Thoughts on Arcades and Memories

We brought our look at the history of SEGA to a close last Thursday, and it brought to mind, amongst other things, thoughts of the arcades of yesteryear.  The arcade is one of the things that tie all gamers of my generation together—one memory we all share, even though the details vary nearly infinitely.

Everyone had “their” arcade, even if they visit many in their life.  For me, it was Gold Mine.  It occupied a sweet position in my local mall—upstairs near the middle, right next to a beauty salon and right across from the elevator.  You’d pass it, one way or another, entering the mall, you’d see it from the escalators in the center of the mall, and at the time it was a good place for parents to let their kids loose.

Couldn't find a good picture of the Gold Mine franchise, so here's a picture of a squirrel in a suit.

It was, like nearly every other arcade in existence, a dark place.  The low light was to show off the machines, of course, but as a wee child, it felt like entering another world.  Being enveloped by the relative darkness was like being welcomed into the arms of a dear friend.

And, oh, the games.  Moon Patrol, Karate Champ and Burger Time were part of my usual fare, as were the titles more likely remembered today such as Frogger, Ms. Pac-Man, and TRON.

I believe TRON is the first one I can recall crowds gathering around to watch a player fight off Grid Bugs or destroy the blocks in the M.C.P. Cone.  In my Gold Mine, the Light Cycle game was a usual crowd-pleaser.  It seems counter-intuitive, I know, especially with Karate Champ allowing player-versus-player combat.  Then again, TRON did have a film in theaters not long before.  Granted, the film wasn’t much of a financial success, but it enticed the imaginations of plenty of kids—and there was a video game, right there, that let us enter that very world.

Naturally, in later years, when Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat came around, they made one-on-one fighting games almost a spectator sport.  We would crowd around them, quarters lining the bottom of the screen, and I can’t recall a single time when there was bickering about who had “next”.

Thinking about the kids, there were as many kinds as there were games to play, and I don’t know how much of this is not remembering bits I didn’t care about at the time, but I don’t recall any bickering and such as you’d find on a schoolyard, despite the fact that we came from different schools, so you had such rivalries on top of simply some kids being cruel to others.

I remember quite clearly kids and youths of differing ages gathered around this or that game as someone showed off their skills, either by besting the computer with ease or going through a dozen human opponents all on one quarter.  Granted, there was a bit of first come, first served when it came to being able to see, though there were a good few times taller kids let the shorter ones in.

Aside from the games and the players, you had the long-suffering employees.  Naturally I didn’t think about it much at the time, but looking back—I really have to wonder if there was a high turn-over rate.  You had a dark room filled with flashing lights and loud sound effects, and on top of all that you had kids.  A lot of kids.  I remember the employees being nothing but helpful and patient, though if that were the norm—considering how children can be—I’d be surprised.

One of my fondest memories was back when I’d saved up enough tickets for something I’d had my eye on for months—a giant Pokey stuffed animal.  Like a lot of kids and youths, I enjoyed the stop-motion show quite a bit, and when Gold Mine first got that giant orange pony, I knew I’d have to have it.  Back then, my mother was taking me out once a week for kind of a mother/son evening;  first the library, to return old books and get new ones, then dinner at a fast-food place (which was, back then, quite the treat indeed), then the arcade.  That was the highlight of my week.

Imagine this, only three feet tall and fluffy.

The day finally came when I’d had enough tickets—gained primarily from finding a Skee Ball machine with a “sweet spot”—and walked right up to the counter, asking for that huge stuffed animal.  I carried it back to the car, put it in the backseat (since there was no room for it and me in the front), and it gained a place of honor in my bedroom.

It’s a mixture of everything said above, I think, the can be the best answer for why I got into video games, if such an answer can really be put so succinctly.  Modern home video games can, in ways technical, run rings around anything in arcades of the day—but arcades were more than just places for video games, they were each a full experience, with sights, sounds, sensations, everything that you just couldn’t then and can’t now get anywhere else.  The closest you can find now is X-Box Live or the PlayStation Network, with people hurling derogatory epithets at each other from the safety of relative anonymity.

I think arcades are one of the few memories that deserve the nostalgia generally applied.  Gaming was an experience shared with others, whether you wanted it to be or not.  There were always other people in the place.  Why, I can remember first overhearing, then later being a part of, discussions on how to do this or that character’s super-secret ultra-powerful move-of-death in this or that fighting game.

Sure, such a thing is now served by something like GameFAQs, which is as large of a web site as it is for a reason, but even it can’t replace genuine human interaction.  It can’t replace gamers coming together and celebrating the hobby they love.  As we move forward and explore just what this hobby has to offer, I admit to sometimes wondering if it hasn’t already lost something in its short lifespan as well.

There are versions of this for Smart Phones, but nothing beats the real thing.

That’s not to say that gamers of my generation really have the time to spare anymore to get to arcades; jobs, families, homes—we have a lot on our plate, these days.  We can sometimes barely manage to scrape a half-hour together for gaming, and that’s only because we can do it from the comfort of our living room.  I just wonder, sometimes, if the next generations will be missing out on anything.  It’s not like they’ll really have arcades to spend much time at.

I’ve been at arcades semi-recently, and with shockingly few exceptions, either the establishment was closed or wasn’t someplace I’d want my kids anywhere near—machines barely functional, sketchy customers, employees who couldn’t give a care beyond the magazine they were reading.  I’m sure—positive—that there are still arcades similar to those of yesteryear, but they are few and very far between.

What does this mean for future gamers?  I don’t know, truth to tell.  It might not mean anything, really.  I do, though, hope something similar—even if in a drastically different form—can be had by the next generations of gamers.  Something they can look back on fondly, smile at, knowing it helped shape them and helped them enjoy their hobby.  Every generation of gamers should have that.


2 Responses to “Thoughts on Arcades and Memories”

  1. Elisa Michelle Says:

    I sort of know how you feel about arcades. Granted I wasn’t around for the arcade golden years, but there is this arcade in the (huge) mall here. When I was sixteen I had three friends who would go there with me every day after school. We played everything from Street Fighter to DDR to old school pinball games, which I miss and adore. Oh, and air hockey. I absolutely love air hockey.

    Last week, after not going to that place in three years, I took my husband because I wanted to show him the awesomeness that is the arcade. Half the games were missing or had For Sale signs on them with ridiculous prices. The place smelled, the games didn’t work, and the employees wandered aimlessly or flirted with each other. It made me so sad I demanded to leave. They didn’t even have the games I enjoyed most.

    But my favorite arcade game wasn’t in an arcade when I played it, funny enough. My school/church had a sort of youth room upstairs, and I often stayed up there because I was one of the last kids to go home, since my mom worked incredibly long hours. Anyway, up in that room were three arcade games: Star Wars, Tron, and a pinball game. I grew up on those three, had all the best scores on Tron out of anyone in the school. It’s why I have a special place in my heart for Tron, the light cycles especially.

    By the way, that stuffed animal sounds awesome. I always saw those huge prizes but never wanted to invest the energy into winning them. Haha.

    • Ah, yes, air hockey. I was never quite the “hockey shark”, but that didn’t stop me.

      After Gold Mine became Tilt and started become a rather sketchy place, I’d almost given up on arcades–then I discovered this one place. I don’t remember the name of it, nor how to get to it, and I’m even a bit iffy on the city it’s in–but it reminded me of a special “club”. You had to walk up some stairs that were somewhat cramped, and you entered a room dim with low-wattage bulbs and air thick from crummy ventilation.

      Yet it was, in a way, what that for me what that youth room was for you–it had games I didn’t even know existed, such as Baby Pac-Man, this combination video game/pinball game. Naturally, it also had classics from the earlier days of arcade gaming.

      I’m sorry your husband couldn’t witness the awesomeness of the arcade; if you hunt around on the Internet, though, you might find an “old-timey” arcade near you. I know they exist, though I believe they’re becoming rarer by the day.

      And yes, I can relate, regarding the insanely large prizes. Still, I was enamored with the show, and I do think it was the first time I’d really set my mind to some long-term goal, so, hey. Win/win, I suppose, heh.

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