Two Quarters and a Coke

1985, January, cold. I'm hollow. I walk the salt-and-ice path from the computing lab to the student union. I shuffle towards the dining hall -- a long, train tunnel of a room, over-lit by overhead florescent and smelling of grease and salt and coffee. I drop my worn-out black Jansport backpack on a random table and check my pockets. I have exactly enough money to buy a cheeseburger. Exactly. I look longingly towards the darkened portal at the far end of the room. A white plastic rectangle names the room with black vinyl letters: Game Room.

Walt emerges from the door. He's a heavyset guy, perpetually dressed in a plaid shirt and down vest. My faux-lumberjack friend holds up a quarter in one hand, and a coke in the other. With birthday-party-magician slight of hand, The Amazing Walt twists his fingers to reveal a second quarter behind it. He's grinning like a madman.

Ludo ergo sum. I play, therefor I am.

In the earliest era -- Pong and Tailgunner -- I only saw the games in pool halls (where I was not allowed at such a tender age) and bowling alleys (where I was.) My prepubescence and the outrageous amount of money demanded by the big black boxes limited my access. The arcade, such as it was, was awkward, inaccessible, and ungainly. So was I.

By 1980, my small town sported its very own arcade. That same aging, forbidden pool hall grew new electrical circuits one night, sprouted a new coat of paint and a neon sign, and transformed. Birthday parties were dedicated to blowing a few bucks in the arcade. Those few dollars never bought more than half an hour's play, so I spent as much time watching spinning the wheel of my only true love: Tempest, the 1980 tube shooter built on an unstable vector graphics platform that nearly guaranteed self destruction and frequent service calls. The arcade full of confusion and contradiction -- aging carney games next to the state of the art. It was both brilliant and inane. It was loud and uncomfortable. So was I.

In the mid '80s -- those halcyon days where Walt and I threw-down over Time Pilot '84 and Xevious -- the arcade was a social center. Arcades were my tabernacles -- portable and interchangeable houses of worship. They were geek meeting halls where two quarters and a coke bought you admission to a community. The games were garish, complex, occasionally broken, and often frustrating as hell. They were full of gimmicks, had questionable tastes in music, and were trying very hard to differentiate themselves for all the "kid stuff" on the Nintendo boxes the rich kids were starting to buy. So was I.

In the '90s, arcade games became driven almost entirely by technology and experiences you couldn't get in front of your PC. The games were multi player, they were often more about control systems than gameplay -- the myriad buttons of fighting games, the guns of Area 51, the endless sit down/sit on driving games, the infamous Golden Tee trackball. These were games that were clearly not going to be played in your apartment. They were full of fondling, and ultimately, with the introduction of Dance Dance Revolution, all about getting off the couch and off your ass. So was I.

Sometime since then, my symbiosis with the arcade ended. Today, I walk through, or increasingly past an arcade and it is no longer me. I haven't outgrown games -- I play more games than I ever did when I was an arcade denizen. I measure gameplay in hours and credit card bills, not quarters and cokes. No, it's that my sense of self is no longer so tied to my sense of place. I am self defined by choices rather than chance -- by the people around me, by my virtual and physical home, and the woods I choose to dwell in.

When my kids are old enough to care, I hope that the local arcade is still around. Not the derelict pool hall, it turned into a KFC years ago, but the new one at the mall. Right now, I cringe when I see the playing DDR and driving-game-of-the-week. Not because I'm shocked by the bad hair, the baggy pants or the tattoos. And not because I have some nostalgia for how arcades used to be. No, I cringe because the arcade of the present is no longer the mirror of who-I-am that it once was.

But someday it will belong to my kids. And I hope they beg me for two dollars and a Red Bull.

Comments

I have to say I quite agree with your timeline here. I lived through the same period and remember when life was about ' Where is the next Quake so I can play another game'. Today, I also walk by the arcade and think two things. One, its way to loud. You can barely hear the individual game you are playing above the cacophony of sound. and it is tougher to get drawn in at a buck or more a game for your two minutes of play. Bad enough as a kid with a quarter. Now, older, slower reflexes and kids future educations all fight against the desire to walk in. Which leads to the second thing. The arcades I have seen lately seem to be much seedier then they were when we were kids. That is likely just perception through my aging eyes, but it does keep me back from the threshold or is it the abyss.

I play the occasional vid while at the local Fuddruckers (Think McDonalds with really big burgers) and made a foray into Dave and Busters which was not seedy at all (a plus), but makes a busy nightclub look starved for business on New Years eve. The throngs are too the point of unmanageable. Add alcohol which was unavailable in the arcade of my youth and its a non experience. The setup is a massive arcade come pool hall come eatery that is a chain here on the east coast I think. My reason for going, my brother-in-law's bachelor party. The $40 bucks was cheap for the benefit of hanging out with the guys and served up more tactile feedback then the activities from later in the evening. Overall D&B's was a good experience, but we were there for a purpose. Food, drink and some fun. Its not a place I would venture to without a similar event on the docket.

So all in all, while the arcade was a special place in my youth, I think I'd prefer my kids to get there gaming fixes elsewhere then in the current iterations. At least when they are old enough to know what an arcade is and possibly want to go there. The alternate outlets I hope are more stimulating and enticing. I look back with mixed memories and think, the overall impact was a lot of quarters out of my pocket and not much to show for it. At least that is one mans view.

Arcades.. like the dream in the early 80s- if I had the money, the wall-to-wall-to-ceiling carpeting, and 1,000 of those scented tree air fresheners.. hmm.. flourescent lighting hum, 45 cents for a Coca Cola, bike racks in front, the "cool" kids with skateboards and the older brother with the car..

My timeline is slightly later, with my earliest memories of the Arcade being tied intimately to Chuck E. Cheese. I remember playing Mach 3 and thinking that there would never, ever be a better flying game. In my small hometown in NE Oregon, population 2200, there were three games in the local Safeway that I recall quite fondly. Punch-Out, which I was absolutely terrible at; Renegade, which is still one of my favorite fighting games; and, of course, Super Mario Brothers, which made it absolutely necessary for me to start saving my dollars from my lawn mowing jobs so I could someday take the two-hour trip to Lewiston, ID, where I would purchase the NES.

Even in the years following, I longed to find that connection that you speak of...Occasionally I'd find myself in a nickel arcade, playing Wrestlemania for hours on end. But truth be told, I don't think I ever felt at 'home' again in the arcade once I bought that NES. From that point on, gaming became a completely different and personal experience for me.

Arcades these days have changed. The variety is gone. Here's what I've noticed from the ones I've passed through/by:

1. Racing games outnumber anything else. These include not just driving games, but also skiing, boating, jetskiing, skateboarding, and other similar style. They're big with specialized controls and hardly anyone seems to play them.

2. Then you've got your fighting games. Tekken and Soul Calibur series games, for the most part.

3. Shooting games seem to be third most common. Time Crisis, Area 51, House of the Dead. A few very very lame clones pop up from time to time, like paintball games and police shooting range simulators. Yawn. Commonly the guns are broken.

4. At least 1 Dance Dance Revolution or clone.

Ugh. I've pretty much given up popping inside if I'm passing by an arcade. The proliferation of home consoles has killed all arcades except the games with gimmick control systems and two-player ones.

I feel old.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Arcades these days have changed. The variety is gone. ... The proliferation of home consoles has killed all arcades except the games with gimmick control systems and two-player ones.

I know the common reaction is "oh things just aren't the same as when I was a kid - but really, arcades of our youth (or even just 10 years ago) had much more variety of gaming experiences.

I miss Moon Patrol. If you think really, really hard, you could still get that theme song stuck in your head...

Good article. I spent some enjoyable Saturdays at the arcade during my early teen years. This place would give you unlimited games for $5 at the door. Crazy Climber, Red Baron, Joust, all fond memories. Defender had too many buttons and intimidated me.

I can't associate with arcades. They exist here in the England but the ones in towns are seedy dives that i never saw anyone in (in fact the only one i knew about collapsed in a tortured act of self-destruction before it was taken over by the Subway next door) and the only arcades i saw any point in were at holiday locations like the seaside.

Makes me wonder how popular they used to be here. Of course, i'm a little young to be commenting on anything pre-1990 so i could be completely wrong.

dongyrn wrote:
I miss Moon Patrol. If you think really, really hard, you could still get that theme song stuck in your head...

I absolutely HATE YOU NOW.

There's a greasy spoon diner called Tiffany's near my old university in St. Louis. Above that is a 97 year old bowling alley that had, among other things, a PacMan table game thatI would, at 4 am regularly, eat on, play on, repeat. My friends, 20 somethings in the late nineties/early '00s, thought I was bat-sh*t crazy for even looking at them. To me, they were the only reason I went there. You can't find them anymore, and I don't do fighting games.

dongyrn wrote:
I know the common reaction is "oh things just aren't the same as when I was a kid - but really, arcades of our youth (or even just 10 years ago) had much more variety of gaming experiences.

Yeah, it's really not just nostalgia. Arcades as a whole have been slowly disappearing. They used to be a staple in just about every suburban mall. Now I can't think of a nearby mall that still has an arcade in it.

Arcades were always loud and smelly, let's not get that mixed up.

These days I think the concensus is that the games are overpriced and largely cookie-cutter versions of things that don't interest me.

However, I have a (much) younger brother (10), whom my sister and I took to ESPN Zone a few months ago. The most fun we had? Skiball and bubble hockey. I taught him how to pick up the end of the table when the puck got stuck (and to cheat). Take that, communist jerks!

The best arcade I was ever in is a place called "Fun Spot" in New Hampshire. It's essentially a 2 floor barn jam packed with machines from the past 20 years. Each game is only a quarter with the exception of ones within the last 3 years or so. It was gaming nirvana and 20 bucks went a LONG way.

thewanderer14 wrote:
There's a greasy spoon diner called Tiffany's near my old university in St. Louis. Above that is a 97 year old bowling alley that had, among other things, a PacMan table game thatI would, at 4 am regularly, eat on, play on, repeat. My friends, 20 somethings in the late nineties/early '00s, thought I was bat-sh*t crazy for even looking at them. To me, they were the only reason I went there. You can't find them anymore, and I don't do fighting games.

There's a place called Mr. Beefy's in Cary, out Northwest Highway, that at least used to have two table games (Pac-Man and Galaga, maybe?). Also, it has cheesy beef. Delicious.

Stylez wrote:
The best arcade I was ever in is a place called "Fun Spot" in New Hampshire.

LOL, the one that collapsed near me was called FUNSPOT - with "balls" around the letters like the gamespot logo. I never went in there but for some reason the windows were tinted...

Arcades are definitely an endangered species. The places that still have games, like the ESPN Zone and Dave and Busters, are full of those novelty games that Rabbit talks about, where you sit down, or stand up, etc. There are some cool games mixed in, like the one where you have to actually go through the motions of a boxing match (punching, ducking and weaving, etc.), but mostly there are dozens of racers and shooters. I'm not sure the last time I saw a modern arcade game that featured jumping.

Great article, Rabbit. It brought back great memories of the 80s for me. I remember sitting in the old ice cream shop - something so different from the Marble Slabs and Cold Stones of today - and eating my delicious brownie-bottom sundae (called a "Pop's Delight"; the name of the place was Pop's) and playing Donkey Kong, Jr. Good times.

IMAGE(http://img297.imageshack.us/img297/7915/flynnsns1.gif)

It felt like Flynn.

Most arcades in the UK seem to consist mostly of fruit machines, with a few knackered games cabs in there too.

In about 1992 or 1993, my local fleapit arcade suddenly took ownership of, in the midst of the piss-smelling old dears feeding the slots with their pensions, a shiny Street Fighter 2 machine. We're talking the orginal "World Warrior" here, not some EX plus Alpha 3 COMBO nonsense.

I spent every spare minute and penny on that machine for months. The post-menopausal chainsmoking women running the place essentially adopted me, bringing me cups of sickly coloured fizzy drink and out of date chocolate bars. I worked my way through the characters, starting with Blanka, E.Honda, Chun Li, up to Ryu. I saw off all comers, taking on contenders with a bet of "loser pays for the next game."

Sometimes, the R-Type or Silkworm cabs might take my attention, but this was always a brief flirtation; SF2 was waiting for me.

When I ran low on funds, I'd try my hand on the fruit machines to try and build up enough of a stake for another hour...but, inevitably, I'd run dry, and have to go home.

That couple of months will always stand out in my memory. now, don't get me wrong, that place was NASTY. Sticky, cigarette burned carpet, tide marked from flooding but never replaced, lending it that beautiful moldering aroma. The other patrons were, naturally, suspicious of someone not old enough to remember the Boer War, and positively hostile to anyone who looked like they might be having fun.

This lovely environment was set in the decaying bosom of one of the worst towns in North East England. The walk home always carried the allure of the possibility of being legged by one of the marauding bands of skinheads. And, of course, arriving home would always be followed by a round of "Have you been in that arcade AGAIN?"

Eventually, a SNES put a stop to my trips to the arcade. I think it's a bed shop now. The town has regenerated, and the skinheads are wearing hoodies and sporting ASBOs now.

A few years later, when I was working a few hours a day in a call centre, my best mate and I took to hanging around in the local bowling alley (a big chain) arcade, which was an entirely alien experience by comparison; the games were more modern, the carpets clean, the staff had teeth...it was fun, but not the same.

Is that how Rabbit talks to his wife?

I love you, but this time I mean it.

Throughout high school and college summers I worked in an arcade owned by a family friend ("Mr T's Family Fun Center!"). Arcade in front, pool tables in back, me in the middle handing out tokens. I would commonly work 12 hour shifts for about $10 an hour (good friend - paid me well). I'll never forget the hours I killed there - reading insane amount of books and playing endless hours of Galaga and Mario with my buddy (I had free reign to play as much pool and games as I wanted as long as it wasn't too busy and I was keeping eyes on the cash). This was mid to late 80's. I wonder if there's anyplace quite like that arcade left in the country.

Fun article Rabbit.

ZX Spectrum-based arcades were very popular in former USSR. I remember being dragged out of one by an ear after a seating dispute with another 10-year-old.

Wil Wheaton has a similar column over at SuicideGirls (NSFW), FYI. Maybe he's stealing Rabbits good ideas!?

Maybe Rabbit is actually Wil Wheaton?

Maybe, but isn't this place "gamers with jobs" ?

wordsmythe wrote:
Maybe Rabbit is actually Wil Wheaton?

I'm actually quite a fan of his writing, so I'll take that as a compliment. He's got a certain geekblogger style thing going I find pretty hard to argue with.

But I *totally* got dibs on this one. Just ask Certis, he saw it go from start to finish on one insane afternoon way before WW posted. And Wil, if you're out there, you and me baby -- Tempest at Dawn.

Wil Wheaton's blog entries on Star Trek:TNG are frighteningly good. I don't know how long they take to write, but they are chock full of very smart jokes. A little long for my taste, though.

Just a geek, while early for him (hes a much better writer now) is one of those guilty pleasures by your nightstand.

Wait, that just sounds bad.