You'll hear people talk about the sonic chaos, how the pings and bells and digital tweets coming from each cabinet will draw them in. They'll mention the thundering roar of race car engines or the room-shaking explosions. Others love the bright neon contrasting with the cave-like darkness, or the seizure-inducing flashes coming from the screens. That's not it for me though. It's the smell of it all, the scent you get when you fill a room wall to wall with electronics running full speed for hours at a time. Just under that aroma of people huddled together, there's that warm silicon smell in an arcade, and that's what pulls me in.
Finding a good arcade is like striking oil: it's rare now and only getting rarer as time goes on. The kids these days aren't impressed with the giant cabinets, the big screens and tactile controls. Why stand in line to play the newest Tekken when you can play your PSPs over by the food court? They weren't there at the first Street Fighter 2 machines. This generation of gamers doesn't know the joy of beating the guy who's been standing there for over an hour, whooping and hollering as he cheeses his way through newbie after newbie with Blanka's shock attack. There is no greater feeling than walking up to that saddest of gamers and showing them what a few well-placed Dragon Punch combos will accomplish. The kids today would rather stand outside the Hot Topic and talk about how breathtaking Halo 2 looks in 720p than enjoy the frantic excitement of House of the Dead 2.
Normally I'd say it's their loss. They aren't worthy to be among the true believers. They're not even important enough to hang around the back, by the skee-ball tracks and the Whac-A-Mole. But we enlightened few are not the market anymore; the kids are the ones with the disposable income and the time to kill. They'd rather be at home, hiding behind the anonymity of the internet and the voice masking of Xbox Live, than in a true competitive environment, the one last pure social gaming arena. They wouldn't be able to understand the bracket structure of a Soul Calibur tournament, and they'd mistake nostalgia for the honored row of 80's arcade games in the corner. "Pac-Man?" They'd scoff. "I've got MAME on my PSP, I can play it whenever I want."
It wasn't always like this. Many of us can remember the days of Space Invaders and Defender, coin-op classics that defined an entire generation. It wasn't just the geeks and nerds flocking to play Dig Dug, but children and teens from all walks of life. It was the 80's, technology was hip, and hundreds of thousands of kids were finding the best place to waste time was in these high-tech halls of neon and noise pollution. Then the parents stepped in, deeming our newfound homes to be seedy and unfit for our precious youthful minds. They imagined hidden back rooms where little Timmy would find copious amounts of bathtub crank and pornographic pictures of Molly Ringwald, corrupting their precious angel into the twisted bad boy visage of Judd Nelson.
Of course, it didn't help that the games started getting expensive. The days of a simple stand-up arcade game are long gone. People want more complexity in their games, more bang for their buck. Two paddles knocking a pixel back and forth doesn't cut it anymore in this age of 3D polygons, massive explosions, and new interfaces involving giant rifles or swords to swing. Companies like Sega started developing sit-down racing sims and stringing them together sixteen at a time, and hardware like that doesn't come cheap. So the arcade managers raised the price of Daytona USA from a quarter to a dollar to compensate for the higher cost, and you and I grumbled about wanting more bang for our buck.
Arcades today hardly feel like the holy temples of the past. Most don't even call themselves arcades, opting instead for titles like Family Fun Center. Walking through one in Las Vegas before a friend's wedding recently, I was struck by how few actual video games there were. The focus instead has drifted toward redemption style games that reward the player's high score with tickets. It's fitting to see this style of gameplay in Vegas; one machine I walked by had a child and his mother collecting hundreds of tickets off one play, hitting the jackpot much like people at the slot machines above us were hoping to. Instead of large sums of cash, however, Bobby is going to cash those tickets in for a giant stuffed animal or other cheap toy. And while he's preoccupied with the crappy Elmo doll in the Claw Machine (Oh, how I hate you, Claw Machine, you fail me every time) the intelligent machines, the rail shooters and DDR shrines and fighting games, continue to roll their demos, waiting.
Maybe there will come a day when the home consoles will fall out of style. The online networks will crumble like a stale cookie from Auntie Anne's, and the signals on all the wireless controllers will drop out. And the people will look up from their self-imposed comfort and realize the brilliance of a 16-car arcade racing game. They will cast off the chains of portability and embrace the camaraderie of being huddled around Virtua Fighter, cheering for the 12-year-old using Jackey to take the balding 40-year-old back to school. Until that day comes I'll be standing in the back, raising my high score in Centipede, filling the screen with my initials. I'll be waiting for the rapture to come.