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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Insert Coin. about to die!

Part Five of the series, All Your Free Time Are Belong to Us

As this series winds down to a close I just realized that I wasted a hell of a lot of time in my life playing video games. In 33 years, have I really played video games, that much? If it weren't for home gaming consoles, I'd probably have gone broke from one of my earliest and favorite of all gaming outlets, the arcade! Ah yes, the clinking of coins into the slot was music to my ears. I remember the early days of arcades where video games only cost a quarter. Now the most popular games cost as much as a dollar to play and that's nothing to say about adding more money to continue when you get the dreaded "Game Over" screen. Now, it seems like the arcade is facing a "Game Over" scenario with home gaming becoming a more technologically superior industry.

Actually, I feel bad for the "Arcade." In the 80's, during the Golden Age of Video Arcade Games, the coin operated game was the pinnacle of gaming technology. The few emerging home consoles such as Atari and ColecoVision couldn't come close to the technology needed to render the graphics you would get in your local bowling alley or bar. Somewhere along the line, though, home consoles caught up with and may have even surpassed the old stand up stalwarts leaving the last few working Space Invader cabinets to grumble, "Back in my day, you only needed 8 joystick directions and one button to have fun." Who can't remember going to Pizza Hut with their family only to leave the table and seek out that cocktail cabinet style Ms. Pac Man game in the corner? Some of my earliest memories include the phrase, "Mom, can I have a quarter?" My town even had a local legend about a guy named Chucky Moss who rode a bike around with a huge flag sticking off the back. He would go to the local Laundromat and play Pac-Man. Unfortunately, Chucky only knew two directions, left and up, which would ultimately leave him cornered with Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde free to chomp him unabashedly.

Growing up, there was always an arcade in the mall which could siphon the money from my pocket. It was like a magic trick. I never remembered putting more quarters in but always ended up broke. While my mom would shop for Christmas gifts at the Hills store in Uniontown, PA, I’d be in the lobby area firing quarters into the Castlevania game. When I'd run out of money, I'd go to the toy section and ogle over the Nintendo display, hoping that this was the year she grabbed one off the shelves. It never happened. I ended up buying one off of a friend.

Then, there was the skating rink in our town. For about three to four years of my childhood I spent Friday nights and some Saturdays there. During the mid to late 80's, a lot of kids had birthday parties at the local roller rink, so there was always a reason to go on the weekend. Most kids would put the few quarters they had on the edge of the pool table, just waiting to play. I would put them into the arcade games along the wall. Now, I did do my fair share of skating, but whenever Rudy, the old guy who ran the place, called out, "The next skate is for couples" I knew it was time to leave the floor and head to the Super Mario Bros. or Double Dragon game. This also occurred with the Backwards Skate and Shoot the Duck songs as I only knew how to do two things on roller skates, go fast in one direction and fall down hard. If I wasn't playing a video game at the mall or the roller rink, perhaps you could have found me in the arcades at amusement parks. Kennywood still has a couple of arcades in the park. Cedar Point has about three, the main Coliseum Arcade along the main midway and the Gemini and Jitney arcades towards the back of the park. On rare occasions, we may have found ourselves being treated to a night out at Major Magic's, a Chuck E Cheese clone. Our parents should be considered saints for allowing us to be plied with sugar, caffeine, tons of pizza while we spent countless hours playing games and watching dancing bears. Of course, none of the ill effects would kick in until it was time for bed.

If we went on vacation, I could always sniff out an arcade like a bloodhound. There were always a few arcades along the Boardwalk at Ocean City and around the downtown Myrtle Beach area around The Pavilion. One year we stopped at a campground on the way to our intended destination and I remember wandering down to where the general store was. Next door was a little room with about ten games. I can remember the place being perpetually empty and the silence would be pierced by the electronic voice of the pinball machine telling me to "Rack 'em." When we weren't on vacation, sometimes we'd visit friends who had a camper permanently set up at a place called "Cutty's" Of course; it hasn't been called that for years. It's now called Mountain Pines RV Resort and I think the activities geared towards kids are no longer around. In it's hey day, however, I always found some free time to play a few games in their arcade in between trips to the pool and hikes across the creek to the woods where a few lone remnants of buildings stood including a totem pole and a chimney.

While my brother was in college at The University of Pittsburgh, I remember visiting him and being extremely jealous that he had arcade games in the lobby of his dorm. They accepted tokens instead of quarters and if you spent a whole five dollar bill, you got four extra tokens. Of course, you had to use them or they didn't work anywhere else. When I attended Pitt, seven years later, I found myself skipping a few boring classes in the afternoon to waste time at the union. They had a huge room full of pool tables and a tiny little nook with about seven arcade games.

The arcade culture is something that can be boiled down into two concepts, fame and achievement. Those of us who ever spent time in an arcade always felt the basking ray of fame wash over us when we scored just enough points to plug three letters of our name into the high score screen. In the early days of the Golden Age of Video Arcade Games, games didn't have an end. Technically, they did, because most of technology for games during this era didn't allow for the infinity scenario and the game either became glitchy or unplayable. Famous instances are the "Split Screen" level of Pac-Man and the "Kill Screen" that occurs in Dig Dug. Even with the kill screens these types of games were designed to just repeat levels with increased difficulty giving more street cred to anyone who was able to rack up millions of points all on one play. When game technology shifted in the mid 80's games became less about the high score and more about "beating the game." While games like Rolling Thunder and Double Dragon offered a high score tally at the top of the screen, the ultimate goal was to successfully navigate through the whole game and beat the "Final Boss" at the end. These games attracted huge crowds and it was hard to get in close enough to slap your quarter(s) up on the cabinet securing your place in line. When the first player was finally defeated or, at least, ran out of quarters, they would move aside and the next person in line took their quarters from the cabinet and had their turn. A smart gamer would always hold one of the buttons down after they lost to quickly reduce the "Continue" count down to zero, ending their progress. This was a common practice to deny "cherry pickers" the chance to continue on your game, reducing their expenditure of quarters. After all, you poured your blood, sweat, and tears into that two hour marathon of gaming. Why should some rookie finish your game and get all the glory?

While my love of the arcade may be a lasting one, unfortunately, it's a rarity to find one these days. Not to mention, we've just grown up and old. We have less and less time for gaming, let alone a reason for going to an arcade with the sole purpose of spending countless quarters on five minutes worth of fun. Still, every year for my birthday, my wife indulges my need to be a big kid and we go to Dave & Busters. For those of you who have never been there it's a restaurant/bar that is on par with say Houlihan's in style and menu. However, in the back there is a huge arcade with tons of video games. They also have a bunch of games that give out tickets for redemption of prizes just like Chuck E Cheese. They don't use coins or tokens but have a prepaid card that you swipe to play. I can usually sucker her into a racing game or zombie shooter game but other than that she just stands by and watches this big old dork have fun.

Hopefully, one day, I can save her the anguish of being seen with said dork and privately geek out in my own game room with my favorite games and pinball machines. My pipe dream would be to have a room in my house dedicated to this. I'd have a pool table and a jukebox and a collection of the classics sprinkled with a few modern favorites. Now, these classics aren't cheap and they are very rarely found in good condition, but I'd still want to try. Even though I have the ability to play most of my favorites on my computer, there's nothing like having a full sized cabinet in your home. Emulators, such as MAME, have the capability of reproducing most video games and can be played on a PC. There are even eBay auctions and books dedicated to "MAME Cabinets" that act as a coin operated game playing hundreds of titles all on a dedicated computer inside the cabinet. While this isn't a cheap fix for your video arcade addiction, it's a cheap imitation of the culture it supports. If you're going to do it right, be a collector. Buy the games from other collectors or arcades that are going out of business.

For now, I'll continue chasing that dream like a power pelleted Pac-Man chases a blinking blue ghost, because Mongo needs food, badly.

Mongo's dream collection of Coin Op games

Galaga My all time favorite.
Gauntlet II The inspiration for the title of this post. Long hours were spent on this one.
Blasted A not so well known game from the makers of Rampage.
Xenophobe I loved this game at the Roller Rink. I must have spent $5.00 a trip.
Double Dragon I and II These two games at the rink took more money than a politician.
Super Mario Bros. One of the hardest games to get on in an arcade in the mid 80's.
Mario Bros. Not to many people found joy like I did in this game.
Rolling Thunder Cool music, spy theme, and all the KKK members you could kill.
Star Wars Trilogy I play this once a year at D&B's. Can beat it on one play.
Star Wars A classic that still poses a challenge
Out Run I could never get past the first checkpoint, but I loved tuning in stations.
Mr. Do's Castle One of those wacky games that still gets me.
FunHouse (pinball) Spent an entire week at Myrtle Beach playing this game. Frustrating.
Jurassic Park (pinball) One of the better pinball games out there.
Mortal Kombat II While working at Idlewild this game stole a lot of my break time and money.
Crazy Climber Who doesn't like being crapped on by a big bird or having a pot thrown at them?
Street Fighter II Another one of those quarter suckers.
Smash TV Another two hander that I spent a vacation playing.
Legend of Kage Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has nothing on this game.
Shinobi Another hard one that I could never beat.
Rampage Classic smash em up as Godzilla, just don't punch the neon sign.
Eight Ball Deluxe Shoot the two ball. Another classic Bally pinball title.

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