There are very few activities that can provide the enjoyment and nostalgia that comes with an arcade machine.
Whether you are a loyalist of the classics like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Space Invaders, or if you prefer more “modern” options like NBA Jam, Street Fighter, or Mortal Kombat, there is an arcade game for anyone and everyone.
Cocktail arcade machines are one of the most enjoyable ways to experience arcade gaming, especially when you want multi-player options. Modern cocktail arcade cabinets also give you some options that never used to exist, like oversized LED displays and thousands of games on a single machine.
Because any legitimate product is going to run $1,000+, it is crucial to choose the right machine. Continue reading for a guide that will help you choose a cocktail arcade machine that will be the centerpiece of your game room for the next decade.
Overview – Description & Features
What is a cocktail arcade machine?
A cocktail arcade machine is just what the name suggests. Sometimes called a “cocktail cabinet,” a cocktail arcade machine is an arcade machine that is built into a cocktail or coffee table.
As opposed to an upright cabinet, which has a screen that faces the seated or standing user, a cocktail arcade machine has an upward-facing screen that is built into the cocktail table. Rather than facing forward like a typical gaming system, a cocktail arcade machine forces you to look downward toward the screen.
Additionally, in multi-player gaming, the two players are seated across the table from one another. In a traditional upright arcade game, two players would sit side-by-side.
What makes a cocktail arcade machine better?
This is subjective, but I will give my answer. A cocktail arcade machine is great for entertaining, and it is a true showstopper that will grab your guests’ attention and start a lot of conversations.
While a typical upright arcade machine often gets tucked into the corner of a room or shoved against a wall, a cocktail arcade machine looks great in the middle of a game room (or living room) and is a perfect centerpiece.
In multi-player gaming, the orientation of the two players (opposite the table from one another) enhances the experience. This is similar to how you would sit when playing cards or a board game, and it accentuates the “mano a mano” nature of competition. With a traditional upright arcade game (where competitors sit side-by-side), multi-player gaming usually just means crowding one another and bumping shoulders during gameplay.
Which features matter when buying a cocktail arcade machine?
After we give our recommendations, we will provide a detailed buying guide. This will provide an in-depth discussion of the features that matter, and the features that you shouldn’t waste your money on.
Some things you will want to decide on before purchasing include:
- Number of players (1, 2, or 4)
- Number of games included, as well as the quality of the games included
- Build quality, size, and weight
- Price, value, and warranty
- Configuration of controls and joystick
- Coin operated, free play, or either
- Pre-assembled or assembly required
- Whether or not the machine comes with included stools
Top 7 Picks
If you are looking for a quality “plug and play” cocktail arcade machine, this is hard to beat. It is available from America’s most popular online retailer, it can be purchased for less than $2,000, and no setup is required.
The base version includes 60 games, but for an additional ~$200 you can purchase the version that includes 412 games. This version includes multiple iterations of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Dig Dug, and most of the classics.
The machine features a 22″ LCD and SANWA joysticks. 2 stools are also included, which have a simple style (like an old ice cream shop) without any arcade graphics.
If you purchase directly from the manufacturer, there are a number of different sizes, styles, and designs. For example, there is a wood grain edition, as well as an “oil drum” edition which uses a barrel as a stand rather than a traditional cocktail table stand.
The machine weighs just under 150 pounds and has a tempered glass top. A version is also available that provides a 9″ riser. Coin-operated versions can also be found.
Creative Arcades backs this cocktail arcade machine with a 3 year warranty, which is better than you will find with many competitors.
This cocktail arcade machine is very similar to the product listed above. It also comes with 412 games and 2 stools included.
Like the Creative Arcades machine above it, this is a well-built machine that arrives fully assembled (with a weight of more than 150 pounds). Also available for less than $2,000, it has a tempered glass top and allows for coin-op or free play modes.
It has classics like Pac-Man, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Joust, and Space Invaders, but you will have to contact the manufacturer for the complete game list. Build quality is excellent, also.
The disadvantage to this machine, as opposed to the Creative Arcades machine listed above, is that this table has a 19″ LED as opposed to the 22″ on the Creative Arcades. But the advantage is that you get a 5 year warranty here, rather than just 3 years.
This machine is made by Creative Arcades — the same machine that makes the first product on our list. This is a solid company that makes really nice machines with very high quality.
This particular device has a couple of differences when compared to the above-discussed products. First, it retails at a higher price. If you are trying to stay in the sub-$2,000 price range, you may need to look elsewhere.
But there is a lot to love about this machine. First, it has a third side with controls, rather than just two. Next, it has a lifting screen that tilts to turn the device into a “traditional” arcade machine.
Additionally, you get some customization options, even when buying it through America’s favorite online retailer. With most other brands, you have to buy directly from the company in order to customize. Here, you can choose between multiple packages for number of games (1,162, 3,500, or 4,500 games), screen size (26″ or 32″), and the standard or woodgrain edition.
Regardless of the options you choose, you get a machine with a 3 year warranty that is fully assembled. It also comes with 2 stools included.
This machine is essentially an upgraded version of product #2 listed above, also made by Prime Arcades.
But instead of 412 games, this comes with 1,162 games. And instead of a 19″ display, this features a 26″ LED.
Like the other products on the list, it includes 2 stools. It is “plug and play” with no installation or assembly required. We like that this is a solid, well-built machine that is full-size and very sturdy. It can be used in either coin-operated or free play mode.
The only real downside here is that you pay extra for the upgrades, so it will probably be closer to ~$2,500 rather than sub-$2,000.
The tempered glass top is thick and solid, and the manufacturer backs the machine with a 5 year warranty.
We will start with the good — this is a very budget-friendly device. So if your budget is closer to $1,000 than $2,000, this is a good place to start. If you have a larger budget, the previous options on the list are more solidly built and have more games included.
This machine has only 60 games, but honestly the machines that have thousands of games are overkill. Included in the 60 games are multiple versions of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, as well as Dig Dug, Space Invaders, Galaga, and Centipede. So you still won’t be lacking for great, classic games to play.
The button configuration is simple but user-friendly, and very reminiscent of a classic arcade game. The screen is 19″ and unspectacular — but again, this is a nice throwback to the retro styling of arcade gaming.
The main downsides with this machine are the lower build quality, which is evidenced by the smaller size and lighter weight. Additionally, you only get a 2 year warranty. And the top is a cheap material rather than solid glass. Lastly, the graphics on the overlay are unimpressive and just flat out ugly. Thankfully, this overlay can be replaced for less than $100.
Although the device isn’t “plug and play,” the assembly process is very quick and simple.
This machine needs to be purchased directly from the manufacturer, and the advantage here is that Dream Arcades (the maker of this cocktail machine) offers a lot of information and customization to the product. In addition, this is a solidly built product that is well made and well designed.
First of all, it is a full-sized machine that includes more than 250 games standard. The 19″ LCD monitor is covered with a solid, thick tinted glass. Dream Arcades also scores points here for a number of things that are a little bit unusual:
- The device runs on a Windows 10 operating system, so you can use the display to stream Netflix or other streaming services
- The game list is easily accessible, so you know exactly which games you are getting without having to scour message boards or customer reviews
- Every game included is legal and licensed; for the classics that Dream Arcades wasn’t able to get licensing rights to, they have recreated “clones” of the games, so you can legally play any game you wish
- Customizations like upgraded hard drive, WiFi adaptor, and a riser to turn the machine into a 4-player standup device
Ultimately, this machine can do almost everything that the above devices can do, while also giving you a lot more customization and options. On top of that, the company has great customer service and support.
As a final selling point, you can select additional games to be included with your device (for an additional fee). So if you want a machine that can play Crazy Taxi, NFL Blitz, or Golden Tee Golf, this is your best bet.
The warranty is only 1 year, which is lower than other products on the list. But, you should remember that the company and customer service is much more responsive and helpful than other manufacturers.
This cocktail arcade machine is not a true competitor to the other ($2,000+) products on our lists. It is cheaply built, with lower overall quality and fewer games.
However, it still deserves a spot on the list due to the budget-friendly price. In the sub-$1,000 category, there just aren’t many cocktail arcade machines available. So even though this product isn’t perfect, it is still a solid option for anyone that can’t spend $1,500+.
The 17″ LCD has a “clear protective top surface,” which doesn’t inspire as much confidence as 3/4″ of tempered glass. There are only 12 games included, but it includes classics like Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Galaga, and more. As mentioned above, some of the machines with thousands of games are somewhat overkill — you really aren’t going to spend much time playing your 789th favorite arcade game.
The Pac-Man artwork is cohesive throughout the table and looks great. If you want a budget-friendly centerpiece for your game room, consider this table from Arcade 1Up.
Buying Guide — Features to Consider
Number of Players
Most cocktail arcade machines allow for multi-player gaming with 2 players. If you need a multi-player mode, be sure to avoid single player only options. This part is obvious.
The mistake that people commonly make is being unrealistic about the number of players that will play.
When we spend a few thousand dollars on an arcade machine, we usually picture cocktail parties and entertaining a living room full of guests. This causes many of us to spend extra for a 4-person arcade machine.
In truth, most of us find that there are very few instances where 4-player gameplay will be needed. So, unless you are 100% certain that you will be playing with more than 2 gamers, save the money and just find a model that has 2-player gameplay.
Additionally, the base of cocktail table arcade machines often makes gameplay uncomfortable for the third and fourth players — because the legs of the table get in the way of your legs. Just like a coffee table that you already have in your living room, there are usually two opposing sides that have leg room, and the other two sides have table legs in your way.
Pre-Assembled vs. “Some” Assembly Required
One way to turn your arcade machine purchase from a dream to a nightmare is by choosing a machine that you can’t get installed in your location of choice.
The first mistake is thinking that you will receive “white glove” installation service, when in reality you are just getting UPS to drop a 200+ pound pallet at the front of your driveway. Many companies offer a white glove installation, but this will generally come with an additional cost of a couple hundred dollars.
It is tremendously important to know whether your arcade machine will be installed in your game room or dropped off unassembled in your front yard!
Additionally, even if you are able to get the heavy machine into your game room, you need to be aware of the assembly process. Some machines ship fully assembled, while others require “some” assembly. Usually this assembly process is simple for a DIYer, but again we recommend verifying before you purchase.
Build Quality & Warranty of Machine
This point is obvious, but needs to be mentioned nonetheless. There is a wide range of quality with arcade machines.
Some feature a simple computer monitor display that is housed inside a coffee table, with a cheap piece of plexiglass over the top.
Other machines come from manufacturers with decades of experience that are true gaming artisans. These machines generally have solidly-built cabinets with authentic artwork, officially licensed games, and solid glass tops.
The machines that we have recommended above are all high-quality devices, so you can feel confident choosing any. If you are considering a cocktail arcade machine that isn’t on our list above, the best way to verify the quality is by reading reviews and checking on the warranty information.
Reputable manufacturers will generally provide a 3 or 5 year warranty, whereas low-quality knockoffs might only give a 90 day guarantee.
One other way to estimate the build quality of an arcade machine is to find the material used for the table top. A tempered glass top is ideal, both for durability, scratch-resistance, and gameplay. If the company also specifies a thickness, this is a good indication that you are dealing with a reputable manufacturer.
On the other hand, a plexiglass top (or a top that is labeled just as “glass” but without specifying a thickness) is an indication that you might be dealing with a budget manufacturer. In this case, be sure to verify the warranty length, and whether or not the company will actually be around to honor the warranty.
Games Included (Both the Number & Quality)
Many cocktail arcade machines come with hundreds or even thousands of games pre-loaded. This seems like a great thing but there are a couple of drawbacks to consider.
First, you need to verify the list of games. If you want Pac-Man or Galaga, don’t just assume that these will be included with any machine that includes hundreds of games.
Verifying the list of games included is more challenging since many manufacturers don’t publish the list — instead they simply say “thousands of classic games included.” In this case, you need to search online message boards or reviews for a game list, or just email the company for a complete PDF list.
Another issue here is that many of the games are unauthorized reproductions. This is speculative, but it appears that the unauthorized reproductions are the reason why companies don’t publish their game lists.
As a workaround, some companies (such as Dream Arcades) have recreated “clones” of classic games. For example, this machine will have “Kong” instead of Donkey Kong, and “Jumper Frog” instead of Frogger. The graphics are slightly different from the original but gameplay is identical. Most importantly, no trademark laws are violated, and nobody is engaging in any illegal activity! Sounds like a win-win.
Many machines also are configured in a way that allows you to download additional games.
Screen Size & Aspect Ratio
Most classic arcade games are made with a 4:3 aspect ratio. This means the screen is nearly square in shape, rather than modern TVs which favor a “widescreen” format. If your machine has a widescreen format, you will probably be stuck with the dreaded “black bars,” since most games are made in the 4:3 (“full-screen”) format.
Traditionally, arcade machines featured the old-school CRT monitor. Sadly, this technology has become obsolete in recent years, so new machines largely rely on LED and LCD screens. The upside is that modern LED and LCD displays are more crisp, more vivid, and have higher screen resolution. The downside is simply nostalgia — Pac-Man just looks great on the traditional, old-school CRT display.
Screen sizes usually range from 19″ to 26″. It is possible to find larger (32″) or smaller (17″) screens, but generally these are harder to locate. Building your own machine is also an option, which we will discuss more later.
Many cocktail arcade tables include one or more stools.
If you choose an option with included stools, this will save a hundred or more dollars. Additionally, the height of the stools will be appropriate for the height of your particular machine.
On the flip side, buying stools separately gives you a lot more flexibility and customization. Maybe you want a stool with Pac-Man or NBA Jam artwork, or a backrest, or with adjustable height. For $100 or less, you can usually find a stool that looks and feels great.
But if price is most important, you usually save money by purchasing a bundle that includes stools with the machine purchase.
Coin operated, Free Play, or Both
If you are looking for the ultimate in nostalgia, find a machine that still has a coin slot. Most modern machines that offer the coin-operated version also have the ability to turn off this function, resulting in free play.
My personal preference is to find a machine that is coin-operated but also has a free play mode where you can operate the machine without using coins. But if you find a machine like this, be sure that it is quick and easy to switch between these two modes. You don’t want to spend five or ten minutes taking apart your machine in order to switch modes.
Controls: Buttons, Joystick, Trackball, Arcade Stick, etc.
Different machines have different configurations. Arcade machines usually have some elaborate controls, including trackballs, joysticks, etc.
No one configuration is better than others. The important thing here is to be sure that your machine has a control layout that is comfortable and ergonomic for you. After all, you want to spend many, many hours gaming on your new machine.
On the low end, you can spend closer to $1,000 for a decent cocktail arcade machine. On the high end, you can spend $3,000+.
As a general guide, you can get a great cocktail arcade cabinet for less than $2,000. Customization tends to cost extra, as will upgraded stools, upgraded artwork, or bells and whistles like additional game packages.
Artwork & Design
If you demand customization, many cocktail machines have artwork that can be modified, replaced, or customized. For people that build their own machines, everything can be customized. If you are buying a ready-made machine, there won’t be as much flexibility.
Usually this artwork is called a control panel overlay. Because these pieces are not one-size-fits-all, you will need to verify that the replacement overlay fits with your machine.
The best and easiest option is to find a machine that comes with artwork that you enjoy. This way, you don’t have to worry about finding a replacement CPO or taking measurements for a customized overlay. Instead, you can just plug and play.
What about building my own cocktail arcade machine?
For enthusiasts, there is nothing more satisfying than building your own arcade machine. This gives you unlimited customization.
You can choose the size of the cabinet, the size (and type) of the display, the graphics on the overlay, the configuration of the controls, and which games are included.
However, this takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of skill. Anyone that possesses the time, skills, and enthusiasm needed to build their own cocktail arcade machine can find all sorts of information and guides online. For this reason, we won’t discuss it to much.
For the other 90%+ of us, it is most feasible to find a quality cocktail arcade machine for under $2,000, plug it in and start playing.
If you lack the budget for a ready-made machine, and lack the skills to home build a machine, you can also find a tabletop “arcade game console.” For $250 or less, these are smaller, tabletop versions of an arcade machine. It is basically just a video game console, but it includes arcade style controls (joysticks, etc.) and a small display along with arcade graphics. These consoles don’t have the “cool factor” that a cocktail arcade machine does, but it is a budget-friendly option for those of us that can’t spend $1,000+ on a gaming system.
Any home arcade machine is a great way to add some fun to your living room or game room. But a cocktail arcade machine provides a unique, stylish device that is a showstopper when set in the middle of a room.
Since these machines run $1,000+, you want to be sure that you are buying a quality device. The cocktail cabinets on our list are all high-quality and most are backed by a 3+ year warranty from a reputable manufacturer.
Before buying, be sure to consider assembly/installation (these things are heavy!), multi-player modes, screen size, warranty length, and special features like coin-operation, artwork, and included stools.