Why the Arcade Matters

When I first started writing seriously about video games about 13 years ago, nearly anyone else that I ran across that was doing the same was about my age. I was in my late 20s, a child of the ’80s, a kid who had grown up stalking the darkened environs of the arcade at the mall, who had owned both a Commodore Vic 20 and a Commodore 64 and who had played on Apple IIes in school. With each year, I see my serious video game writing cohort grow, but also get younger and younger, and while I still share a lot of my own experiences of contemporary video games with them, I find that fewer and fewer of them know what a Commodore Vic 20 is or have ever spent hours upon hours dropping quarters into an arcade machine.

All of which is fine. The relevance of the Commodore computers is fairly negligible in the history of gaming, and you don’t need to have played Jungle Hunt (1982) or the vector graphics version of Star Wars (1983) to know something about video games (though both are awfully good games). That being said, I do think sometimes that the significance of the arcade of the ’80s to video game history should not be forgotten and also that any video game critic worth their salt should at least have played around on some arcade cabinet for the sake of at least grasping what these games were like and their allure to a whole generation.

The first video games were, of course, not arcade cabinets. When talk of the “first video game” comes up, often 1961’s Spacewar! is credited, though there are earlier examples of games developed for computers like OXO (1952), a tic-tac-toe game, and Tennis for Two (1958). The latter game is a precursor of sorts to Pong (1972), which I, for years, had mistakenly thought of as the “first video game.”

My own first experience of Pong was in the early ’80s. My uncle, who lived briefly with my family, had one of the home Pong machines that were released by Sears in 1975. My brother and I, who both spent tons of time in arcades but still could not convince our parents to buy us an Atari 2600, were entranced by the machine. Despite only being able to play a single game, the machine saw hours of play. My parents would eventually break down and get us several Commodore products for Christmas because, well, they weren’t just video game machines. They were computers (though 98 percent of the time that we spent on the Vic 20 and the Commodore 64 was playing video games). In 1985 or 1986, we finally did get an actual video game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System.

What I describe here, though, while seemingly only being a bit of personal history, does have a great deal to do with why the arcade is so very important to the history of video games more broadly and how video games first emerged as things to be privately played on computers, then moved into the public space of the arcades, and then back again to something that could be played privately on a home video game console or on a personal computer.

When a game like Colossal Cave Adventure was released in 1976, the game was something that only a few interested players ever experienced. While a personal computer, the Programa 101, was released as early as 1965, it retailed for $3,200. (That’s $3,200 in 1965 money. You could buy a brand new Ford Mustang for about $600 less than that in 1965). Such machines were prohibitively expensive and really only owned by the few people who might know how to operate them. Personal computers and the few video games developed for them were largely used and played by people in technology related fields, computer programmers and the like, and some academics who had access to them through universities. Many of these games were actually only played on computers that programmers had access to at work, not at home at all — that is, until the late ’70s.

Before the late 70s, the computer game essentially was a rarefied experience. The mainstream culture was barely aware of the existence of such games, outside of the more populist experience of playing a Pong machine in a local bar. However, in a similar way that the Pong arcade cabinet prepared the way for the eventual release of a home version of Pong, the arcade cabinet and its residence in arcades, supermarkets, bars, and convenience stores served as a form of advertisement that communicated to the general populace on behalf of video games in general, which would lead to the rise of the home console in particular.

While the Atari 2600 was released in 1977, its sales would not really take off until 1980, when Atari acquired the licensing for Space Invaders, originally released in 1978 as an arcade game, and then explode in 1982 when Atari acquired the licensing for a little game called Pac-Man, originally released in 1980 as an arcade game.

Even with the decline of Atari in 1983, the arcade remained, and the arcade once again prepared the public at large for the release of the home system, which made playing video games into something less of a fad and more of a permanent pastime. That system was, of course, the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Nintendo’s early launch titles and the titles the would initially follow the system’s launch were largely made up of either games that had previously appeared in arcades, like Donkey Kong (1981), Popeye (1982), and Mario Bros. (1983) or that were released pretty much concurrently in the arcade and in the home market, games like Super Mario Bros. (1985), Ice Climber (1985), and Excitebike (1985).

All of which is to say that what arcade games did for video games was remove them from the rarefied spaces of industry and academia and make video games into a populist experience. Arcades and arcade cabinets served as the entry point for the mainstream culture to want to go out and buy a home console or a home computer (my own Commodore Vic 20 was purchased in 1982 by my parents along with a Pac-Man knock-off called Cosmic Cruncher, for instance).

Now all of this is interesting, perhaps, to know if one is to be a game critic that has a grasp on the history of the medium. However, it may not explain why a contemporary critic might need to actually put some time in on an actual Ms. Pac-Man (1983) or Pole Position (1982) arcade cabinet. For my money, there are several reasons to familiarize one’s self with such experiences. If one is to understand how instructions for video games have evolved, one needs to see an arcade cabinet, both its screen and the exterior design elements of cabinets themselves. If one is to understand how video game controls have evolved and become somewhat homogenous, one needs to play some games that feature a joystick, a roller ball, a dial, a steering wheel and pedal, etc.

Indeed, I recently played a few rounds of Ms. Pac-Man in a pizza parlor with a Millennial and was terribly amused to watch him hold the ball of the joystick with his hand poised above it, rather than the way that I play, which is with the web of my hand, giving me much greater control over Ms. Pac-Man’s movement. This kid, who could kick my ass any day of the week at Call of Duty or any first person shooter, got his ass handed to him at Ms. Pac-Man merely because of a lack of familiarity with how an arcade joystick “feels.” He also could probably kick my ass at a port of Ms. Pac-Man if we were both using standardized Playstation or X-Box controllers. The early arcade, though, required a skill in adapting to new control interfaces regularly with its glut of strange and experimental control types.

Just experiencing the vast difference of playing Zaxxon (1982) with its jet fighter like control stick by comparison to playing with the five button schema (no joystick or other controlling device at all) of Asteroids (1979) changes one’s view on how a game might be played or how its controls communicate something specific about what one is doing in the game. Indeed, many arcade games wanted to simulate or communicate their subject matter more clearly through the way that you controlled them, much as the Wiimote speaks more directly to games of tennis or bowling or even the way it communicates the masturbatory action of video game play with the up-and-down jerking movements required in the Wii version of No More Heroes.

All of which I hope does not come off to potential younger video game critics as sounding like I am shaking my fist and declaring that “in my day, video games were video games.” My intention is not to snobbishly suggest that only one who has spent days upon end in the dimly lit arcade can truly know or understand the video game. My hope, insteadm is actually quite the opposite. If arcade machines are, as I propose, representative of a populist movement in video game history, the opening up of video games to everyone (and Pac-Man very much did this, as moms, dads, kids, and even grannies dropped a quarter or two in this strange new machine that everyone was talking about in the early ’80s), then it is my hope that those interested in understanding video games as a medium might discover the pleasure of the game in this form and how it might inform and contrast with a more contemporary experience on consoles, computers, and iOS.

While these days these machines, the arcade cabinets, are no longer as ubiquitous as they once were, there is a pizza parlor or two that still has one waiting for your quarter and your time. So, if you can, take a few minutes to let one consume your quarter and your time. If you love video games, it’s an experience that is still worth twenty-five cents, possibly more, I promise.