Cocktail Arcade Machine vs. Upright Arcade: Which to Choose?

When it comes to arcade machines, everyone seems to have a strong opinion on one topic – upright versus cocktail.

The debate between which one is better – an upright arcade machine or a cocktail arcade machine – is a matter of personal preference, so it will never be settled. Many of us are nostalgic about one machine rather than the other, so we will always choose to relive our “glory days” on the style of machine we grew up with.

Even though much of the debate is subjective, there are legitimate reasons to choose one style of arcade machine rather than the other. Additionally, there are some disqualifiers that may force you to choose one style and not the other.

Continue reading to make sure your investment (which may be $1,000+) is a wise one! We will take a deep dive into the pros, cons, and important considerations in choosing an upright versus a cocktail arcade machine.

Quick Summary: Cocktail vs. Upright

For anybody wishing to skim the article, we will try to quickly over-simplify the discussion:

  • Cocktail arcade machines have a nicer cosmetic appearance in a room, are excellent for certain 2-player versus games, and have an easy “cup holder” built in since you can set your drink right on the glass top of the table. However, these machines occupy more floor space, aren’t compatible with certain games (like gun/shooting games), and present worse ergonomics for your neck and shoulders since you are hunched over the screen.
  • Upright arcade machines occupy less space, work with every kind of gaming, and provide for better posture and ergonomics. However, they lack the classy appearance of a cocktail machine, require stools of a particular height, and are harder to move.

What’s the difference between a cocktail machine and an upright machine?

Before we go too far into the comparison, we should explain the difference between a cocktail cabinet arcade machine and an upright arcade machine.

A cocktail arcade machine, as the name suggests, is an arcade machine that is built into a cocktail or coffee table. This means that the screen faces upward, so you sit at the table and look down toward the screen. For multiplayer gaming, two players can sit across the table from one another.

[Pictured above is the Arcade 1Up Head-to-Head Arcade Table, which we have discussed previously.]

An upright cabinet arcade machine, on the other hand, is a “traditional” arcade machine that is built into a cabinet design, with the screen facing toward the seated or standing user. So, the screen runs perpendicular to the floor, rather than a cocktail machine which has the screen positioned parallel to the floor. In multi-player gaming, two players would generally sit side-by-side (or take turns, depending on the game).

[Pictured above is the Arcade 1Up Ms. Pac-Man Upright Arcade Machine, which is a lightweight and budget-friendly upright which includes 12 classic games].

A cocktail arcade machine is generally placed in the middle of a room so that users can sit on either side of the machine. An upright machine is usually placed against a wall or in a corner, because only the front side of the machine needs to be accessed by users.

Arguments for Cocktail Arcade Machine

There are a number of arguments for why a cocktail arcade machine is “better” than an upright machine.

First, and perhaps most importantly, these machines are beautiful cosmetically and create a great centerpiece in your living room or game room. For many gamers, it is easier to get a spouse’s permission for a machine that actually looks nice. Upright arcade machines, on the other hand, look like they belong in a game room – they provide an element of “cool,” but aren’t exactly stylish enough to match the decor in an upscale condo.

Another upside to the design of cocktail machines is that the panels and components are better hidden, which further enhances the esthetics.

Along with the styling of the machine, you will notice that guests and new gamers are usually more excited about a cocktail machine than an upright. When a guest (whether it’s an adult or a kid) walks into a room with a cocktail arcade machine, their eyes are likely to light up with excitement.

Another great feature is that cocktail arcade machines have an easy drink holder, since you can just sit your drink right on the glass top of the machine. Logically, this doesn’t seem like a huge selling point. But in truth, being able to sit a drink on the machine is oddly satisfying. For many of us that have fond memories of playing arcade machines at bars or restaurants, being able to sit a drink on the machine just triggers a feeling of nostalgia.

Another selling point is that “versus” mode is perfect for certain games on a cocktail machine. Rather than an upright cabinet, where two players are crowded and bumping shoulders, gaming on a cocktail machine across the table from one another feels much more appropriate.

The height of these tables also allows you to use a regular height chair for gaming. While cocktail tables are made of varying heights, most of them work with a standard height chair. For an upright cabinet machine, you either need to stand or sit on a high stool. The stools aren’t cheap, and they can get in the way when they aren’t being used.

Because cocktail machines have a similar footprint to a (bulky) coffee table, they are fairly easy to move. Sure, the machines run 100+ pounds, so you will still need a friend (or two) to help you move the machine. But it is a heck of a lot easier to move, especially going up the stairs, than a traditional upright cabinet machine.

Lastly, for the people that want 4 player gaming, a cocktail table is typically the best bet. On an upright machine, there just isn’t enough space. A cocktail table allows players to sit on different sides of the machine, so you have a lot more space. However, we should note that 4 player gaming is excessive for most users, so we really don’t recommend spending a lot of money on a 4 player device.

Arguments for Upright Arcade Machine

While many arguments for cocktail machines rely on cosmetics and nostalgia, there are solid, tangible reasons to conclude that upright machines are “better.”

First, the viewing angle of an upright machine is more ergonomic. Instead of hunching over a cocktail table screen, an upright machine lets you face straight forward at the machine. This is the posture that is healthier for your shoulders, neck, and back. 

If you have friends over for a few quick games of Pac-Man, either a cocktail or upright machine will be just fine. But if you are planning on marathon sessions of multiple hours of gameplay, the ergonomics of an upright arcade machine are strongly preferred. You can also play an upright machine either seated or standing, which is conducive to marathon sessions.

Another “pro” for upright machines is the diversity of games that can be played. For Joust, Galaga, and Donkey Kong, cocktail machines are excellent. But for other games, like gun games or anything requiring a trackball, upright machines are the best choice. Simply put, a shooting game just doesn’t make sense on a cocktail machine. But the gameplay of gun games is excellent on an upright. For games like golf or bowling, which rely heavily on trackball use, the design of a cocktail machine can get in the way. Again, the upright machine is a perfect solution. If you are looking for a console emulator, an upright machine gives you access to a much better substitute than a cocktail machine would.

Space considerations also favor upright arcade machines. Upright arcades can be tucked into a corner or placed against a wall, and actually take up less space than most people would expect. Although a cocktail table looks sleek, they actually occupy a lot of floor space by the time you factor in seating on either side. With upright machines, the stools can usually be tucked into the footprint of the machine, so the total space needs aren’t too high.

Upright machines allow for some other features that are harder to find in a cocktail machine. Oversized screens are more common, and easier to find, on an upright. And the orientation of speakers provides better sound quality than a cocktail cabinet.

Because of the location of panels and components, an upright machine is generally easier to maintenance and service.

Lastly, although we mentioned that the esthetics are better for a cocktail cabinet, remember that cosmetics are subjective. If you want a “classic” look that really feels like an arcade, an upright arcade machine can’t be beat. The artwork usually looks better, too.

Final Thoughts

Trying to decide whether a cocktail or upright arcade machine is “better” is truly a fool’s errand. The answer just depends on your preferred style, your preferred games, and your own personal preferences.

If you want a classy look that will wow your friends and visitors, it’s hard to beat a cocktail arcade cabinet. For short gaming sessions on simple, classic games, cocktail arcades are great. This is especially true if you want to play a 2-player or 4-player game.

For marathon sessions, an upright arcade machine is more comfortable on your back, neck, and shoulders. And the upright machine gives you access to any kind of games, including shooters and games that rely on a trackball.

Ultimately, just weigh the pros and cons of each and make the decision that is best for you. Or just stick with nostalgia and choose the machine that you grew up with!