Interview: David L. Craddock’s Arcade Perfect delves into the untold history of beloved arcade games

Having grown up on a somewhat secluded island community in the late ‘90s, my personal exposure to the world of arcade games was quite limited. A local pizza joint had a small selection of three or so arcade machines on rotation, but you can only play Galaga and Pac-Man so many times before you get bored and move on. Fortunately, Stay Awhile and Listen author David L. Craddock helped me vicariously experience the joy of the arcade machine’s golden age.

In his upcoming book, Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room, Craddock reminisces on how he first discovered classic arcade titles like Golden Axe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before delving headlong into the history of 16 well-known arcade games. Craddock naturally covers beloved arcade icons like the original Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter II, and Space Invaders, but he also looks at unexpected gems like NBA Jam, Double Dragon, Missile Command, and the OG of classic video games, Pong.

Along with exploring the history behind each game, Craddock also includes excerpts taken from interviews with arcade era luminaries like Susan G. McBride, Ed Logg, and John Tobias among others. This clever combination of historical research and in-depth interviews creates a fascinating tapestry of arcade history that begins in the early 1970’s and continues all the way into the present day.

Even though Arcade Perfect doesn’t come out until next month (on Friday, September 13), Craddock was kind enough to provide me with an advanced copy so I could in turn probe his mind on the book’s journey to publication. What follows are Craddock’s answers to questions I provided him after reading several chapters of Arcade Perfect.

GameCrate: What inspired you to write ‘Arcade Perfect?’

David Craddock: Growing up, many of my favorite titles were ports of games I'd played in arcades. The novelty of being able to play the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Golden Axe, and Street Fighter II in my living room--or in my room, comfortably seated at my computer--was mind-blowing. No more haranguing my parents to take me to the mall so I could squander their money on arcade games (and, once I finally dragged them there, no more whining to give me extra quarters once I'd gone through my initial supply).

Even at a young age, I noticed that the home versions of my favorite games weren't exactly like what I knew and loved. The characters in TMNT II: The Arcade Games on NES, for example, were smaller; the stages were twice as long, which was great--twice the fun!--but even better, there were new stages, new bosses, even new "cutscenes" that, while primitive on 8-bit systems, made the home game more engaging.

In most cases, though, I didn't consider these home versions better or worse than their source material. They were just different. As I grew older and acquired more systems (thank you, Santa Claus and paper route money!), I would spend hours examining screenshots and write-ups in magazines, deliberating over which port of games such as Mortal Kombat II I should buy. After all, Christmas gift cards and earnings from my paper route would only go so far.

Arcade Perfect was my chance to talk with the developers of many of my favorite arcade-to-home ports to find out more about the process of squeezing high-end coin-op software into comparatively low-end hardware such as the Atari 2600, NES, Game Boy, SNES, Genesis, and ZX Spectrum, among others.

What is the history behind the phrase "Arcade Perfect," and what does it mean? 

It's a phrase you don't often hear these days, for better, and for worse. "Arcade perfect" was a term used to describe a conversion that was a perfect translation of its original material. Soul Calibur on Dreamcast, for example, was not only arcade perfect--it was better. The visuals, audio, and in-game content such as arenas and characters were rebuilt from the ground up, and ended up looking, sounding, and playing better than the quarter-devouring original.

It took a while to get to that point, though. Creating arcade-perfect ports of games on older hardware such as Genesis and NES was nearly impossible. In retrospect, that wasn't a bad thing. Space Invaders on Atari 2600, for instance, didn't have as many aliens on-screen to shoot, but it did have different configurations, new enemies with new attacks--a whole set of features that made it… not better or worse than the coin-op, but different enough to be considered its own game.

This is one subject I explore in Arcade Perfect: instances of games that didn't quite measure up to a coin-ops audiovisuals, but matched or even exceeded its gameplay systems and content.

Why should people who are interested in video game/arcade history read Arcade Perfect?

I'd wager that everyone who played arcade games likely played a home version of one of their favorite coin-ops. When they did, perhaps they were impressed at how close the conversion came to measuring up to what they knew, or perhaps they were disappointed at how different it was to what they expected. In either event, my guess is they were intrigued: Why was the game better or worse in some way (graphics, sound, controls, etc.)? Arcade Perfect answers that question.

More than anything, though, Arcade Perfect is a story about the developers who made these games. Think about it: Most fans of Mortal Kombat know Ed Boon and John Tobias as two of the originators of the franchise. But as popular and commercially successful as MK was in arcades, it made more money as a home game: because individual cartridges cost more than a round in the arcade, and because the appeal of bringing the game home was so strong.

But who made MK for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo? And why weren't their versions identical to the arcade? What technical, cultural, and, indeed, political hurdles did they have to jump? My book tackles those questions, too.

Do you still notice small differences in different game versions/ports today? I ask because I sometimes notice little differences myself. For example, I remember the 2004 hip-hop brawler Def Jam: Fight For New York. I first played the game's GameCube version and noticed that the create-a-character suite didn't allow me to change my custom character's voice. Then, several years later, I played the PS2 version and was surprised to discover a whole list of different voice options that were apparently omitted from the GameCube version.

Definitely. In fact, I tend to take a greater interest in games when two or more versions are different than one another. Homogeny is good for business, but it's also boring. It's good for business because these days, someone on Xbox One doesn't want to know that their version of Game X is inferior to their friend who's playing on PS4. 

Also, the parity in console and PC hardware circa September 2019 means developers can concentrate more on freeing their imaginations to create awesome content than having to reign themselves in because one version of their game has to run on a slower platform (This is one reason why many studios "farm out" a version of their game meant to run on an older platform to another studio: The main studio's developers can put all their resources behind making the best version and leave the ports to someone else).

Even though differences between versions of the same game tend to be rare these days, my curiosity has another outlet: HD remasters of legacy games. For instance, in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, you may not have realized that, while the software is running games on arcade emulators--software meant to full your console into thinking it's another machine--there are some differences in those old games. There are crates in Chun Li's market stage that used to be colored red with a white swish painted along the sides, like Coca-Cola's logo. The programmer in charge of writing the emulation software for SF30th Anniversary, Daniel Filner, had to figure out a way to change the paint on those crates because Capcom either didn't have permission to use Coca-Cola's colors, or didn't want to cut a check for licensing.

Oh, and the rub? Filner didn't have access to Street Fighter II's code. He had to figure out a way to dig into a game released in 1991 and change the pixels on some tiny crates that most players would barely notice. It's a great story, and I tell it in Arcade Perfect.

In your opinion, how popular (if at all) is the “arcade experience” among today’s gamers? Do you hope Arcade Perfect will inspire readers to seek out these relics of gaming’s past?

The arcade experience is, sadly, almost nonexistent today. I recently visited my childhood arcade, and I barely recognized it. Most of the games were designed to give players tickets, because few developers write arcade games these days.

Fortunately, anyone who wants to experience golden oldies for the first time has numerous ways to do so. If you want to play any of the 12 Street Fighter games released before Street Fighter IV, you can pick up Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection and experience those games (almost) as I did.

Anthologies and individual re-releases bring the magic of the arcade home, and thanks to the power of modern tech, those experiences are "arcade perfect"--except for a few pixels here and there.

The list of arcade games you cover in Arcade Perfect is extensive, but are there any games you wanted to mention but which ultimately didn’t make the cut? The games in Arcade Perfect are all pretty well-known (at least to avid gamers), but did you consider looking into games that were more obscure?

I did, and to be perfectly honest, I'm saving some for a sequel! Also, one of my criteria for writing about a port of an arcade game was I had to be able to talk to someone who worked on it. I didn't want to regurgitate Wikipedia. There were several Japanese-made games I would've liked to cover more extensively, but the language barrier prevented me from doing so. I also wanted to write about games on the Neo-Geo, because Neo-Geo's console hardware was indistinguishable from its arcade hardware--but that's a story for another time, and another book.

Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room is scheduled to launch on September 13

Image Credits:

Wikimedia (Pong)
GameFAQs (Street Fighter 2)
Test Your Might forums (Mortal Kombat arcade machines)
TV Over Mind (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade machines)