I don’t remember the first video game that I played. I think my earliest memory of playing anything was Space Invaders. It was, I think, in a pizza parlor in Denton, TX. If I remember right (which I probably don’t), there was also an Atari Football game, as well. One other thing I remember, was that the place sold a pizza called “The Wagon Wheel.” It was an enormous pizza, at least to a kid about ten years old.
Like I said, though, it was a long time ago and I’m somewhat sure I’m not remembering it correctly. Or in the wrong place. Or something. I don’t really remember video games being all that important to me at that particular moment. Maybe I was already past Space Invaders? I don’t know.
We used to go to Seaside Heights fairly frequently. There were several arcades, there. It seems they never got rid of stuff, either, because I would find the newest games spread out across the different arcades, as well as old games that most people wouldn’t remember. Like Stunt Cycle. Or Maneater.
Not only did they have video games, but they had mechanical games that were the precursors of video games. Games where you drove a car on a stick on a roadway that was belt driven. Or shooting gallery games. Or Skee-Ball.
When our sister would go there with our dad, we’d walk over to, I think, the Casino Pier. I will always remember the smell of salty air and tar on the piers during a hot day. Anyway, the Casino Pier had a carasoul, there, along with arcade machines and Skee-Ball, along with a lot of other things, I think. Also there was a lunch counter. Dad would make us sit there and eat something before letting us go all higgeldy-piggeldy around the place. He wouldn’t let us eat funnel cakes, which smelled really good amid the hot tar, but we could get a hot dog or hamburger at the lunch counter. It’s strange to think that, back then, it took effort to get me to eat something, but I was all fired up to have a go at the games.
I don’t think my sister ever understood the attraction. She asked me, once, what was so great about video games. She was a Skee-Ball girl, though. She’d spend a lot of time racking up points and getting tickets. She thought that was better, because she could take all her tickets and redeem them for something. Like, glow in the dark vampire teeth. Or rubber balls that would bounce higher than a house.
It’s been too long for me to remember, exactly, what I told her and I probably didn’t articulate it very well. Honestly, I probably called her stupid or left it at a lame “it’s fun” kind of explanation. In her eyes, her dimes gave her entertainment and something physical to take home, where my quarters got
But what arcade games gave me was a chance to be something I never would be: a hero. At the arcade, I was repelling alien invaders. I was catching Old Western outlaws (well, shooting them). I was a race car driver, a jungle explorer, a mouse cop catching robbers, Popeye, a chef making hamburgers and keeping the world safe from psychotic pickles.
Were those experiences worth more than a set of glow in the dark vampire fangs? Yeah, to me, they were. I’ve never been any of those things in real life, except, maybe, the last thing. You can never tell with pickles, just by looking at them.
As I got older, arcades became more prevalent and also became more important, socially. Friends would show up and we would hang out. There were times when I would walk four or five miles to an arcade. If nobody I knew was there, that was all right because I could just play games. Then I would call my dad to come pick me up, which, surprisingly, he was never happy about. You’d think he’d be glad that I got the exercise.
When I was old enough to have a driver’s license we’d go more frequently. After work, we’d head to the arcade for a while then go to a diner and get a late night breakfast. These were probably the best days of my life.
A lot of people talk about the games from back then. To me, one of the best things was walking into an arcade, which were usually dimly lit, and I would stand at the entrance waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light and I could listen and tell what games were there by the sounds. I think of all the things I miss about arcades, the sounds are at the top. A cacophony of Pac-Man, Defender, Jackal, Operation: Wolf, and so many others.
It’s strange that now, with a disposable income and ready transportation, I don’t make use of the arcades that around me now (and there are several). But I guess that’s part of the curse of getting old.