Monday, April 18, 2016

Phantom Troublemaker on Video Games – The Arcade

This is the third entry in a series of posts that I’m writing about the part that video games have played in my life. Today’s post was supposed to be about the 16-Bit era and my time working at Video Game Exchange, but I realized that I was skipping over a very important aspect of video gaming in both my life and in pop culture – arcade games.

If you need to play catch-up before reading this post, I wrote about the Atari 2600 in the first part and followed it up with tales of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Both of those consoles have something in common – many of the games available for them were adaptations of popular arcade games.

Just in case there’s anyone reading this that doesn’t fully grasp what an arcade was, here’s a quick primer:

Back in the day (in this case the 1980s and early 90s), there used to be entire storefronts devoted to nothing but cabinets that housed huge varieties of video games. We might still have places like Dave & Busters that throw some arcade cabinets in amongst their obnoxious gambling machines and neon bowling or pizza joints with row after row of greasy joysticks, but I’m talking about retail spaces four or five times as big as your average GameStop with nothing but the latest and greatest video games. These places didn’t even serve sodas for the most part.

These weren’t the only places to play arcade games, as I’ll illustrate throughout this post, but they were the coolest.

Which is part of the reason why I hardly ever played arcade games in actual arcades.
Most of my memories of playing arcade games come from bowling alleys, skating rinks, and other places where things that I wasn’t any good at happened. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not great at video games, but I’m way better at them than I am at bowling or any form of skating. These were also places where there were other activities to keep people occupied, which meant I didn’t have to interact with other people for the most part. I wasn’t good at that, either.

I mentioned pizza joints in a somewhat disparaging manner, but that’s because I’m an adult with what almost constitutes a phobia of sticky things. I can barely stand to eat in an IHOP because if I get sticky stuff on my skin I freak out. Not like, yelling or anything, but I am intensely uncomfortable until I can thoroughly wash it off. And I’m talking red, irritated skin from water that’s way too hot washing it off. Rinsing does not cut it.

But back when I was a kid there was no better place than ShowBiz Pizza Place.

ShowBiz was like Chuck E. Cheese, but rather than a rat with poor grammar their mascot was Billy Bob the hillbilly bear and his band, The Rock-afire Explosion. It would take a whole other post for me to explain to you how much better ShowBiz was than Chuck E. Cheese and how devastated I was when all of the local ShowBiz locations were converted into Chuck E. Cheeses. It was one of the worst moments of my young life, learning that Billy Bob and his pals were going away. I still can’t see Chuck without thinking, “That fucking rat”. And looking at dates I realize now that I was a teenager by the time this was going on. I probably hadn’t been in one in years, but that place was still so special to me.

Everyone that I knew had at least one birthday party at ShowBiz Pizza Place. I would guess that I was there at least once every couple of months for a span of a few years. It’s not like it was a “little kids place”. Pizza and video games spanned a pretty wide range of ages, as is evidenced by the fact that that fucking rat is still around and apparently doing better than ever.

Most of the arcade games that I have ever played I played in a ShowBiz Pizza. One that stands out to me is Dragon’s Lair. I feel pretty confident in saying that I am an animation buff from way back. Sure – al the kids loved cartoons. But I feel like I was slightly more critical of the things I didn’t like and slightly more obsessed with the things I did. I recognized the differences in animation quality at an early age. I remember trying to talk about how Thundercats looked so much better than anything else on the air and getting blank stares. I noticed fluidity of movement and consistency of drawings. If colors were wrong, I saw it and it bugged me. Nobody else I knew noticed or cared about such things.

When Dragon’s Lair came out I knew it was by the same guy that had done The Secret of NIMH. I was only seven and didn’t know what that entailed or who made the drawings or even how animation worked, really, but I knew that Dragon’s Lair was something special and that it didn’t look like any other video game in ShowBiz.

Also, it was impossible.

I don’t know how many tokens I put into Dragon’s Lair and I honestly don’t know if I ever even figured out what the hell I was supposed to be doing. It’s ancient now and everybody knows how the game works, but at the time it was so counterintuitive compared to any other game. You didn’t shoot or move a little vehicle or person or any of the stuff you normally did in games. You just did what the screen told you. And you had to do it immediately. I am not an “immediately” person. My brain is not of the quick response variety. So even years later when I not only knew how the game worked but had actually seen it played through in its entirety, I still couldn’t get past the third or fourth screen.

The only other game I remember specifically playing at ShowBiz is Tron.

I didn’t like Tron when I was a kid. I tried watching it again when the sequel came out. I figured I was older and wiser and that maybe it wouldn’t seem as boring and goofy. That didn’t work out. But the Tron arcade game is a thing of legend. No matter what you think of the movie in its entirety, the concept of the Light Cycles and Light Discs looked awesome both on and in an arcade cabinet. Everybody wanted to play this game. I remember standing in line and waiting, watching other kids racing the Light Cycles. It looked like the coolest thing ever.

When my turn finally came up I put my token in and then died almost immediately. I want to say that Tron is what jaded me at a young age and kept me from spending countless dollars on video games that I was terrible at. I never got sucked into the junkie’s world of arcade games. I saw and knew people that would stand for hours at a cabinet trying to conquer games (or other players). And I always remembered that brief, unsatisfying Tron session.
That’s not to say I never played arcade games, but I never allowed myself to get obsessed with them.

I recall being on a trip with my parents and finding Atari’s vector graphics Star Wars game. This was well past its prime. We were river rafting or doing some kind of outdoorsy thing and I was miserable. This might have been a side trek from our time in Houston in 1987, as a matter of fact. But I was desperate for some form of entertainment. I believe we were staying at a motel and there was a sort of nook off to the side of the lobby. You guys know the sort of nook I’m talking about - oftentimes these nooks are inhabited by a pinball machine, a claw machine, and around three arcade cabinets.

This one had one old, dusty Star Wars cabinet.

I already knew I sucked at the game from prior ShowBiz or bowling alley experience, but I literally had nothing else to do. I spent at least two hours standing there, putting quarters into the slot, and actually getting further in the game. Whenever I ran out of money I found my dad and asked for more. He asked what it was for and when I told him he gave me the look that I do not have the creative ability to describe but that I can picture in my head in an instant. It conveyed exasperation, frustration, disappointment, and an utter lack of understanding. He told me not to waste any more money on that and to find something else to do.

I’m sure he was getting me back for complaining about not wanting to go fishing or something.

I hate fishing.

And then there was Rampage.

Rampage is my favorite arcade game. It is the only arcade game I was ever good at and could actually beat other people in. There were times that I stopped playing because I was out of time rather than money.

I remember one birthday party at a skating rink that my mom basically forced me to go to. Or maybe it was a church event. I’m not sure. All I know is that I didn’t want to be there because I couldn’t roller skate and didn’t particularly like any of the people there. But when I got inside and saw a Rampage cabinet in their arcade section I knew I was going to be okay. I had money for food and for supposed rental of skates, but it was all going to go into that game.

At one point one of those kids came over and asked me if I was just going to play that video game all night. They might have been awkwardly inviting me to participate or they might have been mocking me in some way. Whatever the case I made some snarky response and shut them down. Even if they were being genuine about including me, I had already developed enough trust issues for a whole book by that point. If someone was talking to me, they were probably lining up a way to mock or humiliate me.

As far as actual, for-real arcades go, the one I was around the most was in a shopping plaza called Mall Corners in Duluth, GA. I can’t remember what it was called – though Galactic Adventure sounds familiar – but it was a massive, dark, and loud place.

Mall Corners was across from the proper shopping mall, which did not have an arcade. Me and my friends would get dropped off at one place or the other and, once we had exhausted the possibilities of one locale, play a real-life game of Frogger to cross the very busy six-lane road that ran between them. The mall had Kaybee Toys, Circus World Toys, Gadzooks, Spencer Gifts, and Art Explosion (this was pre-Hot Topic, but we for sure would have been hanging out there, too if it weren’t). The proper mall also had girls.

Mall Corners had Toys R Us, Titan Comics, TCBY, and the arcade. And later Video Game Exchange, which would be the first job I loved and my first management experience at the tender age of 18.

It did not have girls.

Side Note: If you noticed my mention of three different toy stores and a comic book shop above, then you know my girls comments were superfluous anyway. Times are different now, but from birth until at least twenty-five I met exactly three girls that read and enjoyed comic books.

I didn’t necessarily play a lot of games at possibly-Galactic Adventure, but I spent a lot of time watching my buddies paly games. The one that stands out the most is Mortal Kombat.
I can’t tell you what a phenomenon that first MK was. Everyone knew about it even thought it was just an arcade game. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think all that many arcade games had commercials. Not only did Mortal Kombat have a commercial, it was on all the time. It was inescapable. Even my mom new about Mortal Kombat, because she forbade me from even watching people play it, let alone playing it myself.

I only played it a couple of times at the arcade because I knew I would be destroyed, but I watched it a lot. Those graphics almost made it a spectator sport. And when you had people playing that were really good and knew all of the Fatalities it got really intense. I remember people betting on their friends and players talking mad shit. I’m actually surprised I never saw a game come to physical blows, though I’m sure many did.

I can’t finish this thing up without talking about tabletop Centipede.

I’m not as good at that as I am at Rampage, but I loved that game. Any time I see it I have to play it. There was a Pizza Hut near the house where I grew up and for years they had a tabletop Centipede in their lobby. We used to go there as a family quite a bit. They had a buffet that we all loved because who doesn’t love massive amounts of all-you-can-eat carbohydrates?

I would sit down at that console and play a game before we ate. As soon as I was done eating I would play again. And then, when my mom inevitably had to use the bathroom before we left I would get one more game in. I don’t know why the tabletop version is so much better than the standup console, but it is. It just feels cooler playing it.

With all of this nostalgia – good and bad – it’s easy to forget that we live in an age of miracles. Among these miracles is the emergence of a new cultural phenomenon – bars and eateries with massive selections of video game cabinets, both new and classic. And I’m not talking about Dave & Buster’s. These places are actually cool. I’ve heard great things about the Joystick Gamebar in Atlanta, but that place almost seems too cool. The place that I really dig is out in the boonies in Loganville – Flashback Games.

It has tons of classic arcade cabinets, as well as consoles from every era. But it’s less a bar and more like a gigantic bowling alley eatery. And I love it for that. I don’t feel like I have to be cool to be there. It feels like a place for nerds, by nerds. Like it predates the widespread acceptance of nerd culture and is its own bizarre throwback place. It’s comfortable in a way that no hipster joint with neon lights and a fancy bar will ever be.

Stay tuned for the next video game post where I will actually talk about 16-bit consoles and my time at Video Game Exchange!

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post and have a video game reminiscence of your own, join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and get in on the conversation.

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