5 California Arcades in The 80s: Looking Through The Lens of Ira Nowinski

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1977’s Space Wars by Cinematronic goes ignored by arcaders  gathered around the newest games in an unidentified arcade in Santa Cruz, CA in 1982.

That renowned photo-essayist Ira Nowinski recorded the very beginnings of the video craze in California is something short of a miracle. Most of his work up to that point was more focused on local arts and sociopolitical topics; i.e. “urban renewal” forcing pensioners from their longtime homes, the American migration of Soviet Jews and, of course, the San Francisco Opera where Nowinski had been the staff photographer since 1978. These are the events and topics he was most interested in at the time, not pop-culture fads.

IraNowinski_web200pxBut for some reason in the late Summer of 1981 Nowinski began visiting area arcades in and around San Franciso and the nearby cities of San Mateo and Santa Cruz, and recording what he saw there.

Since arcade games in the early days appealed to a far wider range of people than they do now, I suppose he was drawn to the energy of the moment that was creating for the first time a social scene that hadn’t existed around electronic games before.  It was all new, fresh and, as the cultural movement it most certainly was,  still not yet  defined. No one knew yet what it was doing or where it was going  -only that it was.

The young and old, and every age in between, as well as all races and sexes, appear in his photographs;  businessman from the financial district, dock workers and suntanned teenagers, men, women, boys and girls, all appear together in Nowinski’s photos. Personally, I  get the feeling Mr. Nowinski himself was a fan of video games otherwise he wouldn’t have recognized that what he was seeing was important enough to document it in the way that he did.

There were undoubtedly others, like Ira Nowinski, men and women who  documented the video craze in photographs yet whose collections disappeared into attics and basements across America never to be seen again.  Thankfully The Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries has been generous enough to house Ira Nowinski’s collection of vintage arcade photos as well as his other works. They’re an absolute treasure and can be found in their entirety here.

H6ktEIyjNow let’s go back…back in time…it’s late Summer/early Fall 1981…MTV has just launched it’s first broadcast, and cars on the boulevard are pumping out tracks from either Foreigner’s “4” or Iron Maiden’s “Killers”, the two #1 “street albums” at the time.  There’s a new fad exploding around the country –video games– and arcades are popping up everywhere, so much so that their numbers nationwide outnumber 5 times the number of Starbucks  street locations in America today. The forlorn hedonism of The 70’s  discos  and the redundantly painful bad taste that came with it are over. A new generation is coming of age to a soundtrack cut by a chorus of robots. The world is about to walk headlong into a hot-electronic dream it will never want to awaken from…and never will.

Welcome to the video craze of 1981.

Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA 1981

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A pensive-looking attendant sells tickets on the pier.
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A battered Drag Race (Kee Games 1977) sits forgotten in a hallway down an exit hall.
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A Centipede  player (Atari 1980) gives birth to the original “power stance”. Games of the same title organized in groups of four or more was commonly known as “a wall”.
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Donkey Kong (Nintendo 1981) and Ms. Pac-Man (Namco 1981) draw crowds around the carousel.
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A woman watches intently as her male companion battles it out on Phoenix (Centuri 1980).
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A Red Baron environmental cabinet, commonly referred to as a “cockpit”, dominates a corner of the Pier 39 arcade. Created by Atari in 1980, Red Baron was a first-person perspective flight simulator. This model is sought after by collectors.
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Allied only produced one eletromechanical game in their history but 1975’s F-114 was a remarkable experiment in the genre of environmental flight simulators as well as artistic design. Above is an exceedingly rare photo of the game in action. Below is a 1975 flyer of the game.

F114 Flyer

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Ms. Pac-Man (Midway 1981) interested people of all ages.
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Businessmen crowd around Ms. Pac-Man.
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Someone’s “Dad” was an ace on Defender (Williams 1980).
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Packed crowd around Pac-Man (Midway 1980).
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A “wall” of Kick” (Midway 1981), also known as “Kickman”.

First Street Arcade, San Francisco, CA 1981

Young love blossoms between  Ms. Pac-Man and Stargate.
Three quarters on the bottom right screen represent three players waiting their turn on the machine. Arcade etiquette required that a waiting player put a quarter up to indicate he or she was “in line” to play.
Business man gets his Qix (Taito 1981) while the young lovers get their own.
Taito’s Qix, although a shooter by application, was the first “drawing game”,  where the objective was to fence off/claim a majority of the playfield.
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Stargate (also known as Defender II) was released by Williams in 1981 and created by Eugene Jarvis as a sequel to Defender (1980).
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The choice between Scramble and Super Cobra (both by Konami 1981) seems a little too intimidating of a decision for this guy.
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 Space Invaders, the game title that started it all in 1978, sees a second-wave of interest in the form of 1980’s Space Invaders Deluxe.
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Pac-Man (1980, Namco/Midway). Note the player is gripping the joystick with one hand and holding the side of the game. This was a “playing position” most commonly associated with Pac-Man. This is why Pac-Man’s found today have a wear pattern on both sides in this area.
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A young man tests his prowess on Defender (1981,Williams Electronics),  the game that put its first champions in national news and inspired the creation of Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard in the same year. *Note the Defender in this photo is a rare prototype indicated by the sticker side art instead of the usual painted stencil art.
Two rather uninterested onlookers check out a guy on Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981) next to Armor Attack (Cinematronics, 1980)  and Atari’s 1981 smash hit, Tempest.
Sega’s 1981 Turbo catches the grip of a businessman so hot for the action he’s taken his jacket off.

Broadway Arcade,  San Francisco, CA 1981

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Rip Off (Cinematronics, 1980) captivates a group of young people. In the background stands Sprint 2 (Kee Games, 1976).
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Rare sighting of Universal’s Zero Hour  (background left) released in 1980. Few remain today.
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Zero Hour by Universal (1980) control panel detail. Universal games are known for their artistic designs and unusual beauty.
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Two young women enjoy a game of 1981’s Gorf by Midway.
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Midway’s Gorf was the first arcade game to offer multiple play levels.
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The 70s meet The 80s. Phoenix (Taito, 1980), Sprint 2 (Kee Games, 1976) and 80s megastar, Pac-Man (Namco/Midway, 1980). Note that it was permissible to smoke in arcades hence the upright ashtrays placed between games.
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A woman struggles to reach eye-level with Atari’s 1980 hit Battlezone. Later a step/riser was added to remedy this problem. Next to it is Sea Wolf  (Midway, 1976) which was actually an updated version of their 1970 release, Sea Devil.
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A rare photo of  Spectar (Exidy 1980).  Today it is exceedingly hard to find this game.
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Three guys play it cool in the pinball lounge. Note XENON (Bally 1980) to the left.
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Black Knight pinball (Williams Electronics 1980) looking shiny and new.

Chuck E. Cheese, San Mateo, CA 1981

Chuck E. Cheese attendant, whose name tag appears to read “Mondo”, welcomes you.
Rare photograph of the original Chuck E. Cheese carpet.
Defender (Williams 1981), Scramble (Konami, 1981),  Battlezone (Atari, 1980)  and Pac-Man (Namco/Midway, 1980)  in multiples make an exciting section of the arcade.
Pac-Man “cabaret” arcade machines were smaller versions of the full size model designed to accommodate smaller spaces or, as seen here, smaller people. Children loved them.
A small child with cabaret-style Pac-Mans and what appears to be a Tron.
Full size Pac-Mans
Gorf (Midway, 1981). Initially named “Galactic Orbiting Robot Force”, this multiple-mission shooter plays like as if it were a “5-in-1” game.
A “wall” of Defenders. In 1981, Defender and Asteroids were the most popular competitive arcade titles in America. Both games attracted marathon sprees from 30-70 hours non-stop.
Pleiades (Centuri, 1981) next to Space Fury (Sega/Gremlin, 1981).
So much win in this photo: Omega Race (Midway, 1981), Venture (Exidy, 1981) and Berzerk (Stern 1980) being played by a guy wearing a 1978 Blue Oyster Cult concert tee.
Blast from the past: An M-79 Ambush (Ramtek, 1977) entertains two young boys as two older men (most likely their fathers)  play games, like Carnival (Gremlin/Sega, 1980).
Sega’s 1979 Monaco GP in two model sizes appears in this photo. In the foreground is a cabaret model and in the far-left background is its much larger environmental “cockpit”.  A Red Baron “cockpit” appears in the middle.
Tranquilizer Gun (Sega, 1980)
A child ascend the staircase as a Red Baron “cockpit” (Atari, 1980) looms overhead.
Competition is on while one guy searches for more quarters.
The sudden flash of the camera in a dark room startles a player.
The unsung heroes of the arcades: The arcade tech

Santa Cruz, CA 1982

Young competitors on Tempest (Atari, 1981) hold court in an arcade by the ocean.
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One of the older boys seems to instruct a younger boy on the game as others look on.
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A Doron SR-2 Amusement Ride Simulator (1982) competes for attention against arcade games like Stargate (Williams, 1981) and Pac-Man which has a line forming on it.
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A line forming for Pac-Man.
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Radar Scope (Nintendo, 1979) gets ignored over Stargate and Pac-Man.
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An “ace” on Tempest (Atari, 1981) uses his football as a foot rest. Beyond him, in the background, is Midway’s 1969 Sea Raider.
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Asteroids (Atari, 1979) with a rare sight of an original Desert Patrol from Project Support Engineering produced in 1977.
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Tempest holds a crowd while Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981) attracts some attention of its own.
Donkey Kong: Where kids found out “How High Can You Get?” Not very.
Centipede (Atari, 1980) has a contest going on…and a kid fidgeting on the side of  Black Knight pinball (Williams, 1980).
Details of the Centipede Sweepstakes Competition, 1982

There are hundreds of photos by Ira Nowinski to be seen at The Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. Again, the collection can be reached here. Please take a stroll online through images he collected of a time that will never come again but whose impact we still see and feel in video games today.

And to all you arcade collectors out there, keep stuffing your garages, your spare bedrooms, your hearts.  Keep fighting to preserve what’s left of “the video craze”.

I know I will.

Disco Cat 10
The author at home


9 thoughts on “5 California Arcades in The 80s: Looking Through The Lens of Ira Nowinski

  1. Oh, man, this takes me back. Thanks for posting these.

    That mystery caberet in the pic with the small kid is probably a Gorf machine. I say this because the white Player 1 button is visible to the right of the trigger stick, which would be (in most cases) blue or aqua or red on a Tron machine, but almost always black on a Gorf cab.


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