In the mid 1990s, arcades were still going strong, though they were relying more and more on immersive or multiplayer experiences. While behemoths like Sega were still pumping out classic original IPs like Crazy Taxi, other venerable firms like Acclaim were looking at adapting existing properties into new arcade cabinets. That’s when they discovered a graphics-heavy game that already came with well-defined play mechanics: Magic: the Gathering.
In 1996 Acclaim approached Wizards of the Coast and struck a deal to develop a game, for release the following year. Acclaim's coin-op division quickly made it into a fast-paced action game, where players battled each other on a play field with five zones (each corresponding to a color). Two players each chose a color to stand on, and then proceeded to attack, summon creatures, or defend themselves in a real-time gameplay system. In essence it was a virtual, playable Magic duel, albeit in a watered-down form.
Unlike other fighting games it wasn’t a simple button masher where players were relentlessly on the attack. Players used a trackball to place creatures onto the field as well as attack, adding a layer of strategy. As the match went on and the game evolved, the strategy changed as well - something not often done in arcade games.
In 1997, Acclaim started assembling cabinets and it looked like Magic fans could have a cool arcade experience... for a few weeks. After only a handful of units were made, Acclaim’s coin-op division went belly up, well before any kind of mass production could take place.
Only four cabinets were known to be released before it all ended. One made it to San Jose, being placed in Namco’s WonderPark. A second made it to Orlando, where it was placed at Disney World’s Tomorrowland arcade. A third was given to Wizards of the Coast, who placed it in their game center in Seattle for several years before it got to go home with somebody. The fourth? Well, no one knows because apparently it just mysteriously disappeared. Nothing worrying about that.
Besides the handful of remaining units, and a few previews in magazines like GamePro, not much remains of the game.
For those who played it, it was a fun Magic video game experience that never came close to being replicated for over ten years, especially not in arcade form. For those that didn’t, it will remain one of those strange flukes in Magic history where something that was going to be huge fell apart for reasons out of their control.