Ice hockey enthusiast Bob Lemieux dreamed up this popular table game for billiards manufacturers Brunswick back in 1972. Almost instantly, the craze spread across the country, and eventually to the world.
Every family with a rumpus room or playroom had it. The really cool amusement places had them under black lights with playing pieces made out of fluorescent orange plastic. The official story was that the pucks could move at 200mph!
Money tournaments sprang up, professional organisations were formed, and an arcade classic was born.
The game itself was utter simplicity: Using the hand-held, circular “mallets,” players on opposite ends of a table tried to knock a thin, round puck into their opponent’s goal slot. Each goal earned a point, and games were generally played to seven.
What made Air Hockey so innovative were the thousands of tiny holes covering the table, each blasting out a steady stream of air.
Riding this blanket of air, the puck literally glided across the table, and the lack of friction meant high-speed action for the Air Hockey competitors.
The fan blowing through the holes in the table was supposed to make the puck slippery. What it actually did was make the puck airborne if hit at the right angle.
The game prospered through the rest of the 1970’s, as other manufacturers began producing their own tables and equipment. With its one-on-one competition, Air Hockey was perfect for tournament play, and enthusiasts made sure that the tables were packed on weekend nights.
With the coming of the video game era in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Air Hockey suffered a bit of a setback. It was a simple matter of economics: Three video game cabinets could fit in the same space as one Air Hockey table, leaving many arcade owners with no choice but to pull the plug on this table game favourite.
As video games entered a downswing in the mid-80’s, Air Hockey staged a comeback.
Most video games (excepting the occasional Galaga or Centipede) had a popular life of a year or two, maybe even a few months, before they started to collect more dust than quarters. Air Hockey, however, still drew the same faithful following it always had, playing the faithful Tortoise to video games’ speedy, but inconsistent Hare.
Today, Air Hockey and video games have managed to achieve a peaceful co-existence, living side by side in most arcades.
New table designs, some engineered for speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour (130 kilometres per hour), have maintained the game’s popularity, and professional organisations like the United States Air-Table-Hockey Association (USAA) continue to organise tournaments on a regular basis.
In the fickle world of the arcade, Air Hockey’s enduring success is a testament to the appeal of simple competition. Unlike video games, there is never a computerised opponent in Air Hockey.
The game requires at least two living, breathing human beings (and one abused puck) to play, and that’s something that still can’t be beaten, even with a fibreglass mallet.