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Surprisingly many early arcade games, such as Pac-Man, Galaxian and Galaga, mounted their displays vertically, in portrait rather than landscape orientation. (From the perspective of the electronics, that means the displays were drawn sideways.) I'm curious as to why.

Maybe it was just an aesthetic judgment on the part of the designers, feeling they would look better that way, in which case fair enough, aesthetic judgments are what they are.

But was there any technical factor that encouraged such orientation? Anything in the electronics, the mechanics of the monitor placement, the optics of its display in a vertical cabinet?

Now that I think about it, Space Invaders (1978) seems to have been the first vertically oriented arcade game. One could argue that it was the first one where the action was on the vertical axis. But one could also argue that it was the first one to emerge in a world where the Atari 2600 (1977) already existed, and where 'how do we stop home consoles eating our lunch' was a potential consideration. No proof, just suggestive.

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    probably because first games (space invaders, breakout) needed better vertical resolution than horizontal because of the nature of the game. And the rest followed... – Jean-François Fabre Jan 25 at 18:03
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    interesting thoughts in this forum: atariage.com/forums/topic/… – Jean-François Fabre Jan 25 at 18:05
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    I know atari always tried to create arcade games that were "special", providing special controllers only for one game, making adaptations inferior. I'm pretty sure it's just a design choice to get more height. I posted an answer but I feel it's no good. – Jean-François Fabre Jan 25 at 18:20
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    Maybe to more of them vertically into an arcade facility. – TomServo Jan 26 at 18:22
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    They were waaay ahead of their time for smart phone games. – Schwern Jan 28 at 9:05
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Having the display vertical reduces the width of the cabinet. This means that a game machine can be fitted into a smaller space in a pub/bar, or in an amusement arcade where machines are in rows you can get more machines (potentially a third more) into the same space.

One-third more machines means one-third more revenue.

The orientation may also have been influenced by electro-mechanical slot machines. They tend to be high and narrow to get as large wheels as possible inside the casing (and probably for similar reasons).

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    If it reduced the width of the cabinet, that would certainly be a good reason. But did it? Take Defender as an example, unusual for being horizontally oriented. According to forum.arcadecontrols.com/index.php?topic=7640.0 – rwallace Jan 25 at 20:04
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    "(Most all cabinets seem to be 24" - 25", and my Defender cabinets seemed the same width as all the rest)" – rwallace Jan 25 at 20:04
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    The Defender was probably made the same size as other cabinets so it could replace another machine in a row in an arcade. Machines were swapped around for maintenance and to provide variety. An off-sized machine would be unpopular with arcade operators. Yes, it's a landscape screen - but it's a smaller diagonal screen than a portrait screen of the same width. – Owain Jan 26 at 21:42
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    Just have to (it's unimportant 😅 ) note that "One-third more machines means one-third more revenue." is true if and only if your demand is limited by the number of machines... which would have only happened during peak hours (which only represents a subset of the total revenue). – David Mulder Jan 28 at 12:34
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    Arcade game players don't have a 1:1 ratio to machines. Many players like to play different machines for variety. If there is 1 player and 3 machines at $1, the player may play $3. If there are 4 machines, the player may play $4. Or if there are 3 machines but the player doesn't like any of them, the player plays $0. Add a fourth game the player really likes, and he plays $10. – Owain Jan 28 at 13:33
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(From the perspective of the electronics, that means the displays were drawn sideways.)

Not necessary. There is no inherent reason for drawing sideways. A video circuit can easy be made for either, as line width and number of lines can be defined either way.

This is especially true for early games, where electronics were rather special to type and so was mounting of screens - which usually was done locally anyway.

Maybe it was just an aesthetic judgment on the part of the designers, feeling they would look better that way, in which case fair enough, aesthetic judgments are what they are.

Isn't it always about aesthetics? Or in this case all about the game to be played? After all, when climbing up a gantry like in Donkey Kong, you want an upright scenery. Similar for shoot em ups, where more upright space means more room for aliens and their manoeuvres.

Due the same reason other games, like Battlezone or Defender do benefit from landscape orientation, so their machines had screens mounted sideways.

Same reasoning as why we use paper upright for writing but sideways for schematics.

But was there any technical factor that encouraged such orientation?

No.

Anything in the electronics, the mechanics of the monitor placement, the optics of its display in a vertical cabinet?

Neither electronics nor mechanics care for orientation. A tube can be mounted in any orientation. Similar a the beam can be moved to any location in any sequence - thus not even picture orientation and screen orientation need to be aligned. Of course it does make sense to format and place a picture in a way to use maximum screen size.


The real question is rather, why today's run almost exclusive sideways?

The answer here is due the way TV was set up. Game consoles and later home computers had to go along to use this resource. The Vectrex, bringing its own screen, is a great example that without the need to fit a TV an upright screen might have be more desirable for games.

It started as well a feedback loop. While vertical scrollers worked great on arcade machines with upright screens, they mostly sucked on landscape. Here side scrollers like Sonic, simply showed a better utilization.

Zaxxon is kind of an interesting hybrid. It combines the forward dynamic of a vertical scroller with the real estate of landscape mode. I find it as well notable that there was a whole generation of isometric games, quite often from UK developers, doing alike.

By why as well with dedicated computer screens?

Simple answer: Price. For professional use it's mandatory to have at least 60, better 80 characters per line. Having more lines is great, but highest priority is having a full line displayed at once without scrolling or warp.

Hardware wise this could easy be reached, already early on, in portrait orientation. But to display the text in similar size, an upright tube needs to be larger than one used sideways. For example a 12 inch screen (4:3) in Landscape offers about 20 cm per line, which is roughly like on an A4 sheet. To do the same in portrait, it needs a 16 inch tube.

Larger means the tube itself is a expensive part. Any resulting monitor was, despite having otherwise the very same parts, more expensive. And by now similar software adaption as with video games happened. Modern desktops are adapted to sideways screens (*1). So even with most modern screens being able to swing in either operation sideways will prevail (*2).

So while the result of having sideways screens as default is the same, evolution converged due different reasons. Personally. I still feel nostalgia for the Star systems with their huge upright screens.


*1 - I'd say even a reason why PocketPC failed early on, as upright phone screens just need a different UI.

*2 - Then again, with 30" 4k screen sizes reached today, it's more akin to human nature to turn the head to access more screen space than up and down - likewise mouse are more easy sweeped sidways. So I guess even if we had lived in a socialist society making money not a reasoning, we would by now as well reach a time with screens becoming ever wider.

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    A minor point - Zaxxon isn't isometric, it's axonometric (hence the name). The projection angles are not 120 degrees. – Eight-Bit Guru Jan 26 at 20:02
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    @Eight-BitGuru While technical true (BTW, Isometric is as well axonometric), it's what these games were commonly called - as usual, the public does not always care for exact naming, do they? :) – Raffzahn Jan 26 at 20:13
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    While one could construct a tube to have the longer axis be the one that scans more slowly, I don't think I'm aware of any video games ever having used such. A lot of engineering is needed to maintain linearity and focus over a wide range of beam angles, and I would expect that the coils mounted on most CRTs are optimized for the expected frequency ranges and deflection angles. It may be kinda sorta possible to rotate the yoke to swap X and Y, but I'd expect focus and linearity to suffer. – supercat Jan 26 at 21:43
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    @supercat it's extreme easy and has been done countless time. After all, we're only talking about 25% difference when fliping a tube. The tube itself doesn't need any change, more do the coils, as they are already meant to reach the whole area within a given frame timing. Likewise electronics just need some readjustment. Back in the days such modifications where common jobs. – Raffzahn Jan 26 at 23:11
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    @Eight-BitGuru Zaxxon actually is isometric (which is special case of axonometric projection). The display timings it uses result in non-squre pixels which make the angles as drawn on screen only 0.26 to 0.52 degrees off true isometric. – tylisirn Jan 26 at 23:26
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This answer isn't backed up by facts or testimonies. It only reflects my personal thoughts

The main reason is probably that early games such as Space Invaders (and Galaxian, Galaga...) or Breakout have a gameplay where vertical resolution / room is more important. Objects (bullets, balls) are travelling vertically.

And the rest of games that could have been using landscape orientation (Pac-Man, Scramble) probably followed the general design that those early games set up.

Note that Pong has a standard 4:3 screen, landscape (because the side-oriented action of the game didn't require a rotation)

To not answer the question from a technical point of view, someone in this discussion also points out that if you want to multiplex sprites it's easier or more efficient with a vertical display. But the screens were just rotated 90 degrees. Once rotated, the scanlines were vertical.

Anyway given the sprite capabilities of those machines was far more superior to the ones of home machines like Commodore, so it's wasn't going to be the reason (plus sprite flickering couldn't be tolerated on arcade machines)

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Note that paper is usually also vertical, as were many early desktop PCs. Where does horizontal come from? Many professionals used vertical screens on PCs (and some still do) whenever possible. It's great for reading, which is why this very site only uses a fraction of the display to show actual content - the thing you're supposed to read still fits a vertical aspect ratio. Books, newspapers, savvy web sites - they all keep the thing you're reading to a relatively narrow column. If you only need to "scroll" in one direction, you can read much more comfortably - and European scripts don't really allow writing in a way that would work well for a scroll that goes horizontally. Other scripts have it different - if you write "top down", horizontal scrolling makes much more sense, and you will probably find that if they used scrolls in the past, they were supposed to be unrolled horizontally.

Horizontal aspect ratios come from TV, and workloads with similar constraints. Our own vision is much wider than it is tall, so it is quite natural to show images and sceneries horizontally. Why would you use that for a computer? Because early home computers could be much cheaper if they allowed you to plugin your TV (which you already had). Game consoles especially are the same way even today.

But arcade games had different constraints. You can only fit so many machines in a given floorplan. And nobody cares how tall an arcade is - you care about how many you can fit side by side. Vertical screens vastly improve how many games you can have in your arcade parlor.

You adapt the gameplay to the screen, and vice versa. A vertical screen lends itself to a vertical scrolling shooter. It fits certain perspectives - showing something "top down" (as in Space invaders, where the titular invaders come from "up", which nicely fits the top of the screen), or "forward back" as in a racing game, for example. Horizontal screens work great for "left right".

One more thing to consider is that many arcades didn't actually render their graphics on a raster, the way you're familiar with. The display's electronics didn't have a preferred direction - indeed, many games either used stencils/masks or vector graphics, where the beam was steered to shape the thing being rendered, rather than following some left-right, line-by-line path. Arcades had plenty of control over the beam path, and used that ability to great effect.

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My family owned an arcade parlor of sorts in the mid-1970's when Space Invaders, Pong, and PacMan were replacing mechanical games. I have seen the insides of many old-school arcade games when they were relatively new.

In the early games the CRT was often mounted horizontally. What you saw was a mirror at about 45 degrees that reflected the CRT and made it look like it was mounted vertically. On the other hand, the first Pong game we received was mounted horizontally in what looked like a cocktail table intended to have drinks set on it. Also, to the best of my recollection, Space Invaders started out as a pinball machine before becoming the thing we remember it to be.

By the late 1970's and early 1980's the CRTs were mostly being mounted vertically, but these CRTs looked suspiciously like actual TV units stripped from their cases and built into cabinets. I'm sure some engineer simply found the most cost effective way to manufacture arcade games with COTS parts.

I doubt anyone was actually concerned about home platforms cutting into arcade profits especially given that the manufacturer of a nascent technology is likely to be owned or bought by an older company with loads of cash when that company has the foresight to see a threat on the horizon.

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I wonder if it might also have been the influence of tradition/habit.

Things like pinball and pachinko have to be vertically oriented because the ball is pulled towards interaction with playing field elements (the bumpers, gates, etc.) by gravity, so the elements have to be stacked vertically. A landscape pinball machine would make for short turns and ultimately prove unsatisfying.

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