Image: Sega Anthology / Sega

Kevin Keinert is demonstrating his beautifully restored Sega R360 over Zoom. It’s an enormous machine, more of a theme park ride than an arcade game. It stands nearly two and a half metres high, and with the safety fences around it, it takes up a circular space around four and a half metres across.

Kevin turns a key in the wall behind the R360, which switches on a blue flashing light. He says the machine requires three-phase power, something typically only used in industrial or commercial settings, so he has it hooked up to a generator in the garage next door, which he can activate by turning the key. Then he flicks some switches on the attendant’s tower to boot the R360 into its safety sequence.

The machine is surrounded by pressure-sensitive floor panels, which he steps on to check they’re working; if anyone tries to approach while it’s in motion, the panels immediately stop the game. There’s also a big red emergency stop button inside, as well as one on the attendant’s tower, and light sensors can detect if a player puts an arm or leg outside the cockpit, immediately ceasing operation if it happens. Kevin explains that theoretically, the R360 could operate without an attendant, with players simply dropping their money in a coin slot, but in practice, an attendant was almost always present. It’s too dangerous otherwise. And no arcade wants to take the risk of leaving customers potentially stuck upside down.

A promotional flyer for the R360 — Image: Sega

The machine powers through its start-up sequence, pivoting smoothly this way and that. It looks fantastic, a spinning silver ball resembling some enigmatic device on a sci-fi spaceship or an astronaut training machine made by NASA. It’s hard to believe that it’s over 30 years old – it still looks futuristic even now. And it felt like the future back in 1990, promising a new era of the arcade that would take video games to dizzying heights of excitement, literally turning players on their heads.

Kevin has been collecting and restoring arcade games for 40 years, and he has an incredible private collection of rare and unusual coin-ups, including some fascinating electro-mechanical machines from the early days of arcade entertainment – like Sega’s Rifleman from 1968. But for the past couple of decades, he has become something of a specialist at repairing the R360.

It’s a rare machine. No one knows exactly how many were made, but it’s estimated to be somewhere between 100 and 200 and more likely to be at the bottom end of that range. The R360 was first unveiled to the public in July 1990 and started appearing in a few of Sega’s Japanese arcades later that year. It began to be exported to the rest of the world in 1991, and R360s have popped up everywhere, from Gran Canaria to Australia and from Chile to Kuwait. Only the very biggest venues could afford one, though. No official figures are available, but Kevin thinks a new R360 would have retailed for between $90,000 and $100,000.

An R360 running Rad Mobile — Image: Sega

Initially, the R360 was shipped with the game G-LOC Air Battle, a spin-off from the After Burner series with some seriously gorgeous super-scaler graphics. The aim was to shoot down as many planes as possible within a strict time limit, and the R360 would tilt and rock as you manoeuvred your plane around, even going into a full spin if your plane was hit. It wasn’t for the faint of stomach, but it was an intense rush, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in an arcade before.

After Burner had launched in 1987 with hydraulic motion technology that rocked and tilted the player, but the game’s designer Yu Suzuki has said that even at the start of that game’s development, “I was already wanting to make a gyroscopic cabinet like the R360.” Suzuki had a key role in Sega’s arcade division and was behind many of the company’s hits, including Space Harrier and Out Run. He constantly pushed for arcade innovation, resulting not only in G-LOC and the R360, but also the breakthrough into 3D with games like Virtua Racing (1992) and Virtua Fighter (1993).

A version of the R360 running the racing game Rad Mobile appeared in 1991, although this seems to have had only a very limited release at certain locations in Japan. But in 1994, an upgrade kit was launched for the R360 that converted it to running Wing War, a combat flight simulator with 3D polygon graphics. Excitingly, this came with the option for two-player head-to-head combat – although the chances of a venue owning two R360 machines to link together seem slim to say the least, considering how much they cost. However, a 1994 photo from Sega’s internal magazine does seem to show two R360s being joined together to play Wing War.

Kevin says the Wing War versions of the R360 are incredibly difficult to come by now. “Those are super, super rare. There's, I think, only two or three known in existence of the Wing War version – all the rest are G-LOCs.” Kevin owned one several years ago and managed to install a version of Wing War on a regular sit-down arcade cabinet, then link it to Wing War on the R360 to enable two-player battles, albeit with only one player getting to enjoy being tipped and rolled all over the place. But he had to design some circuitry for the sit-down cabinet to trick it into thinking the player was plugging in their seatbelt – otherwise, the game wouldn’t run.

Sometime after the release of Wing War, Sega stopped manufacturing the R360. The latter half of the 1990s saw the arcade industry enter a period of gradual decline as it struggled to compete with increasingly powerful consoles like the Sony PlayStation, which finally brought whizzy 3D graphics into the home. The bold experimentation that characterised the early nineties arcade experience began to fizzle out.

Sega’s R360 was born from a time of sheer excess, when arcade manufacturers vied to outdo each other with bigger and wilder machines, from Sega’s holographic Time Traveler to Namco’s room-filling Galaxian 3. Taito even followed Sega’s lead with the R360, releasing the D3BOS in 1993, which had similar 360-degree rotation – although it was limited to offering motion simulator experiences rather than video games. But by the second half of the decade, as arcade revenues started to fall, the appetite for creating ever flashier and more expensive arcade experiences had begun to wane.

Over the years, the R360 started disappearing from venues. It’s easy to see why arcade owners decided to let the machines go: not only did they take up an enormous amount of space, they were also difficult to maintain. Plus, there was the added hassle and expense of posting an attendant to the machine to help players who got into difficulties (and possibly clean up any vomit).

A few of the machines ended up in some unexpected places. In the 2000s, a team at Imperial College London used an R360 to test how regulated breathing could combat motion sickness. Kevin also bought an R360 from a doctor in Southern California who was using it to treat vertigo.

But many were simply scrapped. The Sega R360 Fan Club on Facebook has been trying to track down what happened to R360s around the world, and an alarming number are either missing or have been destroyed, like the two machines at London’s Trocadero arcade. An R360 in Tennessee ended up being moved to Niagara Falls and then various locations in Canada before being fried and subsequently scrapped during some electrical work. In 2020, a rusting R360 was found in a farmer’s field in Northern Ireland, looking for all the world like something from a Jakub Różalski painting.

However, a handful of the machines – possibly 10 to 15, although no one is quite sure – have been saved by dedicated private collectors such as Kevin. “Believe it or not, here in California, I owned six of them,” he says. “I'm down to my final one now. In 2001, I just started scouring the US, looking for all of them. Disney had one. Hotels in Vegas – I went to Vegas to get the one out of the MGM Grand. A couple came from San Diego. I was looking for everyone in the US that had them still, and kept in touch with them, and said, ‘You know, I don't care how long it takes, when it does eventually come up for sale, please let me know’. So over the course of about five to eight years, these people called me, and I'd buy it from them, and I was restoring them and selling them to private collectors like myself. And so that's where I've made some of the money to buy other things in this game room. Also, when Sega closed their San Jose California branch and got rid of all of their spare parts, I bought the remaining spare parts inventory for R360 – so I have quite a bit here to keep these running in the future.”

Still, unless you’re close personal friends with an arcade collector who has deep pockets (the machines can fetch in the region of $50,000), there’s very little chance you’ll be able to play one for yourself. In the UK, for example, there are no public venues where you can play on an R360. Andy Palmer is the owner of Arcade Club venues in Bury, Leeds and Blackpool, and when I talked to him back in February 2020, he said there was little chance of Arcade Club acquiring an R360, even though he receives a lot of requests for one from customers.

“The main problem I've got with it is because it's such an old machine, its frame […] needs to be X-rayed every now and again to make sure there are no microfractures, because it's quite old, obviously," Palmer says. "And you need to have an operator with it as well.” He adds that the machines were often out of order more frequently than they were working back when they were still new, so they would be unlikely to hold up to being “hammered continuously for 12 hours a day” in an Arcade Club venue.

However, there’s a chance you might be able to play on an R360 if you happen to live in Estonia. Kevin sold one to the Estonian Aviation Museum in 2009, and there’s another one at the AHHAA Science Center in Estonia that was converted to run a flight simulator program at some point in the 2000s – but no one is quite sure whether both machines are still in operation.

Your best bet is to head to Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield, Illinois. It’s the largest video game arcade in the US, with over 850 games – one of which is an R360. The owner, Doc Mack, thinks that aside from the rumoured machines in Estonia, Galloping Ghost has the only R360 in the world that’s playable by the general public. “We acquired ours from Kevin Keinert,” he says. “We had discussed the deal on and off for close to 8 years. It was for our 10th year anniversary. Kevin was very generous in working with us to make it all happen! He very much wanted to have one where people could enjoy it.”

Naturally, this rare machine has caused quite a stir. “It’s been very popular,” Mack says. “Some people are intimidated to try it. It’s definitely a unique experience. We’ve heard many people say they thought they would never see one in person.” Aside from a few minor repairs, Mack hasn’t had any trouble with the machine since he bought it from Keinert – and thankfully, there’s been no need to fetch an emergency mop. “Everyone always jokes what would happen if someone got sick, but fortunately, it hasn’t happened.”

That’s not quite it for the story of the R360, however. In a surprising but delightful move, Sega released an R360 sequel in 2015 called the R360Z. Much larger than its predecessor, this machine seats two people, and was released with the game Transformers: Human Alliance. The downside? It’s not quite the same as the original R360, where moving the control stick would pivot the cockpit: here, the stick merely moves a target on the screen, and the machine spins and rotates on a preset programme that follows the action of the on-rails shooter. It’s also only available at three Sega Joypolis venues: one in Tokyo, one in Shanghai and one in Qingdao.

But the legacy of the R360 lives on with a Brazilian company called Motion Sphere. They offer a series of spherical motorbike, car and flight simulators that bear a striking resemblance to the old R360, and this year they even announced a Star Wars Sphere that lets you play the Beggar’s Canyon mission from Star Wars: Battlefront. Plus, the AT 360 from Enterideas is essentially the R360 for the VR age, featuring an almost identical-looking chassis but with the addition of VR goggles to simulate a rollercoaster ride.

It just goes to show you can’t keep a good idea down.