[Ed. Note – Friend of the Blog Freeman McNeil recently paid a visit to a vintage arcade. He has chronicled his trip for us, which is presented in its entirety below. On behalf of everyone at HFTE, I would like to once again thank Freeman McNeil for this excellent contribution. Follow him on twitter @FreemanMcNeil24]
The 1980s was a decade known for many trends. There were cocaine-fueled money-grabbing sycophants on Wall Street. One hit wonders dominated the pop charts. Movies got bigger and louder, if not necessarily better. However the decade was also responsible for the greatest time in video game history – the social and cultural phenomenon of the arcade culture. This was before the days of online gaming, before MMORPGs, before trash-talking 10 year olds spent hours on HALO and Call of Duty. It was a golden era, a time when Friday and Saturday nights were spent swapping braggadocios claims and putting up quarters to challenge nemeses, real or imagined. This was a time when the economy wasn’t in a tailspin, where people could see if you really could put your money where your mouth was. If you could, in fact, cement your legend one level at a time, and have your initials immortalized until such time that a conquering force came and erased both your high score and your pride. This was the time of legends.
The ease in which we lost our way
There is a city in upstate New York which lost its way years ago. Before the crumbling economy decimated the masses, this town was already in decline. The city was once a flourishing urban center, with factories and industries providing jobs for any family willing to come with the work ethic imparted from the waves of hardworking immigrants from which they were born. The smokestacks billowed daily as if to serve notice to the world that progress was being made here. However as the nation moved towards the inevitability of machination, the need for the factory line worker diminished, and the factories shuttered their doors and windows, the industries moved elsewhere, to newer and cheaper facilities, and the city never really recovered. This city never really experienced the current economic recession, as it had been in steady recession since the 1970s. We didn’t have money, but we knew we didn’t have it, so our city put its head down and plodded onward, if only using slower and unsure footsteps.
This isn’t to say that this city was a ghost town. There was work, but no industry to speak of. It was as if the city was being kept on life support, and no responsible family member had the courage to sign the DNR order. This imparted upon the citizens a kind of bleak and depressive outlook. Fortunately that feeling never really touched the adolescents who would soon find escapism through gaming, though they may not have realized they were escaping anything at all. The late 1970s and early 80s ushered in a distraction for young people which created a subculture, a community within a community. This was the evolution of the video gaming phenomenon. The arcades were our proving grounds, and the malls were our turf.
The Arcade Life
Every city, big and small, had a place for video games in the 1980s. It may have been the proper arcades, usually located within a mall, and usually named in a mystical or cosmic way. You had “Aladdin’s Castle”, “The Galaxy Arcade”, “The Game Room”, Rec Centers, and sundry others. The intrepid gamer could find competition at a bowling alley, a supermarket, the bus station, and anywhere else both youth and quarters would congregate. These places flourished in those salad days. Friday and Saturday nights were spent hounding the guy in the blue vest; the guy with the keys to the consoles and the fanny pack full of tokens. There were places to “put ‘em up,” to put your quarters or tokens on the screen trim, in order to demonstrate your intent on either claiming the next game solo or challenging the current player in a head-to-head battle of skill. You could find yourself choosing among the titans of the day: Joust, Donkey Kong (and all its progeny), Galaga, Tron, Spy Hunter, Space Invaders, Pac Man (although the fairer of the Pac Man sexes always seemed to prove more popular), Frogger, Defender, Pole Position, Star Wars, and far too many more to list. When Dragon’s Lair came out, there was the added thrill of the double decker screen, so scores of admirers could see how well you could memorize patterns and lead Dirk the Daring to the beautiful and buxom Daphne. This was how you were measured in this vibrant subculture. If you could prove your worth without spending too many quarters, then you could be a king for the evening. Towards the middle and end of the decade, games were exploding from the minds of developers, and life was good. Unfortunately, the brightest candle burns twice as fast, and the era of social gaming, in the truest sense of that term, would close. The rise of individual and affordable home gaming systems led to fewer people going to the arcades, and kids could run home, turn on the Atari 2600 (or 5200), the original Nintendo NES, Colecovision, Intellivision, or whichever new system offered the popular titles, reasonably similar to the arcade originals. The golden age was over, and those of us left to mourn thought all hope lost. We would never recapture our innocence, our salad days, and our youth. Thankfully, there is hope for us all. A resurgence in retro gaming has awakened the arcades of old, coughing up dust, arising from their torpor, and emerging once more into the rays of sunlight which somehow penetrate the thick clouds of uncertainty.
There is a city in upstate New York which lost its way years ago. However from the darkness shines one particular light for one particular group of people – the older, old school arcade gamers. I heard of an oasis called “Robot City Games & Arcade.” This refuge harkens back to the halcyon days of my youth. It is situated in an older and weathered part of the city of my birth, demonstrating tenacity like the tree that grew in Brooklyn. When I walked in, I was immediately assaulted by nostalgia – the sights, sounds and smells of my arcade youth. I toured the game room, spotting old familiar names, their warming glow and 8-bit soundtracks as welcoming as an old friend. I saw consoles lovingly refurnished and polished up, and I saw beautiful low lights, hues which recalled the colorful insouciance of the 1980s. After digging and rooting my pockets, past car keys and my phone, I found quarters and deposited them unsteadily into waiting slots. I played Punch Out!, Donkey Kong Jr., Galaga, and NARC. I’d like to say that I knocked the rust off and slayed those games, as in my youth, but I’d be lying. I lost, quite quickly in fact. However, I have never been so happy to be such an abject failure.
On my way out the door, I chatted up the owner. Casey told me that his shop has been open for about four years, and started out as a place to buy and sell used home video games, but opened the arcade only about two months ago. The response, he told me, has been outstanding. There are about three types of people who frequent his arcade: college hipsters bent on either being ironic or retro, the 40 year olds who bring their own children in to experience what can’t really be explained, and the solitary gamers in their 40s or 50s, who bring their own quarters and play for uninterrupted hours, content to silently and solitarily while away the hours in a long-forgotten haze. According to Casey, the three pinball games are just as popular as the roughly 50 or so old school stand up video games.
While progress can be defined in many different ways, progress cannot assign value to memories. For those of us who grew up knowing only tough times, those Friday and Saturday night escapes to the arcade was how we demonstrated our worth. As the years passed and we slowly and silently moved into adulthood, we had to leave behind that which served us best in our youth. Thankfully there is a rebirth of sorts which now allows us to go back in time, as if Doc Brown were our escort, and a Delorean our vehicle. For me, the visit to Robot City Games & Arcade brought wistful reminders of what was once commonplace. I was, again, the once and future king.