When I cast memory’s hazy eye over my earliest gaming experiences, I recall grand halls bathed in a seductive neon glow, resplendent with their monolithic cabinets of gaming pleasure. How I marveled at their grandeur, the sounds of coins being fed into eager, hungry slots inviting you to ‘insert credits’ caressing my ears like beautiful music. Time stood still in these entertainment palaces, and many days fell by the wayside in lieu of perfecting Sub Zero’s decapitation finishing move in Mortal Kombat, desperately trying to beat that other kid’s gargantuan high score on Super Spacefortress Macross or merely complete the first level of The Punisher, which as I remember was insanely difficult without a second player.
Of course, such visits to the arcades were largely necessitated by the fact that home computer game systems were significantly less impressive than their coin-operated counterparts, and many arcade titles would never be ported to home consoles. Imagine our excitement when Burning Fight was released on the Neo-Geo! Take that, Capcom! However, games with better graphics and endangering our health through passive smoking were not the only draws to the arcades – it was a social scene.
Every arcade had its rogue’s gallery of (usually older) kids with greater manual dexterity that attained some queer celebrity status with the rest of us. I vividly remember watching, awestruck, as some older kid casually defeated Mortal Kombat II in a single credit, morphing effortlessly between characters with Shang Tsung and performing combos that would take me weeks of revision to master. He eventually imparted some of the trickier moves to me after many weeks of building up the nerve to ask him, and I came back time and again to practice those moves when the arcade was quieter in the hope that one day I’d be able to best him and bathe in the glory of my victory. Never happened, though – I presume he went off and discovered masturbation, leaving behind the childish things of boyhood forever. I could totally beat him now, though. At Mortal Kombat II.
Sadly, though, it seems that as home gaming systems have improved, such visits to the arcade have become less frequent. Gamers’ desires, now sated by more impressive graphics and online multiplayer, have rendered arcades testaments to a once-glorious past now departed. Long gone are the days of lining up, coins gripped tightly in your fist, anxiously waiting for your turn in the spotlight. Where once-great gaming halls stood proudly, now we see rows of abandoned buildings and boarded-up windows. Truly it is a sad day, and I mourn the loss of these shrines to gaming as I would an old friend. Some still linger, defiant of the fate that awaits them, but the machines’ destiny to be relegated to rest-stops on major highways is inevitable.
Unless you visit Japan, that is. Arcade gaming is still big business in Japan, with game centers still proving incredibly popular – perhaps too popular for some. So why the disparity? Obvious cultural differences aside, the Japanese have always seemed more willing to embrace different ways to play and the gaming culture of Japan is much more open-minded than here in the West – you only have to examine Gundam Card Builder games to see the extent of gaming’s integration into other aspects of popular culture, and it’s this integration that could go some way to explaining the Japanese enthusiasm for arcade gaming, all issues of otaku culture aside.
We can’t ignore the social aspect of arcades, though. Arcades offered us a place to congregate and share our passion for gaming, and also afforded us an opportunity to put our skills to the test against each other. These days, we ‘see’ less of each other as gamers and I can’t help but wonder if we’d enjoy gaming more if we took the time to venture outside and meet other like-minded people. Of course, XBL and other online games still let us compete, but without the much-needed human interaction. It’s rare that I agree with proponents of the ‘technology equals isolation’ argument, but in this instance they’ve got a point.