Oh, the humble arcade. Born in the early 90s, I was part of the last generation to experience this wonderful institution, just before it fell to the might of home consoles and PCs. While it's easy to look back on it either through rose-tinted spectacles or with an overly-critical eye, there was something special about them. To the child or young adult, they provided a kind of glowing electronic Mecca, whose call to prayer was a thousand beeps and bloops. Turning a corner in a dour mall to see the blinking lights that promised fun, and a break from the mundane, for a quarter a pop was truly an incredible experience.
Despite the fun that they gave those of us lucky enough to play them, arcades did have their downsides too. Sometimes machines would be borderline broken, covered in crumbs, or sticky from spilled drinks. Other times, you'd have to wait so long to get a turn on a particularly popular machine, only to get on, get eliminated, and have to move off for the next player in seconds. Then there was the matter of etiquette. Every single arcade or community had its own special rules, which slotted into the grander rules of conduct that every arcade would abide by.
In this article, we've tried to reminisce on arcades without being overly nostalgic. To point out their flaws without being too critical. Do you think we've missed out something particularly notable? Got a memory of your own misspent youth that you want to share? Let us know!
26 You’d Challenge People By Putting Quarters On The Arcade Machine
This was particularly the practice in the fighting game community. If you were watching someone you thought you could take, or who might provide a modicum of challenge, you needed to throw down the gauntlet. To do this, you'd take a quarter, and place it on the machine's bezel, or on top of the machine, which was the gaming equivalent of a gloved slap to the fate. You'd best hope you don't encounter some douche who'd just run off with your coin.
25 You’d Have To Wait For Ages To Get A Go
Now, this was frustrating. You've had your eye on a particularly hot machine: maybe it was Street Fighter, or Time Crisis, and now you're forced to play the waiting game. The queues could be outrageously long, particularly during peak times, such as summer holidays. You and a dozen other miscreants would be waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for what felt like forever, until the game hog currently playing decided they'd had enough. This happened so often in arcades, and it is, without doubt, one of the things we don't miss.
24 Holographic Games
From one thing we don't miss, to one thing we do. It seemed like every so often, games would hit arcades with one goal: to push technology that little bit further. Time Traveler was one such game. What was special about it? It was the world's first holographic game. By utilizing a CRT screen and a large, curved mirror, the game could project its characters in front of the player, making them appear to be fully 3D. While one could argue that they weren't true holograms, they were exceptionally cool.
23 Spilled Drinks
Another common bugbear was people who would spill their drinks all over the machines. The best result would be a few sticky buttons and a joystick that was unpleasantly glue-like to the touch. The worst? Spilled drinks could fry machines if they were able to get inside and damage the boards. Common practice was to put your drinks on the little rails next to the machines, but there are, of course, people who think they know better. They were far from popular.
22 Fights Would Break Out Over Trash Talk
Some things never change. Trash talking among gamers online is super common, as I'm sure you know, but it was just as popular in arcades. The only problem here is that the person you're talking mess to is standing right next to you, with their fists well within the range of your face. Throwing hands over trash talk may seem like an excessive reaction, but when you've just had your butt handed to you by someone who's now intent on making you feel even worse, you can see how they happened. And happen they did.
21 When You Did Get On A Machine, You Had To Watch Out
When you got on a machine, keeping your head on a swivel between levels was sometimes a necessity. The problem wasn't with people picking your pocket, or anything like that, no. Instead, it was with people who would come up to you and join your game without asking you if that was okay. This was an annoyance in a cooperative game, but when you're playing a fighting game, or anything else competitive, especially with a "winner stays on" rule, it could mean you'd be robbed of your go in minutes.
20 Bad Cabinet Design
For every innovative cabinet like Time Traveler, you had a dozen that were incredibly badly designed. You wouldn't think it would be easy to mess up an arcade cabinet. Get a screen, a couple of sticks and some buttons, and you're good to go, right? Wrong. Let's look at the X-Men arcade cabinet. This was a six-player machine that was frankly hard to get everyone around without banging elbows together. The game also featured a pair of screens, with one being poorly-reflected in a mirror that made the game hard to play.
19 Massive Cabinets
These could be either good or bad, but always kind of admirable. Some cabinets would be absurdly large or intricate. For a prime example of this, look at the Afterburner cabinet. I never got a chance to play one of these, but good lord did they look fun. With a hydraulic cabinet that moved you one way, and the whole cabinet another, it immersed you in the experience of flying a fighter jet like never before (or since). Outrun was another game that was able to toss you around like a rag doll. We need more stuff like this.
18 Things Could Get Gross
Now, I'm sure that most arcade patrons were just as hygienic as the general population. But the general population contains some gross, gross people. When you have tens, hundreds, or thousands of people moving through the same arcade over the course of the day, it doesn't take a genius to work out that things could get grim. Sticky controls from candy-covered hands, mysterious stains, crumbs all over the controls...you name it, arcade operators have seen it. Imagine letting your kid brother have free reign over using your controller but on a larger scale.
17 Some Games Would Be Designed To Eat Quarters
Now, when the arcades and the developers make most of their money from the quarters constantly being fed into the machine, it's no surprise that some games were exceptionally hard. Two spring particularly to mind. The first Ghosts 'N Goblins: a sidescroller where each life would only last a certain amount of time, and you would lose if you were hit twice. The second is Sinistar, a game that, on the surface, looks like Asteroids, but with a ton of enemy spaceships and the boss Sinistar, both of who would be happy to tear you to pieces.
16 Games Could Be Super Dull
With arcade machines pouring out of factories like water through a badly-constructed dam, it's obvious that not every one is going to be a banger. Some took the biscuit. For God's sake, just look at Bubbles. This was a game that would place you in control of a soap bubble, and task you with cleaning a sink. The only difficulty came from avoiding enemies, but really. Could you come up with a duller, more quotidian concept? The backgrounds never even changed, you were just stuck staring at this constant, blue melange. BORING.
15 They Could Be Cool Or Dodgy
Seriously, arcades would swing between two poles. Some arcades would be amazing places to hang out, with friendly people, great games, friendly operators, and just all around great places to spend a couple of hours. Other arcades...well, they were the exact opposite. Seedy, grimy, gross places full of irritating kids, or teens who would be intimidating if you were one of those kids. As well as the aforementioned fights, it wasn't unheard of for people to be mugged or attacked afterward, or even for weapons to be pulled if the trash talk got too heated.
14 People Would Use Glitches To Mess With You
This is extremely ungentlemanly, but people would do this pretty regularly. If you were playing a competitive game and your opponent was losing, this was always their last resort, a way to win while desperately outclassed. For example, in Street Fighter 2, if your opponent hit you with an HP throw and then immediately did a flash kick, they could make your character become stuck in a stun animation and make you constantly scroll through the floor, leaving you as easy pickings.
13 Posturing Was All Over The Place
When people weren't trash talking, they were posturing. The arcade was essentially a perfect recipe for creating hubris. Take a teen who's convinced of their own genius, give them a game that they're good at, and the result is someone who has a misplaced certainty of their own brilliance. One prime example of posturing was the practice of standing in an extra-wide stance. Whether this would be shown by someone spreading their shoulders to try and elbow you off the controls or just standing extremely wide, not giving you enough room to maneuver, it was an all too common occurrence.
12 Urban Legends Would Start About Games
Myths about games haven't completely disappeared (just look at the ones around GTA: San Andreas), but they've definitely quietened down. The communal spirit of arcades proved to be a perfect breeding ground for legends. Look at Polybius, a game that grew a mythology of it being a government-created psychological weapon, with its stats being regularly collected by men in black. Or the game Berzerk, whose antagonist, Evil Otto, was theorized to be a demon in game form, who caused the death of players.
11 Cabinets Would Be Artistic Masterpieces
It would be easy to see cabinets as being a means to an end, an overblown shelf to hold controls and a screen, and that's it. Luckily, game developers saw the potential for them to be more, resulting in some absolutely beautiful cabinets. It would be impossible for us to list all of the prettiest ones, but here are two of them. On your left, you can see the TMNT cabinet which was decorated with extremely well-drawn characters, and on your right, you can see the iconic Hang On cabinet, which immersed players in the world of motorbike racing.
10 They Used To Cost A Fortune
Amidst all the nostalgia, this is something that people tend to forget. Despite the cheap cost of entry, with each go costing you just 25 cents, harder games could cause you to absolute pile in the money. If you were serious about your games, you could easily spend $5-10 in one session. Granted games these days cost $60, but you can play those as much as you want, with no further costs. In the grand scheme of things, games are probably quite a bit cheaper these days.
9 Arcades Were Hubs Of Organized Crime
Arcades have always been a weird magnet for organized crime. It does, in some ways, make sense. They can be discretely run for illegal gains, right under the nose of the law. Back in the 1940s, pinball was seen as a form of gambling, and banned in New York City, with raids even taking place on arcades in 1942. Machines were destroyed, and their metal shipped off for war manufacturing. More recently, gangs have been setting up machines for use as video poker cabinets, which can be switched back to something like Street Fighter should police arrive.
8 Games Would Get Rotated Regularly
This SUCKED. A game's presence in the arcade depended on one thing, and one thing only: popularity. If a game was wildly popular, it would be a mainstay in the arcades. If, however, it didn't grab the majority of its players, and keep them returning for more, it wouldn't last very long. Instead, it would be removed, and you'd likely never see it make a return. If you're one of the few to love a game, you can expect to wave goodbye to it before you get a chance to set a new high score.
7 High Score Monikers Were Limited To Three Letters
In these days of gamertags and nicknames that can run into whole sentences, it's easy to forget how limited highscore names were. In most games, you'd have a total of three characters with which to leave your mark forever etched on the cabinet (until it was reset). Should you have a name like Joe or Jon, this was no issue, but otherwise, you'd have to get creative: SMN for Simon, anyone? Other people would go the waggish route and imprint ASS or POO forever in the game.
6 Cocktail Cabinets
When you picture an arcade machine, what do you think of? I'm willing to bet it's an upright cabinet, the sort where you'd stand in front, hands on the controls, face glued to the action onscreen. Some games offered a more classy option. Known as the cocktail cabinet, these were shaped like small tables, with players sat opposite each other, playing their games while sitting down. Some four-player games also took advantage of this design, with Warlords a notable example.
5 Arcade Operators Had Total Control
These days, no one has total control over what happens in their game other than the player. If you're sitting down after a hard day in front of your Xbox or PS4, no one is going to come along and evict you. Arcade operators had that power. In their arcades, they were kings, and like kings, could be either benevolent or mean-spirited. Some operators were kindly souls who would give out free plays to their friends. Others, however, would eject you from the arcade for no reason at all.
4 Every Game Would Have Its Own Etiquette
While arcade etiquette was its own thing, with most rules boiling down to the golden rule, each specific game had its own culture. For example, in the Street Fighter community, it was understood that you wouldn't tap throw, keeping your opponent locked in a throw loop and effectively shutting them out of the game. Exploiting glitches was also a massive no-no, seen as being rude, unsporting, and generally just douchey behavior. Real fights have started over less, so watch out.
3 They Were Social Hubs
You know there's that cliche of kids hanging out at various shopping malls, because, well, there's nothing else to do? Arcades used to offer something to do. They were meeting places as much as spots to play the latest games. They would allow teenagers and young adults alike to chill out, chat, and enjoy spending time with each other. That's something that is missing most from gaming today: aside from a few very specific games, there's nothing that offers that communal aspect quite like arcades used to.
2 Some Games’ Features Would Become Folklore
Said communal atmosphere would become a wellspring for folklore. Various games' features became embedded in a kind of legend, with hidden levels and features fervently discussed and debated. Some of these went as far back as Pac-Man, such as the hidden high-level fruits like bells, with the stories continuing throughout the 80s. Many people would have sworn the invisible levels in Tempest were a myth, that the solar sailor in Tron couldn't have really existed, or that the reverse gravity worlds in Gravitar were just talk.
1 Pinball Was Huge
Do you know what I love? Pinball. There, I said it. There's something hypnotic and hugely satisfying about batting a highly-polished ball around a brightly lit board accompanied by a thousand sounds. Each table had different ways to light up like beautiful firework displays, and new sound effects to sing your praises. It seems like practically every big property of the 1980s would have its very own pinball table, each one themed and beautifully crafted. You could find them in arcades, gas stations, bars, everywhere. We need more pinball in our lives.