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A Lost Era: The Magic of Arcades


Arcades don’t have the popularity they once did but can still offer an unrivaled experience. (Photo by Rob Boudon/Flickr)

Arcades revert back to a different time. When I think about the arcade I think of passion and creativity. Freedom from today’s overbearing corporate influences on the industry. Back when the arcades had some of the most powerful games on the market, something consoles struggled to compare to. When video game players bonded together with only a few dollars in quarters. Before a home console’s selling point was connecting with people all over the world for long nights of multiplayer action or a mobile phone could play the very games arcades made famous. A recent trip to an arcade made me realize its cultural and historical significance that’s almost lost but is fighting to not be forgotten.

Once a vibrant arena with explosive popularity, arcades shriveled into nonexistence. At least in the United States, it seems like the arcade is extinct, regulated to gaming’s version of a retirement home. A corner in a dark bar. A dirty Cruis’n USA (1994) cabinet at a neighborhood laundry mat. A random assortment of games in a bowling alley next to the soda machines. What cabinets are left and operational are scattered throughout the U.S. in garages, Craigslist postings and few arcades. According to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau report only 2,677 amusement arcade establishments were operating across the country. That’s severely down from the 24,000 estimated to exist in 1982.

Arcade games are timeless. With many arcade machines the game is never truly over. Chasing after a high score gives these machines infinite lives and possibilities. Be it with Pac-Man, Q*Bert or Donkey Kong, players inserted millions of dollars in quarters into these machines since the late 1970s. Midway Games claimed its 1993 NBA Jam was the first arcade game to earn more than $1 billion in quarters. While it cost $2 to play the full basketball game, that’s still a ton of quarters. Midway were giants of the arcade world. Now it no longer exists after going bankrupt.

Arcades are part of the American culture, an organic youth movement that helped define a generation. Thirty years ago local television news reports like this one and others informed viewers about the new video game arcade craze engulfing the nation. An arcade-inspired song called “Pac-Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia even became a Billboard hit single in 1982. Twenty years ago the TV reports changed into these, focusing on people playing the original Mortal Kombat at the arcades. In these stories the media and politicians worried that games like Mortal Kombat would warp the minds of American children, turning them into violent sociopaths.

I grew up with arcades and its game machines in the ’90s. They’re ingrained into my childhood the same way “Power Rangers” and Spider-Man cereal are. As a kid franchises like Mortal Kombat were a huge cultural phenomenon that nobody understood except the players. I can’t even think of Mortal Kombat without hearing the franchise’s theme song. I remember many creative games (both good and bad) that would probably never see a release in 2013 from a major publisher. Genres that once dominated gaming that have fallen by the wayside. Multiplayer beat ’em ups like Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Shmup franchises like Galaga and Raiden. Light gun games like House of the Dead or CarnEvil. The list of amazing games can go on forever. Satan’s Hallow (1982), made by Midway, includes Richard Wagner’s 19th century “The Ride of the Valkyries” before the game starts. Even weird games like Revolution X, the 1994 shooter based around the band Aerosmith, had a certain draw to them

Back in the day arcades would get the games first. Later these releases would be ported to consoles. Generally the home version was inferior to the arcade but that all changed as consoles technically improved in the mid- ’90s. The arcade industry began to fall apart. The price to make a serious attempt to beat an arcade game would cost as much as a few home release games on the PlayStation or Nintendo 64, games that were starting to look and play better than the ones inside those several hundred pound machines. Rather than a quarter, some games started to cost $1-2 just to start playing. A kid couldn’t afford to pay that much just to face a game over screen by stage two.

Then in 1999 the bulky Dance Dance Revolution machines took over. The fad of pretending to be a backup dancer for the Backstreet Boys struck a blow to arcade games. Konami’s dancing machines took up a lot of space where arcade games were. I remember several arcade locations replaced regular machines with the DDR games. In the next few years arcade machines got bigger, the number of games got smaller and people disappeared to their controllers and television sets. Eventually consoles and PCs greatly surpassed anything found in the arcades. Now new arcade releases are few and far between, if any. The machines are too expensive to produce and aren’t worth the hassle for most companies. Not even NetherRealm Studios’ Mortal Kombat released in 2011 distributed an official arcade cabinet. That’s telling considering Mortal Kombat used to be the king of arcades.

An arcade has an atmosphere that no Xbox Live Arcade game could ever match. Even a collection of just a few machines can get the mood flowing. Walking around trying to find just the right game to play, taking in the aromas of excitement, sweat and food. The jingle of the coins in your pocket. The art style and design of each machine, enticing you to spend your money. The designs are so vibrant and unique to that cabinet that each game was an individualistic expression. During the winter the room heats up from all the machines and people playing, transforming the arcade into a hot day in July. Pumping in quarter after quarter until you ran out of money. Sweaty palms gripped around the joystick as you destroyed alien ships, like George Costanza’s obsession with Frogger in a 1998 episode of “Seinfeld.” Remembering his high score while visiting an old hangout spot he said, “Oh, I was unstoppable. Perfect combination of Mountain Dew and mozzarella. Just a right amount of grease on the joystick.” Standing so long at the cabinet your body would ache. Your feet and back felt like you just spent a heavy session in the gym, not smashing buildings and causing destruction in Rampage.

Recently I went to the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield, Ill. with my cousin who is a teenager. Galloping Ghost owns a few hundred games at their location. Instead of paying per machine, they charge $15 admission for all-day access and all the games are fixed to play. My cousin’s main games of choice are found on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It was the first time he went to an arcade of this magnitude. It was fascinating witnessing his reaction to the arcade. He was awestruck and mesmerized when he walked in. Seeing all the machines lit up and hearing the echoes of sound effects, he thought he died and went to heaven. Taking it all in blew his mind. He didn’t know places like this even existed. The concept of an arcade in his mind was a Dave & Busters,where they have games that spit out tickets for prizes, but not “true hardcore games” as he described them. Many of the games were really difficult for him to play, like Afterburner II and Galaga. Even with the challenge he loved the old games he found at Galloping Ghost. That night as he walked through the door and started playing his first cabinet, two generations came together.

All types of people with different backgrounds filled up every aisle of the arcade. Gaming often gets knocked for being a boys’ club and not inclusive, but there were lots of women dominating the men at Galloping Ghost. There were kids playing Crazy Taxi for the first time in their lives. I saw older guys in their 40s or early 50s who were probably around when some of the games first came out, going for another round of Galaga. It wasn’t weird. Nobody felt out of place. The arcade had a welcoming environment. Arcades also show the more touching moments that transcend high scores and final bosses. A father with excitement in his face, showing his young son the games he played as a child. Another moment of a small boy, maybe 5-years-old, barely tall enough to see over the cabinet he tried to play.

The arcades are where you found social interactions fused with gaming. Arcades used to be the hangout spot for youths. People hollering, clapping and laughing, their favorite games eliciting these intense emotional responses. At Galloping Ghost a small group surrounded the 1994 machine Super Street Fighter II X Grand Master Challenge, watching a fight between two guys. The winner yelled out and talked big time trash after his close victory. He loudly and repeatedly declared, “I’m the best ever!” for the whole place to hear. During a game of NFL Blitz (1997), another man voiced his excitement over scoring a touchdown.”Get some! Get some! Let’s go! AHHHH!” he yelled out loud, his group reacting to him in kind. Now when you hear that same reaction it’s usually from an annoying, emotionally stunted individual during a match in Call of Duty, the noise ringing in your ear.

As we talked about the trip my cousin told me the arcade experience he had that night isn’t there when playing on a system at home. You can’t talk to real people in the flesh or see their reactions to getting obliterated in a match of King of Fighters. He said you meet people in the arcades, not just a Gamertag online. He noticed the enthusiasm of the people in the building. He said the arcade has the air of friendly competition compared to playing games online where it’s a bad, hostile environment because of so much negative trash talking. He described online gaming communities as trash talking taken to the extreme since everyone is anonymous. This is one of the major drawbacks of the gaming community today. There aren’t any repercussions for someone ruining the game by yelling out racial, homophobic or other stupid nonsense. If you talked like that in the arcade, you would probably receive a Ryu-esque uppercut.

The younger generation of gamers born after the mid- to late ’90s are sorely missing out on not just an important gaming experience but a cultural hub. They don’t have that place to connect with friends, peers and strangers over their favorite hobby. Even local multiplayer options are now being removed from home console games, making the community more isolated and fragmented. Now the norm is playing games online with people all over the world, yet still quite alone in your living room. Those growing up whose first system might be an Xbox 360 or the next iteration of Sony and Microsoft’s home consoles might never realize the importance of an arcade. While they might be able to download one of the games from the PlayStation Store, those ported to various collections over the years don’t come close to replicating the authentic experience. Some feel empty, the soul of the game absent from a disc or digital download release. The Simpsons Arcade Game (1991) that released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 last year is a fun nostalgic trip but doesn’t feel the same as the iconic original. An Xbox Live download or a few hours at Dave & Busters can’t substitute for the real thing, but does a 12-year-old today care about the difference?

Arcades are where many of gaming’s myths and legacies originated and were passed down to the next generation. Nowadays many can’t trace these origins or really understand them even though they only recently formed. The Street Fighter games stuck out to my cousin because he’s always heard of them but never actually played a game like Street Fighter 2. The only versions he’s played were the newest releases on the PlayStation 3, which some would argue are inferior to the classic titles. I’ll never forget the social message of Winners Don’t Use Drugs” created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that appeared before every game started. I can only imagine what message would go before games today if a government agency got involved. At Galloping Ghost the 1992 Mortal Kombat through the 1997 Mortal Kombat 4 were all lined in a row of bloody fatalities, the series that started the whole “violent video games” debate. My cousin knew the old Mortal Kombat was a controversial game. He didn’t know exactly why until we played several matches together and he could witness it for himself. Now it’s almost laughable compared to the games his generation plays like Grand Theft Auto 4 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

I often think and worry about the disconnect between the medium’s history and its new faces that occupy the networked world of the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live. It’s both shocking and incredibly sad that a multi-billion dollar part of the gaming industry just disappeared, leaving the ghosts of the past to sit in a warehouse or garage. One of the first video games I ever remember playing is the original Mortal Kombat arcade machine, sometime around 1994. Do people now even know just how huge Mortal Kombat used to be? If I said the expression “Test Your Might” would they stare at me with a blank face? If they watched YouTube videos of old arcade footage, would they be put off by the weird clothing and dated hairstyles? Many of the games I enjoyed as a kid I first saw in the arcade instead of on a console. Today that is such a foreign concept. Even cultural norms from games like Rare’s 1994 fighting game Killer Instinct are lost. On the machine is the mandate, “Loser pays. Winner stays.” If you told that to a gamer today, would they even know what that meant?

Fighting games are one of the few genres that kept the arcade spirit alive through the industry’s drastic changes. It’s almost remained unscathed after going through a down period in the early 2000s, rejuvenated with the latest franchises on home consoles and the passion of the fighting community. Maybe the arcade spirit also evolved into the 1997 GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64 and later Xbox LAN parties with Halo. Maybe it’s now living in the competitive gaming tournaments of StarCraft 2 and League of Legends. Or perhaps some of it’s found in America’s pockets, setting a high score in Angry Birds the same way millions of people once did in Pac-Man and Space Invaders.

At least in Illinois there’s a recent attempted revival of the arcade. The Galloping Ghost, Emporium Arcade Bar and Logan Hardware all are incredibly popular locations attracting both newcomers and those hungry for nostalgia. It’s interesting that it’s springing up again in this state considering Chicago once was a center for arcade and pinball manufacturing. Owners are experimenting with new and stronger ways to attract customers. These types of establishments are slowly growing around the country as the home console industry generates billions of dollars every year, making the arcade more a niche than ever before.

Seeing children play the old arcade games with their parents makes me believe the history won’t be completely forgotten. My cousin wished there were more arcades around to visit, saying it’s a fantastic experience for everyone even if they’re not a gamer. I felt accomplished. I converted him. Arcades will most likely never again reach the levels they were twenty or thirty years ago but the spirit will find a way to continue on. The arcade will never die.

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