Countdown to 40: Arcade Reflections
This coming week is the last week before I turn 40 years old. Many of those years have been spent playing video games in some way. They’ve been a big part of my life, providing entertainment, challenge, and even an occasional necessary escape from real life. While console gaming has been the centerpiece of the last couple of decades, arcade games– and the “arcade life”– will always be what molded and shaped me into the fan of video games that I’ve become.
For most of my childhood, I happened to live fairly close to an arcade or a venue that had arcade games in it. Going back to 1981, when I was nine years old, I can remember living close to a diner that had two arcade machines: Pac-Man and Vanguard. I was never very good at either game, so my quarters never lasted long, but I used to stand on the side when others played and would watch in awe as “big kids” and adults would defeat the Vanguard stage boss or earn the second intermission screen while playing Pac-Man. Across the street from the diner, a bowling alley had a Berzerk arcade machine and a Gorgar pinball machine. I played more pinball than Berzerk, but digitized voice was a cool feature back then.
In 1982, I lived within walking distance of a pool hall that had a bunch of arcade games inside. Tutankham, Pole Position, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mr. Do! were just a few of the games lined up behind the pool area. I used to trek there a couple of days a week after school. I remember doing pretty well at Pole Position, but the other games were a bit harder. Just like at the diner, I did a lot of watching. I figured out how to clear the first stage in Tutankham after observing other players. My Donkey Kong Jr. skill grew after some observation, too. I played against older kids and adults every now and again, but was never really a challenge for them. Losing didn’t matter to me at the time. It was just fun to play with others and maybe get a pointer or two.
Mall arcades began to grow at the time, and weekends with my grandmother almost always consisted of a $5 bill and an hour at the mall arcade. In 1983, I dropped a ton of tokens into Dragon’s Lair after watching someone play it all the way through. I learned and memorized the correct commands well enough that I was able to draw crowds of my own to watch me play before long. Dragon’s Lair was the first game that I considered myself “good” at. Track & Field hit arcades in the same year, and I quickly became good at that game, too. In fact, it became my standby for when my money was running low. I could play the game for well over 30 minutes on one credit, as long as it was a button-based machine. The trak-ball controller did me no favors, except to pinch skin in my hand.
In 1985, we lived within (relative) walking distance of a mall. Weekly trips with my allowance were routine. I’d fire up my portable cassette player and make the trip by myself at 13. The mall I went to had two separate arcades inside, so I was never short of games to pick from or to observe. I became adept at the Empire Strikes Back arcade game, and even tried to challenge a school bully to work out our differences by trying to beat my score instead of my face– but he never showed, and, interestingly, never bothered me again after not showing up. Empire remains as one of my favorite arcade games today, even though I’ve only seen it a handful of times in the last 15 years. Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike for the Gamecube had an emulated version of it, but I could never adapt to the controller.
In 1988, I had moved to a more rural location, but a local convenience store had some arcade games inside and a regular group of players were always there. Games like Cabal, Life Force, Yie Ar Kung-Fu, Splatterhouse, Mat Mania, and 1942 were rotated in and out of the small room where we would gather. This was, perhaps, my first real taste of arcade community. Regulars knew me by name. We offered advice and support to each other while playing. I remember getting loud cheers when I beat Golden Hulk for the first time while playing Mat Mania; it had also been the first time that I’d gotten past Coco Savege and I felt energized by those watching me play.
In a small pizza parlor, not too far from the convenience store, I learned how to drive better while playing SEGA‘s OutRun arcade game in 1989. I had been having trouble compensating correctly for turns. I was oversteering and didn’t have much confidence. My best friend at the time recommended OutRun because of its force-feedback steering, and it worked like a charm. Not only had I practiced enough to reach the finish on a consistent basis, but I also wound up passing my road test before long and got my driver’s license. I always share this story with those who rail against video games, because they really can be helpful in certain situations. Aside from improving reaction time and hand/eye coordination, OutRun taught me lessons about driving that my driver’s education classes could not.
As the 1990s wore on, arcade gaming and console gaming began to merge. Playing arcade ports on my consoles meant spending fewer tokens at arcades, although I still visited when I could. NBA Jam captivated me in 1993, and I spent quite a bit of money on the arcade version before the home version hit in 1994. The cycle began again with NBA Jam Tournament Edition not too long afterwards. I always found reasons to keep going back to arcades, but, as time went on, there were noticeable differences. Traffic was down and the sense of community that arcades once had was disappearing. More people were playing games at home. It was the beginning of the end for arcades and, aside from ticket redemption machines or special accessory games like Top Skater, there were fewer reasons to visit.
These days, arcades are few and far between. Chains like Dave & Buster’s and Gameworks try to keep the arcade experience alive, but console and PC games are the accepted norm. Every so often, you can spot someone playing a Namco Anniversary machine with Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga on it, but many other older games sit open, waiting for anyone to pop a token inside and press Start. A visit to Gameworks in Tempe, AZ last year was bittersweet as older machines like NBA Jam and Donkey Kong weren’t working properly. They sat, forgotten, as patrons walked past to play newer titles or Skee-Ball.
Arcades are an important part of video game history and culture, and I am thankful to have been an active player during their rise and fall. Arcades were special places. The dim lighting made the screens glow a bit brighter. The various sounds of each game could be identified by many. Competition between players was sometimes intense, but respect was earned by how well you played– and not always by whether you won or lost. In a way, visiting an arcade was like being in a classroom as players could better their skills by watching, by hands-on experience, or a combination of both. You knew the regulars at your favorite arcade, and they knew you. Seeing your initials still at the top of the high score table after a few weeks was always a boost to your confidence. Unlike playing games at home, there weren’t phone calls or shouts from family to disrupt an intense session. Even among the crowds, it was always a battle between you and either your opponent or the machine.
I salute all of the arcade operators, owners, attendants, and technicians who have supplied so many players with so much enjoyment over the years. I wouldn’t be the same without them.