Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday 13 May 2013

Game Saved: Rest In Peace

I’d like to say a few words in remembrance of a dear friend of mine. A place, not a person: the amusement arcade, may it rest in peace.


It was with some trepidation I approached each cabinet in the arcade. After all, ten whole pence was a lot of money to waste on a bad game. Worse, to waste it on a game I couldn’t fathom, a game I hadn’t played and didn’t yet understand. That would be a terrible mistake.

So I watched each machine before I played it, gauging whether it was worth the pocket money kept in the plastic saver around my neck. The attract mode, as the industry calls it: the arcade equivalent of a carnival barker hollering patter through a megaphone. “Come one, come all,” they seemed to say. “Roll up and take your best shot.”

The attract mode’s rolling demos showed levels played by players who were always a little worse at the game than they should be. They let down their guard, made stupid mistakes. “I could do better than that,” I thought, every single time. I wouldn’t let my guard down. I’d succeed where the invisible player had failed.

It helped if there was a player’s guide on the cabinet, an explanation of what each button did. There was little worse than playing a game for the first time and discovering--through no error of your own--that the first button you hit was a special move or smartbomb in short supply. Not yet acquainted with the controls you hit a button and bam!, the empty screen fills with ninja magic and you’re left to face the rest of the game underpowered and alone.

But work out which button did what and oh, the riches that awaited you! Here in this smoky Aladdin’s cavern, buttons scorched and melted by fag ends, ashtrays protruding, sticky carpets in spiralling designs, faded posters on the walls, the giddy carnival sound of a thousand digital fanfares, coins belched from fruit machines, gamblers pulling one armed bandits, coin pushers undulating, light bulbs flashing, and you, you and you alone are a bad enough dude to rescue the president. Only you can save the galaxy. Only you can claim the high score and graffiti your initials on the leaderboard for the whole world to see.

Visiting the arcade was like taking a trip into the future. The graphics were . . . incredible. Photo-realistic.  At every blow in Mortal Kombat, as blood flew, the crowd grimaced--and you’d draw a crowd. People would stand to watch, and wait their turn, and join in, asking, “Need a hand, mate?” and they’d thumb in a second credit, player two has joined the game.

Alliances formed in the heat of battle. Two player Golden Axe, four player Gauntlet. Six! player X-Men, from Cyclops to Dazzler, beating down the Juggernet, fast friends for as long as your pocket money holds out.

You couldn’t play games like this at home. The colours, the sounds. The gruelling inversions of an R360 cabinet, the machine gun thud of Operation Wolf, the whole cab shook--it juddered, sending shivers along the floorboards, making the whole arcade stop and stare. Sitting down secluded in a galaxy far far away, running trenches in Star Wars, tearing up the highways in Road Blasters. Games that spoke as you passed them, that taunted.


And cranes grabbing plush toys, and miniature race tracks, camel races, the Grand National.

-- “Place your bets now, please.” --

Tickets to win prizes. Bingo stools and change machines. A thousand ways to spend your money, all clamouring for your attention.

The seediness of it all, the danger, teenagers with flick-knives hogging Rainbow Islands, slamming pinball machines into full tilt. Dystopia and utopia blended into one: this was the future; it couldn’t be anything else.

And then,



The arcade limped to its grave, a drawn out death ushered by a new generation of home consoles. The past caught up with it; then, like an onlooker rubbernecking a car accident, drove on.

Arcades are sad places now, like defiled temples or graveyards. Only a few gimmicks remain from the last of their glory days: failing markers like Dance Dance Revolution, Virtua Tennis and Silent Scope. If you’re lucky you might still find some Daytona cabs still linked together. But with every year that passes, and without maintenance, even these reminders are fading into history. The coin pushers and quiz machines live on, but they’re scant support for the amusement arcade which has sadly passed into shadow.

I miss them, my good friends, who were always there at every seaside holiday. I miss the Whack-a-moles, the Final Fights, the Dig-Dugs, the Pac-Men, the Space Invaders, the Double Dragons, the Combat Tribes and more. Even with boundless gaming technology at my fingertips, I still miss the arcades.

We will not see their like again.

1 comment:

  1. I remember Mom dropping us off at Milford Recreation in Milford, Connecticut. We'd pile out of her Dodge Sportsman van after a 15 minute ride over. She'd hand us 5 or 10 dollars a piece and tell us she'd be back in an hour or two after she finished shopping. There were easily a hundred console and pinball games there - and a dozen full-sized pool tables available by the hour. Downstairs they had a commercial version of Laser Tag and mini-golf outdoors. 80's tunes blared over the speakers - accompanied by analog video game sound effects. It was magic. I spent a lot of time in the Discs of Tron standup and playing a certain pinball game, Party Zone. Those were the days. Fortunately, you can relive them in the land of emulation. I got into the Visual Pinball and MAME scene - downloading a lot of my favorites from back in the day (including a pretty awesome version of Party Zone). The arcade lives on in my living room.