Monday, July 20, 2009

Dearly Bereaved

By C.T. Hutt

We are gathered here today to pay our respects to the dearly departed American arcade. In a generation defined by its lightning adaptation to new and wonderful technologies, let us take a moment to remember and mourn the passing of an era, and the demise of one more nostalgic piece of our collective childhoods. Fare thee well, American arcade, you will be missed.

Let’s reflect on some of the good times we shared. Why, when I was but a lad I distinctly remember the food court in my local mall. There, nestled between the Arby’s and the Orange Julius, a neon passage opened into a world where, for a brief few moments, young gamers could immerse themselves in any number of fantastic realms. After hastily scarfing down my fast food lunch I would beg my parents for quarters so that I might enter that wonderful door and join my peers in gaming bliss. I remember the resigned look on my mother’s face as she fished out coins from her purse and put them into my eager hands. It was a look of bemused confusion; she was happy to see me eager and excited about my hobby, but bewildered as to why I sought so desperately to spend time in the digital cacophony of those electronic coliseums.

My fare in hand, I would dash away, through the gate and into the heart of what was then the pinnacle of gamerdom. Flush with cash, my choices were varied: I could be a knight in King Arthur’s court, a combatant in an inter-dimensional fighting tournament, a star ship pilot, anything. The siren call of the toys behind the glass of the ticket exchange counter often tempted me toward less traditional gaming fare such as ski-ball or whack-a-gator, but my true calling was the shooters. Lethal Enforcer, Jurassic Park, Time Crisis, Area 51, Revolution X, and of course House of the Dead, I ruled them all. No matter what the scenario the game presented I always pretended I was a steely eyed Clint Eastwood.

In addition to the games, the arcade was home to some interesting characters: the surly ex-con janitor, Mr. Untouchable at the Mortal Kombat controls, the hyper kid who gave lots of uninvited advice, and so many more. The person that really stands out in my memory is the manager/childbouncer. This curmudgeonly individual had actually found himself a career where he could boss kids around for most of the day. When your supply of quarters was exhausted it didn’t take long before his gaze started to follow you around the room. This was especially true if you did what I used to do and went searching through the coin return slots in the various machines in hopes of finding one more quarter.

What was it about the arcade experience that dragged me in there time and time again? Was it the access to better graphics and game play? Was it simply the over-stimulation of neon signs, Technicolor carpeting, and blaring sound effects? It’s probably some combination of all of those things, but as I look back on those experiences I like to think that it all meant something more. While video games were created in the early 70’s it wasn’t until we, the children of the eighties, began to take an interest that they really took off. The arcades were the birthplace of video gaming; without the profits generated by those brick and mortar coin receptacles modern gaming would not exist in the form we know it today. I like to think that even though I was too young to understand why, I went to the arcades because they represented something that belonged to me, to us, to our generation.

But all things must pass. The screen doors have rolled down for the last time at many arcades in the United States. The pin ball machines are in disrepair, the whack-a-gators gather dust, and the screens are silent. Gaming has moved on, out of the food courts and strip malls and into our homes. As each new generation of console brings a greater palate of sights and sounds to our living rooms, names like Neo-Geo and Midway fade from memory. It was a natural progression, but it still feels strangely sad to see arcades slip away. While they may have been designed to overwhelm our senses and drain us of our hard-won pocket change, I for one will always think back on them fondly, as shining doors to an exciting new world.


  1. This post made me a little misty. I look back on my neighborhood arcade quite fondly. I think it's a hair cutting chain now.

  2. Nice work on the site!

    I do think the days of the small-town arcade are probably over or at least seriously declining. The Hampshire Mall's formerly glorious Dream Machine has withered into a pathetic and uninviting embarrassment. However, the arcade is surviving pretty damn well here in LA.

    Here in East Hollywood we have the funky Miss T's Barcade, serving food and beer, featuring a bar made out of quarters, and providing Galaga, Donkey Kong, Twilight Zone pinball, Ms. Pac-Man and about 10 other classics, as well as regular DJs.

    In the other direction is the vibrant Family Arcade, a larger, more modern establishment for kids and their folks. Lots of gun games, yes, but the place is thriving and energetic.

    Finally, the Santa Monica pier has a truly enormous arcade, also with mostly modern games for the tourists, but also with a huge quantity of air hockey tables in the back; think multiple rows of 10 or more packed together, typically all occupied at once.

    My hope is that the sheer concentration of people in cities can continue to support these kinds of places. I think it can happen. Lower-income families that can't afford PS3s plus nostalgic, aging hipsters.

    Anyway, I have this great idea for an arcade/laundromat...


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