Coin-op Conversions: How Consoles Tried to Recreate the Magic of Arcade Games

  • Posted on 20 Jul 11:16
  • By Jack England

how-consoles-tried-to-recreate-arcade-games

Arcade cabinets are often thought of as nostalgic relics. Cool, yet leagues away from uber-powerful consoles like the PS4 or eagerly anticipated PS5, which looks like it rolled straight out of a sci-fi movie in comparison. Yet there was a time when cabinets were far more powerful than their home-based counterparts. The graphics of arcade games were often sharper and the animations, smoother. Consoles tried to recreate the experience with ports, but these often deviated noticeably in aesthetic and quality.

Much of the gap can be attributed to technical complexity. Refitting an arcade game into the parameters of a console is hard. The developers who ported NBA Jam even struggled with the PS1, which is already several degrees more powerful than the consoles of the 80s.

Porting was also new, so developers didn’t have a lot of standards to build from. A lot of conversions began with just playing the game and going from there. “Their company would get an arcade cabinet in then wheel it into their cubicle so they could try and recreate it,” explains David Craddock, an author and historian who writes about coin-op conversions.

However, the potential to corner the growing market of console gamers was too great. Many classics were converted in an effort to sell consoles. Some, like Space Invaders, succeeded, skyrocketing sales for the Atari 2600. Many more missed the mark. Below, we explore 5 coin-op conversions that tried to emulate arcade titles, to varying degrees of success.

Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong is one of the largest hits to come out of the Golden Age of Arcade Games. With such an iconic title–and the huge payoff that would have come out of successfully porting it to a console–you’d think it would look recognisable, if not better.

Wrong. Those old enough to remember the Donkey Kong port by Coleco will also remember it as possibly the ugliest coin-op conversion to come to the Atari 2600. Instead of barrels, Mario was dodging what looked like gigantic cookies. Pauline looked less damsel-in-distress and more lemon-headed thing in a dress. Donkey Kong looked like a gingerbread man crossed with a nightmare. Two of the four levels had to be removed.

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Let’s not talk about the thing that’s dropping off of Kong (Source: Old School Gamer Magazine)

Mortal Kombat

Blood, guts, dismembered limbs–gore is one of the things that set Mortal Kombat apart from other fighting games. While others merely hint at pain with a little fleck of red here and there, Mortal Kombat bathed neck-deep in decapitations, incinerations, and spine and heart-rips. It outraged parents the world over and the game was a solid rival to Street Fighter II.

Unfortunately, most of the extreme violence that made Mortal Kombat iconic is missing on the SNES, making for some ridiculous looking scenes. Liu Kang’s opponents conveniently miss the bed of stakes waiting for them. Instead of death by heart-rip, Kano defeated enemies with a poke to the chest. Nintendo’s family focused games denied the game’s uncompromising brutality which was part of its appeal. Upon release it was widely panned for heavy censorship.

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Admittedly it looks like a rather rude poke (Source: YouTube)

Street Fighter 2

The SNES might not have been a good home for Mortal Kombat, but for Street Fighter 2, it was a match made in arcade-to-console heaven. Nintendo, perhaps looking to ride the massive hype following Street Fighter 2, touted it was the perfect arcade port.

In many cases, they were right. The combat, movements, and animations were all faithfully replicated in the game. The intricate graphics, which Street Fighter was lauded for, seemed even more defined. It even sounded similar, which was notable. Sound technology on early consoles was very limited–the SNES only had less than 100KBs to work with for music. An average MP3 track today is easily thousands of times larger.

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Above: Limited edition Street Fighter II cartridges for the SNES (Source: IGN)

Q*bert

With the earliest instance of swearing in a game, and its novel Escheresque level design, Q*bert quickly became an icon on its own. The game was ported to numerous systems, including the SNES and the Atari 2600.

The NES and Atari versions are similar in that Q*bert is still fairly recognisable, especially on the NES. Ugg and Wrongway, the enemies that traverse the sides of the blocks, are not in the Atari version. The gameplay on both systems is not far behind the original arcade version, although the Atari’s joystick does lend to more intuitive handling through the game’s pseudo-3D landscape than the D-pad on the NES.

How Consoles Tried to Recreate the Magic of Arcade Games qbert 
Q*bert swearing his way onto the NES (Source: Woodgrain Wonderland)

Space Invaders

“Only Atari makes games the world wants,” reads an advert for the Atari 2600 from 1981. An ambitious claim, but it was true. The console brought home many arcade favorites, but it wasn’t until Space Invaders landed that it really took off. Suddenly, the Atari 2600 was at the top of everyone’s most-wanted list. The port is credited with single-handedly quadrupling sales of the machine, helping establish not only the console but Atari itself in the video game industry.

The game’s 2-dimensional, blocky art and joystick-based play fit right at home with the Atari 2600. There wasn’t a huge jump in graphics–if anything, the coin-op conversion added a bit of colour to Space Invader’s galaxy.

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An ad for Space Invaders from 1980 (Source: YouTube)