The history of pub arcade games

The UK pub arcade has gone through many changes over the last 15-20 years. Once a cornerstone of the modern British pub, the rise of home gaming and digital entertainment in general led to a rapid decline in the number of places offering these games as standard. However, this has also led to a resurgence in recent times. In particular, there has been an increase in so-called ‘new-school’ arcade games - those with high production values, immersive and engaging experiences, and even local co-op play mechanics that hark back to a more innocent time when friends would gather around the same screen for a wholesome night of shared fun. This article looks at how UK pub arcade games have evolved over time as well as exploring some of the most interesting examples from across different eras.

The First UK Pub Arcade Games

The UK pub arcade first emerged in the 1980s as arcade machines were finding their way into bars, hotels, and other public spaces. The timing was perfect as the home computer market was beginning to emerge, and many people who had previously played games in arcades would now either have a machine or be looking to upgrade to a ‘real’ computer. This was a golden age for the UK pub arcade, with many machines offering modern takes on 80s classics such as Outrun, Pac-Man, Street Fighter, and more. A thriving scene developed, with competitive events and even Banqueting and Catering Institute (BCI) accreditation for operators. However, all good things must come to an end, and this era slowly came to a close as the millennium drew nearer. The rise of the home console and the home computer had already begun to squeeze out the arcades, and now digital technology was taking the rest of the market with it. Pinball machines remained, but the rest of the arcade had little future in a digital age.

1990s: The Golden Age of the UK Pub Arcade

As we’ve seen, the UK pub arcade really came into its own in the 1990s. Arcades were still thriving and new arcade machines were regularly being added to pubs across the country. Many of these machines were designed to replicate classic 8-bit computer games such as Tetris, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man, while others offered more modern takes on traditional arcade games such as Skee-Ball and basketball. With such a huge variety of games on offer, the UK pub arcade was a fun-filled experience that could be enjoyed by all types of players. As the decade progressed, some machines began to include multiple game modes, giving them more longevity and ensuring that they remained fresh for years to come. This was in part a response to the arrival of the home PC, which brought with it a host of cheap and cheerful games that could be played for free.

2000-2014: A Dark Age for UK Pub Arcade Games

The turn of the millennium saw a swift decline in the popularity of the UK pub arcade. A combination of the rise of home gaming and an increase in the number of games that could be played for free via computers led to a gradual but steady drop in the number of arcade machines being installed across the country. The rise of the Internet also played a role in this process as free online games became more and more common, and the popularity of consoles such as the PlayStation also led to fewer machines being purchased for pubs as people increasingly played at home. However, a general decline in the number of arcade machines in pubs and bars also had a knock-on effect on operators. Most of these games were rented out, and as there were fewer places to install them, the demand for new machines also fell. As such, arcades across the country began to close down at an alarming rate.

2016 to present: A New Dawn?

In recent years, an increase in nostalgia among younger players has led to a resurgence in the popularity of arcade machines. Following the release of 80s-themed party games such as Pac-Man Skee-Ball, Outrun, and many other titles, modern players appear to have developed an appetite for the authentic arcade experience that can only be found at a real-world location. This, combined with the increasing use of retro-gaming themed parties and the rise of retrogaming events such as Retro Rewind and Retro City Fest, has led to a modern renaissance for the UK pub arcade. The appearance of modern machines such as Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, Ultimate Chicken Horse, and even VR machines such as Labyrinth and Paranormal Activity has led to an explosion in the number of arcades being installed in pubs across the country. This is great news for gamers as it means that there is now an even greater choice of games available at pubs than ever before. It also means that the UK pub arcade is in a better position than ever to survive in the modern era of digital entertainment.