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.