mechanical amusement complex


Greetings, I am interested in mechanical or early computer amusements, in videogames before videogames or sometimes before video. To me it makes sense to think of the vgame format in part as a way to sell fantasies of technology, as much as embodying any more specific or considered use of that technology. And in that sense they exist as a continuum with a wide variety of things which may not be very interesting from a strictly game design point of view but which came about in similar conditions and spoke to something of the same fantasy. Accidental affordances of a new mass technology that are identified, peeled off and sold in hopes of catching some desire which no-one yet may be able to specifically identify.


But I don’t know much about them!! My knowledge of these things is pretty scattered. I’d be interested in either more good resources or in specific examples which are interesting or funny. Here are some which have been on my mind lately.


Erkki Huhtamo, “Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble” (2005), an “archaeology of arcade gaming” which connects early electronic games to 19th century coin operated doohickeys (slot machines, shooting ranges, weight machines, fortune tellers, cigarette machines…) and also talks about what the latter might mean as mechanised leisure to offset, or complement, increasingly mechanised forms of work. Lots of interesting asides including the notion that these things came to prioritise skill over chance in part to evade anti-gambling moral panics. It necessarily covers a lot of ground and I’m not sure if some of the floated potential reasons why these things caught on are that convincing to me but I greatly appreciate the expanded scope here.

Musee Mechanique, “End Of The Trail” - I’ve never been to San Francisco but I’ve watched the Gamecenter CX episode about it. The most mysterious one to me was this little diorama of a destroyed wagon in the desert - putting in a coin just activates a little wind machine that ominously blows across it. I guess this is an extreme mutation of the little clockwork diorama things, but weirdly foreshadows the later videogame interest in realistic cloth behaviors.

The Conundrum / What Will I Play Next? (1931) - before Monty Python came up with the same joke Victor were experimenting with records that had multiple different grooves, meaning they might play something totally different depending on where the needle was placed. There’s an interesting variant of this one called “Pick The Winner” - it had 6 different potential outcome tracks, each of which played a different commentary track for the same horse race. While functionally not that different from just guessing on a roll of dice (or presumably less exciting, once you were able to recognise which track was which?) it’s interesting to hear they deliberately adopted the form of the racing commentary track as a way to create pacing and tension once the needle was laid down. - “The Golden Age Arcade Historian”. Has some very good longform articles - I particularly like the ones on Nutting Associates (yes…), the amusement makers who manufactured Computer Space with Nolan Bushnell. I know it’s widely known that videogames emerged from the US military but it’s strangely gratifying to also discover that the private company who made one of the canonical early vg experiments specifically were able to move into the entertainment business because they made millions of dollars selling “educational” training computers to Raytheon. Games for change!

Golly! Ghost! (1990) - a Namco arcade game where you shoot electronic sprites projected above a real, 3d diorama inside the game cabinet. I love dioramas so it excited me to see this kind of weird attempt to recreate some of the older shooting gallery forms in a new context.

Anyway, feel free to post things in a similar vein, I will post more if I bump into any on my interet travels.


This looks terrifying.
Am I right in thinking you put your hand in and maybe it cuts it and maybe it doesn’t.
Does it do something less crazy like spray red goop on your hand.
What is this, and what is the history of it?

#3à it’s like a weird fortune teller variant on this thing, I guess - you put your hand in the slot and it deposits a fortune slip. the legend around the original is I guess that it cuts off your fingers if it tastes that you’re insincere.

when I was a kid I once read a Willard Price book where characters put their hand underneath an elephant’s raised leg, and the idea is that the elephant will crush their hand if it believes they’re dishonest and gently rest its paw if it thinks they’re righteous idealed. even as a kid I wondered what kind of moral judgement an elephant had.

the mask apparently makes an appearance as an item in animal crossing…



I’m hoping to go to the Moscow branch of the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines later this year. I should make a point of reporting about it here if this thread is still going.


I was taking a trip to the SF area back in 2014, and I guess I asked SB at the time what to see in the area. Broco mentioned this place, and so I went while I was there. It was a highlight of that trip for sure.

My favorite machine in the place was one called “Drunkard’s Dream,” which features pop-out hallucinations of a guy rolling around in a barrel:

In some cases, I was more taken by the artistry of the incidental figures and things than the moving parts.

Execution enactments were apparently popular at one point, and they have several of those. In this one, for example, the doors are shut so you can’t see anything until you insert your coin. And then,

Some of the larger devices were built out of toothpicks by prisoners. But I will refrain from cluttering up this thread with too many of my photos.


It’s a little outside the scope of this thread, but the Shitamachi Museum in Ueno, Tokyo has a really fascinating toy section on the second floor. You can play with Japanese toys from the past. It’s pretty fun.


Paging @LaurelSoup to provide Intel on Marvin’s


~1750, the last common ancestor of proto-pinball and proto-pachinko. Even comes with a spring for the ball! Boules became billiards became bagatelle became billard Japonais became Bally became Battlezone.


there’s a ton of ten yen games in this video, though i recemmend skipping to about 1:40
i’ve wanted to play these since seeing them on gamecenter cx, but the only way to really do so is to go to japan


that’s an excellent version of the Godzilla theme!! also love the big chunky plastics.

re pachinko, I will repost this from twitter: 1996 ‘Wired’ article speculating on pachinko as forefront of multimedia. since I guess pachinko balls form an alternative currency system anyway (with the legal loopholes around exchanging them directly to cash, as opposed to resellable gifts - unless this has been closed?), it’s fascinating to see people speculating them as a sort of prototype electronic currency that could be transferred online to various types of service. early parallel evolution of mobile gacha games, or world of warcraft gold, or Crypto Crabs, or whatever other weird market based fever dream.

something else I saw from the golden age of arcade blog: reference to “wall games”, apparently big canvas screens covering an entire wall in bars, with light arrangements behind it. these would light up according to the game logic. I guess similar to Game & Watch? I love the look of these strange glowing decals.

The dart game was an example of something called a “wall game.” All but forgotten today, wall games were a short-lived phenomenon whose brief heyday occurred roughly in the period 1970-1978 before video games made them all but obsolete. Found almost exclusively in bars, wall games (as the name implies) were wall-mounted games consisting of a large plastic or styrene panel about 3’ x 5’ and 5-8 inches in depth. Multi-colored graphics were silkscreened on the front of the panel and a series of light bulbs were located behind it. Turning the light bulbs on and off created the illusion of motion. Players controlled the action via a pair of remote control boxes that usually consisted of a single button they had to press at just the right time. Themes included golf, duck hunting, dog racing, and especially darts (the games were sometimes generically referred to as “dart games”).

this one is called “trapshoot”. video

EDIT: found an old site devoted to wallgames on
interestingly the person running it, in 2004, speculates that wallgames may be about to make a comeback due to the new availability of really cheap big flatscreen TVs!


Early art games and early game critics…


Yes! Marvelous Marvin’s Mechanical Museum is a spot just outside Detroit hidden in the rear of a strip mall, dedicated to coin operated amusement machines. I took Mikey there during his tour of duty here. They’re really heavy into automaton dioramas. Some of the choice ones are a Spanish Inquisition torture chamber with little figures getting whipped and burned with pokers, and one a little like the one posted above with an execution by hanging that you watch through the doors of a courthouse or something. The floor drops just as the doors start to close for maximum drama.

They also have a machine a little like that Zardoz face thing above and when you put your hand inside and it’s implied a fuzzy spider crawls on it. There’s a more modern electric chair themed one that actually shocks you and the longer you hold on the stronger it gets.

There’s a bunch of recently commissioned custom machines that are in the spirit of the old dioramas, and a nice slate of arcade games ranging from 70s pinball tables to Beat Square. Occasionally they have F-Zero AZ but never when I actually pack my memory card. The whole place is done up with vintage magic show posters and kitschy decorations. Marvin himself died a couple months back, but they’re staying open. It was a little dicey but they managed to work out the will situation.


The wall games are super interesting! Looks like 15 years ago all the childhood fans of wall games came out of the woodwork and put their heads together. Lots of interesting stuff on that archived and someone from the company that made Trapshoot even came to talk about it - they got the awesome name “Gremlin Industries” by accident, and they ended up merging with Sega!

And here’s Trapshoot being explained by a modern-day child.

More recently people collected some more memories and a lot more titles to follow up on - apparently these were not only pub games but the sort of thing you’d find in pizza parlors and bar/restaurants.

This one looks fantastic! Wish I could find clearer footage.

Even cooler, somebody on that page brought up an art installation / proto video game made of controllable light bulbs in an airport

And a little more information on what might’ve happened to it and what it looked like:


fowl play is beautiful!! I also wanted to say real quick that i’d totally forgotten the magnavox odyssey also came with a batch of printed semi-translucent overlays that you put on top of your tv screen to provide contextual meaning to the kind of abstract blocky light plays that the odyssey actually rendered. to be honest, those have their own attraction too…
there are some decals here and here, my favourite is obviously Haunted House:

the execution dioramas are fascinating, the Spanish inquisition one in particular is very ‘Chiller’

I wonder what it is about the little diorama display that lends itself to these elaborate gore tableaux, outside ordinary prurience I guess, there’d probably be an interesting / insufferable post about the way the kind of abstract disembodied perspective lends itself well to a kind of sadistic pornography gaze, but I will not attempt it here.


I played this driving game a lot when I was a kid. I assume the road is a backlight scroll or drum that cycles endlessly. The throttle I think controlled the speed of the road passing by, and the steering wheel moves the car left and right in a sort of proto-Sega-super-scaler fashion. There’s no penalty nor interaction if the car collides with traffic or a tree.

If you’ve played or read about Tumbleseed, you might recognize the main gameplay mechanic from Ice Cold Beer. You control the tilt and elevation of a mechanical rail, and with it, you try to keep metal balls from dropping in the holes. Maybe you get points for dropping balls in the illuminated holes, but I’m not sure about that.


There’s a game inspired by those steering wheel games on itch. It’s not a strict recreation but it’s a fun enough concept.


Novelty Automation in Holborn (London) is mostly all art games in the English tradition of illustrations from Punch. I enjoyed the edible nuclear waste I earned after causing a reactor meltdown in My-Nuke.


wow, this stuff is great

Present any object to the expert and he will tell you authoratively whether it is art or not.