The rapid life cycle of arcade games created large inventories of unprofitable arcade equipment in the early 1980s. Finding alternative uses for this equipment became a priority for arcade proprietors and suppliers, who began selling arcade-game PCBs (printed circuit boards) to the general public at swap meets and through mail-order advertisements placed in popular magazines. Electronic hobbyists made devices, today known as superguns in the English-speaking world, to play surplus arcade games on home television sets. By 1986 commercially manufactured superguns were being sold to Japanese gamers. Within a few short years, these arcade-at-home devices appeared in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Taking a historical and cross-cultural approach, this article provides a brief explanation of the supergun device and details its arrival into various countries during the 1980s and 1990s. It also presents some of the motivations of people who joined the ranks of supergun owners and explains how they used arcade hardware in ways that video game manufacturers never anticipated. This article investigates a global gaming subculture that has yet to be studied.
Owning an arcade game is a childhood dream come true. Today, people around the world play original coin-operated video games at home to satisfy nostalgia, challenge longstanding high scores, enjoy otherwise unavailable games, or just revel in the novelty of having an arcade amusement in the family room. Some people own full-sized arcade machines, while many others have turned to compact solutions called superguns to operate game PCBs (printed circuit boards). Superguns are readily available for purchase through auction websites and at specialty game shops. These small and relatively inexpensive arcade-at-home devices have received increased attention from the North American gaming community, which has been instrumental in spreading awareness in recent years through social-media platforms and online video-sharing sites. Few people, though, realize that such devices have been around for nearly four decades since the unusual and complex history of the supergun has yet to be told.
In developed countries during the 1980s and 1990s, increasing inventories of out-of-date arcade equipment motivated businesses to sell used merchandise and NOS (new old stock) to the general public. Japan’s supergun industry came into existence in the 1980s due to the glut of inexpensive arcade PCBs available for purchase. Similar conditions gave rise to commercially produced European and North American superguns. While the existence of arcade-at-home devices in various countries is indeed related to mutual economic and social conditions, viewing the manufacturing, selling, and owning of a supergun in this era as identical everywhere would be incorrect.1 Taking a historical and cross-cultural approach, this article briefly explains the supergun device and details its arrival into various countries during the 1980s and 1990s. Then it describes some of the motivations of people who joined the ranks of supergun owners and demonstrates how they used arcade hardware in ways that video game manufacturers never anticipated. This article offers insights into a global gaming subculture that erased the divisions between gaming’s public (arcade) and private (home) spheres in a process reminiscent of Benjamin Nicoll’s “domestication of arcade games.”2 Supergun hobbyists did not merely settle for bringing home the so-called arcade experience (i.e., accepting home console conversions of their arcade favorites); instead, these people demanded the actual arcade game PCBs. The overall structure of this study is descriptive in nature due to its historical approach and its objective of introducing an underscrutinized subject primarily through archival and textual research. Before proceeding to a historical overview of the supergun hobby as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, two tasks are in order: establishing a functional definition of the term supergun and providing an overview of the hardware required to play arcade PCBs at home.
What Is a Supergun?
A supergun is an inexpensive and compact device that enables people to “play arcade games from the comfort of their own sofa.”3 It is an arcade-cabinet alternative that outputs video to a home television set or computer monitor. This type of arcade-at-home device is called a control box (kontorōru bokkusu) in Japan and MAK (Mega Arcade Konsole) in Germany.4 Prior to the introduction of commercial superguns, owning such a device was the sole province of video game enthusiasts with knowledge of arcade hardware and soldering skills. Owing to the wide variety of technology and input controls that arcade manufacturers have employed over the years, no single device is able to play the complete library of video games produced from the early 1970s to today. Nonetheless, superguns by design are compatible with as many game PCBs as is practicable. In other words, superguns have overcome numerous wiring requirements and are robust enough to manage the power requirements of a wide array of arcade hardware and offer a versatile controller scheme. Supergun owners surmount various limitations by purchasing or making add-on hardware. In the realm of input controls, for instance, hobbyists have wired additional buttons, bespoke joysticks, arcade trackballs, spinners, steering wheels, flight yokes, and mahjong panels to their superguns. These arcade-at-home devices can be materially distinct from arcade machines, so using a supergun assemblage may produce a different experience than normally offered in an arcade environment. The ability to play arcade PCBs at home with superguns breathed new life into obsolete hardware and created a novel form of recreation.
In common parlance, test rig and supergun are often used interchangeably. The difference between the two terms sometimes lies in discursive practice rather than any essential difference in hardware. The former, narrowly speaking, is a class of devices built to service arcade equipment while the latter exists to provide amusement. Both share many of the same components and functionality, although test rigs can also contain diagnostic tools and may have input control schemes that are ideal for troubleshooting technical problems but awkward for game play. The Univid 1000 and Williams Electronics Video Test System are two such commercial examples of test rigs from the 1980s. PCB repair shops and dedicated amateurs continue to use these devices as well as make their own. In short, for the purposes of this article, a test rig is a piece of diagnostic equipment and therefore not a supergun.5
The Board Master by Board∙A is shown here running Capcom’s popular 1991 Street Fighter II: The World Warrior . The external Sega control panel is for playing mahjong games. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
The Necessary Hardware
A video game arcade machine is an automated coin-operated entertainment device that typically charges by the quarter in the United States or ¥100 coin in Japan. It is a piece of equipment designed to be owned, operated, and maintained by a business, not unlike coin-activated jukeboxes, kiddie rides, and outdoor binocular viewers. To play original arcade titles at home requires basic knowledge about how arcade machines differ from consumer electronics, something not only important for operation but also handling and storage. The minimum hardware requirements for the supergun hobby are (1) a game PCB, (2) a supergun, and (3) a harness (also called a wiring loom).6 If these three pieces are properly connected together, then video signals may be outputted to a standard home television. What follows is a brief description of the hardware necessary to play arcade games at home.
An arcade game PCB—described in rudimentary terms—is a dedicated computer built to run video game software for profit without much oversight. PCBs are driven by sophisticated electronics that can become obsolete in a matter of months, a factor that has greatly contributed to the rapid life cycle of arcade games over the decades. Arcade games may be contained on a single PCB or spread across a PCB set consisting of a motherboard and daughterboard(s). Single-board and multiboard game sets are both commonly referred to as game PCB in the singular by hobbyists: the plural PCBs is therefore understood to mean multiple game titles. Game PCBs have many of the same components found in personal computers and other common electronics, albeit not in the same quantity and configurations, in part because businesses have deeper pockets than the average consumer.
The arcade cabinet and its progeny the supergun are relatively simple devices that, by contrast, have changed little in decades. To understand the technology of one supergun is to understand all of them at a basic level. Here is a description of the well-known Board Master supergun in terms of its form and function. The Japanese company Board∙A in 1995 retailed the Board Master for ¥48,000 ($511), making it more expensive than most commercial superguns of the period but it by no means had the heftiest price tag.7 This product changed little over its production life. The Board Master shown in figure 2 measures 210 by 650 by 100 millimeters and weighs five kilograms. Its shell is made from two pieces of 19-gauge sheet metal that have been cut and bent into shape. The white paint still looks fresh on many of these devices even after twenty-seven years of use. The Board Master’s durable construction and rich set of features still make it a desired supergun among gamers. The control panel was initially taken from Sega’s Astro City line of arcade cabinets but later from Sega’s Blast City line. The control panel consists of two joysticks paired with twelve action buttons, making it ideal for playing a wide range of games from one-button classics such as Galaxian (Namco, 1979) to six-button versus brawlers like Street Fighter II (Capcom, 1991). It can even play Crazy Climber (Nichibutsu, 1980) and other dual-joystick games, albeit only one player at a time. Twelve rocker switches operate two-speed rapid-fire circuits, and the three nonaction buttons activate player 1 start, credit, and player 2 start. The Board Master outputs video via RGB, in addition to composite and S-video through its internal video-decoder board.8 Inside the case is also an AC 100V arcade power supply (+5 +12, -5V), a pair of speakers (8Ω 2W), and a 44-pin edge connector. Other selling points include attenuated audio output and horizontal video adjust. With little to no tinkering, the Board Master plays most arcade games without issue. The last item required to play arcade games at home is called the harness, which is little more than a collection of wires that connect a game PCB to a supergun. Basically, the harness sends DC power and controller inputs (such as a joystick, for example) from the supergun to the PCB while simultaneously sending audio and video signals from the PCB to the supergun.9 The simplest way to view a harness is as an interpreter (figuratively, not literally) that translates the language of a specific PCB into something the supergun understands and then vice versa. Continuing with the analogy, PCBs that belong to the same pinout class speak the same language. The harness concept is straightforward, but the specifics at times can cause confusion even among experts.
Harnesses come in a variety of configurations, as shown by the three novice-made examples provided here. The top example has a Sanwa CB-36 pass-through fingerboard wired to a Hirose CR7E-44DA dual line connector. The former (left) gets inserted into superguns manufactured by Kyōwa International, and the latter connects to the plated pinout section of Data East’s 1984 Karate Champ , an arcade game with a unique pinout scheme. The middle harness is for running JAMMA compatible PCBs on Happī Shōkai’s superguns such as the Vega Jr., and the bottom harness is for connecting KIC superguns with built-in mahjong panels to mahjong games. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
The majority of arcade games produced after 1986 conform to a wiring standard promoted by the industry trade group JAMMA (Japan Amusement Machinery Manufacturers Association) or one of its unofficial derivatives with additional functionality (colloquially called JAMMA+ in the West). Capcomʼs CPS-1 kick harness is a well-known example of a JAMMA+ wiring scheme that offers three additional action buttons per player which, as the name implies, are used for kicks in Capcomʼs six-button fighting games (see fig. 2). The CPS-1 kick harness doubles the number of action-button inputs for both players while maintaining full compatibility with the JAMMA standard. Before the widespread adoption of the JAMMA standard, manufacturers wired cabinets based on in-house designs. For example, the games Yie Ar Kung-Fu (Konami, 1985), Terra Cresta (Nichibutsu, 1985), My Hero (Sega, 1985), and Ghosts ’n Goblins (Capcom, 1985) all require different harnesses despite being released in the same year.10 The same is true for arcade titles produced by Namco, Irem, Taito, Universal, Jaleco, and others. The lack of standardization complicated the working lives of arcade proprietors who, when a game title became unprofitable, either had to dispose of the entire arcade cabinet or rewire it to accept a different PCB. Neither option benefited proprietors due to the high equipment and labor costs involved. Proprietors sometimes outsourced wiring work to specialty businesses like Louise’s Harness Shop in Prattville, Alabama.11 The JAMMA wiring standard “assured that any JAMMA board would be compatible with any JAMMA cabinet. This greatly simplified the conversion process, as the replacement of the system board could now be performed on a plug-and-play basis.”12 The adoption of this wiring standard did not mark the beginning of what we now call the supergun hobby, but by removing various technical obstacles it made the hobby accessible to more people.
Supergun owners have always played non-JAMMA games, a category that consists mainly of titles released before 1986 or games that fit into the video mahjong genre, which supports its own de facto standards. Owning multiple harnesses remains commonplace, especially as people advance in the hobby. The aforementioned Board Master supergun regularly sold with JAMMA and pre-JAMMA era harnesses. In the 1980s and 1990s, shops in Japan bundled moderately priced harnesses with PCBs to elicit sales among gamers who opted for convenience over cost. Hobbyists with the proper technical documentation could, of course, choose to make their own harnesses on the cheap. For example, a used copy of Karate Champ (Data East, 1984) might come with its original operatorʼs manual, wherein there is a signal assignment table/connecting diagram that has all of the information needed to make a safe and reliable harness.13 Having proper technical documentation—or at least the main contents therein—could be quite essential for hobbyist harness makers, especially when working on arcade games with unusual configurations. Karate Champ, for instance, requires two joysticks per player and no action buttons, so its harness is not even compatible with other Data East games of the period. Members of the supergun community and certain businesses in the 1980s and 1990s freely shared information necessary to make harnesses, which proved invaluable when the original print materials went missing. Today, much of this print material (operation manuals, installation instructions, schematic packages, etc.) is available on the internet.
Lotus Press released the LAM-1 in the late 1980s. This supergun used external controllers that plugged into the two 9-pin inputs located under the faceplate’s text. This product was regularly advertised in Japanese video game magazines well into the 1990s. (Photograph courtesy of Shigeru Kurihara)
Hobbyists built their own arcade-at-home devices in the years following Japan’s Space Invaders boom of the late 1970s. Companies looking to unload used PCBs advertised in the back of popular monthlies, such as the computer magazines I/O and MicomBasic. The availability of inexpensive arcade games encouraged tinkering and experimentation by relative novices. In 1984, the electronics magazine Radio Make published detailed instructions on how to build a supergun for ¥20,000 ($85).14 The following year, Radio Make improved upon its designs with the TV Game Controller II.15 The issues had numerous schematics, diagrams, charts, and photographs. The TV Game Controller II accepted controllers produced for the MSX line of computers. Similar projects appeared in other magazines throughout the remainder of the decade. Technique of Backup, for example, published several supergun projects as well as how-to articles covering supergun maintenance, modifications, add-ons, PCB troubleshooting, and other related topics.16 Japanese technology writers provided ample information on all aspects of the supergun hobby. Around magazines formed a knowledgeable community of arcade-at-home hobbyists and a league of supporting businesses.
Kyōwa International released the first commercial supergun in 1986 called Control Box.17 It was a consumer-friendly, self-contained device with an arcade-quality joystick and three action buttons fitted into a commercial control panel (Seimitsu CTX-16 style). This product’s 1988 successor KIC-045DX garnered considerable press coverage in electronic gaming magazines, including Gamest, a popular periodical devoted to arcade games and culture.18 Kyōwa International inspired several companies to release rival products as DIY project kits and/or fully assembled devices. Consumers had a variety of options to choose from in the late 1980s: SVG-8 by Happī Shōkai, Access Twin by Access, ARV-7 by Sigma Electronics, QC-1 by Technart, and LAM-1 by Lotus Press (see fig. 4).19 All of these superguns had three action buttons per player. In the decade that followed, most of these companies released updated models (with six buttons per player), and more companies joined the business: Board∙A, KIC, Medic, Tokyo Box, Yellow Bag, YMD, and Wintechno.20 PCB sellers across Japan sought to put superguns in the hands of gamers to spur sales and rentals of surplus PCBs that no longer made economic sense to keep in operation at amusement arcades.
Four book-length publications emerged from the arcade-at-home hobby. Game Machine: Extensive Research can best be described as a complete guide to the hobby as it was in the late 1980s.21 Game Gals: Arcade Games, also published in 1989, served as a handbook for strip mahjong enthusiasts who wanted to enjoy pornographic PCBs in the privacy of their own home.22 Together, these two books taught people how to build, repair, operate, and enjoy superguns. In 1996, Gamest magazine released The Ultimate Gamer: Arcader, and four months later the people behind Gameplay II magazine published Turn Your Room into an Arcade!!: Way of the PCB Masters.23 These publications had information for supergun veterans and beginners alike. In addition to hardware maintenance and other technical topics, both of these 1996 works provided an up-to-date list of PCB shops and electronics sellers, industry information, glossary of terms, etiquette instructions, and encouragement to engage the community to form friendships with like-minded people. All of the information in these books had already been widely dispersed in magazines, but the convenience of having them in book form proved popular.
Japanese superguns came in a variety of sizes, shapes, and configurations. These devices nevertheless may be divided into two categories: console type and self-contained. At first blush, examples of the former resemble home video game consoles due to their external (and often handheld) controllers. Commercially produced, console-type superguns declined in popularity throughout the 1990s. Nevertheless, the console type remained in fashion among hobbyists who built their own devices. The vast majority of commercial superguns produced from 1991 onward were of the self-contained type: units housed entirely within a single rectangular metal box, including the joysticks and action buttons. Manufacturers copied the joystick and button layout of Capcom’s 1991 Street Fighter II, a selling point highlighted in product advertisements.24 The companies Happī Shōkai and Board∙A made superguns that accepted actual control panels found on Street Fighter II arcade machines. Happī Shōkai’s Vega 9000DX used the control panel from Sega’s Aero City line of arcade candy cabinets, while, as mentioned earlier, Board∙A’s Board Master came with Sega’s beloved Astro City or Blast City control panel. Hobbyists appreciated the use of authentic arcade control panels.
The supergun hobby declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although there are many reasons why this happened, the majority of the blame can likely be attributed to two factors. First, home-gaming machines had closed the technological gap with arcade machines. Conversions were nearly arcade perfect in cases, lessening the need to buy arcade PCBs for newer releases. Second, classic PCB prices rose dramatically. For example, Elevator Action (Taito, 1983) sold for roughly ¥6,000 in 1989, ¥10,000 in 1994, and ¥20,000 in 1996.25 The Fairlyland Story (Taito, 1985) sold for ¥15,000 in 1989. Seven years later, PCB shops charged over ¥50,000.26 Price increases such as these were common. Long past were the days when people picked working PCBs from junk bins at salvage centers for next to nothing. Many PCBs from the 1980s had been thrown away or recycled for parts in Japan prior to the resurgence of interest in playing old arcade games. In short, there were not enough quality games to go around, so too many enthusiasts found themselves priced out of the supergun hobby. The decline became all but inevitable once that happened.
Taiwan and Hong Kong
There is general confusion over how the term supergun in the West came to signify devices built to play arcade PCBs. The internet abounds with speculation about the wordʼs possible origins. Even as early as 1999, the magazine Gamefan declared “the origins of the name have been lost with time.”27 The earliest known instance of this term can be traced to East Asia of the 1990s, where a consumer product called Super Gun was released under the Gamesgroup Corp brand for the Taiwanese home video game market. In 1991 or thereabouts, Taiwanese consumers began purchasing the Super Gun from businesses located in Taipei, Tainan, and Zhonghe (now a district in New Taipei). One of these shops was associated with Astro TV Games Magazine, a periodical that published a special issue on the Super Gun.28 This arcade-at-home device was marketed primarily as a consumer product for the home. At least one advertisement, though, welcomed wholesalers and businesses looking to put this device to commercial use. The Super Gun came into existence at a time when Taiwanese adults disapproved of video game arcades so much that new legal restrictions limited minors’ (under eighteen) ability to patronize these noisy amusement dens. Product advertising suggested that the genesis of the Super Gun, at least in part, had been a response to these restrictions and, more broadly, growing parental concerns about where their children spent recreational time.29 “Super Gun” appears in bold letters on product packaging and advertisements but not on the unit itself. Instead, gamers only found the English “Professional TV Game Controller” prominently written on its face plate, phrasing that likely caused confusion among buyers and sellers in the secondhand market who had never seen the original box or related documentation. These devices accepted six-button Apollo Pro Joysticks and, with limitations, controllers meant for the Neo Geo AES (Advanced Entertainment System) home console.30 At the time of its release in the early 1990s, this arcade-at-home device resembled in appearance the aforementioned LAM-1, a product still being regularly advertised in Japanese magazines.
A few North American and European video game importers offered this Taiwanese product to their customers. The popular American magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly, in its January 1992 issue, felt “very reluctant to endorse” the Super Gun because it was often bundled with counterfeit PCBs of Street Fighter II.31 This product nevertheless inspired imitators such as Super Gun by California’s Mas Systems, Super Gun Deluxe by Raven Games of England, and Super Gun II purportedly out of Hong Kong. The term quickly entered video gamer argot. The space between the two words over time began being omitted, leaving us with the compound noun supergun (occasionally written as SuperGun). This omission can be seen as early as 1993 in the long-running British magazine Computer and Video Games. Super Gun was a registered trademark, according to product packaging, so the term appears to be a proprietary eponym, that is, a brand name that through general usage became a common noun that now refers to a class of objects instead of a specific brand.32 Given the obscurity of Gamesgroup Corp’s Super Gun, even in the East Asian video game market of the 1990s, it is remarkable how this product spawned a term that is now firmly established in the video gaming lexicon of the English-speaking world. This term has since entered the vocabularies of non-Anglophone European countries such as Spain, France, and most notably Germany, where it is on equal footing with the local coinage MAK (Mega Arcade Konsole). Gamers in Latin American countries use the term as well. The Super Gun never amounted to more than a niche product in Taiwan, but its peculiar cultural impact deserves an entry in the annals of video game history.
According to authors of online posts and internet gossip, shops in Hong Kong sold locally produced superguns that wound up in some European and North American homes, the most talked about being the Super Gun II, a console-type arcade-at-home device released in the early 1990s by an unknown manufacturer. Little about this device is known other than what can be gleaned by studying its hardware. Design-wise this product is not all that different from other superguns of the era, except it has a PAL (Phase Alternating Line) to NTSC (National Television System Committee) video switch and uses a 34-pin flat ribbon cable instead of a standard wire harness. This latter design choice meant that the unit transmitted power separately via four wires that converged in a nylon plug (molex-style connector). The ribbon cable and the nylon plug connect to sockets on one end of a small circuit board that has on its other end a 56-pin JAMMA female connector. Between the two ends of the small circuit board are signal traces, resistors, and a light-emitting diode (LED). The Super Gun II moniker on the deviceʼs face plate is conspicuously written in Capcom’s signature Street Fighter II font, a possible clue to the deviceʼs intended customer base.33
The Universal Energizer prototype was developed by Unitec Systems. The one above appeared on page 73 of the August 1990 issue of Zero magazine. (Image courtesy of Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/zero-magazine-10/page/n71/mode/2up)
Businesses across the United Kingdom championed the idea of selling original arcade titles to the general public. They envisioned gaming enthusiasts with deep pockets buying dedicated (i.e., single game) arcade machines for their homes, while middle-class families would rent or purchase PCBs and use them like cartridges, easily swapping them in and out of a universal arcade-style cabinet. This potentially lucrative middle-class market inspired entrepreneurs to develop new products. In 1989, for example, Mention Technical Services of Scotland promoted their Personal Arcade Plus, an upright mock-arcade cabinet that could accommodate home-gaming consoles as well as arcade PCBs. It featured two arcade-quality joysticks and eight push buttons in total. The built-in shelf supported a standard TV or computer monitor up to nineteen inches wide.34 In 1990, Active Consoles of England advertised a similar product in magazines.35 Powarcade, according to a video game journalist writing for The One, “is not the first home cabinet to reach the market, but where previous efforts have been souped-up consoles or glorified computer furniture, this is a genuine game cabinet, manufactured by arcade giants Silverline and including a double joystick and triple button configuration which is identical to those used in the company’s standard coin-ops.”36 The cabinet, five feet two inches tall by twenty-three inches wide, had a credit button instead of a coin mechanism and a TV shelf instead of a mounted monitor. It retailed for approximately ₤300 ($440). Active Consoles sought to sell and rent arcade PCBs that they put into rigid plastic cases to protect them from improper handling and to simplify installation, essentially turning arcade PCBs into large game cartridges.37 In 1994, the two-player version of the Power Base Arcade by Datel Electronics retailed for approximately ₤349 ($590). It stood over five feet two inches and came with a twenty-inch color monitor. “Why play arcade conversions when you can play the original for less,” a Datel advertisement asked rhetorically.38 Such products met with little success in the marketplace, as full-sized cabinets were too big, too heavy, and too expensive for many middle-class homes.39 In the words of a Games Amusement Pleasure writer, “they weigh a bloody ton” and required “six blokes like Jeff Capes [a British strongman]” to carry one of them up the stairs.40 In short, these sorts of products failed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere because most people sought inexpensive, compact gaming devices and not a piece of bulky furniture.
News of Japan’s supergun phenomenon had reached the United Kingdom by 1990. According to The Games Machine, “the latest craze sweeping Japan involves machines that allow you to plug in arcade printed circuit boards (PCBs) and play your favourite coin-ops at home.”41 These “dream machines” gave British gamers—who often viewed themselves as a neglected lot—another reason to complain about their video game market’s supposed deficiencies. James Dexter of Unitec Systems, the man behind Mention Technical Services’ Personal Arcade Plus, made a prototype device in 1990 called the Universal Energizer that received positive press from video game journalists (see fig. 5).42 The device looked and functioned like a standard Japanese supergun with a two-player control panel. The Universal Energizer garnered public interest but failed to become a successful product for one reason or another. Like the aforementioned arcade-at-home devices, it quickly disappeared from the pages of British magazines.
Individuals brought the Super Gun and rival East Asian products to the United Kingdom. In 1992, the Electric Brain article “How ‘Super’ Is the Super Gun?” introduced readers to the arcade-at-home hobby. At the time, a pirate Street Fighter II PCB with the Super Gun and a pair of Apollo Pro Joysticks would “set you back just over a measly ₤300!!”43 Superguns sold relatively well over the next few years, no doubt because video game magazines and television programs such as Bad Influence! introduced them to British gamers.44 In 1994, eight businesses advertised superguns for sale in Edge magazine alone: Raven Games, Console Concepts, Arcadia, the Games Machine, Hearts Leisure, Game Zone M.K., Arcade Connection, and Datel Electronics. These eight businesses ranged from a neighborhood shop selling gray-market software to a well-known peripherals manufacturer. They began selling their own locally made superguns due, in part, to customer complaints of poor craftsmanship and the challenges of maintaining a consistent inventory that relied upon foreign suppliers. Console Concepts declared in an advertisement, “this [our supergun] is not an inferior import. We manufacture this ourselves in the UK.”45 Others, such as Raven Games, conveyed similar sentiments to prospective consumers more subtly: “We’d looked at other versions of the Supergun and thought we’d be able to improve on them.”46 British producers tried to enhance build quality while ignoring aesthetics, resulting in superguns that looked as if they had been assembled in someone’s back room using off-the-shelf parts from a local electronics store—which might not have been far from the truth in some cases. The design of British superguns did not differ all that much from Gamesgroup Corp’s original product; in fact, several of them even remained compatible with Gamesgroup Corp’s Apollo Pro Joysticks. It is important to note that Japanese superguns, by and large, were absent from the United Kingdom.
Demand for superguns waned considerably by the late 1990s. The pool of interested customers had been too small for continued growth. The hobbyist look of many of these devices (plain project boxes with a mess of wires and unlabeled buttons) probably intimidated or confused mainstream gamers who, while liking the idea of playing arcade games at home, were accustomed to polished consumer electronics. The promise of treating arcade PCBs like cartridges never materialized in the United Kingdom. The challenges of acquiring PCBs from arcade suppliers combined with a lack of readily available information for novices only discouraged people from becoming supergun owners. Additionally, the pastime lost part of its appeal when, over the course of the 1990s, conversions of arcade titles for home gaming consoles improved considerably.47
Playing arcade PCBs on home television sets never became a mainstream hobby for European gamers. For those who knew where to look, though, the necessary equipment was readily available for purchase from roughly 1992 onward. Gamers in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain were largely introduced to superguns (a term not yet widely used in the region) by importers and domestic manufactures who advertised their products in video game magazines. European-made superguns had detached controllers like home gaming consoles instead of joysticks and buttons fitted to a large rectangular box that housed all of the supergun’s various parts. These devices did not differ significantly from those produced in the United Kingdom in that they tended to be relatively small and minimalist in design. They did on average, though, look more professionally built than their British-made counterparts. These products typically sold for around $250 to $350. In comparison, superguns without controllers in the United Kingdom could be purchased for as little as $150 (₤99) and roughly double the price with some pairs of six-button controllers.48 A few European products and prototypes received positive media coverage: examples include Black Power developed by Wild Lion (Italy), Arcade Machine by WDK (France), Arcade System by DB Logic (France), OverGame Machine CX distributed through Game Zone (France), Wolfsoft’s Mega Arcade Konsole or MAK for short (Germany), and the V1 seen in Digital Dreams (Germany) advertisements.49 East Asian and British superguns sold in continental Europe as did Japanese superguns, albeit in limited numbers. The hobby in continental Europe died out at roughly the same time and for the same reasons that it did in the United Kingdom (i.e., trouble locating PCBs, limited access to information, and the pastime’s waning appeal due to the advances made by home gaming consoles).
France, more than other countries, kept abreast of recent developments in Japanese video game culture, including the arcade-at-home phenomenon. One might attribute this to the country’s legacy of Japonisme or its sustained interest in Oriental bric-a-brac. The long-running French television program Micro Kid’s featured the KIC’s-91 supergun in a January 1992 episode. For two minutes the host of the program described its basic features, demonstrated its capabilities, and talked about arcade games that would run on it.50 The magazine Consoles + repeatedly praised the Japanese and their superguns. In an April 1992 review of the KIC’s-91, for example, the reviewer declared that “Japan is a video game paradise” since these sorts of niche devices can exist there.51 In a joint magazine issue published months later by Tilt & Consoles +, Kyōwa International’s six-button Combo AV received high praise. “The Combo AV,” it was said, “will put a dent in your wallet. When in love, though, one does not calculate. Yes?”52 French gamers looking for this type of love need not travel to Japan. The importer Softage out of Calais ran full-page advertisements in vivid color for the Combo AV.53 Compustore Games, IDE, and other businesses sought to put Japanese superguns into French hands.54
Super Nova Arcade System by MAS Systems was the most well-known supergun in North America. The photograph above comes from the company’s now-defunct website. (Image courtesy of Internet Archive, https://web.archive.org/web/20080215155241/http://www.massystems.com/SuperNova.html)
Suburbanites across the United States and Canada had the means to purchase used arcade machines in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as well as the space to house them. The only thing missing—from the perspective of wide-eyed children—were compliant parents willing to install an arcade machine in the living room, like the fictional Stratton family in the popular television sitcom Silver Spoons. In the January 1983 issue of Electronic Fun with Computers & Games, Ted Iacobuzio wrote about bringing used arcade equipment into the home.55 This article, “A $300 Arcade Machine?,” and others like it, provided readers with some basic information on how to contact distributors and guidance on avoiding common pitfalls. Arcade machines repurposed for home use never became prized objects of middle-class or elite consumption, although owning one was not an unheard of indulgence in certain metropolitan areas. Playing arcade PCBs at home using superguns, on the other hand, remained a rarefied hobby even among video game enthusiasts. Few businesses supported this niche amusement.
In 1992, Japan Video of Toronto began advertising the imported “Super Gun to play arcade games on your T.V.” in Electronic Gaming Monthly.56 MAS Systems announced their American-made “Super Gun” in 1993, which according to Diehard Gamefan had the distinction of being “the first Super Gun that is actually worth owning!”57 In 1994, the company advertised in the popular magazines Gamepro and Electronic Gaming Monthly. This $449 device looked and functioned like a standard rectangular-shaped, two-player Japanese supergun. It weighed thirty pounds and measured 28 by 13 by 8.5 inches due to its wood construction. MAS Systems also sold these units without NTSC video converters at a reduced cost, while offering their custom-enclosed Wells-Gardner nineteen-inch and twenty-five-inch arcade RGB monitors for $595 and $795, respectively.58 By 1995 MAS Systems had changed the name of their product to Super Nova and embraced the console-type design, which they earlier called the “dual single controllers version.”59 The company sold PCBs to supergun owners via mail order. The PCB price lists appeared in magazines in the form of advertisements.60 In November 1999, Gamefan reviewed an American-made rival to the Super Nova called the Home Game Arcade System (HGA for short) built by Great Western Trading, a company that specialized in selling arcade parts and accessories.61 The HGA was made from plywood and Formica laminate to approximate the look and feel of an American arcade cabinet. Both controllers connected to the base unit, called the “Main Control box,” using cables with an RS232 connector. Like the Super Nova, the HGA had enough buttons to play popular fighting games like Midwayʼs Mortal Kombat and Capcomʼs Street Fighter II. In 2004 and thereafter, the HGA sold in three models ranging in price from $295 to $395.62 Like most of their overseas counterparts, MAS Systems and Great Western Trading are no longer in business today.
Information about European and Asian superguns (as well as the devices themselves) trickled into North America through tourism, student-exchange programs, and immigration. American military bases have long served as a conduit for cultural and material exchange between the United States and base-hosting countries such as Japan. Young service members stationed in Japan and so-called military brats carried Japanese video game hardware and culture back to the United States, including accounts of Japanese superguns.63 Foreign publications sold in North America also informed gamers about these arcade-at-home devices. The French video game magazines Joypad and Consoles +, for instance, sold in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec while British publications enjoyed a small but enthusiastic readership across the United States and Canada. Information coming into North America was not greeted by an active community but instead enthusiastic individuals who enjoyed their hobby in relative isolation. It is possibly the case that more Americans and Canadians built their own superguns than purchased commercially manufactured models.
There Is No Substitute for the Real Thing
Thus far, this article has demonstrated the presence of arcade-at-home devices in numerous countries and provided a historical overview of commercially available superguns during the 1980s and 1990s. This is but half the story: equally relevant is how people interacted with technology in ways that changed group habits and attitudes. From this point onward, we focus on hobbyist activities and, to a lesser extent, their motivations for pursuing the supergun hobby. Additionally, the following sections offer examples of how people used arcade hardware in ways never intended by manufacturers. Perhaps the best point of departure for understanding this side of the supergun hobby is to be aware of the reasons why hobbyists felt dissatisfied with home-console ports of arcade games.
During the 1982 Christmas season, makers of the ColecoVision home-gaming console promised North American consumers that their company’s officially licensed Zaxxon (Sega, 1981) conversion “Plays Like the Real Arcade Game.”64 This same catchphrase featured prominently on retail game boxes that year for Coleco’s arcade conversions of Lady Bug, Mouse Trap, and Cosmic Avenger. Rival video game companies made similar claims that also disappointed children. Home conversions of popular arcade games often amounted to little more than pale imitations of the original arcade title. Recreating a popular arcade game on vastly inferior home-gaming hardware was always an endeavor fated to disappoint.65 “It’s all very well for manufacturers to claim that their latest console plays every bit as good as the coin-op, but they rarely do,” opined one British tech journalist.66 This sentiment was echoed by supergun enthusiasts across the globe. A writer for Japan’s Game Lab magazine in the 1990s expressed his view on the subject, “perfect conversions don’t exist. No matter the hype or who says it, a home console conversion is a re-imagining of an arcade game ... there is no substitute for playing the authentic arcade hardware at home.”67 In the 1980s and 1990s, most people accepted or endured conversions while a few purchased or made superguns instead.68
In 1990, SNK released the Neo Geo cartridge-based arcade system MVS (Multi Video System) and the luxury home-console AES (Advanced Entertainment System) shortly thereafter. The games played nearly identically on these machines, so gamers could essentially bring arcade-quality games home with an AES cartridge.69 In 1994, Capcom released its Capcom Power System Changer (or CPS Changer), which was basically a device that played arcade games built with the company’s CP System (CPS-1) technology.70 Both companies went beyond merely converting their arcade products for the home market. Their two products brought real arcade-quality gaming into people’s living rooms without the need for a bulky arcade cabinet. Since both of these products cost a hefty sum upon release and offered limited software libraries, purchasing or making a supergun was almost always the better option for gamers on a budget.
Absent from the Arcades
There could be any number of reasons why a particular game was missing from a neighborhood arcade: high hardware costs, poor marketing, low proprietor regard, legal issues, regional neglect, inadequate product reliability, or a lack of patron interest that resulted in the game being pulled from the play floor when it lost profitability. Shortly after Markham (Sun, 1983) disappeared from Fujishima Satoru’s neighborhood arcade, he decided to purchase the PCB for himself.71 People determined to play such unavailable games, like the dedicated gamer Fujishima, constituted a great portion of the supergun community. Domestic releases, by and large, could be acquired more readily than games exclusively sold in markets outside of Japan. Japanese media regularly reported on overseas video games, which spurred interest in foreign-only releases. The American title Time Killers (Strata, 1992), for instance, did not get a proper Japanese release, so with some effort people imported this game themselves or purchased it from specialty PCB shops with overseas connections.72 Likewise, American and European hobbyists imported titles made exclusively for the Japanese market. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was practically an American pastime to grouse about Japanese and European video games that did not get an official release in the United States. Japanese and European gamers suffered the same frustration when American titles failed to appear in their regional markets. Basically, not having a certain game released in your country was a global complaint.
The arcade industry had its fair share of commercial failures, sometimes for unexpected reasons. American-made games that sold in Japan were, in some cases, localized in ways that diminished their appeal. Defender (Williams Electronics, 1981) is one such example. In February 1981, the Sega-owned company Esco Trading began advertising its inventory of imported copies of Defender. That very same month, Taito announced its exclusive licensing agreement with Williams to produce Defender machines in Japan.73 Taito changed the game’s input controls for the Japanese market. Within a matter of a few short months, Nichibutsu sublicensed the game from Taito to sell machines with its own new “easy to operate custom control scheme.”74 This controller did not resemble the American original: the reverse and hyperspace buttons became right and left on the joystick while the order of the fire, thrust, and smart-bomb buttons had all been changed. These alterations arguably diminished the game play. Despite having three companies selling the game, or perhaps because of it, Defender did not recreate its North American success in Japan. The game, however, developed a small but dedicated following who felt it belonged in more arcades. Journalist and well-known PCB collector Shibuya Yōichi, in his schoolboy days, regularly played Defender until the skin on his fingers turned raw.75 He said in a published interview, “I was first drawn to the hobby of PCB collecting because I wanted Defender.”76 Another Japanese game journalist named Kushida Riko, in 1995, stated that Defender topped her most-wanted list. She also expressed her desire to own a proper Defender control panel, which could be wired to a supergun or mounted into an arcade machine depending on her preference.77 Defender was just one in a long list of game titles that underperformed in regional arcades but drew people into, or kept them interested in, the supergun hobby.
Hanafuda Hana Ginga (Flower Cards, Splendid Galaxy) is a game produced in 1994 by Dynax, a Japanese company known for its adult-themed arcade entertainment. The photograph shows the PCBʼs slide-style, ten-position DIP switches. To the right is the DIP diagram for switch number 4 (labeled on the PCB as SW4) that comes directly from the operatorʼs manual. Among the available options in SW4 are secret techniques (on/off), multiple-win bonuses (on/off), and display girls (on/off). (Photograph courtesy of authors)
Proprietors and technicians flipped DIP switches (dual in-line package switches) on arcade PCBs to change the behavior or function of games. This could be as simple as making a PCB require two coins per credit instead of one. Many PCBs included on-board diagnostics to test, calibrate, and troubleshoot an arcade machine. Gamers, however, were far more interested in DIP switches that controlled the number of lives per credit, the number of permitted continues, and various difficulty settings. Supergun hobbyists could change a game’s behavior in ways never seen in arcades. One such example is Pitfall II (Activision/Sega, 1985), an arcade game notoriously difficult to complete. Japanese gamers discovered that by fiddling with DIP switch positions they could make Pitfall II eminently beatable by giving themselves hundreds of lives per credit.78 Setting a PCB to give infinite lives (or close to it) permitted gamers to replay a difficult level over and over again without having to restart the game from the beginning, an appealing convenience for completionists and high-score seekers. People improved their knowledge of a game’s various challenges through concentrated practice.
Supergun owners used DIP switches in ways never intended by game manufacturers. The most abused function is perhaps stop mode, which was never meant to be treated as a player pause but has nevertheless been used in this way. This diagnostic/test feature is also known as freeze video and freeze picture.79 The Neo Geo MVS system with its library of approximately 150 arcade titles on cartridges could be paused by turning DIP switch position 8 into the ON position.80 In 1988, the Japanese magazine Technique of Backup taught its readers how with the flip of a switch to pause the popular arcade game Xevious (Namco, 1983).81 Since flicking a small switch on and off could be cumbersome during game play, people with soldering skills wired up easy-to-access pause buttons. Most PCBs did not have a stop mode; yet, in some such cases, hackers found ways to temporarily interrupt the proper functioning of a PCB to pause a game. The difficulty of this procedure varied according to the game in question. In some cases, a novice could successfully make the modifications, while in others even a skilled engineer might find the task challenging.82 Competitive gamers, as well as everyone else who knew about stop mode, took advantage of this function.
This Taito PCB set underwent a ROM swap, which changed the game software from Jungle Hunt to Elevator Action . The unused Jungle Hunt ROMs are shown to the right on the antistatic foam sheet. This Taito PCB set appears to have been repaired numerous times and may have undergone several ROM swaps since it rolled off the assembly line approximately forty years ago. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
Designing and manufacturing arcade hardware was an expensive undertaking. Companies in the industry, therefore, tended to eschew bespoke electronics (i.e., hardware for a single arcade title only). They instead built game systems or platforms that in the earliest design stages were intended to run multiple arcade titles. Programming costs were greatly reduced too with this model since software engineers did not have to constantly learn the intricacies of new hardware.83 This industry development was well underway during North Americaʼs so-called golden age of arcade video games (1978–83). Arcade proprietors, PCB resellers, and hobbyists watched the trend toward greater standardization with approving eyes as it now became easier to recycle, modify, and repair arcade equipment. A nonfunctioning copy of the arcade hit Ghouls ’n Ghosts (Capcom, 1988), for example, could be revived with parts from Varth: Operation Thunderstorm (Capcom, 1992) or vice versa as both games ran on the same Capcom CP System arcade board. Such restorations typically involved repairing more expensive games with parts from less expensive ones.
During the 1980s and 1990s, magazines and books instructed supergun hobbyists on how to swap ROM (Read-Only Memory) chips that stored game software. Armed with a little bit of knowledge and a flathead screwdriver, beginning hobbyists could reasonably undertake this procedure. In Japan, readers of the 1989 book Game Machine Research learned that “multiple game titles will work on a single system board. All that needs to be done is to swap ROMs. This approach is not only cheaper but it takes up less storage space too.”84 The arcade PCBs for Jungle Hunt (Taito, 1982) and Elevator Action (Taito, 1983) were nearly identical upon release. Taito sold conversion kits to turn game PCBs for Jungle Hunt, Wild Western (1982), and Front Line (1982) into Elevator Action, a process that consisted mainly of swapping ROMs. Taito’s conversion-kit manuals offered general knowledge that could be used in contexts far removed from Taito’s hardware.85 The same could be said of documentation produced by other leading video game manufacturers; one example is Namco, a company that sold conversion kits for games running on its System 2 arcade hardware.86
Supergun hobbyists looking to save money searched for working game ROMs instead of complete PCBs. Unscrupulous individuals duplicated ROMs using devices called chip programmers and sold copied ROM sets for profit, especially in countries where people could buy, sell, and rent PCBs with relative ease. In time, and with growing technical sophistication, hobbyists also learned how to defeat several protection schemes implemented by video game companies to safeguard their intellectual property.87 This opened the door for ROM swapping of games on additional arcade platforms. Some of this knowledge appears to have come secondhand from PCB bootleggers, clone manufacturers, and professional software pirates. Understandably, little documentation exists for the disreputable side of the arcade industry and by extension the dark underbelly of the supergun hobby, but the quantity of counterfeit artifacts that remain suggests copyright infringement was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.88 Articles discussing various forms of infringement and advertisement notices meant to discourage would-be copiers in trade publications for the coin-op industry also serve as evidence.89 Dumped ROM sets from this period were traded over computer BBSs (bulletin board systems) and the internet, where early video game emulation hobbyists discovered them.
Competitive gamers have long been attracted to the supergun hobby. Mabel, better known in some circles as EnchantressOfNumbers or EoN for short, is one such example. As of 2017, she was one of a small number of people in North America who played Tetris: The Grand Master (Arika, 1988) at a high level. Although the game never received a United States release, Tetris: The Grand Master garnered a dedicated community of American fans who nevertheless managed to play it. EoN owns the game PCB and hones her skills at home using a Japanese supergun.90 A journalist for Gamest wrote “if you yearn to play unavailable titles [a topic described above] or wish to master a difficult stage ... you can with a supergun.”91 EoN actually did both at the same time.
A 1993 advertisement for the PCB shop Try enticed people to purchase the Sigma AV-2001 supergun with the tagline “if you want to master a game.”92 Playing at home afforded competitive gamers the opportunity to practice at any time of day or night and “without interference from arcade patrons.”93 Additionally, in the 1980s and 1990s, supergun owners recorded video game sessions on VHS and Betamax videotape to aid skill development in ways akin to how period sports teams studied game film. They also used videotape to evidence high scores and document various accomplishments. This feature (recording game play) was highlighted in product promotions by several companies from the period, such as a back-cover advertisement for KIC’s Pana Twin that exclaimed “you can record your exceptional play!”94
Playing within the confines of your own four walls had benefits: no crowds, no noise, no flickering lights, nor any other common distractions found at the arcade. Competitive gamers and general enthusiasts alike found the prospect attractive. Some people loathed video game arcades, a perspective committed to print in the 1983 Vidiot article “Why I Hate Arcades.”95 Such individuals sought to liberate games from the arcade as opposed to recreating the arcade experience in their homes. Whether one liked arcades or not, there were distinct advantages to owning an original PCB and playing it in a quiet location. Superguns connected to HiFi audio equipment in a relatively quiet environment permitted gamers to hear more audio cues.96 “You can,” commented a journalist who enthusiastically endorsed the supergun, “hear the music and sound effects at home!!”97 Supergun owners were not limited by the dimensions of the stock arcade cabinet, thus allowing them to freely upgrade to a larger monitor or video projector. Additionally, they modified controllers to accommodate individual preferences, reduce normal fatigue, and, in some cases, overcome physical limitations.98 Rapid-fire circuits also helped in this regard; although their use was not permitted during tournament play for most games, they could nevertheless be useful training aids in some situations.
Connecting pins 20 and 29 on the Z80 sound CPU of certain arcade PCBs enabled the extraction of otherwise unavailable audio/chiptunes. (Image courtesy of authors)
Extracting Video Game Music
An enthusiastic minority devoted themselves to capturing video game music (VGM) at the best possible fidelity. VGM enthusiasts discovered techniques to halt PCB system functions while having soundtracks continue to play uninterrupted. This was sometimes done with the flip of a DIP switch. Other game PCBs required extensive hardware modifications before giving up their music. PCBs produced by Konami in the late 1980s and early 1990s sat between these two extremes; thus, extracting music from them required only a modicum of knowledge in electronics. Additionally, the modifications were easily reversible. The October 1995 issue of Game Lab provided instructions on how to extract soundtracks from Konami PCBs by connecting a switch between pins 20 (IORQ) and 29 (ground) on the Z80 sound CPU (central processing unit), a family of 8-bit microprocessors developed by Zilog that was widely used in the video game industry during the 1980s and beyond.99 The audio extraction technique explained in Game Lab worked for many Konami game titles, including The Main Event (Konami, 1988) with its Z80A compatible NEC 780C-1 chip (see fig. 9). First, the test-mode DIP switch had to be set to the ON position. Next, during the sound-check sequence, VGM enthusiasts bridged pin 20 to pin 29 on the sound CPU when the desired audio started playing, preventing the PCB from advancing to the next audio track before the music had been heard in full. Additionally, the extracted music was entirely free of game-play sounds. Game music on the Namco System 2 arcade platform could be enjoyed after the removal of an integrated circuit at location 8A on the PCB top board. This modification too was considered possible for relative novices, as detailed in Game Machine Research.100 VGM enthusiasts recorded music directly off PCBs and through the audio outputs on their superguns.
Bringing the Arcade Home?
In the August 1994 issue of Technique of Backup, a Japanese writer expressed his dislike for American-style arcade cabinets in his article “There Are No Chairs! Tokyo Disneyland Neglects Patrons with Their Upright Arcade Machines.” He wrote about how Japanese-produced games (even popular driving games) were housed in cabinets that failed to consider the wants of patrons as well as ignored the original intent of game designers. “Wouldn’t your legs get tired from all that standing?” he rhetorically asked his readers. The article included a photograph of Japanese youths playing while standing up, with the accompanying text: “this is a rare scene in Japan ... I suppose this view would be more acceptable if it contained long-legged Westerners.”101 This Technique of Backup article, in its own way, illustrates that the arcade experience is more than the games themselves. It is also the fun’iki as the Japanese would say (atmosphere, mood, and ambiance), which is subjective and frequently more culturally specific than universal. Other Japanese publications reported on the standing arcade cabinets of North America, such as the November 1994 issue of Gameplay II magazine.102 Particularly in the 1980s, Japanese discomfort with standing up was mirrored by American gamers’ vague dissatisfaction with sitting down, the latter evidenced by a slew of furniture sold in the United States to enable gamers to stand up while playing their home consoles. Basically, these products were low-grade hutches designed to hold a television set at the same height as an arcade monitor while providing a shelf for a home console (such as the aforementioned ColecoVision or Atari 2600). Example products are Gameframe, VideoPro, Universal Video Arcade, Video Station, and the Family Arcade that promised “the fun and realism of an arcade in your own home.”103 In the United States, the association between quality gaming with standing up has diminished, but one could argue, due to the popularity of products like Arcade1up’s line of faux-upright arcade machines, it still evokes nostalgia among gray-haired gamers. As shown here, regional industry standards for coin-operated amusements shaped user habits. The standing gamers of North America (and elsewhere) serve as a manifest example.
The supergun hobby offered people the opportunity to play authentic arcade titles at home. In the 1980s and 1990s, a putative aim of the supergun community was to capture and transplant the arcade experience; whether it actually succeeded in this endeavor is purely a matter of perspective. Culture and individual sensibilities made the determination. From the period literature, it is clear that many supergun hobbyists felt that they had indeed purloined some of that arcade charm.
The gray-scale photograph shows the Supergun MAK Strike v3 out of Europe. Mr. Do! , the popular 1982 maze game developed by Universal, is shown here connected to a modern supergun with a joystick borrowed from the Neo Geo home-gaming console. Named Minigun, this particular supergun is an open-source project aimed at making low-cost, easy-to-assemble, and safe devices for playing arcade PCBs at home. The example pictured here was assembled in Australia. Located between the game PCB and the Minigun is an adapter board from Canada that is, more or less, the modern equivalent of the wire harness. The power supply comes directly out of an arcade machine. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
The popularity of the supergun hobby declined globally in the late 1990s. Although many reasons can account for the device’s demise, three are particularly noteworthy. First, arcade culture had a less dominant hold over the video game industry than in years prior; thus, coin-operated games did not command the same level of attention or prestige in the minds of gamers. Second, the so-called fifth and sixth generations of video game home consoles had closed the technological gap with arcade machines.104 Two-dimensional fighting games on the Sega Saturn, for instance, could look and play like the arcade originals.105 Near-perfect conversions lessened enthusiasm for newly released PCBs. These newer console systems were also affordable for the average consumer, unlike the aforementioned Neo Geo AES. Third, classic PCB prices rose dramatically as the hobby became more popular. This problem became particularly acute in Japan where, for example, the price of Crazy Climber increased sixfold between 1983 and 1994.106 The days of cheap arcade hardware had ended. Many PCBs from the 1970s and 1980s had been thrown away, recycled for parts, or purchased by collectors. Ultimately, there were not enough quality games to go around, resulting in people being priced out of the supergun hobby. The decline was all but inevitable when the hobby outlived its original purpose of emptying warehouses of surplus arcade equipment while providing an unparalleled gaming experience at home.
Even at the peak of the hobby’s popularity, supergun owners constituted only a small subset of the gaming community in North America. As stated above, playing arcade PCBs at home remained a rarefied pastime even among video game enthusiasts. In Europe, particularly within the United Kingdom, numerous businesses supported the supergun hobby, and the video game media gave it positive and recurring press for a time; however, none of this resulted in mainstream awareness. The vast majority of North American and European gamers appeared to be unaware of the existence of arcade-at-home devices, but this was simply not the case in Japan where superguns received considerable media attention and sold at Messe San’ō as well as other well-known video game stores. In fact, the Japanese industry was so developed and multifaceted that it is a topic deserving of its own scholarly treatment.
The supergun hobby has experienced a strong resurgence in popularity over the past half-dozen or so years, if the number of new products is any indication (see fig. 10). Advances in manufacturing have significantly reduced the cost of producing superguns and harnesses (now frequently in the form of adapters). This, combined with the proliferation of arcade information available on the internet, has likely contributed to the renewed interest in playing arcade PCBs at home. Japan’s supergun heyday was in the 1990s (and thus a global heyday given its outsized importance), but in places such as the United States one can argue that superguns are a more significant part of the gaming landscape today than at any point in history.
This article sought to provide an overview of the supergun hobby during its formative years in the 1980s and 1990s. The overall structure of this study was descriptive in nature due to its historical approach and its objective of introducing an underscrutinized subject primarily through archival and textual research. The authors prioritized detailing the arcade-at-home phenomenon over situating it within the existing game-studies scholarship, as we felt that readers would be better served by the additional supergun-specific content. Future text-based studies are possible given the sheer amount of period sources available. With that said, a multimethod approach using interviews of supergun hobbyists, industry insiders, and tech journalists along with an examination of select period sources might be an appropriate next step for scholars. Unless written as histories, future studies would benefit by employing various theoretical frameworks common to game-studies scholarship. The supergun topic is larger than one article-length study can cover: more research needs to be done.
The authors would like to thank the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for its support.
1. ^ This point is not limited to superguns. See Melanie Swalwell and Michael Davidson, “Game History and the Case of ‘Malzak’: Theorizing the Manufacture of ‘Local Product’ in 1980s New Zealand,” in Locating Emerging Media, ed. Germaine R. Halegoua and Ben Aslinger (New York: Routledge, 2016), 85.
2. ^ Benjamin Nicoll, “Bridging the Gap: The Neo Geo, the Media Imaginary, and the Domestication of Arcade Games,” Games and Culture 12, no. 2 (2017): 201–2.
3. ^ René Speranza, Manettes & pixels: Histoire de jeu vidéo retrogaming (Toulouse: Vallé Heureuse, 2018), Glossaire, s.v. “Supergun.”
4. ^ Today, superguns are regularly sold as bare-bones kits, requiring hobbyists to purchase several components before having an operational arcade-at-home device. This has led to the term supergun in some contexts being narrowly applied to the core of the unit only (minus the required power supply, wires, etc.). Throughout this paper, the term supergun as it applies to devices from the 1980s and 1990s refers to complete, operational devices.
5. ^ The supergun is not the only way to play PCBs at home without an arcade cabinet. There is an alternative solution called consolization that requires modifying an arcade PCB to accept controller inputs and output to standard consumer audio and video electronics. Several vendors have offered consolized Neo Geo MVS arcade systems, including Arcade Works, Jamma Nation X, Analogue Interactive, and Games Care. Time Harvest out of China produces a hybrid consolized Neo Geo MVS and supergun; this product blurs the lines between the two arcade-at-home solutions.
6. ^ The harness can be omitted in cases where the supergun and PCB share the same pin configuration and have complementary dimensions. In such cases, the PCB may be directly inserted into the supergun’s edge connector.
7. ^ Currency conversions throughout this work are fixed to specific dates mentioned in the main text and not the present day.
8. ^ Televisions in Japan and Europe accepted analog RGB signals carried over JP-21 and SCART cables, respectively. In North America, hobbyists settled for S-video quality or wired cables to connect their superguns with select computer monitors.
9. ^ “PCB no ABC: Steppu 2 hānesu o te ni irero!!,” Gēmu rabo, August 1995, 166.
10. ^ Heya o gēsen ni suru!!: Kiban tatsujin e no michi (Tokyo: Riidosha, 1996), 26–27, 64–67.
11. ^ Louise’s Harness Shop advertisement, RePlay Magazine, March 1990, 268.
12. ^ Mark J. P. Wolf, ed., Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming, vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012), 333.
13. ^ Data East USA, Karate Champ: Installation Instructions, n.d., ca. 1984, 6.
14. ^ Ogura Yukine, “Bideogēmu kontorōra no seisaku, 1,” Rajio no seisaku, June 1984, 85–90; and Ogura Yukine, “Bideogēmu kontorōra no seisaku, 2,” Rajio no seisaku, July 1984, 85–89, 101–2.
15. ^ Tanji Saichi, “Bideogēmu kontorōra II no seisaku, 1,” Rajio no seisaku, May 1985, 75–80, 91–92; and Tanji Saichi, “Bideogēmu kontorōra II no seisaku, 2,” Rajio no seisaku, June 1985, 80–84.
16. ^ One example of such an article is Tanji Saichi, “Pawā yunitto no seisaku,” Bakkuappu katsuyō tekunikku, no. 10 (March 1988): 51–66.
17. ^ Gēmā saishūkeitai: Ākēdā (Tokyo: Shinseisha, 1996), 108–9.
18. ^ For example, see “Dōsureba katei de bideogēmu o tanoshimeruka,” Gamest, April 1988, 46–47.
19. ^ “Kateiyō kontorōru paneru de asobō!,” Gamest, no. 47 (July 1990): 33–35.
20. ^ In the 1990s, all of these companies advertised their superguns in the magazines Gamest and Gameplay II.
21. ^ Gēmumashin daikenkyū (Tokyo: Sansai Bukkusu, 1989).
22. ^ Ākēdoban gēmu gyaruzu korekushon (Tokyo: Kasakura Shuppansha, 1989).
23. ^ Gēmā saishūkeitai; and Heya o gēsen ni suru!!.
24. ^ For an example, see KIC advertisement in Gamest, no. 70 (April 1992): 99.
25. ^ Taimumashin advertisement, MicomBasic, April 1989, 394; Kyōwa International advertisement, Gamest, no. 107 (February 1994): 50; and Gēmā saishūkeitai, 39.
26. ^ Gēmumashin daikenkyū, 163; and Gēmā saishūkeitai, 26.
27. ^ “The HGA—Home Game Arcade System,” GameFan 7, no.11 (November 1999): 133.
28. ^ “Super Gun,” Chinese-language source, accessed November 29, 2019, https://vocus.cc/hindsightbias/5a120c85eceaed97b4023b33.
29. ^ “Super Gun,” Chinese-language source.
30. ^ “How ‘Super’ Is the Super Gun?,” Electric Brain, no. 27 (1992): 26–27.
31. ^ “Interface: Letters to the Editor,” Electronic Gaming Monthly 5, no. 1 (January 1992): 12.
32. ^ A common example of this phenomenon is that transparent cellophane tape is often referred to as Scotch Tape regardless of the manufacturer.
33. ^ Daniel Mainframe, “Super Gun II (recreativa),” Hardware, Zonadepruebas, accessed November 29, 2019, http://zonadepruebas.org/backup/web/hardware/maquinasrecreativas/superguniirecreativa.html. This Spanish-language website has detailed photographs of the Super Gun II.
34. ^ Paul Glancey, “The Arcade in Your Bedroom,” Computer and Video Games, no. 97 (December 1989): 147; and “The Secret’s Out!,” Advanced Computer Entertainment, no. 26 (November 1989): 28.
35. ^ Powarcade advertisement, Advanced Computer Entertainment, no. 38 (November 1990): 90; and Powarcade advertisement, Mean Machines, no. 1 (October 1990): 19.
36. ^ “It’s the Real Thing!,” The One, no. 24 (September 1990): 22.
37. ^ John Cook, “We’re Jammin,” Advanced Computer Entertainment, no. 37 (October 1990): 109.
38. ^ Datel Electronics advertisement, Edge, no. 13 (October 1994): 93.
39. ^ A French example of a full-sized arcade machine built for home use is Vade Games’ FavOrit. “Une borne d’arcade à 3000f!,” Joypad, no. 30 (April 1994): 140.
40. ^ Steve Johnson, “A Coin-Op at Home,” Games Amusement Pleasure, no. 5 (1995): 22.
41. ^ “A Very Big Joystick Indeed!,” Games Machine, no. 32 (July 1990): 20–21.
42. ^ “Very Big Joystick,” 20–21; and “Dream Machine,” Zero, no. 10 (August 1990): 77.
43. ^ “How ‘Super’ Is the Super Gun?,” 26.
44. ^ Bad Influence!, season 2, episode 14, “Playing Arcade Games at Home,” featuring Violet Berlin, Andy Crane, and Andy Wear, aired December 9, 1993, on Children’s ITV, UK.
45. ^ Console Concepts advertisement, Super Play, no. 11 (September 1993): 72.
46. ^ “Firing the Supergun,” Edge, no. 3 (December 1993): 75.
47. ^ The authors would like to thank Larry Bundy Jr. for providing us with direction during the initial stages of our research into UK superguns.
48. ^ Steve Johnson, “A Coin-Op at Home,” Games Amusement Pleasure, no. 5 (1995): 22.
49. ^ Gabriele Pasquali, “Un coin-op a casa vostra!,” Console Mania, no. 10 (July/August 1992): 6–7; “L’arcade a domicile,” Player One, no. 29 (March/April 1993): 121; “Les jeux arcade-machine,” Generation 4 (November 1993): 136–37; “La plus petite console d’arcade du monde!,” Joypad, no. 32 (June 1994): 146–47; “MAK,” Mega Fun, June 1993, 92; and “Vorsicht hochspannung,” Video Games, April 1993, 52–53.
50. ^ Micro Kid’s, season 2, episode 2, written by Jean-Michel Blottière, featuring Jean-Michel Blottière and Jean Burucoa, aired January 8, 1992, on France Régions 3.
51. ^ “Kic’s 91 ou l’arcade a domicile!,” Consoles +, no. 8 (April 1992): 18–19.
52. ^ “Consoles de reve Neo Geo, Kic’s, Combo,” Tilt, no. 109 (December 1992): 103.
53. ^ For an example, see Softage advertisement, Consoles +, no. 16 (January 1993): 175.
54. ^ Compustore Games and IDE advertisements, Joypad, no. 15 (December 1992): 107, 157.
55. ^ Ted Iacobuzio, “A $300 Arcade Machine?,” Electronic Fun with Computers & Games 1, no. 3 (January 1983): 38–40, 95.
56. ^ Japan Video advertisement, Electronic Gaming Monthly 5, no. 3 (March 1992): 175.
57. ^ “Other Stuff,” Diehard Gamefan 1, no. 9 (August 1993): 116.
58. ^ MAS Systems advertisement, Electronic Gaming Monthly 7, no. 55 (February 1994): 111.
59. ^ “Arcade Action: Super Nova by MAS Systems,” Electronic Gaming Monthly 8, no. 68 (March 1995): 64; and Mas Systems advertisement, Electronic Gaming Monthly 7, no. 65 (December 1994): 388.
60. ^ For one example, see MAS Systems advertisement, GamePro, August 1994, 151.
61. ^ “The HGA—Home Game Arcade System,” 133.
62. ^ “HGA,” Great Western Trading Co., April 9, 2004, http://www.gwtrading.com/hga.shtml, via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20040409210623/http://www.gwtrading.com/hga.shtml.
63. ^ This comes from firsthand experience. One of the authors is an Okinawan whose family home was located inside a gaijin jūtaku (community composed of mostly off-base US military housing), where she exchanged cultural knowledge and material items with Americans.
64. ^ Coleco Industries, Zaxxon product packaging for ColecoVision cartridge (1982).
65. ^ For a detailed account of the home conversion of Pac-Man (Namco, 1980), see Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
66. ^ “Very Big Joystick,” 20.
67. ^ “Kibangerion,” Gēmu rabo, February 1997, 152.
68. ^ Yanma, “Kimi mo kyōkara chūko kiban korekutā da,” Micom Basic, November 1991, 68.
69. ^ Tanji Saichi, “Neo·Geo tettei bunkai,” Bakkuappu katsuyō tekunikku, no. 20 (September 1990): 19–30.
70. ^ Capcom advertisement, Gamest, no. 135 (January 15, 1995): 216.
71. ^ Heya o gēsen ni suru, 131.
72. ^ Gēmā saishūkeitai, 38–39.
73. ^ Esco Trading and Taito advertisements, Game Machine, no. 159 (February 15, 1981): 14, 27.
74. ^ Nichibutsu advertisement, Game Machine, no. 168 (July 1, 1981): 25.
75. ^ Kaettekita meisaku gēmu: 1978–1987 (Tokyo: Riidosha, 1995), 115.
76. ^ Heya o gēsen ni suru!!, 8.
77. ^ Kaettekita meisaku gēmu, 135.
78. ^ “Watashi ga susumeru kono kiban: Pitfall 2,” Gēmu rabo, February 1997, 153. This is a unique arcade title in that it is a conversion of a game originally developed for the home-console market.
79. ^ The existence of this mode is usually mentioned in the print technical materials sold with PCBs.
80. ^ SNK Corporation, “Neo Geo Multi Video System MVS-4-25 Operation Manual,” July 1991, 6.
81. ^ Tanji, “Pawāyunitto no seisaku,” 60–64.
82. ^ For guidance on this subject, consult Takahiro Nogi and Yōki Ikeda, “Kiban ni pōzu suicchi o tsukeyō: Z80·68000 CPU taiō bājon,” Bakkuappu katsuyō tekunikku, no. 15 (June 1989): 124–125.
83. ^ Gēmumashin daikenkyū, 75–76.
84. ^ Gēmumashin daikenkyū, 76.
85. ^ For an example of a factory manual in English, see Jungle Hunt to Elevator Action: Taito America Corporation Conversion Kit (1983).
86. ^ Conversion kit manuals for the Namco System 2 games Dragon Saber and Rolling Thunder 2 are readily available examples, see Namco, Rōringu sandā 2 kitto setsumeisho (1990); and Namco, Doragon seibā kitto setsumeisho (1990).
87. ^ Heya o gēsen ni suru!!, 63.
88. ^ “Kiban mania,” Gēmu urara 1 (May 1995): 77–81.
89. ^ Ray E. Tilley, “The Xerox Effect,” Play Meter 6, no. 21 (November 1980): 20–22.
90. ^ David Snyder, Speedrunning: Interviews with the Quickest Gamers (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017), 173, 182.
91. ^ “Kiban kaōze,” Gamest, no. 51 (November 1990): 72.
92. ^ Try advertisement, Bakkuappu katsuyō tekunikku, no. 30 (March 1993): 13.
93. ^ “Jitaku gēsenka keikaku,”Gameyū II, October 1995, 21.
94. ^ KIC Advertisement, Bakkuappu katsuyō tekunikku, no. 28 (September 1992): back cover.
95. ^ John Richardson, “Why I Hate Arcades,” Vidiot 1, no. 2 (February/March 1983): 59–60.
96. ^ For more on the topic, see Raluca D. Gaina and Matthew Stephenson, “‘Did You Hear That?’ Learning to Play Video Games from Audio Cues” (paper presented at the 2019 IEEE Conference on Games, London, UK, August 20–23, 2019).
97. ^ “How ‘Super’ Is the Super Gun?,” 27.
98. ^ “Jitaku gēsenka keikaku,” 21.
99. ^ Hakamada Naoki, “Kimi dake no VGM o tsukurō,” Gēmu rabo, October 1995, 127–28.
100. ^ Gēmumashin daikenkyū, 81.
101. ^ “Isu ga nai! Yūzā o mushi shita D rando no gēmuki,” Bakkuappu katsuyō tekunikku, no. 38 (August 1994): 8–9.
102. ^ “Amerika no gēsen ni ikō,” GēmuyūII, November 1994, 58.
103. ^ Gameframe advertisement, Electronic Fun with Computers & Games 1 no. 9 (July 1983): 95; “SCW Consumer Products,” Electronic Fun with Computers & Games 1 no. 9 (July 1983): 8; “Arcadium Creations,” Electronic Fun with Computers & Games 1, no. 12 (October 1983): 9; “Goodies for Gamers,” Electronic Games (November 1983): 41; and Family Arcade advertisement, Electronic Games, March 1983), 108.
104. ^ David L. Craddock, Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room (Canton: WorldForge Entertainment, 2020), 17.
105. ^ Games on the ST-V (Sega Titan Video) arcade system board transitioned well to the Sega Saturn home console since both shared the same basic architecture, “which made porting arcade titles easy.” Kenneth S. Horowitz, The Sega Arcade Revolution: A History in 62 Games (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2018), 223.
106. ^ “Tezukuri kyōtai ga jiman,” Amyūzumento raifu, no. 13 (January 1984): 76; and “Hanbaiten & kakakuhyō,” Bakkuappu katsuyō tekunikku, no. 38 (August 1, 1994): 131.
Presented here are three arcade PCBs powered by superguns as well as other arcade-at-home equipment. (Photograph courtesy of authors)