When the Pocket Change arcade in the mall went down last year, it was like having an old friend who had been struggling for a long time finally kick the bucket; sad, but an end to the pain.
I had spent a lot of money and good times in that arcade. It was depressing to see it so empty most of the time. The games thinned out until only gimmick cabinets like Dance Dance Revolution and horse game were left. Then, delegated to the spot usually reserved for H&R Block at tax time, it sputtered out in the last few months with only a few faded shooters and bored kids at it’s deathbed.
I don’t remember what my first arcade game experience was. It could have been Asteroids at the long-gone bowling alley, or begging strangers for quarters so I could play Rampage at the roller-rink during a school outing. It might have been the Gauntlet game at the KoA Campground down the road from my grandparent’s cabin. I do know wherever I found games at amusement parks, super markets entryways or office lobbies, I had to at least watch the screens for a little while.
If I had a quarter, well, I was in Double Dragon heaven.
Things didn’t get serious until an Aladdin’s Castle went up in the mall about an hour from town. My video game career started there with Golden Axe. My God, that game had everything I dreamed of doing; chopping monsters with swords, shooting magic, kicking gnomes and riding f*cking dragon-things.
That was the part that really impressed me. I think the day I beat the game with the help of some older kids was the highlight of my youth.
I was still pretty young at the time, so it was usually only a couple of quarters and my mother over my shoulder. Occasionally I’d get a whole dollar and some time to myself so I could diversify. I remember being impressed with a few Neo-Geo games like Crossed Swords and King of the Monsters.
Later, a new, better mall opened, with a new, better arcade; my beloved Pocket Change. I was older, had my own money, and could spend as long as I wanted in the arcade. It was the boom years, the industry’s adolescence where nothing was too crazy. When tons of software companies were making games of all kinds. Game play and graphics improved every year. Games even started to use actual bad actors and motion capture technology. There was even a holographic game about a time-traveling cowboy. Envelopes filled with adult themes and gore were pushed.
I had my favorites. Of the fighters, I loved the Street Fighter and Samurai Showdown series. I could never pull off the 134 combos in Killer Instinct, except once, right after I told the dude how badly I sucked at the game. I wasn’t good at Mortal Kombat either, though I really enjoyed the second one. I wasn’t big on the gratuitous gore, but dismembering limbs as part of the actual battle was pretty damn cool. So was making dinosaurs eat pagan worshipers.
Side-scrolling brawler games like the aforementioned Ninja Turtle and Simpsons game were always fun, as were the later games based on the X-Men and Avengers franchise. I played the p*ss out of the Alien V.S. Predator game.
Shooter games seemed awfully cheap to me (you couldn’t not get hit!), though I did play Aliens, House of the Dead, CarnEvil and some long forgotten Ghostbuster knockoff. I developed a situational crush on Maximum Force during a Greyhound Bus trip to Texas because every damn station had the game in the lobby.
This was all going on in the 199o’s, at the same time the great home console war was being fought by Nintendo, Sega, Panasonic’s 3DO, Hudsonsoft’s Turbo Graphics 16 and the Atari Jaguar. Some other unmemorable systems were probably kicking around in back alleys too, looking for a few kids to mug.
Even with home games exploding, the arcades were always full. The games were usually just better, at least graphically, than the best home systems could offer at the time. There was a certain social aspect to playing games in an arcade too. Even if it was with people you didn’t know, you all had something in common, and that was way better than jumping on turtles alone at home.
However, sometime in the late 90’s, the technology at home finally started to catch up. Arcades couldn’t really offer much that Nintendo or the newcomers Sony and Microsoft couldn’t. People started crowding around each others television sets instead of cabinets in the arcades. Home systems and arcades seemed to live in harmony for a little while, when arcades still had stuff that were hard to create at home, like accurate light gun games, dance platforms and ridiculous sh*t like Rapid River.
In the end, it was home technology and people like me who killed the arcades. Little did I know, when I was playing Final Fantasy XII and Resident Evil in my dorm room, I was turning the knife in my old friend.
Occasionally I’ll find the odd arcade game here and there and tear up a little as I drop in a few quarters. The card shop where I used to play Magic had an Avengers cabinet I played the sh*t out of. Once, on a trip to Mackinaw Island, I heard the unmistakeably cacophony of Bart and Lisa Simpson’s team attack from somewhere above the bathroom I was using. Upon further investigation, a tiny arcade taunted me with The Simpsons, viewable through a locked glass window, as plain to see but as inaccessible as the past.