They are as British as Blackpool Tower, as representative of the seaside holiday as sandcastles and ice cream, and as nostalgic as a ride on the donkeys. No matter what your age, who hasn’t known the thrill of visiting a seaside amusement arcade or playing the slots at the fairground?
Amusement arcades have been a fundamental component of the British seaside resort since the early nineteen-hundreds when the first ‘Sports Arcades’ began to open at piers and fairgrounds all over the country. The name ‘Penny Arcade’ came later when the cost of playing the machines doubled, rising from half-a-penny to a penny.
Most of the early amusement machines were imaginative feats of engineering and completely mechanical in operation. All you had to do was put your penny in the slot, pull a handle, shoot a shiny steel ball around a track, take your fortune card, watch the skeleton come out of the closet, listen to the laughing policeman, or win your prize with a miniature crane – the flip of a lever, the ‘clink’ as the spinning ball fell into a shiny FA cup, and the turn of the handle. It was hypnotic and fun; and you’d stand at the machines for as long as you had pennies in your pocket.
For many, the fascination of these machines was not in the thrill of the winning; but in the operation of the machine itself with its various, and often ingenious, mechanical functions. Of course the object was never monetary gain, the object was to beat the machine, to stay in the arcade playing them for as long as possible before the pennies ran out. Of course everyone knew that every penny won would eventually go back in the slot machines; but back in those early days, a one pound note would get you two-hundred-and-forty extremely large, often very black, old pennies.
The genius of the amusement machine was William Edward Bryan who opened his slot machine factory at Kegworth, Derbyshire in the early twenties. He had served his engineering apprenticeship with Rolls Royce but soon opened his own garage. Local showmen and fairground people would bring their slot machines to his garage for repair and William became fascinated with them, convinced that he could design better and more interesting games – so that’s what he did. Bryan was a mechanical genius, and went on to invent forty-eight different amusement machine designs, inventing replays, multiple-payouts, jackpots and even operator customisation as he went along.
Due to the different legislation in Britain and the USA, up until nineteen-sixty British machines were ‘Amusement' machines, whilst the majority of American machines were ‘Gambling' machines. ‘Gambling’ machines are games of chance, whereas ‘Amusement’ machines are games of skill; so prior to nineteen-sixty British arcade machines had to involve an element of skill if it paid out a reward – often simply returning the original penny stake. Consequently British machines took the form of games of skill – such as ball games, cranes, and shooting games, or non-payout types – such as fortune tellers, viewers, what-the butler-saws, juke boxes, working models, and pintables.
After the sixties, with changes in legislation, the slots arrived and the old mechanical skill games began to disappear. Three bells, three sevens, tumbling pennies, horse racing games – increasingly the gambling elements increased as did the cost of playing; five, ten, even twenty and fifty pence a play games becoming commonplace. The games were electrically operated with flashing lights, and multiple buttons rather than the mechanical handles and flip-levers of the past which soon became collectable items.
During the late seventies, video games began to be seen in arcades. Game technology had become sophisticated enough to offer quality graphics and sound, but it was still fairly basic, so the success of a game had to rely on fun game-play. In the eighties the video arcade game reached its peak; colour arcade games became more prevalent and arcades themselves started appearing outside of their traditional seaside and fairground locales. Video arcade games started to spring up in motorway service areas, restaurants, bars, and in high street arcades in many towns and cities.
Then during the nineties, with the advent of home gaming and later the plethora of gaming devices available in the home, on the move, and on any number of desktop, handheld, and console devices, the industry began to decline rapidly. Of course by this time many of the seaside arcades had closed or were struggling.
The days of the ‘Penny Arcade’ seemed numbered, and the time when every seaside resort had at least one amusement arcade for the entertainment of its holidaymakers seemed at an end. Even so, at the start of the twenty-first century, many smaller resorts featured few other indoor activities with which to occupy their visitors on rainy summer days – just what was going to replace them?
It wasn’t going to be easy; the seaside family amusement arcade had been devastated by a range of issues, leaving them struggling to survive. The arcades’ heyday of the late sixties and seventies had gone – fuelled by the development of video games – and many arcades couldn’t compete with the home games consoles that provided better graphics and interactive game play. And then of course there was online gaming and downloads to contend with. Even the move to videos and simulators in the nineties, a last chance grab at salvation, didn’t seem to help as the arcades became more and more dependent on gambling and gaming offers – ‘Amusement With Prizes’ – fruit machines, penny falls, cranes, and grabbers.
To hasten the decline, in 2005 the Gambling Act was passed making legislation on gambling and gaming machines much tighter. Another blow to the arcade industry who claimed at the time (and still claim) that The Act made their operations much less competitive. With the outcome of still more closures, it seemed that the ‘Penny Arcade’ was doomed.
Then in a ‘Back to the Future’ moment, a new type of amusement arcade began to appear in Britain’s seaside resorts – the arcade that traded on nostalgia… or the ‘Penny Arcade’. What a great idea! These arcades represented a move away from gambling and gaming products and a return to harmless, innocent fun. Fun without gambling, fun through amusement with fortune telling, test your strength, kissing machines, old-style pinball games, Allwins, drop games, non-payout machines – and some of them even charged just a penny!
Obviously this won’t be the answer for all arcades, but by their very nature the need to reinvent is a necessity. The old style arcades operated on the ‘winning’, it wasn’t about ‘winning money’. The Penny Arcade understood that it was the activity itself- beating chance through skill and a little luck – that drew us there in our hordes.
So, the chance is there for the Amusement Arcade. Beach huts, fairgrounds, candy floss, even the Punch and Judy are making a nostalgic reappearance in British seaside resorts as strapped-for-cash Britons stay close to home rather than jetting abroad. If the arcades return to family fun, to games of skill rather than games of chance, to penny slots rather than big payout gambling, then maybe they still have a chance and maybe, just maybe, their future really is their past.