Why were arcade machines much more powerful than home video game consoles and personal computers back in the day?

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Why were arcade machines much more powerful than home video game consoles and personal computers back in the day?

In: Technology

They weren’t. Like modern consoles they appeared powerful because they were highly specialized. A computer has to do many things, usually at the same time. A console or arcade game only does the one thing. All of the hardware is specialized for that software and nothing else.

It’s like this: a screwdriver is better at driving screws than Swiss Army knife, but the Swiss Army knife is a more versatile tool capable of doing more than only driving a screw.

Consoles were less powerful because they had to stay affordable. Arcade cabinets are much more expensive so they had the superior hardware.

Arcade machines are expensive, on average $3,000-$5000 in the 80s and 90s. Note that this is the cost back then so accounting inflation, it’s worth much more in today’s dollars.

This would give you a top of the line personal computer at the time. Consoles were still in the hundreds of dollars. Given that the arcade was designed to run a single game, the hardware could be optimized to run the one game better than if the hardware was designed to run many games like in a personal computer.

Today’s arcade machines are just PCs, but back the old days they were essentially very expensive versions of home consoles and thus more powerful.

They operated on the same principle which was in most cases dedicated hardware to do sprite and tile scanline rendering which was much faster for most games than the generic bitmap video display used in home computers. Bitmap displays were ultimately much more flexible in what they could show but required a lot of CPU power and memory bandwidth to manipulate compared to console style rendering. With dedicated sprite and tile hardware you could simply scale up the number of sprites and the color depth supported giving you a very powerful system.