Arcade game CPUs


Arcade CPU timeline

I’ve been getting into arcade games pretty heavily this year, and my posts have reflected this for sure ;-) Today’s post is actually a request from John Spitz, who emailed me after reading some of my other video game posts - he wanted to know if there was a typical progression in the types of hardware used in arcade games over the years.

The short answer is “yes” as you can see in the diagram I made at the top of this post.

The different major CPUs are listed according to their introduction date in the arcade market, and the thickness of the bar indicates their relative popularity in arcade games of the time. There are other CPUs that I didn’t include here simply because they are too rare - for example, some arcades in the 1990s used an ARM CPU, and a few arcade games in the 1980s used the rare Zilog Z8000 CPU, and one even a custom version of the DEC PDP-11 CPU!

Something I should note up front is that many video arcade games from the early 1980s onwards used more than one CPU - for example, one for the gameplay, a different one for video, and another different one for sound. Often, those CPUs were of different types. Later arcade games typically used a CPU from an earlier generation as a co-processor or sound CPU. For example, the Capcom games popular in the 1990s used a Motorola 68000 CPU for gameplay/video and a Zilog Z80 for sound.

The earliest arcade games (1970s) were Intel 8080-based, but were quickly replaced by he extremely popular Zilog Z80, which was the most common CPU used in the early 1980s, followed closely by the MOS 6502 (used in most Atari games) and the Motorola 6809 (which lasted well into the 1990s because its instruction set allowed developers to squeeze additional performance out of it).

The Motorola 68000 was the most common CPU of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the need for better graphics led to several 1990s arcades adopting the the Texas Instruments TMS34010 series of CPUs (which was the first CPU to incorporate graphic-specific functions).

The high-end 64-bit MIPS line of CPUs used by Silicon Graphics dominated late 1990s arcades because they were 64-bit and had a short pipeline (both were important for game performance), but were really the last dedicated CPU used in video arcades. For example, Atari’s Gauntlet Legends used a board with a MIPS R7000 CPU alongside a regular PC Voodoo Banshee video card to generate the graphics (much cheaper than creating a graphics system from scratch). To store the game, a hard drive was used instead of ROM chips, which was also much cheaper per MB. So essentially, it was basically a MIPS-based PC inside an arcade cabinet.

By around 2000, it made more financial sense to avoid reinventing the wheel - many arcade systems were based on home console hardware - modified Playstation 2 hardware, such as the Namco System Super 256, is still extremely common in arcade games today! This allowed game developers to create a game for the arcade and home console markets simultaneously, which was essential at the time since video arcades were falling out of style quickly due to home console popularity.

Ditto for PC-based arcades. Most arcades today use PC-based systems with an Intel CPU, hard drive, and a high-end AMD or Nvidia graphics card in them (e.g. the Taito Type X series). These systems are much cheaper to produce since all of the components are “off-the-shelf” and game developers can create a game for both PC and arcade platforms at the same time. The PC platform is where they will make most of their sales, and the arcade platform is a small bonus if it looks flashy and does well.