It was about a community of like-minded misfits. It was about sticking it to the Man.
It's difficult to write a eulogy for the arcade, that once ubiquitous quarter-eating staple of malls, bowling alleys and college campuses everywhere. Like Saturday morning cartoons and the NHL, it still exists, but has been slowly fading from the American consciousness since its 1980s heyday.
Still, I felt compelled to write a lament of sorts after learning recently that the plug is literally being pulled at Gunther's Games, a small mom-and-pop downtown arcade in Columbia, Missouri where I spent many of my formative years (and quarters).
Not that the closing of Gunther's is a surprise. In recent years, the dusty confines felt more like an old Presbyterian church with pinball machines than a living and breathing hangout. But it's hard not to wax poetic about one of the last of the old neighborhood arcades –- the kind of place Norman Rockwell would have painted had he been a Gen-X-er who felt romantic notions about Double Dragon.
For many teens in the late '70s and '80s (before the advent of XBoxes, cellphones and MySpace) arcades were actually prime destinations. It wasn't just that my generation was dying to guide a yellow anthropomorphic hockey puck through a maze or to help a mustachioed plumber rescue his girlfriend from a barrel-tossing ape, but because arcades were one of the few shared spaces we could hang out that felt decidedly adult-unfriendly. For some of us, going to the arcade was a small act of anti-authoritarian rebellion.
The arcades I grew up in were dark, sweaty, dungeon-like rooms filled with loud obnoxious lights and sounds with even louder and more obnoxious people. I remember the plethora of mohawked misfits, metalheads in Megadeth shirts and ripped jeans, D&D-obsessed geeky types and various other mallrats. Even the typical arcade employee embodied the aesthetic -– the longhaired burnout or the twenty-something underachiever celebrated in virtually every Kevin Smith movie.
When arcades appeared in '80s movies, it was usually to show the natural habitat of some sort of slacker or punky teen, such as Sean Penn's iconic Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There was even an absurd 1983 teen B-flick called Joysticks about wacky teens trying to keep their video arcade from being shut down by a curmudgeonly businessman who claimed the arcade was a threat to the mental health of the youth.
In real life, drug deals and rowdy behavior were usually the exception rather than the norm, but the reputation of shady things occurring in arcades led many middle class parents, including my own, to frown upon their kids frequenting these places. It's also worth noting that the skating rink and the bowling alley garnered similar reputations -- and both tended to have arcade games.
Ironically, though arcades were viewed by the older generation as seedy dens of teen corruption, the games themselves were often simplistic and childish affairs, especially compared with today's popular over-complex and over-stimulating consoles games. Back then, video games didn't revolve around fighting virtual lifelike recreations of World War II battles or murdering gang members; rather, we were innocently helping a pixelated frog across a street or saving a princess from a dragon.
And despite all the unblinking eyes staring at video screens, arcades also often bred a sense of community -– we'd chat with strangers about how to get past the Nth wave of aliens in Galaga, look on in awe for the guy who got past Act V in Ms. Pac-Man without losing a life, or bicker over who got the turkey leg in Gauntlet.
Over time you grew to know the regular characters at the arcade –- sort of like a teen version of Cheers. One of my old arcade archrivals was known as Red (creatively named for his reddish hair and face). Red used to casually dispose of almost everyone he faced in a two-player game and would remain stoic the entire time but for an occasional cackle after beating someone in an exceptionally interesting way. There was also a pudgy kid with Coke bottle glasses we called "Bill Gates". Mr. Gates would arrive to the arcade with a huge red-felt pouch filled with tokens and would use most of them within an hour. He was the single worst player I'd ever seen, but that didn't stop him from sinking token after token into the machines.
But by the late '80s and early '90s, fewer people were dropping dollars into arcades. The first big blow of competition arrived with the home systems -– first the Atari 2600 and then the Nintendo Entertainment System -– when technology began to allow kids to play arcade games in the safe space of home (as Mom and Dad sighed in relief). Game makers tried to adapt somewhat by focusing on games with steering wheels, jet fighter sticks, dual screens, trackballs and other gadgets not possible at home, but the market erosion continued.
Around the same time, rumblings of problems with the arcade business began within the industry itself as well, with such companies as Nintendo exiting in 1992. Some arcades closed while others redesigned with the intention to market themselves as more family friendly. My favorite mall-based arcade as a kid, Aladdin's Castle, was remodeled in the early '90s in bright neon colors. The games were still there, but the atmosphere wasn't. Suddenly, some of us were feeling alienated from our own haven that had to that point felt sealed off from the adult world.
Arcades might actually have fallen into obscurity earlier if it wasn't for the fighting game boom in 1991, led by Street Fighter II, and the Dance Dance Revolution craze about 10 years later, each creating its own subculture that briefly boosted a flagging industry.
Today, the arcade industry is trapped in what a recent Associated Press article called a "death spiral". According to statistics from Vending Times, the number of arcade game units nationwide dropped from 860,000 in 1994 to 333,000 in 2004. Revenue from the games sank from $2.3 billion to $866 million in that same timeframe.
With all of the countless distractions kids and teens have nowadays (including ultra-powered home systems), going out to the arcade to play video games seems like an act of nostalgia -– something movie theatres are also beginning to experience to a lesser extent. The small arcades that survive tend to feed off the spare change of tourists and theme park goers. Most of the ones that thrive aren't the Gunther's of the world, but multipurpose "entertainment centers" like Chuck E. Cheese for kids and Dave & Busters for adults, with both continually adding new locations.
For those of us who miss the old days, home consoles offer "arcade favorites" compilations and collections, but they never feel satisfying because the sum of the unique arcade experience was more than simply standing up in a room while playing Elevator Action or Burgertime.
It was about a community of like-minded misfits. It was about sticking it to the Man, especially if that man was the final boss in a hard-fought game. Or it was meaningful lessons like the one Spicoli philosphozied about:
"The thing with Pac-Man, is that you've got to decimate, before you're decimated. It's just like life."
It's a lesson the arcade has learned all too well.