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...
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.


Stendhal Suspiriorum said...

Curse you, you would get me going on this subject.

[Part I]

Wow, where to begin. In England, the BX (Base Exchange) at Lakenheath AFB had a small game room that I always visited every time we went. My parents would shop, and I would play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That particular machine had a trick that everyone knew. You could play for a quarter, but if you popped two quarters in you'd get 4 or 7 lives.

There was nothing like those 4 Player co-op arcade machines (X-Men, Simpsons, and the Turtles). You could go in with a friend, or maybe meet up with some strangers, and it was all good. Cliques didn't exist at these machines (well, unless someone was just a supreme a-hole), you stepped up with your two quarters and you were on a mission with your fellow anonymous gamers: to kick ass. People came when they needed to, they left when they needed to, and no one really cared or got upset. We came, we played, and that's all there was to it. They helped you get past the mousers in the Sewers, and now you're on your way to finish Bebop and Rockstedy still on your first two quarters!

Even later on down the road in the era of Street Fighter when the competive fighting games took hold, the atmosphere remained strangely positive and friendly despite now the point of the game is to beat the crap out of each other with a clear cut winner and a clear cut loser. I remember playing Street Fighter 2, World Heroes, Samurai Shodown, and Mortal Kombat in Warner Robin AFB's BX, at the mall, at the movie theater, and the Wal-Mart had an MK2 machine (the only 1 quarter MK2 machine I knew of).

Before I knew what I was doing, I remember watching the "good" players in awe as they performed that "fireball" and the "flying uppercut" and the "spin-kick" move and asking them, "how did you do that?" And a few would dodge the question with a "it's a secret" type BS answer, but by and large they were happy to demonstrate.

But with fighting games especially, I miss watching other people play. Other machines were fun to watch too (the expensive sit-in Star Wars games by Sega spring to mind mostly because I didn't want to pay a dollar for one game). But anyway, I'm getting off track. When fighting games reigned, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and to a lesser extent Tekken 2 and Soul Calibur had a crowd around them. The reigning champion stood at the machine, a line of quarters propped up on the screen each representing a waiting challenger. You'd stand there and watch, and you'd sized up the competition before deciding to step forward, and put your quarter in line for a shot. More often than not, I would lose, and I'd feel like I wasted that quarter (I preferred playing the AI where I could almost always get 3 or 4 matches in before losing) ... but, looking back, I really don't consider those wasted anymore. This is going to sound corny, but I really was a part of something more. I participated in a "show" (for lack of a better phrase) put on for all those bystanders--hey guys, check out what this character can do in the right hands (even if my character was on the recieving end of the spectacle.)

And when you actually beat the guy, part of your ego goes, "mwa ha ha ha ha ha!" Then everyone was watching *you*, waiting to see if anyone could dethrone *you*, and I always felt obligated to give them something if I could. The 60+ hit Ultra in KI2, a morph-heavy battle with Shang Tsung in MK2 (with his Kintaro Fatality), lots of flashy supers in Street Fighter Alpha.

I wasn't playing, I was *performing*.

Stendhal Suspiriorum said...

[Part II]

And the games were different when playing in front of a crowd. When Mortal Kombat 3 was released, my subscription to EGM got me the inputs for the Finishing moves and combos. I remember grinning with pride and joy playing MK3, just barely a teenager, as a couple of guys twice my age watched and commented on what they saw. And, they didn't much care for the new Fatalities (neither did I), but that was beside the point. I was basically there giving a demo of what MK3 had to offer to people who were interested but hadn't played yet.

My favorite arcade memory was at the MK2 machine in Wal-Mart in Georgia. My family was in shopping, and unless there was something specific for me to look at/buy, I went right for MK2. Now, by this point, I had played MK2 a ton. I carried around a printout in my wallet with all the Fatalities, which I never referenced any more because I knew the game backwards and forwards. And I could get to the bosses consistently. And after playing awhile by myself ... I really had to go to the bathroom.

Then up walks about half a dozen kids my age. "You're going down!" One of them said. You see, they owned the game on the Genesis. And I thought, 'great, please beat me ... I really really have to go to the bathroom.'

They didn't. They couldn't. You see, I *too* owned the game (on SNES) ... and at the time lived, dreamed, and breathed MK2. I dunno how many dollars they burned trying, but they couldn't beat me. I started out using Kitana (my best character), then I switched to Shang Tsung (my show off character), then I started doing random select. Finally, I was getting to the point where I couldn't hold my bladder anymore, so I had to walk away from the cabinet with a quick "I gotta go" and essentially give them a free game off my coin.

And even though I raced away with an awkward half-run/hobble that no doubt looked ridiculous, mentally I pictured myself as the badass gunslinger riding off into the sunset after showing the kiddies how it was done.

And for balance sake (because the previous anecdote reads like me tooting my own horn too much), my worst arcade experience: it was UMK3 (which had a notoriously hard AI) where I walked up to the machine where some guy was playing (and getting his ass handed to him by the button-reading AI). His friend was there, but just watching. So, as I would insert my coin I would always always *always* ask "Mind if I join?" Sometimes people would say "wait till this match is over" or "wait till I'm about to lose, then save me?" and I would oblige. This guy said nothing (nor did his friend say anything), so I went ahead and put my quarter in, pressed start, and then guy glares death at me and goes, "No, I wasn't playing or anything!" He then proceeded to beat me down (in the game, not IRL) and I left him to get beat down the the CPU and sulk in his own misery.

Anyway, I continued playing fighters long after Arcades started to die, when the reign of Fighting games had ended and the arcade operators moved the cabinets to the back of the arcades. No more crowd of spectators except for the occasional nostalgia driven fan. They were still fun, of course, and I could play for hours, but it was a different feeling.

But, man, I miss the drama of getting slaughtered in KI2, hitting the joystick back and forth and hitting kick/punch trying desperately to get Saberwulf's Combo Breaker to come off and maybe turn the match around--and hearing the crowd react when I'd get it and started to make a comeback. Or the thrill of hearing your opponent's "no! no! Aww, c'mon!" in the middle of an intense battle. I miss shaking hands and wishing them luck as they stepped up to challenge me, and shaking their hand and saying "good game" after the match (regardless if I won or lost.)

Stendhal Suspiriorum said...

[Part III]

One time playing Soul Calibur 1 after I shook my opponents hand and wished him luck, I selected my character (probably Taki), and in fighters there's usually a versus screen showing "Taki vs Astaroth" or whoever was facing off. It's basically 3 seconds of dead time. For some reason, I popped my knuckles (I can pop them just by pushing down on the finger with my thumb, and I'd go down the line popping all the knuckles) and I can also pop my left wrist by rotating it a certain way. So, basically the sound it made was pop-pop-pop-pop-SNAP. And they guy stepped away from the arcade cabinet, looked at me, and shook his head saying, "okay, that is just gross."

And ever since, whenever I could, I would pop all four knuckles on both hands and then my left wrist before a match. Just rapid fire, quick succession: Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-SNAP!

Haven't set foot in an arcade in years. Now the only fighter I play regularly is Soul Calibur 4 (online), and I have to say the internet forums has made me a much better player in that game than I was in any other fighter. Online play has given the game a longer lifespan than it would if it were just me against the AI (which it would be since none of my local friends play it.)

But, I face a lot more crap online with people trying to whore out lag tactics for a cheap win (made much more difficult to deal with online with lag), or what might as well be 6 year olds holding the joystick down and mashing the same button over and over. In the arcades, those people would usually stand back and watch me play for a few rounds, then decide not to play knowing they'd lose (sometimes they'd say "I'm not very good" and I would go easy or maybe show them some things instead of outright crushing them). But without that face-to-face interaction, it's hard to have those conversations (yeah, the headsets help, but most on SCIV online don't bother.)

Not to mention I encountered more trash talk and attitude in my first night of XBox Live than decade-long run in arcades. I wish that were just me painting a rosy picture, but it's the truth.

I've even given out compliments and recieved "stfu" and "u suk, deal" in response. I've given out friendly tips and recieved "grow up" and it really makes you realize how common it is for people online to project everything negative onto their faceless/voiceless opponent they'll never meet, and empowered by anonymity would behave in a way they wouldn't have the balls to behave were they standing next to you.

Online it's so much easier to paint yourself into a box, projecting only negativity on your opponent and never having to analyze your own game/attitude.

The neat thing about arcades during the fighting game era ... you still had a large degree of anonymity in that none of these people knew your name. Most of them, you will never see again in your life. And yet somehow Arcades were de-facto troll free in comparison to any given Online communities.

End Ramble.

Will Armstrong IV said...


That was a exactly the kind of over-excited nostalgic ramble I was hoping to conjure up with this post. I feel bad for all of the kids who are missing out on the social aspects of the arcade, subtle as they were.

I didn't play in too many of these unofficial challenges (the arcades I went to were never that busy), but I can recall the line of quarters waiting for a turn. I may go back and edit my post to include that too, I had completely forgotten that little nugget.

Thanks for commenting.

Stendhal Suspiriorum said...

Addendum: (Of course, the few thoughts that came after I wrote and posted three comments.)

NOTE: While the previous comments dealt more with fighting games which generally were short and easy to beat with minimal investment, these comments deal more with longer adventure games that took time and coins if you want to get anywhere.

I also have fond memories of gaming with my father who, for the most part sucked at video games and wasn't interested in them; however, there were a few games he had a knack for and enjoyed. We used to play Double Dragon 3 on NES and together we slowly got better at it until we could beat it regularly (DD3 seemed insanely hard compared to 2; we couldn't get past the first level when we first got it).

Later on, when we'd go to the mall and while my mom and sisters were shopping, I could talk him into playing Terminator 2: The Arcade Game or Final Fight. And with both games I vividly remember we came really really close to the end.

When we played the Double Dragon 3 on NES, it was always fun and exciting getting further than you've ever gotten before ("all right! Level 2!"), but at the same time I owned the NES and the cart. If we died, we could just restart right away (rarely did because he didn't like to do back to back playthroughs.) The point is, we didn't have to pump more money into another try. There was always a free game waiting tomorrow.

And while that is an upside to consoles and a downside to arcades, it made getting further in an arcade that much more exciting and memorable.

When you've pumped in ten bucks worth of quarters into T2 and shot your way through hundreds of Terminators, a couple big-tank-crossed-with-a-mech-lookin' Hunter Killers and the airborne versions, got all the way to Skynet, took it down, pat each other on the back saying, "Yeah! We beat it!" Then finding out it's not over. Nope, you time travel jump into the present (you start out in the apocalyptic future), and now in this level you're supposed to shoot the cops in the legs because you swore to John Connor you wouldn't kill anyone. It feels more exilirating. I'm not sure exactly why, but getting further and further in the arcades was more exciting than anything on the home console. Maybe it's the mad rush to get more tokens at the continue screen while your partner sticks by the cabinet and hits start to reset the continue countdown. Maybe it's knowing that each continue costs a quarter, and you have a finite amount with you that you can spend. Or maybe it's the guy standing behind you, watching with interest because he's never seen this level because he's never seen anyone get this far before.

Stendhal Suspiriorum said...

Addendum [Continued]:

I've beaten lots of games, gotten pretty far in lots more. But there's only a handful that burn that euphoric feeling of accomplishment and pride. That "We beat Mario 3! Take that Bowser! Down you go! We beat Mario 3! WE FREAKING ROCK!" feeling. And, naturally, from my example that's not a feeling exclusive to arcades ... but the funny thing about arcades is you didn't *need* to beat them to get that feeling--to get that memory. You only had to get "really far"--farther than anyone else you knew. I guess it could happen with consoles too (not in my experience, but I guess it's possible); however, if you own a game and can play it to your heart's content (which we could back then) ... you really should be able to beat it. And if you don't, the feeling is rarely positive. To say, "Nah, I never beat Megaman 3; the farthest I could get was the Wiley Stages" sounds and feels like an admission of defeat. And a sour note will forever hang over that game. That doesn't mean you didn't enjoy the hell out of it (as far as you could get, anyway) ... but there's that one thorn that always pricks you when you think about it. "Damn, I never could get passed the Megaman 2 bosses who show up for cameos in the Wiley Stages... *sigh*"

But an arcade, which we all knew the later stages were designed to kill you as fast as possible to get more quarters in ... you didn't expect any of your friends to have beaten them. So when you'd congregate and talk in school, on the bus, or between Tetris battles you'd tell everyone, "Oh yeah? I got to the Technodrome in TMNT!" Defeat was the expectation; it was how long you could survive (in a way harkening back to the days of even older arcade machines that seemed to go on for eternity like Pac Man, Space Invaders, and Missile Command ... although nowhere near as hopeless.)

Playing the arcades with my dad, I vividly remember getting to the nightclub stage in Final Fight where the Andre the Giant lookalike enemies came out of the woodwork and somehow could magically grab you and slam you before you really could do anything (or charge and chest bump you to the ground -- bastards.) But the crowning achievement in my arcade memories was getting to the Police Van stage in Terminator 2. If you got that far, you *will* remember that stage. But before I get there: First, T2 was a lightgun game. The cabinet had two guns with a regular trigger to fire, and a button on the side for grenade-like weapons. There was a stage in the first half of the game (the apocalyptic future half) where you were supposed to guard a truck from aerial Hunter Killer (HK) assaults. The truck would roll, HKs would fly by and shoot, and you had to bring them down before they destroyed the truck. Slowly you'd see the truck get more and more damaged, and if you weren't good enough it would explode and you'd have to start that sequence over (where as in all the other stages, if you died you could just pick up exactly where you left off.) After a few failures (which meant absolutely no additional progress), we developed a plan. "You take the left side of the screen. I'll take the right. We both take the top of the screen." Eventually, we conquered.

Stendhal Suspiriorum said...

Addendum [Still Rambling]:

But now we were in the 2nd half of the game. The present, and THIS sequence corresponds with the part of the movie where John and Sarah conner are fleeing in the Police Van and the T1000 is in the helicopter and trying to kill it. Exact same setup as the Truck/HK level ... and holy hell, if the helicopter even TOUCHED that stupid van it would fall a part. "All right, we can do this! We beat the other stage! You take the left; I take the right. We both protect the top. There's only one assaulting vehicle (the helicopter) this time as opposed to the army of HKs. We can do this." We tried. Oh did we try. Never could keep the T1000 away from the van (like I said, if the helicopter scratched the paint the damn thing would explode ... and it took roughly 50,000 bullets to make that frickin' helicpoter back off.)

BUT, none of my friends got that far. To this day, I haven't ran into anyone who got that far. My dad and I? We did. Never beat the game, but we got further than everyone else we know, and that was good enough.

I really think the idea of paying incrementally as you play factors heavily into that feeling. Even though it is a quarter or fifty cents at a time. Technically when you look at it, arcades are more economical in the short run and the console + cart/disc is more economical in the long run. There is a bigger price tag up frong that eventually works out in your favor if you play a lot ... but when you're at the arcade you're not thinking like that. You're not thinking about effective economics. All you're thinking about is, "Do I have another five in my wallet that I can trade in for more coins? If not, will dad give me another five? Man, I want to beat that Police Van level!" Putting the coins in one by one, having to pay in increments in real time with every game, I think heightened the sense of, "Okay, I gotta do this now. Right here, right now. We're beating this level. No second chances. This is my ONLY shot!" Once you pay for a console and a game, the purchase leaves your mind the moment you start playing. And in a way that lowers the risk. If you die this time, meh, I can just try again with no additional costs tomorrow.

Or with how emulation is on computers ... "Well, I died ... time to load up my Save State from right before the impossible part."

If you beat an emulated game, it just means you're not retarded. If you beat a console game, it's par for the course. But if you beat an arcade? You were a badass. And if you could beat a Dragon's Lair Arcade? You were a freaking God.

Stendhal Suspiriorum said...

Remember the illegal "Accelerator Chips" for Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition machines?

You'd usually find them in places like bowling alleys, I guess, because they only bought a few arcade cabinets and so *if* Capcom found out (less likely--who goes to bowling alleys for arcades?) the repercussions would be minimal.

Accelerator Chips, aka Accelerator Edition, aka "Rainbow Edition". I don't think they had a set name (nor much in the way of standardization) since it was illegal modifications to the game itself.

The one I had direct experience with let you do pretty much any move in mid-air. It also let the weak punch fireball go ultra slow so you could jump up, throw a slow fireball; then land, and throw fast fierce fireballs so they couldn't jump over. I've seen a YouTube clip of a really insane Accelerated version of Street Fighter 2 that would launch five fireballs when you did a dragon punch.

Supposedly the next official release (SF2 Turbo) was a direct answer to the illegal mods (introduced airborne moves, increased the gameplay speed ... )

Now adays, any knowledgable gamer is well aware of mods. But back then, they were very rare (I only seem to remember them for Street Fighter 2: CE) and so you didn't realize until later that was, in fact, an illegal mod. I took it as an official release until I read an article on the phenomena in EGM--I had no reason to think otherwise.

Now, with technology and especially the information flow on the internet where it is, I wonder if arcade mods would be feasible today, and if an arcade mod could get as widespread and/or popular as the various accelerated versions of Street Fighter 2 (assuming, of course, arcades weren't de facto dead here in the states)?