It’s a bright sunny day. I’ve walked about a mile, or more, to get to this building but I’m young and I’m not tired. I walk inside, into the darkness. Standing there, just inside, I let my eyes adjust to the darkness. A Thomas Dolby has just finished singing about being blinded by a woman and her science, and The Motels begin their song about how only the lonely can play. The music is just barely audible above the din of a multitude of arcade machines beeping and boinging their sound effects and musics. I can tell which machines are here by sound effects alone. There must be a new game because there’s a spot where a lot of other people are standing and watching; kids and adults gawk at the screen, bathed in the ghostly light. Off in the corner I see a group of friends at a machine. Coins line the marquee showing that a few of these kids are lined up to play. I put a dollar in the change machine and four coins drop down. In the darkness I can’t tell if they’re quarters or tokens. It doesn’t matter; they’ll all be gone, anyway.
I’ll admit it: sometimes I get nostalgic. I just get nostalgic about weird things. Lately it’s been video games. Yes, I know, I’ve been preoccupied with this for a while now. I still don’t think I’m explaining it very well, why I feel this way.
Video games. They’re a part of my life. They have been since I was a very, very young boy. They’re as part of my life as, say, baseball is to someone a generation older than me. I could not become disinterested with them even if I tried. The generation after me, I suspect, will be much the same. They grew up with computers and game consoles, they never knew a time without them, they will be an integral part of their lives as well.
The first time I remember being interested in video games was when I was visiting my mother in Texas, one summer. She lived in
Denton, Texas, and there was a pizza place there. I think it was called Mama’s. I could be wrong about a lot of this, since I was quite young at the time. Anyway, this place had a Space Invaders machine and an Atari Football tabletop. I don’t remember being any good at either, but that’s where the spark started.
I would spend a lot of time in varying arcades when I was able. Going to a new arcade, in a different state, was exciting to me because I could see games that they had that I didn’t have access to. I would read magazines devoted to games and read about machines that I had never seen before. If I was lucky, one of the “foreign” arcades that I visited would have one of them. To me, as a kid, it was very exciting.
Arcade machines started the longing for a home system, the Atari VCS. The VCS had home versions of the some of the great arcade games, too. Like Space Invaders. It also had some arcade games I never knew were in the arcade, like Warlords. In fact, I didn’t know that was ever an arcade game until a few years ago. Home consoles led to wanting a home computer. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 and it was followed shortly afterwards by an Atari 400. I had actually wanted an Apple II, but after working and playing with the Commodore and
Atari, and then using an Apple ][ in school, I quickly lost that fantasy. I had always hoped I’d be able to write my own games. Sadly, that never happened.
So, why now, some 30 years later, am I still enamored with them? Why am I not so “wow’ed” by the new games that I just forget about the dinosaurs and let them die? Those games had very little memory, poor graphics capabilities, and were just plain limited in so many ways. Now, the sky is the limit. The graphics of games today is such a huge leap over what was available in the 1980’s and 1990’s that it’s astonishing to see the difference. An arcade machine of the 1980’s, which was a major heavy hitter when compared to the home systems, now has less power and capabilities than even the cheapest of handheld systems.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m so smitten with them. At the time it was easy, because arcade machines were the power houses. Home systems were okay, and fun, but not quite the same. The computers fell in somewhere between the two.
Anyone that looks at Donkey Kong now and dismisses it with a, “It sucks” just doesn’t understand what went into it. Back then, the majority of games were a one-man show. One person would design, create the artwork, and write the code. Some of the machines didn’t really have a “processor” or CPU as we know it, and were wired to work. Sound worked the same way.
In my eyes, the best part of those old games was the fact that it was so new that anything could be a hit. Just like when rock and roll was new, or when television was new. Something special comes along and people know that it’s going to be huge. In those first years, everyone gets to be a child again. Experimenting, poking, playing.
Just as the 1980’s gave us a decade of diverse musical styles that
managed to co-exist on the pop top 40, that decade also gave us a magical mix of different types of games. Back when the whole thing started there were no genres, they were being created. A game could be different from anything else and still be a hit.
In today’s world of huge, mega-corporation, large-scale design and delivery, such things aren’t possible. Can you imagine a game designer going to his manager with this idea:
D: I’ve got this great idea for a game!
M: All right, lay it on me.
D: Okay, you’re this chef, right? And you make hamburgers.
M: Um, okay. Like on an assembly line or something?
D: No! There are these huge buns and beef patties and stuff. And he has to run over them and knock them down to the bottom to make the burger.
M: Giant burgers?
D: And he’s being chased by enemies.
M: Ah, like monsters and stuff. And he sprays them down with a machine gun!
D: Well, no. With a pepper shaker, actually.
M: A pepper shaker.
D: Yeah, but he’s only got a limited supply of pepper.
M: Ah. And these enemies are…?
D: A pickle, a hotdog and a fried egg.
M: Okay. Let me see if I’m getting this right. You play a chef who makes hamburgers by running over giant buns and stuff, which knocks the hamburger stuff to the bottom. Along the way you’re chased by a pickle, a hotdog and a fried egg, who you can incapacitate by throwing pepper on them?
D: Yes. Or crush them if they’re walking on a hamburger ingredient and it falls on them.
M: I see. Yes, I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve just been notified that it’s time for your completely random drug test.
Sure it sounds weird, but Burger Time was still a fairly popular game. And it’s still fun to play. Not all games require massive amounts of violence and gunfire to be interesting. Not that I’m against visiting violence upon pickles.
It was just so new and open that if you had an idea for a game, someone would listen. Maybe it wouldn’t turn out too good, but maybe it would turn out to be a big surprise hit. Who would’ve thought a cheddar cheese wheel that ate dots and was chased by ghosts would become popular? Or a guy
sticking a bicycle pump in a dragon and “blowing them up” would be a hit?
But besides the games, there was also the atmosphere. Walking from bright sunlight into a dark, smoky building that was just overflowing from the noises of people talking, the latest pop hits from the radio, and the beeps and boings of lots and lots of arcade machines. There was just nothing better for a kid.
That’s where it all began.
That’s about it for the arcade portion of my nostalgia. Next I’ll be getting into the home game consoles.