A lot of gamers these days only know a world where playing video games at home is the standard. Some of us, however, remember a time when home consoles and PCs paled in comparison to the one true gaming experience: The Arcade. In this editorial, I’m going to wax nostalgic about my personal history with playing arcade games.
I was born in the Dominican Republic in 1980. Up until I emigrated to the United States in the summer of ‘87, I had no idea what a video game was. One of the first gaming experiences I ever had happened inside of a bodega that was owned by one of my dad’s drinking buddies. I remember going into this place when I was about nine years old and staring at this big box with a TV screen in it. Under the TV there was a stick with a ball at the end of it, and a few buttons on the right side of the stick.
By this point I knew what video games were but I didn’t know that they could be found in other forms other than Nintendo’s NES home console. This big thing was a video game? My younger self stared at this big box which had a giant axe and sword painted on its side. The store owner handed me a fist full of quarters and said I could play the game, which turned out to be Golden Axe.
I was a pretty smart kid so I quickly figured out that the quarters were what I needed to play the game and that they needed to be inserted into the slot that said “25¢.” I put the quarters in my pocket, save for one, and inserted into the arcade machine. I wrapped my hand around the joystick, pressed start, and began my first foray into arcade gaming.
To a nine year old kid who had never played an arcade game, this was surreal. All of the colors and sounds were awe-inspiring, to say the least. I selected the barbarian and began. I’ll be honest: I was really overwhelmed at first. It was the graphics that really did it for me. No Nintendo game looked like this one. I quickly had to stop admiring the aesthetics of the game because bad guys were closing in.
I hate to admit it, but I did a lot of looking at the arcade screen and then at my fingers for a while to see if I was pressing the right buttons. I played for about ten minutes and used up all of the quarters I was given. I didn’t get very far since the game was insanely difficult for me. This didn’t matter because I had a great time. I would continue to play that Golden Axe arcade game for the next few months until we eventually moved. What began in that little bodega in Corona Queens set me up for all of the great arcade experiences to come.
During most of the 1990’s, my favorite genre was fighting games — and I can attribute that directly to arcades. The first fighting game I played in the arcade was the one and only Mortal Kombat. It was at the Whitestone Lanes bowling alley where I became an instant fan of the genre. It was a school trip but, since I didn’t really care much about bowling, I went to the arcade cabinets directly behind the bowling lanes.
A lot of kids were huddled around the Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet and I pushed my way through to see what it was about. It. Was. Incredible. Now, mind you that at this point in time I was eleven years old and was obsessed with violence and gore. What I saw on that screen brought the biggest smile to my face. Blood flowed from the characters like rain pouring from the sky, and they could even kill each other in some really gruesome ways. Let me not forget the graphics which utilized scanned images of real people for the game characters. To me, this was the single greatest thing ever created by man.
Mortal Kombat had it all: Gore, realistic graphics, and it was steeped in Asian mysticism. I played that game for the entire time I was there. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes I’d lose; but I had a blast the entire time.
I could easily go on for another thousand words about the individual fighting games I played during this time. Although Mortal Kombat lit the fighting game torch, it was the games from Capcom that I really latched onto the most. The various Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, the Marvel games and, of course, the Versus series were by far my favorites because of their tight controls, fun gameplay, and animation style graphics.
Arcades really were the pinnacle of graphics back in their heyday. No console or PC game could hope to match what was seen in the arcades. Home ports did their best, but they just didn’t stand up to arcade graphics. When games like Virtua Fighter came out it really took things to a whole other level in terms of graphics. I really wonder how things would have been if the internet existed back in these days. How would fanboy flame wars have played out? Would there be arcade elitists like there are PC elitists now? There was a bit of that, but since no one could afford to buy arcade cabinets we just made due with our consoles and wished that the graphics looked as good as they did in the arcades.
Beyond the games and how graphically amazing they looked, I think my favorite part about the arcade days was the social aspect of it. Most days after school were spent with friends in an arcade hall or playing arcade games in some little side shop. This was the place where we could unwind after classes were over with some buds and play a bunch of games with each other. There are tales of dingy and dark arcade places, and while I have been to a few of those, most of the time they were large and brightly lit areas where you wanted to spend your time in.
It may be hard to imagine for those who have never experienced it. There was a certain energy that you felt when you were in an arcade with all of those people surrounding you. With so many games and people, things definitely got loud but that’s part of what added to the excitement. Hearing those sounds and seeing those images coming from an arcade cabinet had a certain effect on a person that drew them in. Even with all of the commotion of the arcade happening, as soon as you dived into a game, the world disappeared around and there was nothing but the game in front of you.
Although I never really played too many of them, I can’t talk about the arcade experience without mentioning some of the unique cabinets that some games had. Games like Afterburner featured a mini cockpit that moved as you flew the airplane. The original Street Fighter had punching bags that you needed to hit in order to attack your opponent. There were also a host of racing games that had a driver’s seat and steering wheel. Like Afterburner, some of these even moved along to the action of the game. These type of games were made specifically made for the arcade and could be found nowhere else. Some of these games received home ports and some had small steering wheel peripherals available for them but it wasn’t the same.
The time I spent inside of arcades or playing arcade games in random shops are some of my most treasured gamer memories. To this day I think back on those days and they always bring a smile to my face. I’m sure that anyone who grew up going to and playing games in an arcade feels the same as I do. It’s a real shame that the arcade scene is all but dead in the United States because the experience that could only be found in an arcade is something that I believe every gamer should have. Arcades aren’t completely dead however so if you’ve never played an arcade game or been into an arcade then I encourage you to go and find the closest one near you. There is nothing else quite like having the arcade experience for yourself.