Saturday, November 10, 2012

Video Arcade Memories

Today I saw the film Wreck-It Ralph, and got a flood of memories from the time when my shadow haunted the doorways of video arcades.

All teenagers hide things from their parents, whether it be their sexual proclivities or drug and alcohol use.  Being a straight-arrow in my teens, the one vice I kept from my parents was my love of the video arcade.  At the local mall in my small-town hometown, there was an arcade called The Fun Factory, and it was made plain from a very young age that I was not to go there.  My mother especially decried arcade games as a colossal waste of money, and arcade denizens to be slackers and hoods.  With its dark interior contrasting with the ultrabrightness of the rest of the mall, The Fun Factory did indeed take on a mysterious and slightly sinister aspect when I was a little boy.  I walked past it innumerable times, hearing the bleats and burps of the machines like an illicit siren call, one that eventually drew me in.

Despite being banned from the Fun Factory, I got to play arcade games from time to time, mostly since my father liked to indulge us kids when he was in a good mood.  We rarely ate out, but did so most often at a pizza place with three machines in the corner, consisting of Ms. Pac Man and a rotating cast of less than stellar games.  Usually, as we were finishing our meal, my dad would give a couple of quarters each to my sisters and I.  I rarely got money from my dad that wasn't earned shoveling snow or mowing the lawn, so I treasured this little pleasure.  I also got to play video games at innumerable Holiday Inns on family vacation, where my parents didn't seem to mind if I spent a couple of dollars in quarters on games.  I have very vivid memories of the smell of Holidome pool chlorine wafting into an arcade where I gleefully fired Operation Wolf's fake uzi.

I don't recall exactly when I started going into The Fun Factory against my parents' wishes, other than I started doing it in high school.  By that point I had my own money that I'd earned from my summer job detasseling in the hot Nebraska sun, so I didn't need to worry about finding dough for my own quarters.    I spent a lot of time at the mall as it was, partly because there was nowhere else for a teenager in my town to go, and partly because the mall was right by my house and hence I could just walk there whenever I felt like it.  I finally had the independence I needed to go to the forbidden arcade, and for much of my high school years I spent a good chunk of my time there playing games like Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, and NBA Jam.  (Those were probably my three favorites.)  Today a little bit of my father's parsimony has crept into my soul, so it does pain me a bit that I was dropping $1.25 in 1993 money to play a single game of NBA Jam.  Every now and then I would play some of the slightly older games since they were cheaper, with Arch-Rivals and Bad Dudes being particular favorites.  On that score, best friend loved playing Rampart, which ought to get some credit for being a pre-Golden Tee game that made good use of the track ball.

Video game arcades are going the way of travel agencies and record stores these days, which is a real shame.  The arcade was great as a social experience; half the fun was watching someone else try to best a high score, or two people going at each other in Street Fighter.  Gamers would chat about what new machines were best, which sucked, and offered tips on how to defeat difficult levels or to perform a fatality when playing Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat.  Much the same occurs online today, but the anonymity of the internet world often just brings out the worst in everyone.  Back in the early 1990s video gamers looked forward to "virtual reality" gaming, little did they know that reality itself would become increasingly virtual and disattached from physical human interaction.  The web is all well and good, but I would be ecstatic if I could go back in time for an hour and hang out in The Fun Factory, with the very real sounds of Ryu in Street Fighter keying up as he launches an energy ball, the clacking of joysticks, and cocky boasts of the NBA Jam gamer who knows all the cheat codes.

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