Retro Active: The Rise and Fall of the Arcades

Through most of the eighties and even the early nineties, the scene was always the same. Somewhere in your local mall, a noisy little “store” would sit in some corner. In it, groups of people would crowd around strange looking cabinets, trying to catch a glimpse of the action.

Those of you who grew up in this time period know exactly what I am describing. To us, the local arcade was more than just a place to hang out. It was a place to gather with other people who shared your passion for for gaming, whether they be friends or just people who happened to ask if they could join your game. There was something about the local arcade that just felt right. Sure, they were not always the cleanest places, and some were definitely not what you would call safe, but to gamers growing up in that time period, the arcades will always hold a place in our hearts.

And yet when you look around now, arcades are almost non-existent. Sure, you might find one in the occasional mall, and there are still some attached to miniature golf or eateries like Dave & Busters. They are all a shadow of their former selves, however.

So just how did the arcades go from being the most popular place around to husks they are today?

Aliens, Ghosts and One Angry Gorilla

Beleive it or not, this game helped make the arcades what they are.

While we tend to think of arcades as places that carry coin operated video games, the term has been around much longer that that. It originates in the amusement parks and fairs, where the various ball toss and shooting gallery games were located in what was commonly refereed to as the midway arcade. Add to that the introduction of pinball in the 1930s, and you have a history that really goes back much further than most people realize.

Still, it was not till 1971 that the first coin operated game, a simplistic game called Galaxy War, was released. Throughout the 70s, more and more games started to appear and the video arcades were born. The big games, however, were yet to come.

In 1978, Space Invaders made its debut, followed by Pac-Man (1980) and Donkey Kong (1981). The importance of these games cannot be overlooked. While they may seem simple by today’s standards, each brought something to the table that had never been done before: Space Invaders was one of the first shooters to involve multiple different units, Pac-Man created a whole new genre of game, and Donkey Kong was one of the first games to really provide a very simplistic story, complete with cut-scenes. These games really helped to bring the local arcade into the focus of the public eye.

More games would soon follow. Tron, released in 1982 to coincide with the film, allowed gamers a chance to step into the movie, even getting a chance to race the ever popular light cycles. Dragon’s Lair, the first of the Don Bluth cartoon style action games and originator of Quick Time Events, captured the attention of gamers and non gamers alike. The game was so popular that Starcade, a tv game show where gamers competed against each other on various arcade cabinets, brought in an expert during one of its shows just so they could show the ending.

Then there was the Star Wars arcade game. Simple vector graphics, sound roughly edited in from the movie and only the illusion of full control over an X-Wing, and yet I guarantee you, if you ask anyone who grew up in the arcades, every single one will admit to spending a lot of time and money on that game. The chance to be Luke Skywalker, even if only in a limited fashion, was too much for any gamer to pass up.

With all the popular games hitting the arcades and more public attention being drawn to them, it seemed the arcades were unstoppable. Ironically, one of the characters who helped usher in the popularity of the arcades was almost its downfall.

Mario and NES: the Arcade Comes Home

Who would have thought Mario would almost be the end of the arcades?

When Mario made his first appearance in Donkey Kong, it was actually under the name Jumpman. He didn’t gain the name Mario till the release of Donkey Kong Jr. Mario Brothers was the first introduction of his brother Luigi, and it also introduced his penchant for jumping on turtles.

Any gamer worth his or her controller knows what came next: Super Mario Brothers. To say it was a huge hit would be a massive understatement; until recently, it was the top selling video game of all time. It was a major hit in the arcades; heck, I am not really a big fan of the series, and even I remember playing it on more than one ocassion. Only thing is, most of my time playing it was not at the arcade.

Right around the same time Super Mario Brothers hit the arcade, the Nintendo Entertainment System hit the stores. Along with it came a perfect port of the game, right down to the smallest details. It was rare to see a true arcade port come home, but that was just the beginning. Soon games like Legend of Zelda and Metroid had gamers playing games they could never imagine finding in the arcades. More and more, people started playing games at home, and the local arcades started to empty. As other home consoles took more and more of the crowds away, it looked like it was going to take something drastic for the arcades to make a comeback.

Here Comes a New Challenger

I remember thinking it was one of the more gimmicky ideas I had ever seen in a video game: a fighting game with two large pads where the buttons would normally go, one labeled punch and the other kick. They reacted to how hard you hit the pads, which made for interesting if exhausting gameplay. Still, there really was not enough to keep my interest, especially when the pads were replaced with six buttons, three for each type of attack. So when I first saw the sequel sitting there in one of my favorite arcades, I didn’t really think much of it.

Street Fighter II was a phenomenon, bringing new life to the arcades.

It would not take long, however, for Street Fighter II: The World Warrior to grab a hold of me. As I have said in the past, it was the game that made me a gamer. The characters, the moves, the battles with my friends; they were all unlike anything I had ever played.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the game. Street Fighter II was a huge success, and it helped usher in a renaissance for the arcades. Game companies realized there were experiences in the arcade the consoles could not match, even with the ports getting more and more accurate to the real thing. Fighting games like Mortal Combat, Tekken and Killer Instinct were much more exhilarating when you had a crown of people forming around you, watching your every move. Light gun games like Lethal Enforcers, House of the Dead and Time Crisis just were not the same on your home television. Racers like Hydro Thunder and Daytona USA just never felt right without climbing in and challenging your friends. The arcades were full again, but it would not last.

Online Play Ushers in the End

In 1999, Sega introduced the Dreamcast. The system had unrivaled graphics, as was shown with the launch title, a perfect port of Soulcalibur. Oddly enough, that was not the part of the Dreamcast the arcades had to fear. Sega’s swan song had one thing no console before it had ever had: the ability to play games online.

You see, the consoles had been gaining on the arcades in every area except one, the ability to play against others. Sure, you could invite your friends over, but in the arcades, you could always find others to play. Online play made it so you could now play with other people from the comfort of your own living room, and not just with those who happened to be playing at your local hangout.

The writing was on the wall. As more consoles began to further improve the online experience, fewer and fewer people made their way to the local arcades. Soon all but the big ones closed down, and the ones that remained, with few exceptions, were mere shells of their former selves.

Still, for those of us who grew up with them, there will always be a bit a soft spot in our hearts for the arcade. There is something about standing side by side with your allies and opponents that can never be matched by online services. There is just something about that personal contact that you just cannot simulate even over the best of internet connections.

After all, the arcades weren’t only about the games. They were about going to a place where others shared your passion for gaming. They were about meeting new friends, even if you only for an afternoon. They were about a set of experiences that a whole generation of gamers has missed.

That is the saddest part of the story of the arcades. Those of us who had the chance to experience them in their prime know losing them is like losing a part of gaming history. For me, that history is very personal. I would not be the gamer I am now without the arcades.

Leave a Reply