Life at the Arcade

Read on and learn why: What Happens At The Arcade, Stays At The Arcade
February 13, 2009

After a years worth of reading and writing on this site, it is my opinion that Video Games are the single most unifying memory of the online generation. I've seen articles about toys, movies and cartoons, but the most celebrated memories (thus resulting in the highest number of Thumbs Up votes) are Video Game related. Just take fellow retrojunker, vkimo with his beloved "Nintendo and Me" article recipient of 73 thumbs up and climbing! (Let's help him get to 100!) This was not a complicated bit of history, but a B&W haiku about getting your childhood memories back for $5.00-unexpected and ingenious.

At first I considered filling an article with a list of various retro game systems and waiting for the thumbs up to roll in, but then I realized that's not what Christmas, er, RetroJunk is all about. No, it's about sharing a part of ourselves that makes us not feel like we were the "only ones". It's about ripping someone to shreds if their article is too short or they constantly spell Luigi as "Lugui". But most importantly it's about it's about remembering simpler times and the freedom of youth. So today, I'm going to lay down all the Arcade Shenanigans I both witnessed and participated in across this fine country of ours. Yes, from year to year, let's learn why:
What Happens At The Arcade, Stays At The Arcade.

Although I had played table top Pac-Man and Centipede at restaurants while waiting to be seated as early as age 5, my first real exposure to the dark, neon glow of the video arcade came from the now defunct chain of Chuck E. Cheese rip-offs called "Bullwinkle's". Yes, the same Bullwinkle T. Moose who hung around with a squirrel named Rocky and battled those Russian baddies Boris & Natasha.

In retrospect the Bullwinkles game room couldn't have been any bigger than a 2 car garage, but to a 7-year-old kid it was massive. The basic color scheme was black on black with a few stars painted on the ceiling, although something tells me those might have just been scuff marks from where kids got bored and threw Skee-Balls as high as they could.

All the classics of the day were there to be enjoyed: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, Basketball beat-em-up Arch Rivals and even the C.O.W.boys of Moo-Mesa video game that was inspired by the short-lived cartoon on ABC. It was here I learned that the arcade could be a place of fun and fraternization. You could cheer with the kid you just met as he finished demolishing a skyscraper on Rampage and cry with him when his giant Werewolf shrunk down to a small, naked human.

The only "shifty" activity I witnessed at Bullwinkles came one day when I went to redeem my prize tickets for a swirly straw and the prize girl said, "We're all out" and just as I started to tear up she said, "Just Kidding!" and pulled out a whole box of them. I soon learned the meaning of the word "Gullible" and began to realize that not all who frequented the arcade could be trusted. Lesson #1: Not everyone at the arcade is trustworthy, especially the employees.

Soon I was old enough to go out "on my own", which really meant my Mom was just waiting at a further distance while my friends and I spent our shiny quarters. It was at this time that I started to frequent the dungeon-like arcade of the local Bowling Alley. The walls were covered in burnt orange tiles from the 1970's as you stepped down into the noisy video cavern, the smell of cigarettes wafting in from the lanes.

This is where I first experienced the true classics of the second wave of 80's gaming: Mario Bros. (the original, not Super), Double Dragon, Paperboy, Dragon's Lair (Lame!) and After Burner. But one day when I came to spend my most recent couch cushion bounty I found the entrance to the arcade boarded up. Sure I had noticed that the rubber grips had been stolen off the Paperboy handle bars and a lot of the games had Out of Order signs, but you just fix them right? Not so.

Soon the same thing happened to all the local mall and free standing arcades. Among the casualties was the Yellow Brick Road arcade at Fashion Island shopping center where I used to bash faces on Pit-Fighter or shoot Final Fight rejects during sessions of The Punisher featuring Nick Fury.

The most disappointing closure was the Game Room at the Anaheim Hilton Hotel that my Dad's company owned. Many a Saturday afternoon was spent in that dual level dwelling where the fully enclosed original Star Wars game was kept preserved or a round of Virtua Fighter would make me see the gaming world in three dimensions.

For a time they even had that old school Skeet Shooting game. You remember, it was the one with the big projection screen where you shot electronic bullets/flashes at digital clay disks. But alas, in time this wonderland of gaming goodness closed as well and became much wiser to the ways of the video game world. Lesson #2: Game while you can, because it could all be gone in an instant.

Miraculously and despite all of the smaller arcade closures around me, a brand new "Super Arcade" soon opened its doors in the neighborhood. Next door to the now arcadeless Bowling Alley was a boarded up roller skating rink that had closed the year I was born. For years it just sat there empty, until suddenly it was being painted pink and spires added to the top of it creating the land of gaming wonder called Palace Park! By this time I actually was old enough to head out on solo missions. So every day of that summer my friend, Andy and I would literally raid our couch cushions for quarters and jump my back wall, ready to GAME ON!

This was the era of Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct and any number of bloody fighting games, but I was always entranced by a little drive and shoot game called Lucky & Wild! Basically borrowing the name from the Stallone-stinker "Tango & Cash", this game opened my eyes to the possibility of fusion in games-types. Before you could race/drive in games like Outrun or Cruisin' USA or shoot in games like Operation Wolf or Virtua Cop, but this game combined both into one! There was a steering wheel and gun for Player 1 and single pistol for Player 2 and as you drove you shot at Bad Guys-it was great! I would always just drive and have my friend operate both guns so as to dispense maximum justice!

But I was not always so noble as my heroes Lucky & Wild, for it was at Palace Park that I learned the art of checking the coin return to recover forgotten tokens. While not technically dishonest, it was getting "something for nothing" which I always felt bad about. But once I got back in the drivers seat, it's funny how quickly my concerns disappeared. Lesson #3: Finders keepers.

But danger can lurk in the heart of the arcade as well as I soon would learn. On a trip to southern Utah to visit my older sister and her family she offered the idea of going to roller skating rink (they're actually open in Utah!). After about 500 revolutions and no sign that an impromptu Roller Derby match was about to break out, I took a break and went off to the arcade portion of the rink while my sister continued her rounds. For some reason I bypassed Street Fighter II and went for a new, nerdy experience with Dungeons and Dragons: The Video Game. As you will soon see, this was the wrong choice.

About 1 minute into leading my campaign of adventurers through digital space an older teenager came up to me and asked casually, "What's your name?" for some reason I told him and he just wandered off. 2 minutes into the adventure I began to feel a barrage of small somethings bouncing of my back, but I decided to ignore it. Eventually one of the items missed my back and hit the screen, it was penny. Somebody was throwing pennies at me and I was pretty sure I knew who it was. At the 3 minute mark my characters died. I pretended like I was still playing so as to avoid any trouble, but the trouble came to me instead.

Another teenager got right up in my face and said, "Hey, you trying to start s***?" "Nope, just playing the game here" "My friend says you WERE trying to start s***, so you better get out of here before we kick your a**". I turned around and there were 6 guys giving me the "Stink Eye". I felt like I was in that movie, "The Wizard" except that there was no Power Glove to be found that day.

So as to spare the lives of these misguided youths, I grabbed my sister off the skating floor and told her it was time to go. Of course I could have taken them on, but I was wearing skates so there was no way I could have gotten my footing right to unleash my kung-fu skills...seriously, I could have taken them. Lesson #4: Don't play Dungeons and Dragons while wearing skates, if you don't want to get beaten up.

After the Skating Rink Incident, I pretty much stayed away form Arcades and Roller Skating altogether. I was so scarred by the incident, I even shoved my Super NES in the closet never to be played again. I recently overcame my fear, figuring that at 26 I could pretty much defend myself against any young toughs who tried to hassle me while I played Marvel vs.Capcom. I've also found its best to go at off hours so as to avoid any human contact whatsoever. Lesson #5: People are scary.

So let's review the life lessons learned at the arcade:
Lesson #1: Not everyone at the arcade is trustworthy, especially the employees.
Lesson #2: Game while you can, because it could all be gone in an instant.
Lesson #3: Finders keepers.
Lesson #4: Don't play Dungeons and Dragons while wearing skates, if you don't want to get beaten up.
Lesson #5: People are scary.

How about you guys, what memories would you rather leave at the arcade?
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