With Nintendo’s big announcement of a new console today, it got me thinking; what was my first real video game experience? When you ask a lot of people what their first gaming experience was like, they probably say it was through the NES or the SMS. Some people maybe had a high-end Japanese import device with a library of games that were so cool it matched the strange name that went along with it. For a select few, it was maybe the Atari 2600, the Amiga, the VIC20, Texas Instruments, or the Commodore 64. My first video game experience was none of those things. It was waiting in line in some dingy bowling alley to play a game (Pac-Man by the way). A few days later came the news. Our local mall was opening up an arcade. The moment I set foot into it, I knew I was in love. I knew I was home.
True, I have fond memories of pouring my heart and soul into countless hours on my Atari or C64. But the Arcade stands alone in many ways. It was a social experiment of the highest order. You didn’t just play games. There was more to it. It was visceral.
You cheered your champions on as they destroyed wave after wave of Foot Soldiers. There was some degree of smack talk, but no one took it too far, ever. I guess being in the presence of an actual person tempered that. You borrowed moves and techniques from hardcore players (sorry Internet; your walk-throughs, cheat codes and strategies are a long way away), so that if your turn ever came up, you would be able to hold your own in Karate Champ, Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat.
It was patience and timing, mixed with money management and horrible mall food. Darkness and neon mixed with a cacophonous din that drove some to madness and others to serenity.
It brought movies to life in a way you never thought possible. I’ll never forget destroying my first Death Star. The Force is strong with this one, indeed. It taught the value of a dollar, one quarter at a time as you fought to get your three character initials up on the leader-board for all to see. Maybe, you even had the moxy to make those initials a dirty word. So many attempts to be that person. Every hour spent, every quarter dropped was an investment.
Above all else, it was an experience that will never be the same again. Arcades have gone and since started to make their way back into the mainstream. Pinball machines replaced with cabinets. Cabinets and cocktail machines replaced with consoles. Quarters gave way to Loonies and Twonies, and then infinite lives to help bring back those who strayed. No more urgency, or fear, or anxiety. Play until your heart’s content. Such is the way of progress, I suppose.
You can never go home again, I guess. But, I’m glad there are people out there who keep trying. Maybe one day, I’ll find my way back. I might be the grumpy old man destroying Tie Fighters or winning a virtual karate tournament in the back corner there. Hunched over the cabinet no one wants to play. Go ahead, you’re welcome to join me.
Know any good arcades that are still keeping the faith? What was a game of choice for you back in the day? Let us know! Cheers!
PS – Not the same but good to see nonetheless.