Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Discuss: Video Arcades

Karen: While I was on vacation last month, I read the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I highly recommend this book; this story of a future dystopia where people find release by assuming  roles in a pervasive virtual reality gaming platform will  appeal not only to gamers, but to most of us here at BAB. The story revolves around a quest which incorporates a number of geek culture touchstones -things like Back to the Future, Star Wars, Japanese monster movies, and lots and lots of video games. 

It got me thinking about all the arcade games I used to play, and what made arcades so special. The first arcade games I saw were actually in convenience stores, like 7-11s. But very soon, my small town had a couple of full-fledged video arcades, complete with token machines (remember those?). They became the number one hang out spots for me and my friends. Parents were generally OK with that, I suppose because they seemed harmless, and they knew where we were! It seemed like there were new games arriving every couple of months, but plenty of old favorites to keep trying to beat. It was a lot of fun when you had a good friend or two who would compete with you on a machine for hours at a time.

I played some of the popular games, like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Missile Command, Galaga, Tron, but my favorites were some of the more obscure ones. Early on, I liked a driving game called Death Race. Basically, you had a steering wheel, gear shift, and accelerator pedal, and you ran people over. They were supposed to be "gremlins" -sure they were. At that poor resolution they looked like little people. And when you hit them, they would scream and a tombstone would pop up. I'll admit, I don't know what it said about my 13 year old self. My Dad would sometimes drop me off and come back later and find me playing this, and it would bug the crap out of him. "Why in the world are you playing this game?" Well, probably exactly because it was something parents hated! But you know what? I came across it a couple of years ago at the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco and played it again. And I ran over every single person -I mean gremlin -I could find and loved it (and got a pretty good score too). I guess I'm still messed up.

My final screen

Another game I dropped many a token into was Star Fire, which was a Star Wars rip-off before they started making official  Star Wars games. This game had you battling TIE fighters - the graphics looked exactly like the TIE fighters from Star Wars. The other thing that I found so exciting about the game was that it was a cockpit game, which was exceedingly rare back in the late 70s. I think it might have been the first cockpit game I saw. It was also in color, and not all games were yet. So it had a lot of things going for it. Looking at Wikipedia and a couple of blog posts around the web, it seems Star Fire may have been the very first cockpit arcade game. It also may have been the first to allow players to enter their initials if they got a high score -something my fading memory tells me I might have done a couple of times!

I don't see too many arcades nowadays. I think everyone is happy playing games in their homes. But there was something really cool about walking into one of those mad, flashing, blaring palaces of sensory overload and facing the challenge of that game you'd been trying to beat the last couple of weeks with your friends watching, or going solo and quietly learning the tricks to mastering a new machine. 


Redartz said...

"Death Race"? Not familiar with that one, Karen. But it is similar to a favorite arcade game of mine: "Spy Hunter". You got to drive a weapon-equipped car and eliminate the 'spies' while trying to avoid the innocent passenger cars around you. You could get machine guns, oil slicks (the best, and most effective means of getting rid of pesky foes) and smoke screens. Plus, it featured as music the utra-cool theme from "Peter Gunn".

Great topic, Karen! Mall arcades really hit big about the time I started college, and our little group would frequently visit them on weekends. Galaga was my favorite, but there were many others. Many of which I learned to play for free: one summer break from school, I worked as a security/attendant at one of those arcades in downtown Indianapolis. Walked around with a change belt and tokens, and reset machines when necessary. The big benefit to the job,though, was that after your shift you could take your token bag and play any and all you wanted, free! Hence I got pretty good at Galaga, and also Joust, Red Baron, Burgertime, and many others. One game I never could get, though: Donkey Kong. Still can hardly get past the first or second level...

Doug said...

My friends and I used to hang out at a bowling alley that had a large arcade. The dim lighting, bright lights from the machines, the sounds, and the fact that I was terrible at just about any game are fond memories!

Much later, our family has enjoyed some of the at-home versions of the classic games as released by Namco. It was fun to introduce our sons to the previously mentioned Galaga, Centipede, etc.


Anonymous said...

Like Doug, I was usually pretty terrible but also like Doug have fond memories of video games and arcades.

And I do remember Death Race. Karen, your description of the game and self-psychoanalysis cracked me up.


david_b said...

Back 'round the 1978-1980 timeframe my favs were 'Asteroids' and another I can't quite recall the name (another space one..). It's always best when your best pal went with you.. We had great times, but it was short-lived. Once in college, girls were far more fun.

Had Pong at home (like a few million other homes at that time..), it was good fun.

Really hated the lunar lander arcade game because while it was cool to pilot, I'd seldom set it down without a crash (apparently Neil Armstrong I wasn't...). Annoying, but it sure ate a lot of quarters. Hmmmmmmmm.


Anonymous said...

I spent some time in the local arcades as a kid. I remember some of the classics like Asteroid, Missile Command, Centipede, Defender (which was insanely difficult), and Gorf (with that big goofy control stick). Strangely, Pac-Man was never in our local arcades, but Ms. Pac-Man was.

Later on, my friends and I played stuff like Rastan (a cool medieval game with a dragon at the end), Bank Panic (with bank robbers behind the 12 doors, not to mention dynamite!), and Olympic Games, which was cool because 4 people could play at once. Of course, there were always guys who found ways to cheat on that one; one guy used a plastic comb for all the running events...he could hit the controls so fast, he was unbeatable. Kind of took some of the fun out of it for the rest of us.

Mike Wilson

Unknown said...

I remember the arcade in the local mall that I used to frequent went defunct in the early 90s; it was called "Wizard's Castle." Many an afternoon were spent in that large darkened room, with its electronic beeps, flashing lights, and all-too-human curses.

Like Redartz, I recall playing Ms. Pac-Man but the original Mr. Pac-Man wasn't there. Probably my favorite game was Galaga, and I became proficient enough to complete 40+ levels, which would attract observers. Another favorite of mine was Tetris, and I continue playing it today. I remember other fun games--which by the early 90s were considered "retro," like Spy Hunter, Lode Runner, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Mario Bros. Many other classic games in this vein I had on the Apple II, which I could play at home for free, like Congo Bongo, Montezuma's Revenge, Miner2049er, Choplifter, Jungle Hunt, and Pitfall. I loved a game called "Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory." Very clever, addictive, and fun.

When I was in Jr. High, I distinctly remember to this day the top two games in 1992/1993 were Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. It is impossible to forget the crowds of eager teenage players loitering around these games--myself included. The downside to these newer 90s games was that at the time I found them rather complex to master--instead of just a joystick and one or two buttons, there was a joystick and four to six buttons, and naturally it took longer (and many more quarters) to become an expert. In the 90s I also recall playing the Simpsons game, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, two franchises that were highly popular circa 1990. Both of these were essentially beat-em-up games, fairly straightforward, and quite enjoyable.

Considering the rough handling and abuse those box-like arcade consoles took, day after day, year after year, I'm amazed that some of them lasted as long as they did. Those were great times, but by the mid-90s, most arcades faded away, as most youngsters turned to home consoles (I will never forget the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis Wars) and handhelds like the Gameboy, which to my great joy I received for Christmas in December 1990.

pfgavigan said...


I never actually played many games in arcades but a lot of my friends did and I would tag along and pick up a lot of the energy in those places. They were great for emotionally recharging at the end of the day.

While I was living in Madison WI, there was a great arcade downtown and I and a friend would visit it often. He was really into shooter games and there was one that used a pistol replica as it's joystick. He was a gun enthusiast, a very safe one, and incredibly proficient at both real and video shooting. He was having a particularly good day and attracting an admiring crowd about us when one of those present turned and asked if I was with him. The following is pretty close to the exchange that we shared. I should be ashamed of what I did . . . but I'm not.

Him; Are you a friend of his.

Me; No, I'm his medical attendant.

H; What?

M; He's on a day pass from the Mendota State Mental Hospital and I'm with him to do an evaluation.

H; What did he do to get put in there?

M; I'm not allowed to say, but this (indicating the game) is relevant to his case.

H; Oh. So why is he here?

M; He's up for release and being here, in a public place is a good way to judge how well he is really recovering. Especially while playing a game like this.

H; Do you think they'll let him out.

M; (After watching Mike, my friend, shoot down a number of video characters) No, no I don't think that would be a good idea.

The guy I was talking with left rather quickly after that and when Mike finished the game, some ten minutes later, the substantial crowd around him literally parted so that we could leave.

Yes, I told Mike what had happened and he was on his butt laughing about it. Which, sense several of those at the arcade witnessed this might have cemented the legend that actually developed around him.

It is kinda fun to be at ground zero of the creation of an urban myth.



Anonymous said...

i was a regular at the mall arcade on friday and saturday nites growing up. Later i used to go a health club after school to play on their arcade cocktail games. Even in high school used to frequent a nearby arcade with friends after school. The games were fun but it was a social thing as well. As home gaming systems progressed from the basic atari to intellivision to coleco (which were pretty close to the actual arcade games) the arcades started to fade. In fact my first job after college had an arcade nearby and i would walk over an play at lunch some times.Asteroids, Lunar Lander, Missle Command, Donkey Kong, Galaga and Space Invaders were some of the early favorites. In later years i remember Robotron, Bezerk and Lethal Enforcers. Dragons Lair and Atari Football are also fondly remembered. Within the last year, i bought 2 multicade games (1 upright, 1 cocktail) off craigslist and can play a lot of the old favorites.

JJ said...

Many of the big hits of the day failed to hold my attention, but I was fascinated by the Popeye game. Its combination of bright colors, detailed background settings and an ominous Bluto really blew my hair back. I never did beat that third screen but man, did I have fun trying.

I was also really taken with Dig Dug and Joust - two colorful games with original concepts that were endlessly fun to play. Flying on the back of giant ostrich over hot lava and bopping other players with my lance was delightful.

Edo Bosnar said...

As I stated in a previous post about video games in general, I was never big on them. I only played them occasionally, either at the house of a school chum who had an Atari set, and at markets that had video games, always when I was with a few buddies (because if I was alone, I would have just spent the money on comics instead). I only recall going to actual arcades a few times when I was about 13/14 years old, usually to play Tempest and Galaxian. Never got very good at either of them, though...

Otto Sell said...

A few arcade games that stick out in my memory:
Journey-cartoon bodies with pictures of the band's faces. You had five stages where each member had to get their instrument.
Kick-Man- a clown on a unicycle catching balloons (and Pac-Man)on his head.
Pac-Man Jr- a pinball game that also featured a video game when you get a ball locked.

Martinex1 said...

I loved Joust but was horrible at it. Had a friend who could not be beat. Also I seem to remember a game about building hamburgers??!!? And another where you keep beer from sliding off of the bar??

What is the difference between Galaga and Galaxian?

This brings back a lot of memories and fun times.

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