I realised a few months ago that the Christmas of this year marks my 15-year gaming anniversary. I know for a fact that that’s not quite true, as the number of years I’ve actually been playing tails much further back into the mists of time than that, but it all gets a bit blurry dates-wise as I get back into my old ZX Spectrum days, making the actual starting point hard to fathom.
And besides, 15 is a nice round number for an anniversary, and it has just the right ring of gravitas and significance to justify me having a party of some sort. So the date a console, namely the Super NES, first came into my house shall henceforth be the official one to celebrate.
But I’m not going to talk about that today. No, there are other, more important things to discuss. You see the upcoming anniversary has naturally got me thinking about all kinds of things that have happened over the length of my gaming career to date, and this article is about the subject that has had me whirling off into more hours of misty-eyed musing than anything else. Something crucially important to the development of gaming, both in terms of the industry, and to me on an incredibly significant personal level.
And something that’s been tragically overlooked and eschewed in recent years, to the point where it’s become nigh on obsolete.
I’m not sure if I thoroughly appreciated them at the time, although that may be the tainted hindsight and self-recrimination that comes with not having realised that you were eventually going to lose something you loved. But long before consoles took up their 15 year reign of terror over my family’s TV, these places did the all-important and forever-appreciated work of switching me on to the world in which I would eventually operate.
They welcomed me into a whole other life for the very first time, and behind their doors impacting upon me sights, sounds, and experiences I had never imagined before. They hooked me in, showed me just how good it could be, and made sure that I’d be a gamer for the rest of my life. And it’s only recently that I’ve started to seriously consider just how important a phenomenon they were. Unfortunately though, as with a great many of the best things in life, that realisation has partly come about due to their loss.
It’s a loss that I know is impossible to explain to a lot of people born later than I was. If you’ve only ever known your living room to be the place where cutting edge graphics and new gameplay experiences are on display, it’s hard to understand what was so special about those places.
It’s one of those mid-generational cultural gaps that make me realise I’m getting older, like talking to kids who’ve never seen an audio cassette, or heard vinyl outside of a nightclub. But it’s one of those strange, poignant losses, like the death of a favourite childhood pet, or hearing that your first teenage love has moved away and got married. You feel sad now, but it hits doubly hard to the younger version of yourself who you still carry around inside you.
Imagine if you can, the U.K. gaming climate at the time. 8-bit was around, and was the standard everyone had in their homes, if they had anything at all. The NES was doing well, the Master System was running not so far behind, and while the Mega Drive/Genesis was the prestige machine in terms of horsepower, it was thinner on the ground.
Sonic The Hedgehog and Streets Of Rage were legendary, glimpsed only briefly on days when you went round to an older or richer friend’s house, and the Super Famicom was a distant myth, heard of only in second and third hand tales of what was being seen in Japan. The U.S. release of the Super NES was still far off, and living in England, we knew that it was farther off still for us.
For most over here, the classic home computers such as the Spectrum or the Commodore C64 were still king, with Amigas occupying the same place as the Mega Drive, only more so. Hell, we were happy just getting to play on my friend’s Atari 2600.
Being the proto-gamers of the day though, we knew something big was coming. You could feel it in the air between gaming conversations back then. You couldn’t put your finger on it, given how far behind Japan and America we were in terms of information and established gaming culture, but between our youthful excitement at the current games, what we could see happening on the more expensive systems, and these constant rumours of what the Super Famicom could do, the climate at the time was incredible. But there was nothing we could do but sit and wait.
Until you stepped into an arcade that was. They had become my religious pilgrimage on every Summer day trip to whatever seaside town we were going to go to when the weather was good. Stepping into those places was an experience like no other before it. Passing from the bright sunlight into the shade, the smell of salt, vinegar and ketchup from the burger stalls outside steadily blended with, and was then swiftly replaced with, warm circuit boards, sweat, and slightly sticky carpets.
You felt the building’s cool, dark arms wrap around you and pull you through a portal into a whole other world. Here, the past, present, and most importantly the future of games swirled in the air all around you. Those screens had magic in them, and it flickered and glowed with every frame, explosion, and racking up of a score. The music of gaming mashed and blended together, filling every available space with the whoops, pings, rings and melodies of early morning nerdsong. You were somewhere special, and you knew it.
It was a place to experience everything. Everything that was, everything that would be, in that far off fantasy gaming future you constantly dreamt about, and all the things that you had no idea could be. Other people went to these towns for the beach, or the air, or the funfair, but this was my funfair. It was a whole theme park dedicated to the very thing I was discovering to be so important to me, and it allowed me to try anything.
In however many hours I spent on any day I was in one of those places, I could happily go from Pac-Man, to Double Dragon, to Chase HQ and SCI, to Final Fight, to Galaga, to Afterburner without a single pause, filling my days with meeting and forming those early relationships with all of these oft-heard of but rarely seen legends of the world I was eagerly getting into.
And my mind was blown again and again in terms of sheer experience, as I went from throwing my whole body around on the scale replica motorbike of Suzuka 8 Hours (I was probably too small and light back then to make it work, but I didn’t care), to marvelling at the twin monitor set up of Punch-Out!!, to boggling at the stereographic 3D display of Sega’s Time Traveller, to nerdgasming all over the giant 4 foot screen of Burning Fight at the first sit-down cabinet I’d ever seen.
More than just a collection of games, these places were a showcase of gaming and gaming technology, where developers showboated what their R&D departments had come up with that year, and all with the intention of impressing the hell out of you. They were incredible places to lose yourself in.
Some of the most significant events of my developing gamerdom happened because of arcades. Some of the most important words in my vocabulary were first heard and learnt there. Words like “Capcom”, “Konami”, “Namco”, and “Taito”. Not to mention “Press start to play”, “Insert credit”, “Continue?” and the whole rest of the lexicology of gaming.
The first time I ever played Streetfighter II was in an arcade. The first time I ever played Super Mario World (and therefore the first time I ever played a Super NES) was in an arcade, on one of those Playchoice Super NES demo machines Nintendo shipped over here a few months before the console’s release. And that former example is significant in a few different ways. Obviously it was the first time I ever played one of the all-time classics and a game which is still one of my favourites today, but the way it happened was one of those classic arcade stories that you just don’t get any more.
I was standing there, awaiting my go, while one of the arcade pros, a guy of about 17 who’d pumped a king’s ransom of credits in, hammered away. I could see it being a long wait, but being about 12 and obsessed with playing this legend of gaming, wait I did. Eventually, much to my shock, the guy hit the player 2 start button and told me to jump in. This was unheard of, as far as I knew back then. You paid for your own game or you pooled coinage with a friend for multiplayer. But here was this guy, offering me a game, just for the sake of it! I stepped up, eyes glowing in the light of the character select screen, and choosing Ken against his Zangief, I was in.
And then something strange happened. After the third round, I won. I actually won against this guy. And immediately I felt a bond with and excitement about the game that I’d never have had playing on my own or beating someone on a console at home. I got a tingle in my spine and fingers and an adrenaline rush I’d never felt from a game before. Years before the terminology for the action was ever coined, I’d pwned someone for the first time and it felt great. Of course, whether or not the guy let me win is a debatable point, but going off the way he unapologetically dropped in a spinning piledriver in the second round, I like to think he didn’t …
It’s strange thinking I’ll never know who that nameless Streetfighter player was, but I’ll always remember him. Whether out of kindness or merely a desire to get rid of the kid whose hanging around the cabinet was putting him off his game, he unwittingly introduced me to a whole new area of gaming and arcade culture and got me hooked instantly.
And I tell you that story not as an excitable rambling tangent, but for a very specific purpose. At this point I can almost hear a bunch of you screaming “Jesus Dave, it’s youthful nostalgia! Drop it now before you start telling us how much fun it was getting bombed out by the Luftwaffe.”. But you’d be wrong.
Of course, there’s probably an element of that in my feelings. It’d be unrealistic to pretend otherwise. But the thing that really made arcades was the player to player interaction. They were a place where the passionate gamers of the day, be they the hardest of hardcore or the most laughable of noob, could come together, hang out together, play together, and make the most of their hobby together.
Whether you were a Streetfighter II nut or a budding Galaga pilot you could always make a friend, be introduced to a new game, learn something new about one you already knew, or just spend a damn good afternoon thrashing away at the controls and building friendly gaming rivalries with the other regulars.
The sense of community and camaraderie in a good arcade could be electrifying. Despite the technology-led nature of the pastime, as an adult gamer, I have a very strong ideology of gaming being all about the human element, about the most fun times being gleaned from bringing people together for shared experiences. As far as I’m concerned, the hardware and the software should be designed to maximise players’ interaction with each other as much as with the game, whether it’s through the method of play, or just the emotions the game evokes. Looking back, I can see how the seed of this idea was well and truly planted in arcades.
It was brilliant watching how the culture of each place worked, with each having its own set of regulars who met and got to know each other purely through the games they played and how they chose to play them. You got to know the guy standing next to you through his play style, the combos he used, the characters he picked, and the power-ups he went after, so by the time you actually got round to a conversation, you already a had a pretty good idea of who you were talking to. It was the purest form of people coming together through shared interests, and it showed me early on just how powerful the community element of gaming could be.
And then you got the little sub-cultures within the sub-culture, the players who built even stronger bonds through their passion for a particular genre, series or machine. Shuffling my way into the crowd around the new Mortal Kombat II machine on a Saturday afternoon, character chosen, special moves read up on and learnt during the week, and hoping I could pull it all off in practice and hold my own in front of the MK elite was a nerve wracking experience at first, but everyone with an interest was accepted and all who wanted to learn about a game were welcomed and encouraged.
And that led to the competition. It was friendly and no egos were ever really bruised, but it was noticeably there. The high score was the badge of honour you were going for, and while a demanding mistress, it was one which would heap the glory of the heavens upon you if you attained it. The downer of that final “Game Over” screen with the empty credits counter was always erased as soon as you saw the flashing cursor appear on the score table, inviting you to make your mark.
Once you’d burnt your three character autograph onto the machine, that cabinet was yours and you knew it. Capcom or Taito may have made it, and the manager of the arcade might own it it, but spiritually, in all the important ways, it was yours. And walking smugly away, you knew that soon everyone else would know it too. This led to the most enjoyable and rewarding games of one-upmanship, as players fought long and hard over periods of weeks and months in unspoken, respectful turf wars over machines. There would never be an eventual winner and everyone knew it, but playing the game with like-minded people, improving your game through the practice and the rivalry, and having a hell of a lot of fun in the process was more than enough prize in itself.
Arcades were an incredible experience. They were decadent bordellos of videogame excess. Palaces dedicated to the sampling and experience of every earthly pleasure of gaming, with the comedowns, hangovers, and STDs of the mainstream world equivalents replaced with adrenalin rushes and bonus credits, and where the only lasting side-effect was your name at the top of a screen, beaming down on your peers and daring them to topple you.
A young player could walk in naïve and inexperienced, and through an entirely different set of wrist flicks and finger dancing to the usual of adolescence, could walk out a proud man.
But this brings us round to the inevitable question forshadowed in the second paragraph of this article. If arcades were so great, just why have they all but died out?
The accepted wisdom you’ll meet in answer to this is that arcades thrived on new technology, bleeding edge graphics and sound, and pulled in players on the promise of bringing them experiences you just could not get on a home console or computer. Obviously that situation changed a couple of generations ago, and in a world where the price of even the most eye-haemorrhaging new graphics card equates to little more than you’d have spent on arcade credits in a few months, the once opulent Aladdin’s caves of gaming just can’t compete any more.
And arguably, home gaming has become a much more sociable activity over the last few years. Arcade players grew up in an era when gaming was feared amongst the mainstream masses as the new Rock ‘N’ Roll, and Mario and Ryu were vilified by parents and the sensationalist press in the same way that Elvis and Jerry Lee had been 40 years before them. Playing a game would make you kill, rape, and give you epilepsy, and arcades were our refuge from all the hysteria, a place where we could come together and revel in our pastime without being branded nerds or sociopaths.
Now however, that’s changed too. The social climate around gaming has developed for the better at a rate that still astonishes anyone who started playing in the late ‘80’s or early ‘90’s, to the point where the industry rivals Hollywood in terms of mainstream success and geriatrics are the new in-crowd. Online gaming communities have more members that the military forces of some countries these days, and with a multitude of sites and forums for every single system, genre and game, you’re never looking for a friend or opponent for long.
And there are other influences from outside the industry too. Saddest of all is the fact that a lot of the towns these places sprung up in are also dying. Growing prosperous during the Victorian era of leisure and excess, these towns dedicated their whole being to catering to the every whim of the visiting crowds, providing amusements and entertainment of every description on every street of their sun baked coastal environs. They were larger than life, Technicolor fever dreams of places, where a heightened sense of reality saturated every corner, and bright colours and slightly tacky decorations beamed as brightly as the ice-cream messed children populating their seafronts.
But with travel to mainland Europe becoming ever easier and ever cheaper since the ‘80’s, worldwide holiday destinations are available to all rather than just the privileged few, and the vast hordes of (largely) working class fun seekers who used to fuel these towns just aren’t turning up any more. The result is that these once vibrant places are decaying and empty, streets and amusement palaces now barren and lifeless apart from a few tired looking locals. The crowds, affluence, and self esteem of towns like this are vanishing at an astonishing rate, and the peeling paint and crumbling architecture of the buildings that were once a monument to glowing excess make it all the more tragic to watch as these places give up hope and wait to slowly fall into the sea.
And with the success and optimism of the leisure towns go the arcades.
Of course, Japan famously still has a very healthy arcade scene without any need to rely on the prosperity of such areas, but they also have a far longer established gaming tradition in their mainstream culture, and partly as a result, a more outgoing attitude towards the activity.
I find that Westerners, particularly the British, have a more apathetic attitude towards their leisure time, preferring to take what they see as the more hassle-free option of either staying at home for their gaming or spending their time when out sitting in a pub. It’s a much more passive approach towards their free time, and it’s rare that the effort to combine the activity of gaming with their time out of the house is ever made.
And now you’re screaming, “Shut up Dave! This is sad, but you negated all need for arcades with your finely crafted words but a few paragraphs ago . Well done on pwning yourself.”. But you’re wrong.
I love the way modern gaming is. I love the graphics, I love the music, I love the depth, I love the innovation, and most of all, I love the people. But say what you like about the brilliance of X-Box Live (and it is brilliant), arcades were better. You see ironically, it’s because of my love of gaming communities and the human element in our pastime that I’ll always prefer them to the modern set up. Yes, I’ve got millions of players to choose from and I can play with them at any one of hundreds of technologically advanced titles from the comfort of my own sofa, but the whole thing just feels so detached in comparison.
Even if I’m playing against people I know, or people I’ve built relationships with through the game, it’s just not the same. I’m not standing toe to toe around a glowing cabinet while an audience of my peers stands around, cheering and jeering and feeling every success and failure with me. I’m not playing against someone I got talking to over a drink after a developing mutual respect through a well fought game of Virtua Fighter. I’m not watching uncertain newcomers walk into the room and welcoming them into the fold after recognised a bit of my old self in them, and I miss all of it.
But I’m not going to let this article go out on a low note. I won’t allow it. Arcades gave me a hell of a lot of fun and personal enrichment as an emerging gamer, and I’m not going to let a tribute to them trickle to a depressing and apologetic conclusion. So with that in mind, I have devised a scheme to send the buggers out on the glorious note they deserve.
I propose, dear readers, a second part of this article. You see next week, I am going to instigate a road trip to a few of my old gaming haunts. I’ve signed up a couple of my more hardcore buddies, and we’re going to load up our pockets with coinage and head out on the road to our favourite towns from our early days.
We’re going to seek out arcades, big and small, old and (hopefully) new, and we’re going to try our damndest to find some of the places that made us who we are now. And when we find them, my God, we’re going to play! I’ll write reports on each place we find, detailing the games, the players, the atmosphere, and why you should or shouldn’t want to go there, and full addresses and details will be included.
I hope it goes well. I hope we find a few places that are still keeping this most ancient and much loved scene alive, and I hope I’ve got good things to tell you when I get back. But even if the worst happens and we don’t find anything, or if what we find depresses us, or makes us realise the whole scene is dead forever, it’ll still be the right thing to do. It’s a trip worth making, and a job worth doing, and it’ll be the most fitting way I can think of to say goodbye.
Wish me luck people, wish me luck.