Much attention is often lavished upon the vast profits generated by the latest editions of today's biggest franchises. So much so, you'd think that this sort of financial success is something new. Actually, it isn't. Even during the very earliest days of video gaming, there were products that made mountains of money. The difference between now and then, however, is that back in the day, that revenue was earned one quarter at a time.
Of course, I'm talking about coin-ops, and an era when millions were visiting arcades and pouring billions of coins into the slots of the machines that could be found there. But which particular games ate the most quarters? Here's where you can find out as I run down the top ten list of the biggest-grossing arcade games of all time.
Arcade flyer scans from The Arcade Flyer Archive.
10 - Space Ace
- Cabinets Sold: NA
- Quarters: 52,000,000+
- Revenue by 1984: $13,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $29,500,000+
The first game on this list is one of several games that were a triumph of technical gimmickry over genuinely compelling gameplay. Space Ace was a quick time event (QTE) game built on the same Laserdisc technology that powered its predecessor and pioneer of the genre, Dragon's Lair.
It's an interactive cartoon adventure in which players are tasked with rescuing a damsel in distress – which involves watching an animated scene play out, and moving the joystick or pressing a button at critical junctures to move the plot along to the next sequence of events. Failing to input the correct command at the correct time results in a death sequence playing out, and the scene being replayed - assuming the player has a remaining life.
With plenty of humor and a slightly more sophisticated branching plot than Dragon's Lair, Space Ace was very successful, but nevertheless netted significantly less money than its predecessor. This, and the fact that the Laserdisc technology that drove the game was prone to often-costly failure, sounded the death knell of this kind of coin-op. The format would get a temporary reprieve in 1991 thanks to the release of Time Traveler, before falling into obsolescence.
9 - Time Traveler
- Quarters: 72,000,000+
- Cabinets Sold: NA
- Revenue by 1991: $18,000,000
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $30,800,000+
Touted as the first "holographic" video game, Sega's 1991 Time Traveler used a stereoscopic laserdisc player, huge curved mirror and CRT screen to refract the game's live-action characters to give the impression that they were free-standing five inch tall holographic projections. It was gimmicky, but looked pretty damn awesome. Well, until you figured out it was literally a smoke and mirrors trick.
But while it looked good, the gameplay was anything but. It was basically a live action QTE, acted out by an exceptionally motley band of ham actors in sub-cosplay clothing wandering around laughably awful low-budget sets. The QTE mechanics were clunky and ponderous, with the player guiding the time travelers through a variety of temporally themed hazards by using joystick input at critical moments. The game didn't have a particularly long run in arcades (again, machine failure was common), but it nevertheless pulled in buckets of cash thanks to arcade operators charging big money to play this "new" gaming technology.
8 - Tron
- Quarters: 120,000,000+
- Cabinets Sold: Est 10,000
- Revenue by 1983: $30,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $70,000,000+
Based on Disney's successful 1982 video game themed movie, Tron hit arcades in spectacular style. It's one of the most eye-catching arcade machines ever designed, with a pair of blacklights making its fluorescent cabinet graphics glow like a prop from the movie. It even had a transparent blue joystick that was lit from below to further accentuate its visual appeal.
The game itself comprised four minigames, each one based on a key scene from the movie. They could be tackled in any order, and completing all four them advanced the player to the next level, of which there were twelve. This interesting and varied gameplay made Tron a huge hit in the arcades. Indeed, the coin-op actually made more money than the movie in the year of its release.
7 - Dragon's Lair
- Cabinets Sold: Est 7,500
- Quarters: 192,000,000+
- Revenue by 1983: $48,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $112,000,000+
Driven by then cutting-edge Laserdisc technology, Dragon's Lair was essentially a large-scale QTE in which the player used carefully timed joystick moves and button presses to guide the game's hero, Dirk, through a hazard-filled castle.
Although the gameplay was simple and somewhat repetitive, the Dragon's Lair's amazing graphics and great sense of humor were a sensation. It was unlike anything that had been seen before, and gamers flocked to the arcades to play this amazing new machine. Quickly realizing its popularity, and that its cartoon-like graphics made the game feel a step above its 8-bit peers, arcade operators set the price of a game to 50 cents - something that was almost unprecedented at the time.
The game wasn't without its issues, however. The Laserdisc technology that powered the machine was quite fragile – especially the earlier models – and repeated use resulted in frequent and often expensive breakdowns. Regardless of that, the machine still raked in the cash from gamers who were thrilled at the experience of playing an interactive cartoon.
6 - Defender
- Cabinets Sold: 55,000
- Quarters: 400,000,000+
- Revenue by 1982: $100,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $234,000,000+
Featuring an intimidating number of buttons, and enemy ships whose behavior patterns were extremely sophisticated for the period, Defender was one of the most memorable shooters of the early 80's.
It was the creation of Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, who'd previously been pinball machine designers for Williams. They spent months iterating a design inspired by their favorite aspects of Space Invaders and Asteroids. The end product was a revelation. Featuring search-and-rescue gameplay, a variety of different alien types, and the thread of a planet exploding, Defender provided players with a high-energy, relentless, colorful and loud shoot 'em up experience that made other shooters of the era look positively pedestrian.
Defender's high level of challenge helped it devour hundreds of millions of quarters as gamers got to grips with its complex gameplay – and of course the game would go on to become one of the enduring icons of the Golden Age of Arcades.
5 - Donkey Kong
- Quarters: 1,120,000,000+
- Cabinets Sold: 60,000
- Revenue by 1982: $280,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $676,000,000+
One of the earliest platform games, and the first game created by legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's 1981 classic coin-op was a massive hit with gamers thanks to its innovative gameplay that played out over four different screens.
Often cited as the first game to feature Mario, this is actually a somewhat revisionary fact. When the game was launched in Japan, the hero was a carpenter called Jumpman who was on a mission to rescue his girlfriend, Lady, from the clutches of his escaped pet gorilla, Donkey Kong. When the coin-op was released in America, however, Nintendo US employees weren't keen on the original Japanese names, and chose their own. Lady became known as Pauline, and Jumpman became Mario, who also gave up the carpentry business and became a plumber. A move that was evidently a good one, as it helped him go on to become one of gaming's best-known characters.
When it was first launched, it was seen by some as a very strange game – which is understandable when you consider that arcades were dominated by space shooters and early maze-chase games. However, this new concept soon caught on, and the game became a huge smash hit.
4 - Street Fighter II
- Quarters: 2,750,000,000+
- Cabinets Sold: 60,000
- Revenue by 1993: $687,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $1,108,000,000
Capcom's sequel to its 1987 arcade hit was one of the gaming milestones of the 90's. While the original Street Fighter introduced many of the series' fundamental design elements, Street Fighter II evolved them a quantum leap forward, creating a benchmark fighting game design that still stands true today. Thanks to its ultra-competitive gameplay, the machine was an instant hit, selling some 60,000 units globally. Its rapid player turnover helped keep the coins flowing – a welcome relief to many arcade operators, who'd seen revenues decline since their peak in the mid-80's.
Several reports cite Street Fighter II as earning $1.5 bn by 1993, and that in turn has been erroneously attributed to coin-op revenue. However, that source – Children, Adolescents and Media Violence by Steven J Kirsh Hirsh – is actually referring to the franchise as a whole, including home console versions and merchandising. The reality is, there is no current definitive source for revenue of the machine. The number here is an estimated one, taking into account cabinet sales, player engagement and interest.
3 - Street Fighter II: Champion Edition
- Cabinets Sold: 140,000
- Quarters: 6,500,000,000+
- Revenue by 1995: $1,625,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $2,610,000,000+
With Street Fighter II bringing in enormous revenues, it didn't take Capcom long to produce an updated version. In April 1992, Champion Edition hit the arcades with rebalanced gameplay, four playable Grand Masters, and the ability for players to engage in mirror matches for the first time. Despite being cosmetically very similar to Street Fighter II, CE sold an incredible 140,000 cabinets.
In similar fashion to Street Fighter II, definitive revenue numbers for this machine are lacking. Arcade owners often reported "Street Fighter II" on revenue sheets, rather than citing a specific version, and many arcades updated to the new Hyper Fighting board within a year, further muddying the financial waters. Also, by the early 90's, arcades were in decline, and revenue records were often not published. Therefore, the figures here are estimated, based on the fact that 140,000 cabinets were sold, and taking into account player engagement and turnover. These numbers are quite conservative, however. Due to the relative ease of making illegal versions of Capcom's CP System boards, many pirated copies of the arcade game also existed, which would likely boost its revenue number considerably. But for obvious reasons, the actual sum will never be known.
2 - Space Invaders
- Cabinets Sold: 360,000
- Quarters: 8,000,000,000+
- Revenue by 1982: $2,000,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $5,220,000,000+
One of video gaming's all-time classics, Space Invaders kicked off what is now called the Golden Age of Arcades, a period of history spanning the late 70's to the mid 80's that saw unprecedented advances in gaming design and technology.
The machine was launched in Japan in June 1978 and swiftly became a cultural phenomenon. By the end of the year, an incredible 100,000 coin-ops had been installed across the country. Such was its immense popularity, the sheer volume of people shoveling money into its coin slots created a temporary shortage of the 100-yen coin.
Space Invaders swiftly became a major export, and was soon rejuvenating arcades around the world, whose mechanical machines and lack of technological innovation had seen them in consistent decline since the 50's. This literal reversal of fortune was fueled by millions of players, who queued time and time again to test their mettle against the invading hordes. The revenue generated in the states in its first year was greater than that of the highest-grossing movie of the period – Star Wars. Not bad for an industry that had only just turned five years old.
1 - Pac-Man
- Cabinets Sold: 350,000
- Quarters: 10,000,000,000+
- Revenue by 2000: $2,500,000,000+
- Inflation adjusted for 2013: $3,400,000,000+
Since Space Invaders has come and gone, the number one quarter eater of all time should be no surprise at all. Well, unless you didn't grow up playing arcade games.
Gaming's first major mascot, and perhaps its most recognizable and enduring character, Pac-Man burst onto the scenes in 1980 and became an overnight sensation. In an era where almost all games were space-themed shooters, Pac-Man's non-violent, maze-chase gameplay presented something fresh and new. It also did something else few other games did at that time – and that was appeal to female gamers.
This universal attraction helped bring an unprecedented number of players into arcades around the world, who shoveled an unbelievable 10 billion quarters into its slots. This popularity turned Pac-Man into an icon, giving rise to the first generation of gaming merchandise, with everyone's favorite yellow dot-gobbler emblazoned on everything from t-shirts and hats to lunchboxes and dinking glasses.
Since then, Pac-Man has gone on to star in more than 30 other games – but most gamers will always associate him with this iconic machine.