The Arcade Experiences

Video Arcades from back when I was a young lad.
December 04, 2006

When I was younger, nothing except Star Wars caught my attention and caught my desire more than video arcades. I can't pinpoint why they made me so happy back in the day. Perhaps it were the cool sounds and fancy lights that attracted me to the multitude of pinball and video games back in its heyday. There was something magical about the atmosphere that a video arcade had on my young mind. I'd like to share with you the fun times I had with arcades back then.

I was born in May of 1973. Video games had not quite caught on at that time, but the revolution was around the corner. It started with a game called Space War at college, then on to Pong by Atari, and around that time Magnavox came out with the Odyssey System. By that time there were small consoles with built-in paddle-like controllers which only had a limited number of games on it that were spinoffs or alternatives of Pong. It wasn't until 1977 or so that Atari released the 2600 system, code named Stella, which may have started the whole video game revolution. As revolutionary as the console was, it only boosted sales in the video arcade industry as more and more games started popping up, which of course had far better graphics and capabilities did than consoles of it's time.

The earliest memories of video arcades I have are from the early 70's in a place called Eastland Mall. (Located on if anyone is interested in its history). Whenever my dad would take me out to the Eastland mall and wanted to shop for clothes for himself, I would be on the lower level of a particular department store in, what else, the video game section. Of course the graphics weren't up to the par of the local arcade games, but it gave me time to kill until my dad was done shopping. I could have been at the upper level looking at the latest Star Wars toys and handheld electronic games, but I thought to myself, "why look when you can can touch?" The arcade there was a dimly lit arcade with an equal amount of both pinball and video games. I recall that one of the first co-op video games I played was Atari's Fire Truck. In this game, one person manned the wheel in front (which would be me due to my height) while another would man the back of the truck. Driving it was frustrating at first, but I still had fun with my dad driving the back of the truck, the fire engine noises, and being able to honk the horn. I don't think the goal was to reach the actual fire since there never seemed to be one, but just to see how far one could drive in a limited amount of time while racking up the most points.

Around the same time pinball games piqued my interest. I had a lot of favorite pinball games that I loved to play. A particular favorite game was Genie by Gottlieb. This pinball had a wide playing field and very interesting graphics on the playfield and the backglass (the head of the pinball machine that displays the score). It had electronic scorekeeping but still used analog switches to trigger bell sounds from the older pinball games. On the far electronic end were two favorites by Williams pinball, Gorgar and Firepower.

Firepower was one of Williams' most popular machines in its day, and I believe it was partly due to the multiball capability, the first of its kind. For me it had to have been the sound effects. They sounded so futuristic and spacey, and I wanted to keep on playing so that I could hear and experience all of the sound effects. The backglass had this amazing painting of spaceships in flight preparing to attacking a planet, which to me as a huge Star Wars fan resembled the Death Star.

The artwork of Gorgar had a Dungeons and Dragons feel to it with a huge red demon on the backglass preparing to sacrifice a lady, but like all pinball games by Williams, it too had a number of sound effects that attracted me to it. Pinball games had such an influence on me that I would go home and draw the playfield of the game on my sketchpad, or the best memory of what I thought was the playfield. (A few years later I would do the same by drawing my own comic book panels in blue pen with game characters from Wizard of Wor, Joust, and Defender). Time Warp was another favorite of mine (and a favorite of certain friends who can remember it) due to it's unique shape of curved flippers which made pinball skills a little bit difficult to attain. In the same mall I recall playing Asteroids and Lundar Lander and not being very skilled at those. But I also remember how different the graphics looked on those games compared to other video games. It wasn't until Tempest came out that those kind of graphics (Vector) really caught my attention. As great as Tempest was I never understood why they never released a home version for it. Then the Vectrex system came out that used a specialized picture tube specifically for generating vector graphics. One of the department stores had a Vectrex system on display for demo, so I got a lot of hours using that (until of course the saleslady asked if I was buying it, but she let me play until my dad came down to get me anyway. I suppose that it spared her any babysitting duties). Not only did the video arcade have pinball machines and video games, but the main department store known as Gimbels had home consoles, another department store at one end had Tron and Wizard of Wor, and the pizza shop at the opposite end had Astro Blaster and a pinball game called Supersonic. It was like a Mecca for kids since you had toys in various places as well as video games and pinball machines in others.

Closer to home, my Mom worked downtown and luckily there was a minimart there that had a changing array of video games. It was there that I discovered Joust and Gorf, two of my all time classic favorites. It took me years to master as I didn't see those games pop up in all the arcades, but I still remember the first place I encountered them. The minimart was nice but I pressed the grocery store closeby, as I liked to steal malted milk balls from bags in the candy aisle. After I got caught stealing there I never cared to go to the grocery store with my dad, but once that grocery store had a miniature arcade of their own you couldn't stop me from going down there at all. I remember playing such classics as Amidar, Venture, Popeye, Space Odyssey, Scramble, Centipede, Mr. Do, and Stargate. My favorite moment there was when I was cheering this guy who was playing Scramble, and he got farther than I ever could have at the time. After he lost, he was nice enough to put a quarter in for me and allow me to play the game myself. Despite the freebies and earning quarters by doing chores for my neighbor, my dad still gave me quarters to go play while he shopped. Who knows how much money I got out of my dad from playing video games all those years, but I'd sure like to know. It got to a point where he would hesitate to take me down there because as I became more skilled at those games, he would have to wait longer and longer with groceries in the car before I'd finish playing.

I'd like to share with you one of many funny stories. One day I had gone to the store and got milk for the neighbor as well as taken out her garbage, and she rewarded me with about 2 or 4 quarters, so I was proud of myself for helping her (and my dad taught me to refuse any payment at first which I did, but you know how senior citizens are when children are around). This was also the year I decided that I wanted to collect for Children's Hospital after seeing all the money that the collectors did for them. I cleaned out a coffee can, dressed it up and applied my own graphics, then stood outside of G.C. Murphy's in the nighttime cold and snow, trying to collect money for the hospital. After about an hour of standing outside in the cold, I felt that I had collected enough as the jar was getting fuller and heavier so I went inside the store to warm up some. I bypassed the toys and went straight for the back near the emergency exit, whipped out my allowance for doing the neighbor's chores, then played a nice healthy video game. Some of the patrons had seen me outside and were horrified to discover that I wasn't collecting for Children's Hospital, but rather I was collecting for ME! I think maybe one person approached me and asked where I got the money for the video game, and I told her that I had done chores for my neighbor earlier in the day, but I don't think she was convinced. A few minutes later my dad showed up and assumed what the patrons had assumed, but again I explained where I got the money. Back then I never put 2 and 2 together, yet the results were hilarious. I never did use the money I collected for Children's Hospital toward playing video games though.

There was another mall that had not one but TWO video arcades, and the arcade in reference was Fun N Games. Aside from the more popular machines that were being released, each one had different games than the other, so I found myself traveling between the two a lot on the weekend. The upper locations had more space and more games, but the lower level one was more populated. I sure got a lot of eye candy in those arcades from not just the machines themselves but the female patrons. I was more embarrassed when I'd lose real quick on a video game that was next to the girl I was interested in though. Speaking of females, it was years later that video jukeboxes were introduced and I experienced one for myself at Fun N Games. I remember the high school kids were there in denim jackets with their girlfriends besides them in miniskirts, hose, and their big 80's mall hair. I remember "casually" passing by these women often deciding what game to play, while their boyfriends would play Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" video. Yes my friends, not only did I get some video and live action eye candy, but I swear being at the arcades helped puberty reach me quicker. Previous to this at the same mall, Ms. Pac Man made her debut. As the original Pac Man became a movement, Ms. Pac Man trailed in a few years later. I recall going to the mall with my parents, and just about every pillar in that mall had 4 Ms Pac Man machines back-to-back. That night you couldn't go anywhere (except possibly the restroom) without hearing the sound effects of the floating fruit (bmp-bmp-bmp-bmp) or the catch intermission where Pac Man and Ms. first meet. Even when I got home I couldn't get that blue, pink and yellow color scheme out of my head. I'm not sure if it was at Fun N Games or our local amusement park, but another big thrill was clearing the board on Galaxian for the first time with my dad watching me.

As much as I loved video arcades as much as my allowance went into running them, retail outlets were another favorite place of mine to play video games. Naturally they didn't have the pinball machines due to the space that they took up, but a few favorite stores always held on to some of my favorite games. And aside from being able to check out toys and electronics, I could always count on playing at least one video game while I was there. K-Mart wasn't known for having any video games for some reason, but the more popular store that did was Hill's. Some of you in the northeastern region might recall their holiday jingle that went, "According to legend, little folks know, Hill's is where the toys are..." followed by a graphic and sound of a big checkmark. The only video game that I remember playing was Data East's Bad Dudes. My favorite and funniest part of the game was being able to beat a boss, then see the character raise his arm in the air and scream, "I'M BAD!". Another retail store that comes to mind was Zayre's. The nearest Zayre's to me had a vestibule where the doors were in the front, but the entrance to the shopping area itself were doors to the left and right. So, the first thing that I could see even before I opened the doors to Zayre's was a line of video game cabinets stretched from almost door-to-door. It was almost like a mini arcade to me! The main attraction to my friend Paul and I was the Spy Hunter game. Not only was the gameplay different from others with its multiple weapons and vehicles and different sound effects, but the Peter Gunn theme made the game experience worthwhile. Years later when Zayre's was sold out to Ames the place was remodeled and the games were limited and reloacted near the first exit door. They changed the games infrequently but they managed to keep the big sellers such as the Mario Brothers / Duck Hunt / Excitebike game, and Outrun by Sega.

Near Zayre's lived a girlfriend that I was with for a few months, Kimberly. Out of all my high school years, she was the first and only girlfriend that I ever had. She was in 9th grade whereas I was in 12th grade and 17 years old. Stay with me here, as this has something to do with video games. Anyways, it was just her and I for this Saturday afternoon. After hanging out at Ames we went back to her place, and again it was just her and I. We go up to her room and she points out the Nintendo system she has as well as the new Super Mario Brothers 3 game. She shows me how to play so I give it a shot, and another, and another. I never had a Nintendo system, so being the video game addict as I am, I go at it repeatedly. I'm not totally oblivious to what's going on around me, but Kim was changing into something else, which means that she was in her bra and underwear! I could clearly see this in plain view, yet there's me still playing Super Mario Brothers 3. We've only made out once before that Saturday but not for long, and I still kick myself for not taking advantage of the situation after that and going further. I kick myself even harder when I remember that she was also a gymnast! Five or six years before that incident I was on a road trip with my grandparents to Reading, PA. On the way back we stopped at a well-known, classy restaurant for dinner. Lucky for me I got to enjoy the entertainment of the local Asteroids machine there in the restaurant. Back then if you had asked me what defines a restaurant as classy, I would have defined it as any restaurant having a video game on the premises. Most embarrassing is how my grandparents were upset with me because they paid for a delicious spaghetti meal for me, and it got cold while I was out destroying space rocks and exterminating enemy UFOs.

My grandparents still got to spend quality time with me during summer vacation, but when they were out at work for the day I would walk downtown to the pizza shop nearby. The owner's daughter was there a lot and would play video games, and she was quite a looker! Sometimes I would go down to the pizza shop and watch other people play video games just to hope to catch a glimpse of her if she ever came in. She gave me my first taste of playing Black Knight, but as much as I loved the sounds from Williams pinball games, the only thing I could think of that night was her face. She was probably in senior high at the time but I didn't care. I did whatever chores I could for my grandparents or aunt and uncle to earn some quarters just to end up at the pizza shop hoping to talk to that girl.
Back in the day, Chuck E. Cheese was da bomb! (and that's probably the first and last time that I'll type that). I've had one birthday where it was just my parents and I, myself and my relatives, and I've been there for one or two birthday parties myself. The times there were truly magical due to being able to eat pizza, watch an animatronics show, spend time with your friends, crawl through that giant cheese maze every which way, and of course play pinball and video games. Top it off with the fact that you got a lot of tokens from the get-go and you got yourself a restless evening ahead of you. I remember that whenever I was having fun somewhere, I never wanted it to end, and I hated it when my parents would tell me that it was time to go. After getting flustered and hot when scoring higher and higher on Centipede and Mario Brothers, I felt satisfied. Very satisfied. By the time my parents wanted to go home, I felt so complete and happy that I had no qualms about leaving. I went home that night very happy, and had pleasant dreams about that night at Chuck E. Cheese as well.

In general there was always one boon to new video arcade games that bugged me. How do you get good at them without spending a lot of money? For me I just had to be at the right place at the right time and watch someone play the game themselves. Usually the demos for the game itself didn't cut it because I wasn't familiar with the controls or objectives, or the demo itself would repeat the same clips instead of showing different levels and actions. Plus the newer games that were sure to be hits were costing 50 cents each, and I had no viable income when I was younger (but then again, who did)? Being born in May I considered myself lucky because I had two incomes during the year: one in May for my birthday and one at Christmas time. If I had been born around Christmas time, I'd end up spending all my money then instead of having something in the middle of the year. Sure I was able to do chores and earn money, but it wasn't as much as I'd get during the holidays or my birthday. Naturally the arcade games were taking a lot of the income that I had, but the rewards I received from playing those satisfied me enough at the time. Then you have video games like Double Dragon... Has anyone ever got to the point where there were gaps at the bottom of the screen where you can fall in and lose a life? What better way to rip off a paying customer by having something like that in a video game without any safety feature. Even when you lose a life your new one shows up flashing which means that you have invulnerability for a short time, yet if you die by getting punched or kicked into the hole or simply move the joystick so that you end in the hole, you still lose a life. I can't afford to keep losing quarters when bugs like that aren't corrected.

Sometimes though, spending a little extra can give you eye and ear candy that's never had an impact on you life before. During college I'd take two buses to get home, but the first one would take me downtown in my area where I'd stay a while and play video games at the arcade there. Despite its seediness and seemingly unsafe atmosphere, I didn't bother anyone and the owner started calling me Steven Segal because of my ponytail back then, so I sorta felt accepted I guess. I pumped my usual $2 or more into the Terminator 2 pinball game, sometimes spending my time attempting to go further and further on Xybots or fine tuning my firing accuracy playing Gorf. More and more kids seemed to be crowding around and playing this fighting game called Mortal Kombat. I didn't have the stones to play against some of the up-and-coming pros that were playing MK at the time, but seeing them get tense over the moves and action caught my attention. Nothing compared to the finishing moves and (crude) graphics at the time, at least for stop-motion animation like MK had. It wouldn't be long before this arcade classic would be coming to the home systems. Around the time that Mortal Kombat was released was when the Entertainment and Software Ratings Board (ESRB) had come into play, and it was created because of controversial games like MK and Sega CD game called Night Trap. There was some worry from younger kids who wondered if they would be allowed to purchase and play the game that they had heard so much (controversy) about. I was around 19 years old at the time and had been working since the summer of 1989 but very much into Electronic Gaming Monthly and Game Pro, and the vibe that got out was that if you didn't have Mortal Kombat or were not allowed to play it, you were uncool. To this day I've played the actual cabinet version less than 10 times, but did the majority of my playing on the Sega Genesis console when that version was released. When Mortal Kombat II was released our college was fortunate enough to get one for our recreation room, where again most of my hard-earned quarters went to, along with other games such as X-Men, Atari's Steel Talons, and Blasteroids (An updated version of the classic Asteroids now with raster graphics). At least by getting better at it in single player and not head-to-head, the reply value got bigger, but spending money on the home version allowed me to hone my skills even further without spending too much.

The following years seemed to dwindle little by little. My girlfriend at the time shared a Nintendo SNES system and I shared my Sega Genesis and Sega CD with her. She even got the Sega Channel for me for my birthday. I ended up putting on a lot of weight during that time, so I made the decision to limit my video game time drastically. I was into Mortal Kombat 3 and Killer Instinct 2, but after playing Mortal Kombat 3 and beating it once, the arcades all around the area seemed to disappear. From then I focused my interests back to home computers which is where I'm at now. At the time I was back at college studying computer sciences. There were a lot of younger kids there, and it only took one to introduce a program called NESticle. I couldn't believe that these PCs were running actual Nintendo games. That night I spent time looking around on the internet until I came across the Multi Arcade Machine Emulator. I had a different Macintosh back then but I was able to find the MacMAME version which ran on my platform. I couldn't believe that I was now able to play one of my all time favorite video games, Tron. It didn't have the appeal of the arcade cabinet with it's neon lights and computer graphics on the side panels, but it was great to play those different fields at different levels. Even hearing the music made me feel so young again.

My library of arcade games is pretty complete. There are some games such as Dragon's Lair and M.A.C.H. 3 that rely on laserdisc for working gameplay, but I don't miss those as much.I also have a PC as well, and I used it to play pinball games among other things. There is a program called Visual Pinball that allows one to insert their own artwork (even scanned artwork) and make their own tables to create pinball games. What appeals to me is that a lot of pinball fans have faithfully recreated a lot of older pinball games to be played on Visual Pinball. Some tables can't be emulated while others can't be recreated faithfully. One example is Time Warp which can only have straight flippers and not the famed curved ones. Like MacMAME, when I boot it up, load a game, insert the coin by pressing "5" on the keyboard and hit the game start button, I feel like a kit again just from the sensation of hearing the sounds and being mesmerized by the light sequences. Even being able to play an older game makes me feel privilaged, as if I'm reliving my youth, and not many of us can say that we can do it on a daily basis.

Here are links to play those old games on your computer and gaming history:

MAME Program - used to play old video games -

MAME program for Macintosh -

The games themselves in zipped ROM format -

Video Game information - Killer List of Videogames -

Pinball information, ROM, and history -

Pinball and Video Game information -

Pinball tables and other downloads -
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