As a millennial, I was born long after the great heyday of arcades, but it was something that always fascinated me. It was bizarre to think that there was a time before home consoles were so prevalent when the typical video game fan would grab a fistful of quarters and pop down to the arcade for a night of gaming. What was that like? Was it more exciting? How did it differ from gaming today? I recently got a chance to have all of these questions, and more, answered, and discovered that there truly is distinct value to the arcade experience.
Last week, some friends and I were kicking back on a Friday night with nothing to do. It was a quiet evening, and we intended to just spend it relaxing and playing some video games. Rather out of nowhere, someone suggested "we should go to the arcade". Everyone looked at each other. The arcade? Is he serious? Where? That sounds kinda cool! An hour later, we found ourselves transported to a time when the gaming experience was all CRT screens and greasy buttons as Journey and Def Leppard provided a rocking background to your gaming experience.
The arcade was right off of the bustling Main Street of Old Town Pasadena, and it seemed to have generated quite a following. It was almost exactly what I pictured it to be; the atmosphere was lively with the whoops and indistinct chatter of friendly competition, the place was absolutely packed with all the classics, from Donkey Kong to Street Fighter II, and they had more pinball machines than you could ever have the time to master. Right from the get-go, I was hooked.
I'd always envisioned arcades as something of an isolated affair, so the immediate thing that surprised me about the experience was how it tended to bring individuals together in such a unique way. We'd frequently split up as the night went on, but we were always in competition with one another on some level. Sometimes, everyone would be crowded around the Pac-Man machine cheering and howling as somebody broke the high score that his rival had just set earlier that evening. Sometimes, I'd find myself and a friend trading blows in Mortal Kombat. The constant struggle to outdo one another or to get an even higher score was intoxicating, to say the least.
Initially, it may sound like the arcade experience is akin to playing couch multiplayer games with friends, but there's something deeper to it. I believe that it has something to do with the environment and the atmosphere. Somehow, the stakes just seem to be higher. You aren't just sitting on a couch in somebody's room, you're battling it out on a cabinet in a public place, sometimes with an audience. And while the games may be significantly more simple than the typical modern standard, they seem to be much more of a test of the skill and reflexes of the gamer. It's either put up or shut up, there's no handholding or sugarcoating here.
Another thing that I noted was how many of these games are intentionally built to be 'quarter munchers', and while some may find this off-putting, I found that it made the experience that much more exciting. Simply put, these games are hard, and if you aren't careful about how you approach them that game over screen will be flashing before you know it and your quarter is gone. Viewing it in this way, achieving mastery in a game not only gives you a sense of accomplishment from overcoming the game's challenges, but you know that you're getting much more value for your investment.
It also feels more fulfilling because of this, in a way that feels separate from your typical home gaming experience. At home, there's nothing quite like the satisfaction that comes with reaching the end of a game that you've been playing fairly regularly for a few weeks. At the arcade, there's nothing like topping the highest score you'd set, or beating that boss character that always eluded you. It may be simpler gaming, but the satisfaction gleaned from it is no less appealing.
I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to go to an authentic arcade, and I'd encourage you to do the same. It exposed me to a side of gaming that I'd never quite encountered before and I left with very positive impressions of the whole experience. I know that I'll be making a habit of going back every once in a while, as it's something that can't quite be matched by playing games back home, even with friends in the room or online.
Though they certainly are more difficult to find nowadays, I hope that arcades continue to live on. The gaming industry has grown into a very complex and sophisticated entity, but there's something to be said about going back to basics like this. It's raw, distilled fun, and that's what gaming is all about.