For Amusement Only: The life and death of the American arcade.
January 16, 2013 8:03 AM   Subscribe

But the golden age was destined to be a very short one. Walter Day told writer Tristan Donovan, author of the book Replay: The History of Video Games, that the industry was "off the rails by" 1981, opening more arcades and ordering more machines than its players could ever support. By early 1982, cracks were already starting to show in the newly flourishing industry: that $400 a day machine, Time Magazine reported, was often "sucker bait, dangled to obscure the dreary truths that markets are becoming saturated and that dud games... bring in no money at all."
posted by Horace Rumpole (42 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
As I jump into this, simply seeing the names and pictures of certain video games (like Defender), and seeing the arcade pictures, brings back the sounds of the arcade as if I were standing there playing them. They are impressions that have made a permanent home in the recesses of my memories.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:21 AM on January 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ah, Defender. The daunting array of controls to be mastered allowed us to scorn all those simple games with one joystick and one button. In retrospect, the coordination I playing Defender incessantly in the summer of 1981 probably helped me to become a better drummer a few years later (i.e. I am a mediocre drummer instead of the dismal one I would have been otherwise).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:30 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Well, it's been a long time, Stargate Defender. "
posted by Chrysostom at 8:32 AM on January 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


seeing the arcade pictures, brings back the sounds of the arcade as if I were standing there playing them.

I've posted this before, but this may be relevant to your interests.
posted by bondcliff at 8:34 AM on January 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


I grew up on Long Island in the 60s-70s and had no idea pinball games were illegal in NYC.
posted by tommasz at 8:37 AM on January 16, 2013


The one thing that I miss that can't be emulated is the physicality of the controls. Robotron with big dual joysticks. Paperboy with the bike handles. Missile Command with the heavy black trackball.

And the smell. Ozone and cheap pizza.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:38 AM on January 16, 2013 [11 favorites]


...the big canister shaped ashtrays.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:43 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


tommasz: "I grew up on Long Island in the 60s-70s and had no idea pinball games were illegal in NYC."

Old Straight Dope column with a bit on the NYC ban.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:53 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hold on. The same guy founded both Atari AND Chuck E. Cheese's? I must thank this man.
posted by orme at 9:17 AM on January 16, 2013


have kids. you'll learn not to thank him for Chuck E Cheese.
posted by Frasermoo at 9:25 AM on January 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


I don't know, Chuck E Cheese does serve beer. It could be a lifesaver on a rainy day in the middle of a school vacation.
posted by padraigin at 9:54 AM on January 16, 2013


I did not know about the ban on pinball in NYC. Apparently, my aunt's "candy store" in Breezy Point was REALLY a pinball speakeasy when I was a kid.
posted by KingEdRa at 9:59 AM on January 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


People like to say it wasn't about technology but it really was. You go to an arcade because you get to play stuff you just can't get at home or because the experience at home was a mere subset of the stuff available.

The problem is the eggheads in Silicon Valley and Ontario started to beat the eggheads in Beverley Hills on price and performance. They rapidly outinnovated the guys supplying the hardware going into the arcade boards, they did it for 1/10th of the price and they stuffed them into PCs and consoles. All of a sudden arcades couldn't differentiate themselves on performance. Why trek out to an arcade when I can play superior shit safely in my living room? No dodgy CRT monitors that needed to be replaced years ago, no one threatening you if you beat the wrong kid at SFA3.

It's not like arcade board makers were giving owners a break either. The DDR and IIDX boards were effectively a Playstation 2 in a box and they still charged five fucking grand for it. When you're talking to the guy who owns the place and he's making maybe $200 a week off a machine in its first year you think he's going to be upgrading a $5K board on a yearly roster update? Half his money goes on rent, power and upkeep for the arcade and the rest pays for his meager existence.

The whole thing's downfall was laziness and greed by the people who should have been running like crazy to keep ahead of the competition. Sadly, it was the independent arcade operators that truly got screwed. They couldn't easily diversify into high margin stuff like food and booze like your chain arcades or console games like the board makers. Out of those ashes we get the crapheap of XBL, minigolf arcades and D&B that we have today.
posted by Talez at 10:04 AM on January 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


I grew up on Long Island in the 60s-70s and had no idea pinball games were illegal in NYC.

There is a pretty interesting documentary* available on Netflix that discusses the early history of pinball machines. The demonization of pinball makes slightly more sense when you understand that early pinball machines weren't really what we're familiar with today, but more like Japanese pachinko machines, only with a single ball falling at a time. Some of them actually paid out like slots (or like pachinko, where a token prize given by the machine, i.e. free games, were redeemable for cash somehow), others were "For Amusement Only" -- the origin of that phrase was to distinguish the non-payout games from the ones that were essentially gambling machines -- but in neither case was there a significant amount of operator skill involved. They were games of chance, and got banned along with other games of chance as part of various interwar moral crusades.

* For those without Netflix, it's called Special When Lit.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:37 AM on January 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


I missed the golden age as defined in this article by virtue of being a little too young and growing up in the sticks... most of the pizza places my family would go to had a game or two, and while my folks were pretty indulgent I was rarely allowed to pump more than one quarter into a game. I did enjoy a bit of the early 90's renaissance as a teenager, but I never did spend enough time in arcades to get really good at anything. However, I spent more money and time than I care to think about obsessively playing Williams' Diner pinball during my freshman year at college. I got good enough that I could pretty consistently earn a free game.

I'd love to find a place with one in playable condition. The audio in the YouTube review gives me some seriously pavlovian pangs of nostalgia.
posted by usonian at 10:59 AM on January 16, 2013


The one thing that I miss that can't be emulated is the physicality of the controls.

That and the vector monitors.
posted by asterix at 11:04 AM on January 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


We would ride our bikes to Aladdin's Castle and get 150 tokens in a plastic tube for 20$. Six hours later, we'd emerge squinting into the late afternoon sun, forearms twitchy and eyes glassy. I can hear the sound of Satan's Hollow note perfect when I shut my eyes.

We were were starting to drift away from socialization, locking into the screen, but we were doing it en masse in a shared experience, with Def Leppard cranked so you could hear it over the din. There was still the guy saying "You want me to beat this guy for you?" and maybe a friend you were hammering those Track & Field buttons with.

What's different now is the safety of home I guess. You're there with your console and maybe a buddy. You don't bike somewhere kind of dodgy for your fun--it's always there. Something is missing.
posted by Kafkaesque at 11:22 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


People like to say it wasn't about technology but it really was

Obviously there were other, minor factors involved, but this has always been the "duh" point to me. I don't know a single kid whose parents, in the late 80s into the 90s when I was frequenting arcades, thought that the arcade was a den of iniquity (despite the rampant smoking and kids getting fleeced at three-card monte). It was a place you sent your kids with a few bucks to get them out of the house for an afternoon.

The only thing that wound up getting people out of the arcades were arcade-quality games at home. Arcade ports were, by and large, awful until the PlayStation era, at which point, even if they weren't perfect, they were "good enough."

I don't, personally, miss the arcade terribly, but there was definitely something magical the atmosphere that just doesn't exist anymore.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:24 AM on January 16, 2013


My home town, New Providence, NJ was run by people who didn't want arcade games in the town. Pinball machines were legislated into the land of impossible profit. When video games became a reality, they didn't fall under the pinball legislation so for the span of a month, a few locations in the town were flooded with machines and after school, the town legislation had their worst nightmares come true: the Quik Check on the main drag was filled with kids waiting to play Congorilla (a Donkey Kong clone/bootleg) and Vanguard (and a few other crappy games). They then put this legislation into place. Read it. It's high art in the creation of legislation which makes having games illegal without saying so.

The locations that had games in town cut them down to 2, maybe 3.

When I was just out of high school, I decided that I wanted to buy a game (a habit that is still in place, I have a Defender in great shape and a Joust that I'm restoring) and went to an arcade in a different town. I bought a full-size Asteroids machine for $150 and had them load it into the back of my Dodge Omni. It felt like I was driving uphill. The game was reportedly broken. I fixed it, got a rebate from some quarters on the bottom of the machine and noted that the coin counter was over 30000. The game pulled in over $7K in its life.
posted by plinth at 11:26 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


That article really brings back some memories. I graduated high school in 1981, about the time arcades were at their peak. I spent some time in them but nowhere near as much as some of my friends. The only games I ever got any good at were Space Invaders (on the Atari 2600 at home) and the Silverball Mania pinball machine (which I could play for hours on a couple of quarters and often left sitting with several credits on it for the next player when I had to leave for work or whatever). I remember well the largest arcade in my part of town. It was owned by a local gambler who made a good living playing high stakes poker in Las Vegas. It often seemed to me that if he supplemented his legal winnings with less legitimate income, having an all cash business like an arcade would come in handy.
posted by TedW at 11:29 AM on January 16, 2013


Excellent find, thanks for posting.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:58 AM on January 16, 2013


Ladies, gents, for your delight and edification, the amazing International Pinball Database and the astounding International Arcade Museum. Step right up. Please watch your step as you enter the ride.
posted by Twang at 12:04 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have to two old machines now converted to M.A.M.E. cabinets that still get used an awful lot.
One even has a light-gun. I guess I just never grew out of the eighties :)
posted by twidget at 12:08 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


plinth: Vanguard (and a few other crappy games)

Lumping Vanguard in with "crappy games" is fightin' words, son.
posted by hanov3r at 12:09 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


January 30 is the 31st anniversary of "Pac-Man Fever" hitting the top-40s. I just noticed that Buckner and Garcia performed the title song for 2012 Disney film Wreck It Ralph. It was kinda slow in between there for the boys.
posted by Twang at 12:19 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Our culture seems to have decided that kids are better off when they’re not alone with other kids

I'm pretty sure that was a corporate decision.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:27 PM on January 16, 2013


Barcade is a great place with locations in Brooklyn, jersey city, and Philly. There is a working arcade museum in St. Louis, MO near the gateway arch. Or at least there was one last time I was there 10 years ago. I am sure there are others in other cities where the lost boys of the 70s and 80s gather...
posted by rjc3000 at 12:28 PM on January 16, 2013


I am sure there are others in other cities where the lost boys of the 70s and 80s gather...

I organized a road trip / meetup to The Museum Of Classic Video Games at Funspot but only a couple of us ended up going. It was pretty amazing, walking through the rows and rows of games as if I were 13 again.

I have to two old machines now converted to M.A.M.E. cabinets that still get used an awful lot.

I have a MAME cabinet that I built. My son and his friend just discovered Bubble Bobble and spent a couple hours "popping quarters in" (pushing the "add quarter" button) and finishing the game.

My arcade of choice was Fun & Games in Framingham, MA. It's still there, but now it's a well-lit, watered-down Chuck-E-Cheese sort of place where most of the games are ticket games you exchange for shitty "prizes" that are worth about 1/10th the cost of what you spent getting the tickets. People always roll their eyes when I start to tell him about how it used to be, with their entire walls of Pac Man machines, strobe lights, and resident drug dealers.
posted by bondcliff at 12:37 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Pinball Innovations diagram on the first page is really bothering me. No backglass looks like that. It looks like they took part of a video game cabinet diagram and plopped a pinball machine on the front.

/grouch
posted by Kafkaesque at 12:38 PM on January 16, 2013


All the quarters in the world won't get me a game of Robotron: 2084 now. (sigh)

Or maybe not? What's the best way to find the closest working unit? Do video games do nostalgia tours? Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits is still rockin casino ballrooms, so why not?
posted by Andrew Galarneau at 12:38 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was an amazing arcade in Westport, Connecticut when I was growing up in the mid-nineties. Pizza, tokens, the whole lot. It was eventually replaced by an Anthropologie, right across from another Boho store. We kept traveling farther and farther to find arcades, eventually ending up in Milford.

In Sydney, Oz, there was (until this week) a big seedy arcade right in the CBD and open to the street filled with DDR machines. I'm not sure why it closed. There are still arcades in malls, and I go to play the gun games with the giant prop guns.

Pinball is in all the pubs.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:02 PM on January 16, 2013


What I wouldn't give to play Darius again, with it's majestic three-screen layout.
posted by malocchio at 1:06 PM on January 16, 2013


You people are a bad influence. I have an original bondi blue iMac that's been gathering dust in my attic for a decade, and just now I caught myself Googling the feasibility of turning it into a MAME machine. God help me, I think I'm going to drag it downstairs and see if it will still turn on.
posted by usonian at 1:25 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Back in the 80s I remember this arcade just off the Belt Parkway near the old Nellie Bly deathtrap amusement park. It was there that I learned to attack from above in Joust and learned to... expect eventual nuclear annihilation, no matter how you tried.

SWEET ELVIS IN HIS BLACK '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL LEATHERS, I am just now remembering how many quarters I dropped into this game at the height of the Cold War. I have never really figured out if it was a good thing or a bad thing that I watched The Day After in 7th grade and wasn't freaked out, but I'm starting to wonder if this game had anything to do with it.

Did we really play that game for fun back then?
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:33 PM on January 16, 2013


Malocchio: there's an update to Darius, with three huge screens, called darius Burst, or something - I played it around a year ago in the superb little arcade next to Goodge St. Station in London.
posted by davemee at 3:17 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


When Bushnell and Dabney found out that the name Syzygy was already taken...

Wut.
posted by ShutterBun at 3:50 PM on January 16, 2013


The Pinball Innovations diagram on the first page is really bothering me. No backglass looks like that. It looks like they took part of a video game cabinet diagram and plopped a pinball machine on the front.

Oh, gawd, you're right. That is terrible. There are some "video pinball simulators" in Japan that kinda look like that, but yeah, it's totally out of place on a genuine pin machine.
posted by ShutterBun at 4:05 PM on January 16, 2013


seriously plinth, Vanguard was the shit! :)
posted by Golem XIV at 4:34 PM on January 16, 2013


Feathered hair.
Graphic print T shirts
Smell of popcorn, cheap pizza, and just that "funk" smell
Jean jackets w/ sewed on patches of AC/DC and Judas Priest
Jordache jeans if you were in the know
Barrettes that had braided ribbons and beads hanging from them
ok who is wearing Love's Baby Soft?
Braces---sea of braces everywhere.

God I miss those times (throw in some roller skating too and I was in heaven)
posted by stormpooper at 6:43 AM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fascinating: An Aging Soviet Video Game Acade Preserves a Dwindling Culture.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:41 PM on January 17, 2013


You go to an arcade because you get to play stuff you just can't get at home or because the experience at home was a mere subset of the stuff available.

We went to hang.
posted by bongo_x at 5:47 PM on January 19, 2013


A behind-the-scenes Q&A on the making of this piece.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:29 PM on January 21, 2013


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