Ode to Arcades

Back when I was a kid, in the 80’s and 90’s, arcades were ubiquitous. Every mall had one, and plenty of shopping centers did too. They were often large, multi-level places with lots of now classic coin-ops; Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, The Simpsons, X-Men, Primal Rage, Crazy Taxi, Sunset Riders, Magic Sword, Alien vs. Predator, Tekken, NBA Jam, and so many more. Most arcades at the time also had a good selection of pinball machines and the various ticket redemption games that would dispense tickets you could exchange for various prizes.

As home console hardware improved in the late 90’s and early 2000’s arcades began to experience a decline. No longer was it necessary to drive to an arcade to experience games that couldn’t be replicated on a a home system. Even the communal aspect of arcade gaming was eventually replicated – to an extent – by the emergence of online gaming. For me, however, it was a poor substitute. What made arcades so special wasn’t just the games themselves or the fact that they were graphically superior to console games, it was the experience of arcade gaming. It was seeing a new game in the arcade with lots of people standing around it waiting to play. It was putting your quarter or token on the little ledge beneath the screen to mark your place so you could test your mettle against your fellow gamers. It was the feel of standing at that big machine, the arcade controls, and the competitive vigor of going toe to toe with the guy, or gal, standing right next to you. Playing with friends at home was, and still is, a great time, but it just wasn’t the same.

Arcades were often dark places back then, illuminated entirely by the machines contained within. It was an environment unlike any other and one that a console and living room simply couldn’t duplicate. These days, what passes for an arcade is pitiful and unfulfilling. On a recent trip to Dave & Buster’s – a hybrid restaurant/arcade chain – I was dismayed and their selection of games. There were ticket redemption games, phone turned arcade games like Fruit Ninja, numerous dance games ala DDR, and some gun games along the lines of Lethal Enforcers and Time Crisis. That was it. Where was the variety and selection I remember from my childhood? Where were the hack n slash games like Golden Axe, or the brawlers like Final Fight, or the fighting games like Street Fighter 2? Where were classic games like Q-Bert, Ms. Pac-Man, and Centipede?

To some degree arcades are coming back as trendy, niche places that cater to millenials and aging, nostalgic folks like me. Most of them serve alcohol and call themselves “barcades”. It’s nice that there are places like that now that have coin-ops real gamers would want to play, but it’s a far cry from full fledged arcades like those I grew up going to. Today’s teenagers and 20-somethings won’t remember the arcades of my youth, and it’s a real pity; they don’t know what they missed out on. It was more than just the games themselves, it was the experience and the environment of the arcade that made it so special.

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