I remember it like it was yesterday. I would save my allowance for two weeks at a time, just for the epic payoff of getting to go to the arcade on the weekends. When I grew up, there was an arcade about ten miles from my house, called Replay 2 (I knew there had to be a Replay 1 somewhere, but I never looked into it) and I still think of that place as one of my fondest, and most genuinely happy memories from my childhood. There was just something utterly divine about spending an afternoon as a kid in the arcade. About as close to Narnia as any of us got in the sense of how far it removed us from our actual daily lives.
As I sit and write this, I look across the room at my Xbox 360 and I laugh. We have it so easy now. I laugh at how far we have come. I laugh at how my mind, back then, could have never fathomed a gaming experience like Bioshock, and just how visually stunning and incredibly intelligent games would get. The funny thing is, no single game has brought me the joy now that I felt back then playing games that looked like this:
*holds up a pixel
You may look at that pixel now and laugh, and I must say, I don’t blame you. But you need to understand what it represented back then. It represented a dream I had since childhood. I got the chance to play as a big Godzilla and King Kong ( and even a f*cking werewolf) and destroy cities in Rampage. I, as a child, was being rewarded for acting like a monster. Do you understand how unfathomably awesome that is to a small child growing up in the suburbs with a severe case of A.D.D? I was forced to go to Church as a child. And I respected that.
But I knew where my real church was.
It was on Saturday, in the arcade.
There were just so many elements that made going to the arcade as a young boy so amazing for me. To me, the arcade looked like what the movie TRON looked like. Now I know Disney did that very much on purpose to feed into my demographic, but my mind didn’t make any deeper of a connection than: Wow, this is cool. It looks like the future or what outer space must be like. In hindsight, maybe I was a tad retarded, but still, it was awesome. Trust me.
And it was not just the games themselves, or feeling your money weighs ten pounds in your pockets as it clangs around.
Oftentimes, it was that feeling of getting dropped off with your friends to do your own thing for a few hours. Rarely did kids get that kind of freedom. But in an arcade, you could. Well, as long as you didn’t live in a neighborhood filled with creepers, so I guess I was pretty lucky in that sense.
And gamers these days may think they know satisfaction after beating a forty hour game on the most advanced difficulty setting. But NOTHING could touch the feeling of dumping quarter after quarter into a machine, just trying to master the patterns so you could say you beat the game. I had a few “white whales” from my youth, and maybe you will laugh at me when you see them now, but back in the day, there were lines for games like Dragon’s Lair, which people shake their heads at now, but back then was a real marvel. Hell, every game you play now that has QTE’s (quick time events) would not exist had Dragon’s Lair not made a whole game around the concept back in the 80’s.
In terms of gaming now, Dragon’s Lair is just a glorified DVD menu. But back then, when I was a small child, that game was IT for me. And all the game came down to was making some simple movements with the joystick. Everything was pre-chosen. You either did it the right way, or you died, every time. So in essence, after a few mistakes, anyone should be able to beat it, right?
Yes, in theory.
I loved thinking about it while I was at school during the week.
I loved devising strategies in my head about what I do differently next time I played, so that I would do better.
Yet every weekend, I saw the animated “death” screens of Dragon’s Lair more times than I care to speak of. But that was half the fun. It wasn’t about beating games. It was about getting out of your house and escaping even further into the recesses of your own imagination.
And it was not even playing the gaming itself, it was the whole entire energy of the place.
It was like a secret club for us young boys. It would always be populated by us, walking around, checking the machines, accepting challenges.
There was even a sort of hierarchy, ESPECIALLY when the second generation of arcade gaming came in.
The second generation I am speaking of is the arcade resurgence of the early nineties led by the fighting games.
Most notably, the Godfather of all good fighters, Street Fighter 2. And the Godfather of all gore games, Mortal Kombat.
These two games ushered in a new generation of arcade gamers, and gone was the camaraderie and frivolousness of old arcade games, replaced completely with a constant sense of competition. I can still remember the first time I saw Mortal Kombat and ended up playing it. I knew nothing about the game, and the kid who beat me, beat my ass in the game so relentlessly, I felt like his bitch. Then he threw me into a pit of spikes. And I looked over at him and laughed.
But it was not like it used to be.
Long ago, we would have both laughed. And there he stood, acting like a badass because he had beat me at a video game.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of nice people who would play you, beat your ass, and not act like dicks about it. But mostly, the humble and harmless fun that permeated arcade games in the 80’s had all but died by 1998.
And the main thought was this: Why come to arcade and shell out change when we can just buy the game for our video game consoles at home and it will be just as good? And that, my friends, was the beginning of the end for arcades as we know them. And frankly, I think it is a bit sad.
Because there was a real palpable sense of innocence at old school arcades. When you were there, nothing else existed but you, your friends, and a pocket full of quarters, and now those days are pretty much over. Yes, you can still hit up arcades like Dave and Buster’s, but we all know, those are not arcades. They are glorified carnival games aimed at “getting tickets.” All the charm of what made arcades such a joy has all but gone extinct.
But perhaps with the growing potential of Virtual Reality in the next few years, maybe the rebirth of the arcade is right around the corner.
One can only hope.