|The 1960s and 70s produced a lot of amazing
electromechanical arcade machines which were forgotten when they were
eclipsed by video games. Its similar to the final days of silent movies,
which took many decades before they finally started to be appreciated. A few years ago I played Bally's Road Runner at
Muse Mecanique, San Fransisco. This is a driving game which uses UV
light and a pepper's ghost mirror. The video makes your car look superimposed,
when playing the game it looks more solid. The real effect is surreal, spooky and unforgettable.
I've recently started researching these machines - I never realised there were so many of them and the variety is amazing. This video of a Sega motorbike race is a too long, but three-quarters of the way through it shows the extraordinary mechanism underneath.
I found the video on magweasel.com, together with this interview with Hisashi Suzuki, who was a developer at Sega at the time. There is so much in common with my own work - the difficulty of judging simple things like the thickness of each part, the obsession with service hatches and easy access for maintenance, but most of all how enjoyable it is developing machines like this
"Hisashi Suzuki spent a couple decades making arcade electromechanical games for Sega through the 1960s and 70s — in fact, he was one of Sega’s first employees, as he explained in an interview published in Famitsu magazine’s Sega Arcade History (2001):
It was a long time ago; it was 1962. That was before Akira Nagai [managing director of Sega in 2001] joined the company, even. Sega wasn’t Sega at that time; Nagai was the accounting department for Nihon Goraku Bussan, while I had joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, the company that eventually became Sega.
Why did Suzuki join Sega?
Really, it was just because they gave me a lot of off days. At the time we were looking for work, pretty much the only companies that had a five-day workweek as a rule were those funded by foreign outfits. Sega had that, and the third Friday of every month was an off day, too; it was just an unthinkable amount of holidays. The company’s work schedule had just changed when I joined in, so everybody left work at 6 pm, and people would get angry at you if you stuck around after that. There was a strict boundary between work and non-work, playaround time and so forth. On the other hand they were extremely serious about being at work on time, even if the trains were all shut down for a strike or whatever. Our salary was cut for whatever amount of time we were late. Since it was a foreign-owned firm, all of the top positions were held by foreigners and all of the internal documents and so forth were written in English. Everything was signed off with signatures instead of hanko and that didn’t change until Sega joined the CSK family in 1984.
When I joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, I was working on slot machines and jukeboxes. I designed a lot of slot machines. Japan was not exporting a lot of things at that time yet, so we built a name for ourselves as an exporter back then. After that, we went into the amusement market — starting out, we just purchased used machines from the US and either repaired them or took them apart so we could make copies. Eventually the internals went from relays to transistors and ICs, which then led to Pong, but before then it was all electromechanical machines. It was really fun, that era. There were racing games back then as well, but this was back before there were monitors or anything, so you took a model of a car and projected its shadow on a screen. There were no sound chips, either, so we loaded in an amp, stretched out a spring, and hit with a coil, which would create an explosion sound effect. Every machine we manufactured would sound slightly different.
How were these things developed, anyway?
There were development rooms for electromechanical games as well, but the hard part about these games were taking an idea and actually implementing it. With video games, very generally speaking, you can do anything as long as you have the program for it. With electromechanical games, you have to come up with the entire structure. There were lots of things to think about, from efficiency and cost and function to ease of repair. Design and development were two different jobs back then. Development would come up with a concept; they’d just present an idea for the entire function of a machine, and then design would implement it.
Generally, a software developer becomes a seasoned employee in
about three years’ time. Experience is a lot more important with
hardware, so that takes five or six years. For electromechanical, that
was more like 10 years. Younger people would come up with these bold
concepts that would wind up becoming unreliable, breakdown-prone
machines. How many millimeters thick should the cabinet’s outer layer
be? You’ll never know unless you get experience. If you decide to just
make it thick, then the entire machine will weigh far too much. Too
thin, and it won’t be durable enough. Even with tabletop machines, you
need to know how wide the doors are in an average arcade or else you
won’t know how large the machine should be.
It was a lot of fun, making these machines, but implementing ideas was extremely difficult, and you couldn’t afford to make anything that broke down too easily. With arcade games today, the only things that break are monitors or motherboards, and that’s really not all that often, but Sega needed an army of servicemen to take care of the electromechanical machines. We had to make sure to place all the intricate and delicate parts right nearby the small service door so they wouldn’t have so much work to get the thing apart."