Electro-Mechanical Arcade Games

Jason Torchinsky is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Jason has a book out now, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a tinkerer and artist and writes for the Onion News Network. He lives with his partner Sally, five animals, too many old cars, and a shed full of crap.

Before computers became small, cheap, and reliable enough for this purpose, people still had the desire to stand in front of armoire-sized cabinets, stare into a glass panel, and pretend to do things they normally didn't do, like kill aliens, drive like a madman, or work in a junkyard. The way they did these things was with wonderful, complicated electromechanical arcade games.

These electromechanical games are incredible contraptions, using every kind of trick-- projections, spinning drums, remotely articulated models, whirring discs, mirrors, lights-- to give the illusions of speed, action, explosions, distance, and more. Looking at them, it's amazing they worked so well in such a high-abuse public environment. These are real engineering gems, long gone, and very rare now. Luckily, there's a bunch of videos out there, since stills really don't do these justice: Speedway, Hill Climb, Invaders, Haunted House. Enjoy!


  1. There’s a fantastical new arcade museum devoted to electromechanical games in Newburgh, New York, the Retro Arcade Museum. It seems a labor of love. The collection is ASTOUNDING. One centerpiece is in the entryway, Sega’s 1970 “Gun Fight.” I’m too young to remember that in real life, but there’s also Sea Wolf (of course), Steeplechase, a biorhythm machine… http://www.retroarcademuseum.com. (I wandered in one day, not a shill.)

  2. I remember the arcade at the seafront having something like this when I was a kid. It was a motorcross game, with a life-size set of scrambler forks, with the wheel on a huge rotating drum with the course moulded onto it. It was freakin’ huge. Incidentally, the ATM in the high street when I was very young was electro-mechanical too – not even a CRT. The words were printed on a scrolling rubber belt. For real.

  3. on my speakers that first game sounds like The Omen as performed by Casio SuperBASS Microkeyboards

  4. I think Canobie Lake Park in Nh(?) has, or had Invaders. I remember seeing that and Haunted House in arcades as a kid. I loved the clicking and vibrations and the WAY TOO LOUD sound effects. I always veered towards these rather than the quarter eating Donkey Kong/Pac-man area. I remember a shotgun hunting game, too. Good post!

  5. There’s a place in Vegas too. They restore pinball, old mechanical games & first generation video games. They have a large selection with some very rare games like mechanical baseballs & even a couple prototype pinballs.


  6. You forgot one of the most beautiful.
    1930(!) races paces:

    My inner engineer had his jaw firmly attached to the floor for the entire thing.

  7. The death of a medium or technology, or at least its slide into nichehood is often accompanied by a last gasp of engineering innovation.

  8. huh, give them swords and it reminds me of the motorcycle battle from final fantasy vii

  9. Wow, I actually remember “Junkjard” and “Haunted House” from way back when I was just a toddler! This post triggers old memories from before I even could speak properly!

    I suspect these games may have subconciously shaped our collective expectations of all arcade games and shooters in ways that we may never be conciously aware of.

  10. #2: Gilbert Wham – A version of the first kind of ATM in Canada was on the outside of the Bank of Montreal at King & Bay in Toronto. It was this hand built thing from the bank that had an octagonal metal bar that spun around to say one of 4 things in either French or English.

    I remember playing the original submarine game from Sega at the arcade at Wasaga Beach as a kid. It was apparently the first thing that Sega ever built after they expanded out of the playing card market. It had rows of lightbulbs connected up to your periscope. When you pressed your “fire!” button the bulbs in the connected row would light up in sequence, moving towards the back of the cabinet where the ships were moving back and forth in their shooting gallery. If the bulb at the end of the row lit when a ship was in front of it your torpedo had scored a hit! Don’t remember exactly what the sound effect was when the ship blew up but I do remember that it filled me with awe at the time.

    My first electro-mechanical virtual reality!

  11. There’s a large retro arcade and soda fountain in Duncannon, PA (just north of Harrisburg) in an antique mall called “The Old Sled Works”. It’s located in a former sled factory. It might not be a large landmark but if you’re in the area, it’s a must-see. Be warned, I have never seen the soda fountain in operation, so I don’t know if it’s still open, but the arcade is open during regular working hours.


  12. One of my favorites, also in the Old Sled Works collection, is Mutoscope’s “Atomic Bomber”. There’s a link to it on the Marvin’s Mechanical Museum website, http://marvin3m.com/arcade/atombom.htm . It was created in 1946, so it’s high-tech for the era, and shows a wonderful futuristic view of the atomic age.

  13. If you’re in San Francisco, down on the waterfront is an excellent ‘interactive museum’ which is a huge hall full of games like this and many others from the turn of the 19th century till the start of video games. And the best part is they all work, and you can play any of them. I spent many quarters and 5 hours in here.
    ps the website is pretty weak

  14. to add to the throng, there’s a place in farmington michigan called “marvin’s marvelous mechanical museum” chock full of arcade and midway games both new and old. Some one of a kind mechanical pieces dating back to the turn of the century. I remember more of them working in my childhood, but it’s still an impressive and mostly operational collection.

  15. #1: “Gun Fight.” Is that the one where there is a large screen with a projection of a bad-guy cowboy, and a disembodied voice saying, “DRAW!”? It was also slightly before my time, but I would see it in various places (the old arcade in the basement of Harrahs Tahoe, maybe?). It thrilled and scared me at the same time!

    And yeah, the Musee Mechanique has some great stuff. The super-old horse race and baseball games are faves.

  16. Electromechanicals are my favourite, and my fave units are Wacky Gator and Cosmo Gang by Namco! I wish I had a link for Cosmo Gang, alas.

    My father worked for IBM when I was a child, and he has a great story about a bent pin on a punchcard machine. When it needed to be replaced, the administration ordered him to replicate the bent pin to keep access to previous records!

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