I will unabashedly admit I probably spent a significant amount of my youth in shopping and convenience stores, not purchasing slushees or bugging my mom for Count Chockula (BooBery was better if you ask me--I wonder about you Count Chockula people). Instead I was feeding quarters to Pac Man, Asteroids, and Robotron. Generations before that, it was penny arcades and pinball; generations after, Street Fighter and Dance Dance Revolution. Ahhh, the glory days of arcade gaming, when all “lives” cost real money and avoiding defeat for more than two minutes was a significant accomplishment. When playing a new game meant traveling across town to find it after scrounging around the sofa cushions for change. Before the rapid proliferation of console gaming and stay-at-home computer magic turned all the neighborhood kids pale and fleshy.
Whatever happened to the public gaming arcades? All the noises and sights and sounds, the smell of popcorn and dust, the narrow corridors of mechanized robots and race cars? Black lights and blue pixels? Sure, let your brothers, sisters, moms, and dads strap wheels to their feet and go around in circles, or roll a ball at a set of pins, you’re going to be over in the corner trying to save a princess from a crazed gorilla or defending the earth from aliens. You have much more important things to do than play silly games!
From commerce’s earliest days, enterprising people always found creative ways of getting others to cough up money. When it wasn’t for something material, it was for an experience. From seeing a bearded lady to riding on an elephant, paying for access to unusual entertainment has always been a staple of any culture. The moment someone figured out how to perform a complex and useful task using mechanics or electronics, approximately six seconds later, that same technology was repurposed to create something amusing and distracting. It’s in our nature. Every industrial and technological revolution also produced revolutions in entertainment.
One of the most fun manifestations of this phenomenon was the public arcade, and its supplier the coin-op game industry. As kids nowadays grow up with a bazillion complex computer simulations built into their home entertainment centers, they may forget gaming’s more humble past of pixelated graphics, non-humanoid avatars, simple rulesets, and odd mechanics.
But within a period of 20 years, we went from public arcades everywhere to nothing. What happened?
For decades, pinball and similar mechanical games were king, mostly located in centralized urban arcades. Next , a tech revolution allowed the production of more reliable and affordable games, and they started popping up individually in places ranging from bars to convenience stores. Then came another revolution, introducing video games that could earn as much money as their mechanical predecessors, with a fraction of the cost and maintenance issues. When a Pac Man machine only needed to be serviced once a month, compared to a pinball machine requiring adjustment every few days, it signaled the beginning of the end of high-maintenance arcades. Likewise, when console games became popular and people could choose to play unlimited games in their living room, the large, dedicated arcade games lost players and quickly lost the economic battle.
But there are many indications that retro-gaming and coin-op arcade play is becoming popular again. Computer technology has become so advanced that your average phone has the power to play thousands of vintage arcade games from the last 30+ years. A new generation of players are discovering Donkey Kong, Tekken, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Thanks to the power of the Internet and people refusing to let old code die, there are projects like MAME (which stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), which can reliably emulate the old arcade game hardware systems in modern computing devices. You can now play Williams Joust or Atari Tempest on your home computer--not simply a copy of the game, but the actual original game code, complete with the back doors and glitches you remember, run on top of a software program that pretends to be the original hardware.
What are your options if you’re hungry to play classic arcade games the way they were meant to be? Right now, it’s becoming harder to find pinball locally. There are still a few places in the area where you can find groups of classic games “in the wild”--locally places like The Gold Mine in the French Quarter or Barcadia on Tchoupitoulas. A few places occasionally have a working game or two, such as the Frostop off Claiborne or Mick’s. There’s also talk of more arcade places opening, from the Mystic Krewe’s project to open an upscale pinball parlor to the recent plans for Dave & Buster’s to open a location on Poydras. It appears that classic arcade gaming may be ready for a resurgence .
You’ve also probably already seen that many titles have been re-released on popular gaming consoles, and online there are various simulations and “retro game packages” you can get on your phones. You can also build your own vintage arcade, using a computer running MAME, or purchase various licensed (and often un-licensed) multi-game cabinets from sellers on eBay and Craigslist. There are even “multi-game boards” you can put into old game cabinets and turn them from a single game into 30, 60, or 100+ games.
It’s exciting to see the old games get more attention and respect. If you haven’t taken a break lately from killing zombies, give it a try! For more information, see: http://www.arcade-museum.com/ or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAME .