Maybe arcades are extinct, but arcade games are not. They float around towns, movie theaters, pizza joints, and other venues like wayward nomads looking for a home. However there is one part of the arcade gaming experience that is certainly going extinct… the arcade monitor.
Most games made today use high-end LCD or LED displays to capture the imagination and dollar of the wandering gamer with a barrage of flashing colors in all of their high-definition glory. This is a recent development. In years past, arcade cabinets relied solely on the tried and tested cathode ray tube (aka “CRT”) to display games contained within their wooden or particle board walls.
The CRT has long been one of the most reliable pieces of tech in the gaming business. One CRT and cabinet could house many different games in its lifetime as boards are switched in and out through the years. But recently, things have begun to change. The CRT has fallen out of style. The home theater and gaming industries have pushed consumers towards high-def televisions en masse. There was a slow uptake for the longest time when the initial push began in 2004-06. People were slow to make the upgrade. Aside from the higher costs of early adopting, the simple fact was that their ever reliable CRTs were still kicking. Older people were reluctant to replace a TV that worked just fine. Even the analog-to-digital television signal conversion (aka the “let’s give all the national airwaves to the cable and cell phone monopolies to charge us an ungodly fortune” scheme) didn’t manage to kill off the world’s supply of tubes, but after a decade of fighting, two things finally began to doom the world’s supply of tubes — the passage of time, and lead.
With age, the capacitors inside these monitors get old and dry up. The funny secret of CRTs though is that you can replace those capacitors. It’s not as easy as it used to be when you could drive down to Radio Shack and get some new parts since all Radio Shack sells nowadays is cell phones and tablets (and they’re failing miserably at that, might I add), but these parts are still readily available. A simple “cap kit” can bring an ailing monitor back to life for another 20 years.
The other thing that killed the CRT industry however, isn’t so easily rectified. As the United States government began to ban the import of any and all electronics containing lead (“thanks,” China), not only did the quality of soldering in modern electronics plummet — non-lead-based solder is notorious for cracking with age — but the heavily lead-based CRT display was essentially condemned to death. Seeing as all the companies that had produced them domestically had moved production overseas, the supply line was cut at the source. Existing stock was sold off, and no more came in to replace them.
As the home consumer business finally began to let go of CRT displays, so too did the arcade industry. They had no choice, really. An arcade monitor and a traditional tube television are practically identical in every single respect. They come from the same factories. Older arcade monitors may have unique native low resolution modes (which make the low-res games they’re displaying look fantastic), but generally an arcade monitor is simply a CRT without a tuner. The tuner is the part of the television that receives and displays a picture from your antenna or cable jack. Without that, it’s just a monitor.
With the world’s supply of CRTs slowly dying out, a life-support measure had to be developed to keep the population of old-school arcade games out there still trugging along from going dark. Every so often you’ll find an original 1980 Pac-Man machine still sitting in the corner of a local bar, still happily gulping down cherries and quarters with each passing day, and it’s probably working a ton better than those shitty 2005 Namco Pac-Man Anniversary cabinets too (seriously, they’re some cheap shit). But when that monitor inevitably dies, the owner is likely to throw the whole game out, no matter how vintage or old-school it is. What good is an arcade game that cannot be seen?
A replacement had to be made. Nowadays, you can find a drop-in LCD replacement monitor for dying arcade games. They use the exact same harness hookups and plugs that the original CRT display did, but simply replace the lead based tube with a sleeker LCD screen. It seems like the perfect solution, right? If only that were so. Take a look at this ugly mess of a conversion:
The image is flat, tiny, and the play experience lacks any character whatsoever. You see, the CRT display has become as deeply entrenched a part of the arcade “aura” as anything else. That “glow” from the golden era of arcades people talk about? That tube display flickering those smoky images in a dimly-lit room, providing just enough light to keep the room cheery… that’s the entire arcade aesthetic. The entire concept of this discussion is simply dripping with nostalgia, but that’s the point. What good is an old-school arcade cab without its scanlines, somewhat warped image, and curved picture? It’s like fitting an old blind soldier with replacement bionic eyes. Sure, he can see the world around him and interact with it again, but it’s not the same as your real organic eyes, nor could it ever be.
But the problem is that those replacement screens are only being made primarily for the oldest of the old-school class of arcade games. Your average 1991 Street Fighter II or Neo-Geo cabinet? When that 25-29″ monitor dies, get ready for the sad sight of sticking a 19″ replacement, surrounded by a giant, ugly bezel (see above) to hide the gaping hole surrounding your monitor. Finding replacement 13″ monitors for your PlayChoice-10 dual cabinet, or a brand new X/Y monitor for an original 1983 Atari Star Wars vector cabinet? Good luck, because it won’t happen. The unique oddity cabs, or just the hulking attention grabbers of the ’90s have been left out in the cold. As previously mentioned, the monitors can be repaired and brought back to life, but only in the hands of an experienced veteran, and that kind of talent is also becoming difficult to find. Most shops just encourage you to send the monitor straight to the recycle bin, or will even do it without asking if you take it to them thanks to “policy regarding dangerous lead based electronics.”
The death of the arcade monitor is but a consequence of video tech’s eternal march forward. HD displays are among the most beautiful forms of visual expression available, but that simple CRT tube is what defined multiple generations of home and arcade video games, and no amount of visual trickery will every change the fact that a Pac-Man from 1980 or even Donkey Kong Country for your Super Nintendo (1994) is always going to look better on a 480i CRT than any HD monitor. Throughout this article, I’ve included various images of CRT displays showcasing classic games from various eras. These are from my personal garage arcade. Maintaining these monitors is no easy task. One blew last night, actually — Marvel vs. Capcom 2. They’re expensive to fix and difficult to maintain when they fall out of focus, but dammit, without them I probably wouldn’t keep most of these games because it’d be no different than the experience of playing them on a PS3.
If you ever get a chance to play a classic arcade game with its original display tech, give it a go. You never know if you’ll get another chance in the wild.
Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.