There was a golden age back in the 80's and early 90's where the arcades were centers of activity. I wouldn't necessarily say that it was where the cool kids hung out, it was probably the opposite, but everyone had spent some time in an arcade at one point or another. Towards the middle of the 90's they had all but disappeared and chains like Aladdin's Castle, which used to be in basically every shopping mall, ceased to exist. It started to become pretty rare to see arcade games anywhere when they used to be everywhere.
I knew, based on the fact that arcade games were everywhere, that there had to be some money in them, but I never realized exactly how huge it was until recently.
If I were to ask you what you think the top earning arcade games of all time were I think a lot of people would name some of the usual suspects and perhaps they would name some that weren't actually on the list at all. There were a few that kind of got the craze started in the first place and one of those was Pac Man. While the number of cabinets sold isn't terribly impressive at a mere 400,000 or so the amount of money that it is estimated that people poured into the machines really is. It is impossible to know the exact amount but the best estimates indicated that by 1990 there had been $3.5 billion in revenue pumped into these machines... one quarter at a time.
Adjusted for inflation that figure becomes nearly $7.5 billion... or 30 billion quarters. If you stacked these quarters all on top of one another it would be a tower of epic proportions or 5,250 km tall. If this tower fell over (and it would) it would stretch nearly across the entire United States. Basically that is a whole lot of quarters.
Of course we are not just talking about revenue in USA. It is rumored that Pac Man was so popular in Japan that there were nationwide coin shortages when it was released.
To give you an example of how popular this arcade was and remained for quite some time let's think about a game that has been extremely popular starting with the PS1, which almost everyone had in the 90's. Let's go with Tomb Raider as that game was a real phenomenon when it was released and some of the follow up titles were reasonable popular as well. Tomb Raider's revenue over the course of all of the games they have released has been just over $3 billion, which is certainly nothing to scoff at but it doesn't even come close to the amount of money that Pac Man made in the arcades.
If we were to factor in all the home version revenue for Pac Man their overall figure jumps to over $14 billion despite the fact that most of the early home versions of this game were complete garbage. I don't know if you were around for the colossal disappointment that the Atari 2600 version of Pac Man was but it was one of the most upsetting experiences of my childhood.
It's tragic to me that arcades no longer exist and there are a few of them out there that maintain some sort of retro appeal. I'm told there is still one Aladdin's Castle in Quincy, Illinois. This is kept alive by retro-nerds like myself and it is a bit of a tourist attraction kind of like the last remaining Blockbuster Video. It really is amazing how quickly things can change in a mere 30 years.