Saturday, April 02, 2011

Why I Miss Arcades...

A recent discussion at a gaming forum I visit has me pondering the arcades I would frequent when I was younger. What originally started as a facebook comment quickly turned into a lengthy thought-dump of memories. I figured I might as well make it a blog post since it's been a while and it's something of a universal experience amongst older gamers.

I guess I also have a wide definition of what constitutes an arcade, since several of the places that make the list aren't 'official' arcades; game rooms, roller rinks, etc. I guess I could say "Why I miss places with large, publicly-available game machines", but that's not quite as catchy as a title, though...
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Remember the lonely cabinet, scuffed and sun-faded, suffering from third-degree screen burn and quietly blipping to itself in the lobby of K-mart, 7-11 or Hills? Right next to the machines that spat out candy or the plastic bubbles with a toy inside. I don't remember ever actually playing an arcade game in a store vestibule, or really ever seeing anyone else play them, and it kinda bums me out to think about it.

I remember paying to rent uncomfortable, ill-fitting skates and then not skating in them, instead hanging out in the the corner of the roller rink that smelled of artificial nacho cheese and stale popcorn. I don't think I ever learned to skate properly, but I'm a world class master at standing in them for four hours. Our particular rink had both the 4-player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Simpsons games. I also seem to recall there being a Bionic Commando machine there too. I remember thinking "Didn't I come in here with the Cub Scouts? I haven't seen any of them all night. Maybe they left without me... oh well." I think trips to the roller rink were the only reason I even stayed in scouts.

There was a Time-Out arcade that smelt faintly of shoe leather (thanks to the previous occupant) and dried sock sweat, tucked out of sight near the bathrooms at the mall. It was the perfect arcade, down to the neon lights and stained carpet (dotted with black chewing gum that no industrial cleaning device can ever hope to remove). The only thing that could motivate my brothers and I to go to the mall and get a haircut was the chance that we could run off for 15 minutes and burn through a few bucks on Cybersled or Mortal Kombat II.

I actually miss the bruised and bleeding knuckles that only a serious game of air hockey can deliver.

It seems like almost every toll road rest stop has that dimly-lit hallway, where you know the games are crap (if they're even working), the controls are filthy and you have exactly 2 minutes until everyone is out of the bathroom and ready to go. But you can't help but check them out anyways, to see if there's an old favorite or some obscure relic hidden back there.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
When my family went on vacation, most of the campgrounds had game rooms, usually some little room near the offices with a couple pinball machines and maybe Centipede or something.

On one particular trip out West, we decided to spend a week in Colorado Springs at a nice little KOA after spending a week and a half cooped up together in a station wagon with no A/C. As luck would have it, in addition to a nice indoor pool this campground had a fantastic arcade; Ms. Pacman, Centipede, Street Fighter II, Galaga and the 4-player TMNT Arcade game. I think they had a Double Dragon machine too, but a lot of these places are starting to blur together.

It's interesting to think about how many people just sort of hung out in the same arcade, playing the same games, never to meet. I bet there's a thousand people with the same memory of "hanging out for a week in that great campground's arcade."

There was another little game room that sticks out in my mind, somewhere in Southern Indiana or Kentucky. It had a decent sized arcade, but it really stands out because it was the first and only time I've ever seen the amazing Black Knight pinball machine. One day, I'll have one of my own.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Remember fighting over the third position at the machine because that's the one where you play as Bart?

The way you check to see if somebody dumped a couple quarters into a machine and had to leave quickly, blessing you with a few free plays at their expense?

If there were still arcades around, I would wander through them, quietly rolling tokens into my favorite games so some youngster could stumble upon a game they may have never tried before and suddenly have a reason to play it.

Remember the flat-top Pacman and Donkey Kong machines at Pizza Hut? Why do we not have more furniture that we can both play and eat on at the same time?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I feel bad for kids growing up without knowing the joy of waiting for and finally getting a turn on their favorite cabinet. For missing out on playing a game with a trackball, or the casual trash-talk about who's the best character in Street Fighter II (never mind who the best player was, we all knew it was us). For never feeling the the pulse of seat-mounted speakers in a sit-down driving game, or the mad rush to the change machine when you lost your last life and need quarters to continue NOW.

Remember the super secret special move that somebody's cousin's-friend's-brother found in Florida? And spending a quarter just to see if it worked, and another one because you're sure you almost did it right?

Remember putting your quarter on the line, marking your place in the unofficial tournaments that sprang up around a new machine? (Thanks to Stendhal Suspiriorum's comments for reminding me of this one.)

Remember seething with rage when That Guy strolls up to the second player spot, picks The Cheese Character and spends the entire fight low-kicking you while you're stuck in the corner, or hitting you once and then blocking for the rest of the match? Knowing he just cost you your progress and your quarter? And the satisfaction when That Guy tries that shit again and you rock his world with your superior ninja skills?

There's a certain strange joy to be found in stepping up to a game you've played a billion times and paying a full quarter to stand and play something you can download for free on your phone.

Remember when quarters were a relevant form of currency, not just something you dump in a tray or jar? Or spending more time trying to decide what to blow that last, precious quarter on than actually playing (because who knew when you'd be at the mall again, the next haircut could be months away)?

On several occasions in my adult life, I've felt completely ripped off that casino games don't even try to entertain me for more than 10 seconds. If I put money into a machine, I'd better at least get a game of Ms. Pacman out of it.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Sure, there are still places that have 'games' . But a bar & grill with a DDR Machine and ticket-spitters isn't an arcade. Arcades were dimly-lit, disreputable places where you learned what the definition of 'loitering' was. Places where the floor was sticky with spilled Coke and if the game ate your quarter, there might not actually be anybody working there to replace it.

The problem with the lack of arcades is that gamers don't have a proper place to congregate anymore. The forum is shuttered. We're left with casual conversation in proximity to gaming stores and the anonymous, obscenity-laden stupidity spouted on the Internet. When there were arcades, there was a place you could go and know that everyone around you was a gamer of some sort too.

With all the talk today of "social gaming" and "multiplayer experiences", gamers rarely meet face to face anymore and share their experiences. That's a shame, because that was one of the best parts of gaming when I was growing up; the arcade and lunch room discussion. Remember when you beat the last level with 4 seconds left? Wait, what secret level? I've never lost a match with Blanka. And so on...

I miss arcades because they made gaming a special, social event, and they let gamers briefly meet each other and celebrate gaming collectively, even if there were never any words exchanged. Everyone had a private Nintendo at home to quietly pray to the gaming gods, but the arcade was our temple where we openly celebrated together.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Feel free to share your arcade memories and thoughts in the comments, and most definitely share the location of any still-active arcades you know of.