Zach Rosenberg takes a nostalgic look back at the largely extinct video arcade and wonders what lessons his video game-loving son could’ve gleaned from the old-school arcade culture.
I can’t think of old style video game arcades without getting a little misty. Those loud, dark rooms, packed with upright arcade machines, all singing to themselves, ready to explode when someone dropped a quarter into them… it was magic.
A magic that, frankly, kids these days don’t get.
Ours was a generation that moved too quickly; as soon as arcades really hit their pinnacle, home video game consoles took off, whittling away some peoples’ need to seek that entertainment outside of their home. And as game consoles got more powerful, you could run arcade-perfect translations at home, without having to budget quarters between Street Fighter II, NBA Jam, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Remember that arcade smell? It was that iron smell of teenage boys and pocket change, the rubbed-raw wood of the arcade cabinets, all the electric wiring keeping the place alive. You could smell it all. And the sounds—a torrent of chiptune music, the change machines spitting quarters into their metal bowls, the grumbles and grunts of people pushing past each other to get to their favorite game, and the occasional explosion of a crowd when an impressive move was pulled off.
You never hated going to the mall when you were young because you could go to the arcade while your parents shopped. Kids don’t get that kind of escape anymore.
There are still mini-golf arcades here and there. And there are smaller arcades popping back up around the country. I’d wager to say that all of the mall arcades are gone, but in their wake, some strip mall arcades came around. Even those have, one-by-one, disappeared or become gaming “lounges”, where you pay per hour and play on home gaming consoles instead of arcade cabinets. Or, if they do have cabinets, your options are limited. There’s also been a resurgence of arcades as “barcades”—21-and-over arcades that serve alcohol and do DJ events on the weekends. These are great for adults, but I want my son to experience the magic too.
You can install an emulator on your home computer—even get an arcade-style joystick. But that’s only half of the magic. Playing old arcade games on my computer at home with my son gives me that “you had to be there” feeling…
“When I was a kid,” I’d tell my son, “there were big rooms of these games, and they all cost money.”
“Okay, dad,” my son would reply.
“What I’m telling you is, we couldn’t just beat a game,” I’d continue. “When you’d die, you’d die. And you had to get better or there was no reason to keep putting money in the machine.”
“Okay, dad,” my son would answer again, pounding on the “1P coin” button we assigned to one of the joystick buttons.
“I’ve never beaten this game before. Never got past the second level,” I’d say.
“I did,” he’d say, never moving his eyes from the computer screen.
I just don’t know how to reconcile the idea that games I’d never beaten are now just a matter of free continues.
When I was a kid, time was just one aspect. You had the time between when your parents said it was okay for you to go to the arcade until the time that they’d show up outside the arcade with their Nordstrom, Robinson’s May, or Montgomery Ward bags at their sides. Minus, of course, the time it took you to run from the drop-off point to the arcade—which, on little legs, was forever.
But time was nothing up against the financial wall of your quarter quotient. It was a delicate and unique mathematical equation based on a couple of factors (so insert “if any” next to basically every factor: your allowance, plus chore money, plus found money, minus toys or baseball cards bought in the meantime.) So, everyone’s average was different—and you’d be going to the arcade with anywhere from 3 to 25 quarters at a time, depending on age, tax bracket, and budget.
Even then, your time and quarter limitations were modified by the crowd. Was there a steady stream of kids already playing the game you wanted to play? Maybe you’d hang back and watch others until your game opened up. Or maybe you’d settle for something you wouldn’t normally play, like Space Harrier.
The past was all about limitations. Now, we’ve got so much power on our phones that we forget sometimes how much time it took to do things, just 20 years ago. I mean, I can send e-mails while I walk through the mall, and search for coupons online as I walk into a store. Or, as my son and I are sitting on a mall bench, waiting for my wife to do her shopping, my son can play practically any game he’d like—for, more or less, free—between my phone and our handheld video game systems.
When I sit and think about how far we’ve come, it breaks my mind.
And there’s that part of me that would trade it all to bring my son back to an arcade in the early 90s. Sure, I could take him to a modern arcade, but again—part of the magic was your limits; limited time, limited money, limited access to these games elsewhere.
Playing Street Fighter II in an arcade setting still has some magic to it, even though I’ve got every iteration of the game at home. But I wonder how my son, who was raised on home consoles, would reconcile having to drop quarters into the machine.
I just don’t think he’d understand it, and I suppose that’s okay. I wonder what my son will reminisce about while he watches his kids play whatever their generation’s game system is.