanoid.
As you can see in the photos above the cabinet was stripped to bare wood. I counted about 6 layers of paint on this game, which required several weekends of stripping and sanding. (Hey how else am I gonna pay for all that sanding....heyyyooooo *rim shot*) The front section of the game around the coin mechs was kicked at some point leaving a large hole. The previous owner covered the front of the cabinet with a layer of laminate in order to hide the damage. There was also the normal amount of dings on the sides which I filled with wood putty.
The Ms. Pac-Man CPU inside the game was non-working when I bought it, but has since been fixed. I converted the board to play the original Pac-Man and set it aside for now. All other electronics in the cabinet were stripped and thrown out. The original wiring harness and power supply in the cabinet were both a testimony to 30 plus years of hacked fixes by sloppy technicians. In the photo you can see a whole new power system I made, along with the original 1986 Arkanoid CPU I bought off of good old EBay.
With the game up and running I just need to wait for these cold winter days to end here in Seattle. The game will be primed and panted, and the wonderful Arkanoid side art kit from Szabo's Arcade will be installed (In the photo above on the left: My Arkanoid currently, and on the right: Szabo's Arkanoid art kit). Arkanoid is the perfect addition to any arcade with its classic game play, accessibility to all players, and timeless graphics. I guess those operators looking to make more money in the mid 80's weren't so bad after all.