Arcades: Home Away From Home
A look back at arcades from a man who practically grew up in them
In the 1980s, I was a broke kid from a poor family. Life at home wasn’t always great, so I spent as much time as I could in arcades— or anywhere that a few coin-operated video games were housed.
While I really enjoyed going to arcades, I wasn’t able to play as many arcade games as I would have liked. While this was not ideal, it gave me more of an appreciation for these games, as I would so often be relegated to being an observer instead of an active player. Watching attract screens to learn how the games worked or watching other players and picking up some strategies for when or if I would drop a quarter or token into the machine was a common approach.
Not only did I use this observation time to learn the games, but it sometimes paid off when a player I was watching would have to leave or would get bored.
“Hey, kid. Finish this game for me.”
Those were great days, even if the game was often too hard for me at an advanced stage and I drained the remaining lives or time quickly. It was applying what I had learned in a practical— and, admittedly, pleasantly stressful— way. I never used these opportunities to log my initials on high score lists when my game would unceremoniously end; instead, if it was a game that I knew I’d come back to, I tried to remember the score so I had a bar to shoot for.
Then there were those lucky days when I’d find a quarter or token in the coin return bin. On even rarer occasions, I might find multiple coins. I never put them back into the same games I found them in; instead, I chose games that I had some skill at playing so that I could enjoy and savor my good fortune. In mall arcades, if there was a Track & Field machine, that’s where my money would go. I could extract quite a bit of mileage out of one credit in that game. Looking back on it, I sometimes wish that I’d spent these quarters and tokens on games I hadn’t played before, since these basically would’ve been free tries, but I was so protective of these found coins and they were so precious that I wanted to use them on games that would make them last.
Whenever I spent time in mall arcades, I always said hello to the staff that was working. They got to know me over time, and taught me a few things when they were fixing machines or emptying coin boxes. I got to learn a little bit about diagnostic screens and start-up screens. Every so often, when emptying the coin box in a game while I was watching, the attendant would pop in a credit or two for me. They weren’t supposed to do that, but I was always appreciative when they did.
Mall arcades were also great for me when report cards came out. My local mall arcade offered two tokens for every A and one token for every B. This was a strong motivator for me to do well in school. The only drawback was that report cards could only be redeemed at one arcade; attendants would stamp your report card so other arcades could see it. Other than that, having a few extra dollars in tokens four times a year was a big bonus. My approach with these free tokens was different than it was when I used my allowance or when I found a token or two in coin returns. I used half for new games or games that I hadn’t played much; the rest went to my go-to games, like GORF, The Empire Strikes Back, or pinball machines like High Speed and Pin*Bot.
Regardless of how many or how few tokens or quarters that I had access to when visiting an arcade, just being there always felt comfortable. While I certainly wished that I had more money to spend, playing the games was only part of the experience. Mall arcades and dedicated arcades had their own distinctive atmospheres, as compared to going to a bowling alley, restaurant, or convenience store to play. Some arcades had a sci-fi atmosphere, with stars or planets on the wall or on the carpeting. The lighting was dim, made somewhat brighter by the collective light given off by the numerous monitors that each game housed. Many arcades had music playing through speakers; it rarely was loud enough to interfere with a game you were playing, but it added ambiance to the experience. A pleasant cacophony of attract sounds and tunes combined to create a chaotic symphony that was always music to my ears.
When I walked into an arcade, the real world went into a state of suspended animation. My troubles and worries paused. My anxiety lessened. I could breathe. I could, at least temporarily, shut out of the negativity. I could be a hero, a star athlete, or a trained fighter— not in reality, but in this new world that these dim rooms and lit screens gave me access to. This became even more valuable for me in my teenage years when life was at its toughest. Arcades became oases for me that provided vital relief from the pains and pressures of my middle and high school years.
My love for arcades never diminished as I aged, but arcades couldn’t be supported by one person— or a few. Video games at home became the new big thing, and console and PC technology was advancing so quickly that the experience gap between playing games in the arcade and playing at home was fairly minimal. Mall arcades shut down before malls did. Those that remained had to recalibrate and shift from traditional arcade games to redemption games that were shorter and offered tickets. Dave & Buster’s and Round One are two examples of arcade chains who illustrate this recalibration. The experience just isn’t the same, though it’s not for a lack of trying.
One advantage to modern technology is the ability to buy and play many of the arcade games that I loved as a kid for home consoles. Compilation discs from arcade publishing giants like Capcom, Konami, Namco, Taito, and Midway were published for consoles during the second half of the 1990s and through the 2000s. The Xbox 360 and PS3 saw arcade game releases like Konami’s X-Men and Simpsons arcade games, which we always wanted home ports of back in the day. Today, we see both compilations and individual arcade game releases. Hamster Corporation releases a different arcade game every week for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4/5. It’s possible now to own enough arcade games so that you could fill multiple rooms (if you had the cabinets). For people like me who grew up in arcades, the last 25 years or so have been great for being able to buy the games we loved and play them without tokens or quarters.
That being said… the experience isn’t quite the same. Playing at home is great, but it doesn’t provide the atmosphere or sense of escape that walking into an arcade once did. It was a product of its time, and one that I’m not only grateful to have lived through, but also grateful for giving me a place to let go of life’s struggles for awhile.