Image credit: Flickr user goodrob13
(Note: This was going to be my PAX roundup post, but my introduction got a little bit long, so I split it off into its own post. Another post on PAX will be forthcoming soon.)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been something of a video game junkie. For much of my childhood, there was one form of video game system or another in the house, although most of the time we seemed to end up with the really obscure ones like the Odyssey 2, the TI99/4A and the now incredibly obscure Emerson Arcadia 2001. Eventually we moved on to somewhat less obscure games, starting with an Atari 2600 in the post-crash era when crummy shovelware games could be had for pretty dang close to a dime a dozen, then finally moving on to an NES, which hung around the house for quite a few years before finally disappearing in a move. By that time, our family had acquired its first PC, and my interests quickly turned to computers as a result. Without much in the way of income at the time most of my gaming was limited to unregistered shareware games. In turn, I discovered the local BBSes, shareware downloads, CompuServe , the Internet and online gaming, then Subspace, then Asheron’s Call, and a brief (compared to some people at least) stint in World of Warcraft. The pursuit of most of these met with varying amounts of parental disapproval. In particular, the CompuServe one came to an especially ignominious end when I managed to run up an $85 bill in one month, mostly as a result of downloading stuff off the Epic Megagames forum. This was when I was in high school without much of an allowance or much in the way of other income, so that was a fair bit of money to me at the time. This was also back in the days when Epic was a shareware company known mostly for a DOS-based pinball game they had made and some shoot-em-up they seemed to perpetually be working on known as Unreal. Last time I heard, it worked out pretty well for them.
On the other hand, no matter what consoles or PC games I might have had at my disposal around here, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the good old-fashioned arcade. Although it is now virtually extinct, I can recall that I misspent as much of my youth as I could manage to get away with hanging out in arcades, occasionally playing games when I could manage to scrounge up a quarter or two, but mostly just watching. The small middle-of-nowhere town I grew up in had virtually no arcade games to be found (a couple in a dark corner of the Pizza Hut, a small gameroom at Big Cheese Pizza on the other side of town, a couple in the high school cafeteria and eventually a small arcade that I was instructed in no uncertain terms to not go anywhere near by my mother) so for the most part, arcades were something I only had access to when I was on vacation. In particular, the two gamerooms at the Cherry Hill campground in Kaysville Utah were ones I spent a fair amount of time loitering. It was here that I was introduced to such classics as Bubble Bobble, Raiden, Shinobi and Outrun (the full-motion version, no less) as well as the Neo-Ge0 (which was, in the relatively short period between the time it was released and the time when 3D graphics started taking over, pretty much the most amazing thing I had ever seen in the arcade.)
Eventually, as I grew up, graduated high school and moved into the working world, I could actually afford some of the stuff. It was about this time that the Gameworks in downtown Seattle opened, which happened to coincide with the year that I worked in the area. With little else to do between the time I got off work at 3pm and the time that the bus back to Redmond arrived, I probably spent far more time than I should have in here, paying way too much to play the latest and greatest in video games (or so it seemed at the time.) To be honest I’m not entirely sure how the place still stays in business these days, but it’s still around. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of other arcades left around here. One by one, the once ubiquitous mall arcades have closed up shop… The little hole-in-the-wall arcade in the back of some long forgotten game shop on Redmond Way, Quarters in Kirkland, Casey’s in the Everett Mall, Silver Coin at Southcenter, Games ‘n Stuff at Alderwood, the Command Center in Renton, some little arcade I only ever made it to once at Northgate… In fact, the only ones I know of which may still be around are a couple in the Sea-Tac Mall (they call it the Commons at Federal Way now, but I don’t know anyone who actually uses that name) and the SuperMall in Auburn. The local bowling alleys usually still maintain some semblance of an arcade (mostly because they’d have nothing else to do with the space if they got rid of the games) but beyond those, an amusement center or two and a few scattered pizza places, there are few signs of life in the once vibrant arcade.
To be honest, even before the arcades began disappearing en masse around here, most of the remaining ones were pretty mediocre. Most of them were filled with all sorts of indistinct racing games in sit-down cabinets that took up almost as much space as a real car (and, if you’ve ever seen the prices on the stuff, cost almost as much too,) with a wall of fighting games. a few gun games (usually Area 51 and Time Crisis, I think the arcades were required by law to have those two,) the quarter-gobbling ticket machines, and shoved in some dark corner, maybe a half-broken pinball machine or two. Places like that I could take or leave, but there one arcade in particular that I wish was still around: The Game Plays arcade that once occupied a spot in Factoria Mall where the Jamba Juice resides now.
From the outside it looked like any other dark, slightly dingy arcade, but the selection of games in that particular arcade was unlike any to be found anywhere else. I spent quite a bit of time ar this particular arcade while I was attending evening classes at BCC and had time to kill before class (I usually tried to get to the area early to avoid the traffic), and it had by far the biggest collection of shmups (2D shoot-em-ups such as Gradius, Raiden, R-Type and similar games) I had seen in any arcade. They also (for a time anyway) had some of the nicest looking, best maintained pinball machines to be found anywhere around here, including a Twilight Zone machine with everything working (much more the exception than the rule with pinball around here), the volume on the machine cranked so you could practically hear it from the Old Country Buffet, and all this for just a quarter a play. I have not found a Twilight Zone in that condition since then. Other highlights included a Gauntlet Legends machine without the standard life-drain (which kind of makes the game a bit too easy, but you could play for a lot longer that way,) the only Radiant Silvergun machine I ever saw in the wild (that was the game I eventually bought a Japanese Sega Saturn for, but never got around to actually buying, but that’s another story) and a lot more. If my memory serves me correctly, the place hung on until 2006 or so before finally shutting down.
By that time, I had finished up my AA degree at BCC, began working full-time (mostly anyway) in my chosen profession, and was in the process of establishing my own household. Having finally managed to move out of my parents’ house (and no, I was NOT living in the basement, nor does their house even have a basement) and gotten an apartment of my own, I made my one reckless, ill-advised, nobody-can-tell-me-what-to-do-anymore purchase: An arcade game of my own. For the price of $250 I bought an old (and somewhat decrepit) arcade cabinet which had originally been a dedicated cabinet for some now obscure 80s football game, but had later been converted to JAMMA (a standardized connector used for practically all arcade boards made after 1985 or so, to allow easy conversions from one game to another) and came with Strikers 1945, a mid-Nineties WWII-themed shmup that wasn’t all that high on the list of games I was buying one of these things for, but it was cheap so I had it included. Eventually I began to accumulate a collection of various arcade boards, and I now have about 7 or 8 (depending on what you’re counting.) To be honest, I haven’t used it nearly as much as I thought I would when I got it, and I haven’t ever gotten around to doing the major control panel overhaul I’ve been meaning to do almost since I bought the thing, but it’s kind of nice to have one around for the occasions when I just feel like playing some obscure manic Japanese shooters. It also makes a nice little conversation piece, assuming the den is clean enough to allow visitors into (which probably isn’t the case right now as I’m writing this.) I also haven’t given much thought to what I’m supposed to do with the thing when I move out of this place, but on the off-chance that I happen to end up married at that time, I suspect that my wife would be the one making the decision for me. I also suspect that the thing would be the very first thing to go as well. Might as well enjoy it while I can, right?
In general, the playing of video games isn’t generally considered to be much of a social affair. Sure, just about everything seems to come with online multiplayer in some form or another these days, but it seems that we rarely see many enduring friendships being built by people while exchanging virtual machine gun fire and assorted four-letter words unprintable on this Blog with each other. There seems to be a lot of stereotypes of gamers out there, and I have to say that not all of them are completely unfounded (in fact, at times I’ve probably fallen into a few of them myself.) On the other hand, maybe this has happened at least in part because of the decline of arcades in general. After all, if you’ve got all the cool new games available from the comfort of your living room couch, who needs to bother actually going somewhere and paying money to go play their games? Then again, after spending the last weekend at the Penny Arcade Expo, I’m starting to wonder if we could benefit from a return to the arcades of yore (or at least something resembling them.) More on this in the next post, as I discuss this year’s PAX and some of the things that I observed while I was there..