If you’ve played an online slot game released during the past five years or so, you’ll have no doubt become familiar with the colourful and detailed animations, sounds and special features that these titles can possess.
Contemporary slot game developers are pushing the envelope of what is possible in their new releases, with officially licensed soundtracks from TV, films and musical artists joined by cut-scene-style graphics and playability that even video game makers would be proud of.
Yet online slots as we know them today could not have had a humbler inspiration: the classic fruit machines of yesteryear. These clunky machines, which required players to pull on a lever to set the reels in motion, were a mainstay of pubs, clubs, train stations and even the local petrol station many moons ago.
It was these fruit machines that provided the foundation for the first online slots, which hit the internet during the early days of the online revolution back in the late 1990s.
So, without those classic fruit machines, there wouldn’t be online slot gaming as we know it today. As such, it’s well worth taking a walk down memory lane to those early incarnations of slot games to see how the seeds of the future were sown.
You may have heard fruit machine games referred to as ‘one-armed bandits’ in the past. That’s what they were: a lever-operated game in which the objective was to land three of the same symbols on the single payline across the centre of the reels.
The first fruit machine game was Liberty Bell, devised and manufactured by Charles Fey back in the late 1800s. This machine utilised the playing card symbols – heart, diamond, spade and club – on its reels alongside the ubiquitous bell icon, which would become a feature of the fruit machines that would follow.
These games gained plenty of popularity across the US, which in turn meant that more developers and manufacturers arose.
A slot game called Operator’s Bell would change the landscape. This was a standard game machine with an optional chewing gum dispenser on the side. The symbols on the reels depicted the flavours of gum available – lemon, cherry, orange, etc. The first ‘fruit machine’ was born.
Fast forward the best part of a century and these mechanical fruit machines are, for the most part, a thing of the past. However, their spirit lives on in online fruit machine slots, which offer a similar style of gameplay as that served up by Fey and co all those years ago – just with the perks of digital animations and sounds.
As you are probably aware, the object of most slot games is to match a combination of the same symbol, typically three or more, on an active payline.
Modern slots are so advanced that mechanics such as Megaways have usurped these fixed paylines, instead offering hundreds if not thousands of different patterns of symbols that can yield a payout.
However, online fruit machine games tend to stick to the old-school format of static paylines, which can often be modified to start at just one line and run up to five or more depending on the structure. Generally, the more lines you have, the higher your theoretical probability of winning, and also the greater your total stake.
You can check the paytable of any online slot fruit machine and note that the prizes on offer are different from more modern slots, as a result of the low amount of paylines. Every type of game has its pros and cons.
The table below shows the number of paylines in an old-school mechanical slot machine and a couple of more modern slot games:
Slot Name | Number of Paylines |:---:|:---:| Mechanical Slot Machine | 1 Fruit Shop (Net Ent) | 15 Opal Fruits (Big Time Gaming | 5,625
As we’ve already discovered, the symbols used in a classic fruit slot machine take their inspiration from the fruit flavours offered by the Bell-Fruit Gum Company.
Lemons, cherries and oranges were the original icons used, although other slot game developers added an array of other juicy fruits into the mix – watermelons, strawberries, grapes and apples to name just a few.
These fruit machine games also incorporated other symbols onto their reels. The bells are as ubiquitous as the fruits, while the ‘BAR’ icon was the brainchild of the Mills Novelty Company – its logo evolved into BAR when it was downsized to fit onto the reels of the standard machine.
The ‘7’ symbol, meanwhile, was chosen as it is considered a lucky number in many different cultures around the world. The Mills Company also introduced its 7-7-7 jackpot in the 1950s, which was one of the first times that a sizable payout was advertised in slot gaming. Today, you can play Sparkling 777s from 1x2 Gaming, for example, at LeoVegas.
Although the old fruit machine games are a thing of the past, online slots in the 21st century continue to pay homage to the founders of this form of gaming. A good example of this is Starburst, a game that is as popular today as it was back in 2013. You’ll see the recognisable BAR, 7 and other colourful symbols that hark back to yesteryear, while the wild symbol adds the possibility of landing winning combinations by replacing all the other game icons.
Starburst was one of the first slots to feature the ‘win both ways’ mechanism: winning combos can be compiled from left to right on your reels as well as from right to left.
NetEnt’s Fruit Shop is a game steeped in the traditions of fruit machine slots, offering up to 15 paylines, with the addition of free spins and wild symbols.
Fruit machine slots are still popular today, and players have no shortage of options when it comes to contemporary games inspired by the ‘fruities’ of yesteryear.
Older readers may remember when the Starburst sweets were called Opal Fruits. Well, Big Time Gaming played on the name of the classic Starburst slot by calling its next game – you guessed it – Opal Fruits!
This is classic fruit machine action, with fruit symbols dominating the reels in a feature-packed game: free spins, tumbling reels and the ‘triple reaction’ mechanic are just three to mention.
NetEnt, one of the most popular slot game developers, has regularly delved into fruit slot machines for inspiration: Fruit Spin, for example, is a nod to retro gaming but has a modern twist of lucky wheels, free spins, stacked symbols and more.
How to play fruit slot machines
While fruit machine games vary in style and execution, the good news is that they’re all the same as far as the gameplay is concerned.
You simply select how much you want to bet per spin, based on the coin value and the number of paylines in play – you can change this number using the in-game menu. Once you’re happy with your stake, hit the spin button to get underway. Remember, for the most part, you’re looking for three matching symbols on a payline, from left to right, to get a potential winning combination.
Why are slot machines called fruit machines?
More than a century ago, the first mechanical slot machines were better known as fruit machines for one simple reason: the symbols on the reels were typically fruit, a marketing gimmick from a chewing gum company of the time.
The fruit symbols became synonymous with slot gaming, and still appear in online slot titles to this day.