I was thinking the other day. It’s just something I do. Well, on this particular day I was thinking about video games and how the video game landscape has changed during my lifetime. The first commercially available video game was sold in 1971. I was born in 1975. In that time we have basically gone from a white square moving around on a black screen to totally immersive experiences that are nearly indistinguishable from reality (we aren’t there yet but we are getting there). Video games have expanded to every corner of our lives. They aren’t just on consoles anymore but they are on they phone grandma has and the little tablets we let our babies bang around on while we are washing dishes. If you are in your mid to late 30s then you grew up with video games even if you didn’t play them.
So as I was contemplating the evolution of this modern form of entertainment I started to dwell on the old days of the arcade. For you kids out there, an arcade was a place where big boxes called cabinets which contained a single game would be setup and you could go and play. Depending on the size of the arcade, you could find around 20 to 50 different games along with classics like pinball and skee-ball. In the early days each game cost 25 cents to play and your play time was mostly dependent on how good you were at the game. The better you were, the longer you could play. When you died you could toss in another quarter or go play something else.
I didn’t get to play a lot of video games as a young kid. We weren’t poor, but money was always tight so it was a rare event when I got a chance to play Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. About the only time my brother and I got to play was on those special events when we ate out at the local pizza place or when we went to a birthday party at the aforementioned pizza shop. I don’t know why arcade games were often found at pizza joints but that was the thing. Even when we were in the vicinity of an arcade cabinet it was pretty touch and go with my dad and it was always a tense moment when we asked him for a quarter to go play.
You see, that is how it was for us. One quarter after dinner. That quarter was magical. It was a key into another world of light and sound but you had to be careful. That quarter could be gone in a flash and no amount of crying and bellyaching would get another one. We had to be strategic in how we used our quarter and really consider things before dropping it in the slot.
I remember those days walking around the arcade area of Mr. Gatti’s Pizza in Winchester, Ky. I would start with a reconnaissance tour of the area first to see what games were available and would take note on what was new, what was missing, and what I had played before. Often I would hope someone else was playing so I could watch for a little while all the time holding on to that quarter tightly. Watching someone else play was a great way to extend the experience as well as figure out if that was a game I wanted to play. Eventually, however, a decision had to be made and it was a serious one. It always came down to this: “Do I use my quarter to play a game I had played before and thus know that I will be able to play for a few minutes or try something new and risk being done in a few seconds?”
The thing was, games in these days were hard. Well, they were hard in the beginning. They were awfully repetitive and once you learned the pattern then the game became very easy but learning the pattern was tough and expensive. For a kid of 8 the choice was serious. I knew trying something new was going to cost me but if I never tried a new game then I would never get to play a new game and I badly wanted that experience. So, more often than not, I would try something new. I remember trying Donkey Kong and finding myself dead practically before the coin hit the bottom of the coin collector. Damn that was a touch game to get started on. Especially when it was one quarter at a time and one try every couple of months.
I think in many ways those experiences are what made me want to play games as I got older. My parent’s would not allow an Atari in the house. I don’t know if it was because of money or for some other reason and that just made my desire to play games stronger. I knew people who had Atari’s and I literally dreamed of the days when I would visit them so I could play. I bought, with money I saved, a Nintendo Entertainment System when I was around 11. It was a great day and I remember it clearly. I bought it at Children’s Palace, a long since closed toy story in Hoover, AL. I was not allowed, at least initially, to connect it to the color TV in our house but that didn’t faze me. I connected that sucker to a black and white TV I had in my room. Yes, my first true experience playing Super Mario Bros. was on a 13″ black and white TV. It couldn’t have been more glorious. Honestly and without any hyperbole it was one of the best days of my life.
I think eventually I snuck it downstairs and hooked it up to our den TV. It was there that I played Zelda, Castlevania, Duck Hunt, Metroid (ah Metroid!), Tecmo Bowl, and many other games. My parent’s ultimately had to give in and let the unit stay downstairs but I remember getting in trouble for it initially. They may have though it would damage the TV. While technically that wasn’t true, eventually I did break the thing connecting and disconnecting the NES. The NES became the friend who was always there and always ready and the arcade slowly vanished into memory.
Today games are a part of life. Who hasn’t played Angry Birds? Back then, however, things were different. Video games were new and represented something of the future. I have good memories of those days and in some ways miss the arcade. There was a social experience in going to the arcade with your friends and playing for a while. There was trash talking, putting your quarter on the machine to signal “I’m Next” and Mortal Kombat tournaments and all kinds of things we don’t really do anymore. Certainly not in the same way. Things like XBOX Live and other online games bring some of it back but it’s not the same. I suppose nothing ever is.
To this day I can’t walk by a Ms. Pac-Man machine without hoping that maybe I have a quarter in my pocket.